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.

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.

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 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 in
to 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).

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 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.

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 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

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 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.

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 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 be
cause 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).

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 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.”

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 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, wa
s 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 te
n 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.

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 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.

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 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.