AFC North: UFL
Often the struggling teams make significant coaching changes, and that was the case with the Cincinnati Bengals (4-12) and Cleveland Browns (5-11). But playoff teams like the Baltimore Ravens (12-4) and even the Super Bowl runner-up Pittsburgh Steelers (12-4) also experienced some turnover on their staff.
Here is a look at each change and what it means for the division:
In: Head coach Pat Shurmur, defensive coordinator Dick Jauron and a new staff.
Out: Former head coach Eric Mangini, former defensive coordinator Rob Ryan and former offensive coordinator Brian Daboll.
What happened? Mangini entered this past season on the hot seat and went 5-11 for the second consecutive year. There were a lot of philosophical differences between Mangini and Browns president Mike Holmgren. So when the team wasn't winning, it made for an easy decision to go in a different direction. Enter Shurmur, who was a surprise hire for Cleveland. Shurmur has no prior head-coaching experience and wasn't on the radar of other teams. The Browns have pretty much cleaned house and hired a new staff, which includes Jauron and veteran defensive assistant Ray Rhodes.
Analysis: Last year, Holmgren was dumbfounded by some of the things the Browns were doing, particularly on offense. But Holmgren and Shurmur share many of the same views, which will give Holmgren more say in what goes on, and I think being on the same page is important for any team. The Browns are one of the few teams this year that will change both their offense and defense. Cleveland will go to a West Coast offense under Shurmur, who did not hire an offensive coordinator and will call the plays. The Browns also will switch to a 4-3 defense, which is something they haven't run since 2004. Shurmur is taking on a lot of responsibility as a rookie head coach and de facto offensive coordinator, which raises some concerns. Cleveland hopes veteran coaches like Jauron and Rhodes will take care of the defense, giving Shurmur one less thing to worry about. In terms of personnel, the Browns have a lot of work to do. They need better receivers on offense if they plan to pass more and playmakers at defensive end to run a 4-3 scheme.
In: Offensive coordinator Jay Gruden, receivers coach James Urban.
Out: Former offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski, former receivers coach Mike Sheppard.
What happened? Changes were inevitable for Cincinnati's coaching staff this season. There was a lot of unrest among players internally who didn't like the scheme on offense. The Bengals entered the season with playoff aspirations but had an abysmal four-win campaign. Quarterback Carson Palmer was so unhappy that he demanded a trade after the season. Receivers Terrell Owens publicly criticized the coaching staff several times and starting tailback Cedric Benson said he was not returning if Bratkowski was still the offensive coordinator. Bratkowski was let go and later hired by the Atlanta Falcons, and Sheppard went to the Jacksonville Jaguars. Gruden, a former UFL head coach and the brother of former NFL coach Jon Gruden, was hired as offensive coordinator, and Urban was hired as receivers coach from the Philadelphia Eagles.
Analysis: Cincinnati will be the second team in the division implementing a West Coast offense. Gruden also says he wants to make sure Cincinnati has a power running game, which is needed in this division. When the Bengals were at their best in 2009, they ran the football effectively and played tough defense. Cincinnati went away from that last year and had an awful season. How Gruden's offense translates from the UFL to the NFL remains to be seen. Cincinnati also has to handle a lot of personnel issues. Will Palmer retire? If so, who will be the new quarterback? Should the team trade Chad Ochocinco? Will Benson return? Cincinnati will have a very busy offseason trying to figure out these questions before putting together its new offense.
The UFL's Hartford Colonials are "interested" in former Cleveland Browns head coach Eric Mangini to replace another former Browns coach, Chris Palmer. Palmer recently became offensive coordinator of the Tennessee Titans.
"That doesn’t mean we're in negotiations or that he's going to be the next coach, but he's certainly on the list."
Don't look for this to happen, folks.
Mangini still has two years left on his contract with the Browns and will make millions of dollars from it. Therefore, I doubt we will see Mangini on the sidelines this upcoming season, especially if it's not in the NFL. The only reason this is news is because a UFL owner publicly threw out the bait in the event Mangini would be interested.
Mangini has already participated in television analysis and discussed a consultant job with the Miami Dolphins since being let go by Cleveland in January. He can stay active in football in various ways, while still getting the rest of his money from the Browns without dabbling in the minor leagues.
What it means: The Ravens go into their bye week 5-2. Although the record is impressive, the Ravens have plenty of room to improve after recently losing to the New England Patriots and barely escaping against the Buffalo Bills.
What I liked: Ravens safety Ed Reed was stellar in his 2010 debut from hip surgery. He recorded four tackles and two interceptions against Buffalo. Reed decided late to suit up, and the Ravens were grateful that he did. Linebacker Ray Lewis also had a huge forced fumble in overtime. Other than that, Baltimore didn't earn many style points Sunday. The Ravens won't be happy with their overall performance, but it's always better going into the bye with a win.
