AFC South: Joe Marciano
The Texans signed Greg Jones to replace James Casey as their fullback, plucking a player who’d been a staple for division rival Jacksonville. Jones is much more of a traditional fullback than Casey was. While he’s not the sort of pass-catching threat Casey was, he will be a better lead blocker for Arian Foster. With a one-year contract, he’s unlikely to be a long-term solution, as he will turn 32 in May.
Shane Lechler is the new punter, a free-agent addition replacing Donnie Jones. Lechler is obviously an excellent punter. The one concern is the Texans are not an excellent coverage team. While a linebacking corps that will be restocked in the draft and presumably healthier will help, I’ll be watching to see if Lechler outpunts his coverage, actually creating additional issues rather than helping to resolve them. Houston did hire Bob Ligashesky as an assistant for longtime special teams coach Joe Marciano.
J.J. Watt’s star continues to shine. After visiting troops in the Middle East, he belted home runs at an Astros batting practice and had a baby penguin in Galveston, Texas named after him.
The Colts took a look at former Oakland receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey, but no deal came together. Considering how general manager Ryan Grigson has worked in free agency, it seems unlikely a deal will come together now. Indianapolis has moved quickly to bring in the guys it wants, so it would seem the Colts decided to pass, or DHB didn’t jump to agree to what they may have offered. I think the team, which has made plenty of moves in free agency, can address wide receiver early in the draft.
The addition of veteran backup quarterback Matt Hasselbeck shows the Grigson-Chuck Pagano regime regard the position behind Andrew Luck differently than Bill Polian did when he was dealing with insurance for Peyton Manning late during his tenure in Indianapolis.
The Jaguars didn’t become players in the trade market for quarterback Matt Flynn. Smart move. The next signal caller that lands in Jacksonville needs to be more of a sure thing, and come at a more reasonable price than Flynn. Coach Gus Bradley obviously saw Flynn up close while working for the Seahawks. If he loved him, the Jaguars would have more likely shown some interest. Maybe they love Geno Smith or another quarterback in the draft. But I’ll be fine if they work hard on building the framework around the QB, play this season with Blaine Gabbert and Chad Henne. If neither emerges as a guy they can count on going forward, then it’s priority No. 1 a year from now.
Gabbert's talking excitedly about the competition ahead at quarterback. He didn't like comments from a nameless coach from the previous staff that called him "Blame Gabbert" and suggested the way he carries himself puts blame for his problems on everyone else. It's exactly how you'd expect him to react. But I believe there was some truth to it, and it's something the new staff could have to address.
The Titans took a look at former Jets wide receiver Chaz Schilens as well as former Bronco Brandon Stokley and former Texan Kevin Walter. The team has been eager to add a slot guy to its group, and while Stokley is going to be 37 when this season starts, he is the one guy of these three who could give the Titans something they lack, I believe.
Ropati Pitoitua is the newest member of the Titans defensive line, an area they’ve wanted to beef up. Now Pitoitua, at 6-foot-8 and 315 pounds, joins tackle Sammie Hill (6-4, 329) to provide that size upgrade. Pitoitua was the 10th free-agent addition for Tennessee this offseason. He figures to help shore up the run defense.
I was a bit surprised the Titans signed safety Bernard Pollard, who’s a solid player against the run but also a coverage liability. He’s an outspoken guy with a big attitude and I’d categorize him as more of a Gregg Williams guy than a Mike Munchak guy.
Marwan Maalouf was out after just one year in Indianapolis (replaced by Tom McMahon).
John Bonamego was out after just one year in Jacksonville (replaced by Mike Mallory, today.)
Alan Lowry was out after 14 years in the position in Tennessee (replaced by Nate Kaczor who was promoted from on staff.)
Houston’s Joe Marciano has been in the post since the Texans came into existence in 2002.
Rick Gosselin of The Dallas Morning News annually ranks every teams' special teams. In 22 kicking game categories he awards one point for the best and 32 for the worst. Minnesota grabbed the No. 1 spot with 253.5 points, and Carolina was worst at 486.
The AFC South scored quite poorly here, offering some rationale for the three ousters. Parenthetically, I've added Football Outsiders rankings, an explanation of which you can find here.)
