AFC North: Bill Parcells
Consider what Steelers free safety Ryan Clark said Wednesday morning on ESPN’s "First Take."
"The only person that I know that knows Richie Incognito personally said the day after (the story broke), ‘If Richie Incognito gets cut I’m walking upstairs and telling coach to pick him up,’ " Clark said. "He’s like, 'That’s the type of football player I want to play with. All of that stuff in the locker room, that’s how they act, that’s how they talked but as far as playing football I want you to play nasty, I want you to be like that.’ "
Clark did not reveal the name of the player who told him that, and it could well have been someone on other team with whom the veteran free safety is friendly. But it is reasonable to assume that there is a good chance Clark’s conversation took place with a Steelers teammate.
Would the Steelers have given any consideration to signing Incognito had the Dolphins released him last November? Not a chance.
But Clark's revelation shows a different side of NFL locker rooms, one in which players are able to separate or overlook behavior, no matter how coarse it is, from the business of winning games.
It is also consistent with how a significant number of players in the Dolphins’ locker room felt after offensive tackle Jonathan Martin abruptly left the team last October and later leveled bullying charges against Incognito.
The accusations led to Incognito’s suspension -- it was lifted earlier this week -- and a host of Dolphins teammates defended him and backed Incognito’s claim that he and Martin were friends.
The recent release of text messages between the two, bawdy as they were, appear to support what Incognito has maintained all along and that there may have been a rush to judgment.
Clark did not defend Incognito or the offensive language he used freely around teammates.
But he questioned whether the physical and psychological stress of playing football had led to Martin breaking down and then scapegoating Incognito for his hasty exit from the Dolphins.
Clark recalled a conversation he had with former Dolphins executive vice president of football operations Bill Parcells in 2010 when he nearly signed with Miami as an unrestricted free agent.
"He said ‘One day Ryan you’re going to walk out of the huddle, it happens to every player, and you’re not going to want to hit the person on the other side of the ball and when that happens it’s time to let it go,’ " Clark said. "I just think Jonathan Martin got there earlier than most people do."
As for the NFL futures of both players, Clark said, "I think (Incognito) will get a chance before Jonathan Martin. The way he behaves is genuinely who he is where Jonathan Martin behaves more to me like a person who is being advised."
The Pittsburgh Steelers will visit the Baltimore Ravens on Sunday night. The New York Jets then will visit the New England Patriots on Monday night. Combined record of the four teams: 34-10.
Millions of football fans will be tuned in to see both marquee matchups with superstars and storylines aplenty.
But which pairing represents the NFL's best divisional rivalry?
Each matchup has a history, quality quarterbacks and plenty at stake for the playoffs. A couple of feisty bloggers -- James Walker from the AFC North and Tim Graham from the AFC East -- will state a case for why his division has the better rivalry.
James Walker: Tim, I just want to apologize in advance, because I don’t think you have much of a leg to stand on comparing these two rivalries. Do you accept my apology?
Tim Graham: If that's really what you think, then the only thing to accept is your resignation. The Jets-Patriots rivalry goes back 50 years, showcases ESPN's team of the decade versus the biggest media sensation, involves espionage, features incredible player and coaching crossover and will generate significantly more attention this week than the Steelers and Ravens. Yet I don't have a leg to stand on? This should be amusing.
Walker: OK, let's get down to business. First, I'm going to tell you why the Jets-Patriots rivalry doesn't stack up to Ravens-Steelers. For starters, the Jets aren't even the Patriots’ biggest rival in the AFC. The Colts are. Indianapolis and New England have played eight straight years in much bigger games -- sometimes with the Super Bowl at stake.
Meanwhile, there is no debating the Steelers and Ravens are each other's biggest rival. Both teams have played on the biggest stages, including the AFC Championship Game in 2008, when the Steelers went on to win Super Bowl XLIII. Finally, here's another difference: Pittsburgh and Baltimore both have championships within the past decade. When both rivals are able to reach the pinnacle while beating up each other along the way, that's when a rivalry is truly special. The Ravens and Steelers have it. The Colts and Patriots have it. The Jets and Patriots? I don't think so.
You do make a good point about the Ravens and Steelers each winning a Super Bowl in the past decade. But recent titles don't necessarily make rivalries. If they did, then the Packers, Vikings and Bears don't have rivalries. Storylines and animus make rivalries. In that regard, Jets-Patriots is unsurpassed.
