Posts by Dan Pompei

Something to prove

Jeresy City, N.J. – Among the several accepted definitions for the term pedestrian are these: Lacking in distinction. . . .Commonplace. . . . Dull.

Seattle three-year veteran Doug Baldwin figures to encounter Denver Broncos “sub” cornerback Kayvon Webster in Super Bowl XLVIII on Sunday evening. But for now, in the run-up/talk-up to

Jeresy City, N.J. – Among the several accepted definitions for the term pedestrian are these: Lacking in distinction. . . .Commonplace. . . . Dull.

Seattle three-year veteran Doug Baldwin figures to encounter Denver Broncos “sub” cornerback Kayvon Webster in Super Bowl XLVIII on Sunday evening. But for now, in the run-up/talk-up to the title game, the Seahawks wide receiver is challenging a Webster of a completely different ilk.

As in the Webster dictionary.</p>

“I know what the dictionary says about pedestrian and what it means,” Baldwin said here Monday. “I know it’s right in a sense, but I (respectfully) disagree . . . at least as far as we’re concerned.”

According to the Doug Baldwin Thesaurus, the term pedestrian, as used to describe he and the other Seattle wide receivers, means more about underappreciated. Or maybe even unappreciated. Because Baldwin made it clear, even before arriving here for the championship game, that he is more than a bit chafed at a perceived lack of respect afforded the Seahawks receiving corps. And his colleagues among the receivers seem to share that sentiment.

Dull? Commonplace? Lacking in distinction?

Baldwin doesn’t think so. Neither does teammate Golden Tate, the four-year veteran who registered career bests in receptions (64) and yards (896) in 2013. Throw in No. 3 receiver Jermaine Kearse as well.

Said Tate: “Definitely, we’re a great running team. It’s what we want to do. But I don’t think you can win as many games as we did without throwing it. Or without good receivers. People say we don’t get enough respect or we get a bad rap, or whatever. But we do the job. Ask the people who play us. We make plays when we have to make plays.”

Doug BaldwinBaldwin caught a career high five touchdown passes in 2013.

Indeed, the Seattle wide receivers have made more than their share of big plays this season, as evidenced by the NFC championship game victory over San Francisco, in which Baldwin had a 51-yard catch at a point in the game where the Seattle offense desperately needed a jump-start (and also a 69-yard kickoff return). Kearse had a 35-yard touchdown reception in the 23-17 win. The Seahawks statistically ranked No. 26 in passing offense during the season and only two teams completed fewer passes. “(But) when they need us,” Kearse said, “we seem to be there.”

Maybe part of the problem is that the Seattle wide receivers weren’t supposed to be there, or certainly here, at this point. In the offseason, the club made a blockbuster deal to acquire dynamic playmaker Percy Harvin from Minnesota, sending the Vikes a package that included a first-round pick, and signing the five-year veteran to a fat contract extension. In 2011, the Seahawks lured then-unrestricted free agent Sidney Rice to the Pacific Northwest, also from Minnesota.

But Rice has missed 15 games in three seasons in Seattle, including half a campaign in 2013, and has enjoyed just one healthy year (2012). He’s never caught more than 50 passes for the Seahawks. Harvin played in one regular-season game in 2013 and made a cameo appearance in the team’s first playoff contest. Coach Pete Carroll has said, and emphasized again Monday, that he expects Harvin to be able to play on Sunday. Unfortunately, the Seahawks have heard such assessments before.

It’s as if both Harvin and Rice – huge disappointments in their tenure with the club – have ceded the term oft-injured as a prefix to their names.

Carroll has been adept at deflecting “what if” hypothetical situations and praising the efforts of the wide receivers he’s had available to him. But make no mistake: The master plan in Seattle was to have Rice and Harvin aligned on opposite sides of the field and causing matchup nightmares for opponents. But what’s that they say about the best-made plans?

“I definitely don’t feel,” said Baldwin, who at best would have been the team’s No. 3 wide receiver had Harvin and Rice remained ambulatory, “like (the club) had to just ‘settle’ or whatever. We can all play ball. You don’t hear anyone in our locker room saying, like, ‘Well, what if we had (Rice and Harvin)?’ You might hear stuff like that from outside, but not around here. People here respect us as players. From the people who count the most, we get our due.”

Notable is that Tate and Baldwin both had more than 50 catches in 2013, and each averaged 14.0 yards or more per reception. Only the Cincinnati Bengals had a pair of wide receivers (A.J. Green and Marvin Jones) who could say the same thing.

Of course, the Seahawks’ wide receivers may take a bit of a back seat this week with the prolific Denver pass-catchers on hand. No one from the Seattle contingent has said that is an added motivation, the opportunity to demonstrate the worthiness of the receivers against the highly-touted Broncos’ brigade. But there are hints that the Seattle wide receivers harbor a grudge.

Not against the Broncos, but rather the naysayers.

“I’d say it’s more like a boulder, not a chip, on my shoulder,” Baldwin said. “It’s been there for a while.”

There was unmistakable animation when Baldwin said it.

Because dull and commonplace he is not.

Read More 862 Words

A different blueprint

It is probably not the optimum way to assemble an NFL roster. But if you’re looking for a reason why the Seattle Seahawks are arguably the toughest collection of SOBs in the league, consider this: Of the 53 players on the roster for Sunday’s conference championship game victory, 21 originally entered the NFL as

It is probably not the optimum way to assemble an NFL roster. But if you’re looking for a reason why the Seattle Seahawks are arguably the toughest collection of SOBs in the league, consider this: Of the 53 players on the roster for Sunday’s conference championship game victory, 21 originally entered the NFL as undrafted free agents.

That’s a lot of players who came into the league hungry, desperate and motivated to prove themselves.

And, judging from the way the Seahawks play the game, they’ve pretty much stayed that way.

“There are a lot of guys here who had to battle for every inch, at every step of the way, to even have an NFL career,” acknowledged wide receiver Doug Baldwin, an undrafted free agent from Stanford in 2011 and a guy who has authored more than his share of big plays for the Seahawks (including on Sunday) in three seasons. “You don’t forget that; it sticks with you, OK? You take nothing for granted.”

It would be unseemly to suggest that the NFC champions, who will contend for the franchise’s first Super Bowl title in two weeks, are just a collection of spare parts and retreads and players no one else wanted. You know, a pack of mutts. But the Seahawks seem to take some satisfaction, perhaps even pride, in the reality that their roster does not possess the highest-level of collective pedigree. Maybe it’s not exactly a badge of honor for the Seattle players and coaches, but they certainly wear the mantle of underappreciated with a borderline swagger, even a chip on their shoulder pads.

And while the us-against-the-world (and against the odds) mentality can be brusque and overbearing and unrefined at times – witness the barely coherent ramblings of star cornerback Richard Sherman after Sunday’s victory over the 49ers – it’s who the Seahawks are. They are, as personified by Sherman, rapid and rabid at the same time. No one dare ever call them dogs. But underdogs who have risen above mongrel status? Well, it doesn’t seem the Seattle players mind that very much at all.

Richard Sherman153 players were selected before All-Pro cornerback Richard Sherman during the 2011 draft.

Said defensive end Chris Clemons, whose itinerant resume in the NFL belies what a good player he has been, but who entered the NFL undrafted in 2003: “It’s like so many of us have been through all the other (stuff), pressure doesn’t really get to us very much. We have a lot of players who were kind of unwanted. Not drafted, traded and cut, or whatever. You always feel like you have to prove yourself, no matter how long you’ve been around.”

Purposely or not, head coach Pete Carroll and general manager John Schneider, whose roster includes just a handful of players who were employed by the franchise before they arrived together in 2010, have made the club a kind of daily proving ground. Their shared blueprint for success four years ago might not have been to take a wrecking ball to the former model but, wittingly or otherwise, they have. They not only expect competition, it’s almost as if they demand it. “They make you earn your keep,” Sherman told NFP earlier this season.

The popular term in foreign policy is nation-building. The popular notion with the Seahawks is roster-building. And that comes from building character. And that really is derived from not making things easy. It’s also notable that the Schneider-Carroll regime has utilized virtually every manner of personnel acquisition at its disposal. Under the tandem, the Seahawks have made big trades and little trades; claimed guys, including a few starters, on waivers; signed veteran free agents, and, of course, attempted to draft well.

In fact, since arriving in 2010, Schneider has made over 900 personnel moves.

Some of the gambits have worked beyond expectations. Others, like the additions of wide receivers Sidney Rice and Percy Harvin, have been busts. “But the thing you have to admire most about them,” said one rival NFC personnel chief, “is that they just keep trying. They’re not afraid to put their hands over the stove again, even if they got burned a little the last time. Give them credit for their conviction. They don’t worry a lot about what other people think.”

That was evident when Carroll turned the starting quarterback spot over to Russell Wilson, the undersized (not even 6 feet tall) third-round rookie in 2012. Despite all the concerns about Wilson, he’s been a winner and answered back the critics. And he is hardly the only one on the Seattle roster.

Besides the 21 undrafted guys, there are 16 players who originally were drafted after the third round. That means nearly 70 percent of the players who were on the roster Sunday were taken with what now would be the equivalent of third-day picks or not chosen at all in the draft.

Just consider the secondary, the self-styled “Legion of Boom,” and probably the most conspicuous (in part because of Sherman’s verbosity) unit on the team: There were eight secondary players who dressed for and participated in Sunday’s game, and just one of them, first-round free safety Earl Thomas, was chosen before the fourth round. Two of them came into the NFL as undrafted free agents.

Of the 13 defensive backs employed by the Seahawks, counting all of the league’s various reserve lists, six were undrafted free agents. It has created a tough-minded, scrape-for-everything paradigm, one that extends throughout the roster.

Truth be told, the Seahawks are kind of like the Frankenstein monster of football teams: a piece from here, another from there, a jerry-rigged contraption of sorts. And just like Frankenstein, they’re pretty scary, which is how they like it.

Read More 937 Words

NFP Sunday Blitz

Let the games(manship) begin.

It’s still 3.5 months until commissioner Roger Goodell steps onto the stage and behind the podium at Radio City Music Hall to announce the initial selection in the 2014 draft. But typical of the kind of rhetoric and “Liar’s Poker” that everyone plays in the months preceding the lottery,

Let the games(manship) begin.

It’s still 3.5 months until commissioner Roger Goodell steps onto the stage and behind the podium at Radio City Music Hall to announce the initial selection in the 2014 draft. But typical of the kind of rhetoric and “Liar’s Poker” that everyone plays in the months preceding the lottery, the annual rhetoric already has been ramped up over the last few weeks.

First, Houston owner Bob McNair kicked off the posturing two weeks ago with his very public (and intentional) suggestion that the Texans, who own the top overall selection in the 2014 draft by virtue of their 2-14 free-fall, will think about dealing that No. 1 choice. Even though Texans insiders were adamant in discussions with NFP last week that the team will choose a quarterback at No. 1, McNair has hung out the “For Sale” sign, real or ersatz. It’s as if McNair, who made his remarks to the club’s website, was screaming to his ownership brethren: “Make me an offer!”

And then, to follow that up, it seems the scrutiny of Louisville quarterback Teddy Bridgewater has escalated as well.

The presumptive top pick for nearly a year now, Bridgewater hasn’t been on the field since his team’s romp over Miami in the Russell Athletic Bowl on Dec. 28. But in the three weeks since the 36-9 victory, in which Bridgewater threw for 447 yards and three touchdowns (while running for another score), he’s certainly been the subject of a lot of talk. There are rumblings that Bridgewater might be too slightly built for the rigors of the pro game, that his arm isn’t strong enough, or that he played against mediocre competition in a bad
conference.

Of course, the talk isn’t emanating from the Texans, who theoretically want teams to covet Bridgewater enough to be interested in exploring a trade. All the talk that guys like Johnny Manziel and Blake Bortles
might be superior to Bridgewater could help the Texans in the long run, if the consensus becomes that they are better, but the Houston brass is not about to knock Bridgewater, except maybe in its most internal pre-draft deliberations.

Teddy BridgewaterDoes Bridgewater make sense for the Texans at No. 1?

Picking apart a highly-regarded prospect, especially one with the kind of profile that Bridgewater has largely possessed, is almost as much a part of the draft process as getting exact heights, weights and 40-times. In the NFL, they build you up and then they tear you down. Right now, Bridgewater is in the deconstruction phase of the evaluations, and the scouts have taken out their microscopes, and every wart will be magnified in the coming months.

Still, most of the gamesmanship gambits in the next few months really figure to originate with the Texans, and McNair has started the ball rolling. In truth, McNair was doing what all owners with the top choice do at this point in the process. In an effort to determine the value of possibly swapping the pick for additional slots that might benefit a needy team, one has to advertise a little bit and try to attract some buyers. It’s not quite the equivalent of being a snake-oil peddler, but there definitely is a huckster-ish sales pitch mentality to it all.

“It’s almost expected of the (top drafting) team,” one front office executive whose team owned the No. 1 pick in recent years, said last week. “It’s straight out of the manual, you know?” Said another owner: “If (McNair) didn’t do it, whether people believe he’s dangling the pick or not, it would be an upset if he didn’t advertise a little bit. It’s all part of the (posturing) that is an element of the draft. Nobody tells the truth, from the top (team) on down. Let’s face it, it’s a game you have to play.”

That said, recent history indicates that talking about trading the first overall pick and then doing it are two different things. There have been blockbuster first-round trades the last several years, but none involving the top choice. Fact is, there has not been a trade of the No. 1 selection since San Diego dealt the top choice to Atlanta in 2001, for the Falcons to select quarterback Michael Vick. The historic 2004 trade of Eli Manning and Philip Rivers, while a signature move, doesn’t count. That deal, remember, came after the Chargers had actually exercised the first choice on Manning, and the trade didn’t occur until 30-45 minutes into the round, when San Diego landed Rivers from the New York Giants. In the 12 drafts since the Vick trade in ‘01, there has been almost annual discussion – like the talk that McNair obviously is attempting to generate — of potential trades at the outset of the draft.

As far as action, though, there’s been zilch. And despite McNair’s best efforts, it’s doubtful there will be this year.

It’s entirely possible that McNair, a University of South Carolina alum, is sold on Gamecocks defensive end Jadeveon Clowney. Most scouts rate Clowney as the top prospect in the talent pool, even if he isn’t necessarily the first overall player many expect to go off the board. The consensus seems to be that Clowney projects best to a 4-3 defensive end. But McNair is accurate in suggesting that teaming Clowney and end J.J. Watt in the 3-4 front the Texans have played, and likely will continue to employ under new coordinator Romeo Crennel, could be a terrific marriage.

McNair called Clowney “a once-in-every-10-years kind of physical specimen.” And he reminded that, when the Texans had the first choice in 2006, they went against popular opinion, taking defensive end Mario Williams over more celebrated tailback Reggie Bush. Said McNair: “That worked out pretty well.”

Still, the Texans and rookie head coach Bill O’Brien have to find a quarterback. And if they opt to go with a quarterback a little later, maybe in the second round, then it behooves them to find a team desperate to move up to the top spot in the May draft, presumably to choose a quarterback. Or to locate a team that desperately wants to add the enigmatic Clowney.

There are as many as four teams in the top 10 who arguably might take a quarterback. But it also seems at this point that there are enough quarterback prospects to go around. As far as Clowney, for as talented as he is, teams might be reluctant to part with the bounty they’d have to ship the Texans when there are questions about the South Carolina star’s effort and maturity, and when he had only three sacks in 2013.

Let somebody else take that gamble, clubs might conclude.

So it will be interesting to see if McNair’s blatant sale pitch has any effect. Again, he had to make the effort. And he and general manager Rick Smith – who claimed with a straight face that he doesn’t “think you take a particular position just because you need a particular position” – will probably repeat the pitch several more times in coming months. But to what avail?

In the past 25 drafts, the top choice was traded five times. But four of those times came during an eight-year stretch from 1990-97. Since the ’97 swap in which St. Louis got the rights for offensive tackle Orlando Pace from the New York Jets, the Vick trade in 2001 is the only one at the top of the draft. Owners have tried hard at times to generate interest in the initial choice, but it simply has not been a seller’s market the past dozen years.

As McNair may discover.

+AROUND THE LEAGUE

*Whether the concerns about Bridgewater are true, or simply the kind of pre-draft propaganda and rhetoric that typically arises every year, there seems to be a viable consensus that Manziel definitely is growing on some teams. Said one area scout who has watched Manziel closely for two years and who spoke to NFP last week about underclass prospects at length: “In some earlier meetings, I probably had to sell (Manziel) much harder than I have to now. The more people look at him, with the way offenses have changed now, the more they see he can be an impact player. I’ve always been sold on him, because I’ve seen him up close and seen the effect he has on teammates. Not everyone was as close to the situation as me. But I notice now that I don’t have to jump up on the table to get guys’ attention about him now. I’m still
not ready to say he’ll be the top guy. But top five? Yeah, I’ll take that bet.”

Johnny ManzielUS PRESSWIREFor the moment, it appears as if Johnny Manziel’s stock is on the rise.

The ancillary benefit, of course, is that the team that lands Manziel will benefit from the “Johnny Football” persona, the Heisman Trophy, all the attention that he has gotten (good or bad) from his tenure at Texas A&M. But teams don’t make draft picks to sell tickets, we’re constantly reminded by people in the game, and they are correct. But they draft players to win. And winning sells tickets. And there is a mounting suspicion that, his character warts aside, Manziel is a winner. And can be a winner at the NFL level as well.

*While the stock of the aforementioned Manziel is on the rise, the status of one of his teammates, offensive tackle Jake Matthews, may be suffering a few dents. Make no mistake, the standout lineman still figures as a sure top 10 pick, maybe even top five or higher. And, really, no one seems to think lesser of him. But there are some now who might think more of Greg Robinson and have nudged the Auburn early-entry prospect slightly ahead of Matthews at the tackle spot. The order will still be shuffled at tackle in the months of evaluation that remain, but Robinson has made a significant impression on scouts to whom NFP has spoken. As for the tackle spot in general, it probably has taken a step back with the decisions of some players – such as Cameron Erving (Florida State), La’el Collins (LSU) and Cedric Ogbuehi (Texas A&M) – to stay in school. And certainly Alabama’s Cyrus Kouandjio did not finish the season very strong, either. Still, while there might not be as many tackles chosen in the first round as anticipated a few weeks ago, the depth remains good and it still is viewed as a position of strength.

*The addition of Ray Horton as defensive coordinator for Ken Whisenhunt’s new staff in Tennessee, a deal apparently completed Friday and which surfaced Saturday morning, is a good one and it reunites two guys who have always worked well together. But it will be interesting to see if Horton, who projects as a man who someday could be a head coach, moves the Titans to a 3-4 front. Horton’s resume does include a couple stints as a secondary coach with 4-3 defenses. But he primarily has been known as a 3-4 proponent since joining the Pittsburgh staff in 2004, and was brought to Arizona by Whisenhunt in 2011, replacing Clancy Pendergast, to convert the Cardinals from a 4-3 to a 3-4. As the coordinator in Cleveland last season, Horton was also charged with transitioning the Browns to a 3-4 front.

But the Browns already had a few players who had worked previously with the team in the 3-4. With the Titans, the remake might not be as facile. Going back to their former incarnation as the Houston Oilers, the Titans haven’t deployed full time as a 3-4 defense in at least 22 seasons, possibly more. The personnel isn’t exactly a snug fit for a three-man front, so the conversion may actually have to take place over a couple seasons. Tennessee’s top defensive lineman, Jurrell Casey, who had 10.5 sacks in 2013 (only Dallas’ Jason Hatcher, with 11, had more among interior linemen), is a 4-3 tackle. He’ll probably move to end, or a hybrid tackle-end position as Darnell Dockett did in Arizona, but finding a space-eating nose tackle and some stand-up “edge” rushers will be a challenge. Whisenhunt seems to prefer a 3-4 front and that’s likely why Horton was at the top of his defensive coordinator wish list.

*As an unrestricted free agent last spring, the phone of Shaun Phillips didn’t ring nearly as much as he felt it might. Or, perhaps, as much as it should have. “I just felt that, with the things I had done (in San Diego) for nine years, teams knew me and knew what I could bring,” Phillips told NFP last week. “It was disappointing, really. But then, I guess, it worked out OK, right?”

Right, indeed, for Phillips and the Denver Broncos, who signed the 10-year veteran to a one-year contract. It turns out that Phillips has been a Godsend for the Broncos, who lost top pass rusher Von Miller to an ACL injury and needed someone to fill his presence off the edge. Phillips has been that someone. He had 10 sacks during the season, then two more in the division-round victory over the Chargers, his former team. Talking to some Patriots coaches about the AFC championship game, Phillips was a guy whose proven track record for getting to the quarterback (79.5 career sacks) was a concern. The irony is that it’s usually the Pats who benefit from one-year reclamation projects; this time they will face such a player. Phillips was more than worth the Broncos’ investment in him. His basic contract was worth $1 million, but he earned an additional $800,000 in sack-related incentives, usually lining up as an undersized 4-3 end instead of as a standup 3-4 linebacker, as he was in San Diego.

“He’s been everything we thought he would be, and probably more,” defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio said. “We really needed him and he came through for us.” There are rumblings that the Broncos want to keep Phillips around, but the veteran might want to test the market again, since he might be attractive to both 4-3 and 3-4 teams now. The caveat is that Phillips will be 33-years-old in the spring and, once again, teams may be reluctant to offer more than a one-year deal.

Russell WilsonWill Russell Wilson’s struggles carryover into the NFC Championship game?

*There’s little doubt that Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson hasn’t put up the same kind of numbers in the past five or six weeks as he did earlier in the season, but the Seattle coaches still feel strongly that he has played pretty well and that he lends a lot of intangibles to the position. And there’s no arguing his 16-1 record over two seasons at CenturyLink Field. But some staffers and Wilson spent some time in recent days poring over tape, not only of the San Francisco defense, but also of the quarterback’s mechanics and decision making in some circumstances. The general feeling was that the second-year veteran wasn’t doing much different than from earlier in the year. But it will be interesting to see if the extra review works out in Sunday’s NFC championship game.

*New York Jets owner Woody Johnson didn’t amass a fortune by doing stupid or hasty things. The great-grandson of the founder of the Johnson & Johnson empire landed a spot on the annual Fortune 400 list, with an estimated worth of $3 billion-$4 billion (and about $13 billion for the Johnson family), by making savvy business calls. So one can surmise that there was considerable thought invested in last week’s decision to give coach Rex Ryan a contract extension. There was no doubt – and had not been since Johnson announced nearly a month ago that his coach would be back – that Ryan was returning. The question became whether Johnson and general manager John Idzik would force Ryan into a “lame duck” year in the final season of his contract. Under that scenario, Ryan certainly would have protested, although he also would have had no place else to go. And so the compromise was a complicated deal, believed to be for two years, but with just one season guaranteed and plenty of money dependent on performance (like
playoff berths).

We’ve always been big on stability and continuity – like lauding Oakland for retaining coach Dennis Allen and much of his staff after years of a revolving door policy under the late Al Davis – and understand the rationale for keeping the bombastic Ryan around. But let’s put his record in some perspective: In his five seasons with the franchise, Ryan’s record, counting the playoffs, is 46-40. But he hasn’t taken the Jets to the playoffs since 2010. Ryan led the club to the AFC championship games in his first two seasons on the job, ’09 and ’10, both times as a wild card. Yet the Jets haven’t had a winning record in any of the past three seasons. They are just 22-26 in that stretch. For the five regular seasons Ryan has been with the franchise, the Jets are 42-38. That’s less than one game above .500 per season. It’s an average of 8.4 victories per year, a hair above the definition of mediocre. Under Ryan, the Jets have never won a Super Bowl. They’ve not appeared in one under his leadership. New York has never won a division championship with Ryan as head coach. So while the extension was understandable, and may help the Jets land some veteran free agents, Ryan’s status still may be revisited after the 2014 season if the franchise doesn’t reach the playoffs for a fourth straight year.

*The number of underclass prospects in the draft will likely fall shy of the 100 that NFP predicted a few weeks ago – the league hasn’t yet released the final list, since players who had not signed with agents
had a three-day window to withdraw after last Wednesday’s declaration deadline – but is still expected to be in the 96 range. That would easily eclipse the previous record of 73, established last year. There are several positions that will benefit from the underclass influx, but one of the positions in which scouts are most interested is running back. It’s expected there will be 16-18 underclass tailbacks in the pool and most of them haven’t had huge workloads. Even with the NFL skewing so much toward multiple backs and time-sharing backfields – away from the so-called “feature back” concept – everyone likes fresh, young legs. And there figure to be plenty of those at every level of the talent pool.

And on the subject of rating the tailback talent, scouts certainly seem split. There probably are 4-6 tailbacks vying for the top spot and which back goes first is definitely a matter of personal preference and style. “I don’t think a lot of people felt (Giovani) Bernard would be the first (back) called last year,” new Washington coach Jay Gruden, the former Cincinnati offensive coordinator, said. “But he was the perfect fit for what we wanted in a (back).” The same could be true this year. It could also be the second year in a row in which a back is not selected in the first round.

+SHORT YARDAGE

*Most scouts were very surprised that Clemson linebacker Vic Beasley, who had 13 sacks in 2013, decided not to enter the draft. Beasley was certainly on the radar screens, big-time, of 3-4 teams in the second half of the first round. . . . Good move by Scot McCloughin, who is responsible for scouting, recommending or drafting many of the players for both teams in the NFC championship games, for not talking all week. No matter what he said, he probably couldn’t win. . . . Part of the reason that neither Miami nor Tampa Bay have filled their general manager spots yet is because both teams are weighing the strengths of the candidates to whom they have spoken, and framing the jobs appropriately. . . . New England officials have made some quiet overtures to cornerback Aqib Talib about an extension that would keep him out of the free agent market. Talib is said to like the situation in New England, but might want to test the market…By the way, there are plenty of former Bucs players in the Sunday games – like Talib, Pats tailback LeGarrette Blount and defensive end Michael Bennett – who new coach Lovie Smith probably wishes were still around. . . . There isn’t a scout or personnel man to whom NFP spoke about A.J. McCarron who thinks the Alabama quarterback made a wise decision in choosing not to play in the Senior Bowl game. . . . New Bucs defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier hinted that, if the team is to deploy the “Cover 2” scheme he and Smith favor, there are going to have to be personnel upgrades and switches. . . . No one should probably read too much into linebacker coach Keith Butler’s decision to stay in Pittsburgh, but some will suggest it’s an indication that defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau may depart in another year or so. Butler is the longtime heir apparent, and the Steelers have blocked him from interviewing for positions in the past. But they were prepared, it seemed, to allow him to depart if Whisenhunt had offered the job that subsequently went to Horton. . . . Many felt one of Whisehunt’s first moves would be to bring in Russ Grimm as offensive line coach, but that didn’t happen. . . . Tailback Chris Johnson may not be back in Tennessee in 2014, as some have speculated, but the reality is that Whisenhunt really has an open mind about the speedy back so far. . . . New Orleans officials feel they have pretty solid analytics on their side if they are forced into a grievance battle over whether Jimmy Graham is a tight end or a wide receiver. The preference is to avoid a franchise-tag fight by getting Graham signed to a long-term deal. That said, the Saints have some cap issues. . . . NFP is told that a few NFL defensive position coaches sniffed around the defensive coordinator vacancy at the University of Georgia after Todd Grantham bolted to Louisville last week. And why not, given that the job pays $850,000 annually. But the Bulldogs hired Jeremy Pruitt away from national champion Florida State and, we hear, never really spoke to any of the interested NFL assistants. . . . San Francisco coach Jim Harbaugh is the first man to take his team to a conference championship game in his first three years on the job. . . . Peyton Manning is said to be gaining a lot more confidence in rookie tailback Montee Ball, especially as a clutch, short-yardage runner, but still prefers the veteran Knowshon Moreno in protection situations. . . . People close to Michael Vick have quietly begun to try to gauge where there might be opportunities for him in 2014. And while they haven’t concluded yet that Vick may have to settle for a No. 2 job, that seems to be the increasing impression. . . . It sure sounded from Indianapolis general manager Ryan Grigson last week that the Colts will try hard to upgrade the secondary in the offseason. The first move may be to try to keep safety Antoine Bethea off the free agent market. . . .

+BY THE NUMBERS

*Dating back to 2011, San Francisco has had at least one individual 100-yard receiver in all seven postseason games under Harbaugh, with eight such games total in that stretch. That’s a league record for consecutive playoff contests with a 100-yard receiver. Tight end Vernon Davis has four of the games, and wide receivers Michael Crabtree and Anquan Boldin have three and one, respectively. In the six games Harbaugh has coached against Seattle, the 49ers have never had an individual 100-yard receiving performance. The best outing was on Dec. 8, 2013, when Boldin had 93 yards.

Read More 4078 Words

Back to the future

What’s next, some team coming out in the conference championship games and running a play or two from the single-wing or the T-formation? The ol’ “Flying Wedge” employed on a kickoff return? Receivers being jammed 15 or 20 yards down the field, like they were before the “Isaac Curtis Rule?” How about the head

What’s next, some team coming out in the conference championship games and running a play or two from the single-wing or the T-formation? The ol’ “Flying Wedge” employed on a kickoff return? Receivers being jammed 15 or 20 yards down the field, like they were before the “Isaac Curtis Rule?” How about the head coaches wearing suits and ties, huh?

Heck, even in this era of so much concussion awareness, keep an eye out for some player in a leather helmet next weekend.

Rampant hyperbole, for sure. But in a league that has skewed so much toward the pass anymore, it was stunning to see the running game make so big a comeback in the weekend’s divisional round. Stunning, but also a little refreshing. Even for some of the players who generally are more accustomed to pass protection than they are drive-blocking.

“It was fun out there, having the game on us so much,” said New England left tackle Nate Solder, whose team rushed for 234 yards and six touchdowns, fueled by Tampa Bay throwaway LeGarrette Blount (provide your own “Blount-force trauma” pun here) and his four scores. “Linemen love that kind of stuff. You do what you have to do to win. This was a little different for us, but it was great.”

Over the past few weeks, the Patriots have evolved into the poster boys for running the ball. Could have something to do with the fact Tom Brady was sacked 40 times in 2013, the most since his first season as a starter. Or perhaps that a receiving corps depleted by free agency defections, releases, injuries and murder allegations simply isn’t all that good. Whatever the reason, Bill Belichick—who doubtless has uttered the “do what you have to do to win” mantra so many time that Solder doesn’t mind parroting it – has gone retro.

And for one weekend, at least, so did the rest of the NFL.

Marshawn LynchLynch rushed for 140 yards and two scores on 28 carries in Saturday’s win over New Orleans.

There was some hint of a return to the run in the wild card games, certainly, but not to the point where most observers felt the divisional round would be transformed into trench warfare. What’s the military saying about “boots on the ground?” Well, league teams put their cleats on the ground, and their Super Bowl aspirations on the ground game, over the weekend.

“It’s kind of what you do this time of year, I guess,” one Seattle Seahawks receiver, who grudgingly acknowledged the effectiveness of the rushing game, told NFP. “I mean, you always want to be the tougher team. We certainly always want to be the aggressor. But at playoff time, it’s even more (pronounced).”

One could almost hear Olivia Newton-John, and her “Lets Get Physical,” anthem in the background. In videotape preview sessions, coaches didn’t substitute “Back to the Future” for actual game reels. But offensive game plans could have been devised by Dr. Emmett Brown, ably assisted by Marty McFly.

“It was,” allowed Denver guard Louis Vasquez, “a little bit of throwback football.”

A little?

The four winning teams from the weekend, which will now play for the right to move on to Super Bowl XLVIII, averaged 37.35 rushes and 166.8 rushing yards in their victories. By comparison, they averaged 25 pass “dropbacks’ (including sacks) for the games. Seattle’s Russell Wilson, who essentially became the equivalent of a pedestal by which tailback Marshawn Lynch could run by and snatch the teed-up football, had 21 passing attempts. The four losing clubs averaged 22.25 carries for 83.8 yards.

Obviously, an element of the disparity had something to do with the scores and the conditions, since none of the games were close toward the end, except for the San Diego comeback. But just from a few conversations NFP had Monday with players from the winning teams, the game plans from the outset dictated more runs. The scores had something to do with the big weekend for the run, but there seemed to be a collective approach from some coaches that they were going to rely much more on the infantry than on their air forces.

Notable is that this isn’t the first time – not even the first time in a long time – that all four divisional-round winners were the teams that ran the ball more. It was the case as recently as in 2010. In fact, since the NFL adopted its current alignment and playoff format in 2002, it’s occurred now six times in 12 seasons – in 2002, 2004, 2005, 2009, 2010 and 2013.

Given that kind of history, maybe it was predictable. But it didn’t seem that way to some of the defenses that got trampled over the weekend. “I didn’t think any team could run over us that way,” Indianapolis end Cory Redding said.

In hindsight, maybe the Colts should have seen that Mack truck – cleverly disguised as Blount – coming at them. Belichick relishes a hard-nose game and very physical football and he began gearing up his team for the “second season” a few weeks ago. No, not at the midpoint of the season, as the TV analysts suggested during the rout. But definitely with a couple weeks remaining in the regular season.

“Maybe our mindset changed a little,” Solder said.

And maybe it became contagious.

Read More 874 Words

NFP Sunday Blitz

As of Saturday, the NFL had only three African-American head coaches—Marvin Lewis (Cincinnati), Mike Tomlin (Pittsburgh) and the newly hired Lovie Smith (Tampa Bay)—pending the resolutions of four remaining vacancies.

It would seem that, of the known candidates for the still-open positions, Jim Caldwell arguably has the best chance of landing

As of Saturday, the NFL had only three African-American head coaches—Marvin Lewis (Cincinnati), Mike Tomlin (Pittsburgh) and the newly hired Lovie Smith (Tampa Bay)—pending the resolutions of four remaining vacancies.

It would seem that, of the known candidates for the still-open positions, Jim Caldwell arguably has the best chance of landing one of the jobs, although guys like Ray Horton and Todd Bowles certainly have chances as well.

At the same time, there are six African-American general managers (a record in 2013), and that number may be expanded, given the current candidacies of people such as Lionel Vital, Ray Farmer, Marc Ross and perhaps a few others as well. John Wooten, the respected chairman of the Fritz Pollard Alliance, which advocates for minority candidates for coaching and high-ranking executive positions, and who typically is a voice of reason in such matters, told NFP last week that he is pleased overall with the level of interviews, but, obviously, hopes for better results on the coaching front.

“We’ve always maintained that one of our goals is to get more people ‘in the pipeline,’ and I think we’re doing just that,” Wooten said. “It’s not just teams wanting to comply with (the Rooney Rule); people have been serious candidates, we feel. But we can always do better.”

Lovie SmithICONAt the moment, Lovie Smith is one of just three African American head coaches in the National Football League.

Wooten said he is especially pleased with the increased interest in minority candidates for the GM jobs. The successes of men such as Ozzie Newsome and Jerry Reese, both of whom have won Super Bowls as general managers, he conceded, has something to do with it. “But I just also think there are more qualified people coming (up through) the ranks . . . and that owners are paying more attention to them,” Wooten said.

Certainly the recent increase in the number of minority general managers reflects the initiative to improve diversity in the league. All of the African-American general managers have considerable clout with their respective franchises, and control of roster and draft decisions, and that’s been a definite plus in raising the profiles of minority candidates for upper-echelon jobs. But as Wooten noted: “In most cases, the face of the franchise, the ‘out-front guy,’ is still the coach. And so we need to do better on that front.”

+AROUND THE LEAGUE

*League vice president of officiating Dean Blandino tried his best last week to suggest that the referees call playoff games the same way they do regular-season contests – in essence, the theory that a penalty is a penalty regardless of the situation – but few were buying it. Including many of the players in the postseason and several not in the playoffs. The numbers indicate there are fewer flags in the playoffs and have been for years. “They think we don’t notice that?” one NFC player still involved in the Super Bowl chase told NFP. “Everybody knows you can get away with more (in the postseason). You see games where the announcers say, ‘Oh, they’re letting them play and that’s good.’ You think the league doesn’t hear that? Yeah, it’s a game, but it’s entertainment, too. And people don’t want to see flags all over the place in the playoffs. That’s not entertainment.”

Five of the 14 teams that drew 100 or more penalties in the playoffs made the postseason. The top seeds in each conference, Seattle and Denver, ranked among the most penalized clubs during the season. So the old excuse that there are fewer penalties in the playoffs because of the quality of the teams involved doesn’t quite wash, either. Last week, former New York Giants offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride, recently retired, suggested Seattle defensive backs had raised pass interference to an art form. Said one opponent of the Seahawks: “He’s right. They’re the experts at it.”

*They’re not quite shouting “good riddance” in Cincinnati with the departure of offensive coordinator Jay Gruden, the new Washington head coach. But there definitely are some players, team officials and fans (perhaps even a few assistants), who felt that, for all the positives Gruden brought to the Bengals offense, he frequently was too enamored of the passing game and sacrificed some degree of balance. In just three of 17 games, including last week’s wild card defeat, did the Cincinnati offense have more run than pass plays. Of the team’s 1,176 snaps, only 43 percent were running plays. In the passing-skewed NFL, that’s not outrageous, but it’s still a bit lopsided.

Daniel SnyderICONDid Redskins owner Daniel Snyder make the right hire in bringing Jay Gruden on board?

Case in point: In last week’s loss to San Diego, a one-score game for much of the contest, Gruden ordered up 54 pass plays on 79 snaps. For a quarterback as potentially shaky as Andy Dalton, that’s a lot, as we all saw. Gruden did some terrific work in Cincinnati, especially with the development of Dalton, and it’s not just coincidence that the club advanced to the postseason in each of his three years there. But he also bears some of the culpability for the Bengals being a playoff one-and-done team each year. And some of that was an over-reliance on the pass. New coordinator Hue Jackson has already said all the right things about wanting to run the ball and be more physical, and the players seem to believe in that, even though there’s a healthy dose of skepticism. Jackson, though, seems to understand the need to be different, because he knows that much of the criticism toward Gruden was coming from the Bengals’ locker room, where many felt that rookie Giovani Bernard needed the ball in his hands more in 2013.

*There definitely have been mixed reviews about Atlanta’s hiring of Mike Tice last week as the new offensive line coach, replacing the dismissed tandem of Pat Hill and John Dunn. Forget the charges of “cronyism” raised in some quarters, since Tice and Falcons coach Mike Smith worked together in Jacksonville, and the only other known candidate Atlanta sought out was Jeff Davidson, who was denied permission to interview by Minnesota, even though Vikings coach Leslie Frazier was fired. Let’s be honest, most NFL head coaches hire guys they know, right? It’s not like Smith is alone in that regard.

But a bigger issue, despite glowing endorsements from some of his former players in Chicago, is whether Tice is the guy to fit an offensive line that sorely underperformed in 2013 and was one of the major components of Atlanta’s historic collapse. In 16 seasons as an NFL assistant or head coach, Tice presided over running offenses that finished in the top 10 eight times. But his protection schemes – and, let’s face it, the Falcons are a finesse passing team now, and Matt Ryan is their main guy – have been shaky. In three seasons in Chicago as either the line coach (2010-2011 or coordinator (2012), Tice’s lines permitted an average of 49.7 sacks. His lines have allowed 42 or more sacks in five straight seasons and in 10 of the last 12. Some of the Tice apologists note that he wasn’t always the line coach in all 16 seasons, or that he was hamstrung by the Mike Martz offense for part of his Bears tenure. The second point has some credence. The first? No matter what Tice’s title was, his fingerprints were on the line and its blocking schemes. If the Falcons brought him in to make the line tougher, well, any familiar with Tice’s personality and coaching style will agree that’s likely to occur. How much better he makes the unit, though, remains to be seen. And that’s the question being asked in Atlanta right now.

Greg HardyHardy has been on an absolute roll this season in Carolina.

*Carolina defensive end Greg Hardy, who has 24 sacks in his last 25 starts and has been on a roll getting into opponents’ backfields, has tempered earlier comments about how he might afford the Panthers some “home discount” when he hits the unrestricted market. “It’s about the money,” Hardy allowed. “I love the (Panthers) and my teammates . . . but I’ve got to take care of me, too.” Hardy has been in the spotlight with Carolina’s rise to prominence, and can elevate his profile even more against San Francisco and left tackle Joe Staley, one of the NFL’s best blockers. “It’ll be a test . . . but for him, too,” Hardy said.

*The 439 yards allowed at Cincinnati last week notwithstanding, the San Diego defense has been excellent over the second half of the year. In the regular season, the unit allowed 400 or more yards in four of eight games. In the second half of the season, it surrendered 400 yards zero times. The difference? Well, one of the biggest improvements was with the San Diego linebacker corps. Jarrett Johnson got healthy, rookies Manti Te’o and Tourek Williams (a sixth-rounder from Florida International of all places) improved, and Donald Butler, arguably one of the most underrated all-around ‘backers in the NFL, asserted himself.

“You could just see, watching the tape, how much better they were, how they kept making strides,” one Denver player told NFP last week. “The whole defense got better, but the linebackers really jump out at you.”

Second-year veteran Melvin Ingram, the team’s first-round pick, who pretty much had a disappointing debut season, really picked up the pace as well. Ingram was an absolute monster in the wild card win against the Bengals and, at times, was close to unblockable. “It gets contagious,” Ingram said. “We feed off each other, and we’ve been playing hungry lately.”

*Since Indianapolis and New England will have already played on Saturday night by the time the Sunday Blitz is published, this is interesting more as a retrospective. But it is worth noting, that going into the game, Colts star linebacker Robert Mathis, the NFL leader in sacks this season (19.5) and probably the favorite to claim defensive player of the year honors, had never sacked Tom Brady even once in Gillette Stadium. Of his 111 career sacks, five had been against New England, the most versus any team outside of the AFC South. But four of those were at home. His lone sack against New England in Gillette Stadium actually came against Doug Flutie, of all people, who relieved Brady in a lopsided 2005 home loss to the Colts.

So while the Pats coaches spent much of last week designing protection schemes meant to thwart Mathis, he hadn’t really hurt them much in New England home games. For his career, Mathis had 69.5 sacks either in the Hoosier Dome or Lucas Oil Stadium, the Colts’ two home stadiums in his 11 seasons with the franchise, and eleven more in other domed stadiums. So, like most great pass rushers, he’s been less effective on grass.

*Credit new Houston coach Bill O’Brien for mixing in some experienced assistants for his first staff. Word is that O’Brien will probably bring with him 6-7 aides from his Penn State staff to the Texans. But his prior NFL stint likely demonstrated to O’Brien the need for league veterans as well. Thus the hire of Romeo Crennel as defensive coordinator and the retention of Bill Kollar, arguably one of the NFL’s top defensive line assistants and the lone member of Gary Kubiak’s staff who was kept on the payroll. O’Brien is also trying to hire recently fired Tennessee Titans coach Mike Munchak as his offensive line assistant.

BillUS PRESSWIREO’Brien left Penn State to take over for Gary Kubiak in Houston.

Too many coaches who come to the NFL from the college ranks overlook the importance of an experienced staff. O’Brien, by the way, has told Houston officials that he is not as enamored of Central Florida quarterback Blake Bortles as some have claimed. That’s not to say he doesn’t like Bortles, who led UCF to an upset win at Penn State this season, who those who have suggested he prefers him to Teddy Bridgewater of Louisville are perhaps reading too much into one game and trying too hard to connect the dots. The truth is that O’Brien barely has his feet on the ground, hasn’t dug in yet to draft personnel, and is still an open book. And that, say people inside the organization, includes the possibility of trading the first overall selection.

*In most years, wide receiver Jordan Matthews, who had over 100 receptions in 2013 and established new SEC records for catches and yardage, would be a certain first-round draft choice. But the Vanderbilt star, who is a cousin of Jerry Rice, may have to wait until the second day, because of the influx of underclass receivers. There could be 5-7 wide receivers chosen in the opening round, and it would not be surprising if all were underclass players. Guys like Sammy Watkins (Clemson), Mike Adams (Texas A&M), Marqise Lee (USC), Brandin Cooks (Oregon State), Kelvin Benjamin (Florida State) and others lead an incredibly deep wideout class. In ’09, there were six first-round wide receivers, and all of them were underclassmen. The 2014 draft could offer an encore of that.

+SHORT YARDAGE

*Cleveland owner Jimmy Haslam, who frankly was embarrassed by the ham-handed handling of the Rob Chudzinski situation (both hiring and firing after only one season), is taking a much more hands-on approach to interviews with prospective coaches this time around. . . . Under the tandem of general manager David Caldwell and coach Gus Bradley, who just completed their first season with the Jacksonville Jaguars, the club has made a mind-boggling 246 roster moves. . . . Question: Has Washington owner Dan Snyder, noted for making the big splash, realized yet that he didn’t hire Jon Gruden to coach the Redskins? . . . San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick is 2-0 on the road in the playoffs. He’s the first San Francisco quarterback in history to win two road playoff starts. Amazingly, Hall of Famers Joe Montana (1-3) and Steve Young (0-3) were a combined 1-6 on the road in the playoffs. John Brodie was 1-1 and Jeff Garcia was 0-2. . . . Since 2002, when the league implemented its current alignment and playoff format, the four top-seeded teams – two from each conference – have all advanced to the conference title games together just twice, in 2002 and 2004. . . . Crazy, esoteric stat: Jim Nantz and Phil Simms will broadcast the Denver-San Diego game on Sunday for CBS. The Broncos are 6-0 this season with the Nantz-Simms tandem in the booth. . . . Look for the Carolina Panthers to take some fairly extreme measures to check San Francisco wide receiver Michael Crabtree on Sunday night. Not only will Crabtree draw double coverage in the secondary, but the Panthers may try to bump him around some with linebacker Thomas Davis. Notable is that Crabtree, whose return from an Achilles injury has dramatically boosted the San Francisco passing game, did not play in the regular-season meeting between the clubs. . . . In a league where the number of 3-4 defenses has declined a bit the past couple years, this weekend’s games (and maybe the postseason in general) has brought some relevance back to the scheme. Seven of the 12 teams that qualified for the playoffs employed the 3-4 as their “base” front. And in a real quirk, all four of this weekend’s matchups featured a 3-4 road club against a 4-3 home team. New Redskins coach Jay Gruden has already announced he plans to keep the 3-4 and probably coordinator Jim Haslett. The improvement of teams like New Orleans – long a 4-3 team, but a defense that switched to a 3-4 under Rob Ryan – could prompt some people to rethink the defense. . . . The decision by Oakland owner Mark Davis to keep coach Dennis Allen will lend some stability to an organization that desperately needs it. Allen becomes the first coach since Jon Gruden (1998-2001) to begin three straight seasons with the Raiders. Certainly if the team doesn’t do better than its consecutive 4-12 finishes, Allen (and possibly GM Reggie McKenzie as well) could be in some trouble in 2014. But continuity counts in the NFL and, for now at least, the Raiders have a modicum of it. . . . Career points leader Morten Andersen on Thursday became the first kicker to be named as a finalist for the Hall of Fame since 1991, when Jan Stenerud was inducted. We’ve lobbied in this space for Andersen’s inclusion, and perhaps this will be the year selectors decide a kicker is chosen for the class of inductees. . . . Kansas City is into negotiations to extend the contract of quarterback Alex Smith. . . . New England is developing considerable depth at defensive tackle with the play of youngsters Chris Jones, Joe Vellano and Sealver Siliga, a trio that’s been forced to log plenty of snaps with starters Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly on I.R. The Pats acquired veteran Isaac Sopoago from Philadelphia in late October but, after starting his first two games with New England, he didn’t even dress for the past two.

+BY THE NUMBERS

*C.J. Spiller. OK, you’re right, the Buffalo tailback isn’t a number. But if he was, it would be 1, since he’s the only player in the league to register an individual 100-yard rushing performance against either the San Francisco or Carolina defenses, which meet Sunday in the division round. In the second game of the year, a 24-23 Buffalo victory over Carolina on Sept. 15, Spiller carried 16 times for 103 yards. That was the lone 100-yard game against a Panthers unit that was second in overall defense and also in defense versus the rush during the season. The 49ers, who were No. 4 in rushing defense, obviously didn’t surrender a single 100-yard rushing game to an individual. Including the 49ers’ playoff victory at Green Bay last week, the two defenses have allowed only 12 games of 100 yards or more by an opponent in 33 outings. Ironically, both teams’ offenses had 100 rushing yards – San Francisco 105 yards and Carolina 109 yards – when they met November 10.

Read More 3088 Words

NFP Sunday Blitz

Less than a week into the NFL’s annual firing-and-hiring cycle (forget that the Houston Texans got a jump on things, canning Gary Kubiak nearly a month ago, since the real purge-and-splurge doesn’t begin in earnest until the season ends), and the momentum may be swinging back, ever so slightly, toward the old

Less than a week into the NFL’s annual firing-and-hiring cycle (forget that the Houston Texans got a jump on things, canning Gary Kubiak nearly a month ago, since the real purge-and-splurge doesn’t begin in earnest until the season ends), and the momentum may be swinging back, ever so slightly, toward the old days.

With two of the half-dozen vacancies filled, the hiring scoreboard shows a 1-1 tie between the new guys (Bill O’Brien of Houston) and the old ones (Tampa Bay and Lovie Smith). On face, that’s not as insignificant as it might seem. The league has skewed dramatically toward fresh faces and new ideas, as owners try to attract a younger demographic, and the result has been a divergence from the long-held practice of bringing back “retreads” for second and even third chances.

Case in point: At the outset of the 2013 season, only seven of the league’s 32 sideline bosses had the entry “previous NFL head coach” on their resumes. One of them, the vastly overrated (at least without John Elway around) Mike Shanahan, was fired. Of the other six, half of them have their teams as No. 1 or No. 2 playoffs seeds. John Fox, in his second incarnation, owns the top seed in the AFC. The best record in the NFC belongs to Seattle, coached by Pete Carroll, in his third go-round. Bill Belichick’s New England Patriots are second-seeded in the AFC.

It hasn’t exactly gone ignored that, after winning only two games a year ago, Kansas City rattled off a 9-0 start and finished with an 11-5 mark under Andy Reid, in his first season after a14-year tenure in Philadelphia. “Retreads” are still more popular in tire stores than with league owners, and recycling remains the domain of tree-huggers and not the guys who sign NFL paychecks, but the successes of former coaches who were brought back for encores isn’t unnoticed, either.

Said one veteran Chiefs’ defender: “We’ve mostly had veteran guys here and it seemed to work better than when we had (Todd) Haley. I don’t know why. They just sort of know their way around, you know. There’s no breaking in period. There isn’t a big adjustment. They may be new (to the franchise) but they know the landscape. Andy came in here and it was like he just picked up where he left off in Philly.”

Lovie SmithDuring his nine years in Chicago, Lovie Smith won 10 or more games four times.

And so, it seems, experience counts for something. Even if owners the last few years could have included “experienced need not apply” on the want-ads when seeking to make a coaching change.

Certainly the quick successes and speed turnarounds the last several seasons by first-timers helped to fuel a “fresher is better” mindset. It didn’t hurt that four of the past six Super Bowl champions were led by first-time coaches, with Tom Coughlin the lone interloper. But with the quick hiring of Smith in Tampa Bay – and the sense that the Glazer family desperately placed a premium on experience (the only other “candidate” is said to have been Jon Gruden, who was not interested) after the failed experiments with Raheem Morris and Greg Schiano), momentum may be changing just a little.

Owners tend to be inveterate copycats and, if the new-coach approach remains the prevailing trend, they aren’t just going to ignore, either, the turnarounds enacted by experienced coaches like Reid. Nor will some players. Peyton Manning, poised to win a fifth most valuable player award after his record-setting season, allowed last season that Fox’s presence was “a factor” in his decision to sign with the Broncos when he was a free agent.

Former Arizona coach Ken Whisenhunt, currently San Diego offensive coordinator, seems to be in demand. In fact, some feel that “Wiz” is the top candidate in Detroit, where general manager Martin Mayhew is a onetime NFL teammate. Jim Caldwell, who had the unenviable task of following Tony Dungy in Indianapolis, is also on the “short lists” of a team or two. New England offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, who was head coach in Denver for two seasons (2009-2010) before Fox, is one of the favorites for the Cleveland vacancy. There were even whispers to NFP from one franchise executive that, on the heels of a report that Jim Mora of UCLA could be a candidate in Texas, his owner asked about the onetime Atlanta and Seattle coach.

There are, as well, several longtime coordinators who will merit interviews. Almost as many as candidates with no prior league experience.

OK, so it’s not quite a groundswell for returning to the “good ol’ boys” network once so prevalent in the league. But just the return alone of Smith, who also interviewed for the Houston opening, suggests at least a small dent in the recent mindset that saw owners become infatuated with newcomers.

Over the past three hiring cycles, just four of 20 head coach openings went to men with previous NFL experience. Not since the 2010 cycle – when Carroll, Shanahan and Chan Gailey in Buffalo filled all of the vacant slots – have there been more than two experienced coaches hired. In the last 10 seasons, only about one-third (18 of 53) jobs were filled by experienced coaches. There certainly seems a chance this year that Smith won’t be the only experienced coach to find a job.

That doesn’t represent a wholesale change in the thinking – and, it seems, supply will outdistance demand for a while longer – but the pendulum may at least have been nudged a bit.

+AROUND THE LEAGUE

*Sources suggested to NFP this week that one of the reasons the Minnesota Vikings officials have demonstrated such interest in experienced coaches with offensive backgrounds (Caldwell and Whisenhunt), besides the preference for a guy who can fix the team’s quarterback situation, is the belief that the club needs to emphasize wide receiver Cordarrelle Patterson even more in 2014. The club’s first-round pick in 2013, Patterson was a scintillating performer at times, in just about every way possible. The former University of Tennessee standout registered four receiving touchdowns, but also added three scores on the ground, and two more on kickoff returns.

Patterson led the league in kickoff runbacks, with a 32.4-yard average. His 10 runbacks of 40 yards or more also led the NFL. But he also averaged just 10.4 yards per reception, on 45 catches, and Minnesota executives feel the numbers can be dramatically improved in his second season. Not simply with better, more consistent play at quarterback, but also with a design that emphasizes Patterson more and takes advantage of his enormous play-making talents. The club will interview defensive-oriented candidates as well (like Dan Quinn, Todd Bowles, Ray Horton and possibly Mike Zimmer), but seem to be leaning toward a coach with more offensive expertise. That could bode well for Whisenhunt or Caldwell, or for current coordinators such as Darrell Bevell (Seattle) or Jay Gruden (Cincinnati).

*Patterson was one of the two underclass wide receivers chosen in the first round in 2013, but that number will be dwarfed in 2014, with non-senior pass catchers such as Sammy Watkins (Clemson), Mike Evans (Texas A&M), Marqise Lee (USC), Allen Robinson (Penn State), Kelvin Benjamin (Florida State) and Brandin Cooks (Oregon State), among others, having either declared for the draft or expected to be in the talent pool. Vanderbilt standout Jordan Matthews, who could still sneak into the first round but is likely a second-day prospect, figures to be an outlier – a senior wide receiver projected in the first three rounds. Despite a lack of first-year numbers historically, all but four of the 18 receivers chosen in the first round over the past five drafts were underclassman.

In 2009, all six first-round wideouts were non-senior prospects and that could be the case again in 2014. A guy like Pitt’s Devin Street, who is one of the top four or five seniors at the position and was highly regarded before the season began has “fallen into the middle rounds now,” one area scout said. Noted the scout: “There might not necessarily be immediate impact, because the guy like (A.J.) Green and Julio (Jones) are still rare. But if you look at most of the underclass (receivers), they end up as players in their second or third years and that’s enough (to make them first-rounders).”

Sammy WatkinsWatkins took a big step forward both on and off the field in 2013.

*Speaking of Watkins, who was exceptional in Friday’s Orange Bowl victory over Ohio State, with an incredible 16 catches for 227 yards and two scores, scouts have noted that the Clemson standout is not only a more complete player on the field but also significantly more mature off it. On the league’s radar screen since his debut in 2011, Watkins has developed his route repertoire and the Clemson offense has made him more than just a short and intermediate receiver. The Tigers still throw the ball sideways to Watkins a lot – a ton of screens designed to get the ball into his hands and take advantage of his explosiveness and running skills – but emphasized “verticals” more in 2013. It’s paid off for Clemson and Watkins, who now could be a top five choice in May. The other notable element is that Watkins has grown up a lot the past year, after a 2012 marked by problems on and off the field. He was arrested on drug charges, suspended two games, saw then-teammate DeAndre Hophins eclipse him in the offense, struggled to get back to form, and probably was out of shape as well. All of it was motivation for Watkins to work on conditioning and on his study habits, the Clemson coaches said.

*Overshadowed a bit in the “Bear market” of the last couple weeks – with Chicago signing quarterback Jay Cutler, cornerback Tim Jennings, guard Matt Slauson, kicker Robbie Gould and fullback Tony Fiammetta to extensions – was the likelihood that Devin Hester will not return for the 2014 campaign.

Read More 1671 Words

NFP Sunday Blitz

There is the usual number of worthy contenders for the NFL’s “Comeback Player of the Year” award for the 2013 season, but Julian Edelman probably isn’t one of them. After all, while the five-year veteran New England wide receiver was a serviceable player during much of his previous four-season tenure, he hadn’t enjoyed a

There is the usual number of worthy contenders for the NFL’s “Comeback Player of the Year” award for the 2013 season, but Julian Edelman probably isn’t one of them. After all, while the five-year veteran New England wide receiver was a serviceable player during much of his previous four-season tenure, he hadn’t enjoyed a singular standout year, followed by a slump, and then the requisite “comeback.”

Truth be told, there wasn’t much memorable about Edelman from 2009-2012, except perhaps for his three punt return touchdowns or his Troy Brown-like rescue duty on defense when the Patriots were perilously thin in the secondary a few years ago.

Not much on his resume to come back from, right?

But if you want to debate unappreciated players or unsung heroes or any manner of those kinds of figurative titles for this season – the NFL doesn’t officially recognize such imaginary honors – then Edelman clearly belongs in the discussion.

It would be hard not to cite quarterback Tom Brady, who has led New England to another AFC East title with most of his prolific pass-catching corps from a season ago either released, defected, injured or in jail on murder charges, as the team’s most valuable player. But it would likewise be pretty difficult to imagine the Pats securing another division title, their fifth straight championship and 10th in the past 11 seasons, without a significant Edelman assist.

The guy flat-out rescued Brady and the New England passing game.

“Obviously, he’s had a tremendous year for us,” coach Bill Belichick told area reporters last week. “There are a lot of things to like about Julian: his toughness, his speed, his quickness, his ability to run with the ball after he catches it, and break tackles, and be elusive and have good run skills in the secondary. He’s a tough kid who can come in and block. He’s smart. He’s got versatility.”

He’s also got 96 receptions and, barring an injury on Sunday or uncharacteristically tight coverage from the Buffalo secondary, he will finish with 100-plus grabs. If you had Edelman tabbed in the preseason as a guy who might catch 100 balls, or you scrambled to snatch him for your fantasy football team, raise your hand.

Uh, yeah, we thought so.

Julian EdelmanICONEdelman currently ranks fourth in the league in receptions, with 96.

Edelman came into the 2013 season with 69 total receptions, had 20 or more just twice previously in his career, and hadn’t approximated the 37 he registered in ’09 as a rookie. And so he’s already caught nearly 40 percent more passes in one season than he did in his first four.

He’s also got 991 yards after entering ’13 with 714; and six touchdown catches, two more than he’d managed his first four years. Heck, he’d had almost as many scores on punt runbacks (three) as he did on receptions prior to this year. Edelman has six catches of 20 yards or more and two catches of 40-plus yards; his first four seasons, he registered nine of the former and two of the latter. And he has four 100-yard performances, something Edelman hadn’t accomplished since the final game of his rookie season in the league.

