AFC South: Mike Shanahan

On Titans' offense looking like Texans'

September, 11, 2013
9/11/13
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NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- One offseason theme that emerged as Dowell Loggains wrote up a new playbook for the Titans was that Tennessee’s offense would look similar to Houston’s.

The Texans cut wide receiver Kevin Walter after the season in a cost-cutting move, and he jumped to the Titans on April. 4.

He offered the first big indication that Loggains’ offense would look a lot like Houston’s.

“I know they’re installing the same offense that I’ve been in the past seven years,” Walter said shortly after his arrival. “It’s a fun offense to be in.”

Later in the offseason I wrote more about how both the Titans and Jaguars want to look somewhat like Houston on offense.

Part of the reason for the Titans-Texans similarities is simple.

Mike Heimerdinger, who served two terms as Titans offensive coordinator, was a mentor to Loggains. And Heimerdinger and Kubiak both worked under Mike Shanahan in Denver, where many of their offensive principles were formed.

In a conference call Wednesday with Nashville media, Kubiak said he sees similarities in a primary theme.

“I think they’ve done a lot of things to complement their run game, from a boot standpoint, and they’ve got a quarterback who can run around and hurt you,” he said. “So, yeah, you see some of those things in what they are doing. But I think the biggest thing I saw was just the total commitment to the run and staying patient with what they are doing.

“A lot of road games are won that way, close road games. You stay committed, you stay out of trouble, you don’t hurt yourself turnover-wise and play good defense, and that’s what they did the other day.”

The Titans will have a hard time running 66 percent of the time a second week in a row.

I expect more of the Houston-like elements in the passing game to be on display Sunday at Reliant Stadium: rollouts, bootlegs and plenty of play-action.
New Titans receiver Kevin Walter had some conversations with Tennessee media Monday, and one of them was on my radio show.

I was really surprised when he said this: “I know they’re installing the same offense that I’ve been in the past seven years. It’s a fun offense to be in. It’s going to be a good transition, a smooth transition.”

[+] EnlargeKevin Walter
Thomas B. Shea/Getty ImagesKevin Walter caught 41 passes for 518 yards for the Texans during the 2012 regular season.
Upon further examination, it shouldn’t be a surprise to hear him say that.

Offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains is a disciple of the late Mike Heimerdinger, and Heimerdinger was a disciple of Mike Shanahan, just like Gary Kubiak is.

In language and philosophy there will be a lot of similarities.

It will usually be a run-first scheme with a lot of play-action. We will see Jake Locker rolling out and running the sort of bootlegs Matt Schaub executes in Houston.

But I think it’ll look more like Houston’s offense from Walter’s vantage point than it will from ours. I don’t expect we’re going to do a double take and look to the sideline to see if Kubiak is calling the plays.

The Titans will utilize plenty of zone blocking, but I don’t think they will be close to exclusively zone the way the Texans are. If they add Chance Warmack in the draft, they’ll be adding a major power element.

Walter’s new team lacks the clear-cut No. 1 receiver who keys much of what the Texans do in Houston thanks to Andre Johnson.

And the Titans' use of an H-back will be completely different than what Houston does.

Mike Munchak hired the tight ends coach, George Henshaw, who was with the franchise when Frank Wycheck (now a radio colleague of mine) was putting up big numbers as an H-back. Tennessee signed Delanie Walker to operate in much the same fashion, and that’s different than what Houston does.

When Heimerdinger landed in Nashville in 2000, he absorbed some of the offensive principles left behind by Les Steckel, particularly the use of the H-back since it rated as a strength of the offense that was in place.

While Chris Palmer’s term as offensive coordinator rated a failure, Loggains worked closely with him and will likely carry some Palmer stuff that he liked best.

So in terms of offensive foundation, there will be a lot of similarities and Walter will feel right at home. The final product, however, will hardly be a carbon copy.
The way the Houston Texans used -- and didn’t use -- James Casey was an issue I struggled with in 2012. Gary Kubiak increasingly forced a round peg (a quality pass-catcher with great hands capable of being a matchup problem) into a square hole (a fullback who worked as a lead blocker far more than a pass target).

It’s one of the objections to the Texans offense for Robert Mays of Grantland, too.
"As teams find new ways to use players who don’t fit certain boxes, the Texans are trying to shove their players into them," Mays writes in a piece about the shortcomings of the Houston offense.

“... Offensively, the Texans have a specific plan, and against most teams they execute that plan well. The run game wasn’t nearly as effective last year as it had been in years past (mostly due to a lack of consistency and the resulting shuffling on the right side), but the run-first, play-action-later Houston offense still had plenty of moments. It’s when the running isn’t an option -- either because of ineffectiveness or a big deficit -- that the plan falters. Former Texans lineman Ephraim Salaam refers to it as 'staying on schedule,' but with offenses like the ones in New England, New Orleans, and Green Bay, relying on point production that can so easily come off the rails just doesn’t feel like an option anymore.”

