AFC North: Jake Long

Offensive tackle Jake Long signed a four-year deal with the St. Louis Rams on Sunday night that could be worth up to $36 million. The former No. 1 overall pick reportedly chose the Rams over the Miami Dolphins, but there was another interested team as well.

The Pittsburgh Steelers surprisingly made a play for Long as well, although it occurred after his negotiations were too far along with St. Louis, a league source told ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter. This information indicates the Steelers aren't completely sold on their offensive tackles and the team could be more active in free agency than many expected.

This type of move is unlike the Steelers, who rarely go after such high-profile free agents. Long would provide experience and dependability in protecting the blind side of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, whose injuries have derailed the past two seasons for the Steelers. By even reaching out to Long, the Steelers showed they have some reservations about either left tackle Marcus Gilbert or right tackle Mike Adams, especially when the team's precious cap dollars should be spent on more pressing needs like outside linebacker, running back and wide receiver.

Gilbert, who has started at right tackle the past two seasons, is expected to make the move to the left side and take over for Max Starks, and Adams has been penciled in at right tackle. The only other impact left tackle available is New England's Sebastian Vollmer. The Ravens' Bryant McKinnie is a stop-gap option.

The Steelers are usually quiet during free agency and that's primarily because they don't have much cap space. Their history is re-signing their own players or developmental prospects like Joe Long, Jake's younger brother who spent last season on the Steelers' practice squad. But Pittsburgh cleared over $23 million this offseason by restructuring contracts and releasing linebacker James Harrison. In contacting Long, who wasn't going to come cheaply, Pittsburgh is perhaps not as cap-strapped as many believe.

The Steelers have been looking at veteran (and presumably inexpensive) running backs like Ahmad Bradshaw and Beanie Wells. There's also a chance of adding an outside linebacker to replace Harrison and a tight end to fill in for Heath Miller, whose status is uncertain after tearing his ACL late last season. Pittsburgh also might have a decision to make at wide receiver if New England decides to sign Emmanuel Sanders to an offer sheet.

Let's see if the Steelers have any other surprises in store over the next couple of weeks.

Mailbag: Doubts about Browns' brass

February, 24, 2013
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I will provide my take on all things NFL combine Monday. For now, it's time to tackle some questions sent to the AFC North mailbag ...

Justin from Canton, Ohio: I have no confidence in (Browns vice president of player personnel) Mike Lombardi. I still do not have a clue why the Browns hired him. What will have to happen for him to get fired?

badbrown4life from Honolulu: I'm a true-blue Browns fan, born in Cleveland, living in Hawaii. Imagine all the jokes I suffer. Here are my questions: What has Mike Lombardi done to earn his current job with the Browns? I like the coaching staff, but can they overcome the bumbling of (chief executive officer Joe) Banner & Lombardi combined?

Jamison Hensley from AFC North headquarters: Justin and badbrown4life, you're not alone in your skepticism of Lombardi. But you're going to have to get used to him for a while. When Banner introduced Lombardi at the introductory press conference, Banner showed his commitment to this hire when he said, “There’s no question he’s near or at the top of quality talent evaluators.” So it would look bad on Banner if this marriage ended quickly.

My skepticism of Lombardi is based on a couple of instances. When he was with the NFL Network, Lombardi bashed Tom Heckert's last draft as well as the addition of wide receiver Josh Gordon in the supplemental draft. This is the same draft that produced seven promising prospects (and three immediate starters): running back Trent Richardson, quarterback Brandon Weeden, offensive tackle Mitchell Schwartz, defensive linemen Billy Winn and John Hughes, linebacker James-Michael Johnson and wide receiver-returner Travis Benjamin. The other part that puzzles me is the fact Lombari has only received one interview over the past five years and that was the 49ers two years ago. It just doesn't add up for me.




Dave from Kensington, Md.: Which position do you think the Steelers feel most confident with their current (non-free-agent) personnel, and consequently are least likely to spend a early-to-mid-round draft pick on: inside linebacker, nose tackle, quarterback or safety?

Hensley: Dave, in order of least importance, this is how I see it: quarterback, nose tackle, safety and inside linebacker. Yes, it would be beneficial to get a younger backup to develop behind Ben Roethlisberger, but it's nowhere close to being the same need as nose tackle, safety and inside linebacker. At nose tackle, the Steelers lose Casey Hampton but still have Steve McLendon and Alameda Ta'amu (even though he screwed up majorly last season). Pittsburgh should improve its depth at safety considering the age of Ryan Clark and Troy Polamalu (and Polamalu's injury history). The biggest need is inside linebacker because, even if Larry Foote comes back, you're not sure if Stevenson Sylvester can start in this league and when Sean Spence can come back from that brutal knee injury.




Ryan from Salt Lake City, Utah: I was wondering about the Bengals' potential linebacker moves coming up to the draft. With Vontaze Burfict's fantastic rookie season and Thomas Howard coming back from knee surgery, I feel like there is potential to get a big, run-stopping middle linebacker that would have a great chance to thrive his rookie season between our leading tacklers for the last two seasons. Thoughts?