OK, the former Kent State standout isn’t Calvin Johnson, but there’s a reason that Brady has dubbed him “Minitron.” For starters, Edelman isn’t particularly big (5-feet-10 and 200 pounds) or physically imposing, and certainly big things were not expected of him this season. But he’s come up huge in a season when the Patriots needed him the most.

“It’s been gratifying,” Edelman said. “It feels good to have people rely on you and be able to contribute.”

Remember, Belichick and the New England front office had remade the wideout corps in the offseason, cutting ties with Brandon Lloyd and allowing Wes Welker to defect to Denver as an unrestricted free agent. Deon Branch wasn’t re-signed. The Pats drafted wideouts Aaron Dobson (second round) and Josh Boyce (fourth) and signed undrafted free agent Kenbrell Thompkins. The trio of youngsters, plus unrestricted free agent Danny Amendola, signed to supplant Welker in the slot, were supposed to comprise the new wide receiver group. They would presumably buttress a receiving corps that featured tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez.

But then Hernandez got arrested and Gronkowski got hurt. Amendola did what he always seems to do, which is sustain injuries, too. Thompkins, Dobson and Boyce, while contributing, suffered the usual rookie breaking-in struggles, and each had a case of the “dropsies” at some point. Shane Vereen, who was supposed to take the place of departed third-down tailback Danny Woodhead, was injured as well. And that pretty much left Edelman, who had started 13 games his first four seasons. He responded by becoming not just Brady’s familiar security blanket, but his go-to guy.

“He’s been tremendous,” Brady said. “He stepped up. The opportunity was there and he obviously made the most of it.”

And now one would think that the 27-year-old Edelman, who was a quarterback at Kent State, although drafted as a potential wideout in the seventh round in 2009, will make some money as well. As a free agent after the 2012 season, Edelman attracted scant attention in the unrestricted market, and ended up re-signing with New England on a one-year, $765,000 contract. He received a roster bonus of just $40,000 and a $10,000 workout bonus, with a base salary of $715,000. None of it was guaranteed. It should be fairly noted that Edelman has earned a $250,000 performance bonus, because of his 96 receptions (the bonus maxed out after his 70th catch), but his contract has topped out now at $1.015 million.

After missing an average of four games per season 2009-2012, Edelman, who had been plagued by foot injuries, demonstrated in 2013 he could stay healthy. That has been, Belichick acknowledged, a major factor in his success.

“A lot of times (because of injuries), you’re just kind of playing catch-up there, whereas this year I think he’s really been able to continue to build on all those practices and games, and it’s gotten ahead and gone to much higher ground,” Belichick said.

“Fundamentally, I think he’s still the same player, but the consistency and the ability to build on where he’s been has really been impressive this year.”

And while Edelman’s average of 10.32 yards per catch could be one of the lowest ever for a wide receiver with 100 receptions in a year– just T.J. Houshmandzadeh (10.2 yards in 2007) and Hall of Famer Cris Carter (10.29 yards in 1994) are lower among wide receivers – one would think there should be some team out there willing to pay, and to offer a multi-year contract in unrestricted free agency. Edelman has led New England in receptions seven times and in receiving yards in four games. He has caught five or more passes 11 times in 2013, seven or more passes on eight occasions.

Not only has Edelman been one of the most unappreciated players in the league, but also one of the most underpaid as well. Both distinctions should end soon, given his clutch performance this season.

+AROUND THE LEAGUE

Teddy BridgewaterLouisville standout Teddy Bridgewater should be one of the first signal-callers to hear his name announced this spring.

*It’s a fairly astounding number, but there could be as many as 11 teams—more than a third of the league—with different quarterbacks in 2014 than the ones who started the 2013 regular-season openers for those clubs. At a position that once was all about creating stability, that’s a lot of potential turnover. So many changes figures to have an impact on the 2014 draft, because five of the franchises potentially seeking new quarterbacks currently hold choices in the top 10 of the lottery. That could mean that, for the first time in history, there might be four quarterback prospects among the first 10 selections. That’s especially true since teams no longer are concerned about putting young quarterbacks on the field immediately. The old “it takes three years to develop a quarterback” mindset is pass

Read More 1348 Words

Big plays on the big stage

The NFL’s annual defensive player of the year honor typically is awarded to someone who leads the league in a conspicuous category, such as interceptions or sacks. For 2013, though, the award could well go to a guy who isn’t among the NFL leaders in anything but the most subjective statistic possible, total tackles.

The NFL’s annual defensive player of the year honor typically is awarded to someone who leads the league in a conspicuous category, such as interceptions or sacks. For 2013, though, the award could well go to a guy who isn’t among the NFL leaders in anything but the most subjective statistic possible, total tackles.

Certainly, in Sunday’s victory over the New Orleans Saints, middle linebacker Luke Kuechly of the Carolina Panthers established himself as one of the favorites for the award, with a mind-blowing 24 tackles. There were some other notable standout performances on Sunday that elevated St. Louis defensive end Robert Quinn and Seattle cornerback Richard Sherman – the former posted three sacks for the third time this season and the latter registered two interceptions for a second consecutive week – into the elite subset of contenders.

But for anyone who watched Kuechly in an upset win that catapulted the surging Panthers into the lead in the NFC South, it’s hard to ignore what the second-year linebacker accomplished against the Saints’ high-octane offense. “People will say, like, ‘Well the guy was all over the field, right?’ But (Kuechly) really was everywhere you looked. It was like he was making every play,” acknowledged fellow Carolina linebacker Thomas Davis after the victory.

Actually, Davis, the strongside linebacker who is a pretty good story himself, having persevered through three ACL surgeries in his career, offered a strong supporting cast, seemingly making every tackle that Kuechly didn’t. On most days, Davis’ game, 13 tackles and an interception, would be a red-letter day.

But Kuechly somehow trumped him with 24 tackles and an interception.

The 24 tackles, according to the NFL, were the most in six seasons, since New York Jets inside linebacker David Harris also had 24 against Washington in November of 2007. It raised Kuechly’s total for the season to 146 tackles, third most in the league by the NFL’s count. Because every franchise employs different standards for doling out tackles, the statistic still isn’t recognized as official. But it’s hard to dicker with Kuechly’s tackle total for Sunday, and probably for the rest of the season as well.

Said New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees after the Saints’ latest road failure that could keep the team from having a playoff game in a Superdome setting where the club is all but invincible: “He’s smart and quick, more athletic than you think, and he’s got great instincts. You can tell he studies the game like crazy.”

Luke KuechlyThrough 16 weeks, Kuechly currently ranks third in the NFL in tackles, with 146.

Indeed, there were times on Sunday when it seemed that Kuechly, and Davis, for that matter, must have had the Saints’ huddle bugged. The two all but shut down New Orleans’ extensive screen game, sometimes simply jumping the receiver in the backfield, on other occasions chasing the play down. Davis outfoxed Brees on his interception, aligning in a three-point stance as a rush end, then dropping off into coverage. On Kuchley’s pick, he blanketed Jimmy Graham on a short seam route, then ducked under the tight end and burst to the ball for the interception.

“I definitely had a lot of help,” Kuechly said modestly. “(Davis) played great; the entire (defense) was on its game.”

For two seasons, though, Kuechly, the former Boston College standout chosen by the Panthers with the ninth overall pick in the 2012 draft, has been at the top of his game. And it’s put him, arguably at least, at the top of the middle linebacker group for the entire league. Kuechly claimed the NFL’s defensive rookie of the year award for 2012.

Just a year later, he’s gunning for a bigger honor.

“People aren’t supposed to make 24 tackles in a game,” Panthers safety Mike Mitchell said. “It’s superhuman, like a Madden (video) game. But it’s the kind of stuff we’ve come to expect (from Kuechly) anymore.”

Even after a terrific college career and a combine performance that included a 4.58-second 40-yard dash and 38-inch vertical jump, some observers did a double-take when the Panthers tabbed Kuechly with their first-round pick in ’12. Carolina already had multiple-Pro Bowl middle linebacker Jon Beason, and there was some question about whether Kuechly could play at the weakside spot. Coach Ron Rivera, a former NFL linebacker himself, actually began the season with Beason in the middle and Kuechly on the outside. But after Beason sustained the latest in a recent string of debilitating injuries, Kuechly went to the middle, and Rivera announced he would stay there for the long-term.

All Kuechly did as a rookie was lead the league in total tackles, with 164. He also added a sack, two interceptions, eight passes defensed and three fumble recoveries. This year, the Panthers traded Beason to the New York Giants and Kuechly, despite his youth, assumed the role of defensive leader. Beyond his 146 tackles, he has a pair of sacks, seven passes defensed and four interceptions.

The Panthers, who now follow Kuechly’s lead, feel he’s the consummate middle linebacker in a league where the 4-3 position has been somewhat diminished. “He might be the best (defensive player) in the league at any position,” Mitchell said.

He might well be.

There are several other players worthy of mention in the debate over who might be the defensive player of the year. Quinn has enjoyed a breakout campaign. Sherman and his Seattle secondary mate, free safety Earl Thomas, have both been superb. Indianapolis linebacker Robert Mathis has had a career year. Lavonte David, the young Tampa Bay linebacker, has been tremendous.

But on a big stage Sunday, in a huge showdown game seen by much of the country, Kuechly was special. And he’s been that way most of the season.

Read More 949 Words

NFP Sunday Blitz

As noted in the Sunday Blitz in recent weeks, Atlanta, which enacted a major roster purge last offseason, faces some more difficult decisions on veteran players after this year, as the Falcons attempt to chart a solid course for rebounding from a dismal 2013 campaign that saw an incredible collapse.

But

As noted in the Sunday Blitz in recent weeks, Atlanta, which enacted a major roster purge last offseason, faces some more difficult decisions on veteran players after this year, as the Falcons attempt to chart a solid course for rebounding from a dismal 2013 campaign that saw an incredible collapse.

But one veteran about whom the Atlanta brass seems to have already made up its mind is tailback Steven Jackson, who will fall far short of his usual 1,000-yard output in a year marked by a hamstring injury and inconsistent blocking in front of him. The Atlanta brain trust certainly seems ready to ignore the fact that Jackson is now 30 years old, the dreaded age for most runners, and will be 31 by the time training camp starts next summer.

Coach Mike Smith, apparently chalking up Jackson’s “down” year to the injury, generally poor line play, and the fact the Falcons have trailed in so many games in 2013 (limiting the tailback’s opportunities), said last week that he has “no doubt” the 10-year veteran can remain a productive player. “He’s gotten into the swing of the running game the last four or five weeks,” Smith said.

Added offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter: “There have been circumstances that affected (Jackson), but we’re starting to see him play like we’ve been accustomed to. He’s just about over the (hamstring) and it shows.”

Granted, Jackson has been better as he reaches full recovery from the hamstring, especially in the past three games. But although he averaged 64.7 yards in those three outings, after averaging only 36.4 yards over his first seven starts (he missed four full games with the injury), Jackson hasn’t improved quite as much as the Falcons suggest.

Steven JacksonJackson has rushed for just 449 yards through ten games this season.

Yeah, he’s demonstrated more power, as graphically illustrated when he absolutely pancaked Washington cornerback Josh Wilson at the goal-line last week. But his average over the last three games isn’t significantly better (3.6 yards) than it was in his first seven games (3.4 yards). And he’s now gone a career-worst 15 straight starts without a 100-yard outing. Jackson late last week cited notching his first 100-yard game of the season (and since last November) as his biggest goal for the final two games of 2013. But on Monday night, he faces a San Francisco defense that hasn’t permitted a 100-yard individual game all year. And the finale against Carolina on Dec. 29 is versus another stingy defensive unit.

But Jackson, signed as a free agent in the offseason to replace the jettisoned Michael Turner as Atlanta’s starting tailback, is conceding nothing.

“I’m back running hard and physical,” he said, “and not worried about anything that’s come (beforehand). I’m just looking at the present, what’s left and what I can do to help this team now and (in 2014).”

There have been some suggestions locally that Jackson might not project into the team’s future. Perhaps that’s true of the long-term future – as noted, he will be 31 next July, so it’s hard to look beyond next season – but the former St. Louis star and three-time Pro Bowl performer sure looks like he’ll be back for ’14. His salary for next year ($3 million, with $500,000 of that guaranteed) and cap number ($4.17 million), on the three-year, $12 million deal he signed in the spring, are really not unpalatable for a starting back. Sure, looking ahead to 2015 is tricky, since Jackson will be 32, will have a salary of $3.75 million and cap charge of nearly $5 million, but one more season seems projectable.

The problem for the Falcons, if they released Jackson, are twofold: First, backups Jacquizz Rodgers, Jason Snelling and Antone Smith (currently injured) are role-players who probably aren’t big threats to carry 20 times in a game. And while the 20-carry benchmark is diminished anymore in the league, it’s still important to have a back with at least the potential for such a workload. Second, at least on the surface, Jackson seems to be a good fit for what Koetter wants to do offensively. The exit of Turner confirmed what everyone seemed to already understand, but which the club never acknowledged, that Atlanta is no longer a downhill power-oriented offense, but needs a more versatile back, capable of catching the ball, too.

In his prime, Jackson was such a back. And unless the Falcons unearth a back in the draft – it’s highly unlikely they would sign one again as a free agent – Jackson might be the most optimum fit. He might not be in his prime anymore, and, despite all the excuses, that seemed evident in 2013. But it also seems the Falcons, as they prepare for another likely round of paring notable veterans, are keen on bringing Jackson back for another season in 2014. And ready to see if 2013 was the aberration for him the team’s brass suggests it was for the rest of the organization.

+AROUND THE LEAGUE

*Arguably, the most public attention San Francisco linebacker Ahmad Brooks commanded in 2013 might have been when he was fined $15,750 by the league for a hit on New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees. The sanctions, which were considered dubious by a lot of players and fans, drew considerable criticism of the NFL brass. The second most attention paid the eight-year veteran? Maybe when he opined that Washington quarterback Robert Griffin III shouldn’t be playing (he’s since been shut down, of course) because, opined Brooks, he wasn’t nearly 100 percent physically. But there are those who suggest that Brooks is having his best NFL season and merits a close look because of his on-field performance.

“He gets overlooked,” Niners defensive coordinator Vic Fangio said. “He can do so much. I don’t know why some people don’t realize how good he is.” Brooks, 30, has career highs in tackles (56), sacks (8.5) and passes defensed (seven) with two games left to play. He might not be quite as explosive off the edge as outside partner Aldon Smith, but he has developed into a technically sound pass rusher and two-way defender. Each of the other three San Francisco starting linebackers – Patrick Willis, NaVorro Bowman and Smith – has been to the Pro Bowl. It’s not a given that Brooks, overshadowed by his teammates, will even get a sniff this season, albeit his strong performance. But Bowman is among those who feel he should be considered.

“The rest of the guys are so good,” Bowman said, “that people take him for granted. But watch him play and you realize he’s good at so many aspects of the game.” Brooks may have been at his best when Smith was in rehab for alcohol abuse. Since Smith’s return, he’s probably more in the spotlight, but that doesn’t mean Brooks has just shuffled off stage left. The former University of Virginia star entered the NFL as a third-round choice of the Bengals in the 2006 supplemental draft after a problem-filled college tenure. The Bengals kept him for only two seasons before releasing him, and he was quickly claimed by the 49ers in 2008. He was one of the leftovers that Jim Harbaugh inherited from predecessor Mike Singletary. Smith has termed him “the perfect complement,” and Brooks has evolved not only into that, but into a really good player in his own right as well.

*Last week, the Sunday Blitz noted the idea that the NFL’s competition committee could consider narrowing the goal posts for the first time in league history, from the 18-feet, 6-inch width they have always been, and the idea was raised again after the Monday night performance of Baltimore kicker Justin Tucker, whose 61-yard game-winner at Detroit was one of his sixth field goal conversions. But two members of the competition committee told NFP last week that, while the idea has been casually proposed by some, and might actually get an airing when the influential group huddles in Florida in advance of the NFL’s annual meeting in March, it isn’t likely to fly.

“It’s not to the critical point yet, I don’t think,” one member said. “I don’t know if you penalize a position just for excellence. We’ll see how (things go) over the next season or two.” Kickers are converting field goals at a record rate, 86.1 percent going into the weekend, which would outdistance the old record of 84.5 percent. There are 13 kickers who have converted 90 percent or more of their attempts, and there have been 86 successful kicks of 50 yards or more, including Matt Prater’s record 64-yarder a few weeks ago.

“Nothing’s automatic,” said the competition committee veteran, “but you’re surprised anymore when a guy misses from 40 yards or (closer). Kickers are just better, you know? But I still don’t think that it warrants a change (of the goalposts).”

Jim SchwartzHow much time does Schwartz have left in Detroit?

*Detroit tailback Reggie Bush had the best intentions last week when he agreed that the Lions are an undisciplined bunch, but that coach Jim Schwartz isn’t to blame for the team’s lack of attention. But the supposedly innocent remarks, meant as an endorsement for the embattled coach, whose team appears to have squandered a golden opportunity in a diluted division no one seems to want to win, may have backfired. Word is that Detroit management turned a keen ear to Bush’s statement, and that some executives regarded it more as an indictment of Schwartz than the vote of support it was meant to be. One of the league’s brightest guys, and a coach who utilized computers and advanced metrics back when he was a defensive coordinator, when it wasn’t as fashionable as it is now, Schwartz could be the guy who pays for the rash of penalties, turnovers and inexplicable screw-ups by a Lions team that management feels possesses playoff-level talent. General manager Martin Mayhew, who seems to have done a good job, could come under scrutiny, too.

*How big a breakout season has it been for Cleveland second-year wide receiver Josh Gordon? Despite sitting out the first two games because of a suspension from the league, and playing with an inconsistent quarterback situation, the former supplemental draft choice leads the league in receiving yards (1,467), average yards per catch (19.8), most receptions of 20 yards or more (25) and also of 40 yards or more (nine).

Read More 1759 Words

Fall from grace

One doesn’t have to go back a full generation to recall a time when the NFC East was the league’s powerhouse division.

Almost an entire generation, but not quite.

In the 10-season stretch from Super Bowl XXI through Super Bowl XXX (essentially the 1986-95 campaigns), the division shared seven championships. In the

One doesn’t have to go back a full generation to recall a time when the NFC East was the league’s powerhouse division.

Almost an entire generation, but not quite.

In the 10-season stretch from Super Bowl XXI through Super Bowl XXX (essentially the 1986-95 campaigns), the division shared seven championships. In the 17 years since then, not counting this season, obviously, the NFC East has won two Super Bowl titles, both by the New York Giants in upset victories over New England. Over that period, just the Giants and Philadelphia Eagles have appeared in a title game. And New York is the lone NFC East representative in the Super Bowl in the past eight title games.

It has, to say the least, been quite a comedown.

“Yeah, (the division) is maybe down a little,” allowed venerable Redskins linebacker London Fletcher, who has spent the past seven seasons in the NFC East. “But it still plays tough football. Games in the division are still unbelievable. I think it still means something, especially to the (NFC East) players.”

But maybe not so much to the rest of the league or to the fans.

The results of the weekend certainly reflected the division’s recent demise. The NFC East was shut out in the win column, with Dallas, the Giants, Eagles and Washington Redskins all losing. Outside of the Redskins, with coach Mike Shanahan heroically going for a game-winning two-point conversion at Atlanta, instead of taking the easy way out and ordering an extra point that would have sent the game to overtime, the division suffered all sorts of ignominy.

Chip KellyChip Kelly’s Eagles lead the NFC East despite getting blown out at Minnesota 48-30 on Sunday.

Dallas squandered a 23-point halftime lead, blew a chance to pull into a tie for the division lead, saw one of its star players leave the field early and its coach publicly second-guess a $100 million quarterback. Division-leading Philadelphia was strafed by a Minnesota team that entered the game with three victories, a revolving door quarterback situation and a coach on the hot seat. The Giants were embarrassed at home, absorbing a shutout amidst Eli Manning’s five-interception outing.

Who’d have bet at the beginning of the season that, in Week 15, a losing effort by Redskins’ backup quarterback Kirk Cousins would have been the division’s high point? Or that Shanahan’s decision to eschew a tie – even though the call wasn’t all that difficult given Washington’s deplorable circumstances and the likelihood that the coach didn’t want to further prolong what’s already been a long year – would be a highlight by comparison to everything else that transpired?

But this is what it’s come to in the NFC East, once the division seemingly feared and revered at the same time, but now just a shadow of its former halcyon days. Asked on Monday morning to explain the decline, football executives both inside and outside of the NFC East offered several opinions, albeit none of them with any kind of consistency. There was the hackneyed “football is a cycle” rationale from a few. Others noted the poor quarterback play this year. A few leaned on the trite “every other division has caught up” mindset. A couple old veterans of the NFC East even argued that the division’s overall toughness evens things out for the quartet of NFC East franchises, which is baloney that hasn’t been valid for a while. The upshot of the conversations: As best put, the division simply isn’t very good collectively right now.

“It’s just not the old days,” lamented one former NFC East coach who still watches the division with a keen eye.

That’s for sure, as Sunday reminded, somewhat painfully.

From 2000-2009, the NFC East sent at least two teams to the playoffs in eight of the 10 seasons. In both 2006 and 2007, it had three postseason qualifiers. In the past three seasons, though, the division champion has been the lone qualifier for the Super Bowl tournament. The same will be true in 2013, but the NFC East champion might have just nine victories. Since the merger, the division champion had fewer than double-digit victories just once, in 2011. This will mark the third straight year in which the NFC East won’t have at least two 10-win teams.

One more telling stat: The four teams in the NFC East are an aggregate 14-24 against clubs outside the division.

As Sunday graphically portrayed, no matter the reasons posited, the division simply ain’t what it used to be.

Read More 734 Words

NFP Sunday Blitz

It isn’t regarded as one of the key deadlines by which the NFL typically operates, but for the 25 men who are vying for the 15 “Class of 2014” finalist berths in the Pro Football Hall of Fame voting, Friday (Dec. 20) is an important day. That’s when the ballots, winnowing the current list

It isn’t regarded as one of the key deadlines by which the NFL typically operates, but for the 25 men who are vying for the 15 “Class of 2014” finalist berths in the Pro Football Hall of Fame voting, Friday (Dec. 20) is an important day. That’s when the ballots, winnowing the current list of 25 semifinalists down to the 15 men whose credentials will be discussed on the morning before Super Bowl XLVIII, are due at the shrine’s Canton, Ohio, offices.

As usual, the task is a difficult one for the 46 selectors charged with making some close calls while parsing the resumes of the semifinalists. Every year, it seems, the selectors deem the process “the toughest ever.” Truth is, it’s tough every year, and this group of semifinalists is no different. What could make this year a bit different, though, in terms of the finalists: If the selectors actually nominate a kicker for one of the 15 modern-day spots.

Former Raiders punter Ray Guy is already one of the two nominees of the “seniors subcommittee,” and as such, is not subjected to the reduction process. Guy, who could be the first punter ever enshrined, and his fellow “seniors” nominee, defensive end Claude Humphrey, automatically advance to a simple “up or down” vote. If the momentum favors Guy, who has publicly railed at having failed to be enshrined as a “modern day” nominee, it could be more difficult to tab a kicker. But there is one kicker among the 25 semifinalists, all-time NFL scoring leader Morten Andersen, who seems to merit a legitimate shot. And the time is about due to recognize a kicker, since there hasn’t been one inducted into the Hall since Jan Stenerud in 1991. Andersen certainly is deserving of serious consideration.

Full disclosure here: This correspondent covered Andersen for much of his tenure in Atlanta, championed his case last year (when he also made the semifinals list) and this year, has written letters of support and sought endorsements for his candidacy. To be honest, I’ve been part of some of the arguments against kickers over the years, and agree that so-called “position” players probably deserve preference. But there are exceptions to every rule, and Andersen’s career was certainly exceptional. Beyond the numbers – and we’ll get to them – the Danish-born Andersen arguably ushered in what has been a kind of “golden age” for kickers.

“I don’t know that I’ve ever really seen a kicker put fear in people,” said former NFL quarterback Bobby Hebert, who played with Andersen in Atlanta and New Orleans. “But when he came on the field, you could see the (deflation) in the other team.” Said former Falcons center Jamie Dukes to NFP: “The man was a weapon. Up until him, I’m not sure you could say that about any kicker.”

“It would obviously be an honor,” Andersen told NFP. “Heck, it’s an honor just to be in the (semifinalist) group. Humbling, really. You just hope the day comes at some point. But I’m not (na

Read More 487 Words

Beginning of the end

On Dec. 8, 1940, only a day shy of one full year before the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Washington Redskins suffered the franchise’s own notorious day of infamy, losing the NFL championship game to the Chicago Bears by a remarkable 73-0 score. Exactly 40 years later, on Sunday, the club absorbed another ignominious

On Dec. 8, 1940, only a day shy of one full year before the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Washington Redskins suffered the franchise’s own notorious day of infamy, losing the NFL championship game to the Chicago Bears by a remarkable 73-0 score. Exactly 40 years later, on Sunday, the club absorbed another ignominious defeat, falling behind the Kansas City Chiefs 31-0 before dropping a dismal 45-10 decision.

No denying it’s terribly inappropriate to compare the Skins’ two historic loses to what transpired in the Hawaiian Islands on Dec. 7, 1941, and we’re not suggesting there is any kind of approximation of the events. So hold the comments and e-mails, please, because we acknowledge that. One, after all, led to World War II. The others were just losses in football games, hardly comparable in the real-world, big-picture view. In viewing the 2013 Redskins, however, the big picture is mostly ugly.

And the future employment of coach Mike Shanahan certainly is murky.

At best.

The loss, which undoubtedly rendered owner Dan Snyder apoplectic (although, as of Monday afternoon, he had been uncharacteristically silent), probably will mean the dismissal of Shanahan, either quickly or at the end of this catastrophic season. This marks the third time in Shanahan’s four-year tenure that he has piloted the team to a season with double-digit losses. In his previous 14 seasons (not counting the 1989 season when his term with the Raiders was reduced to just four games by owner Al Davis), Shanahan absorbed double-digit defeats only one time.

Hired in 2010 to help restore the Redskins’ halcyon past, Shanahan won a division title in 2012, the franchise’s first NFC East championship since 1999. But he has been anything but an elixir for the ailing team. Indeed, after Sunday’s loss to a Chiefs team that traveled to FedEx Field in a nose-dive of its own, Shanahan owned a record of 24-38. The .387 winning rate wasn’t appreciably better than the Redskins’ marks fashioned by Jim Zorn or Steve Spurrier (.375) in two seasons each before Snyder fired them. By comparison, Marty Schottenheimer’s 8-8 record in his only season in Washington (2001) doesn’t look so bad. Nor does the 31-36 record that Hall of Famer Joe Gibbs managed in his comeback incarnation (2004-2007) before he came to his senses and retired for a second time.

Mike ShanahanShanahan has gone just 24-37 during the regular season since taking over in Washington in 2010.

That Shanahan will be gone appears to be a fait merely waiting to be attached to an accompli at some point.

Of the coaches Snyder has hired since purchasing the franchise (he inherited Norv Turner), none has lasted more than four seasons. Schottenheimer got one year, Spurrier and Zorn two seasons each. Gibbs stuck around four years. That’s it, an average of two years for the men Snyder himself brought aboard. Shanahan doubled that average, but didn’t nudge the Washington victory total even close to what was expected of him. It’s not only the latest chapter of failure for the Redskins, but also a continuation of the coach’s career slide.

Much has been written about Shanahan’s inability to win big after the retirement of quarterback John Elway, who won consecutive Super Bowls with Shanahan in each of his last two NFL seasons, following the ’98 campaign. In 14 seasons as a head coach without Elway, Shanahan had only two more winning (seven) than losing seasons (five). His record in postseason games is 1-6. And now, in addition to the Sunday embarrassment and shabby record, there is the matter of Robert Griffin III and the coach’s relationship with his quarterback.

The Redskins paid a king’s ransom to gain the rights to make Griffin the second pick in the ‘12 draft. Sure, on the corporate letterhead, the names of Snyder and general manager Bruce Allen appear above that of Shanahan. But make no mistake, dust the trade documents between the Redskins and Rams, and Shanahan’s fingerprints are on them. There have been reports that Shanahan preferred not to make the trade, but there was no personnel move made by the Redskins over the past four seasons that didn’t include the coach’s imprimatur.

OK, the owner and the quarterback got a little too comfortable for Shanahan’s liking, and the coach almost walked out during last year’s playoffs, feeling undermined and aggrieved. But the 61-year-old Shanahan has been around the NFL long enough to have realized that players, especially quarterbacks, usually rise to the “face of the franchise” level. Coaches rarely achieve that lofty position. Snyder usually falls in love with neither coaches nor quarterbacks his track record indicates, but he clearly is smitten with RGIII. And that probably makes Shanahan DC IV (the fourth deposed coach of the owner’s stewardship of the franchise).

That the relationship between Shanahan and Griffin is icy – the coach suggested on Monday that he may shut down the quarterback for the final three games – is clear. But there’s a big chill between the owner and his coach, as well, and things are only apt to get even more frigid.

Following the infamous 1940 defeat, then-coach Ray Flaherty, who was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1976, wasn’t fired. Instead, he lasted two more seasons before enlisting in the Navy to help wage World War II. It was a memorable end to Flaherty’s tenure with the Washington franchise. Shanahan’s isn’t likely to be nearly so noble.

Read More 885 Words

NFP Sunday Blitz

Poor Wade Phillips, named on Friday as the interim head coach of the Houston Texans for the final three games of the 2013 season, after owner Bob McNair canned Gary Kubiak following Thursday night’s embarrassing loss at Jacksonville.

Remarkably, this marks Phillips’ third appointment as an interim head coach, which must

Poor Wade Phillips, named on Friday as the interim head coach of the Houston Texans for the final three games of the 2013 season, after owner Bob McNair canned Gary Kubiak following Thursday night’s embarrassing loss at Jacksonville.

Remarkably, this marks Phillips’ third appointment as an interim head coach, which must be some kind of record. He led the New Orleans Saints to a 1-3 mark in 1985 after taking over for his father, the late Bum Phillips. In 2003, when Dan Reeves resigned in Atlanta, Phillips was 2-1 as interim head coach of the Falcons. So that’s a 3-4 record in his two interim positions, which, honestly, isn’t all that bad.

Being an interim head coach in the NFL, after all, has historically been a pretty thankless job. And one where success is difficult to achieve in the short tenure most interim coaches enjoy. So while Phillips wouldn’t want anyone to feel sorry for him as he takes over the disappointing Texans, he’s stepping into a dicey situation.

“You take over a sinking ship and it’s like trying to bale out water with a thimble,” longtime NFL defensive coordinator Rick Venturi, who was 2-17 in two stints as an interim coach, with Indianapolis in 1991 and New Orleans in 1996, described the job to NFP a few years ago. “It’s really a no-win situation, but you do it out of loyalty to the franchise and because in the back of your mind, you’re thinking, ‘Well, if I can show them some progress, then maybe they’ll keep me.’ But it’s pretty much a ‘Mission Impossible’ kind of situation … and it seems like the owners realize that more now.”

There are indications that the widely respected Phillips, who has also been a full-time coach on three occasions, will be considered for the permanent gig by McNair and general manager Rick Smith. He met with McNair on Friday in a sort of quasi-interview. But even if that session went well – and what more could McNair have gleaned from huddling with a guy he already knew well? – Phillips will beat some long odds if he returns full-time in 2014. And he’ll beat equally long odds if he can squeeze a win or two out of the Texans and begin to reverse the team’s fortunes in its three remaining games.

Make no mistake, success as an interim coach is the exception, not the norm, as is keeping the job beyond the fill-in period.

Consider: Of the 64 interim coaches since 1970, only slightly more than one-third, 22 of them, kept the top job for the following season. And the cumulative winning mark of the coaches who inherited a team during the season is just about .325, not much better than the men they replaced in-season. That’s a winning percentage of less than one-third. So if history holds, Phillips may get one win from a Houston team that finishes with games against the Colts, Broncos and Titans.

Gary KubiakKubiak was dismissed following his 14th regular season loss in 17 games.

Few in-season head coach changes, even those as predictable as Kubiak’s ouster, are made so late in any year. And there is a simple reason: In-season coaching changes, no matter when they are orchestrated, rarely reverse a team’s fortunes. At least not significantly, it seems.

Indeed, the shoddy record of the interim head coaches is hardly a reflection of their abilities in most cases; many, like Phillips, possess head coach-level credentials and have gone on to become sideline bosses at other spots. The collective failure is more an element of the difficult circumstances into which they enter. The NFL season is a relatively short one compared to other sports, and so a turnaround is exponentially tougher. That reality seems to have settled in on owners.

In the 13 seasons 2000-2012, there were only 16 in-season moves (not counting the two coaches, Aaron Kromer and Joe Vitt, who took over for the suspended Sean Payton in New Orleans last season), an indication that normally impatient owners have been slower to squeeze the trigger, and that they are more willing to ride out the storm until the end of a dismal year before enacting a change.

Unlike in some professional sports, a coaching change simply for the sake of change rarely proves to be an elixir. Baseball is a sport where in-season changes have made differences with some franchises. In the NFL, though, bringing in a new coach, or elevating someone from the current staff, doesn’t generally reverse longstanding problems. Which is why so many league owners are reluctant to make in-season changes anymore. Given the collapse of the Texans, who were two-time defending champions in the AFC South and expected by many to challenge for a Super Bowl XLVIII berth in 2013, firing Kubiak probably couldn’t be avoided. McNair, who made the decision to enact a change on the flight back from Jacksonville, can at least begin now to investigate and evaluate potential candidates.

Still, the mindset of many owners now, even though it runs counter to the ‘quick results’ nature of the business, is to play out the hand, no matter how poor the cards, and then make a coaching switch in the offseason, when transition is far easier. Given the spotty results of the in-season changes, no one can blame NFL owners for feeling that way.

There is no denying that impatient owners, who are inclined to be instant-gratification types, have reduced the shelf-life of head coaches in general. And since the trend the past few years has been to sign coaches to contracts with shorter terms and smaller salaries than their predecessors, it might make them easier to fire. But most owners have held back.

“It really is a tough gig,” Venturi said. “It’s miserable, really, because the momentum is going one way, and it’s so hard to reverse it.”

How hard is it?

True story: In 1989, then-Atlanta offensive line coach Jim Hanifan originally declined to accept the interim job with the Falcons after Marion Campbell resigned 12 games into the year with a 3-9 record. Hanifan knew the final four games would be a nightmare, were essentially unwinnable and he didn’t want four defeats posted on his head coaching mark previously forged in St. Louis earlier in the decade.

Only after Falcons president Taylor Smith told Hanifan he had struck an arrangement with the league for the games not to count on Hanifan’s career head coaching record did the longtime assistant accept the job. Of course, as Hanifan feared, the Falcons lost all four games. And because there was no such deal with the league, the losses were recorded in Hanifan’s ledger book.

Said Hanifan: “The odds are against you.”

Of the 64 men elevated to the head coaching position in-season since 1970, only 14 posted winning marks in their interim terms, and that included six who served three games or fewer as head coach. There have been 28 interim coaches who took over teams with at least a half-season remaining on the schedule, and only five registered winning records.

Said longtime NFL assistant Terry Robiskie, who had stints in Washington (2000) and Cleveland (2004) as an interim head coach, and who compiled a 2-6 record in those two spots: “The players know you’re probably a short-timer. It’s a little like you’re the substitute teacher or something.”

+AROUND THE LEAGUE

*In announcing Kubiak’s dismissal, McNair described the Thursday night loss at Jacksonville, the Texans’ second defeat to a lesser-talented Jaguars team in 11 days, as “the last straw.” But two team sources who spoke to NFP Friday evening on condition of anonymity, said things had been unraveling for a while.

Wade PhillipsICONFormer Dallas boss Wade Phillips now has the unenviable task of trying to turn the Texans around.

“Going back to (the end of last season),” one of the team insiders said, “we’d lost 14 of 17 regular-season games. And we couldn’t get over the hump in the playoffs. (McNair) felt this was a talented team. Not just more talented than (Jacksonville), which he noted, but better than most teams in the league. I don’t know if he was thinking Super Bowl or not, but he was expecting a lot this year.”

The other source said that perhaps most troubling was the “lack of discipline and ‘smarts’ on the team,” and alluded to the 14 penalties at Jacksonville on Thursday evening. No one to whom NFP spoke suggested that Kubiak, regarded as a good man, had lost control of his locker room. But neither did anyone blame injuries and the sudden plummet of quarterback Matt Schaub for the downfall. “We just played poorly, one thing led to another, and it kind of (culminated) with this,” one said. Although there has already been speculation about a successor, one team executive said that there has been “zero discussion” yet about potential candidates, although he expects the process of identifying possible new coaches to commence very soon, possibly over the weekend. Obviously, since McNair mentioned former Chicago coach and Texas native Lovie Smith as a man in whom the Texans might be interested, he could be strongly considered. McNair cited experience as a primary attribute, but team executives suggested the Texans will not strictly limit their search to men who have previously been NFL head coaches.

*Fresno State quarterback Derek Carr should be a happy guy right now. Even before the last couple weeks, when the quarterback depth at the top of the 2014 draft was severely depleted, Carr, the younger brother of 2002 No. 1 overall choice David Carr, was on the rise in the estimation of scouts. Now, with recent events, he is probably the second quarterback prospect on most boards – at least pending Johnny Manziel’s decision about his future, which will come after a bowl game – and could be chosen in the top 10, given the number of clubs seeking quarterbacks.

Aaron Murray of Georgia and LSU’s Zach Mettenberger both suffered ACL injuries that will keep them from working out at the combine and certainly limit what they will be able to do for scouts before the draft. Then, Marcus Mariota of Oregon and Bryce Petty of Baylor announced they will remain in school. Brett Hundley of UCLA has sent mixed signals about his intentions. Mariota and Mettenberger were regarded as sure first-round picks and Hundley was seen as a potential No. 1 as well. Murray and Petty had a shot to go in the second round. So the quarterback crop has been drastically thinned out.

After Louisville’s Teddy Bridgewater, there’s a question mark. In fact, scouts are beginning to take a closer look at Bridgewater’s reedy frame and arm strength as the evaluation process swings into high gear. Add to all of that the fact that Tajh Boyd of Clemson and A.J. McCarron of Alabama have started to slip a bit, and Carr’s name is the one that is getting plenty of mention right now. The position probably won’t be as sparse as in 2013, when E.J. Manuel was the lone prospect chosen in the first round, but not until Buffalo tabbed him in the 16th overall slot. Then again, quarterback doesn’t figure to be as popular a position as it was in 2012 and 2011, when four passers were chosen in the first round of each of those lotteries. There were three top 10 quarterbacks in both those years.

This season, Carr has completed 70.3 percent of his attempts, thrown for 4,462 yards and tossed 45 touchdown passes, with only four interceptions. Carr, who has thrown touchdown passes in 31 straight games, has six games of four or more TD passes in 2013. He has improved his decision-making, his awareness in the pocket, and his speed. Although he operates out of a “spread” offense, Carr isn’t a zone-read option quarterback, but still expects to run in the 4.65-4.8 range at the combine. Beyond his accuracy – Carr has thrown only 21 interceptions the past three years, while tossing 108 touchdown passes – most notable to league scouts is that he has been sacked only eight times after taking 47 sacks in 2011-2012.

“His feel (for the pocket) is excellent,” one NFC area scout, who principally looks at West Coast prospects, told NFP. “That and his accuracy are the biggest things.” The negatives: Because he has essentially operated out of the “spread” his entire career, Carr will have to demonstrate that he can work behind center as well. And with the Fresno State passing design emphasizing short and intermediate routes, his arm strength will be scrutinized. But there is little doubt that Carr is on the rise.

*When the Jacksonville Jaguars selected Ace Sanders in the fourth round in April, they envisioned the former South Carolina wide receiver and return specialist adding a big-play dimension to their offense. So far, that hasn’t happened, as he has only one reception of more than 40 yards, and one return of more than 30 yards.

But despite not starting a game since Oct. 6 or scoring his first NFL touchdown, Sanders has begun to play an expanded role, and the results are paying off for the team. Coming off the bench as a situational player in the past four games, three of which the Jags won, Sanders has posted 23 catches for 215 yards. The 9.3-yard average for the four-game stretch, and his 10.2-yard average on his 39 catches for the year, don’t exactly portend of a guy who is going to be able to stretch the field and strike fear in opposition secondaries. But the Jacksonville coaches seem excited by the progress of Sanders and offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch and receivers coach Jerry Sullivan have acknowledged that the best is yet to come.

Said Sanders: “I think every wide receiver, no matter where he’s picked, feels like he can come in and do some things right away. But it takes time.” Sanders’ time, has apparently come.

*In the minds of the Atlanta offensive staff there is no controversy about the club’s tailback position. Despite a disappointing year in which he missed time to injury, is averaging a career-low 3.5 yards per carry and hasn’t had more than 83 yards in a game, veteran Steven Jackson remains the starter. But there is a feeling among fans and even players that the club needs to find some carries for four-year veteran Antone Smith, even though he is listed fourth on the depth chart, behind Jackson, Jacquizz Rodgers and Jason Snelling.

Smith, 28, has carried only five times this season, never more than twice in a game. But his shortest gain of the season was for eight yards. He’s had runs of 8, 11, 38, 38 and 50 yards, including two long runs for touchdowns. Originally signed as an undrafted free agent by Detroit in 2009, the former Florida State standout was released twice (by the Lions and the Vikings) as a rookie, before catching on with the Houston practice squad. He eventually signed with Atlanta, and developed into a terrific special teams player, and had just one rush in his career until this season. Now he’s kind of a cult figure in Atlanta because of his ability to break the big play.

“He’s a talented player and a hard worker in everything he does,” coach Mike Smith said. “We got to get him more involved.” But the Falcons haven’t and with the team already eliminated from the playoffs at 3-9, and the return of Jackson in 2014 still uncertain, there are plenty of questions about why Smith isn’t getting more playing time. There’s some feeling that Mike Smith’s ego is in the way, that he wants to win as many games as possible after taking the Falcons to the postseason in four of his first five years, but that defies his makeup. Still, Atlanta has nothing to lose by playing Antone Smith and might uncover a gem. Granted, Smith can’t keep up the pace he set with his five carries, but until the Falcons give him more touches in the final month of the season, it’s going to be hard to evaluate him even as a No. 2 back.

Jay CutlerICONWhat are the chances Cutler returns to Chicago in 2014?

*With last week’s suggestion by Chicago general manager Phil Emery that he might not employ a franchise designation to retain starter Jay Cutler for another season, the comment at least prompted some speculation that the eight-year veteran could play elsewhere in ’14. And it certainly fueled the possibility that Chicago, which could allow Cutler to depart as an unrestricted free agent next spring, might be looking elsewhere for a quarterback as well. The Bears haven’t drafted a quarterback of any kind since 2011.

Since taking Rex Grossman in the first round in 2003, Chicago hasn’t selected a signal-caller above the fourth round. That could end – in fact, it might have to end, really – in the 2014 draft. The Bears’ stance on Cutler is a curious one, for sure. He is in the final season of a five-year, $50.4 million contract, earning about $9 million for 2013 in base salary and a workout bonus. His salary cap charge for the season is $10.37 million. The franchise number for a quarterback in 2014 is likely to be just north of $16 million. And so slapping the franchise tag on Cutler, as Emery noted, would account for a big share of the Bears’ 2014 cap. But, minus a long-term deal – and Chicago execs have not approached agent Bus Cook about an extension and won’t until after the season ends – the Bears don’t seem to have many options beyond the franchise tag.

The 30-year-old Cutler can be a difficult, petulant player at times, but is said to have gained much maturity this season. Plus, he seems to have meshed well with first-year coach Marc Trestman. He’s brought a modicum of stability to the team, starting 64 of a possible 76 games, even with his current injury. And there is no denying his physical tools. Even given all his warts, there’s no doubt that Cutler would command multiple suitors if the Bears allowed him to get to free agency.

Already there are rumors that, should the Texans hire Lovie Smith to succeed Kubiak, the former Bears coach might try to reunite with Cutler in Houston. Josh McCown, who has been starting for the injured Cutler, is also slated for free agency. Plus, even if the Bears convinced McCown to stick around, with the promise of competing for the starting job next season, he’s still just a journeyman. Chicago, should it allow Cutler to defect, will need a young quarterback for the future. The Bears currently have the 18th slot in the draft, and the top quarterback prospects are dwindling. But the Bears might not be able to ignore the position in the draft.

*Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin, a guy hyped several times in the Sunday Blitz during the season, was awarded a six-year contract extension (through 2019) by the university last week. The deal ties Sumlin to the Aggies until the school completes a renovation to Kyle Field, which likely will be in 2015. So if the deal is solid – and it’s believed to be, even though many coaching contracts through the years have proven to be worth less than the paper on which they’re written – the earliest Sumlin could bolt to the NFL will be 2016. That said, NFL scouts and executives are going to have lots of opportunities in coming months to better familiarize themselves with Sumlin, who has indicated he would consider coaching in the professional ranks at some point down the road.

Why so much attention to a coach who probably won’t be available for three years? Because Texas A&M could have as many as four prospects—quarterback and Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel, offensive tackles Jake Matthews and Cedric Ogbuehi and wide receiver Mike Evans—chosen in the first round of the 2014 draft. And the 49-year-old Sumlin is going to get much of the credit for that. All of the players except Matthews are underclassmen, and so their eligibility for the 2014 draft depends on their individual decisions about whether to stay in school or depart for the pros.

It’s believed that Evans, Manziel and Ogbuehi all will opt to begin their professional careers, with the formal announcements coming sometime after the Aggies’ bowl game. Three members of the group – Matthews, Manziel and Evans – are potential top-10 picks. Matthews might still be a candidate for the top spot, depending on who owns the choice. The University of Miami had the most players ever chosen in the first round of a single draft, with six in 2004. Texas A&M won’t challenge that, but the program has never had such a first-round draft haul. Only once since the combined draft began in 1967 has the school produced more than two first-round selections; that was in 2003. Texas A&M had more than one first-rounder just five times since ’67.

Beyond the four likely first-rounders, the Aggies have a few other possible draft candidates. Before the season, both combine services to which most NFL teams subscribe identified three senior players as “draftable” – defensive tackle Ennis Kirby, running back Ben Malena and wide receiver Derel Walker. So it could be a huge draft weekend for the Aggies.

Kevin SumlinSumlin is one of the hottest coaches in college football.

Here’s where the Sumlin angle figures into the equation: With such a draft windfall, scouts and general managers are going to be spending considerable time in College Station, Tex., in the next few months. The school’s pro day workouts are certain to draw a crowd, and some of the visitors will be general managers. Sumlin, whether visiting with team representatives in person or by phone, is going to be a very popular coach. A recently appointed NFL advisory group, formed for the purpose of identifying and recommending minority candidates for consideration, forwarded the names of Louisville’s Charlie Strong and David Shaw to the league. Sumlin can’t have been far behind on the list. But none of the three men should be considered only because they are African-American. All are excellent coaches, and race has nothing to do with their excellence. All figure to be on the radar screens of franchises seeking new coaches in the next few seasons. Overtures to Sumlin might be a few seasons removed, especially if his contract ties him to the Aggies though 2015. But the draft talent at the school is going to further familiarize him to the NFL in coming months.

*Because of the “three-year rule,” the earliest that Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston can be eligible for the NFL draft is the 2015 lottery. But make no mistake, many NFL scouts breathed a collective sigh of relief when state attorneys opted not to file any charges against the Florida State quarterback that involved sexual assault allegations. The team that selects Winston in 2015, assuming he is in that draft, will probably catch grief from some women’s groups, and we can’t criticize that. But the personnel director for one team acknowledged to NFP on Friday that “a headache like that might have been a hard deal to get beyond” had the FSU star been charged. As it is, Winston certainly will confront a lot of questions from league scouts about the incident no matter when he enters the draft. There is no statute of limitations for the curiosity teams demonstrate when investing a draft choice and millions of dollars in a player.

*Is the famed Lambeau Field ”mystique” a thing of the past? Probably not. But the Packers, still without quarterback Aaron Rodgers for at least another week, are just 3-2-1 at home in 2013. In Green Bay’s last three home games, it has lost twice and tied once, and the Packers haven’t won at Lambeau since defeating Cleveland on Oct. 20, six weeks ago.

Suggested one player from Atlanta, which travels to Green Bay for a Sunday matchup, to NFP: “Without (Rodgers), they don’t have the same swagger in general. You’re not as afraid of them overall, not even (in Lambeau Field).” Even with a win Sunday, and a victory over Pittsburgh on Dec. 22, the most home games the Packers will win in ‘13 is five. They haven’t won fewer than six since 2008, when they were just 4-4.

+SHORT YARDAGE

*The recent success of Arizona wide receiver Michael Floyd, who suddenly is playing up to his former first-round status, hasn’t made the Cardinals more likely to deal Larry Fitzgerald, as some have suggested. Despite looming cap problems with Fitzgerald, the Cardinals prefer to work out a way to retain him, team sources tell NFP, and part of the reason is the influence he’s had on Floyd. “A class act all the way,” one team executive described Fitzgerald. . . . It’s probably just coincidence, but on the same day Kubiak was fired, Auburn awarded coach Gus Malzahn a new six-year contract and $1.5 million-a-year raise. The deal likely had been in the works for weeks, and the school probably wanted to make a splash on the eve of the SEC title game, but it’s notable that Malzahn’s name had been raised in speculation about possible NFL candidates in the offseason. . . . League scouts are keeping close tabs on when South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney has surgery to remove bothersome bone fragments in his ankle. The surgery could affect his offseason workout schedule, for sure. Then again, teams are just as anxious to get in front of Clowney in an interview and hear his explanation for a disappointing season in which a lot of people felt his effort and attitude were substandard. To be frank, many observers felt Clowney was simply saving himself for the NFL. . . . On the subject of the “Lambeau Mystique,” cited earlier: The Falcons won there in 2008, when Matt Ryan was a rookie, so many people feel that provides Atlanta an edge. But only four of the Falcons’ 22 starters from the 2008 game, and eight of the players who dressed for the game, remain with the team. Ryan termed the game “ancient history.” . . . Dallas quarterback Tony Romo, who plays at Chicago on Monday night, is just 11-15 in December as a starter. Little wonder owner Jerry Jones, who has vociferously defended his quarterback at times, conceded last week that Romo has to play better in the season’s final month. . . . Besides firing Kubiak, the Texans also canned longtime special teams coach Joe Marciano on Friday in what many felt was a bit of a head-scratcher. . . . Baltimore is 14-2 in its last 16 home games that started with the temperature 40 degrees or below. . . . Two guys who could affect the big San Francisco-Seattle game have had opposite levels of success against their NFC West rival. Seahawks tailback Marshawn Lynch has been in “beast mode” against the 49ers, averaging nearly 105 yards against them over the past five games. On the slip side, 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick has struggled in his last two games against the Seahawks, with one touchdown pass and four interceptions.

+BY THE NUMBERS

*With his 21-yard scoring pass to Jordan Todman in the third quarter of Thursday night’s victory, Jaguars’ wide receiver Ace Sanders now joins tailback Maurice Jones-Drew with one touchdown pass each in 2013. What’s so notable about that? Quarterback Blaine Gabbert, chosen by Jacksonville with the 10th overall pick in the 2011 draft, also has just one touchdown pass this year. There have been five touchdowns passes this season by non-quarterbacks, and the Jaguars are the lone franchise with more than one. The other TD passes were by tailbacks Darren McFadden (Oakland) and Mike James (Tampa Bay), and punter Spencer Lanning (Cleveland).

Read More 4728 Words

What happened to the mojo?

Only a few weeks ago, with the first anniversary of the Jovan Belcher tragedy looming, the Kansas City Chiefs, at 9-0 for the first time in franchise history, were arguably the preeminent feel-good story of the 2013 season for a lot of reasons. But following a third straight defeat on Sunday, the

Only a few weeks ago, with the first anniversary of the Jovan Belcher tragedy looming, the Kansas City Chiefs, at 9-0 for the first time in franchise history, were arguably the preeminent feel-good story of the 2013 season for a lot of reasons. But following a third straight defeat on Sunday, the exact one-year mark of the Belcher suicide in an Arrowhead Stadium parking lot, the sweet saga of a season in which the Kansas City players had bounced back admirably has begun to regress.

There are a lot of other “re”-words to describe the Chiefs in 2013. Start with resourceful. Toss in resilient, too. Given the comeback years for quarterback Alex Smith and coach Andy Reid, redemptive might be appropriate too.

The Chiefs aren’t quite reeling yet – with a 9-3 record they still seem like a lock for their first postseason berth since 2010 and best record since 2003 – but the three-game losing streak has brought a dose of sobriety. Playing the powerful Denver Broncos, who provided two of the losses, will do that. But two of the losses were at home, one of them to an improved but still mediocre San Diego franchise, and the reality is that with four games remaining, the Chiefs have to regain their mojo.

“We know the formula; we just have to get back to it,” cornerback Dunta Robinson said. “Remember what made us successful and follow that again.”

The Chiefs essentially have one month to do it. If they are successful, they can earn the franchise’s first postseason victory since 1993, a generation ago and basically “forever” in the NFL. Fail and there is a chance Kansas City, which has lost its last six playoff appearances, will be a postseason one-and-done. Chiefs players, who have overcome a lot, including a Belcher tragedy which still resonates with a few guys who were on the team in 2012, vowed on Sunday they will rediscover the magic.

Here’s hoping they’re right.

Alex Smith and Andy ReidCan the Chiefs rebound in the wake of their current three-game losing streak?

Three of the team’s final four games are away from Arrowhead, but the cumulative record of the franchises the Chiefs play on the road is 12-24. The only opponent with a winning mark, Indianapolis, has to travel to Kansas City.

What earned Kansas City its 9-0 start, in large part, was a basic formula: Play good, but not necessarily scintillating offense without turning the ball over. Get the ball in the hands of the club’s few playmakers, principally tailback Jamaal Charles. Create a lot of turnovers and convert them into scores. Maintain intense defensive pressure, particularly on the quarterback. Lately, however, the formula has failed. It’s as if some mad scientist snuck into Reid’s lab and removed a critical ingredient.

Said Smith after the Sunday loss: “We still understand the way to win.”

Perhaps so. But in the first nine contests, the Chiefs registered 23 takeaways, turned the ball over only eight times, and had a lopsided plus-15 advantage in the crucial turnover differential category. They scored seven non-offensive touchdowns, all but one of them on defense, and four of them on interception runbacks. Kansas City had 78 points following takeaways. Led by the upfield pass rush of pincer linebackers Tamba Hali and Justin Houston, Kansas City sacked the opposition quarterback a league-best 36 times.

Over the three-game skid: Only three takeaways, four turnovers, and a minus-one differential. One non-offensive score, that coming Sunday when Knile Davis ran through stop signs from teammates and raced 108 yards with a kickoff return. Just 14 points from takeaways. A slight reduction in total yards from scrimmage for go-to guy Charles. And maybe most telling, only one sack.

In fact, the Chiefs have posted only two sacks in the past five outings, after netting three or more the first seven games. Minus the pressure on the pocket, the defense has not been as dominant.

It was probably unfair of the legion of skeptics who, during the Chiefs’ nine-game winning stretch suggested that Kansas City had yet to face a quality opponent or that Reid’s team wasn’t nearly as good as its record. Likewise, it’s true that the club, given the way it played, operated on a perilously thin margin. Over the past three weeks, that razor-thin margin of error has been lost. Now it’s up to Kansas City, which seems to possess great character and leadership, to grab it back.

Which leads to one more “re”-word, it seems.

“We’re going to rebound,” vowed Robinson. “We have the right kind of people. This thing isn’t going to collapse.”

Read More 741 Words

NFP Sunday Blitz

A year ago, with the zone-read option suddenly a hot trend, five NFL quarterbacks rushed for 300 yards or more and there were two 100-yard games. With five games remaining for all but the half-dozen teams that played on Thanksgiving Day, league quarterbacks have posted three 100-yard performances in 2013, and seven signal-callers have

A year ago, with the zone-read option suddenly a hot trend, five NFL quarterbacks rushed for 300 yards or more and there were two 100-yard games. With five games remaining for all but the half-dozen teams that played on Thanksgiving Day, league quarterbacks have posted three 100-yard performances in 2013, and seven signal-callers have already run for 300-plus yards.

But the bump in numbers doesn’t mean that the zone-read has taken another step forward in its NFL evolution. In fact, there are many who feel the concept that’s so prevalent in the college game has perhaps begun to devolve in the NFL in 2013. And the skeptics aren’t strictly limited to Arizona coach Bruce Arians, who, in advance of Sunday’s matchup against Philadelphia and zone-read guru Chip Kelly, last week termed the zone-read “a good college offense,” while suggesting it might not have a lengthy shelf-life in the league.

“I don’t want to call it a fad, or claim that we’ve caught up entirely, but, numbers aside, it just hasn’t had the same impact (as in 2012),” the defensive coordinator from one NFC team told NFP last week. “The gap has closed, and you’re not seeing defenses as ‘gashed’ by it as they were last year.”

One of the reasons, Atlanta defensive coordinator Mike Nolan said earlier in the season, was that so many teams that struggled against the zone-read in 2012 went to college staffs for advice and counsel in the offseason. “You don’t want to give away any trade secrets, but those (visits) helped,” acknowledged Nolan, as the Falcons huddled with at least two college staffs, including the defensive coaches from Clemson. Said Clemson coordinator Brent Venables of the meetings: “I’m not sure we had all the answers, either, but we tried to answer their questions.”

Bruce AriansAccording to Arizona head coach Bruce Arians, the NFL has begun to catch up to the NFL’s hottest offensive trend.

From the looks of things, the NFL teams elicited some good answers.

Of course, the other factor was that, with a full off-season of video review, league coaches got a much better handle on stanching the zone-read quarterbacks. That was the basic contention of Arians, who proposed that NFL coaches usually catch up to new wrinkles when provided enough time to scrutinize them. And one can’t underestimate, either, the reality that the NFL is more physical, and that running quarterbacks absorb more pounding.

“Every hit hurts and there’s a cumulative effect,” Seattle’s Russell Wilson, who has one of this season’s 100-yard games (Terrelle Pryor of Oakland authored the other two), told NFP a few weeks ago. “I think (the zone-read) is a good weapon . . . but you can see (defenses) playing it a little bit differently. I’m sure it caught teams by surprise some last year. But surprises don’t last long (in the NFL).”

And perhaps neither will the zone-read.

Indeed, players such as Robert Griffin III of Washington have cut back on the number of option-read plays they’ve run in 2013. In fact, even in 2012, the Redskins’ coaches temporarily reduced the number of zone-read plays in game plans for a few weeks after Griffin was hit 28 times (by unofficial count) in a two-week stretch. The knee injury that Griffin sustained in the 2012 playoffs clearly has been a factor in his rushing ability this season, and he is on pace for 551 rushing yards, after having 815 in his rookie year.

San Francisco linebacker Ahmad Brooks suggested that Griffin isn’t the same player he was a year ago after last week’s Monday night game. But neither, it seems, is the impact of the zone-read. The offense might not be on its way to becoming just some cursory curiosity, like the Wildcat offense. It probably isn’t even fair to say that the zone-read is on life support. But there could soon come a time when it isn’t a major chapter in any club’s playbook.

Just look at the changes this season: Oakland has replaced Pryor, who might have threatened the 1,000-yard barrier had he remained the starter, with the undrafted Matt McGloin, a more conventional pocket passer. Under new coordinator Mike Shula, Carolina has stressed patience with Cam Newton and, while he remains a strong runner, he’s matured in terms of pocket presence. Colin Kaepernick has been inconsistent in all areas. The once-electrifying Michael Vick, the lone quarterback in history to rush for 1,000 yards in a season and thought to be an optimum fit in Kelly’s offense with the Eagles, has become a clipboard caddy. Wilson has become more aware of hanging in the pocket and the Seattle staff more aware of insulating him.

