AFC North: Michael Turner

Every morning, grab a cup of coffee and get your AFC North wake-up call here:

Carson Palmer declined to reveal why he decided not to report to the Bengals in an interview with The Cincinnati Enquirer, but the former franchise quarterback acknowledged it was a "selfish decision."

Still, that didn't stop Palmer from watching every Bengals game this season and being happy with the Bengals' surprising 4-2 start.

“As much as some might find it hard to believe, I want them to succeed," Palmer told the newspaper. "There are a lot of great guys on that team and there is a young, talented group. They look real good."

Palmer was traded from the Bengals to the Oakland Raiders on Tuesday. When he decided to hold out, he never expected it would take until the NFL trading deadline before a deal would get done.

So why did Palmer choose to sit out instead of playing for Cincinnati?

“It was a number of different things but I spoke my peace with them [the organization]. It was just time,” Palmer said. “I know this was a selfish decision. I had my meeting at the end of last season with [Bengals owner Mike Brown] and said the best thing to do was to move on and rebuild with the young talent and nucleus that they had. I’m glad that he realized that.”

Hensley's slant: Yes, everyone can agree that Palmer was selfish and Brown was stubborn. Let's just thank the Raiders for their generosity to get this deal done so Palmer and the Bengals can move on after a 10-month stalemate. This has to go down as the longest divorce in NFL history.
  • BROWNS: Injuries are becoming an increasing concern for Cleveland, which practiced without running back Peyton Hillis (hamstring), cornerback Joe Haden (knee), linebacker Scott Fujita (concussion) and backup safety Ray Ventrone (hamstring). "I can't tell you the status of all four of these guys for the game Sunday," coach Pat Shurmur told The Cleveland Plain Dealer. Hensley's slant: Even though Hillis hasn't contributed much, his loss would be significant against Seattle, which leads the NFL in fewest yards allowed per carry (3.1). The Seahawks haven't given up more than 70 yards to a running back this season including the 49ers' Frank Gore (59 yards), the Steelers' Rashard Mendenhall (66), the Falcons' Michael Turner (70) and the Giants' Ahmad Bradshaw (58).
  • RAVENS: Head coach John Harbaugh said the presence of receiver Anquan Boldin factored into the team's decision not to keep Derrick Mason and Todd Heap this offseason. Harbaugh said via The Baltimore Sun: “Because you knew you had Anquan there with the young guys and Anquan being that kind of go-to guy that [quarterback] Joe [Flacco] could have this year and try to make sure that those guys kind of develop that relationship, and I think you’ll see it growing. It was there early last year, and it’s something we need to keep building.” Hensley's slant: Have to disagree here because Flacco has never had the same chemistry with Boldin as he did with Mason or Heap. Before his 132-yard performance last Sunday, Boldin averaged 55.5 yards receiving in his first four games. He also was held to 15 yards or less receiving in his final three regular-season games last season. The Ravens need to continue to build this connection between Flacco and Boldin, particularly with Lee Evans remaining sidelined.
  • STEELERS: Ben Roethlisberger tried to persuade offensive coordinator Bruce Arians to go no huddle in the fourth quarter last Sunday in an attempt to get the Steelers out of their slump. "A lot of it is that I am calling the plays, so I can see the defenses," Roethlisberger told The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. "When a play is called from the sidelines, it's based off tendencies, which when you have a good coordinator like we do they know tendencies pretty well. I have a feel for who is playing well and who is doing good things. It's a rhythm thing." Hensley's slant: The Steelers need to do something to shake up an offense that ranks 22nd in the NFL in scoring. When Roethlisberger suggests something, Pittsburgh should listen. This isn't a rookie looking to gain more control of the offense. This is a two-time Super Bowl-winning quarterback who knows the pulse of the team.

Take your pick recap: Ravens vs. Falcons

November, 11, 2010
11/11/10
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Our latest "Take your pick" involves Thursday night's big matchup between the Baltimore Ravens (6-2) and Atlanta Falcons (6-2). This is the first Thursday game of the season, and it should be a great one.

