AFC East: Michael Turner

Observations on the Dolphins

August, 13, 2011
8/13/11
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Observations on the Miami Dolphins' 28-23 preseason win against the Atlanta Falcons.

More required from Henne: I have been in the Dolphins’ corner all offseason on their approach at the quarterback position: Build the supporting cast around Chad Henne and give him another chance to succeed. His game versus Atlanta didn’t help his cause at all. His first pass of the night was well behind Anthony Fasano, who could not handle it. John Abraham, who dropped into coverage on a zone blitz, intercepted it. It wasn’t as though Henne was confused by the scheme or under a lot of pressure in the pocket. He just missed an easy, short throw to his tight end. His second first-quarter interception also was released from a clean pocket. In this case, it looked as though he just was unable to fit the ball in over the cornerback (Brent Grimes, who made the interception) and in front of the safety in what was most likely a Cover 2 look. That won’t do. I wonder how much the Dolphins fans attending training camp will boo Henne now. To his credit, Henne did improve after throwing the second interception, although he was facing many of the Falcons’ backup defenders.

Miami was the inferior team: When the starters were playing, it was pretty clear the Falcons are the better team. There is no shame in that for the Dolphins, because Atlanta is clearly one of the top few teams in the NFL. But Miami was beaten in just about all areas when both team’s best players were on the field. After Henne’s opening interception, the Falcons totally owned Miami’s defense and promptly made the score 7-0 in dominant fashion.

Line play: I have been singing the praises of Miami’s defensive line this entire offseason. It faced a stiff test against a rugged and well-coached Falcons’ front five that returns four of five starters from a year ago. Atlanta is not especially athletic, but boasts one of the best offensive lines in the league. Miami’s defensive front did not offer much resistance against the Falcons’ downhill power running game. Michael Turner had too many holes to run through.

Offensive tackles: Because the great Jake Long is injured, Miami started Lydon Murtha at left tackle. Newly signed Marc Colombo started on the right side, and Vernon Carey slid in to right guard. Ray Edwards didn’t play for the Falcons, but Atlanta -- led by Abraham -- is still pretty strong at defensive end. Murtha and Colombo are not an athletic pair at all, and they were far from perfect. But they played better than I had expected. Murtha had a tougher outing than Colombo, which is not a surprise. I still have my doubts about Colombo as a starter.

Nolan didn’t show much: This isn’t an excuse for the Dolphins’ front to get abused by simple downhill run plays, but it was pretty clear after watching this game that Mike Nolan didn’t want to put a lot of his defensive playbook on tape. There were very few blitzes and little pre-snap movement. The top guys on the Dolphins’ defense didn’t play a lot of snaps in this contest. The depth of the Dolphins’ defense did show up well as the game went along. I am still very confident that Miami will have one of the best defenses in football this season.

Running back rankings and how I do them

March, 15, 2011
3/15/11
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ESPN.com debuted its positional power rankings series last week with wide receivers. The two articles I wrote about my ballot (and my breakdown of the AFC East) sparked lively discussions about my process.

Readers demanded to know my criteria. My explanation seemed to chafe a few. I stated that my ballot simply reflected my personal taste about how they performed last season.

Stats are a part of equation. They must be to an extent. But if I wanted to go purely on stats, then I would post a link to ESPN.com's fantasy leaders.

I steer clear of metrics. You can pick and choose a specific mathematical equation and make it support any case -- even though you might be comparing a slot receiver catching passes from an elite quarterback to a No. 1 receiver who's constantly double covered on a run-oriented offense. Can't do it.

In the end, it comes down to subjective judgment. Feel free to disagree. An exchange of ideas is the whole point. I don't need to agree with you, and you don't need to accept my list as gospel. Agents won't use the AFC East blog in contract negotiations. The Pro Football Hall of Fame won't use my power rankings to determine induction.

In response to a question about underrated Buffalo Bills running back Cookie Gilchrist for the documentary "Full Color Football: The History of the American Football League," legendary runner Jim Brown summed up my sentiments.

"Who gets compared to me and all of that, I couldn't care less about," Brown said. "I don't compare a rose to a petunia. They both have their own kind of beauty. It all depends on what you prefer."