What I didn't like: On paper, there is no reason Buffalo should have been able to nearly pull off the huge upset on the road. The Ravens fell behind by two touchdowns early and it was a battle the rest of the game. Baltimore's pass defense was shredded by career backup quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, who threw for 374 yards and four touchdowns. There was talk of whether the Bills could beat a UFL team this week, which surely inspired Buffalo to show some pride and give its best effort. With the way Baltimore played Sunday, it probably would have lost to 30 other NFL teams on Sunday. Fortunately, the Ravens played the winless Bills (0-6)
What's next: The Ravens will have two weeks to rest and get better after the bye week. They will host the Miami Dolphins on November 7 in what should be another tough game against the AFC East. So far, Baltimore is 2-1 against the AFC East this season.
Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 7:
Upset linebacker: Steelers Pro Bowl linebacker James Harrison was so disgruntled by his $75,000 fine this week that he was excused from practice Wednesday and briefly contemplated retirement. Now he's back and vows not to change his aggressive playing style despite increased scrutiny by the NFL on big hits. We will see how much or how little Harrison adjusts Sunday against Miami. Any big hit the league deems illegal could cost him a lot of money, as the NFL already set the bar for Harrison this week at $75,000. Or he could be suspended. The Week 6 big hits by Harrison gave Cleveland Browns receivers Josh Cribbs and Mohamed Massaquoi concussions.
Bye-week blues: For many teams, the bye week is an opportunity to regroup and then play their best football. But that hasn't been the case recently for the Cincinnati Bengals. During the Marvin Lewis era, Cincinnati is only 2-4-1 in games following the bye. The Bengals have several issues that need to be addressed heading into Sunday's important game against the Atlanta Falcons. Cincinnati cannot afford to fall to 2-4 in a deep AFC.
Quarterback dilemma: Browns rookie quarterback Colt McCoy will get his second career start Sunday, against the New Orleans Saints. Coming off a relatively good debut against Pittsburgh, McCoy could make it tough on Browns coach Eric Mangini with another good performance. The plan was not to play the third-round pick at all this season. But a pair of severe ankle sprains to Jake Delhomme and Seneca Wallace forced McCoy into action last week. If McCoy pulls off the major upset and beats the Saints, the job is his. Otherwise, the Browns will have to evaluate their quarterback situation during the bye.
Finish strong: The Baltimore Ravens are disappointed in their overtime loss to the New England Patriots. But the Ravens have a golden opportunity to head into the bye week 5-2 with a win Sunday against the lowly Buffalo Bills (0-5). There is some pressure at home on Baltimore, as it cannot have a letdown against arguably the NFL's worst team. There is already conversation this week of whether the Bills could beat an UFL team, which is embarrassing, but also could inspire Buffalo to bring its best effort at M&T Bank Stadium.
So the quest for another perfect week continues. Here are the AFC North blog picks for Week 7 (all times are ET):
Cleveland Browns (1-5) at New Orleans Saints (4-2), Sunday at 1 p.m.
Skinny: This week the Browns talked so much about James Harrison that I question their focus on the reigning Super Bowl champs. Cleveland goes 1-6 into its bye week.
Pick: Saints, 28-13
Buffalo Bills (0-5) at Baltimore Ravens (4-2), Sunday at 1 p.m.
Skinny: Tim Graham of the AFC East blog wonders if a UFL team can beat the Bills. That's enough confirmation for me.
Pick: Ravens, 30-7
Pittsburgh Steelers (4-1) at Miami Dolphins (3-2), Sunday at 1 p.m.
Skinny: The test gets tougher for Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. But the Steelers make enough plays to leave Miami with a win.
Pick: Steelers, 21-14
Cincinnati Bengals (2-3) at Atlanta Falcons (4-2), Sunday at 1 p.m.
Skinny: I expect Cincinnati's best effort because this is an important game. But I'm still not sure the Bengals fixed all their issues.
Pick: Falcons, 24-21
Last week: 1-1
Comment: At least two games are in the bag this week.
Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker
Here are the most interesting stories Monday in the AFC North:
- It turns out Cleveland Browns receiver Braylon Edwards didn't draw any overwhelming offers this offseason and likely will stay put in 2009.
Morning take: As Anquan Boldin and the Arizona Cardinals also found out, most teams have smartened up on the going rate for receivers. I've said for a long time that offenses should be built from the inside out, and thus receivers are final link in the chain -- not the most important. It appears the days of getting a first- and third-round pick for that position could be nearing an end.
- The Cincinnati Bengals have a new motto for this season: "Fight back!"
Morning take: And I saw a lot of fighting at last week's three-day minicamp. Sure, it was amongst teammates. But it could help make the Bengals a tougher team in the long run.
- Former Baltimore Ravens return specialist B.J. Sams was taken last week in the UFL draft by San Francisco.
Morning take: Sams was an exciting returner in Baltimore until breaking his leg in 2007. Let's see if he's able to jumpstart his career again outside of the NFL.
- The Pittsburgh Steelers only have two unsigned draft picks remaining.
Morning take: First-rounder Evander "Ziggy" Hood and third-rounder Kraig Urbik are those two players, and no one expects any issues with them in the next six weeks.