Who will win this battle? Here are responses from our division inbox and AFC North Twitter:

Cooper from Baltimore writes: A homer pick, but I'm taking the Ravens. Ravens must continue the pass rush we saw Sunday and force a couple turnovers on defense to win. Both teams have a potent offense, but here's the difference: Atlanta overall 21st defensively, Ravens 9th.

Alex from MD writes: Joe Flacco and Matt Ryan have almost identical numbers since coming into the league. But I believe Flacco will prove at this point in their careers he is the better QB by going to Atlanta on a short week and beating a good Falcons team. Let's say Ravens, 27-13.

Diz17 via Twitter writes: The NFC is soft. A 6-2 record in the NFC isn't the same as 6-2 in AFC. Ravens will show the Falcons how the AFC rolls.

The_Mikebennett via Twitter writes: Falcons need a quality win and Matt Ryan and Roddy White will expose Ravens' secondary. Falcons have top-five rush D to keep Ray Rice in the gate.

Lastadamvb via Twitter writes: Um, Falcons and Matty Ice don't lose at home. Ravens come up short.

Agent45 via Twitter writes: If Falcons special teams show up with their heads on straight, Falcons improve on Ryan's 17-1 record in the GA Dome, 24-17.

BaltimoreBoy via Twitter writes: Ravens. If we can beat Pitt at Heinz field and at the Jets, plus the last game at Texas Stadium, we can win anywhere!

Kevin Blackwell from New York writes: I like Atlanta to win at home!

Brandon Crawford from Sykesville, Md., writes: This game will be decided by a touchdown or less, but in the end the Ravens will win. You can argue that the Ravens are the most consistent team in football right now. But what's scary is that this team is improving every week and are getting stronger as the year rolls on.

Dominique from Baltimore writes: Honestly, since I lived in both cities and call them both my hometowns, I could say the Ravens D don't step up and stop Michael Turner, they could be in trouble. If Flacco gets time and hits Rice out the backfield, like the Miami game, then the Ravens have an big edge. But in the battle of my hometowns, I'll take the Ravens in a squeaker, 24-21.

AFC North final say

James Walker: This should be one of the best games of Week 10. Coming off a solid weekend of predictions, the AFC North blog will pick this game and others in the division next.

Bengals too sloppy to be contenders

October, 24, 2010
10/24/10
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BengalsAP Photo/Dave MartinThe Bengals have plenty of talent on the roster but are missing a winning ingredient.
ATLANTA -- The Cincinnati Bengals have plenty of talent. They also showed heart and character by not folding after a terrible first half Sunday in their mind-numbing 39-32 loss to the Atlanta Falcons.

But the Bengals lack a major ingredient and it could cost them their season: attention to detail.

Coming off their bye week, the Bengals (2-4) quickly fell behind by three touchdowns and committed silly mistakes throughout against Atlanta. Cincinnati had two weeks to prepare for this important game but often looked as though it skipped practice and merely showed up at the Georgia Dome. The Bengals made a run in the second half, outscoring Atlanta 29-15, but didn't have enough to overcome their sloppiness.

"It hurts," Bengals safety Chris Crocker said. "All year we've kind of hurt ourselves more than the other team. Going forward, that's what we will look at. You can't afford to beat yourself and beat the other team. That's too hard; teams are too good."

Here's a partial list of Sunday's painful errors:

  • The Bengals had 12 players on the field twice in the first half -- once on offense and once on defense. That's inexcusable for an NFL team, especially one with playoff aspirations and two weeks to prepare. Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis took the blame for the offensive penalty but seemed more upset the defense got the same flag coming out of a timeout. "We can't have that," Lewis said.
  • The Bengals, whose tackling and execution on defense were awful, gave up a season high for yards (452) as well as points. Falcons receiver Roddy White had 11 catches for 201 yards and two touchdowns, and tailback Michael Turner rushed for 121 yards and two more touchdowns. The Bengals were ranked No. 4 overall in total defense a year ago and returned many of the same players, but they haven’t come close to matching the play of the 2009 unit.
  • After the game, Cincinnati quarterback Carson Palmer talked about miscommunication and receivers running wrong routes. For example, on a no-huddle play, Chad Ochocinco cut his route short and Palmer threw about 20 yards too deep. The offense didn't seem on the same page until the second half. "When you're making mental mistakes, you're not in the right place, you got too many guys on the field -- whatever it may be -- the only way to overcome things like that is to keep working," Palmer said. "We have to keep trying to figure out how not to let those things happen."
  • Cincinnati offensive tackle Andre Smith, the sixth overall pick in the 2009 draft, didn't know the snap count twice and had two costly false start penalties. The Bengals had seven penalties total.
  • With Cincinnati trying to rally with about nine minutes left in the fourth quarter, tailback Cedric Benson fumbled untouched at Atlanta's 40 while trying to make a move on the defender. That was the last legitimate chance the Bengals had for a comeback.

