AFC East: Trent Green
The quarterback who failed in Miami and haplessly produced some of the signature moments of the 1-15 season apparently is Mike Shanahan's choice to start for the Washington Redskins.
"NFL Live" took a look at Beck's rise to prominence. ESPN's Adam Schefter, who has a close working relationship with Shanahan, reported Beck "will go into camp as the Washington Redskins' quarterback, barring the unforeseen."
The Dolphins drafted Beck 40th overall in 2007. He was considered their quarterback of the future and was supposed to develop behind Trent Green and Cleo Lemon. Injuries and ineptitude eventually forced Beck into the starting lineup. He went 0-4. He threw one touchdown and three interceptions.
Bill Parcells formed a new front office and the Dolphins dumped Beck after the 2008 season.
The Baltimore Ravens signed Beck, reuniting him with offensive coordinator Cam Cameron, the Dolphins' head coach when they drafted Beck. The Ravens traded him to the Redskins last year.
But what if -- as Miami Herald columnist Armando Salguero wondered Tuesday -- Beck performs well for Washington? The Dolphins have been hurting at quarterback for years. Chad Henne doesn't look like the answer. They used a second-round pick on Pat White and cut him a year later.
How much should the Dolphins dread the possibility of Beck proving them wrong?
Since Dan Marino's retirement, they've drafted duds (John Beck, Pat White), passed on studs (Drew Brees, Matt Ryan) and chased scuds (Daunte Culpepper, Trent Green).
Monday on the AFC East blog, I wondered where the Dolphins would be had they chosen Ryan first overall in 2008 instead of left tackle Jake Long.
Luis DeLoureiro of NFLStatsAnalysis.net also examined the Dolphins' ongoing quarterback woes for a piece on "The Fifth Down" blog at NYTimes.com.
Chad Henne certainly hasn't looked like the answer. The Dolphins this upcoming offseason probably will resume their decade-long search for the most important player on their roster.
DeLoureiro noted the Dolphins are one of only seven NFL teams to have avoided drafting a quarterback in the first round since 1998. The others are the New England Patriots, Carolina Panthers, Dallas Cowboys, Kansas City Chiefs, New Orleans Saints and Seattle Seahawks. All except the Dolphins and Panthers have their man identified.
Counting on Tom Brady- or Tony Romo-type luck isn't a sound organizational strategy.
DeLoureiro pointed out the Dolphins have preferred to spend second-round picks on quarterbacks. They did so five straight drafts, trading for A.J. Feeley and Culpepper and then selecting Beck, Henne and White.
A dozen quarterbacks have been drafted in the second round since 2001. Henne and Jimmy Clausen are the only two starting for the teams that took them. Kordell Stewart and Jake Plummer are the only two second-round quarterbacks to have a degree of success since 1990.
For almost 20 years, Dan Marino was the face of the Dolphins. Although he didn’t win a title, he broke just about every significant single-season and career passing record. One would think that, more than anyone, the Dolphins would understand the value of a franchise quarterback. But the team has opted to avoid the risk involved with first-round quarterbacks. Unfortunately, they have also lost out on the reward that comes with first-round quarterbacks.
With Tyler Thigpen about to become the Miami Dolphins' third starting quarterback of the season, it's time to dust off that long list of quarterbacks to have started since Dan Marino hung up that weird boxing-boot cleat after the 1999 season.
Thigpen will be the 15th quarterback to start a game for Miami since Marino retired.
Only twice in those 11 seasons has a quarterback started all 16 games. Those "perfect seasons" came seven years and 11 new starting quarterbacks apart. The Bills at least had Drew Bledsoe starting 48 straight games from 2002 through 2004.
This will be the fourth season in which at least three quarterbacks started for the Dolphins since Marino retired.
