The Eagles, the Ravens and the Saints, all in the thick of the
NFL playoffs, dominate my annual All-Pro team, which also
includes three players from the Chiefs, fitting after a season so
full of surprises.
Quarterback: Donovan McNabb, Eagles. Started slowly, but by the
end of the regular season he was the show in Philly. He did it
without a keynote running back or wideout.
Running back: Marshall Faulk, Rams. I can't remember seeing a
back who excelled as both a runner and a pass catcher. Faulk was
that rare combination.
Fullback: Tony Richardson, Chiefs. He runs, he blocks, he stays
on the field in long-yardage situations.
Wide receivers: Randy Moss, Vikings, and Ed McCaffrey, Broncos.
Moss can be a nonfactor and then burst loose with an astounding
play that turns the game. McCaffrey is a relentless worker who
squeezes out first downs and always seems to pay for them.
Tight end: Tony Gonzalez, Chiefs. He has dominated the position
the past two years, and he's only 24.
Tackles: Jonathan Ogden, Ravens, and William Roaf, Saints. Ogden
struggled with a nagging right ankle injury early in the season,
but down the stretch he was the best offensive lineman in the
game. Roaf's career flattened out after a spectacular rookie
season. Now he's back with a mean streak.
Guards: Larry Allen, Cowboys, and Mark Dixon, Dolphins. Allen has
spearheaded the Dallas running game for half a decade. Dixon,
strong at the point and nifty on the move, is a big reason for
Miami's resurgent ground attack.
Center: Tom Nalen, Broncos. Quick, precise and heady, he leads a
line that produced, in Mike Anderson, Denver's third 1,000-yard
runner in as many years.
Ends: Rob Burnett, Ravens, and Hugh Douglas, Eagles. Burnett, who
stands firm against the run, is the unsung hero of a mighty
defense. Douglas keyed a relentless unit with 15 sacks.
Tackles: La'Roi Glover, Saints, and Warren Sapp, Bucs. Glover led
the league with 17 sacks. His game is built on quickness and
penetration, but he's also a precise technician against the run.
Though Sapp wore down a bit toward the end, he was still the
Tampa Bay player who was constantly double-teamed.
Outside linebackers: Derrick Brooks, Bucs, and Keith Mitchell,
Saints. Brooks is the king of the coverage linebackers. Mitchell,
who usually moves into a rush position on passing downs, is an
opportunist who always seems to be in on the play.
Middle linebacker: Ray Lewis, Ravens. He started the season
slowly but rose to a frenzy in crunch time, both as a run plugger
and as a coverage guy.
Cornerbacks: Charles Woodson, Raiders, and Patrick Surtain,
Dolphins. Woodson's terrific closing speed makes him a risky
player to throw deep against. Surtain was less spectacular than
his gambling teammate, fellow corner Sam Madison, but he was
sturdier in coverage.
Strong safety: Pat Tillman, Cardinals. My sleeper of 2000. While
he's not blazingly fast, Tillman is always around the ball and
he's smart in coverage.
Free safety: Shaun Williams, Giants. He's the biggest hitter
among all free safeties. Terrific in run support, and he
developed range this year, too.
Kicker: David Akers, Eagles. Almost all kickers have gaudy
percentage figures, but I judge them on how they did in crunch
time. Two of his field goals came in overtime, and a third beat
the Redskins with three minutes left.
Punter: Chris Gardocki, Browns. Of his 108 punts, only five went
for touchbacks. His gross average of 45.5 yards was third in the
Returner: Derrick Mason, Titans. Fearless in handling punts and
kickoffs, he also led Tennessee's wideouts in receptions. Some
teams pay three salaries for this kind of service.
Cover: Mike Maslowski, Chiefs. He made so many thundering hits
that K.C. coaches decided to try him as a full-time linebacker,
with great success.
Player of the Year: Faulk. I determine who gets this honor not by
saying, "Where would his team be without him?" but by looking at
a guy's contribution over the course of a season. No one
contributed as much as Faulk.
Coach of the Year: Jim Haslett, Saints. He overcame the loss of
his starting quarterback and top runner to lead a once moribund
franchise to the NFC West championship.
Rookie of the Year: Brian Urlacher, MLB, Bears. Big, fast,
instinctive, he looks like a Pro Bowl fixture for the next
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVERPrime-time players Gonzalez (88) was in a league of his own, while Surtain (23) has kept his man under wraps.
COLOR PHOTO: DAMIAN STROHMEYER [See caption above]