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NFP Sunday Blitz

On Monday night, Miami will try to knock off the quarterback they could have signed back in 2006. Len Pasquarelli

Print This September 29, 2013, 05:30 AM EST
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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 ½ sacks, with good reason. Here’s another angle on the former University of Georgia standout, a third-round pick in 2011, who slid in that draft because of maturity issues that included a positive test for marijuana at the 2011 combine: Houston, who emerged as a pass-rush threat last season, with 10 sacks, is getting a first-hand view of the rookie first-round tackles this year. In the opener, he whipped Luke Joeckel of Jacksonville (No. 2 overall) for three sacks. Last week, at Philadelphia, he trounced Lane Johnson (No. 4) for 4 ½ sacks. On Sunday, when the Chiefs host the winless New York Giants, he’ll be matched up against Justin Pugh (No. 19). Assuming D.J. Fluker (No. 11) comes back from the concussion that sidelined San Diego’s top choice last week, he will face him twice in AFC West play, on Nov. 24 and Dec. 29. So what about the draft’s top pick, Eric Fisher? Well, Houston goes against him most days in Chiefs’ practices. “He’s the real deal,” said Fisher, who despite Kansas City’s 3-0 start to the season, has struggled at times. “Quick and strong, and when he gets on the field, a nasty attitude. He plays really mad and plays really hungry.” And, apparently, eats up rookie right tackles.

*Of the league’s 32 head coaches, just seven are so-called “retreads,” guys in their second or third go-rounds in the top spots, and it’s obvious that the trend in the NFL is toward fresher faces. Witness this season, when Andy Reid of the Chiefs is the only one of the eight new coaches who previously led an NFL team. But that doesn’t mean former head coaches simply disappear. Twenty-four franchises have staffs that include at least one former league head coach. And that doesn’t count Joe Vitt in New Orleans, who was an interim head coach for the Saints last year, but whose status with St. Louis in 2005 (when Mike Martz took a medical leave) is still a bit unclear, even to league officials. There are even a half-dozen clubs that have two former head coaches on their staffs. The feeling used to be that guys, fearing for their job security, didn’t like to have onetime head coaches on their staffs. But that is hardly the case anymore.

*For the first time since 2001, when Michael Vick was chosen by Atlanta with the No. 1 overall selection in the draft, there was only one quarterback (E.J. Manuel by Buffalo) chosen in the first round this year. That came after two drafts that included four first-round quarterbacks each, and a 10-year stretch that averaged 3.1 first-round signal-callers. For all the early talk that there might not be as dire a need at the position in the ’14 lottery, the events of the past couple weeks have definitely swung the pendulum back toward quarterbacks. And, according to the early read of a few scouts who weighed in this week, the pool of first-round contenders now has expanded beyond the usual suspects such as Louisville’s Teddy Bridgewater, Tajh Boyd of Clemson and Johnny Manziel of Texas A&M. Scouts have been impressed the past few weeks with Marcus Mariota (Oregon), Brett Hundley (UCLA) and Kevin Hogan (Stanford), and still consider players such as Georgia’s Aaron Murray and Derek Carr of Fresno State as players worth watching.

Zach MettenbergerMettenberger may be an early pick come next May.

*On the topic of college quarterbacks, we cited last year the opinion of one highly regarded league general manager that Zach Mettenberger of LSU might be the best quarterback in the 2013 draft. And then two things happened: Mettenberger, who had attempted just 11 passes at the major college level before 2012, wasn’t very good. And, second, he wisely opted to stay in school. But we revisited with the general manager this week his take on Mettenberger, and he conceded that he was probably basing too much of his evaluation a year ago just on the player’s arm, but that he felt “a little vindicated” this year. We’ll see if Mettenberger (who faced a big challenge at Georgia on Saturday, after this was written) can still work his way into the first round next April. But there’s little doubt his enormous physical tools now have been complemented by the work of first-year offensive coordinator and former longtime NFL coach Cam Cameron. Under Cameron’s tutelage, Mettenberger is playing a lot smarter now, and he’s in a system, as reflected by a gaudy yards-per-attempt mark of 11.3 yards through four games (compared to 7.4 yards last season), in which his arm strength makes a notable difference.

