NFP Sunday Blitz

The reason Matt Flynn is a hot commodity as free agency approaches is simple.

Commodities are limited, very limited.

Aside from a 35-year old with a neck problem and the guy who got benched for Tim Tebow, the veteran market for starting quarterbacks is pretty barren. “Flynn will be a hot item because of the system he came from, and the fact he’s played well,” said an NFC front office man who could be in the market for a quarterback. “It’s not a really good year for college quarterbacks after the top two. It depends if someone thinks they can get a quarterback in the draft or if they’ll have to overpay for one in free agency.”

The NFC front office man was one of five NFL men I spoke with who either have studied Flynn, worked with Flynn, or game planned against him. Each of them like some things about Flynn. But none of them would feel completely comfortable making a major investment in a player with two starts.

“I like him,” said one general manager. “But I’m not all in.”

As Pete Prisco pointed out in this story, it’s easy to look at Flynn’s only start in 2011, and his last impression, and assume he is the second coming Aaron Rodgers. And Flynn clearly has something to him to have been able to put together one of the best passing performances in Packers history (480 yards, six touchdown passes and 45 points against the Lions) in the regular season finale.

But if you take away that one performance, Flynn’s career passer rating is 68.1.

FlynnMatt Flynn has looked good in limited opportunities, but he hasn’t played enough for anyone to know what kind of quarterback he will be.

With two NFL starts and 132 passes thrown, Flynn has not played enough for anyone to see what he can’t do. “He actually missed some plays downfield against Detroit,” said a pro personnel man who was assigned to study Flynn. “A lot of his yards in that game came on a screen play to the running back. Against the Patriots the year before he held the ball too long, and was sacked a few times because of it.”

Flynn has had more throws over four years of preseason games, but the evidence there is inconclusive as well. His four year preseason passer rating is 86.

Some of what Flynn has accomplished might be the result of being with great coaches and in an ideal system. He might not be the same player out of the Green Bay cocoon.

What Flynn has been isn’t nearly as significant as what he can be. In order to predict what he can be, we have to look at his skill set.

One thing that separates Flynn from Rodgers and other elite quarterbacks is he does not have a big arm. “He lacks deep balls strength,” the pro personnel man said. “He’s more of a dink and dunk quarterback.”

Said a personnel director, “It’s a better arm than you think, but it’s not great. He won’t drive it vertically like Rodgers.”

There are reasons Flynn was a seventh round draft pick. He doesn’t have the kind of physical ability you’d associate with a franchise quarterback. At the 2008 combine, he ran a 4.78 40 yard dash and vertical jumped 28 inches. At Louisiana State, he completed just 56 percent of his passes.

“It doesn’t mean he can’t do it, but he doesn’t overwhelm you with talent,” the NFC front office man said.

Playing quarterback effectively is about so much more than talent. It’s about intangibles, and Flynn, who won a national championship in college, seems to have those in spades. “I really like him,” said a defensive coach who has game planned against him. “His style can be like Aaron Rodgers’. He has great awareness and is decisive.” The personnel director called Flynn a “natural leader.”

But what is Flynn worth? In this interesting column, Joel Corry points out Flynn may get $10 million a year. There aren’t many people who could argue he’s worth that, but that may be the price a team has to pay if there are multiple suitors for him.

“I’d be cautious about giving him a big time contract after two starts, but I’m in the minority,” the pro scout said. “To me he’s a backup until he proves more. He’s promising but he hasn’t proven it. I look at him as more of a system quarterback than a guy who can fit in any system and excel.”

The personnel director said he views Flynn as better than a game manager, but less than a franchise QB.

The team that should have the most interest in Flynn is the Dolphins. Nobody knows him better than new Miami head coach Joe Philbin, the Packers’ former offensive coordinator. And Flynn’s chances of success would be best in the same system he operated in with the Packers.

Any other team that would make a major investment in Flynn will be rolling dice and crossing fingers.

Things I Didn’t Used To Know

*For a player who had only three sacks last year, Jason Jones is getting considerable attention as a potential free agent. The Titans are interested in retaining Jones, but if Jones hits the open market there is likely to be competition for his services, including from St. Louis, where his former boss Jeff Fisher calls the shots, and from the Philadelphia, where his former defensive line coach Jim Washburn has influence. The Titans used Jones a lot at defensive end last year, and have indicated they may do the same in the future. But Jones believes he is best suited inside, specifically as a three-technique who can shoot gaps and disrupt. He clearly has demonstrated interior pass rush skills, and at 25 has potential to improve. Jones is likely to be one of the players who gets action in the first wave of free agency.