2000: Jay Fiedler (15), Damon Huard (one)
2001: Fiedler (16)
2002: Fielder (10), Ray Lucas (six)
2003: Fiedler (11), Brian Griese (five)
2004: A.J. Feeley (eight), Fiedler (seven), Sage Rosenfels (one)
2005: Gus Frerotte (15), Rosenfels (one)
2006: Joey Harrington (11), Daunte Culpepper (four), Cleo Lemon (one)
2007: Lemon (seven), Trent Green (five), John Beck (four)
2008: Chad Pennington (16)
2009: Chad Henne (13), Pennington (three)
2010: Henne (eight), Pennington (one)
He watched his teammates go bonkers in celebration. They jumped. They hugged. They raised their fists -- even a few index fingers -- in self salute.
The Miami Dolphins hadn't won just any game. They had won their first game. It was Week 15.
"I remember watching how crazy we were acting out there," said Holliday, the veteran defensive tackle. "I don't know if people could really appreciate it. If you weren't a part of that team or one of those guys who went out every day and worked as hard as we did to get it, you wouldn't understand it."
"That was just one win, but it was our Super Bowl."
The power of one victory is immense.
Members of that '07 Dolphins team know what the Buffalo Bills are going through this year -- and then some.
The Bills are the NFL's only winless team. They're 0-8 heading into Sunday's game against the Detroit Lions in Ralph Wilson Stadium.
The '07 Dolphins lost their first 13 games before they pulled out a dramatic victory, beating the Baltimore Ravens when undrafted quarterback Cleo Lemon connected with undrafted receiver Greg Camarillo for a 64-yard touchdown in sudden death. Camarillo hadn't scored a touchdown since high school.
That's how thin the Dolphins' margin for error was.
"That day, we made a play," said Lemon, now playing for the Toronto Argonauts of the Canadian Football League. "It was a great moment. But as a professional you never want to have a season like that."
The '07 Dolphins lost six games by a field goal that year. The Bills have lost each of their past three games by three points, two of them in overtime.
Bills tight end David Martin tells his teammates how much a single "W" can wash away the pressure, the doubt, the feelings of inadequacy and the ridicule that builds with each passing defeat.
Martin played on the '07 Dolphins, too.
"One win would make a big difference," Martin said by phone Thursday from One Bills Drive. "We have a young team, and I'm sure right now it feels like we're doing all this for nothing. But one win will lift everybody's spirits.
"Every game you lose is heartbreaking. That first win in 2007 felt like the Super Bowl. That's what one win will do."
In speaking this week with some players from the '07 Dolphins, I heard them unapologetically compare winning their first game to the feeling of winning a championship. They insisted they weren't being hyperbolic.
I thought the best way to quantify achieving victory late in the season would be to ask somebody with a Stanford engineering degree. I put the question to Camarillo in algebraic terms.
If the value of any victory is "x," then what is the exponential value of a victory when a team is 0-8 or, in the '07 Dolphins' case, 0-13?
I'm not sure if Camarillo pulled out a pad of paper and a slide rule, but he paused for a few moments to weigh the equation.
"If you get it in your first five weeks, it's not that big," Camarillo said after Minnesota Vikings practice Wednesday afternoon. "When you're 0-8, it starts getting really bad. When you're 0-5, you still have time to get things rolling.
"That one win in our 14th game was the equivalent of winning 10 games. That win for us was as good as winning a playoff game."
At 0-8, Camarillo thought a victory might be worth five to the Bills.
Camarillo bemoaned that losing so many close games is mentally grueling. He sounded exhausted just talking about 2007.
Without inside knowledge of the Bills, Camarillo surmised how they're feeling right now. He said they're working hard each week, sacrificing and stressing over that first victory. To repeatedly come close and then have the game slip away on the final play -- or in the waning moments -- becomes torture.
"You go into each week actually thinking 'OK, this is going to be the week. We're going to get our victory this week,' " Camarillo said. "As the season wears on, you're still a professional. You might turn from thinking you're going to win to hoping you're going to win. But you're ready to compete.
"Then as soon as something goes wrong -- you're 0-8 and throw a pick six or fumble the ball -- you drop your head and say 'Oh, no. Here we go again.' It's that mentality that causes you to lose more games."
