AFC East: Eric Mangini

Hall of Famer Curtis Martin, one of the central figures in the New York Jets-New England Patriots rivalry over the past 20 years, said Monday it would be a significant advantage for the Patriots if they have a copy of Rex Ryan's playbook.

Since PlaybookGate erupted last Thursday, most experts have downplayed the potential impact of having an opponent's playbook. Not Martin, who responded this way when asked if it could help coach Bill Belichick:

"Oh, tremendously, to be honest with you," Martin told ESPN.com at the Big Daddy Celebrity Golf Classic at Oheka Castle in Huntington, New York. "What most people don't understand is that football is a science. There are little signals and little movements from one person that can give an indication on where the entire play is going. I think it can have a tremendous effect on a game. If we're playing chess and I understand all of your moves before you make them, my probability of winning is pretty high."

Martin said he wasn't taken aback by Ryan's decision to give a playbook to Alabama coach Nick Saban, whom former Jets defensive coordinator Mike Pettine suspects may have passed it along to Belichick. Martin figures that sort of stuff goes on between coaches. Belichick, he said, doesn't need any help.

"Belichick is one of those football savants," he said. "He (understands) the game, especially from a defensive perspective, at a different level. Does he need it? No. Does he have it? I don't know. I don't think so. Who knows? I don't like to talk on things that are assumptions. If they come out and say Belichick has the book, I'd say, yeah, it makes a big difference."

Patriots safety Devin McCourty said he laughed when he first heard the story.

"I have no idea about any of that," said McCourty, who also attended the charity golf outing. "I feel like to comment on it keeps the nonsense going."

Another person with knowledge of the Jets-Patriots rivalry, Eric Mangini, said the benefit of having an opponent's playbook would be minimal.

"There may be some value from an off-season perspective, but you still have to get through the terminology and you have to get through the adjustments," said the former Jets coach and ex-Patriots assistant. "Ideally, you have someone in the system that can take you through it. From a weekly perspective, it would be hard to get much (useful information) because you can't be sure that what's in there is what you're going to see."

Mangini is the broken branch on Belichick's coaching tree. He was cut off when he reported Belichick's illegal spying tactics to the league, resulting in SpyGate. So, yes, he can relate to the Pettine-Ryan situation. He's not sure why Pettine revealed such information, but Mangini believes it has been blown out of proportion by the media. Asked if he's ever given a playbook to a friend or colleague outside his organization, he paused for a moment.

"Typically, I haven't done that," he said, "but I don't think it's so far out of the range of what happens."
One of the fascinating aspects of the NFL draft is that each one produces a lifetime of what-if scenarios. No one knows this better than the New York Jets, whose history is filled with stars that got away. They passed on Dan Marino, Warren Sapp, Emmitt Smith ... and the list goes on. Well, here's another what-might-have-been:

Davis
Vernon Davis.

Former Jets coach Eric Mangini, speaking to the Hartford Courant during the run-up to his annual youth football camp last weekend in the Hartford, Connecticut area, said the Jets almost grabbed the freakishly talented tight end in the 2006 draft. Their interest in Davis was reported at the time, but it wasn't thought to be serious. Apparently, they were dead serious about Davis.

"When I was with the Jets, I really loved Vernon in the draft," Mangini said. "We were pretty close to drafting him in New York. It's funny how that kind of comes full circle."

Mangini is the new tight ends coach for the San Francisco 49ers, so he gets to work with Davis on a daily basis. It would've been fun to see Davis with the Jets -- they haven't had a weapon like him in a long time -- but you can't criticize them for not drafting him. Picking fourth in '06, they selected D'Brickashaw Ferguson, a three-time Pro Bowl selection who has missed only one play in his entire career. Ferguson isn't as good at his position as Davis is at tight end, but he solidified the crucial left-tackle spot for the Jets.

In other words, this wasn't like picking Kyle Brady instead of Sapp. But, hey, on a slow day in June, it's interesting to ponder what might have been.

Comparing Tebow and Manziel: While on the subject of former Jets coaches, ex-defensive coordinator Mike Pettine was asked over the weekend to compare his Tim Tebow experience (2012) with the current Johnny Manziel phenomenon. Believe it or not, the Cleveland Browns' coach said the Manziel hype is more manageable than it was for Tebow.

"The circumstances are different," Pettine told the Cleveland Plain Dealer. "Tebow was an established NFL player, he wasn't coming in as a rookie, unproven. It's a little easier for us with Manziel because he understands he earned Johnny Football as a college player and nobody understands it more than him. It's like, 'Listen, I don't want to be named starter coming out of the draft.'

"People criticize us for referring to him as a backup. That's what he is. It would have been a disservice to the other 80-some players in the locker room and it would have been a service to him carrying that burden of 'What have you done to deserve this?' We all want him to be successful but there is a process that has to occur and he has to go through it."

Presumably, Pettine won't have clandenstine, training-camp practices featuring Manziel-specific plays.