The Bengals also didn't win enough one-on-one matchups, particularly on defense. Each detail is minor until it snowballs, and that's when it becomes a major issue.

The Bengals have been dealing with these problems for more than a year, but this season it's costing them games. With the Pittsburgh Steelers (5-1) and Baltimore Ravens (5-2) running away in the AFC North division, the Bengals can't afford more losses. For Cincinnati to go 10-6 with a good shot at the postseason, it must go 8-2 the rest of the way against a tough first-place schedule. In Weeks 8 and 9, the Bengals play host to the Miami Dolphins (3-3) and Steelers.

"I know a lot of people around us, if they haven't given up yet, they're about to give up on us," Palmer said. "We're not going to do that. ... We expect to be written off, but we're not going to write ourselves off."

Cincinnati, one of the league's biggest disappointments, has playoff-caliber talent but too often executes like a five-win team. So who do you blame and how do you fix it? Is it the fault of the coaching staff? Are penalties and lack of execution on the players or a combination of both?

"I have no idea," said Ochocinco, one of many players in a sullen locker room who didn't have answers.

Cincinnati, just 3-8 in its past 11 games, hasn't had back-to-back winning seasons in 28 years. Barring a sudden turnaround, that streak will continue ... all because the Bengals don't take care of the little things.

Steelers have NFL's best defense

September, 23, 2010
9/23/10
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Mike Tomlin didn't understand the criticism before the season. With the Pittsburgh Steelers without Ben Roethlisberger for the first four games of the season, football experts were writing off his team when all along he knew he had an elite defense to lean on.

Two wins later, everyone else (including the AFC North blog) is starting to come around.

"We're a little bit annoyed [about] the premature reporting of our death," Tomlin told reporters Sunday after pounding the Tennessee Titans 19-11. "We're pleased that we're 2-0, but we're not astounded by it. We expect to win."

As they head into Sunday's game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2-0), the Steelers are proving their defense can carry the load while they await the return of Roethlisberger, who must sit two more games for violating the league's personal conduct policy.

What have we learned from Pittsburgh's fast start? According to Scouts Inc.'s Matt Williamson, the Steelers have the NFL's best defense.

Aaron Smith
Saed Hindash/The Star-Ledger/US PresswireA healthy Aaron Smith has paid dividends for Pittsburgh.
"I don't even know who's No. 2," Williamson said. "I think the Steelers are far and away the best defense in the league right now."

The AFC North blog agrees, and here are seven reasons:

1. Troy Polamalu and Aaron Smith are back

Skinny: Over the years, the Steelers' defense hasn't been the same when Polamalu and/or Smith are out of the lineup. Polamalu missed 12 games with a knee injury in 2009 and Smith missed 11 games with a torn rotator cuff. Both players are healthy and playing well.

Scouts Inc.'s Matt Williamson: "They are both Pro Bowl players. Smith is about the best 3-4 defensive end I can remember, and he's been playing great. Smith is the prototype for Pittsburgh's defense. He is so fundamentally sound, so powerful and such a good run-stopper that he demands a lot of double-teams. It's easy to overlook what he brings, but it will be foolish to overlook it. Troy Polamalu is the wild card. He's Dick LeBeau's favorite little gadget to play with. When he's not there, the Steelers take half of the playbook and throw it away. With him, they can expand it like no other defense in the league."