And for those who require statistical reasoning, I share with you a quote another Cleveland Browns Hall of Famer told me a couple months ago for a story about Andre Reed's induction hopes.

"Our game is beginning to resemble baseball in which everyone is looking at numbers," said Paul Warfield, a member of the undefeated 1972 Miami Dolphins team. "Numbers tell the story to a degree, but I like to look at one's full body of work. You're supposed to be able to do a lot of things.

"As a receiver, catching the ball is primary and important. But I don't think it takes very much skill or maneuverability to step a couple yards off the line of scrimmage and someone pops you with a pass several times."

So, as you peruse my ballots the next several Tuesdays, that's where I'm coming from.

This week's power rankings position is running back.

My ballot:
  1. Adrian Peterson, Minnesota Vikings
  2. Chris Johnson, Tennessee Titans
  3. Jamaal Charles, Kansas City Chiefs
  4. Arian Foster, Houston Texans
  5. Maurice Jones-Drew, Jacksonville Jaguars
  6. Ray Rice, Baltimore Ravens
  7. Michael Turner, Atlanta Falcons
  8. Rashard Mendenhall, Pittsburgh Steelers
  9. Peyton Hillis, Cleveland Browns
  10. Darren McFadden, Oakland Raiders

The most obvious omission was St. Louis Rams running back Steven Jackson. I thought long and hard about including him, but I couldn't talk myself into it. Jackson scored only six touchdowns and had little impact in the passing game. Of the 17 backs who rushed for 1,000 yards, his 3.8 yards per carry were better than only Cedric Benson's average.

Some might point out that defenses girded up to remove Jackson from the game, but there are other runners on that list who had worse quarterback situations than the Rams did. I think people still see Jackson as the all-around superstar from 2006.

Hillis was another tough call because of his fumbles. But he was Cleveland's entire offense. Opponents still couldn't stop him. He also added 61 receptions for another 477 yards and a couple touchdowns, numbers that get overlooked.

I'll come back later Tuesday with a ranking of AFC East backs.

How I See It: AFC East Stock Watch

September, 29, 2009
9/29/09
11:00
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NFC Stock Watch: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Graham


Falling

1. Chad Pennington, Dolphins: All the guy wanted to do was stay healthy for consecutive seasons, something he hadn't done since 2002-03. Sadly, Pennington didn't get his wish. Last year's Comeback Player of the Year and runner-up to Peyton Manning for league MVP probably is done for the season because of another injury to his throwing shoulder.

Pennington faces a potentially career-threatening situation. His right shoulder has been operated on twice already and likely will need to undergo the knife again. He will be 34 years old before the start of next season.

2. Terrell Owens, Bills: For the first time in 186 games, Owens failed to catch a pass in Sunday's lopsided loss to the New Orleans Saints. Fans went gaga over the Bills' decision to sign Owens. They gobbled up tickets. A crazed horde famously turned out at Buffalo Niagara International Airport, where one lunatic dressed up as a popcorn box to welcome Owens.

Yet through three games, Owens ranks fifth on the team with five receptions for 98 yards and one touchdown. Running back Fred Jackson has three times as many catches. Tight end Derek Schouman didn't play Sunday and is out for the season, but he has almost double Owens' total.

3. Thomas Jones, Jets: In Week 1, the numbers looked appropriate for last year's AFC rushing leader. Jones ran 20 times for 107 yards and two touchdowns. But 77 of those yards were gained on two fourth-quarter plays. Extract them, and he averaged 1.7 yards per attempt.

His next outings haven't been much better. Jones carried 14 times each of the past two games, gaining 54 and 20 yards.
Photo by Elsa/Getty Images
Fred Taylor gives New England's rushing attack a much-needed jolt.


Rising

1. Fred Taylor, Patriots: Finally, the Patriots effectively ran the ball. After a couple of weeks in which quarterback Tom Brady aired it out 100 times, the Patriots insisted upon running against the Atlanta Falcons.

Laurence Maroney, the starter in Weeks 2 and 3, left the game with a thigh injury in the second quarter. Taylor carried the load by rushing for more yards in the first half than any Patriots back had gained in each of the first two games. Taylor finished with 105 yards and a touchdown.

2. Mark Sanchez, Jets: One solid game could be happenstance. Two solid games might be coincidence. But three in a row establishes a standard. I guess Jets fans should expect the rookie to perform well every week.