Sunday notes: Heard around the combine

February, 23, 2014
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INDIANAPOLIS -- Notes and observations from the NFL scouting combine:

1. Backs to the wall: This comes as a bit of a surprise, but I hear the New York Jets are exploring free-agent running backs -- namely Donald Brown (Indianapolis Colts) and Ben Tate (Houston Texans). Obviously, their greatest needs are wide receiver and tight end, with running back thought to be a secure position with Chris Ivory and Bilal Powell. But general manager John Idzik is a big believer in competition and depth. It also could mean that the troubled Mike Goodson is on thin ice. The bad boy from last offseason has legal issues, a surgically repaired knee and an upcoming $650,000 roster bonus. Why would the Jets pay that for a player in Goodson's situation? Both Brown and Tate have above-average running skills and they can catch the ball, a much-needed skill in the Jets' backfield.

2. Money to burn: When free agency opens March 11, the Jets should have at least $22 million in salary-cap space (not counting the anticipated veteran purge), but that doesn't mean they'll be spending like Kim Kardashian in a designer clothing store. Idzik still believes in building through the draft. "The draft is your lifeline," he said. "Free agency is phone-a-friend." That said, the Jets are expected to use the phone a few times. The feeling in the organization is they will sign a No. 2 wide receiver, a tight end (if they lose Jeff Cumberland), a veteran backup quarterback, a running back and a kicker (if they lose Nick Folk). They're optimistic about their chances of re-signing tackle Austin Howard. Yes, they have a fairly lengthy shopping list, but I don't see them breaking the bank for anyone with an $8-million-a-year-type deal. They will use the draft to find a potential No. 1 receiver and a pass-catching tight end, along with plugging some holes on defense.

3. QB quest: The Jets met with at least two quarterbacks, LSU's Zach Mettenberger and Eastern Illinois' Jimmy Garoppolo. The 6-5 Mettenberger, in the final stages of knee-surgery rehab, is an interesting prospect. Idzik, who scouted him in person during the season, is looking to add a developmental quarterback at some point in the draft. Mettenberger could be just that in the late rounds. I see the Jets going to training camp with Geno Smith, Matt Simms, a new veteran backup and a rookie.

4. Off the Mark: If the Jets decide they want to retain Mark Sanchez (unlikely), they will try to get him to swallow a massive pay cut. The amount of their proposal will tell Sanchez just how much they really want him. If they try to slash his base pay from $9 million to $1 million, it would be insulting, a strong indication he'd have no chance to unseat Smith. If they offer in the $3 million-to-$5 million range, with a chance to make more money with incentives, it would show they consider him a viable starting option.

4a. Butt fumble revisited: Former longtime GM and current ESPN analyst Bill Polian believes Sanchez has been unfairly stigmatized by the "butt fumble." "Unequivocally, the butt fumble wasn't his fault," Polian told me. "It's been played ad infinitum. The guard (Brandon Moore) got driven into him. Perception is often times reality, and that's what people think. If you ask the average person what they think of Mark Sanchez, they'd say the butt fumble. It wasn't his fault."

5. Legal tampering: The combine is the place where agents and teams meet to discuss free-agent deals. Technically, it's not allowed, but no one says anything. Curiously, a number of agents told me that teams are reluctant this year to discuss specific dollar amounts. It's likely that teams, concerned about having their offers shopped around, are waiting for the March 8-11 exclusive negotiating period to get serious.

6. Seen around Indy: Former Jets colleagues Mike Tannenbaum and Eric Mangini lunched together. Despite the awkward parting in 2009 (actually, Woody Johnson was the driving force behind Mangini's ouster), Tannenbaum and Mangini have remained close friends. Mangini, named last week as the tight-ends coach of the San Francisco 49ers, is working his way up the ladder on the offensive side of the ball. If he makes it to coordinator some day, he'll have the rare offensive/defensive coordinator on his résumé.

6a. Seen around Indy II: Rex Ryan and twin brother, defensive coordinator Rob Ryan, took a break from the combine to eat at a local Hooters restaurant. Naturally, they ended up on Twitter, posing in a picture with a group of Hooters' waitresses.

7. Give that man a pair of ear plugs: Former Jets defensive coordinator Mike Pettine's experience in a circus-type environment (the Jets, 2009-2012) should serve him well in his new job as the Cleveland Browns' coach. He got the job after 23 people turned it down (only a slight exaggeration), saw the two men that hired him get whacked (Joe Banner and Mike Lombardi) and was hit Friday with the news that the Browns reportedly came close to hiring San Francisco 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh before turning to him. Pettine called the Harbaugh story "noise -- and my goal is to quiet the noise." He recently held a staff meeting in which he used a Power Point presentation to underscore the challenge before them -- two playoff appearances, one playoff win and 141 coaches since 1991. Said Pettine: "To turn around a franchise, you have to be extraordinary." Here's wishing him luck; he'll need it.

8. Best and worst: I thought Michael Sam handled himself extremely well Saturday in his first news conference since sharing he is gay. Facing perhaps the largest news conference in combine history, Sam was confident, yet not cocky, projecting the image of a young man who just wants to play football. On the other side of the news-conference spectrum was Miami Dolphins coach Joe Philbin, who fumbled his way through a Q & A that focused on the bullying scandal. He was all over the place, accepting responsibility in one breath but pleading ignorance in the next. How they fired longtime trainer Kevin O'Neill, portrayed in a negative light in the Wells report, was a low-class move. The Dolphins flew him to the combine and then fired him, two days before he was to receive an award in Indianapolis as the league's top trainer. He didn't attend the ceremony, but received a standing ovation when his prepared remarks were read to the crowd.