The '07 Dolphins dealt with greater pressure than this year's Bills are encountering. Imagine what it must've felt like to get so close to becoming the first team in NFL history to go 0-16 -- the Lions didn't pull their oh-fer until a season later -- when your franchise's claim to fame is being the only team to go undefeated and win the Super Bowl. Meanwhile, the New England Patriots were making their run at surpassing the '72 Dolphins' perfect season.
Miami was plagued by significant injuries in 2007. They lost their starting quarterback (Trent Green), best two running backs (Ronnie Brown, Ricky Williams), star linebacker (Zach Thomas) and several other starters to major injuries. They traded top receiver Chris Chambers. First-year head coach Cam Cameron seemed overmatched.
"Week in and week out ,you're the butt of the joke," said Holliday, a 13-year pro who's now in his first season with the Washington Redskins. "It gets frustrating.
"These guys are tremendous competitors, and everybody's watching. Every conversation you're having with your friends, your family, the media, the fans is about you losing. That gets very tiring."
Jay Leno already is using the Bills as a punch line in his monologues.
One victory would put an end to that. One win and the Bills go from being an obvious laughingstock to one of many, including the Dallas Cowboys, Carolina Panthers, San Francisco 49ers and others.
"If you're 1-9, they will stop talking about you and that 0-16 talk," Camarillo said. "As soon as you've won you're just a bad team. You're not the worst team."
In Western New York, however, there's an undercurrent of support for the Bills to avoid winning. Talk-radio shows, message boards and my e-mail inbox are inundated with aspirations of 0-16 to ensure the top pick in next April's draft.
For those who feel that way, know the players don't agree with you.
"If you're thinking about going 0-16, there's going to be some major changes on that team," Camarillo said. "Players aren't planning for next year because half the people won't be back."
Another recurring concept in my conversations for this story was the idea of momentum. The Dolphins didn't win again after stunning the Ravens in December 2007. They had only two more chances, though, and Cameron became a dead man coaching when Bill Parcells was hired to oversee football operations right about then.
"We have more pieces to the puzzle here," said Martin, comparing the teams. "I think when we get that first one we can string a few in a row and get that winning feeling around here."
Lemon is close friends with Bills cornerback Drayton Florence and gets the impression when speaking to his former San Diego Chargers and Jacksonville Jaguars teammate the Bills have their heads in the right place.
"These guys are fighting hard," Lemon said. "They just haven't been able to finish games and just seem to find a way to lose. Unlike us in 2007, they're healthy. They're making plays. If they can get just one win, they can easily turn it around and have a respectable season."
Even if the Bills can't win half of their remaining games and cobble together a 4-12 record, they still have something to look forward to every Sunday for the next two months.
One win at this stage won't earn the Bills any kind of trophy. But they probably will run around the field in jubilation like they'd just won the Super Bowl.
"I did feel like it, though," Holliday said with a laugh. "It felt really, really good."
John Murphy, sports director of Buffalo's CBS affiliate and the Bills' play-by-play voice, reported the Bills had two sets of candidates: realistic and idealistic.
The viable candidates Murphy listed were free agent Chan Gailey, Arizona Cardinals assistant head coach Russ Grimm, Minnesota Vikings defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier, San Diego Chargers defensive coordinator Ron Rivera and Cameron, who is currently the Baltimore Ravens' offensive coordinator.
There was no mention of New York Jets offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer, who confirmed last week the Bills requested an interview that he turned down.
Among the long-shot candidates Murphy named were free agents Bill Cowher, Jon Gruden, Mike Shanahan and Stanford head coach Jim Harbaugh.
While I'm not as down on Cameron as some folks are, you have to wonder why the Bills would be so interested. Cameron is two seasons removed from his only season as a head coach, when he went 1-15 with the Miami Dolphins and was fired.
It was a disastrous season in which the Dolphins botched the ninth overall draft pick (that's the selection the Bills have this year) by selecting Ted Ginn.
