Tip Sheet

Len Pasquarelli

Pro Bowl
Photo gallery
Power Rankings
Message Board
NFL en español

ESPN Auctions
Tuesday, August 13
Updated: August 15, 12:50 PM ET
Color barrier on offensive line disappearing

By Len Pasquarelli

One would think that, in this age of semi-enlightenment and with seven quarterbacks of African-American lineage projected as starters for the NFL season openers, this factoid would not qualify as such a big deal.

Still, it is hard to overlook the fact the Dallas Cowboys will have five black starters on their offensive line, even more difficult to ignore that this is believed to be the first time in NFL history it has occurred. The group is comprised of tackles Flozell Adams and Solomon Page, guards Larry Allen and Kelvin Garmon and rookie center Andre Gurode.

There are seven black offensive linemen -- Roosevelt Brown, Larry Little, Jim Parker, Art Shell, Jackie Slater, Dwight Stephenson and Gene Upshaw -- now enshrined in the Hall of Fame. So perhaps investing too much attention in the Dallas lineup is counterproductive. But given the history of black linemen in the NFL, particularly at the center position, it still seems notable.

After all, it wasn't all that long ago that the NFL's dirty little secret was that many head coaches eschewed African-American blockers.

Sure, everyone paid attention to the dearth of black quarterbacks in the league, but little was ever said about the lack of black linemen. In truth, though, many coaches bought into the narrow-minded belief that black linemen were not bright enough to make the myriad blocking adjustments requisite to an offensive line position. The prejudice was especially prevalent at center, the position where most of the blocking calls initiated, and a spot that called for superior recognition skills.

"If you were a center (in college) who came to the NFL, more often than not, you ended up playing linebacker or something like that," Brown once recalled. "The (prejudice) was just as bad as the one that existed at quarterback."

Certainly, there is no such prejudice now, as evidenced by the number of standout black linemen in the league and the number of starters at center.

Seven of the 10 starters in last year's Pro Bowl game were black. Three of the first-unit blockers on the 2001 All-Pro team as selected by the Associated Press were of African-American descent. The same was true for the All-Pro team chosen by the Professional Football Writers of America. There could be as many as five black starting centers in '02.

"You just don't see the problem anymore," said New England Patriots standout center Damien Woody. "You constantly hear coaches talk about getting the five best players on the field, and I feel that is exactly what they do. Most (coaches) are colorblind now when it comes to that stuff."

In players like Gurode and another second-round selection, LeCharles Bentley of New Orleans, the league is witnessing what might be the beginning of a new age at center, one started by Stephenson and continued by former Pittsburgh star Dermontti Dawson and now Woody. It is likely that Bentley will play at guard as a rookie, but his toughness and athleticism mean he will someday line up at center, just as Gurode is this year.

More teams are seeking athleticism at center -- players who can pull, and get out on the long trap and the screen, just as Dawson did in setting a new center agenda in Pittsburgh -- and Gurode is typical of the kind of prospect who meets those demands. The former University of Colorado star is smart and quick-footed, has tremendous instincts, and is a forceful in-line blocker. He stepped into a starting job the first day of training camp and Dallas coaches figure it won't take long before he is a Pro Bowl fixture.

"To tell you the truth, I've never even thought about (a prejudice toward black centers)," said Gurode, who also played at guard during his career, early in camp.

And that, perhaps, is the best evidence the barrier is gone for good.

Around the league
Jamal Anderson played in only three games last season before suffering a knee injury.

  • Hard to believe it, but it appears the season will start with both Ricky Watters and Jamal Anderson not in a uniform. Watters had some interest early in free agency but teams have not made inquiries to agent Ralph Cindrich recently and the veteran tailback was being very particular about where he would sign anyway. Anderson likewise deflected a few overtures, since he was still rehabilitating from 2001 knee surgery, and noted earlier this week that it will "take a special situation" to get him back on the field. Anderson insisted he has not retired, but some current and former teammates told ESPN.com they think his heart is no longer in the game, and that he is prepared to pursue a career in television or in the movies. Word is that the always engaging Anderson, a media darling during his career in Atlanta, is already booked to appear on one of the network pregame studio shows for the second week of the regular season. Watters and Anderson could soon be joined on the sidelines by Denver Broncos star Terrell Davis, who continues to experience problems with his knee. While he desperately wants to continue playing, Davis is realistic enough to know that might not be the case, and it's a given he will never return to the level that he reached when he rushed for over 2,000 yards in 1998. Wanting to play is admirable. Doing so on a degenerative knee, one that has not responded well to surgery or treatment, is another thing altogether.

  • ESPN.com has learned that former Pro Bowl tailback Errict Rhett, who played seven seasons in the league but hasn't been in uniform since appearing in five games with the Cleveland Browns in 2000, is hoping to make a comeback. Rhett, 31, has phoned a few agents seeking representation and leads on any potential roster openings. Rhett had two 1,000-yard seasons in his first two years with the Tampa Bay Bucs. In 2000, he carried 71 times for 258 yards in his cameo with the Browns.