9. Respect for JC: It was interesting to hear offensive linemen talk about South Carolina's Jadeveon Clowney, the possible No. 1 overall pick. Said Michigan tackle Michael Schofield: "I played a series against Clowney, and that was probably the hardest series of my life." Other linemen echoed similar sentiments. The Houston Texans, picking first, have a tough choice. They need a quarterback, but Clowney is the best talent in the draft.

10. Johnny Football speaks: Clearly, Johnny Manziel's mission at the combine was to shatter his image as a rock star-party boy quarterback. Asked to describe the difference between Johnny Football and Johnny Manziel, the former Texas A & M star shifted into third person. "Johnny Manziel is a guy ... I’m from a small town of Kerrville, Texas, 20,000 people. People make me out to be a big Hollywood guy, (I'm) really just still a small-town kid" -- who jets off to Vegas to party with the rich and famous.

Miami mess has a shade of green

January, 9, 2014
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Remember when the New York Jets were known as the most dysfunctional team in the NFL? That unofficial title now belongs to the Miami Dolphins -- the South Beach circus.

Mangini
Mangini
Turns out the Richie Incognito-Jonathan Martin bullying scandal was only the start of the Dolphins' woes. These days, they're making news with a fractured front office that makes the Christie administration look like the honor society. It might be safer to swim with sharks than to work for the Dolphins. Then again, it's kind of the same thing.

"A lot of politics," a person familiar with the situation told me.

General manager Jeff Ireland, who failed to make the playoffs in any of his six seasons, agreed to part ways with the team this week after losing a power struggle with coach Joe Philbin, according to reports in South Florida and elsewhere. Funny thing is, there's a greenish tint to the entire mess -- meaning links to the Jets.

One of the biggest sharks in the Miami tank apparently is Dawn Aponte, the executive vice president of football administration -- a former underling of ex-Jets general manager Mike Tannenbaum. Aponte reportedly stabbed Ireland in the back, formed an alliance with Philbin and worked her way into the inner circle of owner Stephen Ross.

Ross, a super wealthy businessman who lives in New York, has a curious affinity for former Jets. He recently named Jets Hall of Famer Curtis Martin to his "Bully Board" -- an advistory committee that was formed in the aftermath of the Incognito-Martin controversy. In addition, one of Ross' most trusted advisors is Matt Higgins, former team president of the Jets.

You can't make this stuff up.

Dolphins team reporter James Walker does a nice job of outlining the Dolphins-Jets parallels on his blog. It's a must-read.

So now the Dolphins are looking for a new general manager, and the names being reported in the South Florida media include Tannenbaum and former Jets coach Eric Mangini, currently an offensive consultant for the San Francisco 49ers. Once upon a time, Tannenbaum rose to power in the Jets' organization when he convinced owner Woody Johnson to hire Mangini away from Bill Belichick. The Tannenbaum-Mangini alliance ruled the Jets for three years. When Mangini was fired, and hired by the Cleveland Browns, he brought along an up-and-coming star in the front office.

Aponte.

This would be a great reality show, wouldn't it?
On Tuesday, we listed five potential Miami Dolphins candidates for offensive coordinators following the firing of Mike Sherman. One day later, Miami parted ways with general manager Jeff Ireland after six mostly unsuccessful seasons.

Based on what ESPN.com’s Dolphins page is hearing behind the scenes, here are five general manager candidates to keep an eye on with Miami:

1. Tom Gamble, Philadelphia Eagles Director of Pro Personnel

Analysis: Definitely keep an eye on Gamble, who has done a good job helping build playoff teams in San Francisco and Philadelphia. I’m hearing Gamble could be one of the favorites of Dolphins owner Stephen Ross, which will go a long way in this process. Gamble is the right-hand man to Eagles general manager Howie Roseman and has strong ties to Philadelphia. It would take a lot to convince Gamble to leave. But an opportunity to run his own team in Miami as general manager for the first time in his career might do the trick.

2. Mike Tannenbaum

Analysis: Many Dolphins fans may scoff at the idea of a former New York Jets general manager running the Dolphins. But Ross, who lives in New York, has an unexplained affinity for “Gang Green.” Tannenbaum was the Jets’ GM from 2006-2012 and has plenty of experience. He’s only been out of the NFL for one year and knows the AFC East division well. Tannenbaum is not considered a hot name in league circles right now, which could work in Miami’s favor if interested.

3. Scott Pioli

Analysis: Pioli is a Bill Belichick disciple with a good track record of success with the New England Patriots. However, Pioli had mostly a bad stint as general manager with the Kansas City Chiefs. He was fired after four seasons. Similar to Tannenbaum, Pioli is not considered a hot name for general manager openings. That could work in Miami’s favor if the Dolphins want to make a run at Pioli.