Cameron mismanaged a dicey quarterback situation, and if Bills need anything right now it's somebody who can get a handle on that position. After signing veteran free agent Trent Green to hold down the job and drafting John Beck in the second round as the quarterback of the future, the Dolphins fell apart and came away with journeyman Cleo Lemon as their best option that year. Beck lasted two seasons before the Dolphins cut him.
Cameron also insisted on keeping the offensive coordinator's job, but when the season unraveled he surreptitiously handed off to tight ends coach Mike Mularkey, a name that now has Bills fans laughing just as hard as Dolfans are at memories of Cameron.
But for crying out loud, they need to get a regular quarterback at some point.
Maybe Chad Henne will be that guy. That's why the Dolphins drafted him in the second round out of Michigan last year.
Henne made his first NFL start Sunday, completing 14 of 22 passes for 115 yards and one touchdown to beat the Buffalo Bills in Land Shark Stadium.
Henne become the 13th Dolphins quarterback to start since Marino retired. That was more recently than you probably think. Although it seems like a lifetime ago for Dolfans, the post-Marino era began in 2000.
Henne is only the fifth quarterback to win his first start for the Dolphins since Marino retired.
The rundown of quarterbacks who have started for Miami since Marino retired, with 2001 the only season they didn't use a new one (asterisk denotes winner in first start).
Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Graham
By the sounds of it, Dolfans have given up on 2009 already.
|Christopher Hanewinckel/US PRESSWIRE|
|Losing Chad Pennington indefinitely certainly puts a damper on the team's prospects for this season.|
Can't say I blame them. They're 0-3, and only three times in NFL history has a team started out so poorly yet rebounded to make the playoffs. Their quarterback and leader, Chad Pennington, will be out indefinitely with an injury to his throwing shoulder suffered in Sunday's 23-13 loss to the San Diego Chargers. Their defense isn't getting it done. Joey Porter's hurt.
True, Miami opened last season 0-2 and eventually won the AFC East, but this situation is much direr and potentially calamitous.
Pennington's condition is particularly disheartening. There's a reason -- several, actually -- he was runner-up for league MVP last year. He was the player most responsible for guiding Miami to the playoffs.
On my regular segment with Jorge Sedano on Miami sports radio station 790 The Ticket, I could almost hear Dolfans whimpering in the background. The more Sedano and I spoke, the more my mind drifted back to 2007.
These are the blahs felt on Monday mornings when the Dolphins were going 1-15 with Cam Cameron as head coach, Randy Mueller as general manager and Trent Green/Cleo Lemon/John Beck as quarterback.
But it's not 2007 anymore. It's not going to be another 2008, either. In fact, it's probably time to forget about 2009 already and start working on 2010.
Let me stress, this year's Dolphins aren't nearly as pathetic as they were two years ago. But the taste of morning-after disappointment given last year's achievements is familiar.
Still, this season could get worse. Some fans would be satisfied if the Dolphins didn't make the playoffs but learned what they had on the roster, especially when it comes to the team's supposed quarterback of the future, Chad Henne.
Last year's second-round draft pick out of Michigan will get his shot now that Pennington is hurt, a development that had to be at least half-expected when considering Pennington's voluminous medical chart. He has won two Comeback Player of the Year Awards because he's constantly returning from some injury.
But what if Henne doesn't perform? Merely two years ago, Dolfans were so excited to see Beck. He was their quarterback of the future, too, a second-round draft choice out of Brigham Young. He was comically bad when given the chance to start. He was cut during the offseason.
Of the 10 players taken in 2007 -- Mueller's final draft class before Bill Parcells came in and fired him -- two remain on the team, and neither has endeared himself.
The headliner, ninth overall pick Ted Ginn, continues to be a disappointment. He bumbles passes, doesn't get open, runs out of bounds rather than fight for extra yards. He had more drops Sunday.
The Dolphins have players up and down the roster they can concentrate on learning more about in game situations.
The Dolphins kept 14 rookie or first-year players on their opening-day roster, more than any other NFL team. The league average was 9.6 rookie or first-year players.