2. Steelers force turnovers

Skinny: Pittsburgh is sixth in the league in yards allowed and leads the league in turnovers with eight. Many good defenses get stops, but no team creates havoc like the Steelers. Last week, Pittsburgh had four fumbles and three interceptions and held Chris Johnson to 34 yards rushing. The outstanding play of the defense stands in contrast to the poor play of the offense, which ranks 31st.

Scouts Inc.: "The Steelers stress run defense so much that they make teams one-dimensional very, very quickly. It seems like Chris Johnson was just going through the motions in the second half, and the same with Atlanta's Michael Turner in Week 1. Opponents realize they're beating their heads into the ground, then LeBeau starts dialing up blitzes when he knows you have to throw. That's when it gets ugly. That's when the quarterback takes a lot of hits and turnovers happen."

3. LeBeau is the NFL's best defensive coordinator

Skinny: LeBeau was inducted into the Hall of Fame this year as a defensive back for the Detroit Lions. But his overall contribution to the NFL as a player and coach will be his lasting legacy. LeBeau's invention of the zone blitz -- see Ron Jaworski's book excerpt here -- has revolutionized the way teams play defense. Although other teams now use zone-blitz principles, no team does it better than Pittsburgh.

[+] EnlargeDick LeBeau
Jared Wickerham/Getty ImagesDick LeBeau is the mastermind behind the Pittsburgh Steelers' zone-blitz scheme.
Scouts Inc.: "The consistency year after year is just amazing. [Pittsburgh's defense ranked No. 5, No. 1, No. 1, No. 9 and No. 4 the past five years.] LeBeau obviously has good players. But they play very hard for him and he maximizes all of their abilities. As a coaching staff, I think they're exceptional at bringing players in to fit the scheme."

4. Championship experience

Skinny: The Steelers have an older defense with a lot of experience. Every defensive starter in Pittsburgh has a Super Bowl ring. Several -- such as Polamalu, Smith, Casey Hampton, James Farrior and Brett Keisel -- have two rings. This creates confidence when the big moment arrives.

Scouts Inc.: "I think it's huge. There are people who will say the opposite, and detractors will say they're too old. They are one of the older defenses around, but it's kind of a generational thing. There's a new generation of Steeler defenders growing up right now --- Lawrence Timmons, LaMarr Woodley, Ziggy Hood -- guys that have only been in the league a few years. I think experience goes a long way if you have depth."

5. Best OLB combination in the NFL

Skinny: A few teams have a Pro Bowl outside linebacker. But the Steelers have two: James Harrison and Woodley. That makes it incredibly difficult for opponents. They have combined for five sacks in two games. Harrison (three sacks) and Woodley (two sacks) also are great at setting the edge against the run, which is why you rarely see running backs get huge gains outside against Pittsburgh.

Scouts Inc.: "The Steelers recognize that the defense doesn't work without great outside linebackers. The most important components are a stud, run-stuffing nose tackle and pressure off the edge. The defensive line is not going to rush the passer; that's not their job. So those edge rushers have to be special, and year after year in Pittsburgh they are."

6. Emergence of linebacker Lawrence Timmons

Skinny: Timmons waited two years to get significant playing time in Pittsburgh. Then, in his third season, he had his ups and downs as a full-time starter. But Timmons is coming into his own in 2010, leading the Steelers with 26 tackles in two games.

Scouts Inc.: "He's a rare, physical specimen. Timmons is the prototype run-and-hit linebacker. Honestly, I think he's more like Derrick Brooks than a 3-4 inside linebacker. Timmons is explosive and has size, strength and speed. He changes directions well and has everything you want physically. I've been saying all offseason that this guy is ready for the huge breakout season. Timmons was only a one-year starter at Florida State. He was behind Ernie Sims and didn't play very much when he came out as a junior. He's still very young and maturing physically. But now he's becoming LeBeau's second-level Troy Polamalu. LeBeau can do anything with him, whether it's spy on Vince Young, blitz like crazy. He's great in pursuit."