Mario WilliamsICONCould you picture Mario Williams lined up across from DeMarcus Ware?

*In the event Mario Williams becomes a free agent, the list of suitors is likely to be a long one. Speculation around the league has it that the Cowboys and Patriots might be among the interested parties. We should point out this is sheer speculation, not necessarily rooted in fact. The Cowboys could use Williams in tandem with DeMarcus Ware in what would be the best pair of pass rushers in the NFL. Problem? Paying Williams more than Ware might not go over well in the locker room. As for the Patriots, signing Williams would be out of character, but they need to do something dramatic to help their defense. There is no move any team could make that would help a defense more.

*A lot of teams are interested in the top tier of potential free agent pass rushers, which includes Williams, Cliff Avril, Jonathan Abraham and Robert Mathis. If those players become unobtainable, two who could get some action are Mark Anderson and Jeremy Mincey. Both had breakouts this year (it was the second breakout for Anderson), as Anderson had 10 sacks for the Patriots and Mincey had eight for the Jaguars. Anderson has pretty good speed off the edge, though it wasn’t often evident between his rookie season in 2006 and last year. Mincey is more of a lunch pail pass rusher. But he was very effective and productive last year. And he can play the run and pass.

*Normally teams and agents have a good idea of the market value of free agents after the combine, but that isn’t the case this year. Because free agency was delayed by two weeks, agents and teams have been reluctant to show their cards. It has resulted in very little movement in terms of players re-signing with their own teams.

*The Lions have a lot of issues with players who have expiring contracts, but they have made re-signing backup QB Shaun Hill a priority. They know that if Hill gets to the open market, at least three teams will be interested. What’s more, it’s possible one or more team would try to entice Hill with an opportunity to compete for a starting job.

*Northern Illinois quarterback Chandler Harnish technically turned down an invitation to the combine, but he still showed up. Harnish and agent Cliff Brady asked if Harnish could be a thrower instead of one of the regular quarterbacks. Why? It meant Harnish would have many more opportunities to showcase his passing skills. Invited quarterbacks throw one day at the combine. Throwers can throw four days. Among the quarterbacks who have been throwers in the past are Tony Romo and T.J. Yates. It is believed Harnish is the first combine invitee who asked to be a thrower, however. The other throwers this year were Miami’s Jacory Harris and Southern Miss’ Austin Davis.

*A few front office men were scratching their heads over the fact that Miami of Ohio guard Brandon Brooks was not invited to the combine. Prior to a pro day, a couple scouts said they had him in the fourth round. That could have changed last week. At 6-5, 346 pounds, Brooks had 36 reps of 225 pounds, ran a 4.98 40 yard dash (and a 1.71 10-yard split), vertical jumped 32 inches, broad jumped 8-9 and had a 4.52 short shuttle. He did this in front of 32 very interested teams.

My Sunday Best: Available Veteran Quarterbacks

As usual, there are more teams looking for a potential starting quarterback than there are available starting quarterbacks. Here are my best veteran quarterbacks that I anticipate being available. Not included are two players who aren’t likely to hit the open market, Drew Brees and Alex Smith.

1. Peyton Manning. He really comes with a big asterisk because of his health. The problem with Manning is in March he might not be as healthy as he will be in July, and there is no guarantee he will be any healthier in July. But teams will want to make a decision on him in March. Given the enormity of the investment it would take and the implications it would have for how a team would have to approach the position, going after Manning carries some risk. Then again, going after him also could bring significant reward. Manning probably never will be as productive as he was when he was younger, healthier and in his comfort zone in Indy. But he still could be one of the game’s best passers.

2. Matt Flynn, Packers. Aaron Rodgers is the guy everyone would love to have. Flynn does an awfully good Rodgers impression.

Kyle OrtonKyle Orton is a solid, reliable veteran.

3. Kyle Orton, Chiefs. Manning is risky and Flynn is unknown, but you know what you are getting with Orton. He doesn’t have the upside of the other two, but he doesn’t have the downside either. He’s a consistent quarterback who is known for his ability to avoid big mistakes. He threw for more yards in 2010 than all but nine players. If you play ball control offense and have a good defense, Orton could be the most logical quarterback to sign.