4. Eric Mangini, San Francisco 49ers consultant

Analysis: I would be surprised if Mangini gets the GM gig, considering he’s never served in that role and most of his experience is in coaching. However, Mangini makes the list because his name continues to come up behind the scenes. I’m hearing Ross likes Mangini. He also has a strong rapport with Dawn Aponte, who is Miami’s lead contract negotiator and has a lot of power within the Dolphins’ organization. Anyone who has both Ross and Aponte on their side cannot be ignored in the Dolphins’ search. If not at GM, it’s possible that Mangini could get another role in the front office if both sides can find the right fit.

5. Brian Gaine, Dolphins assistant general manager

Analysis: Gaine is the only legitimate, in-house candidate for Miami. However, he’s strictly a fallback plan. The Dolphins like Gaine, who has done a decent job working behind Ireland. But I’m told the Dolphins are looking to make a splash from the outside. Promoting Gaine, Ireland’s pupil, will feel like Miami is spinning its wheels. It’s doubtful Gaine gets serious consideration unless a host of outside candidates turn down the job.

Video: Should Darrelle Revis hold out?

June, 1, 2012
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New York Jets cornerback Darrelle Revis is unsure when he will attend training camp and ESPN NFL Analyst Eric Mangini discusses whether Revis should consider holding out.

Bills seeking contender status

September, 23, 2011
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Ryan FitzpatrickAP Photo/Derek GeeIn three starts against the Patriots, Buffalo quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick is 0-3.
Eric Mangini summed up the AFC East showdown between the Buffalo Bills and New England Patriots best on SportsCenter this week.

"The Bills think that they're good, but they don't really know whether or not that they're good," said the former New York Jets and Cleveland Browns head coach. "And this is going to be the litmus test, because New England is good. So [Buffalo] is trying to figure out where they fit in the AFC East, and this is when they find out."

Buffalo is in search of contender status. League-wide respect is just four quarters away Sunday when the Bills host the Patriots at Ralph Wilson Stadium.

The Bills are a nice, early season story. They are the league's biggest surprise at 2-0.

But nationally, few outside Buffalo's locker room predict the Bills to be a legitimate threat to the big boys. Buffalo is ranked No. 16 in ESPN.com's Power Rankings, behind nine teams with worse records. The Bills are more than a touchdown underdog at home against the Patriots (2-0). The Patriots and quarterback Tom Brady have looked like a machine in their first two games and are a viable Super Bowl contender.

New England has what Buffalo wants. And to be a contender, you have to beat a contender.

The Patriots swept the Bills in two games last season by a combined score of 72-33. Buffalo has lost 15 straight to New England. The Bills haven't beaten the Patriots since the "Lawyer Milloy Game" on Sept. 7, 2003.

Buffalo has to overcome a lot of bad history this weekend.

"This year we're all about changing the attitude. We have to go into this knowing that we're capable of winning this ballgame," Bills receiver David Nelson told the AFC East blog. "We have to know that we have the capability on offense to move the ball, and on defense to stop them and on special teams to make big plays. That's all we can control. We can't control what other people think about us."

Much of Buffalo's success will come down to starting quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick. Sunday's matchup is expected to be high scoring. Fitzpatrick will try to keep up with Brady, who is on a torrid pace.

New England's offense is getting most of the hype. But Buffalo's offense is leading the NFL in scoring with 79 points the first two games. The Patriots are third with 73 points, behind the Bills and Detroit Lions (75).

Buffalo's spread offense is giving opponents headaches. But Fitzpatrick has had issues with New England's defense in the past. Fitzpatrick has thrown for 676 yards, three touchdowns and six interceptions in three career starts against the Patriots. He's 0-3 in those meetings.

"I think that in general they always present a tough challenge for us," Fitzpatrick admitted this week. "Obviously the streak and the number of games we’ve played without beating them, they're tough."

Do the surprising Bills have staying power? Win or lose, that will be the biggest question following Sunday's game.

The AFC East is stacked with three undefeated teams. A strong case can be made that it is the best division in football after two weeks. The Bills have the tough task of competing with the Patriots and New York Jets (2-0) four times this season.

Buffalo has a shot if the offense continues to play well. The Bills have tremendous balance through the air and on the ground. Buffalo running back Fred Jackson leads the NFL in rushing with 229 yards after two weeks. The defense also has improved from last season. It was dominant in Week 1 against Kansas City but gave up a lot of big plays in last week's 38-35 win against the Oakland Raiders.

The Bills are gradually turning their franchise around. Buffalo is 6-4 in its past 10 games under second-year head coach Chan Gailey.

"I think that our guys understand hard work. They understand about going out and getting better each day," Gailey said. "They have learned the systems better. We picked up some good players that have helped us on both sides of the ball, and when everybody gets closer to the same page, you give yourself a chance to be more successful."

The Bills also are the kind of team fans can gravitate to. They're underdogs with virtually no star power. Many of Buffalo's best players were outcasts, people who were let go or overlooked by other teams.

Fitzpatrick, 28, is a journeyman quarterback who was a backup with the St. Louis Rams and Cincinnati Bengals. Jackson, 30, spent time in NFL Europe. No. 1 receiver Stevie Johnson was drafted by Buffalo in the seventh round. Nelson, who caught the game-winning reception against Oakland, wasn't drafted.