Heck, one of the seven NFL quarterbacks to rush for 300 yards this year is Alex Smith, and the Kansas City starter is hardly an option threat.

There are a few option prospects in the 2014 draft class, but some of them, such as Oregon’s Marcus Mariota, might be regarded more highly for their passing skills. Teddy Bridgewater of Louisville, arguably the No. 1 quarterback for the ’14 class, can run, but isn’t a real option threat. Reigning Heisman Trophy star Johnny Manziel of Texas A&M is as much scrambler as option quarterback. In the big picture, there are probably more conventional pocket passers.

A self-confident Griffin said last week that running the ball, presumably with the option as a major component, will “always be a part” of his makeup. But it could be a diminishing part, not just for RG III, but for all option quarterbacks in the league.

+AROUND THE LEAGUE

*No linebacker has ever led the NFL in interceptions for a season, and the chances are that DeAndre Levy won’t do it, either. But the Detroit Lions’ five-year veteran, who collected his league-best sixth pick of the year in his team’s Thanksgiving Day victory, is giving it a heck of a shot. Given that Levy, a third-round steal in 2009 and a guy touted by Detroit officials as a breakout candidate the past couple seasons, entered 2013 with only five career interceptions (never more than two in a year), the steal-spree might be a bit surprising. But Levy, coach Jim Schwartz and Detroit defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham all agree that the former Wisconsin star is not only playing the best football of his career, but the smartest, most aware football, as well.

“He always knew the scheme, but he is a lot more (intuitive) now,” Schwartz said.

DeAndre LevyAfter notching five INTs over his first 57 games in the league, Levy has picked off six passes in 12 outings this season.

Noted Levy, who also has 19 passes defensed according to league stats, to NFP: “Knowing the defense is one thing. Knowing what the offense is going to do, or at least having a good idea, makes a big difference.” Levy, whose 19 deflections are second in the league only to Tennessee cornerback Alterraun Verner, displayed his smarts again in the dominating win over Green Bay, not only picking off a pass, but also having another pass defensed, and being in the passing lanes and altering throws, on about three other occasions.

Levy, 26, was regarded as a good, not great, performer against the pass before this season. In 2013, he’s become something special. It’s believed that no linebacker ever registered more than seven interceptions in a season. All-time leader Don Shinnick (1959), Al Richardson (1980) and Lance Mehl (1983) all had seven in a year. With four games to play, Levy has a chance of topping that number.

*Sunday will mark the one-year anniversary of the murder-suicide involving former Kansas City linebacker Jovan Belcher, who took the life of girlfriend Kasandra Perkins before shooting himself in the parking lot of the team’s practice facility in front of then-coach Romeo Crennel and former GM Scott Pioli. Both men have said the event is one they will never forget, and that is likely the case as well for those players who were with the franchise in 2012. But coach Andy Reid and the rest of the organization have done a good job of focusing the Chiefs beyond what occurred last year, both on and off the field, players told NFP.

“It’s not like we bring up the Belcher thing a lot, but guys definitely remember,” said standout inside linebacker Derrick Johnson, who has spent his entire nine-year career in Kansas City. “How could you not? He was a part of us, and he always will be in our thoughts . . . but this is a new team. We’ve tried to put a lot of the stuff from the past, the (Belcher) thing, the losing, behind us. There have been some rough times, believe me, on and off the field. But it’s a different time here now.”

Kansas City is slumping a bit, with back-to-back losses, injuries, and only one sack in the past three games, but, barring a total collapse, the Chiefs, who face Denver on Sunday in a huge AFC West rematch, will make the playoffs. And given where the Chiefs were only a year ago, that’s a major accomplishment for the club.

*It’s probably a little premature even for most hard-core fans to begin looking ahead to free agency next spring, but apparently never too early for some pro scouts and pro personnel directors, who are already reviewing video with an eye toward the future, and starting to assess potential unrestricted players. One veteran who seems to have caught the eye of a few teams, based on comments to NFP, is Philadelphia wide receiver Riley Cooper. His N-word indiscretion this summer aside – a lapse of judgment that could have cost the four-year veteran a spot with the Eagles and perhaps dented his career – Cooper could be a popular “sleeper” free agent in the spring if the Eagles don’t sign him to an extension.

Said one personnel man: “He’s made himself some money (this year), definitely, whether it’s in Philadelphia or somewhere else. Maybe not big-time money, but I’d guess he’s going to get a pretty decent offer somewhere. If you’re convinced he’ll fit in your locker room, and there won’t be any (ramifications) from the incident in the summer, he’s an intriguing guy.”

Riley CooperCooper has already recorded career highs in receptions, receiving yards and touchdowns this season.

The four-year veteran averaged only 15.3 receptions over his first three years, but has 31 catches, 592 yards and seven touchdowns in ’13. His 19.1-yard average and ratio of a score every 4.4 catches are not only impressive, but also indicative of the fact that the 6-feet-5 Cooper is more than just a tall, red-zone threat. Cooper, indeed, has three red-zone touchdowns. But he’s also got four touchdown receptions of 32 yards or more, three of them for 40-plus yards. He is not, the league scout said, just a long-strider. Nor, apparently, is Cooper typical of so many former University of Florida wide receivers who have struggled at the pro level.

*Back in training camp, a few Seattle assistants and insiders close to the Seahawks told NFP that the club had the deepest group of cornerbacks they could recall in many years and might actually release some people who could play in the league. With the suspension of Walter Thurmond and the pending one-year absence of Brandon Browner, that much-ballyhooed depth will be tested now. Starting Monday night against New Orleans, in a game that could determine home-field advantage in the NFC playoffs. But the Seahawks, who will likely use Byron Maxwell as a starter and Jeremy Lane as the slot corner, are said to have retained their swagger in the days preceding the New Orleans game.

“They still think they can hold up with the guys they’ve got: there’s a lot of confidence in the people who’s been here since camp,” a source close to the team told NFP. There is some thought that the Seahawks will move Pro Bowl cornerback Richard Sherman around more, in an effort to create matchups against the opponent’s presumptive top wideout, but Seattle coaches were still mulling that possibility late in the week. The perception seemed to be that with Sherman and standout safeties Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor, the Seahawks might still be able to adequately compensate. In a related item, retired cornerback Antoine Winfield, who signed with Seattle as a free agent after having spent his entire career in Minnesota, was said to be still thinking over and overture from the club to step into the breech. But late in the week, a Seattle official termed the comeback of Winfield “still a long shot.”

*Atlanta tailback Steven Jackson has now gone 12 straight starts – the final five of 2012 in St. Louis and the first seven of this season—without a 100-yard performance. It’s the longest such stretch, spanning more than a calendar year (his last 100-yard outing was on Nov. 25, 2012, against Arizona) of Jackson’s 10-year career. Jackson was injured much of the early portion of the Falcons’ disastrous season and at age 30, it’s hard to tell if he’s lost something or if the Atlanta offensive line is just so bad that he has no holes. But even if the Falcons remain a pass-first offense in 2014, the team will need Jackson to do better than his current career-low 3.4-yard average. The Falcons face some difficult decisions after this collapsed campaign, and one of them might involve Jackson and his future with the franchise. He is due a base salary of $3 million for 2014, with $500,000 of it guaranteed, and would count $2.3 million in “dead money” if released before June 1. It won’t be surprising to see the club, which currently is No. 3 in the draft order and figures to finish in the top five, address the tailback position in the draft. Not in the first round, certainly, where the Falcons likely will choose between an offensive tackle and defensive end, but at some point in the lottery.

Mike ShanahanWill Mike Shanahan be back on the Washington sidelines next year?

*Just as the Falcons could face a tough decision on Jackson, the future of head coach Mike Shanahan in Washington might be a difficult call for Redskins owner Daniel Snyder after the season. In his first 15 full seasons as a head coach (not counting the ’89 campaign, when he was canned by Al Davis of the Raiders after only four games), Shanahan experienced just one year of ten or more losses. But he’s facing a third double-digit defeat season in four seasons with the Redskins, and Snyder has never been known as a patient man. It’s got to be particularly distasteful for Snyder to see the franchise backslide after the 2013 division title, and the immediate emergence of Griffin. Then again, it might be equaling galling to know that, if he dismisses Shanahan, he’ll still owe him $7 million and will have to pay off a staff, as well, that is believed to be one of the NFL’s highest paid. Notable is that Snyder, during his stewardship of the franchise, has never hired and retained a coach for more than four seasons. Marty Schottenheimer lasted but one year, Steve Spurrier two, Joe Gibbs four and Jim Zorn two. The grand plan might have been for Shanahan to eventually be succeeded by son Kyle, but the Washington offensive coordinator has come under almost as much criticism as his father, and the plan might not look quite so grand these days.

*Not even last week’s exhilarating, last-minute victory at Kansas City, a comeback player of the year candidate (quarterback Philip Rivers) and a competitive team (albeit with a losing record) could draw enough fans to Qualcomm Stadium for Sunday, so the San Diego Chargers will become the first team to have a game blacked out in 2013. Then again, maybe it’s the opponent, since the first-place Bengals also failed to get a sellout at Qualcomm last Dec. 2 and were also blacked out. Not since the blackout rule took effect in 1973 had the NFL gone 12 weeks into a campaign without a blackout. Last week, a league official told NFP that there was “mildly guarded optimism” the NFL might go an entire season with no blackouts, but conceded that was “probably unlikely,” since late-season crowds typically decline with franchises eliminated from the playoffs. Still, it was quite a run for a league that remains the preeminent sports entity of this or any other time.

+SHORT YARDAGE

*In past weeks, the Sunday Blitz has highlighted the work of New England defensive tackle Chris Jones, whose five sacks rank second among rookies, but who was waived by two teams before landing with the Patriots. Defensive coordinator Wade Phillips of Houston, which chose Jones in the sixth round but cut him, suggested last week that the former Bowling Green standout was a victim of the old “numbers game.” But here are some numbers worth considering: Texans starting nose tackle Earl Mitchell has 1.5 sacks. Backup Terrell McClain, ostensibly the player Houston kept instead of Jones, has none. . . . The suddenly well-traveled Matt Flynn has only four career starts, but has been sacked 22 times in those games. In two starts this season, for Oakland and Green Bay (on Thanksgiving), Flynn was sacked seven times in each game. . . . It’s been 25 years, but the return to Philadelphia for Sunday’s game might be a bit emotional for Arians. The game will mark Arians’ first return to the city as a head coach since he was fired by Temple following the 1988 season. Arians was 21-45 at Temple in his six years there. At age 61, he has done a terrific job with the Cardinals. He probably won’t win coach of the year honors in the NFL, but deserves some consideration. . . . Since the league implemented the eight-division format in 2002, there have been 14 teams that finished last one year and first the next. But just three franchises went worst-first-worst again over a three-season span: Tampa Bay (2004-2006), Philadelphia (2005-2007) and Kansas City (2009-2011). The Redskins, who were last in the NFC East in 2011 but won the division last season, are currently last again, and could join the list of teams with the dubious trifecta. . . . . Taking an early look forward at your mock draft? Consider this: In the past 17 drafts, only three positions were represented with the top overall selection: 12 quarterbacks, three offensive tackles, and a pair of defensive ends. . . . Through 12 weeks, NFL teams remained on a record pace for offensive snaps per game, with 130.5. Four clubs were averaging more than 70 snaps per game and 13 had more plays than Philadelphia, where Kelly was the man many guessed would lead the snaps-per-game category in 2013.

+BY THE NUMBERS

*It won’t be any consolation, given the loss at Baltimore on Thursday night, but the game marked the second straight outing in which Ben Roethlisberger wasn’t sacked. That probably doesn’t seem like much of an accomplishment, but it was the first time in the Pittsburgh quarterback’s career that he wasn’t sacked at all in consecutive starts. Roethlisberger has been sacked multiple times in 101 of his 138 career starts. But in the last three games, he has been sacked only one time, after absorbing two or more sacks in each of the year’s first nine games.

Read More 3283 Words

How will the West be won?

It won’t be a modern-day remake of the early 1960’s epic “How the West Was Won,” for sure. But after tough Sunday defeats by Kansas City and Denver, both of whom squandered meaningful leads in the kinds of games the Chiefs and Broncos once might have successfully closed out, winning the AFC West championship

It won’t be a modern-day remake of the early 1960’s epic “How the West Was Won,” for sure. But after tough Sunday defeats by Kansas City and Denver, both of whom squandered meaningful leads in the kinds of games the Chiefs and Broncos once might have successfully closed out, winning the AFC West championship could come down to whichever of the longtime rivals plays the best defense in the final five weeks of the season.

And, quite possibly, which of the teams most adequately compensates for injuries on that side of the ball.

It’s not quite a battle of attrition on the defense. But after the Chiefs lost pass-rush linebackers Tamba Hali (ankle) and Justin Houston (elbow) on Sunday, and Denver was forced to play without cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie (shoulder), neither defensive unit was the same as earlier in the contests against San Diego and New England, respectively. Yeah, 17 of the 34 points the Broncos surrendered came after turnovers, including the botched punt return/fumble fiasco that allowed the Patriots to kick the winning overtime field goal. And the Chiefs also surrendered a touchdown following a giveaway.

Justin HoustonJustin Houston and his 11 sacks went down with an elbow injury Sunday vs. San Diego.

But Kansas City – which tied a league record by not allowing more than 17 points in any of its first nine games, and now has given up 68 points in consecutive losses—permitted San Diego quarterback Philip Rivers to rally the Chargers to a win after an Alex Smith-to-Dwayne Bowe touchdown pass appeared to have saved the flagging Chiefs. And the Broncos’ defense couldn’t slow the Pats at key times, either, even though the Denver defense was often forced to play with a short field.

At a time of year when defenses are relied upon to make a difference, even in a league so skewed toward offense, the signs weren’t good. And even as the Broncos and Chiefs were preparing to meet again next Sunday at Arrowhead Stadium in an AFC West rematch, the two defenses are licking some wounds.

“You’ve got to have guys step up,” noted Kansas City safety Eric Berry following the loss to the Chargers. “We can’t make excuses. We’ve got to make plays.”

Of late, at least, the once resourceful and opportunistic Kansas City defense, which seemed to pounce on every opponent mistake the first nine weeks (and frequently turned them into touchdowns), hasn’t made enough of them. The Kansas City defense, which terrorized enemy quarterbacks for months, has but one sack in its last three games, that by a blitzing Berry on Sunday afternoon. In the last four games, the unit has only two sacks. Perhaps more notable, the Chiefs could not wrestle the ball from the Chargers at all on Sunday, and have just one takeaway in back-to-back losses.

It probably wasn’t equitable that so many skeptics questioned the Chiefs’ quality after their 9-0 start. It might be fair, though, now for the inquisitors to pipe up. Not so much about the legitimacy of Kansas City, since the Chiefs seemed assured of their first postseason berth since 2010, but about how the team rebounds from its slump and from its injuries.

Dominique Rodgers-CromartieDRC exited Sunday’s game against New England with a shoulder injury.

Minus Houston and Hali, who provided an outside, pincer-style pass rush and totaled 20 sacks between them, the deficiencies could become more glaring. “Those guys have made so many big plays,” Berry said. Acknowledged Rivers: “They were not the same (after the injuries).”

Neither were the Broncos after Rodgers-Cromartie, the team’s best cover corner, exited against the Pats. The Denver secondary was already depleted, especially with injuries at safety and the ongoing inability of Champ Bailey to get onto the field, and the growing M*A*S*H list is a danger sign. Who will be ambulatory for the clubs’ defenses for next Sunday’s division showdown is uncertain. The overall status of the Kansas City and Denver defenses, likewise, is tenuous.

Certainly, the high-octane Broncos are more capable of overcoming defensive losses because of their Peyton Manning-led offense. But the Denver offense suffered a fatal lull on Sunday night and the defense couldn’t rescue it. Denver currently ranks 26th in statistical defense and the Chiefs are No. 16. Both units may have to play better than their statistical perches to win the AFC West and to advance deep into the postseason. How much better they’ll be able to do so probably rests with how each responds to the injuries they’re currently confronting.

The current video-game nature of the NFL aside, defense still counts. As does the rising body-counts on defense for the two AFC West rivals.

Read More 756 Words

NFP Sunday Blitz

As is the case with most coaching staffs during their bye week, the Cincinnati contingent did a lot of “self scouting” last week, poring over video of the first 11 contests to try to correct some of the Bengals’ inconsistencies of the past three games. Especially the offense, which has sputtered during the 1-2

As is the case with most coaching staffs during their bye week, the Cincinnati contingent did a lot of “self scouting” last week, poring over video of the first 11 contests to try to correct some of the Bengals’ inconsistencies of the past three games. Especially the offense, which has sputtered during the 1-2 stretch, and more specifically quarterback Andy Dalton.

The third-year veteran has thrown eight interceptions in the past three outings (versus only five touchdown passes) and has an anemic passer rating of just 55.7 in the three games. Having now suffered four multiple-interception games in 2013, Dalton suddenly has tossed the third most picks in the league (15), behind only Eli Manning (17) and Geno Smith (16). The eight interceptions are the most Dalton has ever thrown in three straight games over the course of his NFL career.

Dalton has taken a fair amount of heat locally – hardly unusual because of the position he plays and the leadership status of the 26-year-old with the youthful Bengals – but what the Cincinnati staff concluded after a week of assessing the club’s offense is that the shortcomings aren’t all of his making. In fact, while the Cincinnati coaches acknowledge that Dalton has been part of the offensive slump, some of the criticism is probably unjustified, even though he’s completed fewer than 50 percent of his attempts the past two contests and been sacked 10 times in three games.

At the heart of the problem: The Bengals, who statistically rank No. 19 in rushing offense, need to run the ball more effectively, particularly on first down. The team has averaged 5.14 yards per first-down rush and, while that is 12th best in the NFL, the coaches are shooting for something better. “More consistency with the run and better production on (first) down,” coach Marvin Lewis said of the goals for the final five games of the season. “Both have been problems.”

There’s been a perception that Dalton has struggled of late because Cincinnati has faced such daunting third-down situations the past three games. And in fact, the average yards-to-make for the Bengals on third down in those games was nearly 7.5 yards. Eighteen times in the three games, an average of six times per game, Cincy confronted third-and-10 or more. Six times, Dalton and the Bengals were looking at third-and-13 or longer. Little wonder Cincinnati converted only 16 of its 53 third-down plays (30.2 percent) against Miami, Baltimore and Cleveland. The Bengals had a decent 42.1 percent conversion ratio (which would rank among the top 10 in the league), by comparison, over the first eight games of the season.

Andy DaltonICONDalton has thrown at least one interception in nine of 11 starts this season, with eight over his last three games.

But here’s where Dalton’s deficiencies are a bit overstated: Only two of his eight interceptions over the past three games came on third-down plays.

Instead, Dalton has been an equal-opportunity donor and Cincinnati isn’t “winning” consistently on first down. As a result, he is facing long yards-to-make situations thereafter. The lingering problem has forced coordinator Jay Gruden to probably call more passes than normal and magnified the reality that the Bengals’ line, especially the interior, hasn’t played well. In 11 games, Dalton is on a pace to throw 596 passes in 2013; in his first two seasons, the former TCU standout averaged 522 attempts.

Cincinnati is at its best when Dalton is somewhat insulated, when the Bengals are using all their offensive tools, when the running game is clicking and he is not forced to carry the load as much. Notable is that Cincinnati is just 3-10 in games in which Dalton has thrown 40 or more passes; that includes a 2-3 mark this year. Teams that have scouted Dalton feel that if they can force him backwards a bit in the pocket, his height (6-feet-2) and average arm strength provide them an advantage.

“Give him a ‘clean’ pocket and he’s so much better,” a rival defensive assistant said. “Of course, you can say that about any quarterback, right? But it’s especially true of him. With his delivery and all, he needs some room to throw, and he’s not getting it.”

Opponents have crowded the inside against the pass and the run. The perception in the league is that the Bengals aren’t as physical inside on the line – with left guard Clint Boling, center Kyle Cook and right guard Kevin Zeitler – and so they play Cincy accordingly. They overplay the inside run and, on many passing downs, emphasize pressure up the middle, in Dalton’s face. The quick pressure – which, ironically, was a staple of the Cincinnati defense, before tackle Geno Atkins was lost with a season-ending knee injury – has forced Dalton into some dubious decisions. At 7-4 and in a dramatically diluted AFC North, and with three of their remaining five games at home and two winnable road contests, the Bengals figure to be a playoff team for a third straight season.

But divining a way to avoid a third consecutive one-and-done in the postseason is important to a franchise with the most talent in the division. And determining how to avoid the fate of the past two seasons is part of what drove the Cincinnati staff in its week away from the field. The conclusion, which might be a surprise to some of his detractors, wasn’t simply about fixing the quarterback. It means being smarter and tougher on offense and it will be interesting to see how the Bengals implement those goals in the final five games.

+AROUND THE LEAGUE

*Along with most of the country, several NFL retired players who played in 1963 only two days after the death of John F. Kennedy recalled last week the feelings on the assassination of the president. There recollections were among the most poignant in a week filled with memories of November 22, 1963 and the days that followed it.

“It was probably the toughest game I ever had to play,” former San Francisco defensive back Kermit Alexander told Bay Area reporters. “It was very traumatic. It was like having an open cavity in your tooth and having to talk and eat without the benefit of relief.” Recalled Steelers’ defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, a Detroit cornerback in 1963: “I just remember both sides had heavy hearts. All I can remember is a feeling of sadness. We played because they decided to play and we were players. . . . The whole nation was in mourning. They use the word ‘closure’ now. It’s the type of thing you live through. . . . You go on, (but) you never go back to normal. You never forget.”

Late commissioner Pete Rozelle, who opted to play the seven games that weekend, because he felt it would be a good distraction for an ailing nation, later said the decision was the “biggest regret” of his tenure. This correspondent knows the feeling, albeit to a much lesser extent. After watching Jack Ruby murder Lee Harvey Oswald, I met some friends, rode the streetcar to Forbes Field and watched the Steelers and Bears play to a 17-all tie. For much of the 40 years since, I’ve thought about the inappropriate nature of that decision. In 2011, then commissioner Paul Tagliabue, perhaps recalling the debate over Rozelle’s decision, canceled the games after the 9-11 events.

*The solid performances this season of rookie first-round safeties Kenny Vaccaro (New Orleans) and Eric Reid (San Francisco), two of the three interior defensive backs selected in the opening stanza of the 2013 draft, has somewhat resurrected the old’ “safety first” motto. But, in truth, safeties historically aren’t often chosen in the first round, and last week’s signing of Michael Huff by injury-depleted Denver was a reminder of the hit-and-miss nature of the position. The seventh overall pick in the 2006 draft, by Oakland, Huff is now with his third different franchise in eight months. Released earlier in the season by Baltimore, which thought it was getting a bargain when it signed him to a three-year, $6 million contract as a free agent in the summer, Huff didn’t command a lot of attention until the Broncos reached out. He’d had a workout with Dallas and spoke to the Bengals before that, but neither club was impressed enough to sign him.

Said one personnel director who examined Huff on video, but did not bring him in for a workout: “He’s always been an in-between guy, a little stiff, not a big playmaker. He’s a good example of why teams have shied away from (first-round) safeties through the years.”

Mark BarronFormer Alabama star Mark Barron has notched just three interceptions in 26 games with the Buccaneers.

There have been some terrific first-round safeties, like Ed Reed and Troy Polamalu, and more recently Eric Berry and Earl Thomas. But there have also been guys like LaRon Landry and Mark Barron who have not lived up to their billing. The late Sean Taylor might have been a Hall of Fame safety had he lived, but there simply aren’t a lot of guys like him. In recent years, teams have been more inclined to consider safeties earlier in the draft – and safeties who possess some cornerback-like abilities and can cover in the slot are coveted – but Huff is indicative of how iffy the position can be.

*On the subject of safeties, although neither was a first-round pick, the struggles of Atlanta’s starting pair, Thomas DeCoud (free) and William Moore (strong), reflect those of the Atlanta defense overall. Both players made it to the Pro Bowl in 2012, in part because of their combined 12 takeaways, seven by DeCoud and five from Moore. This year, the safeties have one takeaway apiece. DeCoud hasn’t been nearly as strong in his fundamentals, especially tackling, as he was a year ago. Moore, a more physical defender, has been fined four times by the league and has had troubles lowering his hitting area. Plus, he’s always been a bit of a liability in coverage, and that was again apparent Thursday night, when he bit badly on a double-move from New Orleans tight end Jimmy Graham and surrendered a 44-yard touchdown pass.

Compounding the problem is that neither of the players seems to realize just how poorly they’ve been playing. DeCoud suggested last week that his critics don’t understand the defense and his responsibilities, but opponents clearly are taking advantage of him. Moore has said that the Falcons haven’t been “out-physicaled” this season, but that’s hardly true. Atlanta signed DeCoud to a five-year, $17.5 million contract in 2102 and the deal, which runs through 2016, included a $3 million signing bonus. The ante was even bigger for Moore, a five-year, $28.3 million deal through 2017, with an $8.25 million bonus. The contracts aren’t exorbitant, but the safeties definitely aren’t playing up to them right now. And haven’t all year, for that matter.

*Two seasons ago, when he had only one sack despite starting in 15 of his 16 appearances, Cameron Jordan was arguably one of the league’s most disappointing first-round selections. After Thursday night’s victory at Atlanta, it’s become clear that the third-year New Orleans veteran is now one of the most improved players in the league, the kind of versatile lineman clubs covet, and a potential Pro Bowl pick.

“He’s a unique guy, really,” Saints middle linebacker Curtis Lofton said after the New Orleans victory over his former team. “He’s had to play a lot of different ways, been asked to do different things, and he’s come up big. A rare player, really.”

Indeed, the former University of California star has played under three different coordinators in three seasons – Gregg Williams (2011), Steve Spagnuolo (2012) and now Rob Ryan (2013) – and had a variety of responsibilities. He’s found his niche in Ryan’s 3-4, after playing in 4-3 fronts each of his first two years, and has emerged as one of the best five-technique rushers while still anchoring well versus the run. The history of the league isn’t exactly chock-full of ends who have gone from a 4-3 to a 3-4 and had great success. “But I feel,” Jordan said, “like I can play it any way you want. It’s just that now I understand better what people want.”

As a rookie, Jordan was asked to bulk up to about 300 pounds, play the run, and rarely got rush opportunities. Then in 2012, he dropped some weight, and was turned loose by Spagnuolo more than he’d been under Williams’ tutelage. Although Spagnuolo was a disaster, with the Saints registering the worst statistical season in NFL history, the change was good for Jordan, who posted eight sacks. His 2.5 sacks on Thursday night, when he was clearly the best defensive player on the field, gave him 9.5 for 2013. Along with linebacker/end Junior Galette (six sacks), he has provided Ryan with the outside rush he was supposed to get from Will Smith and Victor Butler, both injured. Said Ryan: (Jordan) has proven he’s a versatile guy. We love (versatility).”

*It’s hard to talk about Cameron Jordan’s improvement without noting the upgrade by the three-year veteran with the same names, but in opposite order, tight end Jordan Cameron of Cleveland (think that juxtaposition didn’t drive scouts nuts in the 2011 draft?), has become a factor after two underwhelming campaigns. Although the Browns have used three different starting quarterbacks, and obviously lacked stability at the position, the former USC star and fourth-round choice in 2011 has 56 receptions for 629 yards and six touchdowns. That’s more than twice the production Cameron registered total in his first two seasons, when he had only 26 catches, 259 yards and one score.

“Probably the changes in the offense, and the fact that, after two years, I understand things so much better now in the big picture scheme of things,” Cameron said of his improvement. “There’s a comfort zone now that I didn’t have before.”

Rookie coach Rob Chudzinski and offensive coordinator Norv Turner both have histories of success with athletic tight ends like Cameron, whose receptions rank third among all NFL tight ends and whose seven catches for 20 yards or more are fifth most at the position. The design of the offense clearly is reflective of the importance the coaches put on the tight end spot in a game that has skewed dramatically toward the position. Somewhat ironically, Chudzinski feels it’s Cameron’s blocking, even more so than his receiving, that’s improved the most.

Jason GarrettWould Garrett return to Dallas even if the Cowboys miss the playoffs this season?

*Last week’s proclamation by Dallas owner Jerry Jones, that coach Jason Garrett will return to the team in 2014, raised a few eyebrows. Not because Garrett isn’t a good coach, despite a record that’s only two games over the .500 mark, but rather, if true, represents a bit of unusual patience on Jones’ part. The Cowboys haven’t been to the playoffs under Garrett and this season have experienced the kinds of ups and downs that have marked his tenure. But if Garrett comes back for 2014, he has a chance to actually become the Cowboys’ longest-tenured coach since the infamous departure of Jimmy Johnson in the spring of 1994. Garrett will coach his 51st game with the Cowboys when they face the Giants on Sunday. At the end of this season, he will have led the team for 56 games. That means, if he’s around for all of 2014 – and Jones has only fired one coach, Garrett’s predecessor Wade Phillips, in mid-season (after eight games in 2010) – Garrett will have coached 72 games. Not since Johnson, who lasted 80 regular-season games, has a Dallas coach stuck around so long. Barry Switzer was onboard for 64 games, Chan Gailey for only 32, Dave Campo for 48, Bill Parcells for 64, and Phillips for 56. The average Cowboys coach since Johnson left has lasted 52.8 games. Jones characterized Garrett as a “great” coach. But it will be interesting if, first, he’s great enough to be retained if the Cowboys fall short of a playoff spot for a fourth straight season, and great enough to have his contract extended. Garrett’s current deal runs through 2015.

*Another year, another Hall of Fame class that will not include a quarterback. The Class of 2014 preliminary ballot included six quarterbacks – Drew Bledsoe, Randall Cunningham, Doug Flutie, Trent Green, Steve McNair and Phil Simms – and none of the half-dozen candidates made it through the first reduction, to 25 semifinalists announced on Thursday night. That brings to eight years, extending the record that was already established, the quarterback drought in Canton. The last passers inducted into the pro football shrine were Troy Aikman and Warren Moon in 2006. There hasn’t even been a quarterback among the semifinalists (the semifinal system was introduced in 2004) since Ken Stabler in 2009. The non-quarterback streak could end with the 2015 class, since Kurt Warner will be eligible for the initial time next year. It will definitely end with the Class of 2016, because that will mark the first season of Brett Favre’s eligibility.

*When the New York Jets chose Stephen Hill in the second round in 2012, team officials conceded that the move came, in part, because of the success that another former Georgia Tech wide receiver, Demaryius Thomas of Denver, had in the league. Like Thomas, Hill played in coach Paul Johnson’s ground-heavy option offense at Tech, and was underutilized as a receiver. But Hill hasn’t emulated the success of Thomas yet, registering only 23 receptions as a rookie and 21 so far this season. New York officials pointed out to NFP that Thomas didn’t really flourish until his third season, grabbing 94 balls after averaging 27 catches his first two years.

Read More 3009 Words

New kids on the block

Win just 43 percent of your games in the NFL, the consummate results- and production-oriented league, and you’re apt to be regarded as a failure. But even with an aggregate record 10 games below .500 at this point of the season – not counting Andy Reid, the lone “retread” among the “new” coaches in

Win just 43 percent of your games in the NFL, the consummate results- and production-oriented league, and you’re apt to be regarded as a failure. But even with an aggregate record 10 games below .500 at this point of the season – not counting Andy Reid, the lone “retread” among the “new” coaches in the league for 2013, first-year sideline bosses are 31-41 – it’s probably not appropriate to characterize this year’s freshman class as unsuccessful.

It’s at least, it seems, premature.

Including Bruce Arians of Arizona, who led Indianapolis to a remarkable 9-3 record as interim coach for ailing Chuck Pagano last season, there are seven first-time/full-time coaches in ’13. Two members of the fraternity, Philadelphia’s Chip Kelly and Marc Trestman of Chicago, have the Eagles (6-5) and Bears (6-4) either leading or tied for the lead in their respective decisions. Arians and the Cardinals (6-4) are in the middle of a thick group of NFC wildcard contenders. Only Jacksonville’s Gus Bradley (1-9), who inherited an awful situation with the rudderless Jaguars, has a truly abysmal record. And not even Bradley, who figures to require at least three seasons to reverse the franchise’s dismal fortunes, has appeared overmatched, even if the wretched Jaguars often have.

OK, so it’s inarguably too small a sample size to declare any of this year’s rookies the next Don Shula, George Halas, Bill Walsh or Chuck Noll, right? But based on what has transpired to this point, the Class of 2013 could be a credible one. Doug Marrone in Buffalo (4-7) has turned the Bills into a defensively proficient team. Cleveland’s Rob Chudzinski has the Browns competitive, despite having used three different starting quarterbacks. Even with three straight defeats, by an average of just six points, San Diego has more direction under Mike McCoy, who has helped to resurrect the career of quarterback Philip Rivers, than it did with predecessor Norv Turner.

Marc TrestmanTrestman has guided the Bears to a 6-4 record and share of the NFC North lead.

Asked to rate the rookie coaching class on Sunday night, a veteran and prominent executive from a team that has faced multiple first-year guys in 2013 assessed the group as “pretty solid.” Not exactly a ringing endorsement, to be sure, but a passable one. Washington’s Mike Shanahan, in his third incarnation as a head coach, has had four games against first-year coaches (two losses to Kelly and victories against McCoy and Trestman), and termed the teams “well coached” after each of the four encounters. An unemployed coach who still hopes to work again acknowledged on Monday morning that the collective work of this year’s rookies “will probably keep (owners) from looking at new guys.”

And that, perhaps, is part of the point. The trend in the league, once the ultimate good ol’ boys network, has veered dramatically in recent seasons from what once was viewed as convention when seeking a new coach. Not all that long ago, the accepted norm in the NFL was to import more retreads than a used tire outlet. Those who still embrace that popular methodology probably point to second-time coaches such as Reid or the currently infirm John Fox of Denver and suggest that the past hiring practices are still valid. But the numbers certainly indicate recycling, while not extinct, is diminished.

Part of the reason is that some former coaches who have been considered for NFL openings—ssuch as Tony Dungy, Bill Cowher and John Gruden—have rebuffed all the overtures from owners interested in them. But the other part of the equation is that owners prefer now to flip the script. “Fresh faces and supposedly fresh ideas . . . that seems to be the perception,” former coach Steve Mariucci of The NFL Network said.

Of the 32 current coaches, all but seven are in their first jobs as NFL bosses. Six of the past 10 Super Bowl championships were claimed by teams with coaches who were in their second jobs, but in the last five, Tom Coughlin is the lone “retread” winner. In a league that has all but embraced fresh faces, it’s the new guys who are most in demand anymore.

Even if the new guys are actually old guys sometimes.

Arians is 61 and had been an assistant in the NFL 20 seasons before the Cards, in part because of last year’s interim success, tabbed him to replace Ken Whisenhunt. “His ideas,” said Arizona wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald, “aren’t old.” Kelly was seen as a bit of a nonconformist during his five-season tenure at Oregon, and there were scores of skeptics who felt his hurry-up offense wouldn’t translate to the NFL very well. Indeed, there have been occasions this season when the transitioned seemed to be doomed, but the Eagles are suddenly in first place. And despite the critics, Kelly was actually pursued by multiple teams after the 2012 campaign.

“What’s the old saying about how, ‘It’s still just football?’ “ Kelly said after a game earlier this season. True enough, but it’s a new age as well, and owners seem to be inclined to try something new to excite the fan bases. There’s another old adage about the game – “There’s nothing new under the sun” – that’s being laid to rest by the skew toward first-time coaches. Indeed, there are plenty of new guys, and the relative success of the Class of ‘13 could ensure there are even more for 2014.

Read More 903 Words

NFP Sunday Blitz

His underwhelming 2013 season aside, South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney remains the favorite, at least at this point, to be the top overall pick in the 2014 draft, it seems.

“Obviously, a lot’s going to depend on who’s (the team at) the top of the draft, if they need a

His underwhelming 2013 season aside, South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney remains the favorite, at least at this point, to be the top overall pick in the 2014 draft, it seems.

“Obviously, a lot’s going to depend on who’s (the team at) the top of the draft, if they need a quarterback or maybe even a (left) tackle . . . but I think the consensus is that (Clowney) is still the top guy,” one AFC general manager, who’s team is not in the chase for the No. 1 pick, told NFP. “He might not necessarily be the first one picked, because of circumstances, but he’s still the best prospect. Clearly, he hasn’t had the season everyone projected, but the feeling about him hasn’t really changed.”

After that, the general manager said, the “safest guy is probably (Texas A&M tackle Jake) Matthews. He’s a ‘plug and play guy, not doubt.”

Jadeveon ClowneyUS PRESSWIREWith the world watching, Clowney has recorded just two sacks in 2013.

NFP spoke to seven general managers or personnel directors last week, and five cited Clowney as the top prospect, despite pedestrian statistics (18 tackles, seven tackles for loss, only two sacks) this season. A poll by NFL.com produced similar results on the top prospect.

“He’s maybe not as clean a prospect as he was before the season,” one executive told NFL.com, “but I still think he’s going to be a stud in the NFL.”

Personnel officials, of course, are precluded by rule from discussing underclass prospects for attribution. One of the several elements that intrigue scouts about Clowney is that, while he’s regarded as a pure 4-3 end, there are teams that feel he can possibly play a “five technique” position at end in a 3-4 front as well.

Unlike a few years ago, when the draft featured an unusually healthy number of “five technique” ends, there seems to be a dearth at the position for 2014. Some of the 3-4 teams are studying college defensive tackles to see if they might be able to project to end in the pros.

+AROUND THE LEAGUE

*The resurgence of the Carolina Panthers, who have won five straight games and garnered newfound respect after last Sunday’s victory at San Francisco, points out just how dangerous it is to project coaches on the proverbial “hot seat” at early junctures of the season. When the Panthers opened 1-3, and looked sloppy at the outset of the year, there were quick prognostications that coach Ron Rivera would be in trouble. Some pundits even predicted he might not last through the season. But with the Panthers suddenly in the thick of the playoff chase – the team’s schedule, starting with the San Francisco game, is markedly more difficult over the second half of the slate – Rivera is being lauded. He faces a difficult matchup on Monday, of course, facing New England and Bill Belichick, but Rivera has strong support in his own locker room.

Ron RiveraRivera’s Panthers are red hot, having won five straight.

“I think even when things started slow,” outspoken wide receiver Steve Smith said, “people in here believed he was the guy to get it turned around. He’s a good football man, very steady, really (candid) with us.”

Over the past few weeks, the Charlotte media has taken to referring to Rivera as “Riverboat Ron,” for the perception he is gambling much more now, but several players to whom NFP spoke last week insist the coach hasn’t changed dramatically. Said one veteran lineman: “I keep hearing (stuff) about how he started taking more chances because maybe his job was on the line, but that’s not true at all.”

*San Francisco coach Jim Harbaugh isn’t quite counting the days until wide receiver Michael Crabtree returns from an Achilles injury that has sidelined him for the entire season so far – there’s a chance the fifth-year veteran will play at some point this month – but the 49ers believe their disappointing passing game will get a “huge boost,” as one coach termed it, from his comeback. Said the coach: “(Crabtree) isn’t the burner a lot of guys are, but he’s so precise (with his routes) and so smart as a receiver. He gives (Colin Kaepernick) a comfort zone.”

Obviously, Kaepernick’s struggles have been big news, not just in the Bay Area, but nationally as well after his 2012 performance. But much of the inconsistency has come from the lack of quality at wide receiver, with the injuries to Crabtree and Mario Manningham, the latter of whom only returned last week. Offseason pickup Anquan Boldin, who hasn’t been the same receiver since his strong opening-game performance, when he caught 13 passes, simply can’t get off coverage anymore, as NFP noted just a few weeks into the season. Outside of Boldin, who has 41 catches, no wide receiver on the current 49ers’ roster has more than three receptions (since the team released Kyle Williams, who had a dozen receptions), and Kaepernick doesn’t really have a vertical threat beyond tight end Vernon Davis.

Manningham was on the field for 42 of the team’s 52 offensive snaps against Carolina last week, and looked rusty at times. Plus, as we’ve pointed out in the past here, Manningham isn’t a speed guy. “They’ve got to be one of the slowest (wide receiver) groups in the league,” one NFC pro scout, who has seen the 49ers in person twice this season, told NFP. The 49ers have caught some private criticism around the league for not addressing the wideout situation when it was obvious neither Crabtree nor Manningham would be available at the start of the regular season.

*Much has been postulated about how teams are better defending against the zone-option quarterbacks that have become prevalent in the league the past few years, and the fact so many defensive coordinators spent time with college staffs in the offseason – gleaning ideas about how to stop the dual-threat quarterbacks – is certainly one reason for the improvement. But one thing that hasn’t had to change much is that running quarterbacks tend to get sacked more than pure pocket passers. In fact, of the 10 quarterbacks who have absorbed the most sacks so far in 2013, four are signal-callers who would be considered among the league’s most mobile players at the position – Geno Smith, Russell Wilson, Terrelle Pryor and Cam Newton.

The propensity for mobile quarterbacks to take sacks isn’t exactly a new one. For most of his career, Michael Vick has taken way too many sacks, and has traditionally ranked among the NFL’s worst performers in terms of ratio of sacks per “dropbacks.” Last week, after taking a terrible sack in which he was run out of bounds behind the line of scrimmage on a play where he held the ball interminably and should have simply thrown it away, Wilson told NFP: “I think there’s probably a little downside (to the mobility) as well. You see it around the league. The guys who can run have a (subconscious) mentality they can get away from anything. You’re always thinking, ‘I can make a play out of this.’ Sometimes you can’t.”

In the years he had Vick, coach Jim Mora The Younger regularly referred to his quarterback having what he characterized as “athletic arrogance.” That’s probably a good term for it.

Percy HarvinHarvin returns to action Sunday to face his former team in Minnesota.

*San Francisco’s division rival, NFC West leader Seattle, figures to get a bump in the passing game when the Seahawks face Minnesota on Sunday, because of the return of Percy Harvin, whose hip surgery has kept him off the field to this point. Harvin has said he is “anxious” to return, but it will be interesting to see how Seattle coaches utilize him in his comeback. A couple Seattle assistants, looking ahead to Harvin’s return, told NFP after last week’s game in Atlanta that the versatile player may be on a “pitch count” for his comeback until he knocks off some rust. The package of plays designed by offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell might not be quite as extensive as it will be later in the season, or as ambitious as it was when the two were together in Minnesota for two seasons.

“Some of it will be feel,” Bevell said. In the absence of Harvin from the lineup, Golden Tate has been the big-play outside threat for the Seahawks, but the fourth-year wide receiver insisted to NFP last week that he’ll have “no trouble” abdicating that role. “It’s only going to make me better,” Tate said. “Defenses can’t concentrate on everybody, right?”

*Tennessee third-year defensive tackle Jurrell Casey registered only one tackle in Thursday night’s loss to Indianapolis, but the former Southern Cal standout is being noted as one of the NFL’s most improved players for 2013. A third-round pick in ’11, Casey had 5.5 sacks his first two seasons, but is tied with Dallas’ Jason Hatcher for most sacks by an interior lineman (seven). Casey is the rare inside defender who can stay on the field for three downs, and combines strength and explosiveness. “He might not be unique, because (Geno) Atkins (the injured Bengals’ star) can do a lot of the same things, but there aren’t many like him,” Tennessee defensive line coach Tracy Rocker said.

*With some extra work-time because of the Thursday night game, Indianapolis coaches will dig in over the next few days to pore over the club’s running attack and particularly the calls for tailback Trent Richardson. Acquired from Cleveland for a first-round pick in the 2014 draft, Richardson has been a disappointment for the Colts, averaging an anemic 2.8 yards per carry, and with a long run of only 16 yards. Donald Brown, who was no great shakes for the Colts in four previous seasons, and had never rushed for more than 645 yards and averaged just 460.0 yards after being a surprise first-round pick in 2009, has been a much better option.

Trent RichardsonRichardson has been a total bust since landing in Indianapolis.

“We’ll break everything down – schemes, calls, situations, you name it – to try to get (Richardson) going,” one assistant coach said of the running game. “We have to get (Richardson) untracked.” The coach reiterated that the staff was resoundingly in favor of acquiring Richardson and that the genesis for the trade wasn’t from owner Jim Irsay, who has been known in the past to take a role in personnel decisions. The one component of Richardson’s game that has pleased the Colts has been in his pass protection, which is better than the club anticipated.

*The Kansas City-Denver matchup on Sunday has been dissected from just about every way possible, but here’s one unusual angle that hasn’t been much discussed. The AFC West matchup will include the punting Colquitt brothers, nine-year veteran Dustin from the Chiefs and Britton of Denver, a five-year veteran. It will mark the seventh head-to-head (foot-to-foot?) meeting of the two and, while the outcome doesn’t figure to be decided by the pair, both teams have strong special teams and good punt-return games.

“It’s not something you want to overlook in a big game like this,” said Dustin Colquitt, one of Kansas City’s best unheralded weapons in 2013. “You always want to do your part.” Britton Colquitt holds a 4-2 edge in the win-loss column, but his older brother has a statistical advantage in the matchups. In the six previous games, Dustin Colquitt punted 39 times for a gross average of 45.7 yards and a 40.3-yard net average. He’s had 19 punts inside the 20-yard line and only five touchbacks. Younger brother Britton has kicked 32 times, with a 43.4 gross average and 37.8-yard net average. A dozen of his punts have been inside the 20, and he’s had two touchbacks. The brothers, both of whom played at the University of Tennessee, are the sons of former Pittsburgh punter Craig Colquitt, who won a pair of Super Bowl rings with the Steelers and the nephews of onetime NFL punter Jimmy Colquitt.

*Last week in the “Sunday Blitz,” we noted that the league has had a “different” starting quarterback every week since the second weekend of the season, and that quirkiness will continue Sunday, with former undrafted free agent Scott Tolzien slated to start for Green Bay. The Tolzien start will bring to 47 the number of individual starters this season (Josh Freeman has started for two teams, Tampa Bay and Minnesota, but only counts once), which will equal the number for the entire 2012 campaign. The number will rise to 48 when Oakland is forced to go with rookie Matt McGloin in place of the injured Terrelle Pryor. And there are still six weeks left in the 2013 season. Actually, despite the perception, and rumors that the competition committee will consider measures to further protect quarterbacks (bubble wrap, anyone?) in the future, the body count at the position has been reduced a bit. For the 12-season stretch 2000-2011, the average number of “unique” starters was 56.5. There were 62 as recently as 2010, and 56 in 2011. The 47 starters last year was the lowest number since the millennium and, while this season could top that, it’s not expected to reach the 56 level of ’11.

+SHORT YARDAGE

*If Atlanta tight end Tony Gonzalez is unable to play Sunday at Tampa Bay because of a toe injury, he’ll be replaced by youngsters Levine Toilolo and Chase Coffman. The two have 12 career receptions between them. During his 17-year career, Gonzalez has three individual games of 12 or more catches. . . . There was no immediate word Saturday about the status of Atlanta reserve tailback Jason Snelling for Sunday’s game. Snelling was arrested early Friday for alleged marijuana possession. The versatile back, who plays fullback at times, is a key part of an Atlanta offense that has mostly sputtered on the ground this season. . . . Talk about the third tine being a charm: The leading rookie sacker in the NFL going into this weekend’s game isn’t any of the “edge” performers chosen in the draft to provide an outside pass rush for teams. Instead, it’s New England tackle Chris Jones, who is with his third team. The former Bowling Green standout was a sixth-round pick of Houston in April, but was released by the Texans. He was claimed by the Bucs and then waived again within 10 days. Jones has been a godsend inside for the Pats, with injuries to Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly. . . . Another terrific pickup of a rookie who was cut in the summer was Kansas City’s addition of cornerback Marcus Cooper, who was jettisoned by San Francisco after having been a seventh-round choice. The former Rutgers star has been outstanding as the Chiefs’ No. 3 corner, with 14 passes defensed and two interceptions. Given the problems the Niners have had with “sub” corners, releasing Cooper sure looks like a big mistake now. . . . The performance by Clemson wide receiver Sammy Watkins on Thursday night against Georgia Tech (five catches, 104 yards, two touchdowns) reminded again that most of the top wideout prospects in the 2014 lottery are underclassmen. At this point in the evaluation process, the top five or six receiver prospects are all underclass guys. Then again, that’s been the case of late. In the past five drafts, all but four of the 18 wide receivers chosen in the first round were underclass prospects. . . . Seattle wide receiver Doug Baldwin, a former Stanford teammate of Jonathan Martin, and a guy who has exchanged text messages with the Miami offensive tackle, to NFP on the ugly situation: “What hurts me is that there are people who are degrading Jonathan, as if he did something wrong. The whole ‘breaking the code’ stuff, or stuff about him being soft, is bull. He’s no crybaby, so it must have been (a) bad (situation).” . . . Chiefs’ quarterback Alex Smith has lost only eight of his past 30 starts, and hasn’t dropped a start in over 13 months now. . . . In terms of fumbles lost this season, the top 21 offenders are all quarterbacks. All but one of the top 25 players in fumbles lost are quarterbacks, and St. Louis rookie first-round wide receiver Tavon Austin (with four) is the only non-quarterback to lose more than three fumbles. . . . With Thursday night’s start by Ryan Fitzpatrick of Tennessee, the Colts had faced three straight backup quarterbacks and were 2-1 in those contests. Indianapolis had earlier matchups against Case Keenum (Houston) and Kellen Clemens (St. Louis). Barring injury to Arizona’s Carson Palmer, the streak will end next Sunday, although the Colts will see Fitzpatrick again on Dec. 1. . . . People who have watched video of Andy Dalton over the past few weeks agree the Cincinnati quarterback has regressed in his decision making. There has not been a breakdown in mechanics, they say, but Dalton seems more hesitant in the pocket. The numbers – six interceptions and two sacks the past two weeks – seem to back that up. . . . One big reason for the record scoring pace in 2013 is that teams are averaging 130.5 offensive snaps per game, also on pace for an NFL record. The pace can’t all be blamed, either, on Philadelphia rookie coach Chip Kelly. There are 13 clubs that are averaging more snaps than the Eagles (65.7 per game), and five have averaged 70-plus offensive plays. The best, not surprising, is Denver, at 71.2 snaps. . . . Texans coach Gary Kubiak, who returns to the sideline Sunday after his mini-stroke, will work from the box rather than the sideline. The Texans have allowed that the setup will be “really unusual” for Kubiak, who prefers to be close to the action and calls most of the team’s plays, but is a necessary precaution. The belief is that Kubiak will go back to the sideline shortly. . . . The aforementioned Boldin, traded by Baltimore during the offseason, was used as an example by one AFC personnel executive in discussing how Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome doesn’t often miss in evaluating players and what they’ve got left in the tank. So was safety Ed Reed, who had zero meaningful plays for Houston before being released by the Texans last week. A few coaches and scouts were surprised that there were actually a few teams, notably New England and the New York Jets, who quickly courted Reed after he cleared waivers. . . . A rookie that NFP touted earlier this year as perhaps the best raw pass-rusher from the 2013 draft, Green Bay first-round end Datone Jones, is starting to come on. Jones has three sacks now, and is beginning to get pretty consistent penetration. The onetime UCLA star isn’t in the mold of the Packers’ usual 300-pound run-stuffing line monsters, but offers a different dimension for offensive lines to worry about.

+BY THE NUMBERS

*More than one-third of Kansas City’s points this season (78 of 215) have come as a result of takeaways. Not too surprising, since the opportunistic Chiefs lead the league in takeaways (23), fewest turnovers (eight) and, obviously, turnover differential (plus-15), while scoring six defensive touchdowns. On the flipside, Denver is minus-2 in turnover differential and minus-31 in points that result from turnovers. Only three teams have more turnovers than the Broncos, who have lost a league-high 12 fumbles, and only three teams are worse in point differential from turnovers.

Read More 3327 Words

Making his mark

Asked following the Seattle Seahawks’ dismantling of the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday about the identity of the league’s defensive player of the year at this juncture of the season, the guy who many now consider the NFL’s premier man-to-man coverage defender didn’t even blink before simply nodding to his right.

“There’s the guy,”

Asked following the Seattle Seahawks’ dismantling of the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday about the identity of the league’s defensive player of the year at this juncture of the season, the guy who many now consider the NFL’s premier man-to-man coverage defender didn’t even blink before simply nodding to his right.

“There’s the guy,” Seattle cornerback Richard Sherman, with nary an inkling of the level of fiery rhetoric which sometimes approximates his ability to hang with the NFL’s best wide receivers, replied without hesitation.

Two locker stalls down, free safety Earl Thomas, strangely devoid of the kind of media horde that usually surrounds a player of such burgeoning pedigree after a game, sat alone, flicking through the e-mails and tweets on his cell phone. Based on just the numbers alone – a season-low one solo tackle along with one pass defensed, and that’s it, on the defensive stat sheet – one might surmise the four-year veteran had a pretty ordinary performance. But just like with Twitter, where you’re limited to only 140 characters to articulate your point, Thomas can make an impact by seemingly doing a little.

Not that he has – done a little, that is – for the 9-1 Seahawks in 2013.

“He leads the team in tackles, he’s tied for the (league) lead in interceptions (actually, one behind Detroit linebacker DeAndre Levy now), he can play close to the line, back off in coverage, and he’s so smart,” Sherman said. “You name it, he does it.”

Thomas, just 24, has 72 tackles, four interceptions, seven passes defensed, and a pair of forced fumbles. There is no more subjective stat in the NFL than tackles but, according to the league’s website (somewhat ironic, since the stat isn’t even an official one), only Dallas’ Barry Church has more tackles among safeties. A two-time Pro Bowl defender, Thomas is a stat-sheet stuffer, for sure, with four games so far with double-digit tackles.

Earl ThomasThomas’ five interceptions currently trail only Detroit’s DeAndre Levy (5) and Tennessee’s Alterraun Verner (5).

A good portion of the Atlanta offensive game plan for Sunday afternoon revolved around keeping the ball away from Thomas. The expectation of the Falcons, and of many pundits examining the game beforehand, was that Seattle would match up Thomas with Matt Ryan’s go-to receiver, tight end Tony Gonzalez, much of the time. In fact, it was strong safety Kam Chancellor, often viewed as a coverage liability, who drew Gonzalez more often than not. That freed Thomas to do what he does best, which is a little of everything, against the run and the pass. And if his game was relatively quiet, his presence, Falcons players acknowledged, was not.

“He’s one of those guys,” said Atlanta wide receiver Harry Douglas, “who you’re always aware of, you know?”

Thanks to a bit of recent push from a few television analysts, Thomas—who plays for a team that doesn’t garner a ton of national attention and which still isn’t very well know outside of the Pacific Northwest, despite its record—is gaining newfound celebrity. He isn’t nearly as outspoken as secondary partner Sherman and, at 5-feet-10 and 202 pounds, not especially physically imposing, like Chancellor or corner Brandon Browner. But the former University of Texas standout, the 14th player chosen in the 2010 draft, clearly is making a name for himself these days. Just as the Seahawks’ profile is beginning to rise a little, so, too is his.

“To even be mentioned with some of the great defensive players, to have guys on our (unit) talk so well about me, it’s (gratifying),” Thomas said. “All I can do is keep working hard and hope it all comes together.”

Hard work seems to be what Thomas is all about. He is typically among the first Seattle players at the team facility on most days, and there have been occasions on which he has requested additional video from the tape crew, like a high school kid asking for periodicals from the librarian when doing a term paper. It’s probably hyperbole to suggest Thomas peruses as much tape as a quarterback, but he might come close.

Said Thomas in a “knowledge is power” kind of admission: “You want to know as much about (an opponent) as you can. Almost as much, I guess, as they know about themselves.”

What opponents seem to know about Thomas is that he can affect a game in a lot of different ways. On the Falcons’ opening possession Sunday, he didn’t record a tackle on tailback Steven Jackson’s first two rushing attempts, not even an assist, but shut down possible cutback gaps on both plays, demonstrating great discipline. On third down, he jumped in front of Ryan’s dump-off attempt for Jackson and knocked it away. The seemingly mundane plays set the tone for Seattle’s day-long dominance.

“We’re a physical team,” Sherman said, “and (Thomas) is a physical player. I mean, the guy is a banger. Any way you want to play it, he’ll play it that way. You want to go in the alley and rumble? He’ll be right there.”

There was a time, Thomas suggested, when he wasn’t viewed league-wide as being very physical. But he made himself a better tackler – no small feat in a league that frowns on contact during the week and where speed is tough to simulate with so many unpadded practices – more with brain than brawn.

“It’s a mindset, plain and simple,” Thomas said. “You’re right. Even as physical as we like to think we are, you can’t practice it much. You just have to do it. Now, I don’t think people can (pigeonhole) me anymore. I don’t think they can say, ‘Well, he can do this, but not that.’ I want to be able to do it all. Whatever comes with that, fine.”

Whether a defensive player of the year honor comes with it, time will tell. In the 42 seasons in which The Associated Press has presented such an award, safeties have won it only five times. And there are other deserving candidates this season, among them the NFL’s sack leaders and some standout linebackers and corners.

But there is this, too: In the last 10 seasons, three safeties – Ed Reed (2004), Bob Sanders (2007) and Troy Polamalu (2010) – have claimed the award. The safety position is being better recognized, as is Earl Thomas.

Read More 1091 Words

NFP Sunday Blitz

New Orleans had eight completions of 40 yards or more in its first eight games of the season – only four clubs had more – and splendid New Age tight end Jimmy Graham accounted for three of those long balls. The identity of the only other New Orleans player with more than one, fast-improving

New Orleans had eight completions of 40 yards or more in its first eight games of the season – only four clubs had more – and splendid New Age tight end Jimmy Graham accounted for three of those long balls. The identity of the only other New Orleans player with more than one, fast-improving (emphasis on the “fast” part) rookie wide receiver Kenny Stills, might surprise some people.

But not the New Orleans coaches and personnel officials, who took a chance on the former Oklahoma standout in the fifth round over six months ago, and may have unearthed the kind of long-speed dimension that they had arguably lacked since the departures of Devery Henderson and, to a bigger extent, Robert Meachem.

Make no mistake, starting wideouts Marques Colston and Lance Moore are terrific receivers, and Graham is a matchup nightmare for opponents. But during his season-long “Bountygate” banishment in 2012, head coach Sean Payton had the opportunity to view the Saints through a different, more dispassionate, prism. And he surmised the Saints needed to add a deep-ball threat if they could, a guy who could burn vertically, and clear out mid-range seams for the other receivers, while constituting an occasional boundary threat in his own right. And so Stills, regarded by some scouts as an erratic route-runner with iffy hands in college, but a guy who could “take the top off a secondary,” in the vernacular, became part of the solution after suffering through some problems as a collegian.

Not the only part, because New Orleans took some other measures as well, but clearly the most conspicuous one.

Drew BreesICONBrees and the Saints are back on top of the NFC South…and rookie Stills has had a hand in helping them get there.

The Saints actually felt they were developing such a player already in Joseph Morgan, but he tore up his knee in a summer scrimmage. Stills, admittedly an enigmatic player while at Oklahoma, and a prospect to whom some teams weren’t attracted despite a 4.38 time at the combine, stepped up. He’s averaging a gaudy 22.6 yards on 16 catches and forces opposition secondaries to honor his speed and not sit inside as much on Colston (who is superb in the middle of the field) and Moore (a consummate technician).

“Just him being out there creates more space,” Moore acknowledged. “There’s more room to work.”