Hensley: Ryan, the plan is to move Burfict inside in 2013. There was a report last week that the Bengals would only consider bringing back Rey Maualuga as an outside linebacker because the preference is to go with Burfict in the middle. It's uncertain whether the Bengals will re-sign Howard, who is a free agent in March. He has to prove he is healthy enough to play this season after going down with a season-ending ACL injury in a Week 2 practice.




Dirk from Everett, Wash.: What are the chances the Browns use some of that salary-cap space to try to lure LaRon Landry in at free safety? I'd love to see an experienced playmaker next to T.J. Ward.

Hensley: Dirk, the Browns should be active in free agency. I just don't think Landry is a good fit. He's too similar to T.J. Ward in that he is a physical presence who can make an impact in run support. The Browns need someone who is a free safety and be a factor in coverage. Also, with the amount of money it will take to get Landry, it's a gamble considering his injury history.




Hans from Bel Air, Md.: With the likely departure of Bryant McKinnie (unless he comes back as a bargain basement free agent), does this mean a return of "The Human Turnstile" aka Michael Oher to the Blind(ed) Side?

Hensley: Hans, I know you're not going to like this answer, but I see Oher going back to left tackle. The Ravens won't have the money to go after a legitimate left tackle like Jake Long and they don't draft high enough to get a tackle who can start immediately on the left side. Sure, there is a chance that McKinnie could come back, but the Ravens can't depend on him after his weight issues in minicamp and his absence at the start of training camp. General manager Ozzie Newsome has repeatedly said how much he likes the young guys on the offensive line. I believe he's telling everyone that the guys on the roster now will be the guys who will will start on the offensive line.




Charles from Augusta, W.Va.: So when Mel Kiper's and Todd McShay's second mock drafts came out, I found their picks for the Browns to be interesting. I had no problem with Mel's selection, but in Todd's draft he had Jarvis Jones falling to the Jets. Now I ask you: if Jarvis Jones falls to the Browns at No. 6, why wouldn't they take him? With the Browns' well-documented switch in defensive philosophy, it would seem like Jones would be a perfect fit in our defense now as a pass-rushing outside linebacker opposite of Jabaal Sheard who can also stop the run and drop-back and cover someone. What are your thoughts on this?

Hensley: Charles, I'm in total agreement with you. If Jarvis Jones, the linebacker out of Georgia, is there at No. 6, the Browns would be crazy to pass him up. The big question is his medical history. Jones suffers from a condition called spinal stenosis, which is the narrowing of the vertebrae in his neck. The only way the Browns pass on him is if they're concerned that this condition will hinder his playing career.




Jody from Hastings, Pa.: Should the Steelers consider waiving LaMarr Woodley and keeping James Harrison? I know Woodley is younger but has been more injury-prone. Harrison had surgery late last season and played more games than Woodley. Your thoughts?

Hensley: Jody, there is a zero percent chance of this happening. The Steelers are disappointed in Woodley's season in 2012, but they're not giving up on him this quickly. Plus, the cap hit would be more than $8 million. The Pittsburgh coaching staff wants to keep Harrison. The front office, however, likely won't do it at his current $6.57 million salary. Harrison said he won't take a pay cut. The Steelers have to either be creative with some restructuring or part ways with the 2008 NFL Defensive Player of the Year.




Vince from Virginia Beach, Va.: If Ed Reed doesn't come back, what do you think of the idea of Jimmy Smith moving to safety? Lardarius Webb will be back and, with Corey Graham and Chykie Brown stepping up, wouldn't it be a cheaper option to just move Smith to safety?

Hensley: Moving a corner to safety is what you do to an aging player to get a few more years out of him, like a Rod Woodson or Charles Woodson (or anyone named Woodson, it seems). The Ravens still believe in Smith as a cornerback. If they didn't, he wouldn't have been on the field in the Super Bowl when they were backed up against their goal line. Shifting Smith to safety would be a desperation move. Even though Smith has been a disappointment so far, the Ravens are far from that point with him.




Karl from Rapid City, S.D.: Just a note to thank you for blogging the AFC North. I'm a Bengal fan and would prefer the division still be called the AFC Central.

Hensley: Thank for the note. Just hearing AFC Central, it makes me think of Three Rivers, Riverfront and Cleveland Municipal Stadiums. Those places housed good memories, but I don't think even the die-hard fans would like to go there.
Joe ThomasAP Photo/Paul SancyaJoe Thomas doesn't always get the recognition he deserves, but the anchor of Cleveland's front line may be the best left tackle in the league.
BEREA, Ohio -- With the recent retirement of the Seattle Seahawks' Walter Jones, the title of NFL’s best left tackle is open for debate.

According to Cleveland Browns head coach Eric Mangini, Joe Thomas deserves to be one of the first players in that discussion.