4. Jason Campbell, Raiders. He was 4-2 with the Raiders before getting hurt; Carson Palmer went 4-5 with the same team. He is not an elite passer, but Campbell has played some decent football in recent years. Campbell could be a good game manager in the right situation. A team could do a lot worse.

5. David Garrard. He is no spring chicken at 34, but he could be a good solution for a team looking for a veteran to steady the ship while a rookie develops. The last time Garrard played, in 2010, he had a 90.8 passer rating. That was better than the ratings of the starting quarterbacks for 19 other teams. He also has a career passer rating of 85.8, and was a Pro Bowler in 2009. He isn’t the most consistent passer around, but if his back is good to go Garrard will attract interest.

6. Chad Henne, Dolphins. He has been injured and inconsistent in his pro career, but he does have NFL ability. It is possible Henne’s best football is ahead of him. There has been talk that he will be highly pursued (Alex Marvez wrote this interesting piece), but given Henne’s body of work it’s hard for me to see a team taking a chance on him as a starter. His accuracy and field vision are arguments against him.

7. Shaun Hill, Lions. He might not be the most gifted quarterback, but he knows how to not get beat. Hill has thrown 39 touchdowns to 23 interceptions in his career and has an 84.7 passer rating. He has been one of the best backups in the league.

8. Dan Orlovsky, Colts. He won two games for the awful Colts last year and did not perform badly. Orlovsky never has been given an extended opportunity.

9. Vince Young, Eagles. If it’s raw talent and the ability to run a team is looking for, Young will get a look. But Young played poorly in three starts last year, and his leadership and maturity have been in question throughout his career. He could be a good backup for a team like the Broncos or Panthers that runs some unconventional looks.

10. Rex Grossman, Redskins. He took the Bears to the Super Bowl in 2006, but he has a 71.4 career passer rating and he always has been interception prone. At 31, he isn’t as mobile as he used to be, and would be best utilized as a backup.

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.

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NFP Sunday Blitz

Among the many old and hackneyed saws connected to the NFL are these two: There is nothing new under the sun in the league. And second, as noted hundreds of times already on NFP, the NFL is the consummate copycat league.

Combine the two and what do you get? Well, you get the

Among the many old and hackneyed saws connected to the NFL are these two: There is nothing new under the sun in the league. And second, as noted hundreds of times already on NFP, the NFL is the consummate copycat league.

Combine the two and what do you get? Well, you get the Seattle Seahawks’ desire for big cornerbacks and the rest of the league’s sudden love affair to emulate that with coverage defenders who can not only knock down a pass but also knock a wide receiver off his route before he even has a chance to get to the ball.

Nothing succeeds quite like success in the NFL, and with the Seahawks having carved out the best record in the NFC and advanced to Super Bowl XLVIII next Sunday with safety- or even linebacker-sized defensive backs, they have unwittingly established the template for other franchises. And as evidence of that, despite the seemingly recent phenomenon of trying to unearth bullish cornerbacks, understand that Seattle coach Pete Carroll first became enamored of the idea more than 30 years ago.

Yeah, thirty-something years ago.

As a nondescript defensive assistant at North Carolina State, Carroll was watching a training camp practice matching the Oakland Raiders and San Francisco 49ers in the early 1980s, a joint session rare in those days. This was in an era in which San Francisco coach Bill Walsh, even in the earliest days of the West Coast offense, favored big receivers such as Dwight Clark. The Raiders, not necessarily because of the 49ers, but because owner Al Davis coveted size and speed, countered with cornerbacks Mike Haynes and Lester Hayes.

Watching the practice, and taking note of the difficulty the San Francisco receivers had in getting releases and moving into their routes, the synapses fired in Carroll’s fertile cranium. While he hasn’t always succeeded in finding bigger cornerbacks in his various incarnations as a head coach at the college and the professional levels, Carroll recalled that innocuous practice at every stop. He tied the adage that “bigger is better” to a position where it historically hadn’t always been applied.