But as noted, Stills was only one component utilized in the speed upgrade. He isn’t used as much, but second-year veteran Nick Toon has sneaky speed. And the return of the prodigal Meachem, quickly re-signed after he was cut by San Diego following a disappointing season with the Chargers in 2012, has helped as well. Meachem is the only other wide receiver with a 40-yard catch in the first eight games. So the speed story, in the bigger scheme of things, is more about a team generally upgrading an area most observers felt couldn’t get a whole lot better. Those sentiments aside, the Saints’ passing game, if possible, is even more explosive now.

It’s no great secret that New Orleans has been a big run-after-catch team since Payton’s arrival in 2006. In the first seven seasons of his tenure – even counting 2012, when the offensive design was his, despite Payton’s absence from the sideline – the Saints ranked in the top nine in YAC (yards after catch) every year. They were either first or second in five of the seasons. True to form, New Orleans ranked No. 5 so far this season entering this weekend’s action.

Because of the nature of the Saints’ passing game design, with so many screens, they are probably always going to rank high in the yards-after-catch category. They throw a lot of five- to seven-yard screens that turn into big gains, thanks to the running skills of tailbacks Pierre Thomas and Darren Sproles, and to Graham, who is also a healthy part of the screen game. But as good as the passing game was – and it has never ranked statistically lower than No. 4 under Payton, and has been first in four of seven seasons – the coaches decided it could get better. And with Stills and the other additions, and the speed they add, it has.

+AROUND THE LEAGUE

*As noted in the “Sunday Blitz” a few weeks ago, early draft rankings are only helpful to a point right now for several reasons: The rankings typically rate senior prospects only, change dramatically once the underclassmen are added, and there remains a ton of evaluation to do in general. Still, it’s never too early to dredge up some draft info, particularly in a few of the league’s woebegone precincts. So this nugget courtesy of several teams’ scouts:

There are probably less than 20 prospects who technically had the equivalent of first-round grades in early discussions. The ones most prominently mentioned were: CB Antone Exum (Virginia Tech), LB Dee Ford (Auburn), OT Seantrel Henderson (Miami), OT James Hurst (North Carolina), OG Gabe Jackson (Mississippi State), DE Jackson Jeffcoat (Texas), DE DaQuan Jones (Penn State), OT Taylor Lewan (Michigan), OT Jake Matthews (Texas A&M), LB C.J. Mosley (Alabama), DE/LB Trent Murray (Stanford), OG Cyril Richardson (Baylor), DT Will Sutton (Arizona State) and QB Logan Thomas (Virginia Tech).

Matthews is the son of Hall of Fame offensive lineman Bruce Matthews, and Jeffcoat is the son of onetime Dallas standout defensive lineman Jim Jeffcoat. Not too surprisingly, some of the assessments for a few of the players originally pegged as potential first-rounders have already changed – Exum, for instance, has battled injuries most of the season—and the deck will continue to be shuffled as the process wears on. The one thing that might not change: It looks like another big year for offensive tackles.

*On the subject of the draft, amid recent suggestions from some unnamed league scouts that Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston would probably be the first overall player chosen in the 2014 draft if he was eligible for the lottery, there were some quiet rumblings in the rumor-verse last week that the Florida State star might actually consider challenging the NFL’s “three-year rule.” Sources inside the FSU program and close to Winston adamantly insisted to NFP that the speculation was totally unfounded.

Jameis WinstonIs Winston considering a challenge to the NFL’s draft rules?

The rule, which simply states that a player has to be three years removed from high school before he can petition for inclusion in the draft, hasn’t been tested since the ill-fated challenge by then-Ohio State tailback Maurice Clarett in 2004. Winston, of course, has been scintillating in leading the Seminoles to an undefeated season to date, and a possible spot in the national championship game, especially after Oregon’s loss at Stanford on Thursday night. Winston has 24 touchdown passes and just six interceptions, and is on pace to break Sam Bradford’s record for best completion percentage by a freshman, with a 70.3-percent hookup rate entering the Wake Forest game. But the Bessemer, Ala., native is said to have told friends and relatives that he still has a way to go in his development and enjoys the college game. That said, no one seems ready to rule out the strong likelihood that Winston will be in the 2015 draft.

*With all the attention afforded the Richie Incognito-Jonathan Martin situation of late, the recent health scares for coaches John Fox of Denver and Houston’s Gary Kubiak sort of took a back seat in the public’s consciousness of NFL matters. But there are a group of former coaches who want some of their past colleagues – men like Bill Parcells and Mike Ditka, who experienced persistent heart problems, and Dan Reeves, who underwent quadruple bypass surgery late in the ’98 season – to become more proactive in delivering the message to their successors about the health risks seemingly inherent to the profession. The discussion last week among the former coaches was how that could best be done. Reeves in particular has been very outspoken about preventive care and not ignoring warning signs.

“Guys just don’t pay attention to their bodies,” Reeves said. “Something happens and they tell themselves, ‘I’ll take care of it later, maybe during the bye (week).’ You just can’t downplay this stuff; it’s critical to get help.”

Coaches typically have physical exams yearly, but the in-season stresses can exacerbate a situation. So some of the former coaches are pushing for more regular checkups. NBC analyst Cris Collinsworth recently suggested a “7-to-7” rule, in which club facilities would not be allowed to open before 7 a.m. and had to close by 7 p.m. That might be a bit extreme for many of the workaholics in the profession, but the incidents with Fox and Kubiak may have highlighted the need for some type of action.

*New England has three defensive starters on injured reserve (not counting safety Adrian Wilson, who might not have been a starter anyway had he not sustained a hamstring injury before the season), and there’s no denying the impact of the losses of tackle Tommy Kelly and linebacker Jerod Mayo. But the effect of the season-ending Achilles injury that defensive tackle Vince Wilfork suffered at Atlanta on Sept. 29?

“Not having the big man, if it’s (bad), will really make a huge difference for us,” cornerback Aqib Talib told NFP the night Wilfork was hurt, before anyone knew the severity of the injury.

That was a prophetic assessment. At least according to the raw statistics – it’s impossible to gauge the intangible absence of the respected 10-year veteran and five-time Pro Bowl defender– the loss has been pretty significant. In the five games the Pats have played without Wilfork in the lineup, during which time the Pats are 3-2, the New England defense has allowed an average of 146.8 rushing yards and had three games in which it gave up 150 or more yards. Opponents have averaged 4.4 yards per carry, scored three touchdowns, and had four attempts for 20 yards or more. In the four contests in which Wilfork started, the Patriots were 4-0 and surrendered only 105.0 rushing yards per game. They allowed an average of 4.1 yards per rush, gave up only one touchdown on the ground, and the longest run by a back (not counting quarterback scrambles, the longest of which was for 19 yards) was for only 13 yards. During Wilfork’s career, the numbers are fairly similar to those for 2013. Since he became a full-time starter in 2005, Wilfork has started 126 regular-season games and missed 11 contests. In the games Wilfork has started, New England is 97-29 (.770) and has allowed 103.7 rushing yards per game. In the 11 he hasn’t, the Pats are 8-3 (.727), and have surrendered 133.2 rushing yards per game.

*Every franchise claims to hate penalties, but some seem to grudgingly tolerate them a little more than others. “Sometimes (the penalties) are kind of a reflection of how tough and physical you are,” one veteran Seattle front-seven defender told NFP last week. “I mean, look at the Raiders in their heyday. They were probably the most ‘flagged’ team in the league for a lot of those years, but they were among the best, most physical teams. They didn’t take any (stuff) from anybody. I actually think the penalties were like a badge or something for them. Our coaches (complain) at us all the time, especially about the pre-snap stuff . . . but they also seem to know some of the penalties are a part of who we are.”

Seattle has been penalized the second most times in the NFL (71) and leads in penalty yards (649), but the Seahawks are 8-1. The team is tied for the most defensive pass interference penalties in the NFL (nine) and the defender said that “only adds” to the perception of the Seattle secondary as a physical bunch. Surprisingly, four of the top 11 clubs in terms of penalties (there is a tie for the 10th spot) currently have winning records.

*Maybe his release by San Francisco last week, with the 49ers needing to clear a roster spot for cornerback Eric Wright, who was activated from the non-football injury list, didn’t end the career of 11-year veteran Nnamdi Asomugha. But an NFC personnel director, who had pored over video of Asomugha’s last couple years before taking our call, claimed there are “maybe three or four” cornerbacks on his “emergency list” he would think about signing before considering the onetime Pro Bowl defensive back. That’s not to say some club desperate for an experienced corner or a veteran presence at the position won’t bite. “(But) it’s just not there,” the personnel director said. “His speed is down, he can’t play the slot, he’s not nearly as physical a presence as he was a few years ago. And I don’t see him moving inside (to safety).”

Read More 2170 Words

Game changer?

Talk about the NFL’s most inaptly named guy. After the events of the past few days, which culminated with Richie Incognito’s indefinite suspension by Miami officials late Sunday for conduct detrimental to the franchise, the Dolphins’ veteran guard has a pretty incongruous surname, doesn’t he?

Incognito, which the dictionary

Talk about the NFL’s most inaptly named guy. After the events of the past few days, which culminated with Richie Incognito’s indefinite suspension by Miami officials late Sunday for conduct detrimental to the franchise, the Dolphins’ veteran guard has a pretty incongruous surname, doesn’t he?

Incognito, which the dictionary defines as “disguised, undisclosed or unidentified,” is anything but. Unless he can successfully clear his name in the matter involving the alleged hazing/bullying of second-year offensive tackle Jonathan Martin, who last week left the team and whose agents have now filed an official complaint that the league and the NFLPA appear to be taking very seriously, the often troubled guard might well be known as much more infamous than incognito.

By nature, offensive linemen historically were once supposed to be anonymous, no-name players who labored at thankless positions. The upward spiral of big-money contracts, especially at tackle, has smashed that model. But the Incognito and Martin situation, no matter how it plays out in the next few weeks, has elevated blockers well beyond faceless in a manner that has little involvement with dollars and a lot more to do with sense. The ordeal certainly has obliterated the lineman stereotype.

For now, fair or not, Incognito is the face of the neighborhood punk, the kid who laid in wait on the street corner and picked a fight with every pale-faced classmate on the way to school. And Martin, unwittingly, is the kid who timidly coughed up his lunch money and never told his mother about why he desperately wolfed down a snack the minute he walked in the door at the end of the school day. Perhaps those perceptions will be altered following what figures to be a thorough investigation, but it’s just as likely the damage is irrevocable for both men.

It’s just as likely, too, the situation will at least slightly alter the manner in which NFL teams assess off-field character. Or at least hopefully so. “We do so much (homework) on guys, spend so much money and human resource, that you wonder how much more you can (legally) do,” one AFC personnel director said to NFP late Sunday night. “But, obviously, we need to do more, I guess. It’s ironic, isn’t it, that the biggest ‘head’ problem we thought we had as a league was concussions. Turns out, we need to do more to look inside a (player’s) head beyond the physical stuff.”

Richie IncognitoBoth Tony Dungy and Scott Pioli stated they would not have drafted Incognito. But how many other teams felt the same way at the time?

In defense of the league, franchises invest six- and seven-figure budgets on the draft, and part of that is directed toward apprising a player beyond his on-field profile. If you’ve ever seen teams’ dossiers on players, particularly those with any kinds of character warts, you’d probably be stunned by the completeness. Now the files may have to challenge the thickness of the Manhattan telephone directory. Then again, even with the warnings – and the problematic Incognito had a United Nations-worth of red flags as a prospect in the 2005 NFL draft – clubs roll the dice. There were questions, too, about Martin’s general toughness before the 2012 lottery. That’s not to suggest that he could have been thicker-skinned in the matter of the alleged bullying at the hands of Incognito and other Miami players, but he may, in hindsight, have handled it differently.

The upshot, in the wake of the allegations, is that the league and its member teams will have to revisit how it handles such situations. And individual teams may not be as inclined to think they can salvage a player with character issues. In a week that included serious physical issues for a pair of coaches, the real world collided with the NFL in a serious way. But with apologies to John Fox and Gary Kubiak, not even their respective medical setbacks figure to impact the NFL to the same degree the Incognito/Martin story will.

Again, in the end, Incognito may be exonerated of all allegations. But until he is, you have to wonder how he even made it nine seasons in the league. This is, after all, a player who was dismissed by a pair of colleges, one for which he never even got onto the field, and who had self-admitted issues that went way beyond the knee injury he sustained at the 2005 combine. He was cut by St. Louis after drawing 38 penalties in 44 games (seven of them for personal fouls or unnecessary roughness) and left to depart by a Buffalo team desperate for blockers. Yes, Incognito in 2012 was voted as the Dolphins’ “good guy” by the reporters who regularly cover the club, attended the league’s prestigious offseason business management program, and has taken an active role in championing the cause of service veterans. But it appears there was a darker side, too, and someone missed it, or ignored it, along the way.

In an interview not long ago, Incognito acknowledged he was “not a choirboy” and that may have been an understatement. Over the past day, former NFL coach Tony Dungy and onetime personnel chief Scott Pioli insisted they would not have drafted Incognito nor wanted him on their team. Apparently, other teams either didn’t get or didn’t see the memo or the warning signs.

The same personnel director cited above said the Incognito incident will force teams to be a lot more cognizant and diligent about the culture in their locker rooms. He recalled the September suicide of teen Rebecca Sedwick, who tossed herself from a Tampa-area water tower after alleged bullying by classmates. “Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t the same, but there might be some of the same markers, and we’re going to have to look for those indicators,” he said.

“We can’t let some of these people go—pardon me for saying this because I’m not making light of the situation—incognito anymore.”

Read More 992 Words

NFP Sunday Blitz

Last week wasn’t exactly a good time to be a former Atlanta quarterback. Of course, some would suggest that for current Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan, coming off a loss at Arizona and suffering through what some statistical services have assessed as the worst 300-yard game ever played (four interceptions, four sacks absorbed and an

Last week wasn’t exactly a good time to be a former Atlanta quarterback. Of course, some would suggest that for current Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan, coming off a loss at Arizona and suffering through what some statistical services have assessed as the worst 300-yard game ever played (four interceptions, four sacks absorbed and an anemic 4.93 yards per attempt), it wasn’t particularly good, either.

But at least Ryan, the face of the Atlanta franchise, will have a job in 2014. The same type of vocational security isn’t assured for former Atlanta signal-callers Michael Vick of Philadelphia and his onetime backup, Houston’s Matt Schaub.

At least for one more week, Schaub will sit behind Case Keenum, a onetime undrafted free agent, whom coach Gary Kubiak chose to be the starter against the Indianapolis Colts. That despite the fact Schaub insists he is healthy again after missing a week to an ankle injury. Given his disappointing season, along with that of the Texans, and the growing sentiment that Schaub is a “systems” quarterback who has trouble succeeding when the blueprint breaks down, one has to wonder about his long-term viability with the franchise that signed him to a $62 million contract extension in 2012.

But back to Vick for a minute: It sure looks like Philadelphia made a prudent offseason move in restructuring the contract of Vick, who, from the remarks made by Eagles owner Jeff Lurie last week, clearly won’t be back in 2014. Lurie suggested last week that the club’s “No. 1 (offseason) priority” would be to find a franchise quarterback. And he mentioned “health” as a prerequisite, which might not have been an intentional and well-aimed volley at Vick – who hasn’t played in 16 games since 2006, an eon ago in NFL years – but certainly hit close to home.

Back in February, with the situation still unsettled because no one seemed to know exactly what new coach Chip Kelly was seeking in a quarterback, the Eagles revisited Vick’s contract, essentially reducing it to a one-year, incentive-laden deal worth roughly $10 million-$11 million, but also voiding the final two years, the 2014 and 2015 seasons. The maneuver saddled the Eagles with about $8 million in “dead money” for this season, but took them off the hook for future years. So, basically, Philadelphia can walk away from Vick after the season, when he will be an unrestricted free agent, and suffer no penalties moving forward.

Michael VickVick has appeared in just six games for the Eagles this season, with a QB rating of 86.5.

One doesn’t have to read between the lines very much, or be a master cryptographer, to decipher Lurie’s remarks and conclude that’s exactly what the club plans to do. From Vick’s standpoint, his camp told NFP that the quarterback, who will be 34 years old in June, hasn’t even remotely begun to think about the future. One would have to assume, though, that the big paydays are over. The Eagles, by the way, haven’t chosen a quarterback in the first round since grabbing Donovan McNabb with the second overall pick in 1999.

As for Schaub, well, as the NFP’s Joel Corry pointed out in an NFL column Oct. 7, his deal provides the Texans with some degree of relief if they choose to take it. If they make Schaub a post-June 1 cut in 2014, the Texans can avoid nearly $37 million in base salaries for 2014-2017. There will be some “dead money” accrued – about $3.5 million in ’14 and $7 million in ’15 – and that would be a tough swallow. But it’s a hard pill, as well, to stick with a quarterback in whom a franchise doesn’t believe any longer.

There figure to be some hard swallows, too, in precincts such as Cleveland, Minnesota and Jacksonville, all of whom chose first-round quarterbacks in recent drafts. Those teams selected the quarterbacks thinking they offered a long-term solution. Now they’re all likely to be back at the drafting board again, choosing another passer in the first round, and hoping for better results. The situations aren’t quite the same in Chicago or Arizona, but both franchises could be in need of a new starter, if the Bears permit Jay Cutler to go into free agency and the Cardinals decide that mistake-prone Carson Palmer isn’t their answer.

It figures to be another topsy-turvy offseason for quarterback depth charts – something few might have predicted a year or two ago – and it extends beyond just guys who once played in an Atlanta uniform. But for Vick and Schaub, the future looks especially murky.

+AROUND THE LEAGUE

*To be clear, there were no hard-and-fast promises made to Osi Umenyiora when the veteran defensive end signed with Atlanta in March as essentially the designated pass-rush replacement for the jettisoned John Abraham. But people close to Umenyiora, who prefaced their remarks by insisting they are not making excuses for the play of the 11-year pro (and we believe them), tell us there were implicit suggestions that the team would try to add another big piece to the defensive line puzzle. And that the name of free agent Richard Seymour was kicked around, which makes some sense.

Seymour, who played at the University of Georgia, resides in the Atlanta area, has a son who plays high school football there and will end up in Athens once he gets his academics worked out, and wanted to finish his career with the Falcons. Makes sense, too, since most of Umenyiora’s best seasons with the New York Giants came when he had a big, space-eating tackle playing inside him. And definitely when he wasn’t the lone sack threat, as he’s been in Atlanta, where he has only four sacks in seven games.

In the three seasons in New York in which Umenyiora registered double-digit sacks, the Giants always had another defender with 10-plus sacks. When Umenyiora posted 11.5 sacks in 2010, Justin Tuck matched that total. Umenyiora had 13 sacks in 2007, and Tuck had 10. And in 2005, when Umenyiora had a career-high 14.5 sacks, the rush was supplemented by Michael Strahan, with 11.5 sacks. There is no doubt Umenyiora, 31, is a class act and still has a little gas left in the tank. But he is not, by nature, a take-charge locker-room presence, the kind of veteran who will call teammates out in private. The Falcons, who lack some toughness, may need some of that. As history has indicated, Umenyiora also hasn’t been the kind of player who’s posted strong sack numbers without some help. To their credit, the Falcons may have assessed Seymour correctly, since no one ever signed the seven-time Pro Bowl lineman. What they didn’t gauge nearly as accurately was how much help Umenyiora would need to be a viable force.

*Of the three rookies recently waived by Houston for an unspecified infraction of team rules (reported in some media outlets as alleged marijuana use), the player who is most tempting to league personnel men is former LSU defensive end Sam Montgomery. A third-round pick, Montgomery has already visited with a couple clubs, and at least three or four more have inquired about him, but there is a definite “caveat emptor” sense about the talented but enigmatic defender.

Montgomery, who never played a single regular-season snap for the Texans, was probably drafted a round below where many teams had him rated a month or two before the lottery. Part of that was because it was hard to project Montgomery into a clear position, either end or linebacker. At 6-feet-3 1/8, 262 pounds, and timed at 4.81 at the combine, he could fit either slot. But Montgomery was a little stiff-hipped during workouts and that didn’t help his case. Neither was he aided by the fact he turned off some NFL scouts, one of whom termed him “a different dude,” in interviews. Someone who believes in reclamation projects (Oakland?) may take a chance on Montgomery, because he has talent, even if he could be an underachiever who never quite understands what it takes to play in the league.

Cam NewtonCam Newton and the Panthers look to put the nail in Atlanta’s coffin this weekend.

*It might not get too much attention on Sunday, since one of the teams ranks as among the league’s biggest disappointments at the midway point of the season, but the Carolina-Atlanta game in Charlotte could be worth watching. At this point of the year, the franchises are headed in opposite directions. But there are definitely hard feelings between the two teams, even if players attempted to downplay them during the week leading up to the contest.

The two franchises have never really liked each other very much, even though the “I-85 Feud” the league envisioned when it placed an expansion franchise in Charlotte, only three and a half hours from Atlanta, hasn’t developed quite as planned. But the bile peaked last year when, after a 30-28 comeback win at the Georgia Dome, fashioned by one of those improbably Matt Ryan-led, last-minute comebacks, the Falcons quarterback woofed openly at Panthers players and told them to “get the (expletive) off my field.”

Carolina players used that as a rallying point in the second meeting, beating the Falcons 30-20 in Charlotte 10 weeks later, and defensive end Greg Hardy screamed for Atlanta to get off his field as well. Kicker Matt Bryant responded to Hardy that the Panthers could have fun watching the Falcons in the playoffs. Again, players from both teams rebuffed talk about the bad blood in speaking to NFP last week, but it definitely exists, and figures to be pretty obvious on Sunday afternoon. The Falcons are down at 2-5, and the Panthers would take great pleasure in helping dig the hole a bit deeper.

*The first-year player arguably commanding the most attention in Arizona last week was third-round cornerback Tyrann “Honey Badger” Mathieu, who was chosen as the NFC’s defensive rookie of the month. But the other rookie a lot of people were talking up, in the wake of his huge game against Atlanta, was tailback Andre Ellington, who came up big in his first start, including an 80-yard touchdown run.

The Cardinals privately feel they might have hit a home run with the former Clemson star, who is averaging 7.7 yards per carry. Some have compared the undersized Ellington to New Orleans’ Darren Sproles, but Arizona coaches told NFP that Ellington probably has better “long speed” and “instant explosiveness,” and is a little different kind of player than the Saints’ do-it-all star. Ellington almost certainly can’t be a workhorse because of his size, but he’s a player, like Sproles, who can get 12-15 touches per game, and make something happen.

“We want to get him the ball in space, let him do his thing, and we’re looking for more opportunities,” first-year coach Bruce Arians said. Getting the “Honey Badger” in the third round – where he fell because of off-field concerns – was probably a steal. Landing Ellington in the sixth round might have been a heist. The Cards are (as it seems they have been for years) still looking for a heavy-duty back, and it looks like the experiment with former Pittsburgh starter Rashard Mendenhall, brought in because he knew Arians and his offense, won’t last into 2014. But Ellington can be an intriguing change of pace runner and provides a nice piece of the puzzle. And the Cardinals, by the way, also feel that fifth-round rookie back Stepfan Taylor of Stanford can be a quality runner in time.

*New England, which has experienced more than its share of problems with dropped passes this season (see the “Short Yardage” item below), will get a good look at a player who might have helped assuage that shortcoming on Sunday, when the Pats host the Pittsburgh Steelers. Remember, the Patriots signed then-restricted free agent wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders to a one-year offer sheet worth $2.5 million last spring – a move that could have cost the team a third-round draft choice as compensation—but Pittsburgh matched the offer and retained the wideout.

Tom BradyICONBrady’s Patriots currently rank second in the NFL in dropped passes.

Sanders has 31 catches for 396 yards in his first season as a full-time starter, and has only two drops. After battling foot injuries the first three years of his career, it appears Sanders is over the chronic condition. League sources said they are uncertain if the Pats, who have basically cast their lot with younger receivers after not landing Sanders, will pursue him as a free agent next spring. That could be determined by how well the young guys such as Kenbrell Thompkins and Aaron Dobson perform over the second half of the campaign. In a sense, though, Sanders will be auditioning in front of New England personnel men. By the way, the player the Patriots chose in the third round with the pick they would have forfeited to the Steelers had Pittsburgh not matched the restricted free agent offer sheet, is safety Logan Ryan. The former Rutgers standout has played in all eight games, started two, and become an increasing presence in nickel situations. He has 12 tackles, 1.5 sacks, two passes defensed and an interception returned for a touchdown.

*Some things you don’t forget, even if you sometimes forget to write them on time. But better late than never, right? The 13th anniversary of the Oct. 24, 2000, death of longtime NFL writer Steve Schoenfeld, a good friend to many of us old-timers still in the business, recently passed. “Schoney” was one of a kind, a gadfly, for sure, but a guy who cared about getting things right, a good and dogged reporter who sweated the details, who treated people fairly and valued relationships, both personal and professional. Anyone who knew Steve—killed at just 45 by a hit-and-run driver as he crossed a Tempe, Ariz., street, after attending a lecture by former White House reporter Helen Thomas – fondly recalls him forever flitting around and kibitzing in press boxes and media work rooms, a personality like no other. He and his wife Robin, since remarried, are still in the thoughts of a lot of people.

*In case anyone is wondering, the overtime sack Cameron Wake had on Thursday night to win the game over Cincinnati, 22-20, was the third game-ending safety in NFL history, but really the first time one occurred on which a quarterback was actually sacked for the two points. The first overtime safety was in Minnesota’s 19-17 win over the Los Angeles Rams on Nov. 5, 1989. In that game, Vikings linebacker Mike Merriweather blocked a Dale Hatcher punt out of the end zone for the safety. In the other, Chicago’s 23-21 victory over Tennessee on Nov. 14, 2004, the play was a bit stranger. On a third-and-14 from the Tennessee five-yard line, Bears’ defensive linemen Alex Brown and Adewale Ogunleye combined to sack Tennessee quarterback Billy Volek, who fumbled into the end zone. The fumble was recovered by Chicago tackle Fred Miller, who was tackled by Ogunleye for the safety.

*There have been a lot of unsung heroes for the undefeated Kansas City Chiefs this season, but one of the guys who probably doesn’t get enough credit, particularly given the way the team plays, is punter Dustin Colquitt. The nine-year veteran is key to the team’s methodology – play a conventional game based, in part, on field position, turnovers, takeaways and the running game – and is having a standout season. Despite the Chiefs’ unbeaten status, Colquitt remarkably leads the NFL in punts (49) and, while he ranks low in net average, he is No. 1 in punts inside the 20-yard line, while only four punters have forced more fair catches. Maybe outside the Kansas City locker room, Colquitt hasn’t gotten much attention, but he certainly is appreciated by his teammates.

+SHORT YARDAGE

*It might be easy to look at his 4.5 sacks and conclude that Houston defensive lineman J.J. Watt isn’t having the kind of season he did in 2012, when he notched 20.5 sacks. But the pro scouts who have watched Watt say he’s every bit as good, and certainly just as intense, as a year ago. . . . A lot of league observers are surprised that New England ranks second in the league in most passes dropped, with 24. But the Patriots have been among the top 10 “dropsy” offenses in three of the past four seasons and in the top 12 in four out of five. They had 41 drops a year ago, according to Stats. Inc., and other statistical services. New England has three wide receivers with at least five drops each – Thompkins (seven, tied for the league lead), Dobson (six) and Julian Edelman (five) – and is on pace for the worst season since Stats, Inc., began maintaining “drops” statistics in 1992. . . . There are only five current NFL coaches who have been with their present franchise for five seasons or more and have yet to go to a Pro Bowl: Marvin Lewis of Cincinnati (11th season), Gary Kubiak of Houston (eighth), Atlanta’s Mike Smith (sixth), the New York Jets’ Rex Ryan (fifth) and Jim Schwartz of Detroit (fifth). . . . The first Hall of Fame ballots, reducing the preliminary list from 126 nominees to 25 semifinalists, were due in Canton on Friday, and once again some choices were difficult. Selectors likely found that some positions – such as wide receiver, offensive line and defensive back – were top-heavy with possibilities. On the other hand, it figures to be another year in which there are no quarterbacks among the semi-finalists. . . . With just nine sacks so far this season – only Chicago has fewer – the Steelers are considering bringing in a pass-rush tutor to work with players, especially “edge” defenders, in the offseason. Club officials, including coach Mike Tomlin, who realizes that the lack of pressure has resulted in a dearth of takeaways, recently spoke to a pass rush “mentor” about working with some of the team’s defenders. . . . The aforementioned Hardy and bookend partner Charles Johnson could wreak all kinds of havoc on the Atlanta offensive line Sunday, but the Falcons privately fear that Carolina first-round tackle Star Lotulelei, who’s been up and down so far in 2013, could be trouble for their inside linemen. . . . Among the most disappointing units in the league has to be the Dallas secondary, an area of priority for the club in the offseason, but one where poor play and injuries have the Cowboys ranked dead-last against the pass, the lone club in NFL history to have surrendered four 400-yard games (already). The breakdowns have been across the board, basically at every position, although in Sean Lee, the Cowboys do have one key component of a Monte Kiffin “cover two” scheme, a linebacker who can run deep to the middle and cover. . . . On the flipside, the Cowboys and line coach Rod Marinelli haven’t gotten enough credit for resurrecting the career of end George Selvie, a former seventh-round pick (St. Louis in 2010), who had been released by three teams before Dallas plucked him off the scrap heap in the offseason. Selvie has five sacks, after notching only three in his first three seasons, and has given Dallas a presence off the edge that’s been missing some because of the injury to sack star DeMarcus Ware. Marinelli also deserves credit for the play of tackle Jason Hatcher, who leads all interior linemen with a career-best seven sacks. . . . Signed to be the replacement for the released Michael Turner, tailback Steven Jackson has been a disappointment so far in Atlanta, both in terms of production and an inability to stay on the field. But the Falcons’ coaches haven’t lost faith in the former St. Louis standout, and seem to assign more of the blame for the team’s running woes (ranked last in the NFL in rushing offense) on a line that can’t seem to move anyone. Jackson hasn’t looked as plodding as Turner did last year – anyone notice that no one signed Turner after the Falcons released him? – but the fact remains that, aside from a 50-yard breakout run in the season opener at New Orleans, he is averaging 4.3 feet (that’s right, feet) per attempt, and that 15 of his 23 runs have been for one yard or less. . . . With the season-ending ACL injury to defensive tackle Geno Atkins on Thursday night, Cincinnati coordinator Mike Zimmer may be forced to change some of the Bengals’ pass-rush schemes, since he won’t have such an inside presence. One possibility is using more of his “speed” guys at the same time, instead of rotating them. Zimmer likely won’t go to the so-called “NASCAR” rush used by some clubs in the past, featuring four ends on the field at the same time on third down, but he’ll make some adjustments. . . . In a statistical rarity, three of the defenders tied for the lead with four interceptions are linebackers – Kiko Alonso (Buffalo), Sean Lee (Dallas) and DeAndre Levy (Detroit).

+BY THE NUMBERS

*For six seasons, Atlanta coach Mike Smith has preached a “start fast” gospel, and the good news for the Falcons is that, for the most part, they have heeded that message. In only one of Smith’s first five seasons with the franchise, 2010 (and then only by six points), was Atlanta outscored by its opponents in the first quarter. Over that five-year stretch, the Falcons held a plus-38.8 advantage over their opponents in the opening quarter. This season, the Falcons have again outscored opponents in the first quarter, 44-3. That 41-point edge is the largest disparity in the NFL in the opening quarter, even more than that rung up by the prolific Denver Broncos (plus-22). Yet the Falcons are 2-5 entering Sunday’s game at Carolina largely because they’ve been outscored in each of the other three quarters – 50-81 in the second, 21-40 in the third and 51-60 for the fourth. The Falcons have been so dominant in the first quarter that they’ve allowed opponents only a dozen possessions. Eight ended on punts, two on turnovers, and one on downs. The lone first-quarter points against Atlanta came on a 22-yard field goal by Nick Folk of the New York Jets on Oct. 7, in the fifth game of the season.

Read More 3771 Words

The wrecking ball

Even though the season hasn’t officially reached the midway point, there is mounting sentiment that the NFC’s representative in Super Bowl XLVIII will be either New Orleans or one of two teams from the NFC West. But the Green Bay Packers, at 5-2 and atop the NFC North after Sunday night’s dominating victory at

Even though the season hasn’t officially reached the midway point, there is mounting sentiment that the NFC’s representative in Super Bowl XLVIII will be either New Orleans or one of two teams from the NFC West. But the Green Bay Packers, at 5-2 and atop the NFC North after Sunday night’s dominating victory at Minnesota, might actually be countering such conventional wisdom in what for them is a relatively unconventional way.

With a running game.

Yeah, we know. The mere concept of being able to effectively run the ball is about as anathema to the folks in Frozen Tundraland as is a December morning that doesn’t begin with shoveling out the driveway before heading to work. But the Packers, who haven’t featured a 1,000-yard rusher since Ryan Grant in 2009, demonstrated again in the 44-31 victory over the Vikings that an infusion of new blood has provided the long dormant running attack a pulse.

Rookie Eddie Lacy, a second-rounder beginning to look more like a Brink’s heist than just your typical draft steal, lugged the football 29 times. It was a ponderous workload, the former Alabama standout suggested, that was unprecedented in his football career, even including high school and pee-wee ball. Lacy netted 94 yards for the evening, averaging only a pedestrian 3.2-yards per attempt, and his long run was for 17 yards. In fact, nearly half of Lacy’s 29 rushes (26) were good for one yard or less and five of them were negative-yardage runs.

There is little doubt, though, that Lacy leaned on the Vikings and helped to erode the will and gumption of the Minnesota defense.

“When you pound that big body in there that many times,” said Green Bay right tackle Don Barclay, “it’s going to make a difference; it has a (cumulative) effect.”

Indeed, Lacy, who is listed at 230 pounds but is probably something north of that (he certainly runs even harder that his ascribed weight), produced just 31 yards on 13 first-half carries. On the Packers’ first series, just one of his six rushes netted more than two yards. But as the night wore on, he wore out a Vikings’ defense that was geared more toward stopping quarterback Aaron Rodgers.

Lacy amassed 63 yards on 16 second-half rushes. That’s again below, but just slightly, the usual NFL standard of at least 4.0 yards per carry. But his importance to the Green Bay offense can’t be measured only in statistics, players from both the teams acknowledged after the game. And Lacy, who has now carried 97 times in the past four outings, and no fewer than 22 times in that stretch, suggested he relishes the healthy workload. Prior to the Monday night St. Louis-Seattle matchup, the NFL had produced just 33 games with a back getting 22 or more carries, and Lacy had four of them.

Eddie LacyDespite appearing in only six games so far this season, Lacy currently ranks 13th in the NFL with 112 rushing attempts.

Said Lacy, only the fourth running back chosen in the draft: “(Twenty-nine) is a lot of carries, but I like having the ball in my hands. I tend to get stronger.”

Make no mistake, the Packers are still principally about Rodgers, and his ability to throw the ball almost unerringly despite a wide receiver corps that would make a M*A*S*H unit appear robust by comparison. Rodgers was surgically precise again on Sunday night, even though even the most ardent fantasy football players might not have recognized any of his receivers outside of Jordy Nelson. Rodgers’ accuracy, and his remarkable ability on third down in particular, was the story of the game. But Lacy provided an important chapter, too, and is increasingly doing so.

While Rodgers’ stiletto strikes are still the Green Bay calling card, coach Mike McCarthy frequently is dialing up Lacy’s number these days. And while we’ve long contended that you don’t necessarily have to run the ball to win in the league anymore, the second half of the premise is that, if you can run, it allows you to do almost anything you want.

Facing Rodgers and the Green Bay offense, that has to be a scary thought.

Not since 2004, when Ahman Green was still in his heyday, has Green Bay finished a season ranked among the top 10 in rushing offense. Under McCarthy’s stewardship, which commenced in ’06, the Packers have never statistically been above No. 14 and just twice rated in the top 20. After finishing 17th and then 14th in rushing in Rodgers’ first two seasons as the starter, the club has been 20th or worse the past three years. Little wonder that Rodgers – the only quarterback in league history to twice pass for 4,000 yards in seasons in which he was sacked 50 or more times – has championed the club’s upgraded running attack.

Once a last resort, the Green Bay ground game has become no day at the beach for opposition defenses. Lacy is the kind of wrecking ball that Miley Cyrus wouldn’t sing about, but that doesn’t mean people aren’t singing his praises. None of the three backs chosen ahead of him in April – Giovanni Bernard (Cincinnati), Le’Veon Bell (Pittsburgh) or Montee Ball (Denver) – has had as big an impact.

“They’re probably more balanced than they’ve been,” Minnesota defensive end Jared Allen said of the Packers. “The big guy (Lacy) gives them another dimension.”

Green Bay has now accumulated 100 or more rushing yards in six straight games. In three of those contests, the Packers ran for 180 yards or more. With 446 yards, Lacy is close, in less than half a season, to the team-leading 464 yards that Alex Green (no longer with Green Bay) posted in 2012. Lacy has only one attempt for more than 20 yards, but his value isn’t necessarily in the big play. Instead, he gives Green Bay a chance to methodically bludgeon opponents with a blunt instrument, something that has been lacking with the Packers for several years now.

Read More 974 Words

NFP Sunday Blitz

In the 12-season period of 2000-2011, there was an average of 51.8 interceptions per year returned for touchdowns, and never more than 59 “pick six” plays in a single campaign. Last season, though, the NFL established a record for a 16-game season, with 71 touchdowns on interception returns.

And despite Thursday night’s Carolina-Tampa

In the 12-season period of 2000-2011, there was an average of 51.8 interceptions per year returned for touchdowns, and never more than 59 “pick six” plays in a single campaign. Last season, though, the NFL established a record for a 16-game season, with 71 touchdowns on interception returns.

And despite Thursday night’s Carolina-Tampa Bay matchup, in which there were no interceptions at all, let alone any returned for touchdowns, the league remained on pace—with 30 interceptions for scores in 108 games—to tie that record.

So maybe the late Darrell Royal was onto something, huh, when he noted many years ago that there are three things that can happen when you throw the football, and that two of them are bad. Especially when he was alluding to interceptions. Interceptions, of course, are the worst of the outcomes, Royal suggested, when the ball is in the air. Interceptions returned for touchdowns? Well, probably the worst of the worst.

There seems to be a stretch in every NFL season in which there is an unusually high number of interceptions run back for scores. This season, though, the spate has continued through the first half of the season, not just for a week or two. Teams are attempting more passes than ever before, and it seems that frustrated defenders have just about had enough. Actually, maybe not quite enough of what suddenly has become a pretty good thing.

The first seven weeks of the season represented a veritable handful of riches for those defenders who relished visiting the end zone.

“You can never get enough of (intercepting) the ball and taking it back all the way,” said Atlanta cornerback Asante Samuel, who has scored on six of the 50 pickoffs he has collected in his 11-year career, last week. “It’s about the best individual feeling you can have. This year, the hunted has definitely been the hunter.”

“It seems like about every week anymore, you turn on the highlights and guys are bringing back interceptions for touchdowns, you know?” said Chicago cornerback Tim Jennings, the only league defender with two returns for scores. “It’s nice to see a little payback.”

Asante SamuelSamuel has run back six interceptions for touchdowns during his career.

Last weekend, analysts from virtually every network made a big deal of the fact that the Week 7 slate of games featured five “pick six” touchdowns. Yet while the five scores tied a season high for such plays (there were also five in Week 5), it’s been somewhat overlooked that there have been at least four interceptions returned for touchdowns in every week of the ‘13 season so far. That’s more than happenstance; it’s become fairly accepted now that part of the typical risk of throwing the ball so often is that the wrong team is going to score, too, every once in a while. It’s just that, in 2013, “once in a while” has become more frequent.

Twenty-two teams each have at least one interception return for a touchdown. There are five defenses with multiple “pick six” steals, and three teams – Chicago, Kansas City and Washington—have three apiece. There are 13 clubs that have yet to have an interception returned against them for a TD, but Jacksonville and St. Louis both have permitted three touchdowns on interceptions. And, of course, Houston has had five, remarkably one each in five straight outings. Four of those came against beleaguered starter Matt Schaub.

“It’s pretty deflating,” a Texans offensive veteran acknowledged to NFP last week. “It’s hard enough to win in this league without (surrendering) ‘gimmes.’ But, for a while there, it was like a guy with the wrong color uniform was running to the end zone every time you looked up. It gets kind of disheartening. For the other guys, I’m sure it’s an uplifting thing.”

Take the Seahawks’ 23-20 overtime victory at Reliant Stadium on Sept. 23. Houston led 20-13 with just under three minutes to play, and it appeared the Texans were about to put the game away. But on a third-and-four play from the Seattle 40-yard line, Schaub, under a heavy rush, flicked an ill-advised, wobbly pass toward tight end Owen Daniels. The resourceful Richard Sherman intercepted and sprinted 58 yards down the left sideline to tie the score.

Said the loquacious Sherman afterwards: “I wouldn’t say we were buried, because we never feel like we’re out of a game. But some people were calling for the shovels, I’m sure. We kicked off the dirt.”

There are plenty of reasons for the “pick six” spree, not the least of which, as was mentioned above, are the number of passes thrown this season. Running plays per game are at an all-time low pace, and, in a league that has skewed toward the pass the past several seasons, some games in 2013 could perhaps have employed an air traffic controller to police the skies. Players from every level of the defense have joined in the scoring action; everyone wants in on the act. The touchdowns have come from 10 safeties, eight cornerbacks, nine linebackers, and even two linemen.

“I think there’s a mentality now that, ‘Hey, we’re allowed to score, too.’ You want the ball in your hands. And when you get it there, you just naturally want to get the ball to the end zone. We can be part of the (scoring) act, too,” said Tampa Bay third-year middle linebacker Mason Foster, who had an 85-yard touchdown return against New Orleans on Sept. 15.

Added Chiefs’ safety Eric Berry, who has one of the team’s three scores for a club that leads the NFL in turnover differential (plus-11), is tied for the league lead in takeaways (19), and tied for third in interceptions (10): “It gets a little contagious, you know? The coaches really stress the importance of (turnovers) and, if you’re going to get one, why not score? It’s not like you’re (consciously) thinking about it but when it happens, you react. And the reaction here has been good. It’s become a second-nature thing for us.”

That may be true, but it isn’t second nature yet for some players. Atlanta end Osi Umenyiora, for instance, went 68 yards against St. Louis on Sept. 15. But on the first interception of his career, which came on a zone-blitz when he dropped into the flat and grabbed a deflection, he seemed almost stunned. And even when he began running, he held onto the ball tightly with both hands. “The next time,” Umenyiora laughed, “I’ll try to be a little smoother. I mean, it just happened.”

It is happening, though, with greater regularity. And perhaps one reason, which hasn’t been widely discussed, is that teams aren’t hitting as much in practice now (as regulated by CBA rules), and are working a little more on non-contact seven-on-seven type drills. Defenders see more passes in practice, as well as in games, these days. In a tote board-type league, where the scoring numbers have skyrocketed, the coaches emphasize more than ever the potential for defensive touchdowns of all kinds, but especially by interception return.

“I’ve always wanted the ball in my hands,” said Washington cornerback DeAngelo Hall, who has four career interception returns for touchdowns, including one this season. “It’s a dream for (defenders) to show what they can do with the ball.”

And, this year, the dreams are coming true at a record rate.

+AROUND THE LEAGUE

Hakeem NicksWill the Giants trade WR Hakeem Nicks before the deadline?

*With the NFL trade deadline arriving on Tuesday, there again figures to be plenty of speculation about players who could change teams before 4 p.m. (ET). But even with the deadline having been nudged back by two weeks last year, most personnel guys in the league will be surprised if there’s much action. “Lots of talk but, as usual, the only ones who get rich are the (long distance telephone) carriers,” one AFC general manager said. Indeed, over the past 20 years, the league has averaged fewer than two “deadline deals” per season. There was some action the past few weeks in advance of the deadline, like the swaps of tackles Eugene Monroe (Jacksonville to Baltimore) and Bryant McKinnie (Baltimore to Miami), but no blockbusters, as is usually the case in other sports. It’s not surprising that most of the rumors have involved wide receivers – guys like Justin Blackmon (Jacksonville), Kenny Britt (Tennessee), Josh Gordon (Cleveland) and Hakeem Nicks (New York Giants) – because the feeling is they can fit quicker into an offense.

“It’s more an individual position than just about any other place on the field,” one assistant coach said on Friday in discussing possible moves. “But there are always circumstances that make it dicey – contract stuff, temperament, things like that.” Historically, it seems like a lineman or two always gets traded at the deadline, but usually a spare part to a team seeking to improve depth.

*Dallas defensive lineman and former Grambling standout Jason Hatcher used the term “embarrassing” and “nonsense” to describe the recent situation at his alma mater, where players last week skipped a game against Jackson State because of a number of grievances. League scouts who had visited Grambling for a number of years, and saw firsthand the deteriorating conditions there – not to mention the shrinking talent base – were even stronger in their assessment. They called the situation deplorable and saddening in discussions with NFP.

But while the Grambling situation may not mirror the conditions at all of the historically black college and university (HBCU) programs, it is indicative of the plight of most of the schools, which once represented a significant “feeder” system for the league. There was only one prospect from an HBCU school selected in the 2013 draft, the fewest ever. In the past five years, there have been only 13; the last time the HBCU schools reached double-digit draft choices was 2000, and not since 2008 (Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie by Arizona) has there been a first-rounder. In part because of integration in the college game, particularly with the SEC schools, the HBCU programs, most of which are located in the South, can’t compete anymore for the top talent. Because kids that once went to Grambling, Jackson State, Southern or Alcorn State aren’t restricted now, they’re recruited by Alabama, Georgia, Auburn or LSU.

“All things being equal . . . well, you just can’t afford to be equal,” said Indianapolis cornerback Greg Toler, from St. Paul’s (Va.) University, an HBCU school. Added Detroit cornerback Rashean Mathis, from Bethune-Cookman: “Progress is great and you sure don’t want to turn back the clock. But the (black) schools probably have paid a price for the progress.” Grambling, which can boast four of the 25 HBCU players in the Hall of Fame, certainly has. Hatcher, chosen by the Cowboys in the third round in 2006, is the last Grambling player selected in the lottery. Over the past 20 drafts, the school has had just 20 players taken, with three of those in the seventh round.

*Carolina quarterback Cam Newton has tried mightily to spread the credit for the team’s current three-game winning streak – the Thursday night victory at Tampa Bay moved the club over .500 for the first time since 2008 – to his teammates. But while the Panthers are playing well, have scored more than 30 points in each of their three straight wins, and are performing stoutly on defense, people in and outside of the organization agree it’s the third-year quarterback who’s made the big difference. There have always been insinuations that the former Heisman Trophy winner and top overall choice in the 2011 draft needed to improve his work habits. Even some of his staunchest supporters in his hometown of Atlanta, where I live, privately hinted that Newton needed to buckle down and spend more time in film study. Team sources concede he’s done just that, and that, despite the “Superman” act that was on display again Thursday, he’s significantly matured.

Cam NewtonNewton has quietly put together a terrific 2013 campaign.

“You didn’t see him around here as often (in the offseason),” an old friend from Newton’s days at Lakeside High School told NFP last week. “I think he must have been (concentrating) more on the football stuff.” The numbers indicate that’s the case. His rating of 131.3 over the past three games, which features six touchdown passes and no interceptions, certainly hints of that. His completion percentage for the season – 64.9 percent, versus 58.8 percent for Newton’s first two years in the league – clearly is indicative of his growth. Newton strung together a five-game streak last season in which he did not have an interception, and threw 10 scoring passes, but he seems to be playing even better now. And ever-candid wide receiver Steve Smith, who suggested last week the quarterback has graduated from “checkers to chess,” is making better decisions.

Newton still takes way too many sacks (he is on pace to get dumped a career-worst 48 times), but he’s not bolting from the pocket as quickly (his 523-yard rushing pace is below the 723.5-yard average of 2011-2012), and seems more comfortable in the pocket. There are a lot of reasons why the Panthers – who face an upcoming three-game grind that will probably demonstrate if they are contenders or pretenders – have played better. But Newton is chief among them.

*Other than the Greg Schiano-related drama, there isn’t a whole lot worth watching when it comes to the Bucs. But if they’re on in your area – and there’s absolutely nothing else on the tube – you might want to devote a few minutes to eyeballing weakside linebacker Lavonte David, No. 54. The second-year veteran, a second-round pick in 2012, is more than just a solid player who jumps out because he’s surrounded by so many bad ones. The former Nebraska star can flat-out play.

“He can run and he can hit,” Tampa Bay general manager Mark Dominik told NFP. “He’s the real deal.”

Indeed, we’ve now seen David in his last two games, one in person, and, despite his team being out of both contests, he was still going hard. He’s easily the best Tampa Bay player on the field. As a rookie, David led the Bucs in tackles (139) and added two sacks, five passes defensed and an interception. He’s on pace in 2013 for 137 tackles, already has five sacks, five passes defensed, and a pickoff. He’s virtually buried on a bad team, at least in terms of national recognition, but he’s worth watching, because his game is so well-rounded.

“I didn’t know much about him,” Atlanta tight end Tony Gonzalez said last week, “but having seen him firsthand, he can play.”

*We’re not much into fantasy football and, in fact, know very little about it. But if you’re looking for a good “play” this week, you might want to consider Gonzalez, who figures to bounce back at Arizona from arguably his worst outing of the year. In seven games, the Cardinals have allowed opposing tight ends 44 receptions for an average of more than 15 yards, and eight touchdowns. The interior of the secondary, hardly a strong point to date, figures to have its hands full with the future Hall of Fame tight end. In last week’s game, the Atlanta coaches cleverly went away from Gonzalez, who had only two catches and was targeted a season-low four times. Instead, they focused on wide receiver Harry Douglas, who had a career day, and on screen passes (which was predicted in this spot last Sunday), and the results were excellent. But with such potentially easy pickings, expect Matt Ryan to get back in a big way to Gonzalez on Sunday afternoon.

Chip KellyFormer Oregon boss Chip Kelly is still looking for his first home win.

*Something’s got to give, right? Philadelphia is 0-3 at home under first-year coach Chip Kelly and hasn’t won a game at Lincoln Financial Field in more than a year. The team’s last home triumph was against the NFC East-rival New York Giants, whom it ironically hosts on Sunday, a 19-17 victory on Sept. 30, 2012. Heck, even former Philadelphia coach Andy Reid, now in Kansas City, owns a win at The Linc this season. On the flipside, the Giants have lost eight straight on the road, and haven’t won an away game in nearly a year, since beating the Cowboys at Dallas last Oct. 28. The Eagles have lost nine straight home games dating back to last season and have been outscored by an average of 10.4 points in that stretch, with four of the defeats by 13 points or more. The nine-game drought more than doubles the previous longest home losing streak for the Eagles at Lincoln Financial Field, which opened in 2003. That was four games, on two occasions, and both of them stretched over portions of two seasons – in 2005-2006 and 2010-2011. Philadelphia is 5-5 against the Giants at The Linc. In its eight-game road losing streak, New York has been outscored 247-102, three times lost by 20 points or more, and twice been shut out.

*His team never won a Super Bowl, but late Tennessee owner Bud Adams deserves credit for the foresight that will spare his family a ton of money in estate taxes. The league for years has regularly convened estate-planning seminars for owners at its annual March meetings, and Adams clearly paid attention in determining the future fate of a franchise valued at just over $1 billion. His grandson, Kenneth Adams IV, is likely to be the family member most involved in the daily activities of the club moving forward. But many in the league believe that son-in-law Tommy Smith, who once played a prominent role, especially in negotiating contracts and legal issues, will get involved again in club matters.

*The de-emphasis of the running back position could be tricking down to the college game as well, and that might mean another draft shy of backs, particularly at the top of the lottery. According to what I’m hearing from scouts, the top-rated senior runner is Ben Malena of Texas A&M, and his grade basically equates to that of a third-rounder. Three other backs, Arizona State’s Marion Grice, DeNarius McGhee of Montana State and LaDarius Perkins of Mississippi State, all are close behind. It’s believed that the grades are similarly bleak all around. Of course, the combines have assessed only the senior prospects for the 2014 draft. But word is that the underclass crop isn’t especially exciting, either. Over the past three years, there were just four runners chosen in the first round – and three of those were in 2012, with none this year – and that trend definitely could continue.

+SHORT YARDAGE

*The Arizona coaches have begun to feel that former first-rounder Michael Floyd might finally provide the Cardinals the complement to the great Larry Fitzgerald the team has been seeking for years. The second-year veteran is said to be playing with much more confidence. . . . One non-youngster who is making a bit of a late splash is Ted Ginn Jr. in Carolina. Yeah, the seven-year veteran had a bad drop on a deep ball Thursday night, and inconsistent hands have always been a bugaboo. But Ginn is on pace for 46 catches (which would be his most since 2008) and a career-best 816 yards, and is at least taking some of the heat off Steve Smith. Ginn, who can still take the top off a secondary, is playing on a one-year contract, and could make himself some money in the free agent market if he continues to play well. . . . On the subject of the HBCU programs, discussed above: The problem isn’t just about integration; it’s clearly economic as well. LSU, which is only about two hours from Grambling, had $115 million in sports-related revenue in 2012. Grambling took in about $6 million. The aggregate athletic revenues from what are historically the five most prominent HBCU schools in terms of athletics was just over $40 million for last year. . . . The Steelers made a wise move last week in re-doing the contract of cornerback Ike Taylor, basically a simple restructure. The move gives the club a little breathing room under the cap, but also makes it easier to keep Taylor in 2014. Although he’s never made it to a Pro Bowl, Taylor is a quality corner. Venerable coordinator Dick LeBeau believes that if Taylor had better hands – he has dropped dozens of potential interceptions over the years – he would be regarded as one of the NFL’s top players at the position. . . . Tampa Bay officials reiterated to NFP last week that they welcome any league investigation about who leaked word of former quarterback Josh Freeman’s ADHD problems, and his use of Adderall. They will never say so publicly, but Bucs’ officials believe the leak originated from the Freeman camp and was part of what they feel was a strategy to get the former first-rounder out of Tampa Bay. . . . The Panthers’ three-game winning streak will take some of the heat off coach Ron Rivera, who’s done a nice job bringing the club back from a poor start, but people in the league still insist it’s hard to get a read on the plans of general manager Dave Gettleman. . . . Carson Palmer is the seventh different quarterback who has started for Arizona since the retirement of Kurt Warner after the 2009 season, a span of only 55 games. Little wonder first-year coach Bruce Arians, who would like to develop some sense of stability at the position, has stuck by Palmer so far. . . . It’s probably too early yet for the Giants to offer an extension to recently-acquired middle linebacker Jon Beason. But if the seven-year veteran continues his strong play – 21 tackles in the two starts he’s made for New York since being acquired from Carolina for a seventh-round draft pick – expect the team to at least approach him about an add-on. Beason’s gaudy contract with the Panthers was reduced to a $1 million base for 2013, and three seasons were voided, making him eligible for free agency in the spring. The lure of free agency might be too much to ignore, but the rejuvenated Beason has drawn rave reviews in New York, and the team could make overtures about keeping him.

+BY THE NUMBERS

*OK, it’s only three games, but winless Jacksonville hasn’t scored a home touchdown all season. In 35 offensive possessions, the Jaguars have 20 punts, three field goals, six interceptions and six series that either terminated at the end of a half/game or on downs. They also have one safety, are on pace to score 174 points (which would be the sixth worst total since the 16-game schedule was implemented in 1978), and haven’t gotten to the end zone at EverBank Field since a three-yard pass from Chad Henne to Justin Blackmon in the first quarter of a loss to the Patriots last December 23. In their last 20 home games, Jacksonville has scored more than two offensive touchdowns only three times.

Read More 3958 Words

Not so unstoppable after all

The good news for Denver – relatively speaking, since the Broncos dropped their first game of the season Sunday night, a 39-33 defeat in Peyton Manning’s emotional return to Indianapolis – is that the team is still on pace to obliterate the NFL’s single-season scoring mark and its four-time MVP quarterback figures to make

The good news for Denver – relatively speaking, since the Broncos dropped their first game of the season Sunday night, a 39-33 defeat in Peyton Manning’s emotional return to Indianapolis – is that the team is still on pace to obliterate the NFL’s single-season scoring mark and its four-time MVP quarterback figures to make a mockery of most one-year passing records.

The bad news: To advance deep into the playoffs, and possibly to a berth in Super Bowl XLVIII, the defensively deficient Broncos might need every bit of that glittering offensive output to overcome their shortcomings.

Only five times since 1978, the season in which the NFL implemented a 16-game schedule, has a franchise gone to the playoffs while allowing 400 or more points. After Sunday’s debacle, in which the defense permitted 37 points (you can’t blame the unit for the safety the Colts scored) despite surrendering its second fewest yards of the year, Denver is on pace to give up 450 points. Among the playoff qualifiers since ’78, only the St. Louis Rams, who surrendered 471 points while winning a wild card spot in 2000, were more generous.

It didn’t seem to matter that Indianapolis netted “only” 334 yards in the victory. We say “only,” because just Oakland, with 293 yards in a Sept. 23 loss to the Broncos at Sports Authority Field, had fewer. In fact, the Raiders were the only one of Denver’s six victims in ‘13 to generate less than 360 yards. Two opponents – including Dallas, which rang up a monstrous 522 yards in the Broncos’ 51-48 shootout victory just a couple weeks ago – had 450 yards or more. Even winless/hapless Jacksonville, the lone opponent to score fewer than 20 points this season versus the Broncos, had 362 yards.

Colts quarterback Andrew Luck had an efficient but not great outing, throwing for 228 yards. No Indianapolis back rushed for more than 37 yards. Yet the resourceful Colts seemed to bully the Denver defense, made plays when they had to, and kept drives alive. Sure, the Colts’ defense deserves plenty of kudos for holding Denver to so many field goals, but the offense set a physical tone as well, and that should be worrisome to the Broncos’ defense.

Champ BaileyCornerback Champ Bailey returned to action in Week 6 only to suffer another setback.

“Way too many mistakes,” lamented safety Rahim Moore after the Broncos’ first loss of the season. “We’ve got to be better than that.”

Indeed, the defense does, at least if Denver plans to play for the championship.

For the first six weeks of the season, when the Broncos were undefeated, their high-octane offense likely camouflaged some of the defensive problems. But following the loss at Lucas Oil Stadium, there was no hiding the Broncos’ defensive lapses, which were certainly exposed in front of a national television audience. It might be tough for opponents to easily duplicate the Indianapolis defensive effort against Manning, to employ as a template the aggressive man-to-man coverages and solid pass rush versus an injury-ravaged Denver offensive line, to hold the Broncos and all their explosive pieces in check. But there figures to be other games in which the offense doesn’t casually score 40 points, or in which Manning stumbles a bit, and the defense will need to pick up the slack.

On Sunday night, when its problems were conspicuous, the unit seemed incapable of handling that chore. Said one front seven player, who acknowledged Monday to NFP that the defense played too soft: “We can’t count on (the offense) to win games for us every week. You can’t be just half a team in this league. It wasn’t like Sunday was the only game where there have been problems (with the defense). But when you win, it covers up a lot of stuff.

”On Sunday, though, a lot of scabs were ripped open.”

In fairness, it should be pointed out that the Broncos played the first six games of the season without edge rusher Von Miller and cornerback Champ Bailey. But in his return against the Colts, Miller appeared rusty and Bailey limped off with what appeared to be a reoccurrence of the left foot injury that had sidelined him. Middle linebacker Wesley Woodyard, arguably among the most underrated defenders in the league, did not suit up and he was missed.

Miller may play himself back into shape, but Bailey is 35 now and the 12-time Pro Bowl cornerback might finally be in decline. The Broncos might need some other players to step up and, frankly, must play sounder overall. Denver right now is a prime example that pure statistics don’t always matter. After all, the Broncos have nine interceptions and only five teams have more. They have permitted opposing quarterbacks a completion rate of fewer than 60 percent and a passer rating of 89.7, and neither is particularly bad.