  • By referring to the injury suffered by starting quarterback Trent Dilfer last weekend as a "sprained" medial collateral ligament and not a "torn" MCL, Seattle Seahawks officials are clearly parsing words, but no one can blame them. By definition, a sprained ligament is almost always torn, and that is indeed the case with Dilfer's injury. Given the timetable for his recovery, an educated guess is that he sustained a second-degree sprain, a partial tear, of the ligament. Coach Mike Holmgren is a smart guy and he knows the connotation of the term "torn,' and the psychological impact it can have on a team and the fans. So the more benign term "sprain" is the description of choice and, since it's technically correct, no one can argue with the Seahawks brass. But no matter the terminology, the injury to Dilfer will likely sideline him for at least the first month of the season, and once again cast a spotlight on Holmgren's trade last spring for former Packers backup Matt Hasselbeck. Some pundits have suggested that the performance of Hasselbeck as the starter might well determine the future of Holmgren with the franchise. But those who claim that seem to be the same muckrakers who have been claiming for a year that Holmgren is in trouble with owner Paul Allen. We've yet to buy into the logic that Allen would dump one of the top coaches in the league. It is, though, likely that Holmgren will come under some heat if Hasselbeck, the man he hand-picked to be his starter last year, falters under fire. It's been said that Hasselbeck had an uninspiring spring, did not accept the challenge when Dilfer signed his new contract and was named the starter, and downright moped at the reversal of fortune in his career. If that's the case, he'd better pull himself out of the funk, and play a lot better than he did last weekend when he replaced Dilfer in the lineup.

  • The short list of free agent candidates available to teams in need of a backup passer -- Seattle, Jacksonville and perhaps St. Louis -- is hardly an impressive one. Still seeking work are Tony Banks, Dave Brown, Scott Mitchell, Paul Justin, Jim Druckenmiller and Jeff George. Banks probably will sign with Jacksonville, where rookie David Garrard has struggled as the backup to Mark Brunell, once he is fully recovered from a wrist injury that resulted when he dropped a weight on his hand. If coach Mike Martz determines he needs an insurance policy to get him through Jamie Martin's separated shoulder, the Rams probably will turn to Justin, who has previously played in St. Louis and knows the offense. With a few teams now looking for help, the Dallas Cowboys will get a lot more proactive in marketing fourth-year veteran Anthony Wright, ESPN.com has learned. He will be the odd man out on the Cowboys quarterback depth chart and the team will try to get a low-round draft choice in return before having to release him. Wright, 26, has five starts on his NFL resume.

  • Still desperate to upgrade their deplorable guard situation, the Washington Redskins recently considered phoning the Oakland Raiders about a potential trade for Mo Collins. But the former first-round draft choice (1998) has moved into the starting lineup with the retirement of Steve Wisniewski, is playing well, and some Redskins staffers who worked with Collins at the University of Florida weren't particularly sold on him. Chicago is not likely to deal backup guard Mike Gandy, a player they like, and one who the Redskins requested in the failed trade talks involving then-unsigned quarterback Patrick Ramsey. So the Redskins are considering a lot of options for upgrading a position whose ineptitude makes it nearly impossible for Washington to establish the running game and tailback Stephen Davis. The Raiders, always loaded on the line, might be inclined to trade Matt Stinchcomb, Brad Badger or Tom Ackerman, all of whom would start for the Skins. The Washington line will really be in trouble if left tackle Chris Samuels doesn't return from a high ankle sprain in time for the regular-season opener. Journeyman Rod Jones, overweight and seemingly always on the ground, is the band-aid at left tackle. But he has proven incapable of playing the blindside position in the past and isn't apt to improve over the next month. Washington officials have spoken to the representatives of aging free agents like Ray Brown and Glenn Parker and will monitor the status of Carolina veteran Kevin Donnalley, who is currently working with the Panthers' second unit.

  • It was hardly a blockbuster deal, but ESPN.com has confirmed that the New England Patriots recently tweaked the contract of Troy Brown to get the Pro Bowl wide receiver roughly $800,000 more in compensation for 2002 and to create $567,000 in additional salary cap funds for this season. The club gave Brown, who caught 101 passes in 2001, a signing bonus of $1.9 million but also reduced his base salary from $1.15 million to $650,000, which is now guaranteed. There was some minor bookkeeping done for the 2003 and 2004 seasons, which raised the salary-cap charges for those years by $533,000 and $1.23 million, respectively, but the contract was not extended. Depending on their cap situation, the Patriots might attempt to extend the deal beyond 2004 at some point during the season.