For whatever reason – and despite the successes of teams like Pittsburgh, which had Hall of Fame cornerback Mel Blount, a horse of a man at nearly 6-feet-4 – the notion of big cornerbacks was hardly a widespread one. But Carroll, who concedes he is hardly a visionary, saw the possibilities. “I just thought that adding another kind of physical (obstacle) that receivers would have to deal with was a way to go,” he said. “It was just obvious watching that (1980s) practice.”

Recalled the verbose Hayes, who has been considered in the past for Hall of Fame induction, and probably should keep company with his old buddy Haynes in the Canton shrine: “I remember that (wide receivers) didn’t like playing us. We were good. We were physical. And, man, we were big. I mean, you didn’t see guys who were 6 feet, 6-1, whatever out there at corner that much, you know?”

Thirty years later, the bigger cornerbacks aren’t as prevalent as some coaches likely wish they were – “Hey, try finding a 6(-foot) something guy that can run that well. It’s just not that easy,” one AFC defensive coordinator said this week – but perhaps the success of the Seahawks is changing the paradigm a bit.

Richard ShermanSherman stands 6-3 and was found in the fifth round of the 2011 draft.

If you want evidence of that, look no further than the Senior Bowl practices from last week. Even reviewing the sessions on television instead of in-person, and looking over the video of the practices, it’s obvious that size is definitely “in” at the cornerback slot. Senior Bowl executive director Phil Savage said the collection of bigger cornerbacks wasn’t necessarily a conscious decision, and that’s true. But Savage has an NFL pedigree, keeps close tabs on what’s happening in a league where he was once a standout talent scout and general manager, and it’s not totally happenstance that the game included five cornerbacks of impressive size.

Perhaps were the Senior Bowl able to recruit underclass players (at which point it would no longer be the Senior Bowl, right?), the size component at cornerback would not have been so profound. Still, of the consensus top six cornerbacks cited by most scouts to whom NFP regularly speaks, three are 6 feet or taller. Oklahoma State standout Justin Gilbert, generally thought to be either the No. 1 or 2 prospect at the position, told NFP: “It’s kind of the old ‘tit for tat.’ The receivers have gotten bigger, so the (cornerbacks) had to as well.”

The Senior Bowl practices featured corners such as Utah’s Keith McGill (6-3, 215), Pierre Desir of Lindenwood (6-1 1/8, 195), Nebraska’s Stanley Jean-Baptiste (6-2 3/8, 214), Walt Aiken of Liberty (6-0 5/8, 205) and Dontae Johnson of North Carolina State (6-2, 199). Maybe given the origination of Carroll’s penchant for size at the position, it was fitting a North Carolina State player would be in the group.

“I’d like to think that size is just one of the reasons I’m here,” Nebraska’s Jean-Baptiste told NFP from Mobile last week. “But I do think that, with guys like (Seattle’s Richard) Sherman, the thinking has changed some. Maybe a few years ago, I would have just been pegged as a safety (and some scouts still think that might be where he best projects), and wouldn’t have even had the chance to line up (at cornerback). But that’s not how it is now. Teams are looking at you differently if you’re a corner with size. Receivers don’t necessarily like it, but that’s the way it is.”

It’s certainly the way it is for Carroll and the Seahawks, whose scouting department has been well schooled in the preferences of its staff. There are five cornerbacks on Seattle’s active roster heading into next Sunday’s title game. And all but Walter Thurmond are at least 6 feet tall; all weigh at least 190 pounds. The emphasis on size extends even to the cover guys on the team’s various reserve lists. Rookie Tharold Simon, for instance, is 6-3 and weighs about 205.

A fifth-round draft pick from LSU, Simon is on the physically unable to perform list, but the Seahawks quietly acknowledge they feel the youngster will be a player at some point. And it doesn’t hurt that he fits the “bigger is better” template.

“I’ve got some good size myself,” said Denver cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, the biggest of the Broncos’ cover guys. “But their people are huge.”

Of course, the models for the template were to have been the tandem of Sherman and Brandon Browner until the latter was suspended indefinitely for a violation of the NFL’s illegal substance policy. Browner was a monster at 6-4, a thumper who reveled in mixing it up, whose size and strong hands could redirect a receiver, and who could run. When he was suspended, though, the Seahawks didn’t have to look very far for a corner to line up opposite Sherman. Not that the replacements were as good as Browner, whose future is uncertain, given his long suspension and pending status as a free agent. But the style of play didn’t have to change.