7. Quality depth

Skinny: Linebacker Larry Foote, a starter for Pittsburgh's championship team in 2005, is now a backup. Without Hampton last week, backup nose tackle Chris Hoke helped the Steelers contain Johnson. Pittsburgh also has Hood, a 2009 first-round draft pick, rotating snaps on the defensive line.

Scouts Inc.: "You can't just play Aaron Smith and Brett Keisel every snap of the season and expect them to be real productive in the playoffs. You have to rotate guys in and have that depth. The interesting thing is injuries will happen. So teams have more depth now than they will a month from now or two months from now. But it is very important."

Final words

There are other great defenses -- the Baltimore Ravens, Green Bay Packers and New York Jets belong in that category. But no team has all the ingredients Pittsburgh's defense has.

Steelers-Falcons halftime notes

September, 12, 2010
9/12/10
2:25
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PITTSBURGH -- The Steelers and the Atlanta Falcons are tied, 3-3, at halftime.

Here are some notes and observations:
  • This game is going just as I expected. The Steelers are playing great defense and mostly conservative on offense. Pittsburgh is making just enough plays to put a few points on the board, which is the best way for the Steelers to win. The few times the Steelers started opening up the offense, Dixon threw an interception to Atlanta linebacker Mike Peterson and another near interception before halftime. Both balls were terribly underthrown.
  • Pittsburgh's front seven is winning in the trenches. Atlanta running back Michael Turner isn’t finding many holes to run through, and at times Pittsburgh is getting decent pressure on Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan.
  • Backup running back Isaac Redman is really good in short-yardage situations. Redman gained two tough first downs running the ball in the first half. It’s already an upgrade over last season when Pittsburgh struggled in those spots.
  • Steelers kicker Jeff Reed made the second-longest field goal of his career Sunday, nailing a 52-yarder in the first quarter. Reed missed a 55-yard attempt right before intermission.

AFC North evening links

September, 8, 2010
9/08/10
7:00
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Here are the latest happenings Wednesday evening in the AFC North:
  • The status of Baltimore Ravens cornerback Lardarius Webb is still up in the air for Monday's game against the New York Jets.
  • Receiver Antonio Bryant, who was recently released by the Cincinnati Bengals, officially filed a $3.1 million grievance against the team.
  • Here is one prediction for Sunday's game between the Cleveland Browns and Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
  • Atlanta Falcons running back Michael Turner will provide a stiff challenge for the Pittsburgh Steelers' defense.
AP Photo/Rob Carr



The Ravens' offense made significant strides last season, and is looking to take the next step this year under the direction of offensive coordinator Cam Cameron.



Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker


BALTIMORE, Md. -- Cam Cameron has a quiet confidence about him this season. It's a type of optimism that comes from a coach feeling he knows a secret that the rest of the league has yet to discover.

The reason for Cameron's enthusiasm is the Baltimore Ravens' offense. For the first time in a long time, it was a watchable unit in 2008. The Ravens were No. 11 in points scored (24.1 per game) and No. 18 in yards (324 yards per game), which were both improvements from the previous season.

Now the engine behind it believes Baltimore's offense is ready to take the next step. As an organization, the Ravens have always been dominated by defense, but it's Cameron's goal to balance the team and put more points on the board in 2009.

"I know our personnel a lot better now and I think it's critical," Cameron said. "Everything we do is based on what our guys can do -- period. It all starts with that. We try to take what everybody does best and then blend it together. We don't really try to make guys something they aren't. There are certain things we'd prefer to do, but if it doesn't fit a player, we don't do it."








AP Photo/Gail Burton



Cam Cameron's creative offense helped the Ravens average 24.1 points per game last season.


Baltimore certainly had its limitations last year. The Ravens played a rookie quarterback and just one Pro Bowl skill player -- fullback Le'Ron McClain. But Cameron used his creativity to get the most out of his players as the Ravens advanced all the way to the AFC title game.

The Ravens incorporated a "Suggs package," which was their version of the Wildcat offense. There were tricky misdirections, the use of an unbalanced line, and a three-headed monster featuring running backs McClain, Willis McGahee and Ray Rice.