  • Once again a rookie at a skill position has demonstrated that training camp is a bit overrated. Atlanta first-round choice T.J. Duckett, who everyone knew had tremendous straightline speed, flashed surprising wiggle in the team's preseason opener, and served notice he could be the kind of heavy-duty back Falcons coach Dan Reeves prefers. He carried 10 times for 55 yards, showed nice pad level, and ran through arm tackles. The nine days that Duckett missed in camp, while agent Joel Segal patiently waited for an equitable contract proposal from Atlanta management, certainly weren't a factor. And by the way, wasn't it interesting how the Falcons attempted to negotiate the contract through the media, while Segal remained silent? In the end, Segal got what he wanted, a deal that actually pays his client more in the first 10 months than fellow first-round back William Green will realize from the Cleveland Browns over the same period.

  • The seven-year, $43.95 million contract that St. Louis tailback Marshall Faulk signed two weeks ago doesn't figure to be the starting point in negotiations over a new deal for New York Jets workhorse runner Curtis Martin. The Martin camp was disappointed that Faulk didn't do better and that the signing bonus, reportedly $9.3 million, wasn't bigger. "It's a nice deal, don't get me wrong, but it isn't in the ballpark we had in mind," said a source close to Martin. "It really doesn't help us at all." Martin essentially had two more seasons remaining on his contract, assuming New York exercises its option for 2003, at cap values of $9.5 million (for 2002) and $10 million (2003). It's actually surprising that Jets officials didn't approach agent Eugene Parker much earlier about restructuring and extending the contract. Even with all the mileage he has logged, Martin clearly remains the centerpiece of the offense, and is one of the league's most underappreciated players.

  • Until the New England Patriots and agent Don Yee reach agreement on an extension, quarterback Tom Brady will continue to play for a minimum base salary. But there is some reward for the man who led the Patriots to the Super Bowl championship in 2001. Brady was one of six New England players to have perfect attendance in the Patriots' offseason conditioning program. The perk for such a feat: a prime parking spot right in front of the new Gillette Stadium.

  • The more significant spoils from the Patriots' victorious 2001 season, the Super Bowl rings the players received from owner Bob Kraft early this spring, recently showed up in an e-mail photo sent to some Miami Dolphins veterans. In the picture, four former Miami veterans -- linebacker Larry Izzo, cornerback Terrell Buckley, offensive lineman Grey Ruegamer and quarterback Damon Huard -- are posed with their middle fingers extended and flashing the Super Bowl rings. The rings contain 143 diamonds, have been appraised at $15,000, and that is believed to make them the most expensive in league history. The picture was meant in fun but Patriots coach Bill Belichick apparently didn't see the levity in it. Word is that the players were fined, allegedly for providing the Dolphins incentive for their first matchup with the Pats this year, on Oct. 6 at Miami.

  • The tight end position has been a problem for the Cincinnati Bengals ever since the now-departed Tony McGee began to decline a few years ago and, despite the attempts in the past two drafts to bolster this area of need, the club may end up scouring the waiver wire later this summer for a veteran who can come in and start. There are currently six tight ends on the Cincinnati camp roster and, to this point, none of them have stepped up and made a move on the starting job. Sean Brewer, a third-round pick in '01 who spent his entire rookie campaign on injured reserve, is nominally No. 1 on the depth chart right now, but hasn't been impressive. This year's third-round choice, Matt Schobel, had a lingering hamstring problem from college and is now battling a rib injury. The other alleged contenders are former fullback Nick Williams, who is being tried at both tight end and H-back; deep snapper Brad St. Louis; second-year veteran Kirk McMullen, who entered the league as an undrafted free agent; and Chris Edmonds, a former linebacker. Five of the six have never lined up in an NFL game at tight end. McMullen has seven appearances, two starts, and two receptions for 15 yards.

  • Fourth-year veteran Oliver Ross probably will win the starting right guard position for the Pittsburgh Steelers, but his tenure there figures to be a brief one. The Steelers seem uninterested in signing incumbent left tackle Wayne Gandy to a contract extension, and will probably allow him to depart in free agency next spring. The heir apparent to the key left tackle position would be Ross, with 2002 first-rounder Kendall Simmons sliding into the right guard spot manned by the departed Rich Tylski the past few seasons.

  • Punts: Buffalo offensive lineman Jerry Ostroski has lost his starting position and now could lose $1 million. Word is that the Bills have apprised Ostroski he needs to reduce his 2002 base salary from $1.75 million to $750,000 to ensure himself a roster spot. It looks like Ostroski will take the pay cut. . . . Cincinnati officials have not been impressed with the placement work of fourth-round draft pick Travis Dorsch, who was a far better punter than kicker at Purdue. . . . The Miami coaches feel that offensive lineman Jamie Nails is the team's most improved player. Nails shed 50 pounds in the offseason and will be in the starting lineup somewhere: either left tackle, left guard or right guard. . . . There is still a pretty good battle between Shelton Quarles and Nate Webster for the starting middle linebacker job in Tampa Bay. . . . The Kansas City Chiefs have had just two of their last 12 first-round draft choices in training camp on time.

    Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.

  •  More from ESPN...
    2002 NFL Training Camp
    ESPN.com will have training ...

    Postcards from training camp
    John Clayton and Len ...

    Len Pasquarelli Archive

     ESPN Tools
    Email story
    Most sent
    Print story
    Daily email