“You miss (Browner), sure. But schematically, It’s not like we had to go back to the drawing board or anything,” Sherman said.

That said, scouts are going back to their draft boards and probably re-thinking some old philosophies about the cornerback position. It took 30 years, but Carroll’s idea seems to have gained considerable traction in the league.

+AROUND THE LEAGUE

*Arguably the guy who most dominated the Senior Bowl practices last week, Pitt defensive tackle Aaron Donald, is also the player who has scouts most puzzled. There is no doubt that Donald, who won four major college awards for linemen or defensive performers, is a player. But he measured in at just a shade over 6 feet and was 288 pounds, and doesn’t quite fit the mold of an NFL tackle. But Donald did what he always seemed to do at Pitt, use his great leverage, ability with his hands and incredible quickness to wreak havoc and win most one-on-one battles with the offensive linemen. Donald is most often compared to Cincinnati star tackle Geno Atkins, but isn’t quite as big.

“(But) he might be, technique-wise, the best ‘three’-(technique tackle) I’ve seen in a long time,” one NFC scout with keen interest in Donald told NFP. “He’s just one of those guys who has it, whatever it is.”

The big consensus is that Donald almost certainly has to go to a 4-3 team where he can play the “3” spot. In a few drills, he was actually lined up at end, a position he played at times for Pitt when the Panthers coaches wanted to create a certain matchup, but he isn’t as effective on the outside. Donald regularly dominated good players such as Baylor guard Cyril Richardson, and he’s just a tremendous two-gap defender who can get his shoulders through openings and be disruptive. “You know how they say rats can get through the smallest openings?” one scout said. “He’s like that.” The question becomes whether some team, even at the end of the round, will invest a first-rounder in Donald. The guess is that he’ll go in the second round . . . and be more productive than a lot of players chosen ahead of him.

Greg HardyThe Falcons are more than familiar with soon-to-be free agent Greg Hardy’s skill set.

*Atlanta will almost certainly dip into free agency for a veteran free safety to pair with strong safety William Moore in 2014, which means incumbent Thomas DeCoud could be in trouble. And while the Falcons’ brass has said it won’t necessarily make any big free agent splashes, expect Atlanta to go hard for a pass-rusher like Michael Johnson (Cincinnati, and former Georgia Tech player). If the Falcons wanted to spend really big, they’re pretty familiar with a guy from their division, Carolina’s Greg Hardy, who abused the Falcons’ tackles for four sacks in the season finale. The Falcons tried to pry then-free agent end Charles Johnson away from their NFC South rivals a few years ago, but he signed an extension. They could go back to the well again and hope for better results. Meanwhile, the team still hasn’t begun to address the defensive tackle situation, where its top three players, including standout Jon Babineaux, are slated for free agency.

*Denver mammoth defensive tackle Terrance “Pot Roast” Knighton, who figures to be a key as the Broncos attempt to slow Marshawn Lynch next Sunday, allowed that he didn’t have a lot of options in unrestricted free agency last spring. But when the phone rang and it was former Jacksonville coach Jack Del Rio, the man who drafted him for the Jaguars, there was no hesitation about reuniting with the defensive coordinator of the Broncos. “The thing about Jack,” said Knighton, “is that, even when he got on me about my weight, he was trying to make me better. It was always about being a better player. I kind of knew, because of our familiarity, that he understood how to use me and put me in situations to succeed. He’s given me a second crack at things.” The Broncos may approach Knighton about a contract extension to the two-year, $4.5 million deal to which he’s signed. Knighton is earning only $1.5 million this season between salary and bonuses. And that makes him one of the best bargains in the league, given his performance. Denver would also like to keep end/linebacker Shaun Phillips, another one-year bargain who led the team in sacks in 2013.

*In announcing the hiring of Mike Pettine as their new coach, Browns officials played up big-time the fact he understands what it takes to win in the AFC North. Maybe so, since Pettine’s resume includes a tenure as an assistant at Baltimore for seven seasons (2002-2008). The bigger question: Do they? Pettine becomes the seventh full-time coach – not counting interim boss Terry Robiskie in 2004 — since the Cleveland franchise was taken out of mothballs in 1999. That’s seven head coaches in what will be the team’s 16th season in 2013. Chris Palmer, the initial coach of the reborn franchise, lasted two seasons. Butch Davis was around five games shy of four years. Romeo Crennel got four seasons, Eric Mangini two, Pat Shurmur two, Rob Chudzinski one. So since Crennel was hired in 2005, the Browns are working on their fourth head coach.