On defense, Buffalo added veteran linebackers Nick Barnett and Shawne Merriman because their previous teams felt they were too injury-prone. Even Gailey has baggage; he was fired abruptly by the Dallas Cowboys as head coach and by the Kansas City Chiefs as offensive coordinator.

"I think we all have a common bond. We're all understanding each other," Nelson said. "We know we have been through so much. I think it motivates us and gives us that special bond to work hard for each other. We want to be there for each other and make this special."

Fitzpatrick agrees that being overlooked as individuals helped Buffalo come together as a team.

"We're a team full of guys looking to make a name for themselves. We're looking to make a name for our team," Fitzpatrick said. "Although most of us are unheralded, nobody really knows us, we think that we're pretty good and we think that we've got a lot of talent on our roster."

Upsetting New England would give the Bills the respect they are looking for. Most trends point to the Patriots. But this season's Bills have defied the odds.

AFC East links: Jets' defense like '85 Bears?

August, 9, 2011
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Buffalo Bills

Defensive end Alex Carrington is getting some work at linebacker and the 6-foot-5, 304-pounder made a good impression.

Miami Dolphins

The Dolphins hope their defense gets a boost from the return of three players who missed most of last season.

Miami released its first depth chart for the new season.

New England Patriots

Former Patriots coordinator Eric Mangini says defensive end Shaun Ellis will be a good fit in New England.

New England has 19 defensive lineman on its roster at the moment, and that’s not counting hybrid players such as Jermaine Cunningham and Markell Carter.

Steve Buckley of BostonHerald.com talks with Patriots coach Bill Belichick about preparing for the season after a lockout-shortened offseason.

New York Jets

Quarterback Mark Sanchez compares the Jets' defense to the famed 1985 Bears unit that rampaged its way to a 15-1 regular season and a Super Bowl crown. Coach Rex Ryan quickly dismissed the notion.

Some offseason moves by the Jets should concern offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer.

Defensive end Shaun Ellis says there are no hard feelings with the Jets after he joined the Patriots for a contract that dwarfed what the Jets were offering.

Adding veteran receiver Derrick Mason was among the moves the Jets made aimed at helping quarterback Mark Sanchez develop.

The Jets added a pair of linebackers.

Rex Ryan answers message board hecklers

May, 25, 2011
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ESPN The Magazine writer Sam Alipour carried out a novel assignment. He presented Rex Ryan a bundle of criticisms pulled from the Internet and asked the Jets coach to address them.

The results were interesting.

Ryan was disparaged for being a bad clock manager, disingenuous about Mark Sanchez, a motor mouth, a hypocrite, a poor drafter and a little more into feet than the average dude.

The most pointed (and deserving) criticism dealt with Ryan blasting pass-rusher Vernon Gholston in "Play Like You Mean It," Ryan's recently released autobiography. Ryan called the sixth overall draft choice from 2008 a phony after talking up Gholston the past two summers as a player on the rise.

Ryan's response:
"There's not a phony bone in my body, but if I could change a couple of words in the book, that would be one of them. Anyway, when I called Vernon a phony, I was talking to Eric Mangini about his combine numbers; he never played to those numbers. Vernon is a great person, and he got better as a player the two years I had him. And I don't kiss anybody's butt."

The Jets released Gholston after last season. He failed to record a sack in three seasons and will forever be known as one of the worst two or three busts in Jets history.

Flash Points: Jets' defining moment

May, 11, 2011
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What key event significantly changed the fortunes of the Jets -- for better or worse? Give us your take and we'll give you our definitive moment on May 26.

How many defining moments can a franchise have when it has won a single championship, and that was 42 years ago?

The New York Jets won Super Bowl III after quarterback Joe Namath made his famous guarantee. That moment didn't make my short list because the Super Bowl didn't necessarily change the Jets' fortunes; it was the Jets' fortune.

The pivotal development to get the Jets to their lone championship was Namath eschewing the NFL's St. Louis Cardinals and taking a chance on the upstart AFL. Broadway Joe became the face of the league and remains a transcendent New York icon. In four decades, no other Jets player has come close to matching the impact Namath made.

Highlights have been minimal in the years since, but the New York Sack Exchange of Mark Gastineau, Joe Klecko, Marty Lyons and Abdul Salaam provided the franchise milepost of the 1980s.

The Jets made a splash when they hired Bill Parcells as general manager and head coach in 1997. His arrival sparked a Jets-Patriots rivalry that has grown into one of the NFL's best, featuring Curtis Martin's jump to the Jets out of loyalty to the coach.

Although he has been with the Jets only two seasons, I don't think it's premature to include head coach Rex Ryan's arrival as an option for the defining moment. The culture under Ryan is a stark contrast to the organization under predecessor Eric Mangini. The Jets have gone to back-to-back AFC Championship Games and are considered a hot destination because free agents want to play for Ryan.

Submit your vote with the SportsNation poll. If you vote Other, please give us your suggestion in the comments area below this article.

Sparano elaborates on ex-player assistants

March, 31, 2011
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Miami Dolphins head coach Tony Sparano felt it was important to add former NFL players to his coaching staff.