One year after pulling off the greatest single-season turnaround in NFL history, rebuilding time has arrived again.
Time to clear the bench and see what they can do.
LINTHICUM, Md. -- Greetings from Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport. That's a mouthful. BWITMA? I guess CONCACAF was taken.
While I wait for my connecting flight back to Fort Lauderdale and return to One Graham Plaza after a few days in Buffalo, I wanted to share a link to SI.com's "Monday Morning Quarterback" column.
For the first time since Peter King began the staple, he pitched it to a guest columnist. Former Miami Dolphins quarterback Trent Green does a fantastic job. His column is quite a bit shorter than King's usual output, but it's crisply written and sprinkled with insightful thoughts.
Green, recently retired after 11 seasons with four teams, predicts almost a third of the NFL's starting quarterbacks can throw for 4,000 yards this year. He guarantees Drew Brees, Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Kurt Warner, Philip Rivers and Aaron Rodgers will do it. He says Jay Cutler, Matt Cassel, Carson Palmer, Matt Schaub, Donovan McNabb, Tony Romo and Matt Hasselbeck have the potential to do it.
Missing from that list, in my opinion, is Trent Edwards. The third-year Buffalo Bills quarterback has the weaponry to do it: Terrell Owens, Lee Evans, Josh Reed, Marshawn Lynch, Fred Jackson and Dominic Rhodes.
Even so, if Edwards is to throw for 4,000 yards two uncertainties have to work out.
- Edwards must stay healthy. He missed a slew of snaps throughout his first two seasons with Buffalo because of various injuries that were unrelated. He gets hurt too much.
- Questions about Buffalo's offense need to be answered favorably. The offensive line must come together like the Bills hope, and the no-huddle they're implementing has to be successful.
It's not mandatory that Edwards run the no-huddle all the time, but the Bills are dedicating so much time to master the offense, if they abandon it, they'll be searching for an identity when other teams will be comfortable with what they are. This is not a team that can afford to still be wondering what they're about in Week 4.
Also from Green's column, he mentions his family recently visited Niagara Falls for the first time and advises folks to get a passport to see the Canadian side, which I agree provides a more inspirational panorama than the New York side.
But I wanted to clarify why that is: Visitors who go north of the border are looking at New York. The Canadian side is visually polluted with all sorts of outlet stores, casinos, viewing towers, wax museums and restaurants.
When you look into New York, you see nothing but the awesome site of the Niagara River cascading 180 feet over a cliff. Laws prohibit development on the surrounding land because Niagara Falls is a state park.
I hope Green, who has a bright future in broadcasting, also finds a regular writing outlet. He's good at it.
DAVIE, Fla. -- This isn't an egregious error like the one committed for the Pro Bowl.
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.
"I love Chad, and I love the Jets for deciding to get rid of him," Dolphins linebacker Channing Crowder said.
|Doug Murray/Icon SMI|
|Under the Parcells regime, the Dolphins became the first team ever to go from winning a single game one year to being playoff-bound the next.|
Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Graham
DAVIE, Fla. -- The process began two days after Christmas 2007. A cataclysmic event took place at the Miami Dolphins facility. An observer arrived. He might as well have worn a black cloak and had a sickle in his grip.
He stood there, arms folded mostly, and watched from the sideline, taking mental notes that would decide the fate of dozens and alter the course of a franchise hurtling into NFL oblivion.
"I think the air in the practice field got a little thin," defensive end Vonnie Holliday said.
Bill Parcells had arrived to straighten out a team headed toward 1-15. He didn't say much on the field that day. He exchanged quick pleasantries with head coach Cam Cameron, spoke to a couple of trainers.
But the process had begun -- quietly, icily.
"Guys were nervous out there," Dolphins linebacker Joey Porter said.
Several Dolphins confessed they barked out their calls louder, ran faster and tackled harder under Parcells' surveillance.
A few veterans scoffed at the difference, claiming that if their teammates were playing harder just because Parcells was there, then they must not have been giving their all before.