*The league is dealing with the suicide of another former player, with the Tuesday death in suburban Atlanta of onetime San Diego defensive back Paul Oliver from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. A family member, who spoke briefly this week with NFP, declined to say if Oliver, 29, had exhibited any signs of depression or possible brain damage. He also said it was “way too early” to decide if the family will donate Oliver’s brain to a group such as the National Institute of Health, for research that might determine if the former fourth-round supplemental pick (2009) suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). “It might be something to consider, but it’s not something we’re thinking about right now,” the family member said. “We’re just trying to come to grips with the whole thing.” Oliver is survived by his wife and two children. The onetime University of Georgia standout had not played in the NFL since 2011, and hadn’t been in a camp since being released by New Orleans in 2012. He appeared in 57 games, with a dozen starts, and registered 144 tackles and four interceptions.

+SHORT YARDAGE

Indianapolis’ Chuck Pagano isn’t the most conventional guy, but he used a hackneyed coaching gambit this week in placing fake mouse traps at the locker stalls of all the Colts’ players. The obvious message: Don’t let Sunday’s game at winless/hapless Jacksonville be a “trap” game. “ It’s an old (ploy), but it still gets your attention,” said wide receiver Reggie Wayne. . . . By the way, last Wednesday marked the one-year anniversary of the day Pagano was diagnosed with leukemia in 2012. . . . Here’s a real “short yardage” nugget: Before he botched a snap on a fourth-and-one play in the season opener against Buffalo, resulting in an aborted-play fumble at the Bills’ one-yard line in the third quarter, New England quarterback Tom Brady had converted 56 consecutive third- and fourth-and-one runs. He had not been stopped on such a play since 2005. . . . Although Anquan Boldin had a big game Thursday night, with five receptions for 90 yards and a score, there is still some skepticism about the San Francisco wide receiver’s ability to get consistent separation at age 32 (he’ll be 33 next week). Boldin had posted only six catches for 74 yards in the two games following a huge opening performance, in which he had 13 receptions for 208 yards. . . . One middle-round prospect starting to get more attention from scouts is Pitt’s Tom Savage, who has demonstrated an NFL-caliber arm in starting for the first time in three years. A onetime Rutgers recruit, Savage’s career was curtailed by a pair of transfers. . . . That Cleveland left tackle Joe Thomas will make his 100th straight start on Sunday is remarkable. Even more so, however, is that Thomas has not missed a single snap since entering the NFL in 2006. That’s more than 6,000 straight plays. . . . Chicago coach Marc Trestman has gotten much deserved credit for the renaissance of quarterback Jay Cutler in Chicago. But part of the credit should go as well to Bears’ quarterbacks coach Matt Cavanaugh, who has been derided in the past for various stretches as an offensive coordinator at the college and pro levels, but who has done a nice job in his latest league position. . . . Jacksonville used fourth- and fifth-round choices, respectively, in April on Ace Sanders of South Carolina and Michigan’s Denard Robinson, hoping the pair of versatile college standouts would add some big-play dimension to its offense. The Jaguars have not gotten a lot out of the pair. Robinson, the former Wolverines’ quarterback, has five carries for mimus-1 yard, doesn’t have a run for more than one yard and has lost a fumble. He hasn’t been used yet in the return game, after it was believed he might be a solid kickoff returner. Sanders has 10 catches for 103 yards, but outside of a 30-yard reception, hasn’t been a vertical factor. It’s believed that Sanders, who was an electrifying punt returner in college, will get more time there. Robinson is slated to work more with the wide receivers in coming weeks. . . . One of the better coaching jobs done in the first month of the year, even if it’s flown under the radar a bit, is that of Mike Munchak and his Tennessee staff. . . . Under coach Mike Smith, the Falcons are 21-3 after losses in five-plus seasons, and haven’t lost two straight games since 2009. “We don’t dwell on losses and let them stick with us,” left guard Justin Blalock said. “We try to correct mistakes and move on.” . . . The competition committee has been hard at work reviewing the spate of injuries that has impacted the NFL but, so far at least, hasn’t really identified many common denominators. . . . Likewise, it’s almost as hard to explain the AFC’s early 11-3 mark in interconference play. The AFC had dominated for much of the past 10 years, winning seven series and tying another, but the NFC won the battle in each of the past two seasons, including a dominant 39-25 record in 2012.

+BY THE NUMBERS

It’s always dangerous to extrapolate statistics over a full, 16-game schedule based on just a three-week sample size. But it’s hard to ignore the fact that Jacksonville has only 28 total points in its first three outings. At that current pace, the Jaguars would score just 149 points in 2013, the third lowest since the NFL went to a 16-game slate in 1978. Seattle eked out just 140 points in 1992, and the Colts managed 143 in 1991. Four teams have averaged more than 28 points so far, and in the first three weekends, 29 teams scored 28 points or more. 

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