In a 24-17 victory over the Tennessee Titans, Sanchez demonstrated some youthful exuberance that needs to be reigned in a tad, but he once again played more like a four-year pro than a 22-year-old. He completed 17 of 30 passes for 171 yards and two touchdowns with one interception. Sanchez also scored on a spectacular -- albeit reckless -- 14-yard run.

3. Brandon McGowan, Patriots: When the Patriots signed him as a free agent, he appeared to be a depth player and special-teamer. McGowan not only has been starting, but he also has been a factor.

With Sunday's game tied at 10, McGowan forced Falcons back Michael Turner to cough up the ball on the Patriots' 31-yard line. It was a key play that prevented the Falcons from asserting themselves. They didn't score again. McGowan also was a significant reason why future Hall of Fame tight end Tony Gonzalez was limited to one catch for 16 yards.

Take your pick: Patriots or Falcons O?

September, 24, 2009
9/24/09
6:05
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Getty Images
Who would you rather have on offense -- Atlanta's Matt Ryan and his array of weapons or Tom Brady & Co. in New England?

Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Graham


A Sunday afternoon showdown will feature an offense that was one of the NFL's greatest in 2007 and another that might be the most balanced this year.

The New England Patriots will host the Atlanta Falcons in Gillette Stadium.

Which offense would you rather have?

The Patriots essentially have the same offense that shredded the record book two years ago. The quarterback, running backs, top two receivers, offensive line and tight end are the same -- and they've added Fred Taylor and tight end Chris Baker -- but they sure haven't recaptured the aura through the first couple of games.

The Falcons, meanwhile, are a formidable team on the rise, with weapons at every position.

Quarterback: Tom Brady, despite his shaky play so far, still is one of the NFL's elite quarterbacks.

Falcons sophomore Matt Ryan represents the future.

Running back: The Patriots have a committee of Laurence Maroney, Taylor, Kevin Faulk, Sammy Morris and BenJarvus Green-Ellis.

The Falcons aren't as deep, but All-Pro Michael Turner is their feature back. Jerious Norwood is a respectable backup.

Receiver: The Patriots' depth chart looks loaded. Randy Moss, Wes Welker, Joey Galloway and Julian Edelman. But Welker has been banged up, and Galloway has been ineffective.

Atlanta has Roddy White, Michael Jenkins and Marty Booker. Not nearly as inspiring a unit, but White is a game-breaker.

Tight end: Benjamin Watson has been sensational some games, but invisible in others during his time in New England. He's also frequently hurt. Baker started in Week 2, but he hasn't shown much after a promising camp.

Future Hall of Famer Tony Gonzalez has integrated himself nicely in Atlanta's offense. He leads the club with 12 catches for 144 yards and two touchdowns.

Offensive line: The Patriots have three linemen (left tackle Matt Light, left guard Logan Mankins, center Dan Koppen) who've made a Pro Bowl. Right guard Stephen Neal is a capable right guard, while right tackle Nick Kaczur could eventually lose his gig to rookie Sebastian Vollmer.

Atlanta's crew is more anonymous (nobody made the Pro Bowl last year), but it did pave the way for Turner to rush for 1,699 yards last year and reduced the number of sacks allowed from 47 two years ago to 17.

Pennington passed over for MVP

January, 2, 2009
1/02/09
12:51
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Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Graham

DAVIE, Fla. -- This isn't an egregious error like the one committed for the Pro Bowl.

Whereas Brett Favre didn't warrant a trip to Honolulu ahead of Chad Pennington, it's difficult to argue Peyton Manning didn't deserve the MVP award.

Pennington

Manning won in a landslide. The Indianapolis Colts quarterback received 32 votes, way ahead of Pennington and Atlanta Falcons running back Michael Turner, who finished tied for second with four votes apiece.

The Miami Dolphins would not have won 11 games or qualified for the playoffs if Pennington hadn't come aboard in training camp. The New York Jets released Pennington to make room for Favre, and the Dolphins couldn't have been more thrilled.

"He's vital to this team. He really is," Dolphins coach Tony Sparano said. "With Chad coming in here and doing what he's done right now, he [has brought] a bunch of people together."