Walker: Brady says he hates the Jets, but a rivalry is a two-way street. How much hatred does New York really have for the Patriots? It can't be too deep-rooted. Most of New York's key people recently came from the AFC North and other teams, including head coach Rex Ryan. I'd be willing to bet Santonio Holmes hates the Ravens more than he hates the Patriots. I know Bart Scott hates the Steelers. We've talked about it several times while he was in Baltimore. Braylon Edwards? He hyped his return to Cleveland 10 times more than this week's game against New England. Do you really think key players like Edwards, LaDainian Tomlinson and Antonio Cromartie have a feel for the Jets-Patriots rivalry? I doubt it.
But there is legitimate, two-way hatred between the Steelers and Ravens. Hines Ward hates the Ravens. Ray Lewis hates the Steelers. The markets of Pittsburgh and Baltimore simply cannot drive the point home like bigger cities New York and Boston can. For example, Ravens defensive end Terrell Suggs basically told me he doesn't like the Steelers, either, which is similar to what Brady said about the Jets. Yet it didn't get any attention. The Jets-Patriots rivalry may be unsurpassed in hype. But the Ravens-Steelers rivalry is unsurpassed in substance.
Graham: Come on, James. You need to do more than take a glance at 2010 rosters to understand the Jets-Patriots rivalry. Every team has free agents who need to learn a rivalry. The point about Brady's hatred was that he never said that about the Colts, which you propose is a bigger rival for the Patriots than the Jets are.
But you want substance? How about Bill Parcells taking the Patriots to the Super Bowl and then leaving them for the Jets amid such controversial circumstances the NFL forced New York to send four draft picks to the Patriots over three years, including the first-round pick in 1999, as a penalty? How about the infamous Curtis Martin defection from the Patriots to the Jets and the infamous "poison pill" contract? How about Parcells abdicating his Jets job to Bill Belichick and then Belichick writing his resignation on a cocktail napkin moments before the Jets thought they were introducing him as their next head coach? How about the Jets blocking Belichick from joining the Patriots until he filed a federal lawsuit and then settling on the Patriots shipping five draft picks to the Jets over three years, including their 2000 first-rounder? How about Patriots defensive coordinator Eric Mangini departing to be Jets head coach and leaving the bridge in cinders? How about the Patriots filing tampering charges against the Jets on receiver Deion Branch? How about a little thing called Spygate? How about Damien Woody, Danny Woodhead, Ty Law, Vinny Testaverde, Roman Phifer, Larry Izzo, Hank Poteat and Chris Baker (among many other role players) wearing both uniforms within the past decade? Steelers-Ravens has nothing even remotely close to a third of that rundown.
Graham: That's rather Pollyanna to think Ravens would never go play for the Steelers or vice versa. Do you honestly believe if the Steelers had hired Ryan, then all of those players who followed him to the Jets wouldn't have gone to Pittsburgh? Please. Players pursue the best opportunity based on money, playing a system they love and a chance to win a title.
Here is how players switching teams make for a better rivalry: It thickens the plot. Fans who used to wear a player's jersey burn them. The expatriate player shares playbook secrets and other intelligence. That player has a chip on his shoulder and comes back to haunt his old team.
Walker: Moving onto quarterbacks. I think there are some similarities between the teams' four passers. Joe Flacco is the third-year upstart trying to get to the championship level of Ben Roethlisberger, who already has two rings. Much of Flacco's status eventually will be determined by how much success he has against Roethlisberger and the Steelers within his division. It seems the Ravens and Steelers are always in the way and have to go through each other to have a deep run in the playoffs and get to the Super Bowl. What dynamic do you see developing with Brady and a young Mark Sanchez?
Graham: I don't know if there's much of a quarterback comparison beyond the glamour element at this stage. Brady and Sanchez have a lot in common from an off-the-field standpoint. They sell a lot of jerseys, attract a lot of ladies, walk a lot of red carpets, appear in a lot of photo shoots and do a lot of cameos. But they're too far apart in experience to compare résumés.
Walker: Now is our favorite part. It's prediction time. It's no secret the Steelers and Ravens are built and play similarly. So it's usually a close game. Baltimore is going for its first series sweep since 2006, but Roethlisberger didn't play in the first meeting because of a suspension. Now he's back and is 7-2 all-time against Baltimore. But I have a feeling this is the Ravens' week. They are healthier overall, 5-0 at home and appear to be peaking at the right time. The Steelers, on the other hand, have been up and down. Both teams usually bring out the best in each other, but I'm picking the Ravens to win, 20-17. So who are you picking between the Patriots and Jets, Tim? Don't chicken out.