But the Broncos also are on pace to allow 5,118 passing yards, which would be a new NFL worst. And after surrendering only 38 completions of 20 yards or more for the entire 2012 season, they’ve given up 40 such plays already. Those are, it seems, conspicuous numbers that do count.

It’s somewhat ironic that one loss, even to a team as solid as Indianapolis, could make a team’s problems stand out so much more. But the defeat to the Colts kind of unmasked some of the Denver deficiencies, and they are areas that need addressed by coordinator Jack Del Rio and his staff.

Sunday night’s hiccup notwithstanding, Manning has been a stallion for the Broncos. The defense against the Colts, though, looked like glue-factory nags at times. And if the Broncos want to be true thoroughbreds, and finish the season in the winner’s circle, it’s got to get a lot better.

Read More 930 Words

NFP Sunday Blitz

In preparation for Sunday afternoon’s game at Tennessee, the San Francisco 49ers got four players – wide receiver Mario Manningham, cornerback Eric Wright, and rookie defensive linemen Tank Carradine and Quinton Dial – back on the practice field last week. Standout wide receiver Michael Crabtree, who caught 85 passes a year ago,

In preparation for Sunday afternoon’s game at Tennessee, the San Francisco 49ers got four players – wide receiver Mario Manningham, cornerback Eric Wright, and rookie defensive linemen Tank Carradine and Quinton Dial – back on the practice field last week. Standout wide receiver Michael Crabtree, who caught 85 passes a year ago, might return to practice in a few more weeks.

There have been reports that Seattle wide receiver Percy Harvin, arguably the club’s most notable offseason addition, could start workouts next week. Ditto New Orleans inside linebacker Jonathan Vilma, who probably will be cleared for work after this week’s bye. Kansas City rookie defensive back Sanders Commings, expected to give the Chiefs another solid secondary piece, returned to practice last week. Denver starting center J.D. Walton, who hasn’t appeared in a game yet for the undefeated and high-scoring Broncos after follow-up ankle surgery, is said to be getting closer to coming back to the team. There is a good chance that New England tailback Shane Vereen might be ready to strap on the pads in a couple weeks.

So, the NFL’s equivalent of an in-house/in-season “care package” for the not-so-needy, right? Well, sort of. But there are also some franchises with poorer records, too, ready to bring back injured players from some of the league’s various reserve lists, now that the sixth week of the 2013 season has passed.

Michael CrabtreeThe eventual return of Michael Crabtree should provide a big boost to the San Francisco offense.

With the sixth week of play in the history books, players from several of those lists – those on the physically unable to perform (PUP) and non-football injury (NFI) lists, and some of those who were placed on short-term injured reserve (designated for return later in the season) – are eligible to start practicing, and some have. They will be joined by others in the next few weeks and months. For some teams, it will mean a timely infusion of players with presumably fresh legs at a juncture of the season when there are historically fewer ambulatory bodies. So the passing of the sixth week of play last weekend held some real significance.

“They’ve still got to demonstrate that they’re ready to be back among the 53 (active players) . . . but it certainly could be a bonus,” acknowledged San Francisco coach Jim Harbaugh of the potential returnees.

It hasn’t been that often in recent seasons that players who began the year on the PUP or NFI rolls have returned to dramatically enhance a team’s fortunes. The 2012 campaign was the first for the short-term I.R. list, a new rule that allowed a team to designate one seriously injured player for return to practice following a six-week hiatus, and to play in games after eight weeks of being idle. In its initial season, the short-term injured reserve rule didn’t really generate a lot of big-time late-season contributors. But there are 21 clubs (the latest Minnesota, which on Friday moved safety Harrison Smith to the designated-for-return list) that utilized the short-term designation in 2013 and some of them could gain significant relief and a late-season boost from players coming back from time off to heal.

The eligibility for return depends, of course, on when a player was originally placed on the short-term I.R. list. But half of the short-term designees, who were on the designated-for-return list in the first week of 2013, were eligible to get back to the practice field last week. And a few of them – like the Chiefs’ Commings, Cleveland guard Jason Pinkston, tailback Andre Brown of the New York Giants, Tampa Bay cornerback Danny Gorrer and running back Montell Owens of Detroit – began to practice at the earliest possible date.

“I definitely think I can step in and help this team,” said Commings, a fifth-round choice from the University of Georgia who has been recovering from a broken collarbone, and for whom Kansas City coaches seem to have plans in defensive “sub” situations. “I’m anxious to get going.”

In addition to the 20 players on short-term injured reserve, there are 22 players on the PUP list and about another 15 on NFI. Those players, who had to be placed on the lists by the start of the season, were eligible to begin practicing after the sixth week of the year was completed. Once they begin practicing again, the clock starts running on a three-week window to add them to the active roster, sit them for the remainder of the season, or release them. The PUP list includes some significant players such as Manningham, Harvin and Crabtree; fellow wide receiver Kevin Walter (Tennessee); Walton; Carolina running back Jonathan Stewart; Washington defensive lineman Adam Carriker; and linebackers Jameel McClain of Baltimore, San Diego’s Melvin Ingram and Victor Butler of the Saints.

Some of the players, including a few listed above, won’t make it back at any point in 2013. But the possibility of being able to practice and potentially play again is a tempting carrot to dangle. One player for whom the opportunity is particularly appealing is Pittsburgh linebacker Sean Spence, a third-round choice in 2012 whose entire rookie season was wiped out by a gruesome left knee injury, and who some suggested would never play in the league as a result. The former University of Miami standout still might not make it back on the field for a game this season, but the Steelers now have three weeks to evaluate him with an eye toward his future.

Another is Green Bay tackle Derek Sherrod, who hasn’t played since 2011 because of a grotesque broken leg suffered his rookie season. The former first-rounder began practicing last week and, while there is no guarantee he will return from the PUP list, he allowed there is “no gimpiness” left in his repaired leg. A Sherrod return would be a huge bonus for the Packers, who are starting a pair of young tackles.

The trade deadline arrives in just over a week, on Oct. 29, and so there remains time to make a swap. But the NFL isn’t exactly a “deadline deal” league, to say the least, averaging fewer than two trades per year at the cutoff date over the past 20 seasons. The majority of the trades haven’t been meaningful. So relief generally has to be internal, and this year teams could find some quality reinforcements in their own locker rooms and from the reserve lists.

Maybe more so than in recent seasons there might be some mid- or late-season help for a few teams, courtesy of the reserve lists.

Aaron RodgersICONQuarterback Aaron Rodgers looks forward to the possible return of Derek Sherrod.

“Just looking at the (reserve) lists,” one AFC general manager told NFP last week, “the rich clearly could get even richer in some cases.”

That’s for sure.

Imagine if the 49ers, an already strong team but one struggling at wide receiver, get Manningham and Crabtree (both PUP) back on the field in the next month or so. And perhaps the sometimes-troubled Wright (NFI) to possibly supplant a declining Nnamdi Asomugha? Or how about the specter of Harvin (PUP) teaming up with Sidney Rice, as was originally planned before the former’s hip problems, for the powerful Seahawks. Coach Pete Carroll allowed that Harvin “looks fast and (is) moving at a good clip,” and that the former Minnesota star is “really close.” With a receiving corps that might add Harvin to Rice, Golden Tate and Doug Baldwin, the Seattle passing game could really be flying. The Seahawks might also get back Pro Bowl left tackle Russell Okung (I.R.) at some point at about the three-quarter pole of the season, although his return is likely more problematic.

Although hardly the same player he once was, Vilma (short-term I.R.) could bolster a New Orleans defense that has improved significantly under coordinator Rob Ryan. The slumping Atlanta Falcons could use linebacker Sean Weatherspoon (I.R.), the unit’s top player and the defensive captain and signal-caller, back for the final two months. And the Green Bay stretch run in the final three games of the year could conceivably include electrifying wide receiver Randall Cobb, who last week was placed on short-term I.R. after sustaining a fibula injury against the Baltimore Ravens. Vereen, who practiced some at wide receiver in training camp, would add another much-needed playmaker to the rollercoaster Patriots’ offense.

It’s not like the potential returnees are akin to the cavalry riding over the hill, but the prospective charge provided by the players coming off the reserve lists could make a real difference for several franchises this season. Now that the sixth week of the season has passed, it’s definitely an element that can’t be overlooked.

+AROUND THE LEAGUE

*With the aforementioned Cobb on short-term I.R. and James Jones dinged as well, and Green Bay perilously thin at wide receiver, it seems like an opportune time for the Packers to crank up a running game that has sometimes seemed an afterthought for the high octane Aaron Rodgers-led offense. But the ground game in general, and rookie Eddie Lacy more specifically, has really emerged for the Packers and given the club a timely dimension. The good part for the Pack: It’s not as if the awakening of the running game came as a result of the diminishing body count at receiver, but more simultaneously. “It isn’t as if we forced it,” Rodgers said.

Lacy, it seemed, finally became comfortable with the run-game model and his role and, after going for just 51 yards on 15 attempts his first two games, has carried 23 times in each of his last two, for 219 yards, a healthy 4.8-yard average. The result is that Green Bay, one of just three teams in the league in the top 10 in both rushing and passing yards (and the lone offense in the top five in both categories), has become much better balanced. Rodgers, who had averaged 40.7 pass attempts the first three games of the season, has averaged 31.0 the last two. And young tackles David Bakhtiari (rookie) and Don Barclay (second season), who some suggested might be solid run-block linemen, haven’t had as much pressure on them. Lacy has looked like a load and there have been times the past two outings when the former Alabama star has virtually exploded through holes. Several Baltimore defenders remarked after last week’s loss to the Packers that Lacy possesses both the power and the surprising short-area quickness to be a very productive back.

*On the subject of another former Crimson Tide tailback: Make no mistake, the Cleveland Browns dealt Trent Richardson to Indianapolis last month for strictly football reasons. The new Browns’ football regime simply didn’t feel Richardson, the third overall choice in the 2012 draft, fit their model anymore and jumped at the opportunity to grab another first-round pick in a 2014 lottery in which they figure to nab the franchise’s quarterback of the future. There were, of course, also some injury concerns for a player at a position whose significance has diminished in the league in recent seasons. But Cleveland and NFL sources told NFP this week that a secondary factor in the decision to trade Richardson to the Colts was a concern that the second-year veteran, they felt, had some outside distractions that the Browns suggested needed addressed.

Nothing sinister, mind you, just a need to perhaps rid himself of some hangers-on and family members who were perhaps a bit too close to him. It’s not known if those alleged components have contributed to Richardson’s slow start in Indy, but the tailback has been a disappointment so far in his new uniform. Richardson has carried 61 times for only 191 yards in four appearances, an anemic 3.1-yard average. Of his 61 rushes, more than half (32) have been for two yards or less and 23 have netted one yard or less. Even subtracting Richardson’s pair of one-yard touchdown runs – on which he couldn’t have gained any more than a yard – the numbers are bad. He’s got only three rushes for more than 10 yards and his long run is for 16 yards. Not exactly what the Colts thought they were getting in Richardson and, with Ahmad Bradshaw now sidelined for the year by a neck injury, not nearly what they need from him. When the Colts acquired Richardson, we lauded the deal in the “Sunday Blitz.” It’s not important that we may have been wrong. It’s a ton more significant if the Colts were.

Greg SchianoSchiano and the Bucs need a win in the worst possible way.

*It’s always a little dicey to begin identifying coaches “on the hot seat” before a season even reaches its halfway point. But one guy whose name keeps popping up as a potential victim at the end of the season is Tampa Bay’s Greg Schiano. The history of the NFL isn’t exactly replete with head coaches who didn’t make it into their third season with a franchise. But in his second year with the Bucs, there continue to be rumblings that Schiano hasn’t connected well with his players. He dumped the guy who was supposed to have been the team’s franchise quarterback, Josh Freeman (who will start for his new team, Minnesota, on Sunday), although the former first-round pick’s regression was startling, and the change may have been justified.

There have been unsubstantiated rumors that Schiano leaked reports of Freeman’s attention deficit problems, which has prompted an NFLPA investigation. And recently, Schiano told suffering Tampa Bay fans that the team eventually will be good. No one in the ticket-buying public seems to be buying that, and the players may not have bought into their coach, either. It’s hard now to see how Schiano got the job in the first place. In 11 seasons at Rutgers, he was just one game over .500, at 68-67. Granted, the Rutgers job was a difficult one, but he was still 20 games under .500 (at 28-48) in the Big East. And he never won a championship in what might have been the BCS’ weakest conference. Tampa Bay officials, including good-guy general manager Mark Dominik (who could also be in some trouble), apparently had opted to go the college route in replacing Raheem Morris. But the Schiano choice never quite rung true with a lot of people and, in hindsight, might not have been a prudent one. The Bucs wanted to change the culture, but not much has changed at all. Since a surprising 10-6 record in 2010 – clearly a mirage that belied a lack of locker room leadership – Tampa Bay is just 11-26. Only Jacksonville has a worse record in that stretch. Schiano, who is 7-14 in his second season, might end up walking the plank of that crazy pirate ship in the Raymond James Stadium end zone.

*One of the best under-the-radar stories in the league to this point in the season has been the San Diego Chargers, who are only 3-3, but playing with considerable verve, as demonstrated with last Monday night’s victory over Indianapolis, and who seem to be much improved under rookie coach Mike McCoy. And one of the best stories surrounding the Bolts is the resurrection of the career of quarterback Philip Rivers, who ought to gain some early consideration for Comeback Player of the Year honors. Odd, but when he had only one guy inside his head, former coach Norv Turner, the 10-year veteran wasn’t particularly good the past couple seasons, throwing 35 interceptions and turning the ball over 47 times. Now with McCoy, coordinator (and former head coach) Ken Whisenhunt and onetime NFL quarterback Frank Reich combining to counsel him, Rivers actually seems far less confused.

The message, despite coming in three-pronged fashion, actually seems more resonant with Rivers. The trio has simplified things and, while maintaining Rivers’ status as one of the best yards-per-attempt passers in the league – he averaged 7.5 yards or better in five of his previous seven seasons as a starter and is up around the eight-yard mark again – has him making much safer throws. Throwing the ball shorter at times has, in turn, increasingly opened up things downfield for Rivers. Despite the funky delivery with which he entered the NFL, Rivers was always considered a pretty accurate passer; despite vertical emphasis, his completion rate as a starter was 63.7 percent. But it’s 72.6 percent this season, and Rivers has the NFL’s second best rating, at 108.7. Assessed one AFC personnel man: “He was a guy who everyone thought was sliding, but now he looks completely different, really confident in what he’s doing. A lot of people who had written him off would love to have him now.”

*Ask most quarterbacks and, if they’re candid, they’ll concede they’d love to spread the field and throw 40 passes a game. For St. Louis’ Sam Bradford, though, less has been more. At least in terms of formations with three and four wide receivers. Bradford has now thrown three touchdown passes in three straight contests – he did so while putting the ball in the air only 16 times last week – and a big part of his recent success has been that Rams’ coordinator Brian Schottenheimer has gotten a lot more basic with alignments. Yeah, Bradford still has a sub-par completion rate and St. Louis is still a bit too much dink-and-dunk, as evidenced by Bradford’s pedestrian yards per attempt. But the four-year veteran appears to be a lot more relaxed now and the results have been encouraging.

*We’d never suggest in this space – and nobody probably would in any other space, either – that perhaps it’s time for Pittsburgh defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau to retire. At age 76, when most guys are in rocking chairs, the Hall of Famer and father of the zone-blitz concept is still going strong, conjuring up 3-4 schemes and looking more vital than a lot of us 15-20 years his junior. It would be heresy to suggest that LeBeau is in his football dotage. It is fair, though, to wonder if the rest of the league has finally caught up to a man whom many consider the best defensive coordinator of this era. And fair to wonder if the defense has become predictable. Of course, it’s probably also fair to note that the Steelers’ defense has gotten old and slow, too. But the truth is that Pittsburgh, which used to pressure teams mercilessly, and take the ball away, isn’t sacking quarterbacks with any kind of regularity these days, and certainly isn’t generating takeaways. Last week, in the fifth game of the season, the Steelers finally managed their first takeaways of the year.

It’s always difficult to extrapolate takeaways because, as Steelers’ free safety Ryan Clark reiterated, they tend to come in bunches. But at its current pace, the Pittsburgh defense would produce just 6.4 takeaways in 2013. The record for a full season is 12, established by Washington in 2006. The Steelers had just 35 takeaways total the past two seasons, well below the league averages, 24.9 last year and 25.3 in ‘11, and the ramifications for the offense have been disastrous. The Steelers have had 59 possessions in 2013 and, amazingly, only one started in opposition territory. And that was actually after a punt, not a turnover. The average starting point for the Pittsburgh offense has been its own 22.5-yard line, with 34 series starting at the 20-yard line or inside of it.

Tony GonzalezWith Jones and White injured, it’s up to Tony G to carry the Atlanta passing attack.

*Even before the season-ending foot injury to Julio Jones and a hamstring tweak that exacerbated the situation for Roddy White (who was already playing through a high ankle sprain), the Atlanta Falcons had increasingly turned toward future Hall of Fame tight end Tony Gonzalez as the focus of their passing game. Now with Jones gone and White unlikely to play Sunday, the role for the 17-year veteran figures to be further increased. But how much more can Gonzalez, who at age 37 has beaten back Father Time, really do? In the past two games, Gonzalez has been targeted 28 times and has 22 catches for 246 yards. Not since the final two outings in 2004, when he was in Kansas City, has Gonzalez had more catches in consecutive games. Only twice has he posted more yards in a two-game stretch. The disappointing Falcons are going to have to get some outside help from young and inexperienced wide receivers such as Drew Davis, Kevin Cone and Brian Robiskie (signed off the street last week), and from a running game still missing Steven Jackson. Look for the Falcons to employ a lot more two-tight end formations, with rookie Levine Toilolo (who, at 6-feet-8 has started to become a “red zone” presence) joining Gonzalez. And look for more screen passes to Jacquizz Rodgers and Jason Snelling in an effort to maintain a cleaner pocket for Matt Ryan.

*Latest example of the squeaky wheel being oiled: Atlanta coach Mike Smith complained to the league after his team’s loss to New England about the manner in which the Patriots and other teams were defending Gonzalez – not only double-teaming him but holding him up at the line and double-checking him within the five-yard zone, much in the manner teams do with special teams “gunners” – and has gotten favorable results. The Jets were flagged for holding Gonzalez two weeks ago. And the NFL has essentially instructed officials to make it a point of emphasis, not just in cases involving Gonzalez, but all receivers, to penalize the defenders for employing similar tactics.

*Not that it is any consolation to the sputtering Steelers, but the organization’s decision to release linebacker James Harrison in the spring, after he rejected a reduction that would have cut his base salary by about 30 percent (to roughly $4.7 million), looks like a good call. Harrison, 35, has basically been a non-factor for Cincinnati, which signed him to a two-year contract that could pay him $3 million for 2013, and one has to wonder if he’ll be back next season. A 3-4 linebacker and “edge” rusher for his entire career with the Steelers, there was always a question of whether Harrison could transition to the strongside spot in Mike Zimmer’s 4-3 front. The indication so far is that he can’t. That’s why Harrison languished so long in the free agent market before the Bengals bailed him out with a deal. In six games (four starts), Harrison has only nine tackles and one sack, and definitely has struggled with the scheme. Even in a supposed “down” season with the Steelers in 2012, Harrison still registered 70 tackles and six sacks. It’s doubtful he can reach those kinds of numbers for the Bengals. Then again, his replacements in Pittsburgh, Jason Worilds and rookie Jarvis Jones, have one sack between them.

+SHORT YARDAGE

*The opinions run hot and cold on A.J. McCarron, but there are still a lot of scouts who feel the Alabama star is the best senior quarterback in the country. Better even than Clemson’s Tajh Boyd in terms of decision-making, some insist. . . . Michael Vick has a real chance of losing his starting job long-term to Nick Foles if the second-year veteran has another good outing against Dallas on Sunday. Vick is fighting through a hamstring injury, but there are some “I told you so’s” emanating from the folks in Philly who insisted in the preseason that, despite not being nearly as elusive, Foles could operate coach Chip Kelly’s offense. . . . The Atlanta defense has been the league’s worst in terms of getting off the field on third down, allowing opponents a 50-percent (33 of 66) conversion rate. But where the unit had really been dismal is in situations of third-and-eight or longer. The Falcons have allowed 10 of 22 conversions in such situations. . . . Cleveland’s Joe Haden is gaining some “cred” as one of the top cornerbacks in the league, according to scouts. The Browns still have some offensive limitations, but the defense has made terrific progress and Haden is one of the catalysts. . . . A few weeks ago in this space, we noted that, under new defensive coordinator Rob Ryan, the Saints were blitzing their safeties as much as in the past. But Ryan recently has turned loose free safety Malcolm Jenkins, who has developed into a superb rusher out of the slot, and the veteran has rung up 2.5 sacks now. It’s not quite the same as when strong safety Roman Harper had 7.5 sacks a few years ago under Gregg Williams’ tutelage, but it’s something now for which opponents must increasingly prepare.

+BY THE NUMBERS

*The Cincinnati front four gets plenty of credit for the team’s defensive performance of the past few years, and the plaudits are clearly deserved for the stout unit. But the club’s secondary has been pretty good, too – perhaps, in part, because of a terrific pass rush — as evidenced by the fact the Bengals haven’t surrendered a 300-yard passing performance in 20 straight games now. Despite facing prolific passers such as Peyton Manning, Eli Manning, Aaron Rodgers, Philip Rivers, Tom Brady, Ben Roethlisberger (three times), Tom Brady, Tony Romo and Jay Cutler, the Bengals have permitted an average of only 212.9 yards to starters in that 20-game stretch. Opponents have passed for fewer than 250 yards nine times and less than 200 yards on six occasions, during the streak, and their cumulative passer rating is just 75.2. The last starter to throw for more than 300 yards versus the Bengals was Cleveland’s Brandon Weeden, who totaled 322 yards, on September 16, 2012. Not quite as impressive, but still pretty good, the Bengals have gone 15 straight road games without surrendering a 300-yard outing. On Sunday, they travel to Ford Field in Detroit to face the Lions’ Matthew Stafford, who has nine 300-yard games in his past 20 starts.

Read More 4397 Words

The AFC West’s other undefeated franchise

In what apparently has become the NFL’s newest gimmicky pastime, the crowd of 76,394 at Arrowhead Stadium on Sunday afternoon broke the Guinness World Record for the throatiest collective cacophony ever at an outdoor stadium event. The 137.5-decibel reading, authenticated by a Guinness representative, topped the ear-splitting roar that rocked CenturyLink Field in Seattle

In what apparently has become the NFL’s newest gimmicky pastime, the crowd of 76,394 at Arrowhead Stadium on Sunday afternoon broke the Guinness World Record for the throatiest collective cacophony ever at an outdoor stadium event. The 137.5-decibel reading, authenticated by a Guinness representative, topped the ear-splitting roar that rocked CenturyLink Field in Seattle only a month earlier.

Heck, it was even more boisterous than the ugly Sunday reaction in Houston to the injury sustained by slumping quarterback Matt Schaub. Or the classless heckling in San Francisco when Arizona defensive lineman Calais Campbell was carted off the field with a leg injury and the Candlestick Park assemblage performed the wave. (Maybe the Guinness folks, who clearly have nothing better to do, can establish a new category for heartiest injury-related response, huh?) Or the raucous celebration in Foxboro after Tom Brady’s latest last-minute miracle.

But there is ample reason, after managing a league-worst two victories in 2012, for the loyal, red-clad fans in Kansas City to cheer lustily this season. At 6-0 for only the second time in franchise history, and the first time since 2003, when they opened the year with nine straight victories, the Chiefs might actually not be a surprise to some. After all, there were plenty of pundits – this correspondent, alas, not among them – who in the offseason identified Kansas City as a potential surprise playoff contender. What might be surprising, though, even to the most prescient of experts, is the manner in which the Chiefs are winning.

The old-fashioned way.

When the franchise hired the Philadelphia-deposed Andy Reid, bucking the recent trend of ignoring retreads and instead bringing in fresh faces, the general consensus was that, if the Chiefs were going to reverse fortunes, it would likely be the former Eagles coach’s offensive expertise that would key the turnaround. But it has been the tried-and-true NFL methodologies thought by some to have been assigned to the league’s scrap heap in an era heavily skewed toward the pass – suffocating defense, creating takeaways, taking care of the ball yourself, paying attention to details – that have spurred the makeover of the resurgent Chiefs.

“Everybody’s hungry,” acknowledged inside linebacker Derrick Johnson following the Chiefs’ 10-sack performance in Sunday’s 24-7 victory over Oakland.

Justin HoustonLinebacker Justin Houston has already notched 9.5 sacks through six games.

Nobody could ever accuse even the slimmed-down Reid of lack of appetite. But Andy Reid with a gourmet-level taste for defense? Well, with an estimable assist from new coordinator Bob Sutton and a staff that includes just one assistant with whom Reid previously worked during his 14-season tenure in Philadelphia, yeah.</p>

Not counting the Monday night Indianapolis-San Diego matchup, the Chiefs ranked only 25th in statistical offense, weren’t in the top 10 in either rushing or passing, and eked out just 216 yards in Sunday’s win. They were the only team in 2013 – thanks to the Kansas City Star for the note – that had won a game while producing 216 or fewer yards this year. Quarterback Alex Smith, who last week bristled at suggestions that he is a “game manager,” was in the bottom half of most league passer rankings. Tailback Jamaal Charles was arguably the offense’s lone playmaker.

But on the defensive side? Kansas City leads the NFL in sacks, with 31, nine more than any other unit in the league. The Chiefs have surrendered the fewest points (10.8 on average) in the league and allowed the least offensive touchdowns (seven). They are first in takeaways (18) and turnover differential (plus-12). Only Tennessee and Indianapolis (in one fewer game) had coughed the ball up fewer times. Notable is that the team hasn’t really made wholesale personnel alterations to a defense that just a year ago was No. 20 defensively and tied for the worst takeaway differential (minus-24) in the NFL. In the heartland, those kinds of attributes play pretty well.

There was a time, perhaps under Mary Schottenheimer, who led the Chiefs to seven postseason appearances (and three division titles) in 10 years, when such reliance on the old, conventional values might have worn thin. But the Kansas City fans, who have suffered dismal seasons in five of the past six years, with the only respite a 10-6 mark in 2010, are encountering no such ennui with the recent revival. Among the NFL’s most loyal fans, Chiefs’ supporters, as evidenced by their decibel level Sunday afternoon, are reveling in the turnaround.

As are the players.

“It’s good, solid football,” linebacker Tamba Hali, who registered 3.5 of Kansas City’s 10 sacks versus the Raiders, enthused. “We like to get after people.”

Which, the preconceived notions aside, are consistent with Reid’s resume as an NFL head coach. There was always, during his lengthy Eagles’ tenure, when the common misperception was that Reid preferred to throw the ball all over the field. Perhaps the second-biggest misunderstanding was that he really didn’t care as much about the defensive side. Neither were true, of course, although, in fairness, Reid did have the late, great Jim Johnson as coordinator for 10 of his seasons in Philadelphia.

In exactly half of his 14 seasons in his former job, Reid had defenses that ranked in the top 10 in the league. But only two, in 2008 and 2002, were statistically higher than the Chiefs’ current No. 5 standing. And under Johnson, who never met a blitz he didn’t like, the Eagles could always rush the passer. In Johnson’s 10 seasons with Reid, the Eagles averaged 42.0 sacks per season. The sack average was actually not much lower, 41.6, in Reid’s 14 seasons overall.

In six outings, Kansas City already has more sacks than it posted last season (27) and is on pace to shatter the NFL’s single season record. That alone should give the longsuffering Chiefs fans enough to cheer, loudly, about.

Read More 939 Words

NFP Sunday Blitz

No linebacker has ever led the NFL in interceptions for a season, and none probably ever will, but Buffalo rookie middle linebacker Kiko Alonso certainly has a pretty good chance to top his position in pickoffs in 2013.

A second-round choice in April, the 46th prospect taken overall and the fifth linebacker selected

No linebacker has ever led the NFL in interceptions for a season, and none probably ever will, but Buffalo rookie middle linebacker Kiko Alonso certainly has a pretty good chance to top his position in pickoffs in 2013.

A second-round choice in April, the 46th prospect taken overall and the fifth linebacker selected in this draft, the former University of Oregon star already has four interceptions, twice as many as any other ‘backer in the league, in his first five starts. In fact, no other NFL rookie linebacker yet has a single interception. The four interceptions tie Alonso with a pair of cornerbacks, New England’s Aqib Talib and Alterraun Verner of Tennessee, for the NFL lead.

At this point, Alonso, who was named the league’s defensive rookie of the month for September, has accounted for 13.3 percent of the 30 total linebacker interceptions league-wide. At a time when some of the players chosen ahead of Alonso six months ago are having solid but not spectacular seasons, the Buffalo rookie has thrived.

“He’s just got great straightline speed,” Bills’ strongside linebacker Manny Lawson said of the rookie. “He explodes to the ball.”

There have been other rookie linebackers, however, who timed quicker than Alonso entering the NFL, and several possessed similar burst in their physical skills-sets. He didn’t run at the combine, but clocked a 4.72-second time at his pro day, which was bettered by 10 linebacker prospects at the combine.

So what has made the Bills’ rookie, who has registered four passes defensed in addition to the interceptions and also has a forced fumble, so immediately effective in coverage? Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco, who tossed five “picks” to Buffalo defenders a couple weeks ago, including a pair to Alonso, cited the first-year star’s “length” as a factor and said he is difficult to throw over. Granted at 6-feet-3, Alonso is taller than a lot of the 4-3 middle linebackers in the league, but there are also a few in his height range. His arm length at the combine workouts in February was 32 1/8 inches, and there were 29 of the 35 linebackers at the Indianapolis sessions who measured longer reaches.

Kiko AlonsoAlonso has already notched four interceptions through his first five NFL games.

It should be noted that Alonso also has 44 tackles, among the top 10 in the NFL, and the most for any rookie defender. It is his coverage skill, though, that clearly has caught the eye of coaches around the league. Not only can Alonso get out into the shorter “flat” and “swing” zones, but he has been very adept at getting depth in the middle of the field and sitting in passing lanes.

To Bills’ defensive coordinator Mike Pettine, it is Alonso’s football instincts and the fact he’s been forced to “play fast,” which have helped set him apart. “His (football) awareness is great,” Pettine said. “He’s got great feel for what’s going on.” Another element that Philadelphia assistant secondary coach Todd Lyght, who was part of the Oregon staff during Alonso’s two seasons as a starter, noted was the fact that the ‘backer practiced every day against an up-tempo offense that threw a lot of looks at the defenders. “He’s seen a lot already . . . and he’s lined up against about everything that you can imagine,” Lyght said.

In his two seasons as an Oregon starter, Alonso demonstrated solid coverage ability, with six interceptions, including four in 2012. But even those impressive numbers didn’t unanimously sell league scouts on his abilities to drop and cover. Yet just a month into his professional career, Alonso is only the fourth linebacker in history to post four September interceptions. He is only the second linebacker in franchise history to have at least four interceptions in a season. In the past 10 seasons, there have been only 10 linebackers with more than four thefts in a year.

There was some uncertainty about where Alonso would project when league scouts evaluated him in the spring. Scouts were split about whether Alonso would be best utilized on the outside or in the middle. But the Bills’ staff pretty much projected him quickly as a “Mike” candidate. Said one team official: “He’s everything you want in (a middle linebacker), really. A lot of guys at the position are two-down players who come off the field on third down. If you get a player who can play there and stay there (on third down), it’s a bonus.”

Notable is that all but one of the linebackers in league history with 30 interceptions or more were middle linebackers for most of their careers. In recent seasons, guys such as London Fletcher and Brian Cushing led the NFL in interceptions by ‘backers from middle or inside spots. It’s awful early in his career to compare Alonso to some of those defenders, but he’s definitely making a splash right now.

+AROUND THE LEAGUE

*The Atlanta tag-team of general manager Thomas Dimitroff and coach Mike Smith has garnered rave reviews, and deservedly so, during its stint of five-plus seasons together. When the pair arrived, after all, the Falcons were still reeling from the Michael Vick and Bobby Petrino disasters, and were essentially irrelevant even in their own town, and the two piloted the Falcons to playoff berths in four of their first five seasons. But with a 1-4 start, it’s probably fair to nit-pick a bit, even considering the rash of injuries that has beset the team.

Earlier this year, the “Sunday Blitz” noted the failure of the team’s brass to draft and develop a viable pass-rush threat, and to have to rely instead on trade and free agency to supply rushmen. So far this season, the offensive line should merit the same kind of scrutiny. There have been some nettlesome constants with the Falcons – the injuries, “red zone” and third-down conversion failures, not finishing drives or winning close games – but the problems on the offensive line might trump them all. And, frankly, are likely responsible for some of the shortcomings. Dimitroff and Smith made a conscious decision to release right tackle Tyson Clabo and to not try to talk center Todd McClure out of retirement, the way they did tight end Tony Gonzalez. McClure suggested this week that he would have come back for a 15th season, but that he was nudged toward retirement, as the team opted to go with younger players on the line.

Matt RyanICONQuarterback Matt Ryan has been under fire through the first five weeks of the season.

But the younger players haven’t worked out. Former second-rounder Peter Konz, who moved over from right guard to replace McClure, has struggled against some of the league’s stronger tackles. Right guard Garrett Reynolds, who lost the starting job each of the past two seasons, likewise has been bullied at times. And second-year tackle Lamar Holmes, a third-round pick in 2012 whom the Falcons appear to have over-drafted, clearly isn’t ready yet for prime time. Holmes, who played only seven snaps as a rookie, began the season at right tackle, then switched to the left side when Sam Baker was injured. To shore up the tackle position, the team was forced to sign journeyman Jeremy Trueblood. The result of the mess: Matt Ryan, the club’s $100 million quarterback has been hit way too often (despite being sacked only eight times), a reality that must make owner Arthur Blank blanch.

In six drafts, Dimitroff and Blank have chosen seven offensive line prospects, and only Baker has played passably well. And some locals would argue that the six-year, $40.85 million extension to which the club signed Baker in the offseason was misplaced largesse.

Read More 1280 Words

Tomorrow is promised to no man

Whether the quote is credited to Clint Eastwood from the movie “Absolute Power,” or the late Hall of Fame running back and erstwhile philosopher Walter Payton, the words still resonate. Tomorrow, it seems fairly obvious from just a little more than a month of the 2013 season, is promised to no man.

Just

Whether the quote is credited to Clint Eastwood from the movie “Absolute Power,” or the late Hall of Fame running back and erstwhile philosopher Walter Payton, the words still resonate. Tomorrow, it seems fairly obvious from just a little more than a month of the 2013 season, is promised to no man.

Just ask the Houston Texans, who averaged 30.5 points in their first two outings of this season, both victories, and have only an aggregate 32 points during their subsequent three-game losing streak. Or Washington and Minnesota, each 10-game winners in 2013, but with one victory each this season. Or how about Atlanta, which, before its matchup with the New York Jets on Monday night, was also one of eight clubs in the league with one or zero wins, just one season after compiling the NFC’s best record a year ago.

Capitalizing on the agonizing yet promising conclusion to the Falcons’ 2013 season, which ended with the team 10 yards short of a game-winning touchdown (and of a Super Bowl XLVII berth) in the gut-wrenching NFC championship loss to the San Francisco 49ers, the team’s marketing mavens concocted a new campaign during the spring: “One more play.” The motto was a fine one, based the events of that NFC title tilt, but oblivious to the reality of the league’s truism continuum.

Yep, tomorrow really is promised to no one in the NFL.

The suggestion of the PR message – that Atlanta would begin the 2014 season in essentially the same place they ended the 2013 campaign – was a flawed one. The Falcons’ initial possession of this season, on Sept. 8 at New Orleans, originated from their own 20-yard line. Or 70 yards, in terms of field position, and hundreds of miles geographically, from where last year ended. Much to the chagrin of the folks charged with stoking hype and selling tickets, but not surprisingly to the Atlanta players, the NFL just doesn’t pick up this season from where it left off in the preceding one.

“The thing is,” acknowledged Falcons’ 17-year veteran and Future Hall of Fame tight end Tony Gonzalez, “you just never know how things are going to work out from one year to the next. So you better make the most of your chances when the opportunity is there.”

Matt RyanICONWhat happened to Matt Ryan and the Atlanta Falcons?

Agreed wide receiver Roddy White: “So much can change from one season to the next in this league.”

Indeed, the league’s dynamic is forever morphing, history has demonstrated time and time again. This season certainly is no different. The four franchises noted above – Atlanta, Houston, Minnesota and Washington – all have losing records after qualifying for the playoffs in 2013. Their combined record (prior to the Monday night game) was a dismal 5-12. Green Bay, a chic off-season choice to perhaps go to the Super Bowl, is only at .500. The seven other playoff teams from last season all have winning marks, but only Denver from that bunch is unbeaten. No one would probably wager much money, at least at this juncture, on San Francisco or the defending champion Ravens, making a return Super Bowl appearance.

“We can still do better,” said the 49ers’ Colin Kaepernick after Sunday night’s rout of the struggling Texans, a game in which the San Francisco quarterback, deemed by many pundits to be the model for the position’s evolving future, completed all of six passes. Then again, Kaepernick has been a lot better than Matt Schaub of the Texans, who only 13 months ago signed a $62 million contract extension, but who is on pace this season to throw close to 30 interceptions, has tossed a “pick six” in a record four straight games now, and who could be benched sometime soon.

At the start of the season, especially after they rolled to a couple wins, a lot of the “experts” pegged the Texans as a legitimate Super Bowl contender. Three defeats later, Houston isn’t even the best team in Texas, at least according to records. And the same pundits are wondering what happened. Well, the NFL happened, that’s what. There is very little legitimate projection in the league, particularly in the age of free agency and player movement. Indicators based on last year’s performance are generally trashed, players agree.

“One (season) has nothing, or little,” to do with another,” said Patriots’ linebacker Jerod Mayo recently.

Granted, the dozen playoff franchises from 2013 had a combined record of 33-23 (.589) before the Monday night game, and nearly half of them (five, actually) were in first place in their respective divisions. But outside of the Broncos – and, really, does anyone want to buy stock in a defense that surrendered 48 points in a winning effort, before Von Miller and Champ Bailey get back on the field? – do any of them seem to possess championship pedigree?

Even the imperial Patriots, as close as the NFL has had to a “sure thing” over a 10-season stretch in which they went to the postseason all but one time, seem to have some uncharacteristic vulnerabilities. Ironically, coach Bill Belichick has forever espoused the notion that every season begins with a clean slate. If you’ve ever heard one of Belichick’s annual stock dissertations on “turn(ing) over the page” every year, raise your hand, but quit rolling your eyes.

Because as the early portion of this season has demonstrated yet again, it’s true.

Read More 884 Words

NFP Sunday Blitz

In the 2009 draft, the Jacksonville Jaguars selected offensive left tackle Eugene Monroe with the eighth overall pick, then chose right tackle Eben Britton early in the second round. The back-to-back choices, rationalized Jacksonville officials at the time, was aimed at setting up the franchise for the foreseeable future at what has become one

In the 2009 draft, the Jacksonville Jaguars selected offensive left tackle Eugene Monroe with the eighth overall pick, then chose right tackle Eben Britton early in the second round. The back-to-back choices, rationalized Jacksonville officials at the time, was aimed at setting up the franchise for the foreseeable future at what has become one of the game’s most critical positions.

Just a little more than four years later, Monroe is gone, traded to Baltimore last week because he never quite lived up to expectations, and the Jaguars also wanted to make room for 2013 first-rounder Luke Joeckel to move from the right to the left side. Britton? He’s gone as well, having been permitted to depart as a free agent, after having been switched to guard last season. The one-time second-round choice is now a Chicago Bears’ backup.

The Jaguars are hardly the only team in the league to strike out with high-round tackles, as the past week certainly demonstrated, but they are reflective of the hit-or-miss component of choosing a premium player at the position. It used to be that quarterback was the most conspicuous position with a relatively high failure rate. And with quarterbacks, where beauty is often in the eye of the beholder, there is still a “boom or bust” element. But the offensive tackle slot, which in recent drafts has become so prominent, might be closing the gap.

“The game is so different now in college, with all the ‘spread’ formations and things like that . . . that it’s become more difficult to project how (tackles) are going to be in our league,” one general manager whose team took a high-round bust at tackle in the last few years told the National Football Post. “You always worried about the speed of the game, the fact that there were so many great (pass-rushers) in our league, and how (tackles) would be able to handle that. But it’s gotten worse. We’re seeing so many more guys wash out now (at tackle). It’s a concern, and the first part of this season shows that, right?”

Indeed, the Pittsburgh Steelers were forced to trade last week for former Arizona first-round pick Levi Brown, a disappointment in his own right, because of the poor play of Mike Adams (2012) and Marcus Gilbert (2011), two former second-round selections who were supposed to buttress the position. In the past week alone, Brown and Monroe were both dealt. The Baltimore Ravens shipped a pair of middle-round picks, believed to be fourth- and fifth-round selections, to Jacksonville to replace Bryant McKinnie. Himself a former first-rounder, and arguably the unsung hero of the Ravens’ Super Bowl run last season when he solidified the left tackle spot in the playoffs, McKinnie had not played well the first four games.

But McKinnie, a first-rounder way back in 2002 with Minnesota, and a guy that the Ravens are reportedly open to dealing now that they have Monroe onboard, is not alone as a high-round tackle who hasn’t worked out. Heck, at least McKinnie has a Pro Bowl appearance and a Super Bowl ring on his resume. There are a lot of teams that have used high-round picks on tackles who can only wish the guys they drafted had emulated that kind of relatively modest success.

Said Kansas City coach Andy Reid in the spring, after the Chiefs selected tackle Eric Fisher with the draft’s top overall pick: “It’s become a little bit of a risk position, I guess, anymore. But you’ve got to have them.”

Eugene MonroeMonroe was shipped to Baltimore after 4+ unimpressive seasons with the Jaguars.

Over the past 10 drafts, in fact, teams have taken 37 tackles in the first round. Some have worked out and others have busted out. Consider a first-round as recent as the 2011 draft: Tyron Smith of Dallas has been solid. New England’s Nate Solder has been a good player since supplanting longtime left tackle Matt Light. The Colts feel that Anthony Castonzo is growing into the position. But in Seattle, James Carpenter was limited by injuries to 16 games his first two seasons, and finally switched to guard. Even a spate of recent injuries couldn’t prompt the Seattle coaches to move him back outside. Green Bay’s Derek Sherrod hasn’t played in a game since his rookie season, the victim of a gruesome leg injury. Chicago gave up on Gabe Carimi and dealt him to Tampa Bay.

To be fair, some of the shortcomings of the tackles, as in the case of Sherrod and a few others, were the result of injury. Nobody, obviously, can predict such setbacks. But some high-round tackles have just been bad, period.

Guys such as Jammal Brown and Alex Barron, both first-round picks in 2005, are out of the league entirely. True enough, the two both would be in their ninth seasons in the NFL if they were still playing; but tackle has historically been a position with a long shelf-life, so it’s fair to assume both would still be productive under normal circumstances. There have been tackles, though, who have been abnormally bad. Jason Smith, the second overall choice in 2009, bombed with both St. Louis and the New York Jets, and isn’t playing. Chicago first-rounder Chris Williams (2008) could never really cement the Bears’ offensive line the way he was supposed to, bounced between tackle and guard, and is basically now just a journeyman. Fellow 2008 first-rounder Jeff Otah was a Pro Bowl-caliber player, but knee injuries did him in. Robert Gallery and Shawn Andrews, No. 1 choices in 2004, never lived up to their college reputations, and both ended up playing at guard. Given his lingering injuries and continuing inconsistency, one has to wonder if Atlanta is second-guessing itself on the fat extension it gave 2008 first-rounder Sam Baker in the offseason.

Even this season, while the sample size is admittedly a small one, the first-round tackles (there were five of them, all among the top 20 choices, including three of the first four picks) have struggled. “The transition,” allowed Detroit 2012 first-round tackle Riley Reiff, who has become a full-time starter in his second season, “really is more difficult than a lot of guys expect. I mean, it’s hard.”

Hard, too, for the teams forced to deal with tackle wash-outs. And for the clubs, like Pittsburgh or Arizona or, yeah, Jacksonville, who have to compensate when high-round choices at the position don’t work out.

+AROUND THE LEAGUE

*He is almost as bodacious as his more famous twin brother, but New Orleans first-year defensive coordinator Rob Ryan has made an incredible difference in the first four weeks of the season in a Saints unit that was, at least statistically, the worst in NFL history only a year ago. “He’s been a blessing, really,” said “edge” defender Junior Galette of the club’s new coordinator. “Just the kind of character that he is, the (enthusiasm) for the job that he presents, it’s great. Plus the scheme is better than what we were doing.”

Most of the attention in the Saints’ 4-0 start has gone to the return of head coach Sean Payton after his one-year banishment/hiatus from the NFL in the wake of the “Bountygate” scandal. And deservedly so, since the Saints, particularly on the offensive side, are a different team with him around. But the presence of Ryan has been a sort of under-the-radar factor, at least among national media, that’s had a huge impact. Dead-last in the league in statistical defense in 2012, and 31st in points allowed, New Orleans ranks No. 6 and No. 5, respectively, right now in those two categories. Ryan is the third defensive coordinator that New Orleans has experienced the past three seasons, following Gregg Williams and Steve Spagnuolo. For Ryan himself, the New Orleans gig is actually his fourth different job in six seasons. But he seems to have found a home.

New Orleans SaintsThe New Orleans defense has undergone a significant transformation thanks to new coordinator Rob Ryan.

*On the team-operated website, the New Orleans depth chart is listed as “unofficial.” The handle is certainly appropriate because, although the Saints and virtually every other media outlet that posts a New Orleans depth chart indicates the defense as a “base” 3-4 alignment, the unit has played a four-man front just about as often in 2013. In fact, because of knee injuries to Jonathan Vilma, Will Smith (who was to have been converted from his career-long end spot) and Victor Butler (who had played for Ryan in Dallas and was signed as a free agent in part to make the transition from a 4-3 easier), the focus hasn’t been nearly as much on the linebacker contingent as it was originally projected to be. That’s not to suggest the linebacker unit hasn’t played well, but the Saints have gotten quality performances from a seven-man line group that features only one player (tackle Brodrick Bunkley) with more than three seasons of experience, and a refashioned secondary.

“It’s been an overall effort,” said erstwhile linebacker Galette, who has probably logged more time at his original NFL position, end, and who has five sacks in four games. “And it’s been a matter of being flexible, from both a player and a scheme (standpoint). I know that, because of (Ryan’s) background, people kind of ‘typed’ us as a 3-4 coming into the season. I’m not sure they’d do that anymore. We play whatever it takes to win, and so far, it’s working.”

*Former Tampa Bay starter Josh Freeman, whose fall from grace and decline in performance over the last couple seasons is one of the real head-scratchers around the league, got his wish when the Bucs released him last week. As noted in this space last week, Freeman preferred not to be traded. Of course, as also noted here, a deal was no more than a long shot, since Freeman had more than $6 million remaining on his contract for 2013, was in the final season of his deal, and could be eligible for unrestricted free agency next spring. That could potentially have made the former first-round draft pick a three-month “rental” player. Last week, we suggested that Freeman might prefer to stick in Tampa Bay for the remainder of the season, so that he could collect his entire salary (which he can still do by filing for the veterans’ one-time severance package after the season), and then hit the open market after the season. But that changed, people close to Freeman acknowledged, after the Bucs’ brain trust demoted Freeman all the way to third on the depth chart and made him inactive for last week’s contest. As of this writing, the future for Freeman was still uncertain, but several teams were poring over video, to determine whether his recent problems were more physical or mental. Suffice it to say that, while the Bucs have given up on Freeman, whose situation still evokes some sympathy from a few of the players in the Tampa Bay locker room, the rest of the NFL isn’t quite ready yet to write the onetime Kansas State star off completely.

*The acquisition of three-time Pro Bowl defender Jon Beason last week is the third time in less than three years that the New York Giants have gambled on a former first-round draft choice to potentially turn around an inconsistent unit. Even given an injury history (knee and Achilles) that limited him to just eight appearances and seven starts the past two-plus seasons, Beason can still be a good player if he even approximates the performance of his early career. Beason met with Carolina coach Ron Rivera earlier in the week, to discuss his playing time and his future with the Panthers, and, while there wasn’t quite a meeting (or a parting) of the minds, the confab basically laid the groundwork for the deal, in which the Giants will give up a late-round pick, probably a No. 7 choice. Beason is still only 28 years old, but it’s still too early to say the seventh-year veteran is only a shadow of himself.

Said one New York front office person: “OK, he’s not the same player, but we really feel that, if he’s healthy, he can be a solid enough guy for us.” Beason was a durable player early in his career, starting all 16 games in each of his first four years in the league. In his first four seasons, Beason averaged 135.0 tackles and had eight interceptions, and truly was an impact player. The Giants won’t expect him to be that again, but they hope to get more out of Beason than did the Panthers, who signed Beason to a $50 million contract extension in 2011, of late.

*Indianapolis officials insist it wasn’t really a “decision” in opting to retain defensive end Robert Mathis in 2012 with a four-year, $36 million extension, and then allowing bookend partner Dwight Freeney to become an unrestricted free agent a year later. But with the team converting to a 3-4 front under then-rookie coach Chuck Pagano in ’12, there was plenty of discussion and lots of study about how the two players, who had aligned at end for all of their respective careers, might fare in the new look.

Looking back, it appears that Colts’ officials, who spent considerable time scrutinizing the two “edge” players, from what one team executive told NFP recently, made the right call. In fact, it looks, in retrospect, like a masterstroke. As is always the case in the NFL anymore, economics played a part. But it was more than that, too; it was primarily a football choice. Mathis has adapted even better than everyone expected, with eight sacks in 2012 and almost as many (7.5) already in four games this season. There was “more than a feeling, some really good (analytics), too, that indicated he would be productive in the (3-4) defense,” said the executive of Mathis. Last season, Freeney, who’s only a year older than Mathis, had just five sacks with the Colts, before moving on to San Diego on a two-year contract this summer. Last week, Freeney sustained a quadriceps injury that prematurely ended his season after only a half-sack.

Peyton ManningUS PresswireThrough four games, Manning finds himself chasing one of Brady’s impressive records.

*With 201 straight pass attempts without an interception, Peyton Manning still has a long way to go to reach Tom Brady’s league record of 358, set in 2010-2011. But the fact he has played the first four regular-season games without a “pick” is fairly significant in his brilliant career. In his previous 14 seasons (not counting the 2011 campaign that he missed), Manning had never before gone more than three games at the start of the regular season without an interception. That three-game stretch was in 2010, and actually was the only year in which Manning went more than one game at the start of a season without an interception. In the 13 other years, Manning threw his first interception of the season in the opener eight times, and five times he threw it in the second game. Before this season, Manning had averaged 3.9 pickoffs in his first four games. In addition, the four straight games minus an interception equal a career-best for Manning. In the final four outings of 2008, he played the final four games without an interception, the only other time in his career that he went more than three games.

“The guy’s accuracy is incredible,” acknowledged wide receiver Demaryius Thomas. “And I said a few weeks ago that his arm strength is noticeably better than a year ago, which makes his accuracy that much better.”

*Not to overdose too much on the Saints/Ryan tangent in this edition of the “Sunday Blitz,” but credit the New Orleans coordinator as well for figuring out a way to utilize veteran Roman Harper. The team’s starting strong safety for six of his seven seasons (2007-2012) with the franchise, Harper was thought by many to be on his way out when the Saints chose Kenny Vaccaro in the first round. Indeed, the 15thoverall pick in the draft has started all four games alongside free safety Malcolm Jenkins, and the pair has been on the field for all 224 defensive snaps. But until a knee injury sidelined him for the past two games, Harper had also averaged 45 snaps per game as, was noted above, Ryan relied quite a bit on a 4-2-5 scheme that featured three safeties. Regarded as a liability in coverage, Harper has always been a good tackler and effective blitzer who registered 7.5 sacks under then-coordinator Williams in 2011. Although Harper hasn’t had a sack since Williams departed, Ryan conjured up a role that played to his strengths and provided him a major role.

*As noted by the broadcast crew in last Sunday’s Houston overtime defeat to Seattle, Texans quarterback Matt Schaub simply isn’t the same player when opponents force him to move his feet. Schaub is a rhythm thrower, one who has played in an offense that’s historically been plagued by turnovers, and he’s now thrown “pick six” interceptions in three straight outings, including a terrible decision last week that was run back by the Seahawks’ Richard Sherman late-game that salvaged what should have been a loss and sent it into overtime. Teams have long known that Schaub is prone to dubious decisions, and, thus, bad throws, when forced out of his comfort zone. But the recent “pick six” streak has really caught the attention of defensive coordinators who spoke to NFL last week.

“The guy is a 10-year vet,” one said. “You shouldn’t be able to rattle him. But he seems a little ‘hinky’ when teams come after him and get him moving around some.”

Geno SmithDespite the team’s 2-2 record, there is plenty of room for improvement when it comes to quarterback Geno Smith.

*The (relatively) good news for New York Jets’ rookie quarterback Geno Smith is that he can throw the deep ball fairly well, as evidenced by his four completions of 40 yards or more, tied for the most in the league. And Atlanta, the team he faces Monday night, has surrendered four passes of 40-plus yards, the second most in the league. The bad news is that Smith’s rating (68.6) is the worst in the NFL for any quarterback who started the first four games, he has the second-most turnovers in the league (11), and has been sacked 14 times. The worse news: The Falcons are 11-1 against rookie quarterbacks since Mike Smith became head coach in 2008. In those 12 games, Atlanta has surrendered a passer rating of just 72.6, rookie quarterbacks have thrown more interceptions (14) than touchdown passes (12), and have been sacked 29 times.

“Right now,” said Atlanta free safety Thomas DeCoud, “we just need a win . . . against a rookie, a 10-year veteran, whatever. But it will be good not to have to face a Hall-of-Famer (two of the Falcons’ three losses have been to Drew Brees and Tom Brady) for a change.”

+SHORT YARDAGE

*Granted, it was a small draft class, with only six members. But the Thursday release of Freeman left Tampa Bay with zero players from the ’09 lottery, the first for good-guy general manager Mark Dominik. Only two players from the Bucs’ 2009 draft class, defensive tackle Roy Miller (Jacksonville) and cornerback E.J. Biggers (Washington), were still in the league as of Friday morning. . . . On the subject of the 2009 draft, five first-rounders (temporarily counting Freeman) were out of the NFL altogether on Friday morning. In addition to Freeman, they were tackle Jason Smith (No. 2 overall), linebacker Aaron Curry (No. 4), linebacker Aaron Maybin (No. 11), and tailback Beanie Wells (No. 31). Four others – tackle Eugene Monroe, wide receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey, wide receiver Percy Harvin, and cornerback Vontae Davis – were with franchises other than the ones that chose them. Mark Sanchez and Jeremy Maclin were on season-ending injured reserve and Harvin and Michael Crabtree were on short-term I.R. . . . New England rookie wide receiver Kenbrell Thompkins took a big step forward last Sunday night, several Patriots veterans told NFP after last week’s win at the Georgia Dome. But Thompkins, who had six catches for 127 yards and a touchdown, still had one drop and another pass on which it appeared he ran a lazy route. “In this league,” said Thompkins, a former undrafted free agent, “you can’t have any concentration (lapses) at all. That’s something I’ve got to remember every play.” . . . Latest example that one man’s injury can be another player’s incentive: The aforementioned quadriceps tear to Freeney will provide former first-rounder Larry English an opportunity to make plays and make money. Largely a disappointment since the Chargers made him the 16th player chosen overall in 2009, English has just four starts in four-plus seasons and only 9.5 sacks, with never more than three sacks in a season. But now he’ll get a chance to start, to rush the passer, and to possibly demonstrate to 3-4 teams he can be an upfield force. Notably, he’s in the final season of his contract and will be a free agent next spring. . . . Before last Sunday night’s victory over Atlanta at the Georgia Dome, the Patriots had played 40 consecutive regular-season contests outdoors. Their last regular-season “dome” game before Sunday was a 45-24 win at Detroit on Nov. 25, 2010. . . . By the way, Mathis’ next sack will be the 100th of his NFL career. . . . An already-thin Giants offensive line is now even weaker, as guard Chris Snee is headed to season-ending I.R. because of a lingering hip injury from last season. . . . As reported by several media outlets, the Saints have begun to explore a contract extension for standout tight end Jimmy Graham, who will earn a little over $1.3 million this season in the final year of his rookie contract. The talks, though, are progressing (using that term generously) very slowly. What could be interesting, if there is no extension and the Saints are forced to use a “franchise” tag on Graham. There is some thought that agent Jimmy Sexton, citing the frequency with which Graham is “flexed” off the line, will attempt to argue that his client should receive a franchise tender at the wide receiver level. That has not yet been an element of any contract talks. . . . Since being signed by Denver after Houston waived him, return specialist Trindon Holliday has scored four regular-season touchdowns on punt and kickoff runbacks, two each. The Texans have scored none. The Houston return men since Holliday’s exit have averaged 9.8 yards on punt returns and 24.1 yards on kickoff returns, both respectable marks. But Holliday has averaged 11.7 yards and 35.5 yards, respectively. . . . Including his 60-yard score against the Steelers last week in London, Minnesota tailback Adrian Peterson has scored 12 touchdowns of 60 yards or more in his career. That’s the most for any runner since at least 1940. Second on the list is Jim Brown, with nine. . . . We’ve contended for the last few years now that, in a league so skewed to the pass, teams don’t have to have great running attacks anymore. The one caveat: That if you do have a productive running game, it allows you to do so much more. But Atlanta is beginning to make us re-think at least part of that premise. The Falcons have become increasingly one-dimensional the past couple seasons, and some Atlanta players privately feel that has been a factor in the team’s “red zone” and third-down conversion problems. “They can’t run the ball, in the ‘red zone’ or anywhere,” one New England defender told NFP last week. “And I’m not sure it’s just the injury to (Steven) Jackson.”

+BY THE NUMBERS

*Manning’s 16 individual touchdown passes are more offensive touchdowns than had been scored by all but four teams in the first four weeks of 2013. Chicago, Detroit, New Orleans and San Diego were all tied with 12 offensive touchdowns. Even including returns, no team had scored more than 15 touchdowns. Thirteen franchises had scored eight offensive touchdowns or fewer.

Read More 4105 Words

Another candidate enters the discussion

Raise the subject of the NFL’s best cornerback, and the names of the usual suspects – Darrelle Revis of Tampa Bay, Seattle’s Richard Sherman, Antonio Cromartie from the New York Jets, perhaps Johnathan Joseph of Houston, among them – typically are mentioned. But with the way Aqib Talib has played through the first four

Raise the subject of the NFL’s best cornerback, and the names of the usual suspects – Darrelle Revis of Tampa Bay, Seattle’s Richard Sherman, Antonio Cromartie from the New York Jets, perhaps Johnathan Joseph of Houston, among them – typically are mentioned. But with the way Aqib Talib has played through the first four outings of the 2013 season, the New England corner could be in the discussion as well.

Coaches, teammates and even some opponents certainly agree that he belongs on the short list right now.

“He’s played great,” Patriots’ nickel cornerback Kyle Arrington assessed of Talib’s performance at the quarter-pole of the Super Bowl race. “Everything is coming together for him. When he came in (last season), we knew he was good. But he’s taken it up another level right now. Lately, he’s been something else.”

