- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 3, 2005

By the end of the weekend, the NFL season will either be half-empty or half-full — depending, I suppose, on how your Rooting Interest is faring. Every team will have played at least eight games (though, in the Texans’ case, I use the word “played” advisedly).

Only the Colts (7-0) have managed to win ‘em all, but they’re bound to stumble once or twice with the Patriots, Bengals, Steelers, Jaguars, Chargers and Seahawks still on the schedule. So there’ll be no talk here of any 16-0 seasons. As always, This Space will try to keep it as real as possible.

A smattering of burning questions, general observations and mindless trivialities stemming from the first eight weeks of hostilities:

• We all knew LaDainian Tomlinson was a terrific runner, but who had any idea he was a closet Dan Fouts? The Chargers’ back has thrown three touchdown passes — only two fewer than Michael Vick. Three attempts, three TDs. I mean, who needs Drew Brees?

FYI: It’s been more than a decade since an NFL running back threw for that many touchdowns in a season. The last to do it was Keith Byars, who tossed four for the Eagles in 1990. Four, by the way, is the record for a running back (also shared by Andy Johnson of the ‘81 Patriots, Tom “The Bomb” Tracy of the ‘60 Steelers and Hank Lauricella of the ‘52 Dallas Texans, according to my research), so if Tomlinson can heave just one more …

But, hey, even if he can’t, he’s brought the halfback option back to life. I’ve never quite understood why coaches became so skittish about it. Heck, Tracy threw 22 passes — 22! — during that ‘60 season. The following season, Cardinals backs John David Crow and Prentice Gautt put the ball in the air 25 times (Crow 14, Gautt 11.) Those days, alas, are gone forever, but at least Tomlinson is giving us a taste of How It Used To Be.

• Speaking of Mr. Vick, he has a passer rating of 63, 30th in the league, and in his last outing went 11-for-26 for 116 yards — with three interceptions and no touchdowns — against the Jets. Fortunately for him, the Falcons won, 27-14. But he’s still, from the vantage point of these binoculars, the most overrated quarterback in football.

• A far better story has been the comebacks of the Cowboys’ Drew Bledsoe and the Redskins’ Mark Brunell, currently the first- and fourth-ranked passers in the NFC. Bledsoe could become just the third quarterback to make the Pro Bowl with three different teams (Warren Moon and Norm Snead being the others). I’m not sure exactly what that means, accomplishment-wise, but I thought I’d throw it out there.

• More fodder for the Antonio Gates/Kellen Winslow debate: In his first 37 games with the Chargers, Winslow caught 21 TD passes. In Gates’ first 37 games with the Bolts, he’s caught … 21 TD passes.

• And he might have caught more if Tomlinson had just thrown him the darn ball. For some reason, LaDainian seems more partial to Keenan McCardell, Justin Peelle, Eric Parker and even Brees (the recipient of one of his passes in 2003).

• At the close of last season, a couple of running backs named Jones, the Cowboys’ Julius and the Lions’ Kevin, appeared poised for a big 2005. But it’s another Jones, Thomas of the Bears (Julius’ sibling), who’s having a breakout season as a runner. With 713 yards through seven games, Thomas is almost halfway to 1,500. And he’s doing it in an offense without much of a passing threat (essentially because the QB, rookie Kyle Orton, is still feeling his way).

It just shows You Never Know. After five nondescript seasons, the first four with Arizona and Tampa Bay, Thomas is suddenly playing like a seventh overall pick — which, of course, he was in 2000. Wonder who’ll finish his career with more rushing yards, him or his brother? (Don’t answer too quickly. Julius, though talented, has had trouble staying healthy.)

• On the subject of running backs, it’s hard not to notice that the Broncos’ Tatum Bell is averaging 7 yards a pop (80 rushes, 562 yards) — thanks to gains of 68, 67 and 55. If Bell can keep that up, he would post the highest average of any 1,000-yard back since Beattie Feathers, the first 1,000-Yard Man, in 1934. (Feathers, benefiting from the blocking of Bronko Nagurski, averaged an incredible 8.4 yards on 119 rushes.) The highest average by a 1,000-yard back since Feathers is 6.4 by Browns great Jim Brown in ‘63. Not that anyone (sniff, sniff) remembers.

• And finally, kicking might not be the most scintillating part of the game, but have you noticed that the Cardinals’ Neil Rackers has made all 22 of his field goal attempts? In addition to being 100 percent accurate, he’s also on pace to boot 50, which would break — by a bunch — the all-time mark of 39 (held jointly by Olindo Mare and Jeff Wilkins). We could be looking at the greatest season by a kicker in NFL history.

Try to contain your excitement. I’ve got some more games to watch.

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