In the same stretch, the Browns’ division opponents have had an aggregate five head coaches. Extending things to the ’99 rebirth of the Browns, the team, as noted, is now on its seventh different full-time coach. Baltimore, Cincinnati and Pittsburgh, among them, have had seven coaches in that period. So perhaps one of the biggest elements a coach needs to win in the tough division is patience from his bosses. Clearly, Chudzinski didn’t get it. Hopefully, Pettine got at least the promise of more than one season. Team president Joe Banner and general manager Michael Lombardi said some of the same things of Pettine that they did of Chudzinski a year ago. They shouldn’t get a mulligan from owner Jimmy Haslam on the Chudzinski hiring. And if Pettine doesn’t work out, especially after the seemingly endless search, they certainly should be held accountable.

*The loneliest guy, or more accurately the least-used, on the Denver roster? Punter Britton Colquitt, who has one kick in two playoff games. Denver has registered 16 possessions in its two playoff victories and scored 10 times (five touchdowns and five field goals). In addition to the one Colquitt punt, the other five possessions have ended thusly: one missed field goal, one lost fumble, one interception, and two series that concluded in the end of the game. Besides the fumble, the Broncos have had just one three-and-out series and only two possessions in all in which Denver failed to register at least two first downs. “If my biggest concern (in the Super Bowl) is staying warm,” Colquitt said, “that’s fine with me.” Colquitt, by the way, will try to join his father, Craig, as a Super Bowl champion punter. The elder statesman of what is arguably the NFL’s greatest punting tree won a pair of Super Bowl titles (XIII and XIV) with the Pittsburgh Steelers in the ‘70s.

Mark RichtICONRicht (above) opted for Florida State’s Jeremy Pruitt.

*A few weeks ago, we mentioned in this space that at least a couple NFL assistant coaches were “sniffing around” the University of Georgia defensive coordinator job, which came vacant when Todd Grantham departed for Louisville. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, through a Freedom of Information Act request, last week identified the two as Vance Joseph and Bob Slowik. The former, who had been the secondary coach for the Houston Texans but lost his job when the team hired Bill O’Brien, caught on with the Cincinnati Bengals in the same capacity. Slowik, a longtime league assistant and coordinator, who was the Washington linebackers coach until Mike Shanahan was dismissed, remains out of work. Both men sent letters of application to UGA coach Mark Richt, but there is no indication that they were interviewed before he hired Jeremy Pruitt of Florida State as the Bulldogs’ new defensive coordinator. It’s likely, though, that either was making (or will make) close to the $850,000 Pruitt will be paid. Which might be a

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Run, baby, run

In the Nov. 10 Carolina-at-San Francisco matchup during the regular season, a 10-9 upset victory for the visitors, quarterbacks Colin Kaepernick of the 49ers and Cam Newton of the Panthers combined for only eight rushes and 31 yards.

Only four times in 26 career starts (including playoff games) has Kaepernick posted fewer rushing

In the Nov. 10 Carolina-at-San Francisco matchup during the regular season, a 10-9 upset victory for the visitors, quarterbacks Colin Kaepernick of the 49ers and Cam Newton of the Panthers combined for only eight rushes and 31 yards.

Only four times in 26 career starts (including playoff games) has Kaepernick posted fewer rushing yards than the 16 he squeezed out that day. Newton, who is in the playoffs for the first time, started all 16 regular-season games his first three years in the league, and played just six of 48 contests in which he rushed for fewer than the 15 yards that he managed against the stingy 49ers’ defense.

But there’s a good chance, given the stakes involved in the game and the ability of both of the quarterbacks in Sunday’s rematch to win games with their feet, that the two signal-callers could each have single runs longer than the 31 yards that they totaled in that game eight weeks ago. It’s hard to imagine Kaepernick and Newton subjugating their rushing skills on Sunday afternoon.

Unless, of course, those running abilities are subjugated for them.

As defensive coordinators Vic Fangio of San Francisco and Sean McDermott of the Panthers began installing the rudiments of their respective game plans Monday, limiting the out-of-pocket forays by the opposing quarterback was almost certainly one of the top priorities for both men. Both coordinators are stop-the-run-first guys. That’s their shared mantra and their charges have bought in to the mindset. But stopping the run in this case also means slowing the opposition quarterback. And that’s probably going to be a challenge.