I posted a story Wednesday that looked into the importance of assistants with playing experience. To follow up, I wanted to share Sparano's thoughts on his three new position instructors: assistant wide receivers coach Ike Hilliard, tight ends coach Dan Campbell and pass-rush coach Bryan Cox.

[+] EnlargeBryan Cox
AP Photo/Beth A. KeiserBryan Cox played for the Dolphins, Jets, Bears, Saints and Patriots over a 12-year career.
Cox is the most familiar player to fans who follow the AFC East. He was a lightning-rod linebacker who played for the Dolphins, New York Jets and New England Patriots in a 12-year career. He recorded 51.5 sacks, 22 forced fumbles and a nice double-bird salute to Buffalo Bills fans.

Cox never played for Sparano, but former Dolphins vice president of football operations Bill Parcells -- the man who hired Sparano -- coached Cox for two seasons with the Jets. Cox's entire coaching career has been working as Eric Mangini's defensive line assistant for the Jets and Cleveland Browns.

"Since I came into the league with Bill Parcells, Bryan is a guy I've always talked to Bill about in different ways," Sparano said at the NFL owners meeting in New Orleans last week. "Bryan's a unique guy. His passion for the game is tremendous, and that's something that really intrigues me. Putting him in the role I have him in now gives me great luxury."

Former Dolphins defensive coordinator Paul Pasqualoni often would pull pass-rushers out of defensive drills to work with them individually. But current coordinator Mike Nolan doesn't like to leave the group much for one-on-one work -- although outside linebacker Cameron Wake didn't appear to suffer from a lack of instruction last season.

Cox "gives me the ability to split the pass-rushers up and get them away from the inside drills and exclusively work on pass-rush with a guy that's going to be able to help them," Sparano said.

Sparano was a Dallas Cowboys tight ends coach when Campbell was there. Sparano promoted him from intern to tight ends coach, replacing George DeLeone.

Sparano said Campbell, a 10-year veteran with three clubs, is "a guy I think an awful lot of" and called him "one of the toughest players I ever coached" and "fundamentally really good."

Hilliard was a receivers coach for the UFL's Florida Tuskers the past two seasons. He played a dozen NFL seasons for the New York Giants and Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He caught 546 passes and scored 35 touchdowns. He'll help first-time NFL position coach Steve Bush.

"Ike Hilliard comes highly recommended to me from a lot of people that I respect in this business, guys that he played for," Sparano said. "Steve Bush is very good from a mental standpoint, scheme, how he attacks people. But Ike Hilliard would be a guy from a fundamental standpoint that would help those guys, particularly with the man-to-man stuff and how he played the position.

"It's unique to have a guy that has played the inside position as well as Ike has played it in our league, to be able to bring some of those details to the table for a guy like [Davone] Bess or [Brian] Hartline or even Marlon Moore. These guys can learn a lot from him."

Hey, playa! Can you coach?

March, 30, 2011
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SparanoSam Greenwood/Getty ImagesDolphins coach Tony Sparano felt it was necessary to add former players to his coaching staff.
Miami Dolphins receiver Brandon Marshall scoffed in September that broadcast analyst Sterling Sharpe had no right to judge him. Marshall claimed Sharpe didn't do enough on the field to earn the privilege.

Imagine, then, how much disdain Marshall would harbor for criticism from those who didn't play in the NFL at all.

When you consider Marshall's logic and the sort of position coaches he has worked with, you get a sense of how unstable a situation can be.

As a rookie, he learned from former Pro Bowl receiver Steve Watson. But since 2007, Marshall's coaches have been Jeremy Bates, Jedd Fish and Adam Gase with Denver and Karl Dorrell last year with Miami. None of them played in the NFL. Neither Fisch nor Gase played in college.

Probably not the kinds of guys you'd expect to make a connection.

Dolphins head coach Tony Sparano rearranged his coaching staff after last season. He moved Dorrell into the quarterbacks vacancy and promoted Steve Bush from a quality-control role -- usually considered entry-level -- to receivers coach. Bush hasn't been an NFL position coach before. In 2008, the Dolphins hired the one-time Syracuse assistant away from West Genesee High in upstate New York.

Some help was in order, and not just for Bush.

Sparano made it a point to add former players to his coaching staff because he identified a deficiency. He needed more voices to reach his players.

Although the Dolphins parted ways with running backs coach James Saxon, they hired Ike Hilliard to assist Bush and Bryan Cox to coach pass rushing and promoted Dan Campbell from intern to tight ends coach.

"I feel good about the way we were able to put the staff together with the infusion of ex-players onto the staff," Sparano said last week at the NFL owners meeting in New Orleans.

"A little bit of that flavor and that knowledge on your coaching staff helps a lot. Sometimes, as coaches, we can get tunnel vision and forget about what the players' needs are. When you get an ex-player on your staff -- somebody that's really not far removed -- it helps you a lot."

A breakdown of AFC East coaching staffs shows there are multiple philosophies on former NFL players as assistants.

The Dolphins went into last season with two position coaches who played in the NFL: assistant head coach and secondary assistant Todd Bowles and Saxon. They now have four assistants with a combined 557 games.