16. Tennessee, 358.5 (19th)
24. Houston, 402 (32nd)
26. Jacksonville, 418 (25th)
27. Indianapolis, 423 (12th)
A team like the Jaguars suffers more from bad special teams than Houston and Indianapolis, I’d argue. Any team can get a big boost from special-teams play, but a bad team needs that boost more because it's less likely to get major plays from offense or defense. (That doesn't, however, mean they should be spending a third-round pick on a punter who punts 91 times all season.)
Solid, disciplined, well-coached play and schemes can do more to overcome average personnel in special teams than on offense or defense. Building teams are likely to be younger, and younger guys are generally more willing and able to sell out to cover a kickoff or block for a punt returner.
A good team like the Colts of the Bill Polian/Tony Dungy/Jim Caldwell era showed for a lot of years that, with a quarterback the caliber of Peyton Manning, disregarding or de-emphasizing coverage and return teams can be completely survivable.
Houston and Indianapolis were playoff teams this season, despite bad special teams. The playoff field was all over the map in Gosselin's ratings -- from the Vikings (No. 1) to the Redskins (No. 31).
The Titans ranked in the middle of the pack and special teams helped them more than they hurt them. That's a goal the other three teams can aspire to, at least to start an upward swing.
Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 8:
Road woes: The Colts know that if they are going to be playoff contenders in the AFC, they’ve got to break through on the road. They seek their first win away from Lucas Oil Stadium Sunday at LP Field. It would be their first road win since Dec. 26, 2010. Since then, the Colts have 10 straight road losses. Per ESPN Stats and Information, since 2006 only two AFC teams have had longer road losing streaks -- the Browns and Dolphins each lost 11 in a row. A loss would give the Colts their longest road losing streak since the 1981-82 seasons, when they lost 12 straight.
Forward progress: The Packers are moving the ball and scoring points, and quarterback Aaron Rodgers has completed 73 percent of his passes in his past two games, for 680 yards and nine touchdowns. He has thrown at least three TD passes in his past four games. Meanwhile, the Jaguars have recorded zero or negative yards on 38.9 percent of plays with Blaine Gabbert at quarterback and zero or negative yards on 53.9 percent of their plays with Chad Henne at quarterback. Gabbert will play with an injured left shoulder and is going against a secondary that will be without Charles Woodson, who is injured.
Relief pitcher: Matt Hasselbeck will start his third consecutive game in place of Jake Locker, who’s rehabilitating an injured left, non-throwing shoulder. Hasselbeck enters this game with 199 career touchdown passes. His next one will make him the 32nd player in NFL history to reach the 200-touchdown mark. He would join Drew Brees, Tom Brady, and Peyton Manning as the only active QBs with 200 TD passes. The Giants' Eli Manning could join the club with a big game against Dallas -- he currently has 197 passing touchdowns. Hasselbeck has found a rhythm in the past two weeks, leading the Titans to consecutive wins.
Major work: When the Texans return from their bye, the bad special teams will be subject to revamping. “I think there are just a lot of things that have to get better, me and Joe [Marciano] coaching it, and players doing it,” coach Gary Kubiak said. “We may have to get a few starters involved in what we do as we get deeper into the season too. … You hope it doesn’t come up too often, because you’re trying to stay healthy throughout the whole thing but as we move forward and as you get deeper and deeper in the season, I think it’s something you have to think about.” Receiver Kevin Walter and linebacker Brooks Reed are two starters Kubiak mentioned.
Also: The Jaguars have lost three consecutive games. Since the start of the 2011 season, Jacksonville is tied for the fourth-worst win percentage in the NFL (6-16, .237). The Packers, meanwhile, own the best record during the same stretch (19-4, .826). … After throwing seven touchdowns in his first four games, Andrew Luck has not thrown one in his past two games. ... If Tennessee kicker Rob Bironas connects on three extra points, he will tie the franchise record for most consecutive PATs made. Al Del Greco hit 229 from 1993 to 2000. … Among quarterback-receiver combinations that have attempted at least 30 connections, Gabbert and Justin Blackmon have the lowest connection rate at 40.6 percent.
