We've got mail:
Question: Is it time to install a "Mercy Rule" into the NFL to stop all these whiners about the Patriots' running up the score? Are they playing in the little league or the pros? It's hard to tell ... unless you check their salaries. -- Ron F.
No, the NFL does not need a "Mercy Rule." And frankly, I, too, am tired of the running-up-the-score complaints.
In professional sports, there is no official or even unofficial protocol about when a team is supposed to show restraint with scoring. I've heard critics say that it is basic NFL coaching etiquette to "call off the dogs" in a blowout. Really? I think it might be more a case of a coach wanting to avoid the possibility of someday finding himself in a situation where the shoe is on the other foot, and the opponent is the one pouring it on. The only other reason to pull back on the reins would be to avoid risking injury to starters by leaving them on the field after a game is seemingly in hand.
But none of that falls under coaching etiquette. The only rule that NFL coaches live by is this: Turnabout is fair play. Maybe the day will come when another team will hang 30, 40, or 50 points on the Pats. Maybe Bill Belichick will flirt with the danger of leaving Tom Brady on the field late in a lopsided win once too often. That's something for the Patriots to worry about.
The only concern for New England's opponents should be figuring out a way to stop the bleeding. The only unattractive part about the Patriots' seemingly endless ability to score is the seemingly endless whining about it.
Question: Currently, many people are saying that the Patriots and Colts are by far the two best teams in the NFL. It's only midway through the season, yet people are already saying the winner of their game will win the Super Bowl. Personally, it reminds me of the 2005 season when both teams were dominating, until the playoffs. The Pittsburgh Steelers, who barely made the playoffs that year, went in and creamed the Colts. Anything can happen in the playoffs, and because of all the hype around the Patriots and Colts, people are failing to realize that the Steelers have the best running back in the league (Willie Parker), two of the best receivers (Hines Ward and Santonio Holmes), great tight ends and one of the league's best defenses. Also, Ben Roethlisberger is playing like he did when the Steelers reached the AFC Championship Game two years in a row, including his Super Bowl win. -- Tim C.
For that matter, I think the Patriots have reached a level all to themselves, and it is up to the Colts to demonstrate that they, too, belong there. Or perhaps the Colts will show us that they, in fact, are the best of the best, as their record and status as defending Super Bowl champions suggests they very well could be.
Question: As a University of Utah fan and an NFL fan, I've been watching Alex Smith since he was in college. His progress in the NFL seems to be encouraging (when he's healthy). However, it really seems like the 49ers coaching staff is holding him back. During the course of a regular game, most plays are either handoffs or simple, safe, screen passes. When the 49ers go into their two-minute drill, Smith gets to air it out a little and, while he's no Tom Brady or Peyton Manning, he looks relatively good while doing it. Are the 49ers holding him back with their play-calling, and if so, what is the reason? What do you think of his development in the NFL? -- Jeremy, Utah
I don't necessarily believe it's a case of the 49ers coaches holding Smith back. You used a key qualifier: When he's healthy. And I think Smith's inability to stay healthy has been the biggest obstacle to his development.
He still clearly seems to be bothered by the separated shoulder he suffered a month ago. The lingering effects of the injury surfaced in San Francisco's Week 7 loss to New Orleans. If the 49ers' coaches are to be second-guessed about anything, it would be sticking with an ineffective Smith rather than turning to Trent Dilfer.
You also mentioned that most of the plays the 49ers call for Smith are handoffs or safe throws. There are a couple of very good reasons for that. First, Frank Gore is the team's best offensive player. Running him as often as possible gives the team its greatest opportunity to win. Second, given that the 49ers are designed to be a ball-control/defensive-oriented team, the most logical way to move the ball through the air is with high-percentage, rhythm passing that moves the chains and reduces the chances for turnover.
As for Smith's development, I think he has done plenty to gain the respect of his teammates for toughing it out while in obvious pain, as was the case against the Saints. He also seems to be a bit more assertive with his off-field personality. It spoke volumes before the season that the rest of the players elected Dilfer as a captain and that Smith was very comfortable with that. Lately, however, he has demonstrated more of a take-charge attitude in team meetings, a sign that perhaps he finally is feeling confident enough to accept more of a leadership role.
Question: When is it time to put JaMarcus Russell in for the Raiders? I mean, the season isn't looking all that positive. Why not give him the opportunity to get some reps and experience under his belt? I say this because Daunte Culpepper looked like a rookie anyway, throwing some of the passes he tossed against Tennessee. It's embarrassing to be a fan with an offense like that. Keeping it in perspective, I realize the offensive line didn't provide a whole lot of protection for the most part, but as an experienced quarterback, wouldn't you think he would hold onto the ball rather than force throws? -- Lee H., Calgary
I think Russell has had enough of an in-season training camp, to replace the one he never had by signing late, to learn most of what he needs to know about the offense. Now it is a matter of him getting familiar with the pace of the NFL game, which is considerably faster than what he was used to at LSU. Although practice has given him a taste of what to expect on that count, nothing compares with what he will encounter in an actual game.
Understandably, the greatest concerns of coach Lane Kiffin are exposing Russell to the punishment he likely would take behind that line, and whether his inexperience would prevent him from making the proper adjustment to avoid taking a hit from a blitzer he never saw coming. Still, those issues could very well be in place later in the season or even next year, for that matter, so I'd be willing to give Russell the nod right now.