Players knew Pennington would be their captain before his first practice was over. He was that sharp, that smart, that charismatic.

Had Pennington not been available, the Dolphins would've used journeyman Josh McCown or rookie Chad Henne. Neither was dazzling in early practices. Henne might have had the edge.

"I love Chad, and I love the Jets for deciding to get rid of him," Dolphins linebacker Channing Crowder said.

(Read full post)

Coach of the year debate

December, 25, 2008
12/25/08
12:00
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  US Presswire
  Mike Smith, John Harbaugh and Tony Sparano are standout rookie head coaches. Does one merit coach of year?.

Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Graham, James Walker and Pat Yasinskas

The debate over who should be the NFL's coach of the year begins with three rookies who assumed control of woebegone teams and brought them back to relevancy.

Atlanta Falcons coach Mike Smith, Miami Dolphins coach Tony Sparano and Baltimore Ravens coach John Harbaugh have been sideline miracle workers. The Falcons already have clinched a playoff berth. On Sunday, the Dolphins can claim the AFC East, and the Ravens can clinch the final wild-card berth.

ESPN.com bloggers Pat Yasinskas, Tim Graham and James Walker discuss whom is more deserving of the award, breaking down the debate into the three significant issues: team infrastructure, personnel at their disposal and obliterating expectations.

Which coach had to deal with the most daunting organizational strife?

Tim Graham: The Dolphins blew themselves up at the start of the year. Bill Parcells arrived late in 2007 and didn't see much he liked from a team about to miss the playoffs a seventh straight season. The team was going through the motions of a 1-15 campaign that was even more ridiculously bad than the record indicated. So the Dolphins started from scratch. Parcells fired the general manager, the head coach and got rid of all the captains.

Tony Sparano became the fifth head coach in the past five years, taking over a team that hadn't recorded double-digit wins since the glorious Jay Fiedler era. Dolphins owner Wayne Huizenga, meanwhile, was unloading a good portion of the team, creating a widespread uneasiness at the Davie, Fla., headquarters even in the offices outside of the football operations department.

A good time was not being had by all.

Pat Yasinskas: Sorry fellas, but this one's not even a contest. Yeah, the Ravens and Dolphins had their problems. But let's face it, at the end of last year, the Falcons were the most dysfunctional franchise in the history of football. Their franchise quarterback, Michael Vick, had just gone off to jail.

Their coach, Bobby Petrino, had walked out on them for a more talented roster at the University of Arkansas. The city, which never truly embraced the Falcons, now turned its back on them completely. Even Rich McKay, the team's general manager, president and perhaps only lingering thread of sanity, got pushed out of the football side and into the business side of things. Then owner Arthur Blank did the most daring thing of all and hired Mike Smith, who had never been a head coach before, and Thomas Dimitroff, who had never been a general manager before. It looked as if it was going to be a classic case of the blind leading the blind.

James Walker: Let me add this, Pat and Tim. Much is being made of Miami's 1-15 record last year, but keep in mind which team that victory came against. Yes, it was the Baltimore Ravens. That was a rock-bottom moment, not only for the season but I think for the 12-year history of the franchise.

Baltimore's biggest issue moving forward was where it would go from there. The Ravens' situation was unique in that they had to consider what type of transition to make.

Was Baltimore in need of a complete overhaul or just retooling? Sometimes, that's harder to accomplish in the NFL than what the Dolphins and Falcons did by completely starting over. Those two teams at least knew their direction early on.

The Ravens had to tread a more delicate path in bringing in some new coaches such as Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Cam Cameron, while keeping others such as defensive coordinator Rex Ryan. They brought in some new players to help certain spots and trusted others to bounce back, either from injury or poor performance.

Baltimore also traded down in the draft to land more picks and first-round quarterback Joe Flacco, who was a bigger unknown than Matt Ryan or Jake Long. So there were certainly some issues with the Ravens. It just happened that Baltimore general manager Ozzie Newsome pushed most of the right buttons.



TG: Excellent points, James. You make an intriguing case for the Ravens in this area that I didn't think could be made compared to the Falcons or Dolphins. Mediocrity sometimes is harder to overcome than wretchedness, and the Ravens seemed stuck in neutral.