Buffalo Bills head coach Chan Gailey has one former NFL player on his staff, but none coaching a position. Former defensive back Adrian White, a veteran of seven seasons, handles quality control.

New England Patriots defensive line coach Pepper Johnson is the lone member of Bill Belichick's crew to have experienced NFL action. Johnson played linebacker for four teams over 13 years.

Then there's Rex Ryan's staff, populated by six former NFL players with 62 seasons and 829 games. Matt Cavanaugh coaches quarterbacks, Anthony Lynn running backs, Henry Ellard receivers, Mike Devlin tight ends, Mark Carrier defensive line and Dennis Thurman defensive backs.

I reached out to three former coaches who played in the NFL -- Tom Flores, Herm Edwards and Ted Cottrell -- to get their opinions on the significance of having on-field experience on staff.

"It's always been a thing with the players," said Cottrell, an Atlanta Falcons linebacker and successful defensive coordinator for the Bills, Jets, Minnesota Vikings and San Diego Chargers, "where they think in the backs of their minds, 'Well, you haven't played this game. You don't know what we're going through. You haven't done this, Coach.' But if you have some playing experience on your staff, it helps offset that."

As valuable as those players-turned-coaches are, they're difficult to find. The best players don't necessarily make the best coaches because what came to them naturally can't always be conveyed through instruction.

[+] EnlargePepper Johnson
AP Photo/Elise AmendolaPatriots defensive line coach Pepper Johnson is the only member of Bill Belichick's staff with NFL playing experience.
Flores found a way to make it work. He and Mike Ditka are the only two in NFL history to win a Super Bowl ring as a player, assistant coach and head coach. Flores played quarterback for the Bills, Oakland Raiders and Kansas City Chiefs before guiding the Raiders to pair of Super Bowl titles.

"Some of the young kids coming out have no idea," Flores said. "They think they invented the game. Sometimes you have to bring them back to reality.

"But you also don't want somebody who keeps saying, 'Well, when I played ... When I played ... When I played ...' The player thinks, 'I don't give a damn when you played. We're playing now.'"

The transition from player to coach is difficult. Many players focus so much on their specific jobs when they're active that they don't become students of the overall game or learn how their roles fit into the overall puzzle. Others find it difficult to stop acting like a player when their careers are over.

Still, the ex-player element can be crucial in various instances.

"Sometimes you need a bridge with a former player," said Edwards, who played cornerback for the Philadelphia Eagles and was head coach for the Jets and Chiefs. "His voice is going to speak volumes, especially during the rough times because he's done it; he's been through it. He can give them, 'OK, this is what we gotta do' speech.

"He's going to respect because he played, but can he teach? That's the whole key. Players will figure that out."

Not all coaches are comfortable hiring former players, particularly those fresh off the field. Cottrell claimed there's a fear of subversion, that the former player will relate better to the locker room than the man in charge.

"Who do you think the players on the roster will gravitate towards more?" Cottrell asked. "The guy who played in the NFL and is young, or the older guy who didn't play?"

The former player, I responded.

"Damn right they would," Cottrell said. "That's why some coaches are intimidated to hire them. That's the truth. They don't want that guy around."

Added Edwards: "I've seen that happen. There's no doubt about that. That's when you're paranoid, but there are coaches like that."

Even so, Edwards conceded insurrections aren't an unfounded conspiracy theory.

"If you've got a former player in his positional meeting room, saying, 'Man, the coach doesn't know what he's talking about,' then you've got no shot as a head coach," Edwards said. "That's why you've got to be particular on who you hire."

The Patriots have a more institutional coaching staff. Their message is easy to deliver when players consider Belichick has won three Super Bowls and four conference championships in the past decade.

Rather than rely on former players, Belichick has core assistants such as offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia (28th season with New England) and running backs coach Ivan Fears (15th season).

Belichick grooms assistants from gophers into coordinators and even head coaches. A steady stream of his acolytes -- Eric Mangini, Josh McDaniels, Brian Daboll, Bill O'Brien, Matt Patricia -- got their NFL starts under Belichick with no pro playing experience.

New England's cyclical process protects organizational doctrine from outside influences. Johnson, the lone ex-player on the staff, played 10 of his 13 seasons under Belichick.

"Belichick has a certain philosophy, and you want everybody to be on the same page," Flores said. "Sometimes, when you bring in guys that have been too many other places, they're not going to be on your page because they've been trained someplace else.

"If you bring up assistants through the ranks, then they'll be trained the way you want them to be. Everybody has to buy into the same program."

At the other end of the spectrum are the Jets.

Ryan obviously values former players. Their presence on the staff contributes to the Jets being an attractive destination for free agents, and Cottrell surmises the Dolphins have noticed.

"From a coaching standpoint, he looks at the Jets and wants to catch them in the division," Cottrell said. "He thinks, 'Rex has six guys that have played the game who are coaching. Uh oh. Rex has got an advantage on me.'

"That's got to be in the back of his mind. You've got to win your division to get into the playoffs, and when you look at your coaching staff, you see you don't matchup in that area."

Or, in the case of adding Hilliard at least, maybe it was as simple as noticing the Dolphins didn't match up with Marshall.