"I think he's gotta be in any of those conversations," Mangini said of his left tackle. "You have to discuss [Thomas] with whoever you want to put him with."

Thomas doesn't get the national recognition he deserves, in part, because of the market he plays in and the team he plays for. The Browns have just one playoff appearance since returning to the NFL in 1999. But ask any general manager, coach or most players, and Thomas might be the first name mentioned in the best left tackle conversation. Jake Long of the Miami Dolphins and Jason Peters of the Philadelphia Eagles also merit consideration.

"I can't complain about anything," Thomas said. "I've been voted to the Pro Bowl and All-Pro and stuff like that, and those aren't really things I worry about too much. When we start winning -- hopefully this year -- the recognition for everybody will come to an even greater level."

Thomas laughed Friday when it was mentioned that he has played for three regimes and three general managers in his four seasons in Cleveland. It's kind of a cruel joke that one of the NFL's elite players has experienced so much turnover and chaos in his young career.

Since 2007, Thomas has been a calming influence for the Browns. Drama, in-fighting, constant losing and major changes have summed up Cleveland football for the past decade.

[+] EnlargeJake Delhomme
Nick Laham/Getty ImagesThomas allowed only one sack in 2009, a fact that is sure to please new quarterback Jake Delhomme.
"It's been tough," said Thomas, who has been selected to three Pro Bowls. "A lot of good friends have come and gone -- players, coaches and administrators in the organization. It seems like every year we’ve been starting over and developing new relationships. But I'm really happy with the guys we have right now. I'm excited to build those relationships, and hopefully we have our core together and build for a successful run."

Expectations are again low in Cleveland. Many project the Browns to finish last in an ultra-competitive AFC North behind the Cincinnati Bengals, Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers. All of Cleveland's division rivals finished with winning records in 2009. The Browns were 5-11.

One of the keys to success will rest with new quarterback Jake Delhomme, who has impressed Thomas. Coming off the worst year of his career in Carolina, Delhomme already has been criticized in Cleveland.

"[The offensive line] is taking huge ownership in being able to give him that opportunity to have a great year and lead this team to a lot of wins," said Thomas, who will protect Delhomme's blind side. "I think keeping him upright, giving him the time he needs, and me being the leader of the offensive line is important."

Thomas, Cleveland's No. 3 overall pick in 2007, is just now approaching his prime. When Mangini was asked about finding holes in Thomas’ game, he was stumped.

"Well, he only gave up one sack last year. It's a very small margin for error with sacks," Mangini said. "So he's pretty good."

Cleveland’s highly-touted '07 rookie class was led by first-round picks Thomas and quarterback Brady Quinn. They were expected to take the Browns to the next level. But four seasons later, Quinn is gone, dealt to the Denver Broncos in the offseason, and only three players (Thomas, Eric Wright and Brandon McDonald) remain from that draft class. The Browns were 10-6 in Thomas' rookie year but missed the playoffs.

"Any rookie that comes in, you expect to win the Super Bowl, expect to play in the playoffs and have a great career," Thomas said. "With the rookie class we came in here with, you kind of envisioned the way things are in college, where you come in with 20 guys, play four or five years, have good success and make great friends.

"Unfortunately, when you're not winning, a lot of guys [get moved], and there's only a few guys left in my draft class. It's been tough, but it's part of business. You can never foresee what happens in the NFL."

Thomas, who has two years left on his contract, hopes to sign another long-term contract with the Browns soon.

"I would definitely love to stay here," Thomas said. "It's something that we haven’t even talked about. It's in the future and those things take care of themselves. What matters is what happens on the field. But I love Cleveland, and I love the Browns' organization."

Will Ravens' Reed play in Pro Bowl?

January, 21, 2010
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While multiple players are pulling out of the Pro Bowl, one very interesting name remains: Ed Reed.

Reed
The Baltimore Ravens safety is contemplating retirement following last weekend's 20-3 postseason loss to the Indianapolis Colts. Because of a nerve condition in his neck, Reed says he’s "50-50" on returning next season. Yet, as of Thursday, Reed is still on the AFC roster and scheduled to take the field again in less than two weeks.

But I don't expect that to happen.

Reed will visit with doctors soon to help determine his playing future, and it's highly unlikely playing in the Pro Bowl will be recommended. In addition to his neck, Reed also suffered groin and foot injuries during the season.

Numerous players, such as Green Bay Packers cornerback Charles Woodson, Miami Dolphins offensive tackle Jake Long and quarterbacks Ben Roethlisberger of the Pittsburgh Steelers and Tom Brady of the New England Patriots, have backed out of the Pro Bowl to recover from injuries.

With so many thoughts on health, family and retirement, Reed probably didn't get to his decision just yet. But look for Reed to soon join a long list of Pro Bowl players this year who said "Thanks, but no thanks."

Coach of the year debate

December, 25, 2008
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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.

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