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Combine turned into AFC East listening post

2/23/2009

Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Graham
INDIANAPOLIS -- Bill Belichick's impromptu news conference Sunday morning meant that for the first time in several years all four AFC East coaches addressed reporters at the NFL scouting combine.

It was an encouraging development for the NFL's most secretive division.

Three of the four teams have a heavy Bill Parcells influence, and a significant tenet of his doctrine is a one-voice policy. Assistant coaches, scouts and front office folks are forbidden from talking to reporters. And the one voice that does speak often does so sparingly and shares little. Players often repeat team-approved mantras.

But this weekend was refreshing.

To be sure, Belichick's unscheduled appearance won't become commonplace. But Miami Dolphins coach Tony Sparano -- off limits at last year's combine -- has emerged as an insightful speaker who doesn't dodge questions.

The media certainly upgraded when the New York Jets fired the condescending Eric Mangini and brought in Rex Ryan, a brash quote machine. Jets general manager Mike Tannenbaum held a news conference, too.

Uh oh, two voices.

Buffalo Bills coach Dick Jauron is reserved and has been unavailable recently, but he faced the press at Lucas Oil Stadium. The club generally is among the most accessible in the NFL. The Bills granted access to chief operating officer Russ Brandon, vice president of college scouting Tom Modrak and both coordinators in Indy.

As beneficial as access is for reporters, it's every bit as valuable for the fans. The more information teams share with the media, the more they communicate with their fans. The less people speculate.

The Professional Football Writers Association typed up 163 transcripts during the combine. Four of the six largest files belonged to Belichick or Parcells disciples. Belichick's transcript was the longest, followed by Ohio State linebacker James Laurinaitis, Denver Broncos coach Josh McDaniels, Green Bay Packers general manager Ted Thompson, Sparano and Tannenbaum.

Go figure.

I wanted to share some comments the coaches delivered over the past few days about their division opponents.

I asked Belichick, a coaching connoisseur, what he thought of Ryan.

"He's done a great job at Baltimore," Belichick said. "I coached with his brother, Rob, [the former Patriots special teams coach]. They're very much alike, so I feel like I know Rex even though I don't really know Rex.

"But I have tremendous respect for what he's done with the Ravens and the players that he's developed and the schemes that he runs. He comes from a great football family. I'm sure it'll be very competitive against the Jets like it always is."

Ryan on Friday wasn't as diplomatic when asked what he thought of being in such a competitive division.

"I'd rather focus on what they're up against," Ryan said. "We're going to have a team that's going to be a physical football team. We're not going to back down from any challenge.

"I respect the [division]. Any time you go up against a Bill Belichick and Bill Parcells, the team there in Miami, Buffalo ... We know it's very competitive, but right now, to be honest with you, I'm focusing on where our team is, putting in the style of play we want regardless of who we're playing."

The subject of the AFC East's masterminds was brought up again later, and Ryan replied with a smile, "Bring it on, baby! To me, it's just great competition. ... To accomplish the goals we want to accomplish, you've got to do well against your league. It's strong. It's physical and hard-nosed football, and that's what I look forward to."

Jauron on the AFC East's strength of schedule (they have four of the NFL's seven toughest):

"Strength of schedule has never been an issue with me. Every team in the league can certainly beat you. They're capable of stepping up and beating you. You have to play well every single Sunday to have a chance. So you look at your team and improving it and go play the schedule the way it is. Our division is very tough. It just has been, and it makes it great to be in a very, very competitive division and very difficult."

Jauron on whether he believes the Bills are nearer the pack than their 0-6 record against the AFC East would indicate:

"I feel like we're closer. There's no doubt, but you can interpret it however you want and everybody will. If you're asking me, then I'm telling you. Yes, I do."

Sparano on how closely he's monitoring Tom Brady's injury updates:

"Yeah, we pay attention to it. Certainly, when you can you do. There's no secret, and I'm not saying anything that I'm sure the Patriots or the Jets or the Bills wouldn't be saying.

"As we know, to get to where we need to be, it all starts in your division. So you better know everything about your division. That's important to us. Our team knows that we need to know everything about our division. At the end of the day, the division is what matters most, first."