The Texans don't plan to hand the starting kicker's spot to rookie Randy Bullock, drafted out of Texas A&M in the fifth round. Rather, special-teams coordinator Joe Marciano told SportsRadio 610, Bullock will have to beat out veteran Shayne Graham. "He has to compete to make the team first," Marciano said, per the team's official site. "If he can beat Shayne out, then I think he’s going to be very good for us."
Defensive lineman Hebron Fangupo, a free-agent signee from BYU, hopes to impress coaches during upcoming rookie camps. “I’m excited to compete with a top-notch offense and defense,” Fangupo said. “I’m ready to learn all I can from coaches and players, and I believe being able to compete with such great players can help my game tremendously.”
Owner Jim Irsay, on Twitter, said he sees the franchise "taking shape" and that the Colts' defensive front seven "could impress" in the new 3-4 defensive scheme.
Indianapolis grabbed tight end Andre Smith off waivers from the Bears; he's expected to be part of new coordinator Bruce Arians' five-tight end offense, Brad Wells notes for Stampede Blue. The Colts also waived cornerback Mike Holmes.
Running back Maurice Jones-Drew, absent from the Jaguars' voluntary workouts, wants a contract extension, coach Mike Mularkey said. "I wish he was here. He knows we wish he was here," Mularkey said. "His teammates have talked to him about it. It's a personal decision. There's nothing I can do about it."
Tuesday's first day of organized team activities saw Jacksonville's first-round draft pick, receiver Justin Blackmon, going full speed with quarterback Blaine Gabbert and the first team, according to the Jags' official site. A sore foot that bothered Blackmon during rookie minicamps seems to have been helped by new cleats.
Defensive tackle Terrance Knighton apologized Tuesday for the club incident last month in which he suffered an eye injury that has kept him out of offseason workouts. Knighton said the vision in his injured eye has improved substantially. “It’s progressing a lot faster than they thought it would,” Knighton said. “I plan on being ready by training camp."
A number of players, including quarterbacks Matt Hasselbeck and Jake Locker, have signed on for coach Mike Munchak's "Strikes to Stop Diabetes" charity bowling event, set for June 14. The tournament will pair a Titans player or coach with a four-person team, with proceeds going to the American Diabetes Association, the team's site reports.
Center William Vlachos, a free-agent signee from Alabama, has been impressed with the Titans' O-line after doing some film study. “I've been watching film for a couple days and my jaw's on the floor,” Vlachos said. “They're just so physical, the effort they bring every play is outstanding.”
Friday they announced two hires we’ve known about for quite some time: Reggie Herring as linebackers coach and Vance Joseph as defensive backs coach.
Like Indy, Houston did give us something in its news release that actually qualifies as news, the names of the team’s two, new lowest-ranking assistants.
John Butler is a defensive assistant and Jim Ryan is an offensive assistant. They will work with special teams coordinator Joe Marciano in addition to their primary responsibilities.
Butler came from the University of Minnesota. Ryan played and coached with the Denver Broncos and was with the UFL’s Omaha Nighthawks last year.
Texans special teams coordinator Joe Marciano spoke to the Houston media Friday and the team was kind enough to pass along a transcript.
It included this exchange about newly added running back Andre Hall, which I found entertaining.
"Well, he came in and, he told me. I introduced myself to him, I said, 'I'm the special teams coach,' and right away he said, 'Oh, you're going to love me. I love covering kickoffs. You're going to love me, coach. You're going to love me.'
"I see the first drill he did, he went around, all the way around, he went the wrong way. We explained the drill. He took the path of least resistance, you know. He took the path of least resistance."
And did that path take too long?
"Yeah, you don't take the easy way, you take the road less traveled and lead a trail, I told him."
No report on what Hall did on his second rep, but if Marciano is, in fact, going to love him, the second try had to be better.
We asked for your input earlier this week on who you think the Texans' best assistant coach is.
Here's a sampling of replies in the comments to the post and in my mailbag:
Chris in Austin: RE: Best Texans Coach Alex Gibbs is the obvious answer, but I have to go with Johnny Holland if you want to make it interesting. DeMeco Ryans is of course a great player - but he's done wonders with Zac Diles (7th-round pick), and he had Xavier Adibi playing very well for a guy of his age and experience level. I'm not ready to judge Kyle Shanahan's ability until he calls plays all of next season.