Cam NewtonICONNewton led all quarterbacks with 585 rushing yards during the regular season.

“You don’t want (Kaepernick) getting loose,” said Carolina linebacker Thomas Davis, who had an outstanding season. “We’ve seen what our guy (Newton) can do, and how frustrating it can be to other teams when they’ve got everything covered and he takes off and makes a play (on the ground). We know, from getting ready for them the last time how dangerous Kaepernick is. We’ve got to be just as disciplined in the (Sunday) game as we were that last time.”

This is not, it should be noted, the first “Zone Option Bowl” in the NFL. Last season, in the wild card round, Seattle (and Russell Wilson) topped Washington (and Robert Griffin III). That was, remember, the game in which RG III injured his knee. The two quarterbacks that day had an aggregate 88 rushing yards. But 67 of those yards belonged to Wilson, who ran the option well but also scrambled for yards.

There have probably been other playoff matchups that featured excellent running quarterbacks – heck, last Saturday’s wild card game with Kansas City’s Alex Smith and Andrew Luck of Indianapolis included two of the league’s underrated runners at the position – but likely only a few that had the potential for both quarterbacks to have such a profound effect with their legs.

Newton led all quarterbacks in rushing during the season with 585 yards and a 6.9-yard average. Kaepernick averaged 5.7 yards and his 524 yards were the fourth most for a quarterback. In truth, neither quarterback has run quite as much lately, and both franchises have reduced the exposure of their stars by cutting back on the zone option reads. Said one San Francisco defensive veteran on Monday afternoon: “You don’t see as many planned runs (by Newton). But he’s always going to be a big ‘red zone’ guy for them. And you won’t want him running all over the middle of the field, either.”

In Sunday’s victory at Green Bay, Kaepernick rushed for 98 yards, the best rushing total of the weekend, but most of that real estate came on scrambles and not option plays. It was a big departure from last season’s win over the Packers when the San Francisco quarterback exploded for 181 yards, with more than 170 of those yards on zone option calls. The difference for both quarterbacks is that Sunday’s game is one in which a victory leaves his team one win shy of a Super Bowl berth. And so it will not be surprising if the teams’ offensive coaches install more options, and if the quarterbacks respond well to the increase.

What will be interesting is how the defensive coordinators, whose teams are among the best pass rushing groups in the league, devise their pressure packages. How, for instance, will McDermott attempt to keep upfield rushers Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy disciplined in their lanes and still have them key against the option? “It’s going to be a huge part of the game,” one Carolina defensive lineman allowed.

It’s difficult to divine how much the two defenses utilized a “spy” or similar shadow defender in the Nov. 10 game. It certainly appears, in review, that was the case on some of the snaps, but hardly all the passing downs. But rest assured that, come Sunday, Fangio and McDermott will pull out all the stops and perhaps even a few wrinkles to try to keep the other team’s quarterback from bolding upfield.

It’s definitely one of the keys to the game.

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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.

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Gearing up to cash in

With a half-dozen franchises seeking new head coaches following another “Black Monday” purge, one might assume it was difficult for team officials from at least a few franchises to see the future beyond planning candidate interviews. But contacted at team facilities on a bloody Monday morning, a couple front office guys who

With a half-dozen franchises seeking new head coaches following another “Black Monday” purge, one might assume it was difficult for team officials from at least a few franchises to see the future beyond planning candidate interviews. But contacted at team facilities on a bloody Monday morning, a couple front office guys who retained their jobs despite an exorcism in the coach’s office down the hall actually told NFP they were in the very early stages of planning for veteran free agency in the spring.

Honest.

“We haven’t started watching tape yet . . . but it won’t be long until we do,” said a top personnel executive from one of the clubs that dumped its coach. “It doesn’t matter who the (new) coach is, the legwork still has to get done. It takes time, you know?”

As our good deed for the day, we’ll save the personnel man, and all of his colleagues around the league, some of that precious time. No sense, guys, spending even a few minutes poring over the highlight reel of Carolina defensive end Greg Hardy.

The guy can flat-out play, and when the “league year” commences on March 11, in roughly 2

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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

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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

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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).

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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