Bryan Cox flips back to the Dolphins

February, 21, 2011
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After two years in exile, Bryan Cox is back where he belongs: the AFC East.

The Miami Dolphins on Monday announced they've hired the outspoken former linebacker to be their pass-rush coach.

Cox spent nine of his 12 NFL seasons in the AFC East. The Dolphins drafted him in the fifth round in 1991. He went to three Pro Bowls in his five years with them. He played two seasons for the Chicago Bears, three for the New York Jets and one with the New England Patriots, helping them win their first Super Bowl.

Cox infamously delivered the double-bird salute to fans of the only AFC East team he didn't play for, gesturing to Buffalo Bills faithful before a 1993 game in Orchard Park. The act was shown live on national television. The NFL fined him $10,000.

He finished his playing career with the New Orleans Saints in 2002 and broke into coaching in 2006 as a Jets defensive line assistant under Eric Mangini. Cox handled the same position for Mangini with the Cleveland Browns the past two seasons.

Bill Parcells told the Jets to hire Rex Ryan

January, 19, 2011
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A few weeks ago, there was a bit of an uproar in South Florida over a report the San Francisco 49ers wanted to seek Bill Parcells' counsel regarding their organizational direction.

Dolfans didn't like the idea of Parcells helping another NFL team while he's still drawing a paycheck from the Miami Dolphins as a consultant.

Would it make Dolfans feel any better that two years ago -- while still a full-fledged executive vice president with an office, parking spot, secretary and access to free office supplies -- Parcells advised the New York Jets to hire Rex Ryan?

ESPNNewYork.com columnist Ian O'Connor caught up with Parcells to revisit that moment and other thoughts on Ryan's success. Ryan has reached the AFC Championship Game in each of his first two seasons as Jets head coach.

Parcells said he probably would have hired Ryan on the spot for the Dolphins had he not been so close to Tony Sparano, who served on Parcells' staff with the Dallas Cowboys.

The Dolphins won the AFC East title in Sparano's first season, but they have gone 7-9 back-to-back years and tried to replace Sparano with Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh two weeks ago.

"I was very impressed with Rex when I met with him," Parcells told O'Connor. "I could just sense that, 'Hey, this guy's going to have a chance.' "

He was so impressed that when Jets general manager Mike Tannenbaum approached him for guidance upon firing Eric Mangini at the end of the 2008 season, Parcells recommended Ryan for the job -- even though the Dolphins would face him twice a year.

"I enjoy his personality," Parcells told me two months after the Jets hired Ryan. "I think he's a real football guy. Football is very, very important to him. Those are the kinds of guys that I like.

"I'm happy he got a chance to be a head coach. He's good. You've got to welcome competition. That's the way it is. It's a highly competitive industry. I like to see young guys get a chance."

Parcells also recalled what he declared "my saddest day in professional football," when he guided the Jets to the AFC Championship Game and had a 10-0 lead in the third quarter before succumbing to John Elway and the Denver Broncos.

Parcells compared that defeat to the top-seeded New England Patriots' stunning elimination Sunday.

"It was such a devastating loss, it's hard to explain how I felt," Parcells said. "I'm sure it's how Bill Belichick felt last Sunday. I'm sure every coach gets to a place where you think you can go to the next spot, and you don't get to go. It takes a lot of blood to get back there, and those windows can close fast."

Pennington lauds Daboll, wants to play

January, 17, 2011
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Miami Dolphins backup quarterback Chad Pennington gave his endorsement for their new offensive coordinator and said he intends to play another season despite a fourth surgery on his throwing shoulder.

Pennington
Pennington
Pennington told Palm Beach Post reporter Ben Volin that Brian Daboll had a major impact on his development as a quarterback and was influential in teaching Pennington how to read a defense, instruction Dolphins starter Chad Henne certainly could benefit from.

Daboll was New York Jets quarterbacks coach in 2007 and 2008, encompassing Pennington's last year with them and Brett Favre's stopover.

"A lot of the coverage knowledge that I have and understanding defenses comes from Brian," Pennington said. "The year I spent with him, I just learned so much about how defenses attack offenses and all of the nuances of coverage that I didn't understand before."

Daboll was a low-level defensive aide to New England Patriots defensive backs coach Eric Mangini for two seasons before head coach Bill Belichick promoted Daboll to receivers coach. Daboll followed Mangini to the Jets and then the Cleveland Browns, where Daboll was offensive coordinator the past two seasons.

"He made me a better quarterback and helped make me become a quarterback who not only understood what I was doing, but how to do it, and why, why we are running certain plays and why we were attacking certain coverages the way we were," Pennington said.

Previous offensive coordinator Dan Henning retired. Quarterbacks coach David Lee left to become offensive coordinator at Ole Miss.

As for Pennington's future, he told Volin he will extend his career if his shoulder holds up through yet another rehabilitation. Pennington is the only two-time Comeback Player of the Year winner in league history.

"I'm going to make a run at it, and the reason I am is that I still have that fire inside," Pennington said. "I have to go out and see if my shoulder can respond. If it doesn't respond, I can live with that. But if it does, or it could have responded and I didn't give it a chance, I don't think I could live with that."

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