Stu in Austin/Houston, TX: I think Steve Slaton helps Gibbs be the obvious choice. When he got it going and showed everyone what a "3rd down back" can do with heart, I think that helped the entire offense especially the line. As a Texans fan it was pretty nice to see Slaton keep his feet going but getting more yards because of 3 or 4 linemen hitting the pile. Gibbs was the best assistant coach this year but hopefully an assistant on the defensive side of the ball is tops next year, thats the case, it could be a winning season for the Texans.
Kevin in Portland: Paul- How about Joe Marciano, Special Teams coordinator as the Texans best assistant coach? He doesn't get much credit, but the kicking game has been good, and the return game has produced an All-Pro Kick Returner. I can't recall seeing special teams cost the Texans a game, and I've watched them find plenty of ways to lose them.
Marvelous in Houston Heights: Greetings Paul - Given the Texans short history and the fact that there's really not been anything more noteworthy than what Alex Gibbs has done, I think it's kind of a no-brainer to say he's the guy. We're a season away from knowing if Kid Shanahan is the goods or garbage, and Holland kind of idled this past year. Here's hoping that Gibbs Jr and the other additions pan out and we are talking about who we are afraid of losing from our staff next year.
Buck in Portland: That may be a tougher question than you think. Alex Gibbs is the heavy favorite, but you neglected to mention Ray Rhodes, who is no slouch. It's tough to say what impact Rhodes has had on the secondary what with Slingblade calling the defensive plays last year, but suffice it to say he has an impressive defensive resume. But, I won't get too cute, Gibbs' influence on the offense can't be overstated. It has to be Alex Gibbs.
Nicholascursee: Honestly the texans have a collectively good staff of coaches, but we must not just look at this year as their breakout year. Actually last year was their break out year. And if you look at a position that has truly shined when the team was in it darkest hours, it was always the WR group. They shined last year even though Andre Johnson missed 7-games with a knee sprain, even when Matt Schuab and Sage Rosenfeld struggled to grasp the reigns of the offense, they were still being led by Kevin Walters and Andre Davis. But this year when Andre Johnson the offense went soaring to a #3 Total offense ranking. Much praise goes to Kubiak, Shanahan, but it should also go to Coach Larry Kirksey, Mike Mcdaniel, and Matt Lafleur. These guys did as much as work as the big two.
Texans Tradition: Another candidate when taking Alex Gibbs out of the equation is Assistant Defensive Backs Coach Ray Rhodes. The case for him would have to revolve around his vast experience in the NFL, especially on the defensive side of the ball. How about this for experience: He's been a head coach twice in this league, a defensive coordinator 5 different times, and been a specialist for the secondary 4 different times. He has accumulated coach of the year honors, a Super Bowl ring, and has engineered multiple top 10 defenses. How is that for a resume? Now, if only the Texans could get some more pressure on the QB.
I'm a little confused by those who point to Rhodes. This isn't a résumé contest, it's a discussion of who the best assistant coach is. Rhodes is a good coach with a wealth of experience, but the Texans defensive backfield was hardly a strength in 2007, and I can't see the rationale for selecting a secondary secondary coach -- as assistant defensive backs coach, Rhodes ranked behind Jon Hoke, who was fired.
The clear choice here is Gibbs, who helped change an offensive line mindset -- and an offensive mindset really -- while setting the stage for Slaton to break out as a rookie.
Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas
TAMPA, Fla. -- Forget for a second the Super Bowl victory and all the great players he coached. If you want to know what truly set Tony Dungy apart from other football coaches -- really, apart from a lot of human beings -- there is a story you need to read.
|Greg Crisp/Getty Images|
|Tony Dungy was more than just a football coach with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. |
It sums up Dungy, who is retiring from the Indianapolis Colts and the National Football League today, as a person and a coach. It's the story of a man with a vision and the courage to stick to it quietly, no matter how much the world outside was banging on the windows.
