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Betting on Warner's hand

THE BALTIMORE SUN

New England coach Bill Belichick made a tough call last year and sided with an unproven, second-year quarterback over an established Pro Bowler. Tom Brady won a Super Bowl for the Patriots and Drew Bledsoe eventually shuffled off to Buffalo.

Good decision, this season's events not withstanding.

An injury to Bledsoe precipitated the move; Brady's hot hand on a revitalized team decided it.

A year later, St. Louis coach Mike Martz - who lost that Super Bowl to Brady - has a curiously tricky call to make. He could stick with his hot second-year quarterback, Marc Bulger, or go back to his established Pro Bowl passer (and two-time Most Valuable Player), Kurt Warner.

Unlike Belichick, Martz says he'll turn his high-powered offense over to Warner as soon as he's completely recovered from a broken right pinkie finger. That should be next week in Washington.

It's the logical decision, the inevitable decision. But is it the right decision for his team at this time? Is it the decision that gives the Rams the best chance to recover from an 0-5 start and reach the playoffs again?

Perhaps. Perhaps not.

Despite Warner's leap from obscurity to super-stardom, he was responsible for the Rams' first four losses this season. He completed 70 percent of his passes, but threw for only one touchdown and eight interceptions. He looked shaky behind a suspect offensive line. Questions persisted about his health. It wasn't until Bulger replaced Jamie Martin in Week 6 that the Rams won their first game. They haven't lost since.

Does Martz risk altering momentum, team chemistry, a winning combination by switching quarterbacks at this point? He sounded indignant last week addressing the subject.

"I think it's kind of a silly question," he said. "I think Kurt's probably a better quarterback than Marc Bulger, to be honest with you. I don't know what else Kurt would have to do to prove that.

"I've never been part of the amnesia crowd, I guess; I've never forgotten [that Warner won the Super Bowl]."

No one is saying that Warner isn't great. They're just saying it might be wise to ride Bulger a little longer. What if Warner comes back next week and loses to the Redskins? Then you've got a controversy, in the locker room and outside it.

Warner will be the backup quarterback tomorrow night against the Chicago Bears, who may not have much fight left in them after two difficult losses. If Bulger struggles, it's a simple switch. If not and he goes to 5-0, it's a curiously tricky call.

At least we know how it turned out last time.

Reduced role for E. Smith

The rest of Emmitt Smith's illustrious career begins today in Indianapolis, where the Dallas Cowboys have penciled in more carries for backup Tony Hambrick and possibly fewer for the NFL's all-time leading rusher.

Offensive coordinator Bruce Coslet was "told" to play Hambrick more because the Cowboys want to know if he can handle a lead role in the offense or if the team needs to go in another direction.

Smith, 33, doesn't want to retire but won't return next season at his scheduled $7 million salary. This season, he has averaged 16 carries a game to Hambrick's four. But that will change.

"We are probably going to see a sharing of the workload at running back," team owner Jerry Jones said. "If the workload isn't bigger, then you could have a reduced workload for Emmitt. It's conceivable to me that he will have games with 11 carries and somebody else would get 11 carries."

Bleeding green

Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb hasn't played well since he signed a 10-year, $115 million contract extension a month ago. In three games before he signed, he completed 61.3 percent of his passes for eight touchdowns and two interceptions. In six games since then, he is completing 54.6 percent with five touchdowns and three interceptions.

Coach Andy Reid's response: "I've got to do a better job of getting him the plays so people can get open and not have to make all the tight throws that he makes."

Audibles

Another run at John Unitas' record of 48 consecutive games with at least one touchdown pass was derailed Monday night, when Denver's Brian Griese was blanked against Oakland to halt a 23-game streak. ... It took coach Jon Gruden only half a season to stir up front office acrimony in Tampa Bay. Reportedly, Gruden has seriously contemplated bringing in Andre Rison, Jeff George, Ricky Watters, Reggie White and Irving Fryar, only to be talked out of it. The friction apparently pits Gruden against Bucs general manager Rich McKay, who could still wind up in Atlanta on the ill wind. ... Teams that played an overtime game this year have a record of 8-17 the following week (San Diego's Week 8 bye accounts for the odd number). ... Pittsburgh Steelers rookie Antwaan Randle El is the only wide receiver in the league with at least 100 yards rushing. With 109 rushing, 315 receiving, 31 passing, 138 on punt returns and 436 in kick returns, Randle El has 1,029 all-purpose yards in nine games. ... Since tearing his anterior cruciate ligament in 1997, Jerry Rice has 367 catches. That's 31 more than Hall of Fame receiver Lynn Swann totaled in his nine-year career with the Steelers. ... Quarterbacks are completing 60.9 percent of their passes this season, the best figure in NFL history through the first 10 weeks of a season.

The New Orleans Saints are the only team in NFL history to score at least 20 points and allow at least 20 in each of their first nine games. They lead the league in scoring average at 32.2. ... Saints quarterback Aaron Brooks has delivered eight fourth-quarter comeback wins in 30 starts. ... The Kansas City Chiefs face the NFL's top receiving tandem in Eric Moulds and Peerless Price of Buffalo today, and they've already allowed eight 100-yard receiving games.

The last word

The Patriots can expect to see more than 50 passes in tonight's ESPN game at Oakland. But defensive back Terrell Buckley suggests the Black Hole could be more dangerous for what comes flying out of the stands.

"Big batteries," he said.

Compiled from interviews, wires services and reports from other newspapers.

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