Graham: I predict the loser of the Jets-Patriots game will have the same record as the team that wins the Ravens-Steelers game. Predicting a score has no bearing on our debate of which rivalry is better. But I will say the Jets and Patriots provide a rare showdown between teams with the NFL's best two records. This is only the fifth time in "Monday Night Football" history two clubs with records of 9-2 or better will play, and the first game under those circumstances that doesn't involve the Joe Montana-led San Francisco 49ers in Candlestick Park.
This is a special game befitting a special rivalry. Your game features clubs that needed overtime to beat the Buffalo Bills. I'll expect that resignation letter by kickoff.
- Should the Baltimore Ravens chase free-agent receiver Malcom Floyd.
- Cincinnati Bengals receiver Chad Ochocinco is my co-worker this week. He will write a Super Bowl column for ESPN.com's Page 2.
- Can you name the high school attended by Pittsburgh Steelers safety Troy Polamalu?
- The Cleveland Browns and Miami Dolphins swapped salary-cap specialists.
Ken from Elizabethtown, Ky., wants to know if Ed Reed retires, would he stick around on the Baltimore Ravens' coaching staff?
James Walker: That's a tough question, Ken, because Reed would make for a great coach and he does have some interest in the field. But I think staying with the Ravens would be a little too close to his heart--at least right away. Let's say his safeties blow an assignment. How could a great player like Reed, who is only 31, not get the itch the following week to sign a one-year deal with Baltimore and show his players how it's done? I don't think Reed wants to create that type of situation for himself or the team. If Reed decides to go into coaching at some point, my guess is it would start at the collegiate level.
Todd from Westerville, Ohio, writes: I was just wondering with the issues the Cleveland Browns have at QB, do you think there would be any interest in trying to land Ravens quarterback Troy Smith?
Walker: Todd, Smith would love to come home to Cleveland, but I don't see that happening. The Browns have 11 draft picks, and I get the sense new president Mike Holmgren and general manager Tom Heckert covet them very much. Plus, I don't see Smith's skills fitting into the type of precision offense Cleveland wants to run.
John from Cincinnati wants to know why the word "czar" is the new catchphrase in the NFL.
Walker: The term "czar" by definition means a person of absolute power. In the cases of Mike Holmgren in Cleveland and Bill Parcells with the Miami Dolphins, it fits the description because they have final say in everything.
Eddie Kilroy from Kent, Ohio, writes: I've been reading several mock drafts, and it seems everybody is set on the Browns taking a quarterback with the No. 7 pick in the draft (usually Sam Bradford). Wouldn't it make more sense to try to upgrade the trenches or find help in the secondary?
Walker: Not everyone, Eddie. ESPN draft expert Mel Kiper has the Browns taking Florida cornerback Joe Haden. Mock drafts are fun to talk about, but I wouldn't get too worked up about it in January. A lot will change in the next three months. Of any team in the AFC North, I think the Browns are in the best situation to take the best available player, regardless of position.
Mike from Ewa Beach, Hawaii, writes: Bryan Bulaga=Robert Gallery?
Walker: That's pretty funny, Mike. But it's way too early to start making those comparisons. Yes, similar to Gallery, Bulaga is a highly rated offensive tackle from the University of Iowa. But that doesn't automatically mean Bulaga is going to be a bust in the NFL.
Ron Coffey from Cincinnati wants an update on Bengals defensive end Antwan Odom.
Walker: Odom is still working to get back from an Achilles injury, Ron. Geoff Hobson of Bengals.com recently caught up with Odom. He was on pace to have a monster season. So if Odom comes back healthy, he will be a good addition to an already solid defense.
Gallas from West Jefferson, Ohio, writes: Just for Nostradamus purposes, I think it's Cincinnati and Cleveland No. 1 and No. 2 next year, quote me.
Walker: You've been quoted. But I'm warning you, Gallas, we hold everyone accountable in the AFC North blog.
Gabby from Baltimore writes: Hey James, please answer! Could the Ravens sign any free agents this year: Restricted and unrestricted?
Walker: Yes, Gabby, the Ravens will be able to sign both types of free agents. But there are complicated restrictions with Baltimore, because it was one of the final eight teams to advance to the divisional round before an uncapped year. Earlier this week, we provided a full explanation from the NFL on the Ravens' outlook in free agency.
|Robert E. Klein/Icon SMI|
|Former Belichick disciples Eric Mangini and Josh McDaniels face off as head coaches for the first time on Sunday in Denver.|
As the New England Patriots continue their immense success throughout this decade, the coaching tree of Bill Belichick also continues to grow in the NFL.