Yet that, in fact, was the case, whether they wanted to admit it or not. Parcells' mere presence, forged by Super Bowls and high-profile turnarounds, whacked the Dolphins in their earholes.
He has remained virtually silent while overseeing the greatest single-season upgrade in NFL history.
On Sunday, one year and one day after Parcells first emerged onto the Dolphins practice field, they defeated the New York Jets at the Meadowlands to claim the AFC East championship.
As unfathomable as it seemed when Parcells agreed to renovate the dilapidated franchise, the Dolphins will host a playoff game next Sunday when they meet the Baltimore Ravens.
|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.
|Stew Milne/US Presswire|
|Should the Patriots bank on Tom Brady returning to full health or should they invest in a young quarterback on the rise?|
Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Graham
An innocent question to stimulate conversation ignited outrage.
One reader demanded I resign from ESPN.com. Another implored my bosses to terminate my blog completely. They wrote in to ridicule my intelligence, mock my background and question my journalism ethics.
All for asking a question to which I didn't give my opinion.
Sporting icon Tom Brady is rehabbing his surgically rebuilt, infection-prone left knee. Information has been scarce. So much is unknown.
Matt Cassel has developed into a bona fide NFL starter before our eyes, but he will be an unrestricted free agent after the season.
This is the exact question I posed before opening the floor to comments:
Do you bank on the superstar maintaining his elite status, or invest in the rising prospect, who years from now still should be in his prime when the veteran retires?
That line didn't seem inflammatory when I typed it, but after the backlash from incensed readers, I decided to check with some professionals to see whether they thought I had raised a legitimate issue or I was nuts.
Background: Former St. Louis Rams general manager, New England Patriots assistant director of player operations.
The risk is too great not to move forward with the quarterback you have right now. You have to get him signed and give your team stability at the position. There's no absolute. That's the problem. You've got to protect yourself and the organization.
I would do whatever I had to do to sign him. I would try to structure the contract so that at some point in time I could deal the player if it's convenient but keep him around until Brady is back and 100 percent.
After Brady is back, you address what you do with both quarterbacks. You have to proceed as though Cassel will be your quarterback until proven otherwise. There are no other options for the Patriots. They have to get the guy signed.
This kid [Cassel] has proven that his arm is getting better and better. They've invested the money and the time to get him to this point. He's a commodity now. You can't let him get away for nothing. I would figure out how to get it done. I would not let him out of there, period.
But the deal can be done. [Cassel] ought to feel a strong sense of loyalty for to the organization for drafting him when they did, showing faith in him and investing in him the way they did.
You know who the quarterback is when he's healthy, but it sure is a nice problem when you have two. Otherwise, you're looking for a free-agent quarterback who's 105 years old to come in and be the backup.
It took Trent Green almost two years and maybe three years until he was comfortable on that knee. Some guys come back and are comfortable on it right away.
You don't know how [Brady's knee] is going to react until you start working out in game mode. He has to step up, take a hit, pivot on it, slide to the left, slide to the right, plant it, come off it. You won't know until you get in a game situation regardless of how the off-field rehab goes.
DAVIE, Fla. -- You're about to read Exhibit H why Miami Dolphins head coach Tony Sparano is a better communicator than his predecessor, Cam Cameron.
|Vladimir Cherry/US Presswire|
|Dolphins head coach Tony Sparano doesn't fail to communicate.|
Cameron was fired after a 1-15 season, his first year as an NFL head coach. Now the Baltimore Ravens' offensive coordinator, Cameron will make his first return to Dolphin Stadium on Sunday.
On Friday, I was able to ask Sparano how he and his staff call their plays during a game. The questions came toward the end of his daily news conference, just something to discuss in an attempt to learn how he, offensive coordinator Dan Henning and quarterbacks coach David Lee interact.
I asked Sparano two questions, and he gave two insightful answers. They were two of the longer responses I've heard from him on any subject. I got the impression he would have chatted longer if he had the time.
Partway through Sparano's second response, I had a flashback.