But let me remind everybody that Cameron was the Dolphins' head coach last year and ran their offense. He also had a huge say in personnel, which included the ill-fated addition of quarterback Trent Green and drafting return specialist Ted Ginn with the ninth overall pick. Cameron has returned to genius status with the Ravens. I think that speaks not to some sort of professional rebirth as much as it does that the infrastructure that was in place. There already was decent talent on the roster and good football people in the front office to lean on. The Dolphins didn't have an Ozzie Newsome.

As for the Falcons, do you mean to tell me, Pat, that overcoming all those travails you outlined are a big deal? Puh-lease. Teams handle that sort of turmoil every year, don't they? OK, maybe not.

PY: All right, I'm going to move on with how the Falcons began to rebuild their infrastructure and this brings up what seems like a very subtle point, but, as much as anything aside from drafting Matt Ryan and signing Michael Turner, it has been a key for the dramatic turnaround. Quite simply, Mike Smith put together an all-star team as a coaching staff.

He got former head coach Mike Mularkey to be the offensive coordinator, quarterback teacher Bill Musgrave to work with Matt Ryan (before the Falcons even knew they had Ryan) and kept defensive backs coach Emmitt Thomas on staff. That was hugely important because Thomas was the guy who coached the team when Petrino left and the players trusted him. Smith completed the roster by getting veteran position coaches such as Paul Boudreau, who has taken very ordinary talent on the offensive line and kept Ryan standing upright and opened all sorts of holes for Turner.

It was kind of the same with Dimitroff, who knew a lot about evaluating players, but had never negotiated a contract. People like to say McKay is completel
y out of the football end of things and assume there's a rift between him and the guy who filled his general manager duties. But that's just not the case. McKay's one of the smartest people in the NFL and it makes some sense to at least let him keep a hand in the football side. McKay's the one who did Ryan's contract and he has been guiding Dimitroff and his staff on other contracts. From what was a totally dysfunctional organization, the Falcons have patched together one that now works very smoothly with good people in every spot.

JW: The Ravens, more than anything, needed a culture change. I think that should definitely be considered when it comes time to vote.

Harbaugh had to come in and quickly tear down the relaxed, country-club atmosphere that Brian Billick left behind. The training camps were harder. The practices were more up tempo, and when you have a lot of strong-minded veterans that were there before the head coach, that can become dicey.

But the leaders in Baltimore's locker room bought into Harbaugh's message early and everyone else fell in line. Once that happened, it was no longer Billick's team. Winning early also helped, but this situation had the potential to be a major challenge that Harbaugh defused early on.

I don't think either Smith or Sparano faced the same issues, because those rosters were gutted and infused with youthful players who were easier to mold.


Which coach coped with the worst personnel entering the season?

PY: I remember standing at Falcons training camp and thinking, "This is not an NFL team." I looked out and saw Keith Brooking, John Abraham and Lawyer Milloy as the only big names, and they're all closing in on the end of their careers. The cupboard appeared to be absolutely bare.

I know everyone likes to think the Michael Vick thing is what left the Falcons so short-handed. It really wasn't. When Smith and Dimitroff came in, one of the first things they did was to gut the roster. They unloaded big names such as DeAngelo Hall, Alge Crumpler and Warrick Dunn, so a bad roster suddenly looked even worse. Back on that day in training camp, I played a little game and asked myself how many Falcons could start for another team? My answer was brief -- Abraham and fullback Ovie Mughelli. That's it.

JW: The Ravens had good personnel, but much of it was aging. Baltimore entered the season with seven starters with at least 10 years of experience, and many of those key players were coming off injuries the year before.

So although Harbaugh had veterans such as Ray Lewis, Samari Rolle and Trevor Pryce, the big unknown was how would they hold up for a 16-game season. The Ravens have had injuries this year but they've been fortunate for the most part with their older players, and it's one of the reasons they are having a winning season.

Even though Miami beat Baltimore last year, I would still say the Dolphins' personnel was considered the thinnest coming in. Would you agree, Tim?

TG: Oh, the Dolphins looked thinner than Manute Bol in pinstripes. What strikes me most when reflecting on Miami's training camp was the dearth of significant names on either side of scrimmage. A casual NFL fan couldn't name five guys on their roster, and the most well-known players came with serious question marks.