It doesn’t feel like an option when the Patriots, Saints or Packers are blowing a game open early. And to succeed in the playoffs in the next few years, the Texans are almost invariably going to have to get past Peyton Manning’s Broncos or Tom Brady’s Patriots, if not both. (Manning was still finding his footing in Denver when the Texans won there last season.)

It’s a very well done and well-argued article.

[+] EnlargeMatt Schaub
Stew Milne/USA TODAY SportsUsing a run-first offensive philosophy, Houston is tied for the NFL's fifth-best record during the past two regular seasons.
The one element of it I consider debatable is the idea that a zone running game can’t be bread and butter for a team in today’s NFL.

"These days, very few teams lean on the straightforward zone running game for the majority of their offense," Mays writes. "[Mike] Shanahan’s new team did plenty of zone blocking this year, but it was combined with read-option looks and the constant running threat of Robert Griffin III. No offense to Matt Schaub, but I’m not sure teams are too worried about his feet.”

But what’s it matter how many or how few teams lean on a zone running game for the majority of their offense? With such a philosophy the Texans are 22-10 over the past two regular seasons.

Yes, games against some good teams with high-powered offenses came apart and couldn’t be salvaged.

That’s a problem heading forward. I’m not sure, however, that the way to fix it is to decide that a primary tenet of your organization has to be scrapped.

They've got a lot invested in this system and only four teams have a better two-year record -- Green Bay, New England, San Francisco and Atlanta. (Baltimore has fared the same in the two-season sample.)

Say you have the sixth-best team in the league, but not one of its preeminent quarterbacks.

How do you improve enough that you can get past the teams that do?

Well, Schaub needs to play better in games against those high-caliber opponents, and he needs more help to do so. Part of that help might come from enhanced schooling that gets him ready for, and gives him freedom to make, adjustments to what a defense is doing on a given play. Houston’s defense, meanwhile, needs to get a better handle on the league’s top quarterbacks, right from the start of games against them.

Yes, the Texans offense needs to evolve. Gary Kubiak and offensive coordinator Rick Dennison need to develop the new talent that is drafted, but they also need to tinker with their system, and the needed tinkering goes beyond strengthening the existing scheme or getting better at it.

What changes can they make to the scheme to ensure that it’s not over-reliant on being run-first and play-action second? How can their offense, lacking a Tom Brady or Aaron Rodgers at the helm, still stand toe-to-toe and be in games against those talents at the end?

I’m better at asking the questions than answering them, but I don’t doubt football minds far better than mine can solve the puzzle and increase Houston’s chances.

Is the only way to beat a high-powered team these days to become a high-powered team? If so, then no, the Texans aren’t going to find themselves getting past the second round of the playoffs, where they’ve stalled the past two years.

It’s a quarterback league, but not everybody gets to have a complete stud. The Texans aren’t going to magically land a Colin Kaepernick, particularly as they pledge their fidelity to Schaub and just gave him a giant deal a year ago.

I still believe a unique team centered around a strong running game and a strong defense can make a run with a quarterback like him, provided he doesn’t wither at key moments.

Schaub isn’t going to get more dynamic. They can get him more dynamic weapons, field a more forceful defense, peak at the end of the season instead of at the start and have a chance.

It seems better to me than suggesting they completely revamp the offense when such a revamp would require a different kind of quarterback who’s not readily available and who a lot of other teams are looking for, too.
Reading the coverage…

Houston Texans

Gary Kubiak’s endorsement of Rick Dennison as a head coaching candidate is a lot like Mike Shanahan’s once was for Kubiak, says John McClain of the Houston Chronicle.

“None of this is calculus,” says Dale Robertson of the Chronicle. “If the Texans’ giveaways are fewer than their takeaways in their Foxborough encore, the statistical odds suggest they have a reasonable chance of reversing the outcome of a month ago when the Patriots administered a painful 42-14 razor cut at Gillette Stadium.”

Ben Jones versus Vince Wilfork is a key matchup, says Reid Laymance of the Chronicle. Jones should get a ton of help.

A look at the Texans’ worth beyond wins and losses from Loren Steffy of the Chronicle.

More consideration of the red-zone issues from Stephanie Stradley of the Chronicle blogs.

Houston’s offensive line played the best of all the teams that were in action on wild-card weekend, says Phil Gaskin of The Pulling Lineman.

Indianapolis Colts

Bruce Arians’ return to Indianapolis included at least a stop at another hospital, says Mike Chappell of the Indianapolis Star. But he’s said to be fine and is likely to start interviewing for head coaching jobs at the end of the week.

Reggie Wayne thought Ray Lewis’ final celebration Sunday was disrespectful, says Chappell.

A fan post at Stampede Blue by “JPZ” offers some interesting thoughts on free agents and draft picks the team could target.

Season awards for the Colts from Josh Wilson of Stampede Blue.

Receivers let down Andrew Luck in the loss to Baltimore, says Kyle Rodriguez of Colts Authority.