That “lately” includes the Patriots’ 30-23 victory at Atlanta on Sunday night, a win in which Talib registered two tackles, four passes defensed and an interception. To culminate an otherwise brilliant outing, Talib knocked away a potential game-tying fourth-down pass intended for Falcons’ wide receiver Roddy White in the end zone with 35 seconds remaining.

On the play, with White running a shallow crossing route from the right side of the formation, the New England coverage bracketed tight end Tony Gonzalez (who had 12 receptions and seemed the most logical target for Matt Ryan) and also double-teamed wideout Julio Jones. That left Talib alone on White, who has been hampered by a high ankle sprain this season but remains a solid option, and the sixth-year vet answered the challenge.

“Those kinds of situations are what you want,” said Talib, who was flagged for a dubious, 38-yard pass interference call while covering White, afterwards. “It’s just you and him and let’s find out who the better guy is on that play.”

Through the first four games of a season in which he is tied for the NFL lead with four interceptions, including thefts in each of the past three games, Talib mostly has been the better man — on and off the field.

A first-round choice of Tampa Bay in 2008, Talib has experienced his share of off-field problems and legal entanglements since the Bucs made the former Kansas standout the 20th overall selection that year. In 2012, he was suspended by the league for a violation of the substance abuse policy. The suspension likely prompted the Nov. 1, 2012 trade to the Patriots in which he and a seventh-round pick were dealt for a fourth-round pick. At this point at least, the deal definitely would be considered a monumental heist for the Pats.

Aqib TalibTalib is currently tied for the NFL lead in interceptions, with four.

Talib, 27, has stayed away from trouble, by all reports been a model citizen, and worked hard in New England. Coach Bill Belichick has lauded his practice and study habits – not coincidentally, his last name translates from Arabic to “the student” – and acknowledged the cornerback has “done a good job for us since he’s been here.” Quarterback Tom Brady has termed him a “positive influence.” Said Belichick: “This year, beginning in camp, he’s been very good right from the start.”

Strong starts are nothing new for Talib, who notched the first of his 23 career pickoffs in only his second NFL game. In his first season with the Bucs, he had four interceptions, then five in 2009, and then six a season later. In his first start for the Pats, last Nov. 18, he turned an interception of Indianapolis quarterback Andrew Luck into his fourth career touchdown, with a 59-yard return.

In his first 11 starts in New England (counting two playoff games last year), the Patriots’ defense has surrendered 263.0 passing yards per game. If that doesn’t seem particularly impressive, consider this: Over the same stretch, without Talib in the starting lineup, the Patriots allowed roughly 25 more yards per game. On his first man-coverage assignment on Sunday night, Talib exploded to the ball and deftly flicked a pass away from Atlanta star Julio Jones on a third-down play.

Said Jones, who at one point complained to officials about Talib’s physical play: “He’s got good size (6-feet-1, 205 pounds), and he uses it, and he gets his hands on you and uses them well, too.” Talib allowed that the early play, on which Jones seemed open for a first down, “gave (him) a lot of confidence.”

It’s a quality he hasn’t lacked this season.

There were some concerns about durability in Tampa, where thigh and hip injuries sidelined Talib for 25 games in five seasons there. But he has played all but one of the Patriots’ 269 defensive snaps in 2013, and the physical issues seem behind him.

The New England coaches generally don’t flip Talib from side to side to match him up with the opponent’s top receiver. More often than not, though, Talib and Jones battled one another on Sunday evening. Jones’ stats for the game, six catches for 108 yards, clearly were misleading. He totaled nearly half the yardage on an acrobatic, 49-yard reception against New England right cornerback Alfonzo Dennard on a grab that led to Talib’s last-minute heroics. In the first three quarters, working primarily against Talib, Jones, who entered the game tied for the NFL lead in receptions, had just three catches for 22 yards. His longest reception against Talib in the first three quarters was for 16 yards, and two of his catches were for five yards or fewer.

“Against those (Atlanta) guys, as big and physical as they are, you’ve got to use your hands,” said Talib, who is physical enough to have once collected 64 tackles in a season. “You push and they pull. And they push and you pull. You have to be as physical with them as they are with you. And part of that is legally getting your hands on them.”

Chances are that some team will want to gets its hands on Talib next spring if he makes it to unrestricted free agency. He is playing on just a one-year contract worth about $5 million, a bargain price anymore for a cornerback with his skills-set. There is a suspicion that New England could attempt to sign him to an extension before he gets to the open market — even though the Patriots seem a little more wary about such extensions in the wake of the Aaron Hernandez fiasc0,–but Talib hasn’t really thought much about that, he said.

>

The Pats haven’t thought about life without Talib, either, but no less an authority than Brady suggested he should be a priority.

“I love having Aqib on the team,” Brady told a Boston-area radio station this week. “I go against him every day. I know how hard it is. He’s got a unique combination of size and speed and ability to play the ball in the air. His length is such that, I know when I throw the ball in practice, he’s just so hard to throw over the top of, because of his reach, his wingspan, his ability to play the ball at its highest point. And when you make a mistake, he makes you pay.”

Indeed, whether it’s New England or another team, someone is probably going to pay big for Talib next spring if he continues to play at his current level.

Read More 1076 Words

Gone, but not forgotten

Tooling home on Georgia Route 78 on Monday morning, having remained in downtown Atlanta the previous night following the Falcons’ defeat to New England, and musing aimlessly about the home team’s maddening “red zone” shortcomings that extended to another loss, the 1984 Don Henley song “The Boys of Summer” popped up on the radio.

Tooling home on Georgia Route 78 on Monday morning, having remained in downtown Atlanta the previous night following the Falcons’ defeat to New England, and musing aimlessly about the home team’s maddening “red zone” shortcomings that extended to another loss, the 1984 Don Henley song “The Boys of Summer” popped up on the radio.

An avowed fan of The Eagles, the anthem is one my favorite Henley solo efforts, a nostalgic look at one of the singer’s long-ago flings, but also a melancholy reminder to those of us on the long side of 60 about how much things have changed and how we can never recapture our youth. And it occurred to me – and, please, oblige me, because I generally try to avoid getting overly personal in NFP pieces – that with the Sunday death of former Pittsburgh Steelers’ defensive end L.C. Greenwood, “The Boys of Autumn” from my fledgling days in the business are mostly gone now.

The passing of Greenwood from kidney failure, and following the latest in an incredibly lengthy string of back surgeries (his sister claimed that Greenwood underwent 21 different back procedures after his career ended in 1981, and the former Steelers’ great vaguely pegged the number at “more than 15”), leaves Hall of Fame defensive tackle Joe Greene as the sole survivor of the “Steel Curtain” front four groups that propelled Pittsburgh to four Super Bowl titles in the 1970s.

What a group it was, and what a thrill for a native Pittsburgh kid in his first real reporting job to cover and get to know the bunch.

Greenwood, 67 at the time of his death, was as unique as every other member of the foursome, perhaps even more so. Right end Dwight “Mad Dog” White was forever angry at the world, a trait that he abandoned when he moved into a successful career in the investment and brokerage business before dying from a blood clot in 2008. Right tackle Ernie “Fats” Holmes, who also passed in ’08, in an automobile accident, was a certifiable (literally) wild man, once committed to a psychiatric hospital, and always destined, it seemed, for a premature demise. Greene, who famously earned the nickname “Mean Joe” for his demeanor on the field, actually was a pretty gentle giant off it, a thoughtful and provocative man who seemed to be forever capable of plumbing the depths of both the game and of life, and putting all things in perspective.

And then there was Greenwood, arguably the most flamboyant of a pretty colorful quartet, but a man whose devotion to family, faith, minority representation, and entrepreneurship belied the extravagance he demonstrated during a 13-year career in which he contributed mightily to those four Super Bowl victories. It has been six or seven years since I interviewed Greenwood by telephone for a package on Super Bowl rings that my then-employer was compiling.

L.C. GreenwoodGreenwood spent all 13 seasons of his professional career with the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Said Greenwood at the time: “You know, we were all from pretty small schools, and that was a (bond). But the other thing was, we were in it together, for each other. There were times we weren’t maybe the best of friends, but, on Sundays, we all came together with the same (team) goals. I think the game is different now.”

Amen to that.

There were so many ironies to Greenwood, essentially discovered at Arkansas AM&N (now Arkansas-Pine Bluff) by then-Steelers personnel chief Art Rooney Jr., all of them recallable now. A 10th-round pick in the same 1969 lottery that brought the Steelers Greene with the fourth overall selection, and standout left tackle Jon Kolb in the third round, Greenwood was a long, angular, athletic player. At 6-feet-6-plus and only about 245-250 pounds, he nonetheless played virtually all of his career on the strongside. The way the game is played now, Greenwood, chosen in ’69 only after 237 other prospects had gone off the board, would almost certainly be a prototype “rush end,” aligning on the right side.

But despite being double-teamed by tight ends, who almost always lined up to the strongside at that juncture of the game’s evolution, he produced 73.5 career sacks (admittedly an unofficial statistic at the time), second most in franchise history, and was named to six Pro Bowl appearances. He was a master of the sack-and-strip, with 14 forced fumbles. And in the biggest of games, he showed up big, swatting away three Fran Tarkenton passes, like Dikembe Mutombo blocking layups, in Super Bowl IX. A year later, in Super Bowl X, he sacked Roger Staubach four times. As noted, he was colorful, wearing high-topped, golden spikes after a 1973 injury left him with a chronically balky ankle, a sartorial choice that drew him plenty of attention. And his nickname, “Hollywood Bags,” was hung on him by teammates, when he told them he always had his bags packed for when some Hollywood producer would phone and offer him a movie role.

Although Greenwood never became a cinematic star, years later, in the early ‘80s, he was featured in a series of Miller Lite commercials, in which he read a letter to NFL quarterbacks he’d played against, apologizing, “for the way I treated you.”

In “civilian” life, though, Greenwood was about as humble and grounded a person as one could ever find. The son of a Mississippi farmer who worked two jobs to support a family of nine kids, and who did some part-time preaching on the weekends, L.C. Greenwood picked cotton for $2.50 per 100-pound bushel when he was a kid. And he never relinquished the work ethic instilled in him. Maybe that’s why, following his 1981 retirement, he launched so many successful businesses that not only kept him well but provided jobs for so many others. And while perceived by some during his career as a player principally interested in himself, he was a longtime NAACP member and a quiet champion for civil rights.

On Sunday, in London, after the Steelers’ latest loss, safety Troy Polamalu spoke of what he termed “the (Steel) Curtain guys,” and of the “big shoes” they left behind for their successors. Greenwood’s big shoes were gold, but so was his big heart. On Monday, years after I last spoke to him, his hearty, good-natured chuckle still resonated, just as did Henley’s song.

A couple times, Greenwood has been a Hall of Fame finalist, and there are those, Greene and Rooney Jr. among them, who insist he belongs in the shrine. It’s not our place right now to make the case for Greenwood’s inclusion, which would have to come from the “Seniors” subcommittee of selectors. But in a final irony, it’s notable that Greenwood’s birthplace was rural Canton, Miss., where he is expected to be laid to rest.

Perhaps it’s finally time to at least open discussion on Greenwood’s candidacy for residence in a more prominent Canton.

Read More 1145 Words

NFP Sunday Blitz

Since the two franchises don’t meet very often, as Monday night’s game at the Superdome is the first Miami-New Orleans matchup since 2009, there hasn’t been a lot of excuse for dredging up the Dolphins’ decision in 2006 to pass on quarterback Drew Brees, who then signed with the Saints as an unrestricted free

Since the two franchises don’t meet very often, as Monday night’s game at the Superdome is the first Miami-New Orleans matchup since 2009, there hasn’t been a lot of excuse for dredging up the Dolphins’ decision in 2006 to pass on quarterback Drew Brees, who then signed with the Saints as an unrestricted free agent.

But the game offers a tailor-made opportunity to revisit the history of the Dolphins and Brees, and the media from both cities has certainly taken full advantage of it. We’re not much into revisionist history here, but it is an interesting, albeit futile, exercise, to consider how the fortunes of the two franchises might have been altered had the Miami medical staff cleared the club to sign Brees.

Lots of fodder there, right? A great storyline/subplot for the game.

Remember, following a grueling physical exam, the Dolphins’ doctors advised then-Miami coach Nick Saban and the front office against signing Brees, because of his surgically repaired right shoulder. The Dolphins and Saban subsequently opted to deal for Daunte Culpepper instead, trading a second-round pick for him. He lasted all of four starts – with more interceptions (three) than touchdown passes (two) – before the club released him following the ’06 campaign.

Ryan TannehillUS PRESSWIRERyan Tannehill could put some of the Dolphins past frustrations to rest with a win against Brees and the Saints.

The Miami doctors have absorbed a lot of heat in the intervening years, and their decision obviously came under heavy scrutiny again in the past week. The story has been rehashed plenty in the past week, and Brees, Saban, and Saints’ coach Sean Payton all have their own memories of how things came down.In the ensuing years, the Dolphins have used 10 different starting quarterbacks – Culpepper, Joey Harrington, John Beck, Trent Green, Cleo Lemon, Chad Pennington, Tyler Thigpen, Chad Henne, Matt Moore, and now Ryan Tannehill – and posted a record of 48-67. In the same stretch, Brees has started in all but one of New Orleans’ 115 games and owns a Super Bowl ring. The only start he missed was in the 2009 regular-season finale, when the Saints had already secured the top seed in the NFC, and Mark Brunell started. Brees has gone on to become a four-time NFL passing champion and potential Hall of Famer; Culpepper, on the other hand, was out of the league altogether after the ’09 season.

From old, yellowing notebooks that we keep in the basement, and dug out in recent days, two tidbits, though, looking back at the ’06 decision: First, while the Miami doctors have been second-guessed quite a bit, Brees’ representative, prominent agent Tom Condon, believed his client might not be able to throw again until camp that year. “If then,” Condon told this reporter at the time. Condon has since said that he felt the Dolphins would nix the physical to drive down the contract price. Maybe so, but in the spring of ’06, he had his doubts about the timetable by which Brees could rebound from surgery.

That’s not to defend the medical staff in Miami, but just to note that even the people charged with finding Brees a new home weren’t thoroughly convinced of when he might be able to throw with velocity again.

Second, credit Condon, who was privately told about the failed physical in Miami about an hour before it was made public, for quickly directing Brees to the Saints, and cutting a deal with general manager Mickey Loomis before word about the exam leaked out and some negotiating leverage evaporated.

+AROUND THE NFL

*Since the players haven’t really candidly addressed the issue much, it’s hard to gauge the sentiments in the Tampa Bay locker room about coach Greg Schiano’s switch of starting quarterbacks, from veteran Josh Freeman to rookie Mike Glennon. But it’s worth noting that there was some difference of opinion about Glennon last spring, before the Bucs grabbed the former North Carolina State standout with a third-round choice. Looking back on notes gleaned from several NFL general managers and personnel directors prior to the draft, it’s clear, in retrospect, not everyone was sold on Glennon. Perhaps most conspicuous in reviewing the notes was a disparity of opinion over his arm strength. For all his size and pocket stature, a few scouts noted, Glennon didn’t drive the ball with as much authority as some expected him to do in a few games. Evaluator’s like ESPN’s Jon Gruden, have said that Glennon has a big arm, but the former NFL coach rarely has anything negative to say about anyone, does he? There was a feeling that Glennon’s arm wasn’t as powerful as he himself thought it was, and that he sometimes forced the issue a bit too much. “You see a guy with that kind of size, and naturally assume that’s he’s got rocket (for an arm),” one scout said at the time. “It’s a good, strong arm, but not really a great arm.” The other issue with Glennon was footwork. But Schiano liked him, which is the only thing that counts, and clearly drafted him with the notion that he would someday be his starter. That “someday” has arrived.

*With nearly $6.5 million remaining on his base salary for 2013, it will be difficult for the Bucs to swap the demoted Freeman before the Oct. 29 trade deadline. Even if there is an injury to another team’s starter, spending that kind of money for a “rental” player would be a tough swallow for any franchise. Of course, there is always the possibility Freeman could rework the deal, possibly even sign an extension that keeps him with a club beyond 2013. But word is that the latter of those possibilities, in particular, isn’t likely. While he suggested that a trade might be the best thing for all parties, Freeman would actually prefer to go into free agency, where the market figures to be robust, even for a guy who hasn’t played well over the past two seasons. Even if it means sitting behind Glennon for three more months, Freeman is said to be prepared to take a step back in order to eventually take one forward, both competitively and financially. By the way, the reports that the Bucs came close to trading for Carson Palmer in the spring only strengthen the belief that Schiano had soured on Freeman long before he pulled the plug on him, a notion well detailed by several Tampa columnists last week.

*Much was made during Thursday night’s game, and again on Friday morning, about the San Francisco’s offense’s return to basics, i.e., hand the ball to tailback Frank Gore, in light of the 49ers’ thumping of St. Louis. The 49ers are now 12-2-1 under Jim Harbaugh in games where Gore logs at least 20 carries. But, as usual, the tone was set by the San Francisco defense, more specifically the run defense, a component that had been trashed a bit in consecutive defeats to Seattle and Indianapolis. Playing without several starters, most notably linebackers Patrick Willis and Aldon Smith, San Francisco surrendered a paltry 18 yards on 19 rushes, and the Rams didn’t have a run of longer than seven yards. It was certainly a step back in the right direction for a unit that prides itself on its physicality. The 49ers entered the game ranked 29th versus the rush, and having permitted six rushing touchdowns. In the previous two seasons under coordinator Vic Fangio, San Francisco was No. 4 (in 2012) and No. 1 (2011) and surrendered a total of just 10 rushing touchdowns. Last season, in 19 games, counting the playoffs, the 49ers gave up only eight touchdowns on the ground. “We got back to our attitude,” said linebacker NaVorro Bowman, who had six tackles (three for losses) and two sacks. “Defend every inch of turf.”

*If he has a 300-yard game against Miami on Monday night, Brees will tie his own league record, with nine consecutive 300-yard performances. No other player in league history has more than six, with Rich Gannon, Kurt Warner and Steve Young all tied for that distinction. In his current eight-game stretch, Brees has averaged 358.1 passing yards. Sporting the NFL’s 20th-ranked pass defense through the first three weeks, the Dolphins’ secondary might seem like easy pickings. But the Dolphins have allowed only one 300-yard passing game – 321 yards by Andrew Luck of Indianapolis on Sept. 15 – in their last 11 outings. In fact, Luck, who’s done it twice, is the only quarterback to register 300 yards against Miami in its past 13 games. “We’re growing as a unit, but that guy (Brees), when he’s in a rhythm, is unreal,” said Dolphins’ defensive lineman Randy Starks. As noted earlier, since signing with New Orleans in ‘06, Brees has only faced the Dolphins once, in 2009. The Saints won that shootout, 46-34, but Brees was held under 300 yards (298), had just one touchdown pass and three interceptions, was sacked five times and lost one of his two fumbles. During his San Diego tenure, Brees started against the Dolphins three times, was winless, averaged just 192.0 yards, and had two touchdown passes and five interceptions, while suffering 12 sacks. Said Starks: “(But) history means nothing against him. He isn’t going to worry about what happened one play to the next, let alone years ago.” Starks, by the way, is the lone Dolphins’ starter from the 2009 game against Brees who even still plays in Miami.

Mark IngramICONIs Ingram’s time in New Orleans coming to an end?

*New Orleans tailback and former Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram last week vociferously denied a report that he had requested the Saints trade him. But the team’s 2011 first-round choice, who is averaging only 1.8 yards per carry on just 17 attempts in the two games in which he’s appeared, is said to be frustrated by the lack of playing time and production. “He doesn’t want to be traded, but it would be something, if the Saints decided to do it, that he understands might help (his career),” said a member of Ingram’s stable. New Orleans coach Sean Payton favors a tailback-by-committee approach, with Ingram sharing time with Pierre Thomas, Darren Sproles and Khiry Robinson (Travaris Cadet doesn’t have any carries yet, but the Saints like him). But the former Alabama star is probably at his best when he is more a workhorse and can get into a rhythm. In his two-plus seasons with the team, Ingram has only five games in which he carried 15 times or more, and a career-best of 21 attempts. In his first two seasons, he averaged only 1390.0 rushes and just 176.5 “touches.” With the addition of Sproles a couple years ago, people seem to have forgotten that Ingram, who has zero receptions so far in 2013, is a decent receiver, who had 46 catches as a rookie. The trade of another former Alabama star runner, Trent Richardson, last week, has helped fuel rumors that Ingram could be the next to be dealt. That might not be the case. But his trade denials aside, Ingram could benefit from a change of scenery.

*Part of the reason both Atlanta safeties went to the Pro Bowl last year was because Thomas DeCoud (free) and William Moore (strong) were so good at taking the ball away from opponents, particularly early in the season. Four of DeCoud’s seven takeaways for the season came in the first three outings of the year, including half of his six interceptions. In the first three games of ’12, Moore had two of his four pickoffs. Those thefts contributed to the Falcons being a plus-10 in turnover-takeaway differential in the first three contests of 2012. After three games this year, Atlanta is “even” in differential, with four turnovers and takeaways each, and two of the team’s three interceptions have come on tipped balls, including one pickoff by Moore last week. “(Takeaways) usually come in bunches, so we’re waiting for our bunch to come,” said DeCoud, who doesn’t have a takeaway yet in ’13. Perhaps more problematic than the takeaways for the Falcons is the number of missed tackles so far in the secondary, including by the safeties. In advance of Sunday night’s meeting with New England, a team whose receivers typically add a lot of yards after catch, the Atlanta staff last week doggedly worked with the safeties about taking better angles to the ball and wrapping up on contact. “Tackle the catch,” which essentially translates into making the stop at the spot where the receiver catches the ball, was a recurring theme at practices.

*We’ve written a lot about Kansas City third-year linebacker Justin Houston the past several weeks and, given his league-best 7

Read More 2148 Words

That’s that

It was essentially a fait anxiously waiting to pair up with an accompli (a term that basically translates into “done deal,” for those lacking a foreign language dictionary) ever since it became obvious a couple weeks ago that Tampa Bay second-year coach Greg Schiano and quarterback Josh Freeman were at odds and could no

It was essentially a fait anxiously waiting to pair up with an accompli (a term that basically translates into “done deal,” for those lacking a foreign language dictionary) ever since it became obvious a couple weeks ago that Tampa Bay second-year coach Greg Schiano and quarterback Josh Freeman were at odds and could no longer co-exist. And on Wednesday those fancy French words finally formed a connection.

Which is something, apparently, that Freeman and Schiano never accomplished in their brief tenure together.

No reason here, not even an attempt, to assign blame for a separation that will end in eventual divorce, no matter if the split comes via a trade, release or, with Freeman in the final season of his original rookie contract, free agency. Chalk it up to that old and hackneyed standby, “irrevocable differences.”

But the pending exit of Freeman, who will probably never start another game for the Bucs unless there is an injury to new rookie starter Mike Glennon or some other cataclysmic event, drives home a few points: First off, success can be fleeting even for a player as abundantly talented as Freeman. Second, a quarterback and his performance are frequently a product of timing and system. And, finally, there are few pairings in sport as intimately linked as a quarterback and a head coach.

It is, acknowledged one AFC general manager whose franchise made a quarterback change a few years ago at the quiet behest of its coach, a symbiotic relationship.

“One kind of feeds off the other,” the general manager noted on Wednesday, after the news of Freeman’s demotion. “Their fortunes usually are tied to one another. They’re basically in it together. You know, like conjoined twins.”

Until, as was the case on Wednesday, one of the twins decides that he no longer wants to be fused at the hip. And then the painful surgery ensues to separate the two and permit them to individually move on. Make no mistake, the decision to part ways with Freeman was almost certainly a painful one for the Tampa Bay brass. As was noted in the Sunday Blitz column on Sept. 15, it was 2010 when prominent Bucs’ officials told several media members that the team wouldn’t trade Freeman for any player in the league.

Josh Freeman and Greg SchianoJosh Freeman and Greg Schiano during happier times.

I can recall that in the summer of 2009, when general manager Mark Dominik was ushering me through the Bucs’ new and lavish practice facility, he made it a point to stop and introduce me to Freeman in a hallway. “This is a guy,” Dominik said to me, “you’re going to want to know.”

What a difference a few years, along with a new coach, makes, right? Now the team would likely accept a middle- or even low-round draft choice for its ‘09 first-round selection. But even with such a modest price tag, there are elements – the fact few teams require a starter direly, the season at the quarter-pole, the money remaining on Freeman’s five-year contract, and the reality that other clubs can merely wait until the spring and add the quarterback as a free agent – that could scuttle any potential deal.

For Freeman, only 25 and still blessed with considerable physical tools, it’s likely neither the end of his career nor his time as an NFL starter. The history of the league is rife with examples of quarterbacks who flourished in second, even third, opportunities. For the Bucs, it’s a step back, as it is for any franchise that strikes out on a high-round quarterback choice. But, increasingly, teams seem willing to take a step back in order to eventually advance a few steps forward. The Bucs are simply the latest team to retrench, at least temporarily.

In fact, if not quite a way of life in the NFL, pairing a quarterback and a coach with similar mindsets and philosophies has become fairly common. The left hand is, more often than not anymore, operating in sync with the right. It doesn’t take a kind of mind meld, but the lessons in Cleveland and Tampa Bay the past week reflect the concert with which a coach and quarterback must work. The quarterback, it seems, is the on-field extension of the coach. And when it doesn’t really click, well, the extension is unplugged quicker than in the past.

“You take (coach Mike Smith) and Matt (Ryan),” said Falcons wide receiver Roddy White of a coach-quarterback pairing that arrived in Atlanta together in 2008. “They have the same mindset. They’re in tune with one another.”

Clearly, the tune in Tampa Bay had become an anvil chorus. But anymore, such dissolutions aren’t out of the ordinary.

Half of the eight new coaches in the league for 2013 changed quarterbacks. Buffalo’s Doug Marrone acquired Kevin Kolb and then, when the veteran was injured, turned to rookie E.J. Manuel. Arizona’s Bruce Arians dealt for Carson Palmer and Andy Reid of Kansas City traded for Alex Smith. And do you really think that Brandon Weeden is going to get his job back in Cleveland anytime soon from Rob Chudzinski? Chip Kelly in Philadelphia and Jacksonville’s Gus Bradley threw the starting competition open before opting to stick with their incumbents. Only did Chicago (Marc Trestman) and San Diego (Mike McCoy) not consider changes.

And the trend began long before this season. What once was a vocation indicative of long-term stability has become, while not quite as fungible as some positions, one in which a starter’s shelf-life is tenuous. And tied, in large part, to the man who’s on the sideline, calling the shots.

It’s ironic, but the presence of Freeman in Tampa Bay was supposed to have been a terrific starting point for Schiano. Less than two full seasons later, it is fin. Which, in case you don’t already know, is basically French for “over.”

Read More 968 Words

Here come the Bengals

There obviously aren’t any members of the Cincinnati Bengals’ youthful roster old enough to recall the early 1960’s BBC series, “That Was The Week That Was,” a satire written in part by a couple of guys who would later help form Monty Python, and hosted by the late David Frost. Heck, even head coach

There obviously aren’t any members of the Cincinnati Bengals’ youthful roster old enough to recall the early 1960’s BBC series, “That Was The Week That Was,” a satire written in part by a couple of guys who would later help form Monty Python, and hosted by the late David Frost. Heck, even head coach Marvin Lewis was just a toddler when the short-lived 30-minute show came to American television sets.

But if the Bengals extend their postseason streak to three consecutive appearances for the first time in franchise history, and advance beyond playoff one-and-done for the first time since 1990, the past week might be remembered as a seminal moment for a team that has been lampooned as the “Bungles” for a good portion of its mostly miserable past. No one is contending yet that Sunday’s victory over Green Bay will be a crystallizing moment. Combined, though, with the Sept. 16 Monday night win over Pittsburgh, a club that has long tormented the Bengals, and the past week could be a defining time for a team that seems to be emerging as a young power.

Given the history, it might take a while yet to exorcise all the demons, but the two straight victories over a pair of high-profile opponents suggests that Cincinnati could be poised to escape its hellish past. And, in an AFC that doesn’t appear to have as many legitimate Super Bowl contenders as the NFC, the Bengals are beginning to believe they may have some championship pedigree.

“We know now we can play with anybody,” said defensive tackle Domata Peko after the improbable 34-30 win over the Packers. Noted another longsuffering veteran, offensive left tackle Andrew Whitworth: “To be honest, I feel like it’s our time.”

Time will tell, of course, if Whitworth is correct. But there is a feeling that pervades this edition of the Bengals that seems a little different and it was evident on Sunday, even as Cincinnati squandered an early 14-zip advantage.

Marvin LewisMarvin Lewis has the Bengals looking to claim their first divisional title since 2009.

Less than six minutes into the contest, the Bengals led by two touchdowns. And how did they handle such prosperity: On its ensuing seven possessions, Cincinnati had three punts and four turnovers. Coughing up the ball on four straight series (one interception and three fumbles) contributed to the Packers scoring 30 straight points and grabbing what appeared to be a commanding lead. But the Bengals battled back and then won when they knocked a fumble loose themselves, and corner Terrence Newman scooped it up and rambled 58 yards for a score.

These are the kinds of games, Whitworth acknowledged, the Bengals typically lost in the past. At 30-14, having blown its early edge with sloppiness, Cincinnati had every reason to fold. Reverse momentum and negative inertia had been such regular visitors to the franchise that a here-we-go-again attitude would have been understandable. Even predictable.

Instead, players said afterwards, there was a sense on the sideline that they could still salvage a winning hand. It’s an attitude that older veterans such as Whitworth and Peko had not previously witnessed. And one that not even young players like quarterback Andy Dalton and wide receiver A.J. Green had experienced. But the domination of Pittsburgh, even though it doesn’t appear as impressive now, given the Steelers’ ineptitude, began to foster a collective belief among the roster. And the win against imperial Green Bay should buttress that feeling.

“We just feel like we’re not going to back down from anybody,” said defensive end Michael Johnson.

Building a winning program is one thing. Sustaining it is another. With two playoff appearances in a row, although each of the 2011 and 2012 trips to the postseason concluded with wild card defeats to Houston, Lewis began to nurture a good team. But the process of actually believing often requires a signature victory or a stretch in which a team meshes. There is an old football adage that a team needs to “learn how to win” before it truly progresses.

The past week may have provided the education and experience the Bengals needed to foster the growth spurt that puts them over the top.

Even after two straight playoff campaigns, some cynics noted that the Bengals were the perfect franchise for the HBO “Hard Knocks” series this summer. But now that the Bengals are administering the aches and pains, no one is laughing. Lewis and much-maligned owner-general manager Mike Brown have slowly crafted a strong, physical team, one with a Mike Zimmer-led defense that gets after people and beats them at the line of scrimmage, and an improving cast of offensive playmakers. For all the criticism of a scouting department most critics say is understaffed, the club has drafted exceedingly well the past few seasons, and developed in-house talent.

The only other time in franchise history the Bengals posted consecutive playoff years was 1980 and ’81. And the second of those postseason berths carried a sort of asterisk, because ’81 was a campaign truncated by strike. The current two-year streak of playoff appearances is much more legitimate. So might be the Bengals, who could be more than just a wild card possibility.

Defensive end Carlos Dunlap termed Sunday’s victory “a big-time win.” Green claimed the club had “just (taken) the next step.”

If the stripes do, indeed, change in Cincinnati, chances are that the Bengals will point to the recent seven-day stretch as the week that was.

Read More 882 Words

NFP Sunday Blitz

The headline news of the past week, the Cleveland Browns’ stunning trade of second-year tailback Trent Richardson to the Indianapolis Colts, has been studied and analyzed from just about every angle. There have probably been autopsies—hold the jokes, please, about the Browns burying their chances for respectability in 2013 with the move—in

The headline news of the past week, the Cleveland Browns’ stunning trade of second-year tailback Trent Richardson to the Indianapolis Colts, has been studied and analyzed from just about every angle. There have probably been autopsies—hold the jokes, please, about the Browns burying their chances for respectability in 2013 with the move—in which there was less cutting and probing.

Since I’m not a doctor and don’t play one on TV, I won’t reach for a scalpel in trying to dissect the weird deal. Neither will I attempt to discern the so-called “winner” of the trade, because it’s premature to ascertain the long-term fallout. But even minus a degree in psychology – the closest I’ve come to one is a few low-level courses as an undergraduate and a few more in grad school, none of which earned me better than a “B” grade – I’ll take an amateur stab at trying to read the sentiments of at least one person in the wake of the deal. And watching longtime league coach Norv Turner in taped interviews after Richardson was sent packing, it certainly seemed, at least from his body language, like the Browns’ offensive coordinator wasn’t a guy who pushed exceedingly hard for the tailback’s exit. Instead, it looked as if Turner, a good soldier, loyally toed the party line.

That’s not to suggest that the triumvirate of club president Joe Banner, general manager Michael Lombardi and coach Rob Chudzinski simply pulled the rug out from under the guy who calls the Cleveland plays. Or that Turner, who inherited the former Alabama star when he arrived at the Browns, was a champion of retaining Richardson instead of claiming an additional first-round draft pick in 2014. It’s just that Turner, adroit at the art of the non-answer after three previous stints as an NFL head coach, bobbed and weaved conspicuously when queried about the club’s spin-doctors’ explanations that Richardson wasn’t a “good fit” for the offense.

For sure, Richardson’s statistical track record, admittedly a small sample size (only 17 games), indicated he is not a back with the ability to author the big, game-altering play. His resume included just two rushes of 20 or more yards, none longer than 32 yards, and a per-carry average of just 3.5 yards, only 3.4 yards this season. There are concerns about his ability to play on third down, and he had been relieved of those responsibilities in recent days. But his injuries aside, Richardson appeared to be a player capable of a 20-carry workload. A steady, if admittedly unspectacular, runner. And one might think, given Turner’s history in the league, he could actually use such a guy.

Trent RichardsonRichardson averaged just 3.5 yards per carry during his 17 starts with the Browns.

In the hours after the trade, long before the dust had settled but typical of the “instant analysis” nature of the New Age Media, an Internet expert applauded the deal, citing Turner’s pedigree as a passing guru. Nothing could be further from the truth. In his previous 22 seasons as either a coordinator (seven years) or a head coach (15 seasons), the popular misconception about Turner is that he always favored putting the ball in the air, sometimes recklessly. But anyone who has spoken to Turner – and the bet here is that a lot of a folks who attempted to instantly dope out the Richardson-to-the-Colts deal have never so much as met him – knows that he wants to run first. Turner may not emanate “tough guy” vibes, because he can be lofty and erudite in his demeanor at times, but he revels in physical football. There have been instances, in fact, when Turner took public umbrage at the notion that he sometimes ignored the run in favor of conjuring up passing-game X’s and O’s.

Just look at the numbers.

When armed with a physical runner in particular, Turner has always espoused a tough ground attack. Thirteen times in his 22 seasons, he enjoyed feature backs who logged over 250 carries in a season; in 10 of those years, his top back went for over 300 attempts. With Emmitt Smith (Dallas), Terry Allen (Washington), Stephen Davis (Redskins), LaDainian Tomlinson (San Diego), Ricky Williams (Miami), Frank Gore (San Francisco), heck, even with Lamont Jordan (Oakland), on his roster, Turner-designed offenses ran the ball often and effectively. Granted, there were occasions because of injuries or lack of a true feature back—when the best he could trot out on a weekly basis was Ricky Ervins, Amos Zereoue, or Mike Tolbert—when Turner didn’t have much with which to work. But when Turner had a stud, workhorse back on the roster, a guy who could pound the ball inside, he usually rode him.

The league has skewed toward the multiple-running back attack, but Turner never really was one to embrace the run-by-committee model.

On a dozen occasions, Turner’s offenses produced 1,200-yard rushers. There were seven occasions he had 1,400-yard backs. Even accounting for the pedestrian backs noted above, guys he was forced to employ in some of those 22 years, Turner’s lead runners averaged 277.2 rushes and 1,167.0 yards. Eight times, his running games finished statistically higher than his passing attacks. Turner running games were among the top 10 almost as many times (nine) as were his passing designs (10). There were even two seasons in which his teams ran the ball more than they threw it, and his 45 percent ratio of run-to-pass plays wasn’t nearly as lopsided when he had a top back who could power the ball.

It’s tough, from afar, to know what went on inside the Cleveland locker room, although the legitimate shock emanating from some Browns’ players after the trade indicated Richardson was a popular teammate. It’s equally difficult to determine what was going on in the collective craniums of Banner, Lombardi and Chudzinski, what they were thinking when one of them picked up the phone Tuesday, dialed up Colts’ general manager Ryan Grigsby (whom had previously worked with Banner in Philadelphia), and initiated the trade. His critics in Philly notwithstanding, Banner, a guy we’ve known for a long time, is savvy. Onetime buddy Lombardi is one of the most astute talent evaluators we’ve known in more than three decades of covering the league. So there was rationale, not just a willy-nilly impulse, in the trade.

“(The trade) was a hard swallow, but it was a swallow we felt we had to make, given where we want to go,” said a mid-level Cleveland staffer on Thursday morning. “It won’t be popular (locally), but sometimes you have to take a step back in order to take two (steps) forward. In the short-term, it might not sell well, and there will be a lot of differences of opinion. But we thought it was right.”

The long-suffering fans of Cleveland probably don’t want to hear this, but the new regime appears to be starting over yet again, and has amassed seven choices in the first four rounds of the 2014 lottery. It was laudable of Banner to declare that it will be difficult for the fans to trust the new football folks until they earn that trust. There is a sense, however, that new ownership and the new football flow-chart simply isn’t interested in leftovers from its predecessors. If it means taking a wrecking ball to the status quo, so be it. If you’re quarterback Brandon Weeden, or some of the other skill-position players on a roster bereft of difference-makers, you might want to rent, not buy. We’re not in a position to agree or disagree with the trade, although, if we were a Colts’ fan, we’d be fairly ecstatic right now. Let’s tell it like is: The swapping of Richardson was all about positioning the Browns for the future, most probably for getting a quarterback.

To hint, even remotely, that the trade was completed in part because Richardson didn’t dovetail well with what the Browns and Turner want to do moving forward seems to smack a bit of being disingenuous.

+AROUND THE LEAGUE

Brandon WeedenThere’s a good chance that quarterback Brandon Weeden is playing elsewhere after the 2013 season.

*There seems little doubt that the Browns’ brain trust has already decided that Weeden isn’t the quarterback around whom it will build and that landing the “championship”-caliber quarterback the team covets (a credo that hangs in the team’s draft “war room,” as documented by some area media) is the priority. One that, if you’re a betting man, will be addressed in the first round next April. Almost as notable is the decision by Chudzinski to bypass presumptive primary backup Jason Campbell and start journeyman Brian Hoyer (one career start) this week with Weeden nursing a thumb injury, and to publicly suggest that the 2012 first-rounder isn’t necessarily guaranteed to get his job back when healthy. Still, there are folks in the NFL who think Hoyer, even though he’ll be a placeholder in Cleveland even if he wins the starting job for the remainder of ‘13, has some talent. Some NFL personnel people are still surprised that Bill Belichick (a longtime friend of Lombardi, it should be noted) released Hoyer in 2012, after bringing him to the Patriots as an undrafted free agent in 2009.

“(Belichick) thought he had some talent, was competitive, and had the right make-up,” said one person familiar with Hoyer’s three-year stint in New England. “I always thought he had sort of the Belichick seal of approval, and people would take that into account.”

*With his track record of sending players to the draft during his tenure at Alabama, there seems little doubt about Nick Saban’s ability to produce and prepare players for the NFL. But the trade of Richardson certainly boils up some doubts about Crimson Tide running backs of recent vintage. In the past three seasons, Alabama has had two first-rounders (Richardson and former Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram) and a second-round pick (Eddie Lacy). There are legitimate questions about New Orleans’ choice of Ingram, who has only 10 starts in two-plus seasons and has averaged just 3.8 yards, in 2011. Lacy hasn’t gotten off to the fastest start in Green Bay and is dealing with a concussion. And now Richardson has been traded despite having been the third overall pick in 2012. The less-heralded backs who played for Saban and were drafted into the league – Le’Ron Mclain, Glen Coffee and Kenneth Darby – haven’t exactly been world-beaters. Coffee retired after one season in San Francisco. Darby hasn’t played in the NFL since 2010. McClain has had a solid career, now in its seventh year, but principally as a fullback. He registered 902 yards for Baltimore in 2008, but has less than 400 yards total in his other seasons in the league.

“One thing we’ve got to remember is that (Saban) always has great offensive lines, and that helps his backs,” said one area scout. “And, truth be told, with the way Nick uses his backs, he probably rubs some tread off the tires. But, hey, no excuses, we’ve got to do a better job of (evaluating) these guys.”

*A couple weeks ago in the Sunday Blitz, we noted the development of Kansas City third-year linebacker Justin Houston, who now has 7.5 sacks after wreaking havoc against the Philadelphia offense on Thursday night. But another Chiefs’ defender who has stepped up big-time is Dontari Poe, who started all 16 games in 2012 after being the 11th player chosen in that draft, but who was deemed fairly ordinary by those who watched him closely. This year, Poe has dominated interior linemen and, in addition to throttling the inside, has provided that rarest of commodities for a nose tackle: a pass rush. “Great penetration in the (first three) games so far,” said inside linebacker Derrick Johnson, another of the team’s premier defenders. “He’s not just a run guy, someone who holds the middle and allows other guys to make the plays. He’s making plays himself, both (against) the run and the pass.”

Poe had zero sacks in 2012, but has 3.5 already this year, and his inside pressure has been a huge part of a defense that has collected 14 sacks in three outings, after registering just 27 a season ago. The durability and stamina of Poe has been eye-opening. Unlike most 3-4 nose tackles, he stays on the field on passing downs, and has participated in all but eight of the 194 snaps against the Kansas City defense. In fact, he has played all the snaps in each of the last two games. Poe has credited a better diet, and the resultant loss of 20 pounds, for his enhanced production, and that has doubtless been a factor. But the Kansas City coaches, who didn’t know him last year, suggest that he’s using his hands and leverage much better, and that Poe clearly has a better understanding of the game and his role, along with better practice habits.

*On the subject of inside pressure, Buffalo left end Mario Williams, coming off a 4.5-sack performance, credits tackles Kyle Williams and Marcell Dareus for creating the inside heat that has provided him for spacing on the outside. Although he started all 16 games in 2012, Williams is fully healthy again after missing much of the previous season. And Dareus, who has some attributes of a defensive end, can be a monster at times.

“You’ve got to get some (inside) push, and those guys can give it,” Williams said. “You can’t just expect to just run around (the tackle) every time.”

Ryan CladyPeyton Manning now has to deal with the loss of his best blocker in LT Ryan Clady.

*Peyton Manning has always done an exemplary job of making his offensive line better than it probably should be. The sum, mostly because of Manning and his quick release and knowledge of the game, was generally better than the individual components. But even for Manning, overcoming the season-ending Lisfranc injury to left tackle Ryan Clady will be a difficult chore. Last year, when the Broncos were trying to negotiate an extension for Clady (which they finally accomplished this spring), a high-ranking Denver executive told us that the team considered Clady “one of the three or four best” left tackles in the league. The three guys he put in the same class were Jason Peters (Philadelphia), Jake Long (then with Miami), and Joe Thomas (Cleveland). And he suggested that Clady, a three-time Pro Bowl blocker, might be the best pure pass protector of the bunch. Nothing against Chris Clark, the veteran journeyman who will replace Clady, but the Broncos probably will have to make some tweaks to their protection scheme to insulate Manning. The good news is that, while the Broncos have favored a three-wide receiver set in the first couple of games, Manning worked a lot with two-tight end looks in Indianapolis. And while emerging young tight end Julius Thomas can’t yet do all the things Dallas Clark once performed for Manning and the Colts, he has some similar qualities that will make him a tough matchup. The long-term good news: Clady is a remarkably quick healer, as he demonstrated in his recovery from a patella tendon injury in 2010, and he should not have complications coming back in 2014.

Read More 2599 Words

The unsung heroes of the front office

<p> Their names generally appear well down the line on a team’s list of personnel executives, or on the “front office” pull-down menu cited on the websites of virtually each of the 32 clubs in the league. But in a season in which injuries already have been one of the more alarming trends in the

<p> Their names generally appear well down the line on a team’s list of personnel executives, or on the “front office” pull-down menu cited on the websites of virtually each of the 32 clubs in the league. But in a season in which injuries already have been one of the more alarming trends in the NFL only two weeks into the campaign, the men who work below the rank of general manager are likely to become critical.

Prominent? Maybe not, at least to the public. But essential? Yeah, you bet.

That isn’t to suggest that pro personnel directors or pro scouts or directors of player personnel – or whatever title they hold with their particular team – will escape the anonymity in which they typically toil. But with injured reserve lists already swelled, threatening to potentially establish new records for the wounded and infirm, these guys certainly are earning their salaries.

“You always want to surround yourself with good (support) people, guys who know the league and can evaluate players, and who understand what you’re looking for,” acknowledged Atlanta general manager Thomas Dimitroff, whose club has been challenged already by injuries, and this week was forced to sign two linebackers from off the street and promote a fullback from its practice squad. “Those people don’t always get the credit they deserve . . . but they’re (invaluable).”

Especially, it seems, this season.

As of Wednesday afternoon, there already were 153 players, many of them starters, on season-ending injured reserve. That doesn’t include the players on short-term I.R., who have been designated for possible return later in the year; players on the physically unable to perform list; or guys who have been suspended or reside on one of the NFL’s several other reserve lists.

More than half the teams in the league, 18 to be exact, had five or more players on season-ending injured reserve. Five had seven or more I.R. players. There were even two franchises with nine players each on injured reserve. For whatever reason – and theories abound from all quarters about the bloated injured reserve rolls – the spate of injuries that began in training camp hasn’t significantly diminished.

Ryan CladyThe injury to Pro Bowl left tackle Ryan Clady forced the Denver front office to make some quick adjustments.

The common thread among the uncommonly high number of franchises with so many players already shelved for the 2013 season: They all need replacements, and whether those ambulatory players come internally or from signing free agents, they have to be identified. And in some cases, like in Denver’s addition on Wednesday of offensive tackle Winston Justice, they have to basically be unearthed.

A seven-year NFL veteran with 43 starts in Philadelphia (2006-2011) and in Indianapolis (2012), Justice, a onetime second-round draft pick whose league tenure has been relatively undistinguished, pretty much languished in free agency during the spring and summer. Despite starting a dozen games for the Colts in 2012, he was all but ignored in free agency. But when Pro Bowl left tackle Ryan Clady was forced onto injured reserve with a Lisfranc sprain that will require surgery, and Denver needed an experienced offensive tackle to bolster the depth chart behind untested replacement Chris Clark, pro personnel director Tom Heckert had to know where to find one.

Granted, the often disappointing Justice probably won’t replace three-time Pro Bowl blocker Clady at any point this season. Heck, even though he’s started seven times as many games as Clark, he might never beat him out for the No. 1 spot on the left side. But it was critical to the Broncos that they locate a tackle, and Heckert was savvy enough to have Justice, no matter his shortcomings, on his “emergency” list. That’s not to single out Heckert, a onetime general manager in Cleveland, because there have been plenty of cases of such diligence at this early juncture of the season. But his familiarity with the league and its players, his knowledge of guys even out of the NFL, represent the latest example of timely preparation.

Said one AFC general manager who’s already been forced to lean heavily on his pro personnel director in 2013: “When (players) go down, the pro (personnel) guy has to be able to step up. And a lot of them are doing it this year.”

Way back in early December 2012, NFP founder and columnist Jack Bechta wrote this in referring to pro personnel men: “The pro director doesn’t get to make a whole lot of moves. The ones that he does make can be the difference of a team making the playoffs, having solid back-ups, and making sure that the bottom half of the roster is competitive and can fill in when a star player is hurt.”

Twenty-one months later, those words ring truer even than they did when Bechta typed them.

By and large, pro personnel directors spend most of their days in dark rooms, poring over videotape, checking in with agents, updating contact numbers, monitoring moves around the NFL, scrutinizing film from other games, attempting to identify talent. And they are inveterate list-makers, creating and maintaining rolls of guys they might someday need, and who are only a phone call away. For the most part, it’s a fairly thankless lot, at least in terms of profile.

But when the injured reserve lists grow to M*A*S*H unit proportions, the pro personnel guys are the ones called in to staunch the bleeding. And two weeks into the 2013 season, they’ve done a lot of admirable stitch-work already.

Read More 899 Words

Youth is served

In the St. Louis Rams’ 31-24 loss at the Georgia Dome on Sunday afternoon, the team’s leading passer was quarterback Sam Bradford, only a fourth-year veteran. Tailback Daryl Richardson, the top rusher, had just one previous season of NFL seniority on his resume. The leading receivers in terms of catches and yards, Austin Pettis

In the St. Louis Rams’ 31-24 loss at the Georgia Dome on Sunday afternoon, the team’s leading passer was quarterback Sam Bradford, only a fourth-year veteran. Tailback Daryl Richardson, the top rusher, had just one previous season of NFL seniority on his resume. The leading receivers in terms of catches and yards, Austin Pettis and Chris Givens, respectively, have combined for 21 starts. Rookie first-round wide receiver Tavon Austin, added a pair of touchdown catches.

On the defensive side, the two leading tacklers were rookie strongside linebacker Alec Ogletree and second-year free safety Rodney McLeod. One of the franchise’s two first-round selections five months ago, Ogletree had the most passes defensed. The Rams’ two sacks of Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan came from third- (Robert Quinn) and fourth-year (Eugene Sims) veterans. Kicker Greg Zuerlein and punter Johnny Hekker each are in their second seasons.

The 22 position players who started for the Rams averaged only 3.45 seasons of previous experience in the NFL and 20 of those years belonged to center Scott Wells and weakside linebacker Will Witherspoon. A dozen of the starters had logged three seasons of experience or less, not counting the two games in 2013.

If, by now, you sense a trend here, well, you probably don’t yet qualify for Mensa membership. But you’ve certainly mastered the art of identifying the obvious.

Yeah, the Rams are young, the NFL’s youngest team, in fact, in terms of chronological age (24.98 years) and previous league experience (2.3 seasons), according to the league. In terms of a postseason berth, that probably doesn’t augur well in 2013 for a franchise that hasn’t been to the playoffs since 2004, has not posted a winning campaign since that year, averaged an anemic 4.5 wins since its last postseason appearance, and finished in last place in the NFC West in half of those past eight seasons. On the other hand, that bright light emanating from the dark end of the tunnel isn’t necessarily an oncoming locomotive anymore.

“I think we’re on the right track,” said left defensive end Chris Long, the sixth-year veteran who is St. Louis’ longest-tenured player in terms of continuous service to the club, following a defeat in which the Rams turned a 24-3 blowout into a game that was close at the end. “There’s a lot of enthusiasm from the younger players, (most of whom) weren’t around for all the losing, and it gets contagious.”

Sam BradfordICONWith four seasons under his belt, quarterback Sam Bradford is one of the more seasoned players on the St. Louis roster.

Added Witherspoon, who is now in his second tour of duty with the team and has experienced both sides, as part of its last non-losing campaign (2006), but also a three-season stretch (2007-2009) in which St. Louis totaled six wins: “Because we’re so young, we’re going to make some mistakes, and that’s not an excuse. But we’re going to keep getting better, too.”

Indeed, the ambitious roster makeover orchestrated by general manager Les Snead and coach Jeff Fisher in their two years with the club provides the Rams – who not all that long ago were regarded as “The Greatest Show on Turf,” but have recently become accustomed to having their noses rubbed in the dirt – with that most nebulous of commodities: Legitimate hope that things are on the upswing. That St. Louis rallied to defeat a pedestrian Arizona team in the season opener was seen as a nice, but not particularly impressive, victory. But in the loss to the Falcons, a game in which the Rams could have folded early against an Atlanta assemblage regarded as a legitimate Super Bowl contender, there was indisputable progress.

“I’ve been around long enough to know there are no moral victories,” said Bradford, who threw for 352 yards and three touchdowns, and who is only 25 despite being in his fourth season. “But the fact we came back to make a game of it . . . is probably another step forward for us.”

OK, a baby-step, to be sure. But then again, the Rams are still relative toddlers in an NFL where you’ve got to learn to walk pretty quickly, and then advance to running even faster. Seattle and San Francisco haven’t quite lapped the field in the division, but they have a healthy lead over the Cardinals and the Rams. But the greening of the St. Louis roster over the last couple years, under Snead’s stewardship and the tutelage of Fisher and his staff, may be narrowing the gap a bit. The football tandem didn’t consciously plot to get so much younger so quickly, Snead acknowledged on Sunday evening, but that’s the natural course of things in reconfiguring a losing team, the typical byproduct of necessary change.

“When we came in,” Snead said, while exchanging greetings with friends from his five seasons as the Atlanta personnel director, “we didn’t say, like, ‘OK, we’re going to be the youngest team (in the league).’ But we knew we had to bring in more talent, and the best and fastest way to do that is the draft. But even in free agency, and in other ways of (acquiring) players, we did consciously look for younger guys who could grow with us. We’d like to continue adding, but also keep a lot of this group together for a while.”

The Rams made a crafty move in 2012, essentially dealing the rights to quarterback Robert Griffin III to Washington for a passel of draft choices. In general, though, Snead has simply drafted adroitly. Of the 17 prospects he selected, all but two are still with the club. All seven of this year’s choices made the roster. There have been, as Snead noted, some veteran acquisitions as well, but the Rams aren’t generally inclined to bring in guys in their football dotage, just to add stability. Nope, when the ship finally gets steadied, and St. Louis embarks on a playoff run, it’s apt to be the current young players at the helm.

“There’s good young talent and leadership here,” Long said, noting that three members of a defensive front four that helped St. Louis tie for the NFL lead in sacks in 2012 is made up of former first-round picks.

There are a dozen rookies on the current roster. Nearly two-thirds of the active players possess two or fewer seasons of experience in the league. Almost three-fourths of the 53-man roster is comprised of players with three or fewer seasons of NFL experience. Snead wasn’t certain these numbers were entirely accurate, but he recalled a telling statistic that he remembered seeing recently on television: That of the 32 offensive linemen and wide receivers with whom Bradford played during his first four seasons, 24 are no longer in the league.

“If those numbers are right, that’s pretty amazing,” Snead said. “It demonstrates just how much change we’ve had and how young we are.”

There’s an old adage, of course, that youth must be served. In the NFL, it must also be serviceable.

Seems the youthful, new-look Rams are heeding both those truisms.

Read More 1190 Words

NFP Sunday Blitz

What’s a 26-year-old quarterback, one who has been a starter since halfway through his rookie season in the league and whose dossier includes 57 starts (and counting), worth on the open market? Well, the NFL, and everyone else, could find out in about six months.

Only three years ago, after Josh Freeman’s first

What’s a 26-year-old quarterback, one who has been a starter since halfway through his rookie season in the league and whose dossier includes 57 starts (and counting), worth on the open market? Well, the NFL, and everyone else, could find out in about six months.

Only three years ago, after Josh Freeman’s first full season as a starter, prominent Tampa Bay officials privately suggested to several reporters (including this one) that they would not trade their young quarterback for any player in the league. Fast-forward to the present and the sentiment is hardly the same. Given the obviously strained relationship between Freeman and Bucs’ second-year coach Greg Schiano, the status of the quarterback as an untouchable “franchise player” isn’t exactly the case so much anymore.

As widely reported, Freeman missed the team photo a week ago, and Schiano claimed there have been other incidents of tardiness by the quarterback. The two have attempted to publicly patch things up and “play nice,” but the future certainly looks murky, to say the least. Freeman is in the final year of his original rookie contract and Tampa Bay management currently doesn’t seem motivated to extend him beyond it. Good-guy general manager Mark Dominik said last month that there won’t be an extension during the year, and that the two sides will address the issue next offseason.

But that could create the very unusual and rare situation of a proven starter—one who will be just 26 years old in January and likely with 70 or more starts on his resume by that point—possibly being on the open market next spring. How often does that happen in the NFL? Uh, almost never. Teams typically sign quarterbacks to long-term deals well in advance of their contracts lapsing. To have a 26-year-old guy with a track record become available is virtually unheard of in the league.

Coming off the early portion of his career, when the Bucs were essentially promoting the 2009 first-rounder as the face of the franchise and the guy around whom the team would be constructed, such a possibility seemed unfathomable. In 2010, his second season, Freeman threw 25 touchdown passes and just a half-dozen interceptions, and appeared poised for stardom as the young Bucs went 10-6. But he has almost as many interceptions (39) as touchdown passes (43) over the past two seasons, and Tampa Bay has only one more victory combined in those two years than Freeman posted in 2010. There has definitely been some regression, especially in Freeman’s basic mechanics and accuracy, acknowledged pro personnel directors from other franchises.

Josh FreemanIf it doesn’t work out in Tampa, Freeman could find himself with plenty of suitors come free agency.

“But to get a guy like that at just (26 years old), with his physical (tools), in a league where a lot of quarterbacks don’t click until they get to the right situation . . . man, you’d have to be crazy not to take a hard look at it if you need (a quarterback),” allowed one AFC general manager, who was careful with his words, because of the league’s anti-tampering guidelines. “Yeah, we’re seeing young quarterbacks come right into the league and make an immediate splash anymore. But there are still a lot of examples of guys not ‘making it’ until a little bit later on. The history of the league is filled with quarterbacks who didn’t hit until they changed scenery. There are a lot of teams that would (relish) the chance to see what they could do with (Freeman).”

Of course, assuming things don’t change and the Bucs don’t sign Freeman to an extension, the club could slap the franchise tag on him in the spring and then try to trade him. The danger in that is that Freeman could immediately sign a franchise tender and guarantee the exorbitant one-year salary, which might make a trade a bit more difficult. Still, it’s hard to see the Bucs allowing Freeman to just depart with no compensation. But it could happen. Schiano runs a tight, no-nonsense ship, and he basically has become the key figure in a fairly faceless franchise, and it’s become increasingly difficult to see the coach and Freeman co-existing in the long term.

Way back in 1991, then-rookie quarterback Brett Favre overslept on the morning the Atlanta Falcons were taking their team picture. When a groggy Favre arrived late to the shoot, coach Jerry Glanville would not allow him into the picture. Figuratively he kept Favre out of the picture for the remainder of the season as well, burying him on the depth chart and playing him only in embarrassing mop-up roles, and then unceremoniously dealing him to Green Bay in the subsequent offseason.

No one is suggesting that Freeman, who enjoys solid popularity among many of his teammates, we’re told, will become Favre. But there are quarterback-needy teams in the league that, if the situation in Tampa doesn’t improve over the next few months, will begin to clearly focus on the quarterback who missed the Bucs’ team picture. And who will avidly line up for a shot at Freeman if he somehow makes it to the unrestricted market next spring.

+AROUND THE LEAGUE

*One starting-caliber quarterback potentially making it to free agency is, as noted, incredibly rare. More than one? It might be historic. As is the case with Freeman in Tampa Bay, team officials in Chicago have said there will be no in-season discussion of an extension for Jay Cutler, who is in the final year of his deal. And Michael Vick’s reworked contract in Philadelphia is basically a one-year deal as well. And, of course, recent events certainly point to the distinct possibility that the Jets will part ways with Mark Sanchez, who led the team to the AFC championship game in each of his first two years in the league, after the season.

Cutler’s perceived petulance could give some clubs pause, but there is no denying his talent, even though he can be a polarizing presence at times. Vick can be erratic, but it’s still difficult to ignore his skills-set. And Sanchez, given the torn right labrum revealed last week, may be damaged goods, even if his shoulder is either rehabilitated (through the regimen he is about to undertake) or surgically repaired. Nonetheless, it could be quite a spring 2014 for franchises trolling around for veteran help at the game’s most critical position. And that’s not even counting the possibility that Jacksonville ends the Blaine Gabbert experiment after three seasons. There are indications that, were it not for an $8.25 million guaranteed salary for this season, the Jets might have cut ties with Sanchez before the shoulder injury occurred. But all guaranteed bets are off after this year. Sanchez, who signed a three-year extension in 2012, is owed $37.75 million in salary and roster and workout benefits for 2014-2016. While the team would assume some “dead money” were it to release him, none of those payments are guaranteed.