One of the storylines during Cameron's tenure developed in early December. Cameron also handled offensive coordinator's role, but I found out he'd handed over the play-calling duties to tight ends coach Mike Mularkey.
Quarterback Cleo Lemon confirmed the tip to my Palm Beach Post colleague, Edgar Thompson, and revealed the process. Mularkey usually called the play from the press box. Cameron had veto power. The call was radioed to injured quarterback Trent Green on the sideline. Green sent the call into the huddle to rookie John Beck.
Cameron was asked about it. And asked about it. And asked about it.
Here is how Miami Herald reporter Jeff Darlington described the news conference:
[Cameron's] explanations during a 13-minute news conference about the process -- including how plays are called and who calls them -- were often vague and generalized as he answered 17 questions about a procedure that typically requires little justification or clarification.
"It's a collective effort," Cameron said when initially asked about Mularkey's new responsibilities. "I can't, at any time in my coaching career, remember where I called every play."
But three minutes later, during another response on the topic, Cameron said, "There is not a magic play-caller here other than me. I'm the guy that calls the plays and is accountable to the plays that are called."
I keep all of the team's transcripts on file. So I pulled this Cameron quote from the same news conference. He was asked how a play call originates:
"It varies. It's not done the same way every time. Like I said, it could come from [offensive line coach] Hudson Houck. It could come from [running backs coach] Bobby Jackson. It could come from a variety of people."
Cameron was maddening to deal with on several subjects. For instance, tired of hearing him avoid questions about Bill Parcells being hired late last season as executive vice president of football operations, refusing to even utter Parcells' name, I couldn't help but ask Cameron if he was in denial about what was coming.
With that in mind, here are two questions and two educational answers from the straight-talking Sparano:
|AP Photo/Stephan Savoia|
|Cam Cameron was 1-15 with the Dolphins a year ago.|
Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Graham
Cameron will return to Dolphin Stadium when the Ravens visit Sunday afternoon.
"He was an effective coach down in Miami last year even though the results weren't what people were hoping for," Harbaugh said. "He did a great job there with what he had to work with. He's got the respect of our players."
Harbaugh's comments didn't go over well with the Dolphins.
"With 'what he had to work with,'" defensive end Vonnie Holliday repeated. "I guess that's the key, huh?
"What did we have to work with as players?"Running back Patrick Cobbs, coming off the game of his life, was a guest on ESPN Radio 760 in West Palm Beach, Fla. Cobbs played for Cameron last year, and host Evan Cohen asked about it.
Cobbs, evoking veteran defensive end Vonnie Holliday's sentiments, suggested Cameron and his "little system" was the one the Dolphins were stuck with -- not the other way around.
What is your reaction to John Harbaugh saying Cam Cameron didn't have much to work with in Miami last season?
Cobbs: I don't know how to react to that question. I mean, he had a lot of veteran guys, Jason Taylor, Zach Thomas, Trent Green. I really don't understand what he had to work with. I mean everybody else worked with [those players] just fine.
How many wins would this team have had if Tony Sparano coached it last year?
Cobbs: We would have been better. I mean I don't want to say that, but [new Dolphins coach Tony Sparano's] leadership ability and the way that he wants to practice and the way that he brings stuff to the table is night and day from the way Cam did it.
And no disrespect to Cam, but they are two totally different coaches, and the system Sparano brings in is a totally different system than Cam had, and I think that our guys respond better to Sparano's teachings.
Are John Harbaugh's comments a shot at you guys?
Cobbs: Oh yeah, it is definitely a shot at us, and it hurts, too, because we poured everything we had into [Cameron's] system and trying to do the right thing last year, and it didn't work for us. And we are doing the same thing this year and having success. 'What he had to work with' is kind of -- I don't understand his comment behind that -- but I'm with Vonnie: It's what we had to work with.
What are some differences between Tony Sparano and Cam Cameron?