"The guy is a genius," McClain said. "He makes it all look easy. He's one of the smart ones, and I think he's one of the best [offensive coordinators] in the league."

Offensive coordinators are usually tied closely with their quarterbacks, and that is certainly the case with Cameron and second-year player Joe Flacco. Cameron protected his rookie quarterback at the start of last season and slowly began to loosen the reins.

Cameron continued to give Flacco more and more information this offseason to see what he could handle. The results are impressive.

"
He's improving at such a fast rate that I'm trying not to put any preconceived ideas on what he is," Cameron said. "I think his potential is almost limitless."

New wrinkles are constantly being added to the offense.

In Monday's 24-23 preseason victory over the New York Jets, Baltimore ran a Statue of Liberty play at the goal line for the first time. Flacco faked a quick pass, hid the ball, then gave Rice a behind-the-back handoff up the middle for a 3-yard touchdown run.

"My ballhandling was kind of wrong," Flacco said after the game. "We did a little bait-and-throw handoff and I didn't do it right. It still worked. So I'm happy."

Many of Cameron's inspirations are a product of previous stops during his career.

Cameron said he learned a variation of the Wildcat not from last year's Miami Dolphins, but way before that when he coached with Norv Turner with the Washington Redskins. In the 1990s, Turner occasionally put return specialist and former college quarterback Brian Mitchell in the backfield.

"We used to do all that stuff with Mitchell," Cameron said. "I remember one year he got two touchdowns against Denver running the option. There were some versions of it, but Brian Mitchell ... was the first time I was ever exposed to it. Then we ran a ton of versions of it in college at Indiana when I had Antwaan Randle El."

Cameron wants to get all of his players involved. So when Troy Smith returned from a viral infection last season and was the backup quarterback, Cameron went back to his college roots to incorporate Smith into the offense.

Cameron recalled that Smith ran a lot of shotgun option/handoff plays at Ohio State. So Cameron put in similar option plays for Smith to get him back in his comfort zone, and Baltimore's variation of the Wildcat offense was born.








John Sommers II/Icon SMI



Joe Flacco's "potential is almost limitless" according to Cameron.


"Troy did it right off the bat. He made it look easy," Cameron said. "We could run it every down if we wanted to. He's that good at it."

Other unconventional looks in the offense such as the unbalanced line and three-headed monster came from prior experiences.

Using an extra tackle in place of a tight end to create a run strength has been around for approximately 100 years, Cameron said. A lot of college teams use it, but you rarely see it in the NFL. Cameron implemented it at Indiana.

The three-headed monster was an idea born way before Cameron's coaching career. Cameron said that when he was a high school quarterback, his team had three very good running backs and it was his job to keep everyone happy while still winning games.

"I was fortunate enough to call my own plays in high school," Cameron said. "Basically, I had to keep all three involved, know what their strengths are and let them all get a few touchdowns. It's not as easy as it seems. Running backs want the ball and they should. The great ones do."

Before arriving in Baltimore, Cameron first tried the three-headed monster approach on a lesser scale as offensive coordinator of the San Diego Chargers. There he had LaDainian Tomlinson, Michael Turner and Darren Sproles.

But Tomlinson, a future Hall of Famer, was the feature back and received the bulk of the carries while Turner and Sproles fought for the scraps. Cameron is more balanced with the Ravens, where he can go with the hot hand and change his feature back depending on the game.

"As a running back, you can't be selfish," McClain said. "You never know. It could be one guy this week, and the next week we have to go out and do other stuff. So it may be my week, Willis' week or Ray's week. You got to go with the flow. You just always know that Cam has a plan."

Cameron said winning helped the system work last year. But Cameron and the Ravens are pushing to be better and not rest on last year's success.

"No matter what happened last year we came up short of our goal, which was to win the Super Bowl," Cameron said. "I think we have the right kind of veteran leadership here. We definitely have the right mindset coming from [head coach] John Harbaugh. There is nobody here that's satisfied with what happened last year, and we're not about to let any of the young players be satisfied because we're not playing for second place. Nobody else is in the league either. But here it's real."

Coach of the year debate

December, 25, 2008
12/25/08
12:00
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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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