Chip KellyChip Kelly’s Eagles ran a total of 53 plays during the first half of their Week 1 win at Washington.

*It’s only one game – a negligible sample size, to be sure — but the 2013 openers last weekend provided some indication that this season could be one in which offenses snap the ball at a relatively dizzying pace. In each of the past four seasons (2009-2012), the number of offensive snaps per game increased annually from the previous year. In fact, over the past 10 seasons, there were only three times in which the number of snaps per-game decreased. In ’12, the league averaged 128.4 offensive plays per game, up from 127.0 in 2011. That represented about a 4 percent bump from 2008, when snaps were at their lowest point (123.75) in the decade. But the league-wide average for the opening week this season was 130.4. While some of that could be attributable to the fire-drill offense first-year Philadelphia coach Chip Kelly brought with him from Oregon, there were actually two teams, New England (89 snaps) and Baltimore (87), that ran more plays than the Eagles (77). Detroit had just as many snaps. In all, 11 teams ran off 70 or more plays and six had 75 or more. For all the naysayers, with Carolina coach Ron Rivera being the latest, the faster offenses clearly are in vogue. Even on Thursday night in the rain, in a sloppy game that featured pedestrian offenses, the offenses of the Jets and Patriots combined for 135 snaps. “It’s a fast-break out there,” said Washington cornerback D’Angelo Hall, whose team had problems early on in their opener maintaining pace with the Philly attack. “You turn around and they’re snapping it.”

*In reaction to the hurry-up schemes cited above, there have been plenty of complaints already about defensive players feigning injuries in an attempt to slow the tempo of some offenses. Notably, Jerry Jones broadly hinted that New York Giants defenders were faking injuries in the opener, a charge that prompted defensive lineman Cullen Jenkins to suggest the Dallas owner needs glasses. And the crowd at Foxboro was vociferous Thursday night when Jets defensive lineman Muhammad Wilkerson went down with an ankle injury. The ire seemed to be misplaced, because the injury, which appeared to be legitimate, didn’t keep the clock from winding after Wilkerson exited the field with assistance. Nonetheless, the subject of faked injuries in a New Age league where offenses don’t huddle and the intent seems to be to wear out defenses, or at least limit situation substitutions, forced a few phone calls last week between members of the competition committee, the NFL has confirmed. There have been some reminders to game officials but, if the complaints continue, legitimate or not, better monitoring of game pace and of defensive injuries could become a more official point of emphasis at some point in the season.

*Given Atlanta’s marquee galaxy of receivers – with wideouts Roddy White and Julio Jones, along with future Hall of Fame tight end Tony Gonzalez, commanding most of the headlines – it’s easy to get lost in the shuffle. But the group’s forgotten man, five-year veteran wide receiver Harry Douglas, is beginning to create some attention for himself.

Because of a high ankle sprain that has slowed White, who played in the opener but continued to be hampered last week in practice, Douglas is getting more time on the field in “base” formations, and making the most of it. Douglas actually logged more snaps in the opener (45 of 55) than White (37), and caught four passes for 93 yards. Typically a slot receiver, the former Louisville standout, a third-round pick in ’08 who missed all of the 2009 campaign because of a torn ACL, is playing a bit more on the outside. Some observers felt Douglas might struggle outside, but he has made plays there and continued to be a force in the slot as well. Last week, he had a 50-yard reception out of the slot on a crossing route, the seventh time in his last 11 appearances Douglas caught at least one pass for 20 yards or more.

“He can run away from people,” White said. “I think he fools some (defenders) with his speed. He’s not just the prototypical slot guy.”

Indeed, Douglas might lack the short-area, quick-twitch maneuverability of some slot receivers, but he’s probably a bit faster, and retains the kind of toughness an inside receiver must possess in the NFL. “And,” said quarterback Matt Ryan, “he’s smart. He knows and understands the game and what we’re trying to do . . . and he knows all the (receiver) positions.” In his four healthy seasons, Douglas has averaged just 31.5 catches, and, in fact, has never registered 40 receptions in a year. Plus, he has never scored more than one touchdown in a season. But the Falcons have always been confident that Douglas can be a difference-maker. With White not expected to be fully healthy for another three weeks or so, Douglas’ role, which now includes punt returns, and his profile, might continue to expand.

Julian EdelmanICONEdelman has recorded 20 receptions through his first two games this season.

*On the subject of slot receivers, one would have to think there are a few league general managers and personnel chiefs kicking themselves right now for not having indicated any interest at all in New England’s Julian Edelman when he was an unrestricted free agent during the offseason. Yeah, Edelman was coming off a foot injury that kept him out of the Patriots’ final four games, he isn’t the biggest or most physical guy, and the onetime Kent State quarterback has just average speed. But teams took fliers on some guys who don’t have Edelman’s versatility – he has played every wide receiver position, lined up at defensive back (like Troy Brown used to do) in a pinch, and is a steady special teams player who now is the league’s career leader in punt return average – and the fifth-year veteran was never going to be particularly expensive. But the phone didn’t ring and the Pats ended up signing Edelman to a modest, one-year contract with a minimum base salary of only $715,000. What’s Edelman, who has 20 receptions in two games, worth now to New England, whose trio of young wideouts Kenbrell Thompkins, Aaron Dobson and Josh Boyce, has combined for nine catches? With Rob Gronkowski still rehabilitating; Aaron Hernandez, Wes Welker and Brandon Lloyd gone; and Danny Amendola out with a foot injury, Edelman has become Tom Brady’s most trusted security blanket, and a big reason the team is 2-0. As pertinent a question: What will Edelman be worth next spring, if the Patriots don’t sign him to an extension during the year and he is eligible again for free agency, and will teams be a lot smarter this time around.

“What the old ‘Who’ song? We won’t get fooled again?” an AFC general manager said on Friday morning, after Edelman posted 13 catches Thursday night. “It’s early (in the season), but he’s making himself a lot of money.”

*Their opening-game loss at San Francisco aside, the Green Bay coaches felt their defense clearly played better last Sunday than in the playoff loss last year to the 49ers, and part of the improvement was better depth along the defensive line, largely because of the unlikely comeback of Johnny Jolly. Banished from the NFL for three entire seasons as the result of a substance abuse indefinite suspension, and then a jail sentence for a violation of his parole, Jolly hadn’t played in a game that counted since a Jan. 10, 2010 playoff loss to Arizona that concluded the 2009 season. But he started against the 49ers, provided the Packers with solid rotation, and gives the unit another behemoth (six of the 3-4 team’s linemen weight 300 pounds-plus), the kind of up-front girth coordinator Dom Capers prefers. Jolly chipped in two tackles, one sack and another quarterback hit, not bad for a 30-year-old guy some felt would never play again.

“It’s great to have another big body,” said lineman Ryan Pickett, who started alongside Jolly and wide-body B.J. Raji. “Now that (Jolly) has his (stamina) back, he can be a force. We can roll a lot of guys in and he figures to play a big part.” It’s testimony to Jolly that, during his forced absence from the game, he didn’t give up on playing again someday. And as indication of the potential that he still possesses, there were more than a few 3-4 teams watching closely to see if he made the Packers’ final cutdown to the 53-man roster.

*In part because St. Louis hasn’t been to the playoffs since 2004, and averaged only 4.5 victories per year in the eight-season stretch 2005-2012, some of the team’s good players get overlooked. But the Rams, who statistically are the youngest team in the league for 2013, with nearly two-thirds of the roster having two or fewer seasons of NFL experience prior to this year, just might have the best front four in the business.

“They all come off the ball hard and they can all make plays,” said Atlanta guard Derrick Blalock, whose unit faces St. Louis on Sunday. “They’re good all-around, and the ends are really something.” Indeed, Chris Long (left) and Robert Quinn (right) have developed into one of the league’s best outside tandems. And that was even before Quinn notched three sacks and forced three fumbles against Arizona last week, a performance that earned the third-year veteran NFC defensive player of the week plaudits. Long and Quinn were one of only two end pairings to each register 10 or more sacks in 2012. And the Rams’ front was one of just six in the league with four players who had four or more sacks each.

“We feel like we can play with anyone,” said tackle Michael Brockers, one of the three former first-rounders on the defensive line. “I think we all have an attack mentality.” Despite playing the left side, Long has matured into one of the premier strong-side rushers in the league, with 24.5 sacks over the last two seasons. Quinn had 10.5 sacks in 2012, and had really learned to use his hands and natural leverage, apparently a spin-off from his days as a wrestler, much better. “(Quinn) can ‘corner’ and make himself small, about as well as anybody, and he’s going to be a big-sack guy for a long time,” Long said of his end partner.

*There are a lot of things that first-year coordinator Rob Ryan has changed with a New Orleans defense that surrendered the most yards in league history in 2012. Most conspicuous, of course, is the scheme, installing a 3-4, a defense that not a single Saints’ veteran had played before in New Orleans. But one under-the-radar move that Ryan has made is his utilization of three safeties on the field at the same time in many of the schemes he’s employed. When the Saints chose Kenny Vaccaro of Texas in the first round, many observers suggested it could jeopardize incumbent strong safety Roman Harper, a veteran strong versus the run and on the blitz, but often a liability in pass coverage. Indeed, Vaccaro started last week alongside free safety Malcolm Jenkins, but Ryan found a way to mix in Harper as well, and he responded with a solid outing. In the end, Jenkins and Vaccaro each played all 55 defensive snaps. But Harper, who gave the secondary a three-safety look that had not been used much in the past in The Big Easy, logged 49 snaps as well. And that included the Saints’ final defensive play of the game, when Harper intercepted a pass intended for Gonzalez, one that Vaccaro tipped away from the tight end. “We’ve got (three) guys who can play (safety),” Jenkins said, “and Ryan has figured out a way to get us all involved.”

Andy ReidAndy Reid’s 3-4 defense surrendered zero points in the team’s Week 1 win at Jacksonville.

*Apparently, an old dog (no offense, Andy Reid) actually can learn some new tricks. After a long tenure in Philadelphia where the Eagles almost always used a four-man front, Reid has opted for a 3-4 defense in Kansas City. And some Chiefs players allow that decision, along with the hiring of Bob Sutton (with whom Reid had no work history), have permitted the unit to improve. “Usually, a new guy means new schemes, you know, starting over and all,” said linebacker Justin Houston, who had three sacks in the Chiefs’ opening-day victory. “We’re doing some things differently, but not a lot. And the (defense) plays to our strengths.” Indeed, Reid apparently concluded early on that the strength of his defense was in a linebacker corps that includes Houston, Tamba Hali and Derrick Johnson, and chose the status quo, rather than a wholesale alteration that would have altered the dynamic. “It’s been great,” Houston said, “to be able to do what we do best.”

Read More 3406 Words

The rise of the zebras

Chances are pretty good that Mike Pereira never set out to be a celebrity. To the contrary, in fact, Pereira’s choice of avocations many years ago actually suggested a distinct preference for anonymity.

But now into his fourth season as the NFL rules analyst for Fox, following nine years as the league’s vice

Chances are pretty good that Mike Pereira never set out to be a celebrity. To the contrary, in fact, Pereira’s choice of avocations many years ago actually suggested a distinct preference for anonymity.

But now into his fourth season as the NFL rules analyst for Fox, following nine years as the league’s vice president of officiating and two as a game official on the field, the ever-candid Pereira has become almost as recognizable as some of the talking heads that populate the network’s play-by-play booths.

OK, so Pereira hasn’t quite reached rock-star level yet. Unless you wear a striped shirt to work—and we’re not referring here to employees of the Foot Locker franchises in just about every mall in the country—you were probably never aware of Pereira until he undertook the career transition from a guy who made the calls to one who explains and critiques them. But he clearly possesses a profile with the media-types who chronicle the games, and Pereira is becoming a more notable component of the coverage that people have come to expect when they cozy up in front of their big-screen televisions on Sunday afternoons.

Obviously, the fans have taken notice, and so, too, have the Fox competitors. Some rival networks – note the addition of three-time Super Bowl official Gerry Austin to ESPN’s coverage of Monday Night Football – have brought aboard a rules analyst to parse the league’s more byzantine guidelines. The ones that haven’t are believed to be considering similar augmentations to coverage. Basically, Pereira, and Fox, has created an interesting cottage industry for retired zebras. He has taken the art of sorting out the rules from mostly esoteric to downright essential.

How vital has Pereira become? In 2012, Sports Illustrated termed Pereira “one of the NFL’s most indispensible broadcasting talents.”

Mike PereiraPereira is in his fourth season as the rules analyst for Fox.

Every time there is a ruling or on-field dispute that demands explanation in a Fox-aired game– and sometimes even when matters aren’t as obvious, as was the case last Sunday afternoon, when Pereira volunteered without prompting that there was a faulty interpretation in the San Francisco-Green Bay matchup – he seems to weigh in. It’s become an expected element of NFL broadcasts anymore. Veteran referee Bill Leavy, according to reports, was “downgraded” after the botched call in the Packers-49ers game, which Pereira first pointed out.

While Pereira’s presence hasn’t been enough to give his former colleagues in black and white the heebie-jeebies, at least not publicly, the league’s referees are acutely aware of him looking over their shoulders. Senior vice president Ray Anderson, vice president of officiating Dean Blandino and senior director of officiating Alberto Riveron aren’t exactly cringing at the ramped up scrutiny. If anything, the folks who preside over officiating have suggested they welcome the enhanced transparency.

Since the rank-and-file game officials are precluded from speaking to the media, without the express consent of the NFL, the remarks from the zebras have principally been without attribution. But one current NFL umpire who has double-digit tenure suggested to NFP this week: “You know how players and coaches talk about ‘the eye in the sky?’ Well, (Pereira has) become that (for officials). We’ve always had our worked scrutinized every week by the league office. But Mike’s stuff is more immediate. It has called a lot quicker attention to what we do.”

Said a retired referee: “First, (instant) replay ramped up the accountability, now he’s added another layer. All the (officials) are definitely more recognizable now.”

In truth, even before Pereira or Austin or any of the other studio/booth arbiters, game officials had gained heightened profile in recent seasons. Unlike the faceless players who wear helmets, the referees are without masks, and in the last few years, fans have come to know quite well referees such as the big-gunned workout freak Ed Hochuli, Jeff Triplette, Walt Coleman and Gene Steratore. Time was when maybe only a referee such as the great Jim Tunney might merit a ‘Hey, I know that guy’ nod from a fan. Not, however, anymore.

First, the on-field microphones and announcements after each penalty lent the refs a name. Then came instant replay, with officials ducking under the hood to examine plays, and the television cameras following their every move. The latest step in the evolution of game officials from a nameless part of the game to a significant piece of the on-field furniture is the presence of Pereira and his ilk.

There has been loads of attention in the last few years to new wrinkles such as the “spread” offense, the read-option, and, as witnessed in Chip Kelly’s debut with the Philadelphia Eagles on Monday night, breakneck, up-tempo offenses. Rarely, if ever, is the increased perusal of officials mentioned in the same breath as those advances, and it probably shouldn’t be, but it’s carved out a spot and made a difference.

Probably since the first time shoe met leather, fans have second-guessed officials. It’s been part of the NFL tapestry for about as long as the game has been played. But now the first read on officials and their decisions is coming from people who were once a part of the zebra fraternity. Like all changes, it’s already made the NFL a more interesting and provocative entity.

And it’s apt to have made it better officiated – even though the first week of play, when it appeared that there were at least three notable mistakes, may not have indicated that — as well.

Read More 925 Words

Where’s the killer instinct?

When an offense is coming off a season in which it statistically ranked No. 8 in the league, scored the seventh-most points and the fifth-most touchdowns, was second in the NFL in third-down conversion rate, and came within a play of moving on to the Super Bow—and featured a Pro Bowl quarterback, a tandem

When an offense is coming off a season in which it statistically ranked No. 8 in the league, scored the seventh-most points and the fifth-most touchdowns, was second in the NFL in third-down conversion rate, and came within a play of moving on to the Super Bow—and featured a Pro Bowl quarterback, a tandem of 1,000-yard wide receivers, and a tight end destined for the Hall of Fame—it’s usually pretty difficult to find fault with such an assemblage.

But if you’re into the exercise of picking nits, or like obsessing over a bothersome shortcoming that once again could keep that offense out of a Super Bowl, well, we offer up the Atlanta Falcons as “Exhibit A.”

In its opening game defeat at New Orleans on Sunday afternoon, the Falcons’ offense went three-and-out on its first possession, then scored, almost effortlessly, it seemed, on its next two drives. It tallied a touchdown and a field goal on marches in which the Matt Ryan-led unit rang up seven first downs and 122 yards, and, for a short time, rendered the typically raucous Superdome crowd nearly mute.

And then, having jumped to an early 10-zip lead against its archest of rivals, the offense, almost predictably, went into hibernation.

On its subsequent eight possessions, the Atlanta offense scored but one touchdown. On all but two of those possessions, the Falcons managed two first downs or fewer. The offense registered more than 40 yards just twice. On its last-gasp possession, trailing the Saints 23-17, the offense reached the New Orleans three-yard line but failed to score, with Ryan’s hurried fourth-down pass for tripled-covered tight end Tony Gonzalez deflected and intercepted in the end zone.

Does much of this sound eerily familiar? Yeah, it should.

Matt RyanMatt Ryan and the Falcons managed just seven points over the final 30 minutes on Sunday.

For all its high-octane, marquee firepower, the perception at times that it cannot be stopped, and that it ought to hang 40 points or more on an opponent every time it steps on the field, the Atlanta offense has a way of going comatose for long stretches of contests. And the loss to the Saints was only the latest example of a mystifying habit that has become maddening even to some of its most notable practitioners.

“I’m saying, ‘That’s terrible,’ you know,” noted characteristically outspoken wide receiver Roddy White, who didn’t even bother to take to his favored platform, Twitter, to voice his displeasure after the Superdome loss. “With all the guys that we have, we should be able to score a lot more points than that.”

Of course, White was speaking only of Sunday’s opening game loss. But he could have been addressing a (fatal?) flaw that’s been almost as much a component of the Atlanta offense in recent seasons as has been the ability of general manager Thomas Dimitroff and coach Mike Smith to collect impressive individual talent. Over the last few years, whether the coordinator was Mike Mularkey (often derided for his staid play-calling, even in his own locker room) or current incumbent Dirk Koetter, the sum of the Atlanta offense has yet to approximate its estimable individual parts.

The Falcons seem to frequently start fast and then succumb to a sort of complacency. The nettlesome offensive malaise has become a trend that, late Sunday evening, after the team had returned to Atlanta, one player termed “maddening” and then “frustrating.” Said the player: “It’s almost as if stuff comes too easily to us early on. Then we sort of flip the switch to ‘off’ for a while. (Sunday) was just the latest time.”

Indeed, the Falcons fell short of Super Bowl XLVII last season, not so much because Ryan could not connect with White on a fourth-down pass from the San Francisco 10-yard line in the closing minutes, but more notably because Atlanta was shut out completely in the second half. In that NFC championship game, the Falcons led 17-0 just minutes into the second quarter and 24-14 at the half. They scored on each of their first three series and four of the first five, outdistanced the 49ers in first downs and total yards, but got zilch on five second-half possessions.

The previous week, despite topping Seattle in a division-round game, Atlanta blew leads of 20-0 at halftime and 27-7 late in the third quarter. After scoring on five of its first six possessions, bolting to a huge advantage and moving the ball facilely, Atlanta needed a late Matt Bryant 49-yard field goal after falling behind 28-27 in the final minute of play. And those aren’t the only examples of the Falcons’ offense nodding off for long periods, just the most conspicuous ones.

On paper, the deficiency might not be as obvious. Atlanta scored more first half points than points in the second half in 2012, but not by much (222-197). And the Falcons’ second-best quarter during the season was actually the fourth (129 points). Those numbers aside, the Falcons’ offense has demonstrated a marked inability to keep its foot on the throttle. The unit allows sometimes overmatched opponents to stay in games because it too often hits the “pause” button when it really needs to keep the pedal to the metal. When the Falcons have a defense on the ropes, it seems to jab, rather than deliver the knockout punch. A “killer instinct” clearly is not a strong suit for the offense.

“We’ve definitely got to be more consistent as a unit,” acknowledged veteran left guard Derrick Blalock in a gross understatement.

On Sunday afternoon, the nasty habit of coasting caught up to the Falcons again, much as it did in the NFC championship game loss to the 49ers. Sure, it’s easy to point to problems with a revamped offensive line (new starters at three of five positions), a unit that could not keep the Saints’ new 3-4 defense off Ryan, as a principal reason for the loss. But an offense that features Ryan, wide receivers White and Julio Jones, tight end Tony Gonzalez, and newly acquired tailback Steven Jackson, who is more of an explosive threat than was the departed and used-up Michael Turner, ought to be able to score more than 17 points in its sleep, right?

Ironically, though, it’s that somnambulant bent, when the Atlanta offense just seems to sleep-walk through long stretches, that could again threaten the Falcons’ dream of a Super Bowl berth.

Read More 1058 Words

NFP Sunday Blitz

The petulance and somewhat polarizing personality of Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel probably won’t keep the Texas A&M star from being considered as a potential first-round choice if he opts to forfeit his remaining college eligibility and enter the 2014 draft after this season.

But the nasty, edgy and downright exasperating

The petulance and somewhat polarizing personality of Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel probably won’t keep the Texas A&M star from being considered as a potential first-round choice if he opts to forfeit his remaining college eligibility and enter the 2014 draft after this season.

But the nasty, edgy and downright exasperating “Johnny Football” persona often on display, like in the opening game victory over Rice last weekend, could have some ancillary affect on another high-profile Aggies’ personality whom NFL teams have already begun to closely watch: head coach Kevin Sumlin.

NFP noted in the “Sunday Blitz” a few weeks ago, after talking with several NFL decision-makers, that Sumlin is a guy commanding early interest from franchises that might seek to make a change on the sideline in 2014. And you’d better believe that Sumlin’s ability to control the strong-willed and sometimes bullheaded Manziel is a component to which the NFL teams are paying attention.

It’s a fairly esoteric angle that really hasn’t gotten much play or consideration in the wake of Manziel’s immature antics against overmatched Rice. But the display, and Sumlin’s uneven handling of the matter, wasn’t being ignored by some league folks in the days after the game.

On one hand, NFL people correctly noted that Sumlin clearly chastised Manziel, and pulled him from the game after he drew an unsportsmanlike flag for yapping at Rice defenders following a touchdown pass. But they also pointed out that Manziel essentially ignored his coach, brushing by him brusquely on the way to the sideline, and that Sumlin, while acknowledging the Heisman winner’s obvious absence of class, loosely defended the actions and attempted to rationalize the situation.

Kevin SumlinUS PRESSWIRESumlin went 11-2 during his first year in charge at Texas A&M.

“It’s more than just X’s and O’s, you know?” a league general manager noted to NFP last week, in discussing Sumlin and Manziel. “You have to find ways to manage even the more unmanageable people on your team. And time will tell if (Sumlin) has that quality. We’ll see.” Said a league director of operations: “Any team starting to look (at Sumlin), it just gives them one more thing to watch moving forward. It makes a difference when we’re evaluating (coaching candidates).”

In fairness, Sumlin has repeatedly said that an NFL career is not a high priority on his “bucket list,” at least for now. “Maybe way down the road,” he said this spring when asked about stepping up in level. But while Sumlin isn’t getting nearly the scrutiny of Manziel or offensive lineman Jake Matthews, or any of the other half-dozen or so Texas A&M players who might project into the ’14 draft, NFL people have started taking notes on him. And the “Manziel matter,” the term used by one high-ranking club management type in referring to last week’s incident, was obviously notable. Sumlin is said to be a very good guy, and there is no denying his football acumen, particularly on the offensive side of the ball, but the NFL is about more than those things.

Certainly no one is suggesting here that Sumlin will be on any teams’ “short lists” after this year, or that he will even want to be considered for an NFL position. But the league clearly is skewing toward fresher faces, such as former college coaches Greg Schiano in Tampa Bay, Philadelphia’s Chip Kelly and Doug Marrone in Buffalo The onetime “good ol’ boy” network that used to be so prevalent isn’t quite extinct, but might be on life support, as reinforced by the fact that 25 of the 32 current head coaches are in their first top jobs in the league. And there is more openness now to elements like Kelly’s up-tempo offense and zone-option quarterbacks, elements that not all that long ago were thought of as too unconventional for the staid league.

The bottom line is that, given the current dynamics, Sumlin could have some NFL suitors sooner rather than later. And if he ever does interview for a job, it’s likely he’ll be interrogated about Manziel and how he handled him. Last week’s actions by the quarterback might be dismissed by some, but not by league people.

“The crazy quarterback didn’t do (Sumlin) any favors,” emphasized one.

+AROUND THE LEAGUE

*Making the easy (or some would suggest uneasy) segue from Sumlin’s NFL head coaching prospects to guys who could be replaced in 2014, since it’s never too early to begin speculating on “hot-seat” candidates: In an informal NFP poll of personnel guys, general managers and even a few owners last week, a total of eight coaches were cited as possibly being in some trouble if they don’t win this season. There were a few obvious names, such as Ron Rivera of Carolina, Dallas’ Jason Garrett, Jim Schwartz of Detroit, and the New York Jets’ Rex Ryan. But in the wake of remarks made by Tennessee owner Bud Adams, that he had invested big money during the offseason to import talent and will be “real unhappy” if the Titans don’t have a good season, several people prominently mentioned Mike Munchak as a guy who could be under scrutiny. The sentiment is that, even with Adams’ ballyhooed additions, the club still lacks overall talent, and that second-year starting quarterback Jake Locker is the overarching key to the season. But the feeling is, as well, that Adams has essentially served notice, even without issuing a “playoffs or else” edict, that the Titans and Munchak will have to demonstrate significant improvement. Tennessee hasn’t been to the playoffs in four straight seasons now.

Peyton ManningManning went nuclear on Thursday night against Baltimore thanks, in part, to Thomas.

*Peyton Manning can claim that he foresaw a big game coming for third-year tight end Julius Thomas before Thursday night’s eye-opening performance (five catches, 110 yards, two touchdowns), and maybe the Denver quarterback, whose sense for the game is uncanny, actually did. But it was Portland State coach Nigel Burton, who permitted the former basketball star to join the school’s football program as a senior, and after a very good hoops career, who had the first inkling that Thomas had NFL-level potential.

“Just the (facility) with which he moved,” Burton said on Friday, recalling Thomas’ first venture into football since his senior season in high school. “He was powerful but still fluid. He had strong hands. And you could see that he had good athletic sense that could translate (to football).”

In his two previous NFL seasons, Thomas had appeared in nine games and had just one reception. But especially working with Manning last season, with the quarterback pushing more of the nuanced aspects of the game, as he always does, elevated Thomas, who beat out veterans Jacob Tamme (a Manning favorite) and Joel Dreessen (basically hand-picked by Manning a year ago) for the starting spot.

“If you do things his way, the right way, you’re going to get better,” Thomas said of Manning.

Some ironies: Manning’s longtime target in Indianapolis, tight end Dallas Clark, was in a Baltimore uniform, and had an uncharacteristic big drop. Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome, a Hall of Fame tight end, has told us on many occasions that many of the best tight end prospects never get onto a field, because they’re playing power forward on the basketball court. Turns out that, in the case of Thomas, he was painfully right.

*Two rookie quarterbacks, E.J Manuel of Buffalo and the New York Jets’ Geno Smith, will start this weekend, and it will be the third straight season, and fifth time in six years, in which there will have been at least two rookie starters. The record, of course, is five, established last season, when Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III, Ryan Tannehill, Brandon Weeden, and Russell Wilson all started in their teams’ openers. The trend definitely is skewing toward starting younger quarterbacks, and you almost never hear anyone say anymore that it takes three years to develop a quarterback into a starter.

The Smith and Manuel starts will raise to 14 the number of rookie starters in the past six years. The 2010 season, when St. Louis’ Sam Bradford was the lone rookie starter in Week 1, was the only time since 2008 that there were fewer than two. In the previous six seasons, 2002-2007, there were a total of just three –David Carr (2002), Kyle Boller (2003), and Kyle Orton (2005), and never more than one per year. Rookie starters from 2002-2012 are 6-9 in openers, and the lone winner last season was RGIII.

“You just try to remember that it’s just a football game, but that’s easier said than done,” allowed Cincinnati’s Andy Dalton, a winner in his 2011 debut. “People can say, ‘Hey, it’s just another game,’ but you know it’s not.”

*There are plenty of people at least mildly surprised that Terrelle Pryor, whose NFL resume includes only 30 pass attempts, beat out Matt Flynn for the Oakland Raiders’ starting quarterback job. But Ken Anderson and Ken Herock aren’t among them. Anderson, the former standout Cincinnati Bengals’ quarterback, tutored Pryor in the months preceding the 2011 supplemental draft. Herock worked with Pryor on preparing for interviews before the supplemental.

“Not only was he a bright and engaging guy,” said Herock, the longtime league personnel exec, whose ProPrep firm has prepped hundreds of clients, “but you could see his raw football skills and ability to throw the ball. A lot of people thought he was just a great athlete who happened to play quarterback. I thought, watching (Anderson) work with him, that he was a real quarterback prospect.”

Herock works more with clients now on the interview side of things than the physical, but still pays plenty of attention to a player’s skills-set as well.

“He’s still raw, obviously, but he can (throw) it,” Herock said.

One other note about the Oakland quarterback competition: The reports that there were some players in the Raiders’ locker room who preferred undrafted free agent rookie Matt McGloin of Penn State over Flynn or Pryor (or fourth-rounder Tyler Wilson, who ended up on the practice squad) were vastly overrated. Players admire McGloin, a onetime college walk-on, for his tenacity and resourcefulness, and his grasp of the Oakland offense, but very few actually feel he should be starting.

*”New faces in new places” is a fairly common theme in the league, what with so many players, and even coaches, changing franchises in the offseason. And it’s made for some unconventional preparation techniques in recent seasons, as lately exemplified by the fact Washington defensive coordinator Jim Haslett, whose unit faces the Philadelphia Eagles in the opener, has spent considerable time the past couple weeks poring over videotape of University of Oregon games.

Chip KellyThe entire country is eager to see what Chip Kelly has in store for Monday night.

Save for the preseason tapes, there is no celluloid, of course, of the offense that Kelly has installed with the Eagles for his debut NFL season. And, as Haslett allowed, there isn’t a whole lot to be gleaned from the preseason. And so he’s viewed tapes from approximately two dozen games Kelly coached at Oregon.

“You’re trying to get a feel for the pace, for the way he calls plays, for the way it’s run,” Haslett said. “There’s no track record from the NFL for this stuff. So you go back to where he’s been and what he’s done at places, and that means watching the (Oregon) stuff.”

Atlanta players, especially the offensive linemen, have developed a similar tack in preparing for the new 3-4 front installed by first-year New Orleans defensive coordinator Rob Ryan. It’s been a long time since the arch-rival Saints aligned in a 3-4 – no current Falcons’ player has ever faced New Orleans in that defense – and so Atlanta linemen have been watching tape from Dallas games of the past few seasons.

“What makes it hard is trying to (project) the way Ryan will take guys who we’ve played in a 4-3 for so long and use them in (the 3-4),” said Atlanta guard Derrick Blalock. “You can get a little bit of a handle on what he did (when with the Cowboys), but figuring out the individual players, and what they’ll do in a 3-4 is different.”

*First-round choice Desmond Trufant will start at right cornerback for Atlanta at New Orleans on Sunday, and the former University of Washington standout has been getting plenty of advice from teammates about how to battle with the Saints’ explosive wide receivers. He’s also spent considerable time counseling with a couple of guys even closer to him, older brothers Marcus and Isaiah, both NFL corners. In fact, since being released by Jacksonville last weekend, where he had signed as a free agent following 10 seasons in Seattle, Marcus Trufant has become quite a long distance mentor for his younger brother, while he sits around to see if the phone will ring with a job offer.

“He’s told me a lot,” Desmond Trufant said last week as he prepped for his regular-season debut. “The best (advice) is to don’t let the game and the moment become so big that it overwhelms you. You want to stay within yourself and just stay (resilient) if you have a bad play. Just take it snap-to-snap, you know? It’s good to have people you can go to, and it’s great when they’re your brothers.”

The eldest Trufant, 32, played 136 games for the Seahawks, but injuries have eroded his performance the past few seasons. An irony is that the Falcons, for whom his younger brother now starts, clearly picked on him, in his “nickel” role in their final drive of a comeback victory in last season’s divisional round. Isaiah Trufant is a three-year veteran with the Jets, and primarily a special teams player.

*On the subject of the Atlanta-New Orleans matchup: Much has been made the past few meetings of the challenge for the Falcons’ linebackers in attempting to cover New Orleans tailback Darren Sproles, one of the league’s premier receivers out of the backfield. But the truth is, despite perceptions, Atlanta has actually done a pretty good job against Sproles, limiting him to 11 catches for 71 yards in three games. That said, the Falcons’ young linebackers – especially undrafted rookie Joplo Bartu, from Texas State, who figures to play in “sub” packages – will be tested by Sproles. But for a change, Atlanta can offer a quality backfield receiver of its own to go up against New Orleans’ thin linebacker corps. Ten-year veteran Steven Jackson was signed as a free agent in the spring, ostensibly to replace the released Michael Turner in the running game, but it’s the former Rams standout’s pass-catching skills that could make a significant difference. In his eight seasons as a starter in St. Louis, Jackson averaged 48.5 receptions, and six times had more than 40 catches. By comparison, the Falcons have only twice in the past 10 seasons had a back catch more than 40 balls in a campaign. And so when New Orleans linebacker and former Atlanta starter Curtis Lofton acknowledged that Jackson will present “a very different” kind of matchup for the Saints than did the downhill-oriented Turner, he wasn’t just talking about his running ability.

“He catches the ball so well,” Lofton said. “Not just on the screen, but up the field, too. And (the Falcons) haven’t always had that kind of guy.”

*There’s been some churning in recent years of the old three-quarterback depth chart in the league, but nearly half the NFL (14 of the 32 teams) had stuck with the old tried-and-true, as of Friday morning. There were, though, six clubs that, at least for the time being, opted to go with only two quarterbacks – and none of their practice squads – for the opening of the season. Eight others had just a pair of quarterbacks on the 53-man roster, but had a third on the practice squad.

Pete CarrollCarroll is one of several coaches rolling with only two quarterbacks in Week 1.

“The bottom line,” said Seattle coach Pete Carroll, one of those who kept just two signal-callers (and none on the practice squad), is that you rarely use more than two anyway. And if you can get away with it, it gives you some flexibility at some other spots.”

Oakland kept three quarterbacks active, plus one on the practice squad. The Jets and Redskins have four each on the active roster, although that could change quickly in either or both cases. And Jacksonville has five quarterbacks, although that includes “athlete” Denard Robinson, the former Michigan star who will be used as a running back and return man.

*As Peter King reported on Friday for Sports Illustrated, free agent quarterback Tim Tebow, now released twice in the past six months, recently rejected an opportunity to sign with an NFL team that wanted him to change positions. Tebow, with whom we sat at his home during the 2010 draft, has also rebuffed overtures, NFP has learned from people close to him, to test for some TV analyst work.

“His focus is still on the NFL and on playing quarterback,” said a person close to the former first-round draft pick and onetime University of Florida star. “He still believes in himself a lot more than other people do. The other stuff (such as media opportunities) will be there. But not until he convinces himself that he’s done with the NFL and that the NFL is done with him.”

+SHORT YARDAGE

*So what does Manuel face in the opener against the Patriots? In his tenure in New England, coach Bill Belichick is 13-4 against rookie quarterbacks and has limited them to an anemic completion rate of just 53.9 percent. . . . On the aforementioned battle with the Saints’ new 3-4 defense: The Falcons have had some problems with the 3-4 front in postseason play under Mike Smith, but are 18-6 during the regular season versus 3-4 teams during his five seasons. . . . More Falcons: Despite the team’s publicly stated confidence in second-year veteran right tackle Lamar Holmes, who played just seven snaps from scrimmage as a rookie in 2012, coaches are hustling to get veteran Jeremy Trueblood, signed as a free agent last week, up to speed as quickly as possible. A former second-round pick in Tampa Bay, Trueblood’s game has slipped because of injuries, but he has 84 career starts, and Atlanta thinks he has something to offer. . . . Some teams scouring around, putting together their “emergency” or “ready” lists, have young quarterback Mike Kafka, released last year by Philadelphia and then again by Jacksonville last week, rated higher than some of the veteran passers in the unemployment line. Kafka doesn’t have a great arm, but he’s a quick read, and showed some flashes in his four appearances with the Eagles over four years, and there was some mild surprise that he didn’t fare better with the Jags. . . . For those wondering why there weren’t more “vested” players (four seasons or more) after last weekend’s cuts, remember this: A “vested” veteran who is on an opening day roster has his full salary guaranteed. And so clubs have taken to waiting, as they will this year as well, until after the first game to sign veterans. Look for some movement this week, now that the first-game guarantee is out of the way. . . . On a personal note, congratulations and best wishes to Steve Perry, who announced this week that he is retiring as executive director of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, a position he held admirably for seven years. Perry not only presided over a host of Hall of Fame improvements and additions, and significantly enhanced the profile of the Canton football shrine, but he was always even-handed in the annual deliberations for induction, treated the selectors with great respect, and was a consummate professional. He’ll be missed by all of those involved in the Hall of Fame selection process.

+BY THE NUMBERS

*Baltimore’s loss at Denver on Thursday night was the second in a row by a defending champion in a season-opening game and the streak comes after a dozen consecutive victories by reigning champions. It makes only the fourth time in history that defending champions have lost back-to-back openers and is the first time since 1992 and ’93, when Washington (Super Bowl XXVI) and Dallas (Super Bowl XXVII), respectively, were defeated in their respective openers. Defending Super Bowl champions have never lost three straight lid-lifters. The 22-point margin is also the largest of defeat ever for a Super Bowl champion in the following season’s first game. The previous worst was 19 points, with the Cowboys losing at Washington, 35-16, on Sept. 6, 1993. Reigning Super Bowl champions are now 31-15-1 in openers.

Read More 3626 Words

NFP Sunday Blitz

One game certainly does not a definitive opinion, or a first-rounder for that matter, make. And so, while the initial reviews for South Carolina defensive end and Heisman Trophy candidate Jadeveon Clowney were decidedly mixed following the Gamecocks’ opening victory over North Carolina on Thursday night, NFL scouts figure to keep avidly scrambling to

One game certainly does not a definitive opinion, or a first-rounder for that matter, make. And so, while the initial reviews for South Carolina defensive end and Heisman Trophy candidate Jadeveon Clowney were decidedly mixed following the Gamecocks’ opening victory over North Carolina on Thursday night, NFL scouts figure to keep avidly scrambling to games to assess first-hand the player that many feel will be the first guy off the board in the ‘14 draft.

If there were two disappointing elements to Thursday evening’s game, suggested one general manager who watched the college opener on television, it was that North Carolina directed so few plays at the South Carolina star, and that Clowney was obviously in less than optimum condition. The GM noted early Friday morning to NFP that he wants to check on how serious was the stomach virus that Clowney allegedly battled during the week, as late as Wednesday. In fact, the GM, who reminded that he can’t discuss underclass players for attribution, planned to phone South Carolina head coach Steve Spurrier, whose postgame remarks indicated that he wasn’t overly pleased with Clowney’s shape.

“Was it that (illness) or was he just out of shape?” the general manager queried rhetorically. “I mean, he chased some plays at times, but even on TV, you could see he was (winded) too much. Maybe it was the North Carolina (fast-paced) offense at times. It’s early, and we’ll see (Clowney) a lot of times before it’s all said and done, but it’s never too early to start asking questions about a guy. I want to know what was going on.”

Jadeveon ClowneyClowney’s performance last Thursday night raised a couple of questions for some NFL scouts.

Perhaps the biggest positive: That Clowney, who could become only the third defensive player in 20 years to be the top pick (joining Mario Williams in 2006 and Courtney Brown in 2000) demonstrated the ability to move around on the line, to align at both end spots and even at nose tackle for a couple snaps, and to totally impact a game plan. “I don’t care what people say about the game, he’s still so strong and so quick,” said UNC left tackle James Hurst, who along with right tackle Jon Heck, had to block Clowney most of the night, and who might be a first-round pick himself. “He’s a handful. Maybe two handfuls.”

An area scout who attended the game and who was driving back to his home when reached by NFP on Friday, acknowledged that Clowney wasn’t as dominating as he had hoped. “But he showed flashes and, when he wasn’t ‘gassed,’ although that was a little disturbing, he ran around the place,” the scout said. “It wasn’t a great game, no. But what’s that saying about how you never get a second chance to make a first impression? That’s (manure). There’s going to be a lot of eyes on him every week and we’ll see how it shakes out. He’s still a great player.”

With 13 sacks in 2012, and 21 in his two years in college, Clowney probably projects as a right end in the NFL. But he is even stronger than his 275 pounds – stouter against the run that he’s often credited with being, and not just an up-field, edge defender – and could flip to the strong side at times or even to tackle in third-down situations, to create more advantageous matchups. Scouts are eager to see those diverse skills.

+AROUND THE LEAGUE

*Not exactly a ringing endorsement, right, from Washington State coach Mike Leach, who was brutally realistic during a national radio interview last week about how former Cougars’ starter and undrafted rookie free agent Jeff Tuel might fare if he starts for the injury-ravaged Buffalo Bills in next Sunday’s opener against New England? But the ever-candid Leach was fair in citing Tuel’s 4-22 record as a starter and certainly in reminding folks about the lack of stability with which he played his college and high school careers.

“He knows the passing game, has played in a system where he had to make good decisions, so I don’t think those things will affect him,” Leach said later. “But even if he was a (first-round pick), it would be hard going out there in your first game.”

Tuel could become the first undrafted rookie to start in a season opener since the common draft was implemented in 1967. By comparison, Russell Wilson, a third-round pick in 2012, was the first rookie quarterback outside of the first two rounds to start an opener since Kyle Orton, a fourth-rounder, opened for the Bears in 2005.

*Suffice it to say that the biggest news of the NFL’s past few days, the $765 million settlement of the 4,000-plus concussion-related lawsuits brought against the NFL, is still being viewed with a jaundiced eye by past players in general and the plaintiffs in particular. Most of the players, of course, aren’t attorneys and will have to have the details of the settlement explained to them. Several of the affected players were, on Friday, in fact, working to set up conference calls, either with their attorneys or NFLPA officials, to explain to them the legalese of the settlement.

“It will probably take a few days for the dust to settle and everyone to digest what’s in there,” said former tailback Dorsey Levens. “People can talk about so-called ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ in this thing. But there probably aren’t any real big winners.” According to the settlement, awards to plaintiffs will be capped at about $5 million, but it is very likely that only the most severely affected players, and those able to substantiate football-related head trauma, will get anything even close to that.

As for the NFL, whose tab probably will approximate $1 billion by the time all the legal fees and other ancillaries are included, will pay out the settlement over 20 years – half in the first three years and the other half in the subsequent 17 years. The payments, which will be divided equally among the franchises, essentially amount to about 10 percent of revenues.

Robert Griffin IIIRG3 looks to be all systems go for Washington’s Week 1 opener against Philadelphia.

*The cautionary suggestion by renowned orthopedist Dr. James Andrews – the man who repaired the injured knee of Robert Griffin III and who opined late in the week that the Washington Redskins might be prudent to use their star quarterback a bit differently in his second season – likely won’t prompt head coach Mike Shanahan or offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan to start tearing pages from the playbook. But it’s notable that, after a few early games in 2012 in which Griffin was subjected to a lot of hits (like in the Sept. 23 matchup with Cincinnati), the Washington coaches did cut back substantially on the number of zone-option plays in the game plan. Within a week or two, in part because of Griffin’s prodding, they were added again. But the Redskins were leery, even before RG3’s knee injury, that they perhaps need to protect him a bit better.

*Chicago first-year offensive line coach Aaron Kromer might not have the most difficult job in the league, but the 13th year NFL veteran (who also served as the offensive coordinator and was the interim head coach in New Orleans for the first six games last season) has got to rank near the top in terms of assistant coaches who will be confronted by daunting tasks in ’13. Of the four offensive line starters from the team’s opener last season, all but center Roberto Garza are no longer with the club. With the departures of J’Marcus Webb and Gabe Carimi, the Bears’ two tackle starters, Jermon Bushrod and rookie Jordan Mills, are newcomers. The top three tackles weren’t even in camp for the full time with the Bears a year ago.

One of the first things new coach Marc Trestman identified as an area that needed to be dramatically addressed was the offensive line. How quickly the remaking takes shape for an offense that a year ago statistically ranked 28th in the league remains to be seen. Bushrod, signed as a free agent and at the recommendation of Kromer, will help. But in Mills and right guard Kyle Long, the club’s first-round pick, the Bears will start an all-rookie right side of the unit. Kromer is regarded as one of the top line coaches in the game, but he’s got his work cut out for him.

*When four-year veteran Aaron Curry announced his retirement last Wednesday at the age of just 27, only three days after a third team in 22 months (the New York Giants) had given up on him, it reminded for about the zillionth time that the draft is hardly an exact science. After all, as the fourth overall selection in the 2009 draft, the former Wake Forest standout was supposed to have been one of the surest things in that year’s lottery, a smart, instinctive, playmaker, and future Pro Bowl defender. It also refueled some discussion about the difficulty some linebackers have making the jump to the NFL.

For every player like Von Miller, Aldon Smith, Patrick Willis, Luke Kuechly, Ryan Kerrigan or Brian Cushing, there are first-rounders such as Rolando McClain or Vernon Gholston or Ernie Sims, guys who wash out despite several attempts with multiple teams. Or others such as Larry English or Jerry Hughes, who

Read More 1595 Words

NFP Sunday Blitz

The offseason addition of two-time Super Bowl champion defensive end Osi Umenyiora, the former New York Giants’ standout signed as an unrestricted free agent, figures to be a solid move by the Atlanta Falcons. But bringing in Umenyiora, the NFL’s 10th-leading sacker among active defenders, also magnifies one of the very few

The offseason addition of two-time Super Bowl champion defensive end Osi Umenyiora, the former New York Giants’ standout signed as an unrestricted free agent, figures to be a solid move by the Atlanta Falcons. But bringing in Umenyiora, the NFL’s 10th-leading sacker among active defenders, also magnifies one of the very few failures of the Arthur Blank-Thomas Dimitroff-Mike Smith triumvirate.

Yep, there’s a big doughnut hole in the middle of the trinity’s collective resume. And, no, we’re not alluding to the most conspicuous shortcoming: The failure to deliver a Super Bowl championship in the trio’s five seasons together. Instead, we refer to the bagel that has been the Falcons’ glaring inability to draft and develop a viable pass rusher over the past five years.

Make no mistake, Dimitroff, essentially the architect of the roster, has enjoyed an extraordinary run as general manager. Ditto Smith, a still-underrated coach who has piloted the Falcons to four playoff berths in five seasons (the franchise had never even posted consecutive winning seasons before his arrival), and who led the franchise to within one victory (10 yards) of a Super Bowl invitation last season. Indeed, of the 22 position players who started for the Falcons in the NFC championship game seven months ago, 15 were acquired under the Dimitroff-Smith tandem, and half of them were draft picks made in that stretch.

During that period, though, the Falcons were unable to draft and nurture a true pass rush threat. Thus, in part at least, the necessity to sign Umenyiora. And before that, to trade for John Abraham in 2006, although that wasn’t on Dimitroff’s watch. Need we mention the ill-fated 2011 free agent signing of left end Ray Edwards, who was added as the presumptive complement to Abraham, and who cost the Falcons nearly $4 million per sack – 3.5 sacks in 25 games – before his ignominious release after nine games in 2012?

None of this is intended, certainly, as an indictment of Dimitroff or Smith. They have been a superb pairing, no doubt. Instead, the lack of a young, home-grown pass rusher is simply a reality, one that has been all but overlooked in evaluating Dimitroff’s deservedly-ballyhooed draft acumen. It’s a fact that, in the five drafts previous to this April, Dimitroff tabbed 13 “front seven” defenders. Only one of them, five-year veteran end Kroy Biermann, ever managed five sacks in a season.

Not as rookies, mind you. Ever.

Osi UmenyioraThe Falcons hope that Umenyiora, who has notched 15 sacks over the last two seasons, is the answer to their pass rush issues.

Biermann collected a career-best five sacks in 2009. He’s never equaled that total, and never, in fact, had more than four sacks in a season since that sophomore campaign. None of the other defenders chosen by Atlanta’s talented current football regime since 2008 has ever posted more than four sacks in a single season.

A few more inarguable facts: Only twice in the past 10 seasons – with tackle Jonathan Babineaux in 2009 and end Patrick Kerney in 2004 – has a player initially drafted by the Falcons led the club in sacks. The last time Atlanta drafted and developed a true pass rush threat was with Kerney in 1999. Other than that, it’s been mercenaries who have been charged with pressuring the pocket. Abraham led the Falcons in sacks in five of his seven seasons. The last home-grown “edge” rusher to have more than six sacks for Atlanta was Kerney, with 6.5 in 2005.

And so the need for Umenyiora, a 10-year veteran who, at 31, is three years younger than the departed Abraham, who was released in the offseason and subsequently signed with Arizona. But the classy Umenyiora is also a player whose sack totals have decreased in each of the past two seasons, who notched just six sacks in 2012 (his lowest total since 2006), and who had demonstrated some signs of decline the past couple years.

In an effort to produce a more consistent rush, and create advantageous matchups, Umenyiora will be used as a stand-up linebacker/hybrid defender in some of the fronts that are being installed by coordinator Mike Nolan. And Babineaux, who has at least three sacks in five of the past six seasons, will move from tackle to end at times.

OK, so a home-grown pass rusher isn’t a prerequisite for a playoff team. No arguing that. But of the 20 defenders who collected 10 or more sacks during the 2012 season, 15 were with their original league franchises. Over the past three seasons, 39 of the 57 players who had double-digit sack totals were employed by the franchises with which they originally came into the NFL. Of the 11 other teams who qualified for the playoffs in 2012, not counting the Falcons, eight featured sack leaders that they drafted.

In the league, a team has to employ all available methods in terms of talent acquisition, and the draft is just one of those components. But drafting a rusher, and developing him, history has demonstrated, is considerably cheaper than getting one in a trade or via free agency, even in this time of blunted salaries for free agent pass rushers. And the ability to draft a pass rusher, and to have him in a team’s system from the outset of his professional career, has longer positive effects.

Easier said than done, choosing a young passer rusher, and having him flourish? Sure, it is, but it’s hardly impossible. Other clubs have done it. The Falcons, under their present football regime, clearly haven’t yet.

They are hopeful that rookie ends Malliciah Goodman (seven sacks in 2012) and Stansly Maponga (nine sacks in 2011) will buck the Falcons’ recent track record. And that second-year veteran Jonathan Massaquoi will improve. Said Smith: “Those (young) guys are going to play and get their chances.” For the Falcons to improve their sack numbers, the kids are going to have to come through, it seems.

The popular theory has been that, in addition to adding Umenyiora, Atlanta may have bolstered its pass rush through the draft, with the additions of Goodman from Clemson (fourth round) and TCU’s Maponga (fifth). But that hasn’t been the case of late. Only once, in 2008, have the Falcons ranked above the league season average in sacks. Never under the current regime has the club ranked among the top 10. Three times in five years, Atlanta has been 20th or worse. The NFL average in 2012 was 36.5 sacks per team, and Atlanta managed just 29, and Abraham had 10 of those. In the past five seasons, Atlanta totaled 153 sacks, and Abraham accounted for more than one-third of them.

No Dimitroff-drafted player has had more than two sacks as a rookie, so history doesn’t bode well for a guy making an immediate impact.

Some might argue Atlanta had few opportunities to select a pass rusher in the draft, or that circumstances dictated that the team address other positions as a priority. Such suggestions are disingenuous at best. First off, there are few positions in the NFL as critical as pass rusher, particularly given the way the game is played now. Second, Dimitroff has had a few shots at players who have emerged as pass rush threats, and he passed on them.

And we’re not talking just about in the first round.

In his first draft, 2008, Dimitroff chose cornerback Chevis Jackson in the third round, with the stanza’s fifth pick. Twenty-four slots after that, Detroit grabbed end Cliff Avril, one of the NFL’s premier young rushers, a guy who averaged 9.7 sacks over the past three years, was tagged a franchise player by the Lions in 2012, and who defected to Seattle this spring as a free agent. Jackson is currently not on a league roster. Dimitroff selected safety Schann Schillinger in the sixth round in 2011. Four picks after Schillinger went off the board at the No. 2 slot in the round, division rival Carolina snatched Greg Hardy, who had 11 sacks last year. The failure to take and develop a pass rusher even predates Dimitroff. In 2007, for instance, the Falcons passed on end Charles Johnson, who has 33 sacks for the Panthers the past three seasons, and opted for Laurent Robinson. The wide receiver lasted two seasons in Atlanta before being traded.

Guys like Charles Johnson of Georgia, end Michael Johnson (Cincinnati) from Georgia Tech, and former Bulldogs “edge” rusher Justin Houston (10 sacks for Kansas City in 2012), were all in Atlanta’s back yard. And the Falcons failed to get any of them.

The oft-cited contention of the Falcons’ brain trust is that young veterans such as Massaquoi (fifth round in 2012) have shown pass rush potential in camp and might develop into sack threats. And, true, Massaquoi, who had one of the team’s three sacks in the first two preseason outings, might yet emerge as a rusher. But the kind of promising rhetoric that is being afforded Massaquoi and others is eerily similar to that which regularly was employed with Lawrence Sidbury for a few years.

A fourth-round draft choice in 2009, Sidbury was chosen primarily for his pass rush potential. In four seasons with the Falcons, though, he never started a game, and totaled only five sacks in 48 appearances, before defecting to Indianapolis as a free agent in the offseason.

Nolan is a terrific and inventive coordinator, and perhaps, in his second season in Atlanta, he can manufacture more pressure than the Falcons did a year ago. But for the pass rush to improve in both the short- and long-term, the Falcons probably need to develop a young sack threat. And for all its brilliance under the current regime, that’s something the franchise hasn’t accomplished yet.

+AROUND THE LEAGUE

*Given the turnover at the backup quarterback position in the league this offseason and the relative inexperience of the No. 2 signal-caller group around the NFL, as noted in this space last week, it was at least mildly surprising that nine-year veteran Seneca Wallace was not more seriously pursued when he was released by New Orleans last week. But the former Seattle and Cleveland veteran, with 21 starts on his resume, didn’t garner a lot of interest outside of that demonstrated by San Francisco, which signed him to a one-year contract. That’s not to even remotely suggest Wallace is a big-time player. But he is a proven commodity, which is more than a lot of backups right now.

“Even though I didn’t play (in 2012, after the Browns released him), I thought I still had something left,” Wallace said. With backups Colt McCoy, Scott Tolzien, and B.J. Daniels seemingly providing little security behind starter Colin Kaepernick, the move seems a prudent one by San Francisco officials. All of the Niners’ backup candidates have struggled in the preseason and, even though he hasn’t played in a year, Wallace seems capable of stepping in for a short time. It helped him that his former head coach in Cleveland, Eric Mangini, is now a consultant for the 49ers. Kaepernick is a sturdy, durable guy – notable is that Alex Smith threw just one pass after losing the starting job in 2012 – but the youngster has some susceptibility because of the “pistol” offense and the “zone-option” that are such big components of the San Francisco offense. It’s probably just an inexplicable quirk, but the starting quarterbacks for each of the last seven Super Bowl champions, and 10 of the past 11, didn’t miss a game because of injury (Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees sat out the 2011 and 2009 season finales, respectively, but not because of injuries). But the 49ers seem intent on providing a safety net in case the streak doesn’t continue.

Alex SmithSmith has struggled during the preseason, but apparently has won over the coaching staff and locker room.

*Speaking of Alex Smith, the eight-year veteran has struggled some in preseason play, and was just seven-for-16 (with an anemic 54.7 passer rating) in last week’s loss to his former San Francisco teammates, but Kansas City coaches and players have been raving about his work ethic, leadership, command of the offense, and the stability he brings to the position.

“He’s everything you want at the position,” said offensive coordinator Doug Pederson. Added safety Eric Berry: “He handles himself so well; (he’s) a real pro about everything.”

Smith is a guy without a public agenda but, even though he handled himself with great decorum when he was benched in favor of Kaepernick last season, the word in Kansas City is that he still privately chafes a bit about the demotion and quietly uses it as motivation. His preseason numbers notwithstanding, Smith seems to have won over his new teammates and coach Andy Reid’s staff.

*A couple weeks ago, Minnesota tailback Adrian Peterson, who threatened Eric Dickerson’s single-season rushing record last season, opined that he could break Emmitt Smith’s career mark in 2017. Teammates don’t disagree. For as much as Peterson worked hard last year to overcome the ACL injury he sustained at the end of the previous campaign, some Vikings veterans have claimed he hasn’t let up any, and might even be approximating that work level as he attempts to become the first two-time, 2,000-yard rusher in NFL annals.

“The way he works,” said right tackle Phil Loadholt, of Peterson, scheduled to make his first appearance of the preseason this weekend, “you put nothing past him. The man is a beast.” Peterson, 28, has two more full seasons until he hits the dread 30 years old, typically the decline demarcation line for running backs. But, in terms of career pace, he trails Smith by only 107 yards for his first six seasons, and has played in four fewer games than did the all-time rushing leader in his first half-dozen campaigns. Several elements will be interesting over the next few years: Whether the Vikings, be it with Christian Ponder or someone else, increase the passing-game burden of their offense. How many carries Peterson, who has averaged 341.7 attempts in the three seasons in which he played all 16 games, gets per year. And, of course, injuries. But Peterson, who needs 9,506 yards to top Smith, certainly seems intent on owning the record, as he has publicly suggested. Several years ago, working on a story about whether there could ever be a player capable of making the seemingly impossible jump from high school to the NFL, we queried some league players about the prospects. The name that came up most often was that of Peterson, who was just a freshman at Oklahoma, and fresh out of Palestine (Tex.) High School, at the time.

*When Pittsburgh chose Rashard Mendenhall in the first round of the 2008 draft, there were some internal rumblings that the former Illinois star was a “soft” runner, a guy with tailback-quick feet and a fullback-sized body, but one who didn’t always move the pile. During his Steelers’ tenure – in which he twice rushed for 1,000 yards, averaged 1,103 yards and 9.7 touchdowns, and led the club in rushing in all three years in which he was healthy and started more than four games – Mendenhall quieted at least some (but not all) of the critics. The same kinds of whispers haven’t begun yet about the team’s latest high-round runner, second-round rookie Le’Veon Bell, but there is similar frustration so far regarding the onetime Michigan State standout. Bell didn’t miss a game during his three seasons with the Spartans, appearing in 40 contests and starting 19 of them, and demonstrating fine durability, like playing through a painful shoulder injury late in 2012. But he wasn’t on the field much in training camp, sustaining three different injuries that have limited him to only four preseason carries. And while the foot injury he suffered last week isn’t the Lisfranc sprain that was widely reported by some outlets, it will sideline Bell for a while. And it almost certainly led directly to the Steelers’ acquisition of Felix Jones from Philadelphia on Friday. It will probably also exacerbate the frustration level – with the coaches, the front office and, yeah, Bell himself.

BellThe Steelers will have to find a way to run the rock early in the season without Bell.