The year was 1997. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers, in Dungy's second year as head coach, were showing some signs the lowly franchise might be ready to escape the so-called Curse of Doug Williams. With a young cast that featured Derrick Brooks, Warren Sapp, John Lynch, Warrick Dunn, Mike Alstott and Trent Dilfer, the Bucs got hopes up with a 5-0 start.
Then, it all seemed as if the season was about to fall apart because of one man. Well, make that two men because Dungy could see the problem as clear as the rest of Tampa Bay. But that stubborn streak that would become a part of his legacy was keeping him from, outwardly, doing anything about it.
The Bucs had a talented young kicker named Michael Husted who all of sudden started missing kicks. Not only was Husted missing field goals, but even extra-point attempts were flying badly off target.
The fans and the media were up in arms. It seemed Husted had to go or else the whole season would spin out of control. It was obvious to everyone, it seemed, except Dungy.
Week after week, he stood there with his arms folded on the sidelines, never showing the slightest emotion when Husted missed a kick. The Bucs lost three games in a row.
Any other coach would have simply brought in another kicker. But Dungy had laid out a philosophy that would end up applying to every player he ever coached and he had to stick to it. He knew something the rest of the world didn't.
While media and fans were breaking down Husted's kicking technique, Dungy knew what was in the kicker's head and heart.
The real story here was Husted's mother, Ann, was dying of cancer up in Virginia.
"I always prided myself on being a pro and being able to separate off-the-field stuff from what I did on the field,'' Husted said Monday morning from his home in San Diego. "But it got to the point where my mom's situation was taking up all of my thoughts."
On the Monday after the third straight loss (to Minnesota), special-teams coach Joe Marciano sat down with Husted and said, "What would you do if you were in our shoes?'' Husted pretty much shrugged and braced himself for the inevitable.
The next morning, Dungy called and Husted was sure he was being cut. Dungy's words said something else.
"He just said, 'You're a Buccaneer. You're part of our family. You're our kicker,''' Husted said.
Mission accomplished. The next Sunday, the Bucs went up to Indianapolis. Husted made a game-winning field goal that broke his slump. The season was saved and the Bucs went on to make the playoffs for the first time in a generation. Ann Husted died after the season, but not before she came to several games and sat with Dungy's wife, Lauren, in a private box.
"What he did was relieve the pressure from me,'' Husted said. "A lot of other coaches would have just let me go. I'm forever grateful to Tony for how he handled that. It speaks a lot about the type of individual he is and how he's not going to let outside forces influence what he knows is right.''
Throughout his career, Dungy has been criticized for being too stubborn or too soft. But, deep down, wouldn't you rather have someone who cares about you and not someone who flies off the handle and listens to the whims of the world?
That should be as much a part of Dungy's legacy as all the games he won and as much as becoming the first African-American head coach to win a Super Bowl. Yes, he did things differently at times, but, in the end, you can't argue with the results.
The Super Bowl win still is fresh in the minds of many. But what Dungy did in Tampa Bay might have been even more remarkable. He took over a franchise that was in disarray, replacing Sam Wyche as the coach soon after owner Hugh Culverhouse had died and Malcolm Glazer purchased the team. In those days, the Bucs played in dreary Tampa Stadium and there was speculation about them moving anywhere from Los Angeles to Baltimore.
In 1996, a very quiet man took over a mess.
"The thing is Tony just brought this silent, commanding respect,'' Husted said. "We never felt like there was a clear road map. He came in and established what we wanted to do and how to go about it. People bought into it in the locker room and we started winning.''
The Bucs got their new stadium in 1998 and consistent winning followed. Dungy couldn't quite get the Bucs over the Super Bowl hump. Jon Gruden came in and did that. But Dungy's contributions in Tampa Bay are going to be evident for a long time. The franchise has been respectable since his arrival, and the stadium has been full for years.
Respect might be the most fitting single word to sum up Dungy's career and that's fitting. Through it all, he always earned respect.
"I think the biggest thing was you never wanted to disappoint coach Dungy because of how he treated you,'' Husted said. "I think any player who ever played for him will tell you it was an honor to play for him. The league is going to miss him and I wish you could clone him and make every coach like that because it would benefit the whole league. But you know that whatever he does going forward, he's going to keep doing it the right way and he's going to positively impact a lot of people.''