In that respect, Sunday will be a landmark day as two assistants Belichick raised from the ground up will face off as head coaches when Eric Mangini’s Cleveland Browns (0-1) travel to play Josh McDaniels of the Denver Broncos (1-0) at Invesco Field.
Former Browns head coach Romeo Crennel was another Belichick assistant, but Crennel also learned mostly under Bill Parcells before arriving to New England. McDaniels, 33, and Mangini, 38, are more considered Belichick prodigies as former entry-level assistants with the Patriots.
McDaniels and Mangini, both friends, were part of the same staff in New England from 2001 to 2005. McDaniels was a defensive assistant in 2002-03 under Mangini, who at the time was a defensive backs coach. Now they’re adversaries and a significant part of the NFL’s current youth movement of head coaches.
"Back then I’m sure neither one of us really thought much about that, but we are where we’re at," McDaniels said. "I’m sure he’s looking forward to the game as I am."
All indications are that McDaniels left New England on good terms, while it’s no secret the ire Belichick has for Mangini after the "Spygate" fiasco.
Therefore, Mangini said he doesn’t expect any good-luck notes from Belichick this week, despite two of his former pupils facing each other Sunday.
"I’m sure [Belichick is] concentrating on whoever they’re playing this week; I don’t remember who they’re playing this week," Mangini said. "I’m sure that’s what he’s focused on. Hopefully, it won’t come down to luck. It will come down to the way that we prepare."
Jury still out?
Overall, Belichick’s disciples have had mixed results as head coaches.
|Robert E. Klein/Icon SMI|
|A former offensive coordinator in New England, McDaniels started out with the Pats as an assistant under Mangini.|
Mangini was 23-25 in three seasons with the New York Jets before he was fired in 2008. Crennel was 24-40 in four seasons in Cleveland, and Notre Dame’s Charlie Weis currently faces a lot of heat in South Bend during his fifth season.
McDaniels is the only undefeated coach of the bunch after winning his debut in miraculous fashion. After trailing 7-6 late, Broncos receiver Brandon Stokley caught a tipped pass and turned it into an 87-yard touchdown with 11 seconds remaining to take a 12-7 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals.
The sequence already is an early candidate for play of the year in the NFL.
"We’re very fortunate to be 1-0," McDaniels admitted. "But we also feel we played hard for 60 minutes and never gave up."
Was it all beginners’ luck or Belichick-like skill?
"They did a lot of things right leading up to that point," Mangini explained. "They were in that position. Sometimes the ball bounces that way."
The Browns actually interviewed McDaniels for their coaching opening that eventually went to Mangini. McDaniels said the experience was very valuable, and later that offseason he wowed the brass in Denver to land the Broncos’ job.
A lot was being made of McDaniels' inexperience after some early run-ins with star players Jay Cutler, who was traded to the Chicago Bears, and receiver Brandon Marshall. But in Week 1 Denver played very hard for its rookie head coach and looked organized down to the final seconds in beating the Bengals.
"One of the early lessons that I learned is that it doesn’t matter how old you are, what you look like, you could be 80, you could be 20, right on down the line," Mangini said. "If the players know that you’re giving them an opportunity to get better, and a chance to win, that’s what they respect. With a guy like Josh, he does that."
Broncos middle linebacker and former Brown Andra Davis said it’s clear in Denver that McDaniels is seasoned despite his youth.
"He’s been around football all his life," Davis said. "His father is a legendary coach out there in Ohio. He’s coached under a Hall of Fame coach in Belichick. So he knows football.
"It doesn’t matter the age. If you know what you’re talking about, guys are going to follow and pay attention."
This is a big early-season matchup for both teams and its head coaches.
Mangini and McDaniels are working hard to change the culture and quickly put their imprint on their teams. The easiest way to do that is by winning games.
The Broncos are off to a good start, and going 2-0 in the AFC West would put them in a great spot where many are automatically crowning the San Diego Chargers (1-0). The Browns (0-1), meanwhile, are trying to avoid the dreaded 0-2 start, where they would quickly fall behind in a tough AFC North.
Cleveland also has a tough road game next week against a division rival and AFC contender in the Baltimore Ravens (1-0), making this week’s game even more important.
But to get their wish, one Belichick pupil will have to outcoach the other this Sunday.
“It’s a very difficult preparation,” McDaniels said of facing Mangini. “He’s going to test you in every way, shape or form possible. You know his team is going to be very well-coached.”
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 completely 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 d
efinitely 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.