Ronnie Brown was returning from season-ending knee surgery. His backfield mate, Ricky Williams, is 31 years old and a known head case. Joey Porter was viewed as the NFL's most egregious free-agency error of 2007. Even Chad Pennington, once he arrived, was considered a washout just clinging to a career. Before leading target Greg Camarillo suffered a knee injury in Week 12, Miami's game-day receiving corps consisted of only one player who had been drafted, Ted Ginn. And he's considered a bust by most Dolfans.


PY: With such poor personnel, Smith and Dimitroff knew they had to work their tails off to rebuild the roster. It looked as if it might take a couple of years for them to assemble a roster capable of even challenging for the playoffs. Obviously, they've moved far ahead of schedule and that's because they were lucky and good as they went about the process. The first piece of the puzzle was signing Turner. He was viewed as the biggest prize in free agency, so why would he want to go to a team like the Falcons?

After four seasons of playing in the shadows of LaDainian Tomlinson in San Diego, Turner was looking for a place where he could be "the guy." The Falcons told him they'd give him 20 or 30 carries a game. They had him show up at an Arena Football League game and the crowd went nuts. If that didn't make Turner feel welcome enough, the Falcons wouldn't let him leave the building without signing a contract.

As good as Ryan has turned out, it was still a gamble to take any quarterback with the third overall pick and start him right away. But Dimitroff did an enormous amount of homework on Ryan and firmly believed he was exactly whom the Falcons needed to be their new quarterback and face of the franchise. Dimitroff's draft preparation didn't stop there. He traded back into the first round to get left tackle Sam Baker to protect Ryan's blindside, got a defensive quarterback in middle linebacker Curtis Lofton in the second and a third receiver and return man in Harry Douglas in the third. Those four rookies plus defensive back Chevis Jackson each have played huge roles in the turnaround.

JW: Pat and Tim, let me end this with a quick story that relates to both of your teams.

I live in Cleveland and attended the rookie orientation at the Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio for both of these teams. I was working on a story this summer and picked the brains of about a half-dozen rookies that day such as Long, Chad Henne, Ryan and Baker, and I got the sense early that these were respectful, mature players that appreciated the opportunity to play in the NFL. So I'm not surprised Atlanta and Miami have young talent playing beyond their years.

But what was funny was the number of players that were brought in. The orientation was for rookies only, but I remember thinking the Dolphins and Falcons brought their entire 53-man rosters to Canton. There were at least 15 rookies and undrafted free agents coming off the bus from each team, and it could have been closer to 20 players.

Obviously some rookies and rookie free agents never made it past training camp, but it illustrates the point you two were making about gutting the rosters. In that respect, Miami and Atlanta definitely had a farther starting point than the Ravens.


Which coach prompted the lowest expectations?

JW: Without a doubt, all three teams and coaches came in with question marks. Most experts picked the Dolphins, Falcons and Ravens to finish either third or last in their respective divisions at the beginning of the season. But in terms of coaches, Harbaugh was the biggest unknown.

Two years ago Harbaugh was a longtime special teams coach for the Philadelphia Eagles. He was promoted to secondary coach under Philadelphia's Andy Reid for one year before impressing the Ravens enough to lead their team.

There were certainly doubters locally and nationally. The biggest question was can a coach that spent most of his career running special teams handle all the strong personalities as the leader of the Ravens? But Harbaugh had the charisma and intensity to pull it off and was very smart to put together an A-list staff of assistants to back him.

As far as the team, no one knew what to expect from Baltimore. Were the Ravens a five-win team of 2007 or the 13-win team of '06? Maybe they were somewhere in between?

With decent quarterback play, I felt this team could win seven or eight games this year. My prediction was higher than most, but the Ravens have far exceeded even my expectations.

PY: If the expectations in Detroit this year were what they were in Atlanta, Matt Millen would still have a job and Rod Marinelli would be viewed as a decent coach. Seriously, after what happened to the Falcons last year, there were no expectations in Atlanta. Three or four wins and less than three major off-field controversies would have been considered a nice season. People were hoping the Braves went deep enough into the playoffs that there wouldn't be much gap before the Hawks started playing some preseason games because, as far as Falcons fans were concerned, there was going to be no reason to watch the Falcons.