“Sure it is (frustrating),” Bell said. “I’m used to being out there everyday. I’ve just got to work harder when I am on the field.” The Steelers selected Bell with the presumption he would start ahead of Isaac Redman and Jonathan Dwyer, come to camp and claim the No. 1 job, but that hasn’t been the case. They’re hoping his slow start, like that of Mendenhall, isn’t an omen. . . . Two quick Ironies on Bell and the Steelers: First, the team passed on Eddie Lacy in the draft because of the former Alabama back’s injury history, notably a fused toe joint. Now Bell can’t stay on the field. Second: The Steelers shipped Dwyer, their leading rusher in 2012, during the draft. It may be fortunate Pittsburgh unearthed no potential trade partners, since Dwyer could wind up being the starter again.

*Plenty was made last week of the selection of former Oakland punter Ray Guy to one of the two “senior” finalist slots for the Hall of Fame. The choice of Guy likely facilitates his chances of becoming the first pure punter enshrined in Canton, since the senior candidates are not subjected to the same reduction procedure during the deliberations as are the 15 “modern” finalists. But probably equally as deserving as Guy, even though it didn’t merit the same level of attention, was the choice of former Atlanta (1968-78) and Philadelphia (1979-81) defensive end Claude Humphrey by the Hall’s senior sub-committee. Humphrey didn’t even play a single season during which sacks were a statistic officially recognized by the NFL. But NFL historians, in particular the always thorough John Turney, have credited him with 124.5 sacks during his career, which earns him the No. 20 spot on the all-time list.

There are at least three defensive linemen in the Hall of Fame with fewer sacks. Talk to guys who played either with or against Humphrey, and they universally suggest he belongs in the Hall of Fame. This is actually the second time Humphrey has been nominated by the senior group (the Class of 2009 was the other), and he was also a three-time “modern” finalist. In the past, there has been some feeling that Humphrey was more a one-dimensional defender, who didn’t play the run well, but that notion has been somewhat debunked by contemporaries. There was also a feeling that he forced a ’79 trade to the Eagles, to be reunited with Marion Campbell there, but Humphrey and independent team sources have denied that. It’s rare for a player to get a second chance as a “senior” candidate – Humphrey becomes only the sixth man to do so – but the sentiment (and the odds) seem to be with him this time. If Guy makes it to the Hall, his induction, just like last week’s nomination, will command plenty of attention. But Humphrey may be every bit as deserving.

*As of Friday, there had not been an official, written decree from league offices to the 32 teams about the MRSA infection that has recently plagued the Tampa Bay Bucs and affected guard Carl Nicks and kicker Lawrence Tynes. But there had been plenty of discussions between trainers and equipment men from several clubs, one trainer from an AFC franchise acknowledged, and it was expected NFL officials will issue more guidelines, suggestions, and precautionary measures for attempting to avoid the kinds of problems the Bucs have experienced.

“We’ve all been aware of it, but you can bet that (the league) almost certainly will magnify on that,” allowed the trainer.

MRSA is a staph infection-type bacteria resistant to many conventional antibiotic treatments, and can be most prevalent in moist environments, like locker rooms, although it has also thrived in some hospital settings as well. The Cleveland Browns have experienced MRSA problems in the past (Kellen Winslow), although it has never been definitively proven that MRSA was an element of the staph infection of the knee that essentially ended the career of former Browns center LeCharles Bentley. The Bucs, by the way, had their facility treated once last week and again this weekend, and other teams almost certainly will bring in experts to analyze their headquarters as well.

*There isn’t a lot on which the two parties represented on the House Oversight and Government Reforms Committee agree these days – witness the partisan stances on issues like Benghazi and the IRS auditing of some groups – but on the preference for HGH testing in the NFL, there’s certainly a consensus that reaches across the aisle. A spokesperson for Cong. Darrell Issa (R-California) confirmed to NFP on Friday that the committee may soon “begin to lean on” the NFLPA in an attempt to move forward the type of testing to which the union tacitly agreed two years ago as part of the CBA accord.

Earlier in the week, Cong. Elijah Cummings of Maryland, the ranking Democrat on the committee, told the Associated Press that congress might soon “intervene” if the issue isn’t resolved. Said the Issa spokesperson: “I’d say that is accurate. Enough (delay) is enough.” In a verbal spitting match last week, NFL vice president of labor policy Adolpho Birch and NFLPA mouthpiece George Atallah sparred over HGH testing. Birch suggested the NFLPA is experiencing “buyer’s remorse” over the CBA agreement regarding testing. The union has agreed to testing for the purposes of developing a population study, but there are still questions about administration and governance of a program that would actually have some teeth. The advancements made in Major League Baseball, which once badly trailed the NFL in PED testing, but which now seems to have moved ahead, and which appears to enjoy the support of the rank-and-file, puts a lot more pressure on football players. And if that isn’t enough, it sure looks like congress is preparing to exert itself.

“The clock is ticking,” the Issa spokesperson said.

Jonathan BaldwinWill a change of scenery benefit Baldwin?

*It was hardly a blockbuster, and actually just a swap of disappointing former first-rounders, but the early consensus on last week’s trade of wideouts Jonathan Baldwin (from Kansas City to San Francisco) and A.J. Jenkins (to the Chiefs from the 49ers) is that the Niners probably got the better end of the deal. For all his issues, Baldwin is a physically talented receiver, an athletic and at times acrobatic pass-catcher with the kind of size San Francisco coaches prefer, and might benefit from a change of scenery and new environment. Jenkins, a mildly surprising pick in the first round in 2012, wasn’t seen as particularly tough physically or mentally, and wasn’t reacting well to criticism.

+SHORT YARDAGE

*Another player-for-player trade last week, wide receiver David Reed (to Indianapolis) for tailback Delone Carter (to Baltimore), is seen as more of a break-even deal. But the Colts do feel Reed, who was injured for much of 2012 but was a standout kickoff returner before that, can be more than just a special teams guy. . . . Oakland officials won’t comment on the contentions expressed by former St. Louis GM Billy Devaney that offensive tackle Alex Barron is motivated more by money than by his ardor for the game. But the Raiders are hardly sold on Barron, who hasn’t played in a game since 2010 and was signed out of semi-desperation because of an injury to Jared Veldheer, and will keep their eyes peeled for another veteran tackle once the mandatory roster reductions begin. . . . Although he didn’t sign with San Diego until Friday, picking the Chargers over Jacksonville, there are already indications that veteran cornerback Richard Marshall, released by Miami recently, could contest for a starting spot, at least in the nickel, at the outset of the season. . . . Notwithstanding the assertion by Michael Vick that he will run more in 2013, despite the risk of injury and the whispers he might be a bit too fragile, Philadelphia rookie coach Chip Kelly has insisted his up-tempo offense doesn’t include a lot more designed runs for the quarterback than do many NFL offensive designs.

+BY THE NUMBERS

Read More 4108 Words

NFP Sunday Blitz

As noted here several weeks ago, and as has become pretty obvious to everyone by now, the injury to Rob Gronkowski and the release of murder suspect Aaron Hernandez has left the New England Patriots woefully thin at tight end. But the Patriots also appear perilously inexperienced at wide receiver, as coach

As noted here several weeks ago, and as has become pretty obvious to everyone by now, the injury to Rob Gronkowski and the release of murder suspect Aaron Hernandez has left the New England Patriots woefully thin at tight end. But the Patriots also appear perilously inexperienced at wide receiver, as coach Bill Belichick and his offensive staff opted to dramatically turn over the depth chart at the key position, and to rely of an influx of youngsters.

The takeaway, though, on the remaking of the New England wide receiver corps: The change basically was a conscious one, the conclusion to go younger, and potentially more explosive on the outside, largely a decision that was arrived at relatively early in the spring, after an extensive evaluation of the passing game. Unlike the situation at tight end, over which New England had no control, it’s hardly coincidence that the Patriots have so many fresh faces at wide receiver.

Yeah, maybe the changes wouldn’t have seemed quite as extensive had slot receiver Wes Welker stuck around instead of defecting to Denver. But even had Welker agreed to an extension, New England coaches and officials had essentially decided to get serious about the development of younger, quicker, more vertical outside receivers after several seasons of utilizing veteran stop-gaps and striking out on some young prospects.

Notable is that the last “home-grown” wide receiver to have more than 40 catches in a season – not counting Deion Branch, who notched 51 in 2011, but in his second tour of duty with the Pats – was in 2006. Belichick hadn’t invested heavily in the wide receiver position during his tenure until this year. But when he had, players such as Chad Jackson, Brandon Tate, and Taylor Price had bombed out.

Chad JohnsonChad Johnson flopped during his one season in New England, just before veteran Brandon Lloyd failed to meet expectations.

“We had been filling in, kind of ‘patch-working’ things (at wide receiver), because that’s the way the chips fell,” one team official told the NFP. “So maybe it was time to take some guys and develop them. . . . By and large, the (young wide receivers) have done pretty well, mentally and physically, so far. (Tom) Brady is going to make a lot of people look better. But these guys look like a pretty good bunch.”

Statistically, the Patriots ranked No. 4 in the NFL in passing offense in 2012, so the easy call might be that there wasn’t much room for improvement. But there were also some “numbers within the numbers” that definitely caught the attention of club insiders. New England averaged 12.05 yards per reception, and only nine teams were better than that, but that group included both Super Bowl franchises. The team’s yards-per-attempt mark – a stat far more critical to coaches and scouts than to most fans – was 7.56 yards. That was the lowest for New England since 2008 (when it was 7.10 yards), the season in which Brady suffered a knee injury in the opener and Matt Cassel started 15 contests. In the seasons in which Brady started more than just one game, it was the Pats’ lowest since 2006, when the number stood at a miniscule 6.81 yards. New England rated high in receptions of 20 yards or more, so-called “explosive plays,” but was middle-of-the-pack in 40-yard catches. Tampa Bay, for example, which rated 10th in passing offense but had nearly 700 fewer yards than New England, had double the number of 40-yard plays.

It’s convenient to suggest that the Pats aren’t as concerned with yards per attempt, since they are designed to be a chain-moving offense, one that controls tempo and pace with its intermediate passing game, and that they don’t necessarily gun the ball up the field. But Belichick, who has now gone eight seasons since his third Super Bowl championship, has never been about maintaining the status quo. His hackneyed axiom about “turning the page over” every season? He actually believes it. And he doesn’t believe in just standing still. While the conventional wisdom is that Belichick eschews playing youngsters, that isn’t really the case.

New England’s personnel department, as usual, was just trolling for talented players in the draft. But if some of those players just happened to be wideouts, well, that wouldn’t hurt. The club snatched a pair of wide receivers, Aaron Dobson of Marshall (second round) and TCU’s Josh Boyce (fourth round), in April. It also added three undrafted wide receivers, most notably Kenbrell Thompkins of Cincinnati. All three rookies have flashed big-play prowess in training camp, and probably rate among the team’s top five players at the position (even counting slot receivers, like Danny Amendola, who will replace Welker inside) halfway through the preseason.

All of the cases are interesting, but Dobson’s kind of exemplifies the manner in which the Pats perhaps dug a bit deeper. A big receiver (6-feet-3, 210 pounds) with sub-4.4 speed, Dobson was projected by several teams to be a third- or fourth-round prospect. At Marshall, he played primarily in a “spread” offense, but his yards per catch were reduced every season. He caught a lot of “slip” screens and slants, but not a lot of deep balls. One reason, a few teams, including the Pats uncovered: While his quarterback, Rakeem Cato, had a sterling 69.5-percent completion rate in 2012, he didn’t throw the deep ball particularly well. What stood out about Dobson in part, people saw on tape, was that he was often open when he ran deep, but rarely got the ball. The other stat that jumped out was that Dobson put the ball in the end zone with regularity. Not only did he register 12 touchdown receptions in 2011, but he averaged a score every 6.9 catches for his college career.

“You can’t miss that,” said an area scout for an NFC team that probably would have jumped on Dobson in the third round, had he lasted.

The Pats, who have missed on too many wide receiver prospects over the years, seem confident at this point that Dobson and the other rookies will be very solid contributors to their revamped passing game in 2013. The kids are going to have to be good, because there isn’t much beyond them.

The release of nine-year veteran and former first-rounder (albeit well traveled) Michael Jenkins last week left 10 wide receivers on the roster, five of them rookies, and six of whom have never played in a regular-season game. Counting two-year veteran Kamar Aiken, seven of the group have played in three games or fewer. The only wideouts with much experience are newcomer Amendola and holdovers Julian Edelman and Matthew Slater, and the latter has principally been a special teams player during his five seasons, with only three career starts. Amendola accounts for 196 of the receptions, 1,726 yards and seven touchdowns from the group’s cumulative 266 catches, 2,486 yards and 11 scores. Jenkins had 354 receptions, 4,427 yards and 25 touchdowns, while appearing in 130 games, with 79 starts. The Pats’ current 10 wideouts have an aggregate 168 appearances and 33 starts. Still, the team knew exactly what it was doing when it overhauled the position. There are, to be sure, a lot of subplot reasons to watch the Patriots closely this season. But the conscious design to green up the wide receiver corps, and to finally draft and then develop talent there, is certainly one of them.

+AROUND THE LEAGUE

*First-round draft choice Sheldon Richardson of Missouri, the 13th player chosen overall in April, is getting solid reviews in the New York Jets’ camp. And while the Jets still hope that second-year veteran and former first-rounder Quinton Coples (5.5 sacks as a rookie) grows into the edge rusher that Rex Ryan has yet to develop in his previous four seasons on the job – despite the perception that Ryan’s defense creates sacks, the Jets have never registered more than 40 in his tenure and never had an outside linebacker net more than eight – Richardson seems to be continuing the club’s estimable track record for developing active linemen in the 3-4. All three of the team’s presumptive starters – Muhammad Wilkerson and Kenrick Ellis, in addition to Richardson – have come in the past three drafts. Wilkerson and Ellis were first- and third-round choices, respectively, in 2011. The ability to choose and then grow down linemen, for which Ryan probably doesn’t get enough credit, has enabled the Jets to overhaul their three-man front while few were paying attention.

Read More 1393 Words

NFP Sunday Blitz

Statistically ranked No. 6 in the league against the pass in 2012, the Seattle secondary – with cornerbacks Richard Sherman and Brandon Browner, free safety Earl Thomas, and strong safety Kam Chancellor – was regarded in many quarters as the NFL’s best defensive backfield unit.

According to coaches and people who have seen

Statistically ranked No. 6 in the league against the pass in 2012, the Seattle secondary – with cornerbacks Richard Sherman and Brandon Browner, free safety Earl Thomas, and strong safety Kam Chancellor – was regarded in many quarters as the NFL’s best defensive backfield unit.

According to coaches and people who have seen the Seahawks early in camp, the secondary may be even better this season. The addition of 14-year veteran Antoine Winfield, whose league resume includes 173 starts, and who was released by Minnesota this spring because of injuries and economics, could really upgrade an already strong bunch.

Richard ShermanRichard Sherman (right) ranked second in the NFL in interceptions last season, with 8.

Winfield, still a rugged player at age 36, and with a mindset that fits well with the Seahawks’ aggressive approach, ostensibly supplants Marcus Trufant as the No. 3 corner. And Trufant, a onetime top-shelf cover guy who had begun to slip, in part because of injuries, had become a liability. It was obvious in Atlanta’s last-minute comeback win over the Seahawks in the divisional round last year that the Falcons targeted Trufant, who signed with Jacksonville as a free agent in the offseason, on their final, game-winning possession.

But the addition of Winfield isn’t the lone factor that could make Seattle the top secondary in the NFL in 2013.

The development of youngsters such as Walter Thurmond, Byron Maxwell and Jeremy Lanee—and even the oft-injured Will Blackmon, who played 16 games in just one of his first seven seasons, and was rescued by the Seahawks from the Arena league—at cornerback, contributes greatly to the group’s outstanding potential. Thurmond, in particular, despite having zero interceptions in his first three years, has been very good in camp so far. There is also depth at safety.

“We have a lot of guys we feel can play,” acknowledged secondary coach Kris Richard, a former four-year NFL veteran. “They work hard, they compete, they do things the right way. And they challenge each other to be better.”

One league pro personnel director, who watched the Seahawks defeat San Diego in their preseason opener last Thursday night, opined to NFP on Friday morning that Seattle could “probably have a guy or two (in the secondary)” who will be released but end up on someone else’s roster for the season.

+AROUND THE LEAGUE

*Another takeaway from the Seattle-San Diego game on Thursday night was that Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers, much maligned the last few years, appeared to be more comfortable than he had the last three or four seasons. The nine-year veteran played only one series, and worked behind a reshuffled line, but completed five of six passes and, more important, looked to be in control of the offense that has been installed by first-year coordinator Ken Whisenhunt. Word is that Rivers has been a lot more accurate in camp, as well.

Philip RiversRivers has thrown a staggering 35 interceptions over his last two seasons.

Whisenhunt and rookie head coach Mike McCoy, whose primary expertise is on the offensive side, too, have always been guys who wanted the ball to go up the field. And that hasn’t changed. But they also want Rivers to be more selective and prudent than he’s been the last three years, when he threw 48 interceptions in 48 starts – three more than he had in his first 64 NFL starts. Always among the league leaders in yards per attempt – a esoteric but still key stat, emphasized a lot by NFL insiders, and an indicator of how much the ball is going up the field – Rivers averaged a career-worst 6.84 yards per pass in 2012. That’s roughly 20 percent less than he had averaged the previous four seasons. But the San Diego staff, which has closely analyzed each of the “picks” that Rivers had tossed the last three years, doesn’t think the falloff is so bad. And the coaches will emphasize getting the ball more to versatile tailback Ryan Mathews, who has 89 catches the past two seasons, but whose numbers could rise even more if he can stay healthy and on the field.

*One of the more conspicuous tactical elements to watch during the preseason is how some league defenses will attempt to counter the increase in “zone-option” quarterbacks around the league for 2013. Despite the contention of some defensive bosses, who have suggested the “zone-option” look will be a short-lived trend – and the feeling of Detroit coordinator Gunther Cunningham that it will result in more quarterback injuries – teams are going to have to deal with it for now. Some clubs could face as many as four “zone-option” quarterbacks during the season and, toward that end, many teams have huddled with college coaching staffs to get a better handle on how to defend the option.

One of those teams, Atlanta (which spent time this spring meeting with Clemson coaches), on Thursday night regularly used Osi Umenyiora as a stand-up player, in a two-point stance. It was originally believed, before the game, that Umenyiora, who had always been a traditional end during his 10 seasons with the Giants, would play some as a stand-up defender. But that was mostly because defensive coordinator Mike Nolan, in an effort to generate more pass rush, will implement some 3-4 looks this season, and fronts that don’t quite fit the standard 4-3 look the Falcons have used in head coach Mike Smith’s five seasons. But Nolan said after the game, the deployment of Umenyiora was as much a nod toward the “zone-option” as anything else.

“The ‘read-option’ has created that,” he said. “. . . When you play (the option), you have to have some vision of some things. It’s a part of the NFL now, so because of that, you will see a lot of guys do that. It’s very difficult to have your hand in the dirt and play certain things (like the option) from that stance.”

Notably, the Falcons also started the game with five defensive linemen on the field. As the preseason moves forward, it will be interesting to see how many other teams play their ends in stand-up spots, how many use “hybrid” players at end, and what other tweaks are made defensively as a concession to the option offenses that flourished in 2012.

*It’s been a long time since New Orleans employed a 3-4 defense but, after a 2012 season in which the Saints ranked dead-last in the league, and Steve Spagnuolo struggled to replace the departed Gregg Williams, coach Sean Payton opted for a dramatic change. Enter coordinator Rob Ryan and the new 3-4 front. To aid in the switch, Ryan imported a pair of front-seven defenders, end Kenyon Coleman and linebacker Victor Butler, who had been with him during his two seasons with the Dallas Cowboys. Butler, though, suffered a torn ACL in the offseason, and while he has not been placed on injured reserve, likely will miss the entire year. Coleman last week sustained a torn pectoral that will sideline him for a season. Neither of the injuries were headline-grabbers in the manner some early camp injuries have been, but both are setbacks of sorts for the Saints and their first-year DC. Butler was potentially the explosive pass-rusher New Orleans needed off the edge, and that role now likely falls to Junior Galette. Coleman is an 11-year veteran who never had more than four sacks in a season, but he knew the 3-4 well, was a very solid anchor versus the run and, even at 34, would probably have provided stability to a unit unaccustomed to some of the methods and techniques being implemented.

“Those guys were not only good players, but good teachers, guys who would have helped to smooth (the transition),” acknowledged Will Smith, who is converting to outside linebacker after nine seasons of playing end in the 4-3.

*Bengals defensive tackle Geno Atkins, who is entering the final season of his rookie contract, met for an extended time with Atlanta-based agents Pat Dye Jr. and Bill Johnson last week, when Cincinnati conducted mixed practices with the Falcons in advance of the teams’ preseason game. But the confab was mostly just touching base, not a detailed rehashing of the team’s desire to reach a contract extension with the two-time Pro Bowl tackle. Perhaps a deal gets done – the agents have a good relationship with the Bengals, cut an extension for offensive tackle Andrew Whitworth not that long ago, and the two sides have had cursory discussions – but there is still a ways to go before ink meets paper. A fourth-rounder in 2010, Atkins has dramatically outplayed his rookie contract, will pocket $1.423 million this year thanks to an escalator he’s met, and has a bargain cap number of just $1.54 million. But tackles who can rush the quarterback the way Atkins can – his 12.5 sacks in ’12 weren’t just the most by any inside defender in the league but also the most by a pure tackle since La’Roi Glover in 2000 – are gold. It’s going to take a huge deal, maybe a record deal for a tackle, to get Atkins to jump at an extension.

*The induction of coach Bill Parcells into the Hall of Fame last weekend reminded this correspondent of a story frequently told during the HOF deliberations by some of the selectors, but one that bears repeating. It doesn’t quite dovetail with the “Things I Didn’t Used to Know” category instituted here by regular “Sunday Blitz” writer Dan Pompei, but it might be little known to readers. And it’s certainly a good example of the motivational techniques of Parcells, which were a big part of the Hall discussion of his candidacy the past two years.

As the story goes, when New York Giants’ linebacker Lawrence Taylor reported for the start of preparations for the team’s divisional round game against the Los Angeles Rams in 1989, he found an airline ticket for New Orleans on the bench outside his locker room stall. When he queried Parcells about why the ticket was there, the coach told him he wanted him to fly to New Orleans and counsel with Saints’ linebacker Pat Swilling about how to play against Rams offensive left tackle Irv Pankey. Seems that Swilling typically dominated Pankey, while Taylor usually had problems with him. In terms of jacking up Taylor for the matchup with Pankey, the ploy worked. The Giants lost to the Rams, 19-13, in overtime, on Flipper Anderson’s 30-yard touchdown catch, but Taylor had 10 tackles and two sacks in the game, working mostly against Pankey.

Recalled former New York defensive lineman George Martin, who presented Parcells for induction last weekend: “That’s a great story, but there were a lot of (examples) of things like that, with Bill doing something to (motivate) a player. He knew when to stick in the needle or pull it back, what buttons to press with certain guys. He was more than just an X’s and O’s coach. That’s what made him special.”

*Although the Oakland defense could have as many as seven or eight new starters, the Raiders’ coaches have been relatively pleased so far with the early progress of a unit that ranked 19th in the league last season. The only negative: “We just don’t have a superstar, that one player where the other team says, ‘OK, we have to stop that guy to be able to win.’ We’ve got some solid guys who have come in, but not the one, big-time centerpiece player,” assessed a Raiders’ official. The staffer wasn’t speaking specifically about the Oakland pass rush, but he could have been. The club had just 25 sacks in 2012, the second lowest total in the league, and no one had more than four. The Raiders have revamped their front seven, but the pass rush may not be markedly better, even if the overall defense is. The only proven rusher is end Andre Carter, and at age 34, he’s in his NFL dotage and probably not a starter.

Nnamdi AsomughaThe 49ers are counting on former Eagle Nnamdi Asomugha to come up big in the secondary this season.

*Tampa Bay likely won’t file any kind of grievance, but the Bucs aren’t exactly thrilled that San Francisco late last week signed free agent cornerback Eric Wright. The agreement came basically three weeks after the 49ers voided a trade with the Bucs – that would have netted Tampa Bay a late-round draft pick – when Wright failed his physical exam. Wright, whom we’ve opined, isn’t nearly as good as the big-money deal he signed with the Bucs in 2012, and who has had some off-field issues, was immediately placed on PUP by the 49ers. But they are hopeful he can get on the field soon, and perhaps help make up for the season-ending injury to No. 3 corner Chris Culliver. With Culliver out, the team has been using Trumaine Brock as the third cornerback, and he is suspect. Also, Nnamdi Asomugha, signed to a one-year deal after Philadelphia released him, has had a difficult time early in camp. Only a few years ago, Asomugha, a three-time Pro Bowl performer, was being mentioned as one of the top two corners in the league.

+SHORT YARDAGE

*Last week in this space, we noted the strong early camp performance of Cincinnati rookie tailback Giovanni Bernard and, in a note about fellow rookie runner Le’Veon Bell of the Steelers, cited the importance of pass protection for first-year backs. This week, we’ll combine the two. Having watched Bernard on Thursday night in the Bengals’ preseason opener, he not only demonstrated great quickness, but also awareness in picking up the blitz. “He’s a bright kid,” Bengals’ coach Marvin Lewis said. . . . When healthy, Chris Ivory figures to be the starting tailback for the Jets. But the former New Orleans part-time starter isn’t an accomplished receiver, a critical skills-set in the offense being implemented by first-year coordinator Marty Mornhinweg, so look for third-year veteran Bilal Powell to be a key contributor. Powell had only 17 receptions in 2012, when he played some as a third-down back. He could triple that number in 2013. . . . One other setback of note in New Orleans was the season-ending knee injury sustained by young wide receiver Joe Morgan, who averaged a gaudy 37.9 yards per catch in 2012. Granted, the sample size was a small one, with Morgan notching just 10 receptions. But the two-year veteran and former undrafted free agent was seen as the deep-ball threat the New Orleans offense may have been lacking with the departures of Robert Meachem and Devery Henderson the past couple years. Now the slack will have to be taken up by rookie Kenny Stills or second-year pro Nick Toon, who basically didn’t play last year as a rookie. Newly-acquired Steve Breaston was one of the NFL’s best slot receivers during stretches of his previous seven-year career in the league. But Breaston is coming off knee surgery, and his skills-set is much closer to those possessed by starters Marques Colston and Lance Moore. . . . In the wake of the shoulder injury to Plaxico Burress on Thursday, and subsequent surgery that will end his season and perhaps his career, representatives for several wide receivers were hustling Friday to contact the Steelers about their unemployed veteran clients. At least immediately, the Steelers weren’t jumping at the calls. . . . The Falcons have explored veteran offensive lineman Travelle Wharton as a possible candidate to fill the right tackle spot left thin by a season-ending leg injury to Mike Johnson. For now, Atlanta will take a long look at second-year veteran Lamar Holmes, a third-round pick in 2012 who played only seven snaps from scrimmage as a rookie. But the team will keep its options open. As noted here in the past, the right side of the team’s line is being rebuilt, not the coziest of situations, given that the club now has a $100 million quarterback to protect.

+BY THE NUMBERS

*The preseason, now in full swing, is a great time for evaluating players, particularly youngsters. It’s not nearly as accurate an indicator, though, of regular-season success. Over the previous 10 seasons, only one-third of the teams that claimed playoff spots, 40 of 120, had winning preseason records. Twenty-nine of them actually posted losing preseason marks. Just four of the past 10 Super Bowl champions rang up winning preseason records. Since the start of the ‘03 campaign, there have been 18 franchises with perfect preseason records and their regular-season records in those years was just a cumulative 139-149. The lone team to have a perfect preseason record the last 10 years and win the Super Bowl the same year was New England in 2003. In 2008, Detroit was 4-0 during the exhibition slate and then became the only 0-16 team in NFL history during the regular season.

Read More 2836 Words

NFP Sunday Blitz

With the revelation last week by Atlanta third-year wide receiver Julio Jones that he added 8-9 pounds during the offseason, but has lost none of his speed, things might have gotten more difficult for the secondaries on the Falcons’ schedule in 2014. After all, Jones’ running mate, four-time Pro Bowl receiver Roddy White, was

With the revelation last week by Atlanta third-year wide receiver Julio Jones that he added 8-9 pounds during the offseason, but has lost none of his speed, things might have gotten more difficult for the secondaries on the Falcons’ schedule in 2014. After all, Jones’ running mate, four-time Pro Bowl receiver Roddy White, was already one of the NFL’s most physical wideouts.

White is listed at 211 pounds, but anyone who has seen (or lined up against) him probably knows he is bigger than that. Certainly the massive “guns” hanging out from the sleeves of his uniform jersey make him an imposing figure. And White, who has averaged 93.8 receptions over the past six seasons, has mastered the art of muscling smaller defenders off the ball. And so the specter of lining up against White and Jones, already a daunting task for defensive coordinators around the NFL, has gotten a little more difficult.

Atlanta FalconsThe Falcons could boast the league’s most physical wide receiving tandem in 2013.

But the Jones bulk-up also points, in its own way, how much bigger wide receivers have gotten in the league in recent years. And how much bigger they consciously want to get, as well.

“Speed, quickness, route-running . . . they’re always going to be uppermost,” White, who checked into camp at 229 pounds, told NFP. “But to be able to (dominate) a guy physically, without having it take away from all those other things, it means a lot. (Cornerbacks) are trying to be more physical, too. You want to be able to match that. Or to ‘overmatch’ it, if you can.”

It’s not just coincidence that all but one of the NFL’s top wide receivers in 2012, in terms of catches, were 6 feet or more and 198 pounds or more. The only “munchkin” in the bunch was the 5-feet-9, 185-pound Wes Welker. Of the others, five were listed at 6-3 or larger. The only other receiver under 200 pounds was Reggie Wayne, who was 198. Three of the top wide receivers, led by Detroit’s Calvin Jonson (6-5 and 236 pounds), weighed 230 or more. “To say that size doesn’t matter at the position, that it’s not part of my game, just isn’t true,” Johnson said.

The trend was reflected to some extent in this year’s draft. Seven of the 10 wide receivers selected in the first three rounds were “bigger” receivers. Four of them were 6-2 or more. Acknowledged one NFC general manager, who chose a bigger receiver, but not in the first three rounds: “It’s always been known as a big man’s game, but not necessarily at (the wide receiver) position. But people want the bigger receivers now, too. If you can get big without sacrificing speed and playmaking skills, why not? And guys clearly are doing it.”

+AROUND THE LEAGUE

*Outside of watching rookies, and the few legitimate battles for starting spots in the league, there aren’t a lot of reasons for fans to pay excessive attention to preseason games, exercises that cost full price and are often little more than glorified scrimmages. But one element that bears watching, and which was pointed out by a few coaches and personnel people this week, is the number of new backup quarterbacks in the league in 2013. Even without the tussle for starting jobs in a few spots, roughly half the NFL’s teams could have new guys in the No. 2 spots this season. And while there are some well-traveled guys in new places – like Matt Hasselbeck, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Bruce Gradkowski, Jason Campbell, and others – some clubs lack much experience at the backup spot. The common denominator: There are a lot of guys who will have to learn new systems, and the preseason offers the best real-life laboratory for doing so. “Even with the offseason stuff, you still want to get it all down in games,” allowed Colt McCoy, the new caddie for Colin Kaepernick in San Francisco. “And so (the preseason) is important.”

*There are always plenty of issues to debate in the NFL – we’ve felt for the past few years now that Adderall might be the next hot-button issue, and the substance seems to be getting more attention – but the spate of serious and even season-ending injuries at this very early juncture of training camps is apt to spur lots of talk about offseason training methods. It is notable, though, that while serious injuries have increased over the past five seasons, as pointed out by a recent Associated Press story citing empirical data, there have been season-ending injuries in the first two weeks or so of camp for several seasons now. And that reality magnifies the split of sorts between some team trainers who feel there needs to be an increase in offseason football-related activities (as opposed, simply, to weight room time), and others who suggest the cutback in such work, as mandated by the CBA, has been good for players. Truth be told, most of the season-ending ACL injuries to date were non-contact, and difficult to avoid. The so-called “soft tissue” injuries may be on the rise, with the reduction of offseason work, but there isn’t a large enough sample yet to definitively prove that. With the preseason set to begin, the attention will turn more toward games, not gimpy players. But, rest assured, medical people, trainers, and even league officials, are going to be taking a longer look at offseason training styles – and which teams are more successful in avoiding early injuries – before the start of the 2014 camps. “It won’t be as (extensive) as the (concussion) studies that we’ve been doing,” one middle-level league official told NFP, “but it will be thorough.”

*On the subject of concussions, the recent retirement of Arizona sixth-round wide receiver Ryan Swope, the NFL official acknowledged, will spur even more study of head trauma, and force teams to re-evaluate the manner in which they assess players with a history of concussions. Swope suffered four or five concussions at Texas A&M and probably would have been chosen in the first three rounds were it not for those injuries. Big, rangy and fast, Swope clearly had his draft status knocked down by the questions regarding his concussions. Cardinals’ general manager Steve Keim noted last week that the team’s medical staff did extensive workups on Swope, and was comfortable with its decision to choose him in April, but, obviously, it wasn’t quite enough. The NFL has done considerable work the past several years in dealing with the concussion issue. “But it’s an (insidious) thing,” Swope said. “I don’t blame anyone. I’m just taking care of myself.” While Swope has “retired” for now, and won’t actively pursue his longtime goal of playing in the NFL, he will continue, at least for a while, to seek remedies and to stay in touch with the Cardinals.

*The addition of first-year offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg, and the introduction of a more West Coast-oriented design, will, by nature, change some of the priorities for the revamped New York Jets’ running back corps. But coach Rex Ryan still wants to be able to pound opponents, too, and in addition to reworking the backfield unit, the Jets have reconfigured the offensive line as well, and feel they are much tougher inside than they’ve been. Guard play is a lot more prominent in the NFL now than it was 10 years ago, and the Jets will have a new tandem flanking perennial Pro Bowl center Nick Mangold, with Willie Colon and likely Stephen Peterman supplanting Matt Slauson and Brandon Moore, respectively.

Slauson and Moore started all 16 games together in 2012 and, while the New York rushing attack improved statistically 10 spots in the NFL rankings, from 22nd in 2011 to 12th in 2012, it still wasn’t what Ryan wanted. The Jets averaged just 3.8 yards per rush, and only four teams were worse. Colon, in particular, has been physical early in camp and some people feel he can be a Pro Bowl-caliber in-line blocker. The former Pittsburgh starter struggled with his inside movement skills at times in making the transition to guard last year. And injuries have blunted his development, with Colon playing only 12 games the past two seasons, but a lot of folks around the league agree that guard is the natural spot for the former Steelers’ right tackle. “I’m starting to feel more comfortable (at guard) than I did a year ago,” Colon said. “We want to be physical, and I think guard gives me an opportunity to play the game the way I like to play it.” Peterman has been slowed somewhat by a shoulder injury, but the coaches seem to like rookie Brian Winters, a third-round pick from Kent State, who eventually could push Peterman for playing time.

Peyton ManningThe season-ending injury to Dan Koppen has Peyton Manning looking for another new center.

*Five weeks ago in this space, we noted the importance of the under-the-radar signing of veteran center Dan Koppen by the Denver Broncos, because of his familiarity with the up-tempo, check-with-me offense operated by quarterback Peyton Manning. While Koppen had never played with Manning before 2012, we pointed out, he had snapped for Tom Brady for nine years in New England, and the styles of the two players and the two offenses were very similar. Well, Koppen went down with a season-ending left ACL injury in the opening days of camp and, predictably, the Broncos’ first phone call, and Manning’s recommendation, went to ol’ buddy Jeff Saturday, Manning’s longtime center in Indianapolis. Saturday has retired to the TV studio, and is reportedly down to about 240-250 pounds, but he did offer some help by recommending another former Manning teammate, in “retired” lineman Ryan Lilja. And so, while would-be starter J.D. Walton continues to rehab from the left ankle surgery that has sidelined him, Lilja will offer Manning another kindred spirit of sorts. Granted, in his six seasons with the Colts (2004-2009), Lilja never started a game at center. Most of his 59 starts were at left guard, and he never started a game at center until moving on to Kansas City, but he still figures to afford Manning a security blanket. “I know the way he operates, what he expects from people, maybe even the way he thinks about certain things,” Lilja, 33, said last week. “I’m comfortable with him, and vice versa.” True enough. But the Denver offensive line – even though Manning tends to make a blocking unit better than it really is – has suffered some setbacks. The unit is a bit unsettled and, while it isn’t necessarily unsettling to Manning, it’s an element to be watched for a team with Super Bowl aspirations.

*For a guy with only 10 starts and 46 catches in three seasons, Philadelphia wide receiver Riley Cooper is getting plenty of (unwanted) attention. Cooper’s insensitive and racially charged remarks at a Kenny Chesney concert, made public last week in a tape from the event, have caused the Eagles’ Chip Kelly more distractions than those that usually accompany a rookie coach. Suddenly, Kelly has to answer more than just those nettlesome queries about whether NFL game officials might slow the hurry-up tempo of his offense in 2013. Kelly has to try to hold together a locker room that could have some fissures. It’s not a sure thing, even with the season-ending knee injury to Jeremy Maclin, that Cooper was a lock for one of the top three wideout spots with the Eagles, maybe not even a roster berth. But the remarks could make it tougher to keep him around, even though Kelly has said the former Florida star will not be released as a result (Cooper was excused Friday from team-related activities, to begin sensitivity sessions), and Cooper will undergo counseling. From a purely football standpoint, the loss of Maclin takes away much of the quickness upon which Kelly was counting. Cooper, a fifth-round pick in 2010, is a big, angular receiver, but is not especially quick. Ditto slot receiver Jason Avant. That could provide someone like second-year veteran Damaris Johnson an opportunity.

Read More 2046 Words

NFP Sunday Blitz

Not since then-Kansas City tailback Larry Johnson posted a league-record 416 carries in 2006 has an NFL player rushed 400 times in a year. Then again, since there have been only five backs in league history to register 400 rushing attempts in a campaign, the fact there weren’t any 400-carry runners over the past

Not since then-Kansas City tailback Larry Johnson posted a league-record 416 carries in 2006 has an NFL player rushed 400 times in a year. Then again, since there have been only five backs in league history to register 400 rushing attempts in a campaign, the fact there weren’t any 400-carry runners over the past six seasons might not exactly be an earth-shattering revelation.

But the newsier item could be that, given the current climate, it’s very possible there might never be another player who lugs the ball 400 times in a season.

“The trend certainly is against (a 400-carry running back),” former Atlanta tailback Jamal Anderson, who carried 410 times (the second-most in league history) in 1998, acknowledged to NFP this spring. “Maybe it will happen, but that’s a (lot) of rushes anymore.” Noted former star back Eddie George, who carried 403 times for the Tennessee Titans during the 2000 season: “Unless the game changes dramatically, yeah, it might never happen again.”

That’s for sure.

It wasn’t all that long ago that coaches and personnel people used to often talk about “workhorse” backs who could carry 25 times a game. But the statistics definitely suggest that, those overstated assessments aside, such a workload was just so much hyperbole. The last runner to average 25 rushes per game over the course of a season was, again, Johnson, in ’06, with a 26.0-attempt average. In the six seasons since Johnson’s heavy-workload year, there have been just 31 players who carried 300 times or more and only 23 who averaged even 20 attempts per game.

There have been only five backs who carried 350 or more times the last six years, and no one had more than Michael Turner’s 376 rushes in 2008. As one-dimensional as the Minnesota offense was regarded to be in 2012, the great Adrian Peterson had “just” 348 carries, the second fewest by a 2,000-yard runner in a 16-game season. Houston’s Arian Foster, seen as a bellcow-type back, led the league with 351 carries, but his yards per attempt (4.1) minus backup Ben Tate for five games was the lowest of his career.

Jamal AndersonAnderson averaged 4.5 yards per carry in 1998, when the former Falcons running back amassed 410 carries during the regular season.

The previous six seasons, the number of 300-carry runners (61) was nearly double the total for 2007-2012, and there were 60 players who averaged at least 20 carries per game. From 2001-2006, there were at least nine players each season who had 300 or more carries, and 10 or more in four of those years. Over the same period, there was never fewer than seven backs with 20-carry averages per game, and in three of those seasons, there were 10 or more. In the past six seasons, though, there has never been a season with more than seven 300-attempt players, and just once has there been more than four rushers with averages of 20 or more carries.

The times, they are a-changin’ when it comes to the heavy-duty running back model that was once so predominant around the league. That’s not only evident from the raw rushing attempt numbers of the last half-dozen seasons, but also, in some ways, in the draft. There were zero backs selected in the first round this spring, and there haven’t been more than three first-round runners since 2008.

Many teams once subscribed to what we’ll call the “Prisco Theory,” the belief espoused by good friend Pete Prisco of CBSSports. Simply stated: draft a back, run him into the ground for five years, then draft another one. The philosophy still holds true in some quarters, but largely, teams are trying to add some shelf-life to their runners, to rub tread off the tire less quickly, and avoid blowouts.

That’s not to suggest that running backs still aren’t important. The significance of the position, though, appears to have diminished. It’s not quite “the amazing shrinking running back” position but with the game having skewed in such a lopsided manner toward the pass, teams prioritize differently now. Notable is that, of the past five Super Bowl champions, only one had a running game that rated statistically in the top 10. Three franchises won the Super Bowl in that stretch with running games that ranked 23rd or lower, including the bottom-rated New York Giants in 2011.

“It’s just morphed into a different game now,” Johnson said. “The feeling among teams seems to be that less can be more.”

There are a lot of reasons for the decline, but in discussions the last few weeks with NFP, players, coaches and personnel executives focused on three elements, beyond the most obvious, the overall emphasis on the pass, and the fact the ball is in the air so much more now. First, teams have opted around the league for more time-sharing at a tailback position where it was also essential to have a “feature” back. There’s still usually a clear-cut delineation between the backup and the starter, but for several teams, the line has blurred a little more. There were, for instance, 10 franchises in 2012 that had a pair of backs with 100 or more carries each (excluding rushes by their quarterbacks). It won’t be surprising if that number expands in 2013. While no team is apt to split attempts evenly, there figures to be less disparity between the starter and the No. 2 runner for some teams.

“The key,” said veteran tailback Steven Jackson, who has moved on to Atlanta after nine seasons in St. Louis, “is productivity. Whatever makes the offense the most effective. I’m a guy who likes getting the ball (Jackson averaged nearly 290 carries per year in the seven seasons with the Rams in which he started at least a dozen games), but you want to maximize your carries, too.”

In 2009-2010, Jackson totaled 654 rushes. Over the next two seasons, his rushes dropped by basically 20 percent total, to 517.

Second, the colleges, where the “spread” offenses are so prevalent, have produced fewer top-tier backs. Couple that with the fact that teams increasingly have been able to find excellent runners, like Alfred Morris of Washington, a sixth-round pick in 2012, capable of stepping in and producing immediate results.

And, finally, the rushing quarterbacks, and the sudden popularity of the read-option or zone-option offenses, have taken carries away from backs. The position has evolved in some cases beyond scrambling or avoiding the pass rush, to more pre-designed runs, or options, for quarterbacks. There were three quarterbacks in 2012 who had 75 carries or more, four with 400-plus rushing yards. Until defenses catch up to the option-read style, it figures to flourish.

“It’s a weapon,” said Cam Newton of Carolina. “It might take some carries away from (the backs), but it also means those guys are hitting more air sometimes, too. It seems like the tradeoff is a pretty good one.”

On the subject of using a 400-carry season as a kind of threshold for backs, an AFC offensive coordinator pointed out that an 18-game season, assuming commissioner Roger Goodell ever gets his way on the “enhanced schedule” (haven’t heard that term in a while, right?) could produce a 400-carry campaign by a back. But even with 18 games, a player would have to average 22.2 carries a contest to reach the 400-attempt mark. And no back has averaged that number of carries since 2009, when Cedric Benson had 23.2 attempts per game and Chris Johnson had 22.4.

“The way the game is right now,” Anderson said, “it’s hard to see (400 carries) ever happening again.”

So unless the pendulum swings back toward the run, the league’s “400-carry club” – Johnson, Anderson, James Wilder (407 in 1984), Eric Dickerson (404 in ’86), and George – figures to remain a pretty exclusive fraternity.

+AROUND THE LEAGUE

Darrelle RevisRevis has been playing the role of mentor since arriving in Tampa Bay this offseason.

*Tampa Bay coaches won’t simply cede the starting right cornerback spot to second-round draft choice (and first pick for the club) Johnathan Banks, but the former Mississippi State standout has impressed the staff and is the front-runner to line up opposite Darrelle Revis in the Bucs’ revamped secondary. For one thing, the Bucs feel Banks is quicker than the 4.61 40-yard-dash time that he clocked at the Combine five months ago. He also possesses the physical build coach Greg Schiano likes. And not to be overlooked is that Banks is a “long” player, an angular 6-feet-2, but also with long arms. In fact, at 33 7/8 inches, Banks’ arms were tied for the longest of any of the defensive backs at the Combine in February, team officials pointed out to us.

With the veteran Eric Wright out of the picture, the competition for Banks isn’t exactly stiff. It includes former waiver pickup Danny Gorrer, who has two career starts, and a pair of undrafted rookies, Branden Smith and Rashaan Melvin. The other element the Bucs like about Banks, who admittedly had a bit of an underwhelming season in 2012, after entering the year with rave reviews, is that he is a quick learner. And he’s apparently got a great teacher, in Revis, whose tutelage acumen is better, it seems, than many believed. “He’s just so professional in everything he does, the way he prepares,” Banks allowed after a late-week practice. “You can learn a lot from him, not just on the field, but how he carries himself off it, too.”

*It’s never too early, it seems, to start glancing ahead at the next year’s draft, and the very early read on the 2014 lottery is that it’s a mixed bag as regards the zone-option style quarterbacks so popular in recent years. Despite the potential presence of Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel of Texas A&M in the pool, scouts don’t seem to yet see the standout zone-option operator in the bunch. Louisville’s Teddy Bridgewater, for now the likely top quarterback prospect, isn’t really a zone-option guy. He’s rushed for only 90 yards in his two seasons as a starter. Tajh Boyd of Clemson has some zone-option skills, but is better regarded as a scrambler. Guys such as Derek Carr (Fresno State), Aaron Murray (Georgia), and David Fales (San Jose State) are more pocket passers.

“One of the things lacking,” an NFC area scout told NFP last week, “is size. Yeah, you see a guy like (Russell) Wilson come out and be good at it, but he’s thicker (physically) than people think. You run that offense, and you take the (punishment), so you better have some size. I don’t know that we see that in (next spring’s) bunch.”

*Even with the recent emergence of the tight end position, Tyler Eifert, the consensus top prospect in this year’s draft, somehow fell to No. 21 in April, where Cincinnati gladly ended his slide. The fall was somewhat puzzling, given that many teams after the draft suggested that Eifert was one of the best playmakers in the pool, and seemed to regret not getting him. Oakland, for instance, seriously debated taking Eifert with the No. 12 spot, before choosing cornerback D.J. Hayden instead. But the Bengals are thrilled to have Eifert around, and the former Notre Dame star has been outstanding during the offseason and very early in camp.

“He can line up just about anywhere,” quarterback Andy Dalton said, “and gives us so much more flexibility.” Agreed a Cincinnati assistant: “Along with (incumbent starter Jermaine) Gresham, he’s going to create a lot of matchup problems for teams.” Gresham has averaged 57.3 receptions and five touchdown catches in three seasons, but Eifert might be even more effective down the field. The Bengals haven’t finished among the top 20 in total offense since 2007 and, even with the attention afforded coordinator Jay Gruden, they’ve been only 20th and 22nd in his two years with the franchise. Gruden’s name keeps popping up on long lists of assistants who might some day be head coaching candidates. A more statistically productive offense, fueled in part by Eifert, would boost his stock even more.

*San Francisco cornerback Tarell Brown should now serve as a poster boy for all players who don’t know precisely what’s in their contracts, and instead rely on their agents to hold their hand. After failing to bank an easy $2 million by attending the prescribed number of 49ers’ offseason workouts, Brown canned agent Brian Overstreet, noting that his representative should be “held accountable” for not telling him about the offseason responsibility. But Brown is 28-years-old, presumably doesn’t live in a vacuum, and shouldn’t have to rely on Twitter to find out about his $2 million oversight. The veteran corner noted that he “always wants to be a professional.” That starts, it seems, with reading the contract you signed. Young players, take note, please.

*Eleven-year veteran Bryant McKinnie didn’t lose $2 million, like San Francisco cornerback Tarell Brown (failure to reach offseason workout triggers) did, by reporting to camp overweight for the third year in a row in Baltimore, but Ravens’ officials are clearly frustrated by the left tackle’s annual battle of the bulge. They’re in a tricky spot, though, and they know it. McKinnie, 33, started zero games for the Ravens in the regular season last year, but his insertion into the starting lineup for the playoffs was the key move and catalyst for the play of the team’s line unit during the postseason.

Second-year veteran Kelechi Osemele, who bumped inside to left guard (from right tackle) when McKinnie joined the starting line quintet, and who is the presumptive heir to McKinnie’s spot, simply isn’t as good, especially versus speed-rushers. Former first-rounder Michael Oher simply is better on the right side. It probably won’t take McKinnie all that long to lose the extra 10-15 pounds he’s believed to be carrying – and, indeed, he was permitted to practice Friday — but Ravens’ officials hoped they’d addressed the problem with some weight-relevant incentive clauses in the two-year contract to which the player was re-signed in the spring. Apparently not. “He knows, especially after last year, we need him . . . and he takes all this stuff for granted,” one club official told NFP last week. “At this point in his career, he’s got to learn some discipline.”

Roman HarperHarper’s in camp and ready to compete with rookie Kenny Vaccaro.

*It’s possible that no one in New Orleans missed former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams last season more than veteran strong safety Roman Harper. Long a liability in coverage, Harper (full disclosure: one of our favorite players in the NFL off the field) fit well into Williams’ aggressive style, especially with his ability to play close to the line of scrimmage and his inside blitzes. But after leading the league in sacks by a defensive back in 2011 (with 7.5), Harper didn’t register a single sack last season. He did have a career-best 115 tackles and his two interceptions were one more than Harper managed in the previous four seasons combined, but the seven-year pro didn’t make as many game-altering plays. That’s one reason the Saints chose safety Kenny Vaccaro, who is the favorite to oust Harper and start alongside free safety Malcolm Jenkins, in the first round, and readjusted Harper’s contract. It’s also why Harper, 30, is on the field for the start of camp, rather than on the PUP list with a sports hernia. With a salary cap hit of $3.67 million in 2013, Harper isn’t quite so expensive that the Saints can’t keep him around as a backup, but the former second-rounder knows the score and knows he needs to be on the field right from the outset of camp.

*Check the tape. In the July 7 edition of this column, the “Sunday Blitz” noted that there “could be some federal involvement” in the Aaron Hernandez case, and that officials told us that at least two agencies were closely monitoring events, because of potential “interstate implications” in the alleged murder(s). Given reports last week, that appears to be the case, indeed. What we didn’t know at the time, admittedly, but which was laid out in the reports, was that there could be death penalty ramifications involved if the Feds get their noses into the case.

*Revis, mentioned above, has frequently been compared to Hall of Fame corner Deion Sanders, the original “shutdown” player at the position. The comparisons might be apt because, like Sanders, Revis finds a way to make plays, even though opposing quarterbacks avoid him.

“Deion cut the field in half and, even in practice, you didn’t want to throw his way,” former NFL quarterback Bobby Hebert, now a radio host in New Orleans and part of the Saints’ radio broadcast team, said to NFP. “You see the same things (in Revis).” Sanders somehow managed to get the ball in his hands and it’s notable, too, that Revis, despite people throwing the other way, has three or more interceptions in four of his six seasons. (He had none in 2010, and only one last season, when a knee injury limited him to two games). He’s also averaged 19.0 passes defensed in the five seasons in which he was able to start in double-digit games.

*It’s just coincidental that the Ryan Braun situation in baseball (and possible subsequent fallout from the Biogenesis investigation) and the decision by NFL players and the previously obstinate NFLPA occurred at about the same time. But one would have to be naive to suggest that NFL players are oblivious to what’s going on in baseball, or that MLB may have actually surpassed the NFL in policing against banned substances and PEDs.

“The bottom line,” said Carolina wide receiver Steve Smith, “is that we want a clean game. You want to know that, when you go out on the field, it’s an even field.” So kudos to the players and the NFLPA for acquiescing to the testing. At the same time, make no mistake, the union hasn’t caved entirely, and still isn’t fully in compliance with what it ostensibly agreed to a couple years ago. The testing is primarily for the purposes of establishing a testing “population,” a baseline as to a player’s HGH level, and there won’t be any players suspended for 2013. It’s a step in the right direction, but hardly the giant step the NFLPA, which continues to make limp excuses, needs to take.

+SHORT YARDAGE

*While the Seattle Seahawks await word on wide receiver Percy Harvin, whose problematic hip will be examined by a New York specialist on Tuesday, another of the team’s early PUP standouts is getting almost as much scrutiny, although probably quieter. Defensive end Chris Clemons, one of just three players in the league with at least 11 sacks in each of the past three seasons, is making progress from the knee injury suffered in last year’s playoffs. The question is whether Clemons will be ready for the start of the season. The team could keep him on PUP for at least the first six games, and may do so. While the Seahawks face three 2012 playoff teams in the first six weeks, including NFC West rival San Francisco in the second game, the additions of Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett in the offseason give the club a bit more latitude. . . . As regards the 2014 quarterback draft class mentioned above: One player who still intrigues scouts, despite a lackluster 2012, is Zach Mettenberger. Entering last season, the LSU starter was seen as a sleeper, a guy who quietly interested scouts, and was actually eligible for the 2013 draft. But Mettenberger wasn’t very good and there were whispers he lacked leadership skills. That said, his arm strength still gets talked about, looking ahead to ’14. . . . The offseason read on Tennessee third-year quarterback Jake Locker is that he has really improved his accuracy (just 56.4% in 2012, his first season as a starter), and that seems to have carried over into camp. . . . ‘Tis the time of year for unemployed veterans who still have something left in the tank to realize that the big free agent deals are gone, and to suck it up, settle for what they can get, and get their butts into a camp. That said, there were a few deals done last week, including two in Arizona, that figure to be more than just throwaways. Veteran right tackle Eric Winston should help a Cardinals team thin at the position. He’ll provide the team much-needed depth, and potential flexibility, should new coach Bruce Arians be forced to flip second-year pro Bobbie Massie to the left side, where incumbent Levi Brown remains suspect. The Cards’ other addition, John Abraham, is no youngster, but still racked up 10 sacks in Atlanta last season. Finally, the third stint with the New York Jets for itinerant wide receiver Braylon Edwards could be more productive than many people think. Although he has lost none of his public swagger, Edwards has lost 10-15 pounds, seems a bit humbled by the past few seasons, and could help a Jets’ receiving corps that will be without its best player, Santonio Holmes (on PUP), for at least a short time. Holmes, by the way, said Friday, that he’s not sure he’ll be sufficiently recovered from a foot injury to play at all in 2013. . . . Abraham often flipped from the right to the left side last season, in an effort to create some more advantageous matchups. But the man who ostensibly is replacing him, Osi Umenyiora, might move around even more in the Atlanta defense. If the first few days of camp were an indication, the former Giants’ star could line up all over the place, and even play some in a two-point stance. . . . One guy whose phone isn’t ringing very much, but who might be talked into playing, despite an underwhelming year in San Francisco in 2012, is Randy Moss. The future Hall of Fame wide receiver has stayed in decent shape, people close to him say, and hasn’t entirely written off playing again. . . . Free agent wide receiver Steve Breaston, who drew interest from several teams early in the spring, but who continues his recovery from knee surgery that was performed in Europe, might still be able to help some team in need of a slot receiver in the next month or two. Breaston auditioned in Detroit last week, but the Lions signed Chaz Schilens instead, determining that Breaston isn’t quite ready yet. But there are teams still keeping tabs on Breaston’s rehab. . . . Carolina linebacker Jon Beason, who has appeared in only five games the past two seasons because of injuries, has become at least the sixth Panthers’ veteran to restructure his contract in the past three months to help the annually cap-strapped franchise. . . . In addition to Eifert, mentioned above, the Bengals have been excited by the performance of second-round tailback Giovanni Bernard. The first back taken in the draft this year, Bernard could take some carries away from BenJarvus Green-Ellis. But the Bengals love Bernard’s hands as well, and he could provide them the best receiver out of the backfield the team has had in a while. Cincinnati hasn’t had a back with 30 catches since 2009 (Brian Leonard), and was the only team in the league last season with no catches of 20 or more yards by a running back.

+BY THE NUMBERS

*In an effort to address a rushing offense that finished an uncharacteristically dismal No. 26 in the league a year ago, Pittsburgh selected tailback Le’Veon Bell in the second round this spring, with the 48th overall pick, and the Steelers’ brass hopes the former Michigan State star can make an immediate impact. But the Steelers don’t have a great track record for getting quick results from rookie running backs. The last Pittsburgh rookie to rush for 1,000 yards in his debut season was Hall of Fame fullback Franco Harris in 1972. Between taking Harris with the 13th slot in ’72, and tabbing Bell three months ago, the Steelers had drafted exactly 50 running backs. From that group, only four rushed for more than 400 yards in their first season. The only two to run for more than 500 yards were Bam Morris (836 yards) in 1994 and Tim Worley (770 yards) in 1989.

Read More 4153 Words

NFP Sunday Blitz

In the wake of last weekend’s George Zimmerman “not guilty” verdict, a number of high profile NFL players, primary among them wide receivers Roddy White of Atlanta and the New York Giants’ Victor Cruz, reacted defiantly via their respective Twitter accounts.

Despite negative blowbacks from a number of previous tweets, White,

In the wake of last weekend’s George Zimmerman “not guilty” verdict, a number of high profile NFL players, primary among them wide receivers Roddy White of Atlanta and the New York Giants’ Victor Cruz, reacted defiantly via their respective Twitter accounts.

Despite negative blowbacks from a number of previous tweets, White, who seems to revel in being a lightning rod of sorts, almost as much as he enjoys his status as a four-time Pro Bowl player and arguably the greatest receiver in Falcons’ history, suggested that the six jurors in the high-profile case involving the shooting death of teen Trayvon Martin, “should go home tonight and kill themselves . . .” Cruz predicted that Zimmerman “(won’t) last a year before the hood catches up to him.”

In West Lafayette, Indiana, where he operates a company that addresses the use of social media and the ramifications that can accompany it, Kevin Long cringed.

OK, not really. But at one time, Long might have cowered. Just not anymore.

“It’s almost gotten to the point where you kind of get used to it,” Long, the founder and CEO of MVP Sports Media Training and U Diligence, told NFP late last week. “We’ve come to expect it. You sort of shake your head, but we’re beyond the shock or surprise now, and personally, I guess I’ve gotten numb to it. These guys react and then, predictably, they issue an apology 24 hours later.”

Not surprisingly, Cruz and White, likely at the prompting of their agents or marketing representatives, complied with the tweet-first-and-regret-it-later cycle regarding their Zimmerman-related rants. Within hours of commenting on the verdict, each player pulled back from his extreme reaction. White, who actually had paired an unprintable expletive with Zimmerman’s name in an earlier message, apologized via Twitter for his imprudence. Cruz did the same and also deleted his tweet about the emotional Florida case, noting that he embraces “encouraging and educating each other” about such passionate societal matters.

But, in light of the latest missteps of NFL players in the world of 140-character outrage and social commentary, this question: When will someone, either from a guy’s supporting entourage or from the franchise that employs him, educate the players about the potential drawbacks of social media excesses? It’s probably a bit na

Read More 348 Words