Cobbs: [Sparano] coaches, I mean he coaches everybody and he coaches everybody the same. He doesn't take it easy on guys that he feels like have been in this league a long time. Sparano coaches regardless of who you are and you will see him down there yelling at Joey Porter just like he would be down there yelling at me.
He wants guys to do it right, he wants guys to do it the same way as he wants it done. I mean he's got a purpose the way he wants things done, and if they aren't done that way he's going to let you know about it regardless of who you are. And it was a little different last year. Cam's little system was 'I am going to try and be different,' and Sparano is different, too.
I mean, he treats people different as well as he should. But [Cameron] doesn't get the most out of his players. I mean it feels like Tony wants the most out of everybody's ability and Cam didn't seem to be demanding that.
|Ed Wolfstein/Icon SMI|
|QB Gibran Hamdan stresses the importance of each player knowing his role in helping the team win.|
I wanted to ask Hamdan about Cam Cameron, his head coach at Indiana University who brought Hamdan to Miami Dolphins camp last year. Cameron was fired after the season and became the Baltimore Ravens' offensive coordinator.
I asked Hamdan if he could detect anything foul about what would turn into a 1-15 Dolphins campaign. We talked about the leadership in place with such respected captains as quarterback Trent Green, linebacker Zach Thomas and defensive end Jason Taylor.
What I discovered was Hamdan is a raconteur.
So here's our talk when the subject turned from last year's Dolphins to this year's Bills.
What happened in Miami last year was surprising because of the leadership of guys like Zach Thomas, Jason Taylor and Trent Green ...
GH: Overall team chemistry is very important, and you can have the leadership at the top, but you've also got to think who's the 52nd and 53rd guy on your roster, the 49th. What do they bring to the table? I think that's something we do well here in Buffalo.
Everybody has a role. Everybody looks at themselves in the mirror each week and says 'This is how I can help the team win this week.' If you get a team that can believe in that, and you have a head coach that exudes the importance of that, I think you're better off.
Obviously, there are certain guys making the plays on Sunday, and we have some very talented ones here. But I would say everybody in the locker room feels they've done something to help the team win, no matter how minimal or maximal it is on Sunday.
Related to that all-for-one mentality, the Bills seem to be a team with no elite talent, but no weaknesses. Would you agree with that?
GH: Now, see, I wouldn't say that. I wouldn't say that. There is elite talent here. I think where we are located geographically, the coverage that we get, leads people to believe a certain thing about our team. I've been on a lot of teams. There are elite players here. Maybe not big names. Maybe not guys that the average fan, looking at a fantasy-football sheet, would say 'Oh, yeah.' But that's not how you build a team.
I think if you look at the successful teams over the years, namely the ones in our division, New England, or a San Diego or an Indianapolis, you don't necessarily go down the roster and say 'first-round pick, first-round pick, first-round pick, eight-year Pro Bowler, six-year Pro Bowler' ... You look at how teams are built, and the teams that are having success are the teams that are doing a good job of bringing players in that fit a system, that can jell into a cohesive unit and know their roles.
So you can say all you want about not being an elite player, but I'll take a guy who plays his role excellent on each and every play than a guy who maybe is an elite player but isn't playing at a high level because he's maybe upset about his role on the team or where he's situated.
I think I misspoke when I said 'no elite talent,' but thanks for setting me straight. What I meant is that the Bills aren't loaded up in any one area of dominance that bails out another area on a weekly basis. There's total balance.
GH: Our game [Sunday] was a perfect example of that. Defense keeps us in the game the whole way through. Then the offense comes around and makes a couple plays. That's the way you've got to win in this league nowadays. It really is. You can't just one-side your way through a season.
Sure, there are anomalies. Sometimes an offense can be just unstoppable. But the NFL isn't fantasy football as much as people like to look at it that way. We have that conversation every week. You can't look at us like fantasy football. It's all about 'Who's going to perform up to their abilities so we can win?'
If you have a lot of guys that know their role on the team, know how to perform that role and do it consistently every week, it doesn't matter what kind of talent you bring in here because that team will win. That's what we've built here as a team.