In large part, I think that turned out to be a good thing. The incredibly low expectations allowed the Falcons to decide to start Ryan from Day One because fans wouldn't have the lofty expectations for him that they usually do for a first-round quarterback. Ryan didn't have to start the season under a microscope and that gave him a chance to get comfortable in a hurry. Even at midseason, Atlanta fans still were looking at the Falcons with guarded optimism. It has only been in recent weeks that people have started to even think about the playoffs.

TG: James, I have to disagree with you that Harbaugh was the most unknown of the new coaches. People at least knew him by his last name, his father being a well-known college coach and his brother playing NFL quarterback before embarking on a coaching career of his own. People still think the name of the new Dolphins coach is Tony Soprano.

As for expectations, no sane individual ever would have predicted Miami would finish with double-digit wins or be in position to make the playoffs in Week 17. But that was no more unfathomable than what's transpired in Atlanta.

But here's where Sparano will be taken for granted when it comes time for people to consider coach-of-the-year honors. Parcells, with his mere presence, inflated expectations. Fans weren't bold enough to consider an AFC title, but seven or eight wins was within the realm of possibility. And when people judge Miami's turnaround, the first person they will give credit to is Parcells.

JW: Tony Sparano had the catchy name, he was a Parcells guy, and he came from "America's Team," the Dallas Cowboys. By the time he was hired in Miami, he was on the radar of sports fans. Harbaugh's hiring had people looking through media guides to double-check his pedigree.

We'll just have to agree to disagree, Tim.

But speaking of taking things for granted, let's not overlook the strength of schedule the Ravens had coming into the season. Baltimore had the fifth-toughest schedule in the league that included non-division opponents such as the Tennessee Titans (13-2), Indianapolis Colts (11-4) and the entire NFC East division.

Although some things changed during the course of a season, Atlanta entered the year with the No. 21-rated schedule and Miami's was No. 23.

Baltimore is in control of its playoff chances this week, in part because it went 3-1 against the NFC East, which is a mark the Dolphins and Falcons probably couldn't match if given the chance. Also, if head-to-head meetings have anything to do with coach of the year voting, Harbaugh and the Ravens did go into Miami and beat the Dolphins by two touchdowns in Week 7.

PY: James and Tim, I think we can all agree none of these three guys were household names in comparison to some of the veteran head coaches. But Harbaugh did have the bloodlines of his father and brother and was well-known as one of the league's top special-teams coaches. Sparano wasn't an unknown because the assistants in Dallas are as well known as head coaches most places. Smith was easily the least known of the trio of new coaches.

He'd been a coordinator in Jacksonville, where media attention is minimal, and he spent a bunch of years coaching in some small stops through the college ranks. The only area where Smith stood out was the fact he was tremendously ordinary. Even his name is ordinary.

I remember at the NFL owners' meeting last spring, ESPN's Michael Smith and I had breakfast with Smith. They were joking about having the same names. I remember thinking, "My television colleague is the more famous of these two." With apologies to Michael Smith, it's no longer that way. Mike Smith has become famous because he is the Coach of the Year.

TG: Mike Smith sounds like the name people use when they check into motels that charge by the hour, and I wondered if his coaching career would be measured in the same increments given the circumstances he was headed into.

But when you look at the turnaround of each club, the Dolphins have been the most dramatic. Sparano has overseen one of the biggest one-season improvements in NFL history. No one-victory team has won 10 games the next season, and the Dolphins could finish with 11 and a playoff berth, another unprecedented feat.

The Falcons' and Ravens' turnarounds have been remarkable, but the Dolphins' has been historic.

Is Ronnie Brown NFL's best RB?

October, 16, 2008
10/16/08
8:26
PM ET
Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Graham

Who is the NFL's best running back?

With all due respect to Clinton Portis and Adrian Peterson and Michael Turner and Frank Gore and Brandon Jacobs and all the rest, Ronnie Brown was my pick when asked by ESPN to name the best in the biz.

Mike Sando stated the case for Portis, Matt Mosley for Peterson and Pat Yasinskas for Turner. You can read the stories here.

After about 21,500 ballots cast so far in this week's NFL Hot Read poll, only about 16 percent of voters agree with me. Portis has received 30 percent of the vote, and Peterson 26 percent.

Take a moment to vote, and then drop your comments right here.

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