Jacksonville Jaguars

New Jaguars GM David Caldwell is likely to bring Chris Polian with him as director of pro personnel, says Ryan O’Halloran of the Florida Times-Union.

Gene Frenette of the Times-Union offers Caldwell advice on his new job. It includes this: “A lot of popular/veteran players -- Rashean Mathis, Derek Cox, Terrance Knighton, (Daryl) Smith and Brad Meester -- have expiring contracts. Forget sentiment. Put on the tape, then let your scout’s eye dictate whether to bring them back.”

To which I say: I doubt a new guy's going to have any sentiment for people who have been part of a previous, unsuccessful regime.

What Caldwell does at quarterback will define him as the Jaguars general manager, says Vito Stellino of the Times-Union.

Tennessee Titans

Tight end coach John Zernhelt felt good about the work he did and was surprised to be fired by Mike Munchak, writes Jim Wyatt of The Tennessean.

To which I say: All the change so far has been to the offensive staff. Surely some alterations to a defensive staff that oversaw a unit that allowed the most points in the NFL are coming as well, right?

Derrick Morgan says pass rush coach Keith Millard helped him get better, says John Glennon of The Tennessean.

“Ultimately, what happens next will determine how this season is remembered,” says David Boclair of the Nashville City Paper. “Either it will be the beginning of the end for Munchak’s time as head coach, which began with so much promise, or it will be the crucible that forged resolve and development among the many younger players currently on the roster.”

 

RG3, Luck, Wilson: Debating rookie QBs

November, 15, 2012
11/15/12
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Robert Griffin III, Andrew Luck and Russell WilsonUS PresswireHow does the QB class of 2012 stack up against 1983 and 2004?
Several Seattle Seahawks fans sent me a link to Kerry Byrne's piece promoting Russell Wilson as the NFL's best rookie quarterback this season.

"The biggest story in football is that a charismatic but undersized 5-foot-11, 205-pound, third-round draft pick who makes chump change by NFL standards is in the midst of perhaps the greatest streak of rookie performances in NFL history," Byrne writes.

In addition to promoting Wilson, the piece cites one sentence from AFC South blogger Paul Kuharsky as evidence ESPN and others are slighting the Seattle rookie by crediting the Indianapolis Colts' Andrew Luck for stellar play despite a mediocre NFL passer rating.

This was my favorite part of the piece -- a chance to rile up Paul, who never shies away from a good scrum. But instead of baiting Paul into an argument, the subject generated a discussion we wanted to share. Paul and I looped in NFC East blogger Dan Graziano, who covers Robert Griffin III, to broaden the discussion.

Here we go.

SANDO: Wilson has gotten less attention as he's played better, it seems to me. There was quite a bit of buzz around him heading into the season simply because people following along from afar expected Matt Flynn to win the job. The idea that a head coach would willingly go with a 5-foot-10 rookie third-round draft choice over a $19 million free agent made waves. Wilson didn't play all that well early in the season, however. Part of that was because Pete Carroll pulled back the reins on the offense in an attempt to bring along Wilson slowly. That wasn't really anticipated given how effusive Carroll had been in his praise for Wilson's readiness to perform right now, not just in the future. Meanwhile, RG3 was sensational out of the gates. The Wilson buzz went away. I think that's going to change as Seattle continues to make a playoff push and Wilson continues to become a bigger part of the reason why.

KUHARSKY: Critics who want to say Luck is over-hyped are, in my opinion, off their rocker. You look at his completion percentage, you look at his passer rating. I'll watch him play. He's remarkable for a rookie. Heck, he's remarkable for a third-year guy. He's got characteristics of both Peyton Manning (anticipation, smarts, understanding) and Ben Roethlisberger (ability to extend plays or to stand in and make throws while getting hit) as well as enough speed to be a constant threat to pull it down and run for a first down. I understand RG3 is more explosive. But I'm a pocket passer guy. And if I am choosing a young pocket passer to build a team around, I have no question about who it would be right now. It would be Luck. His team isn't very good, and he's got it positioned as a front-runner for a playoff berth. Don't just look at his stats, look at his play. He's worthy of all the talk/ hype/ praise/ applause/ etc.

GRAZIANO: Nobody got attention like Griffin got it in September, when he was being talked about as an MVP candidate and not just Rookie of the Year. In truth, he's been dazzling, and has handled every situation, in-game and off-field, as well as you could ask a rookie to handle it. But if the bloom is coming off, it's understandable. The Redskins have lost three games in a row, and Griffin's two most recent games are the only ones this year in which his completion percentage has been under 60. I think the problem is more about the group around him than it is about the league figuring him out. The Redskins' offense simply may have reached the limit of what it can do in this particular season, given the injuries to top passing-game playmakers Pierre Garcon and Fred Davis. The plan for Griffin is not to run college-style option stuff his whole career, but at this point the Redskins' offense is reaching a point from which it can't evolve much further until it has its top receiving threats back. In the meantime, Griffin is stuck throwing to secondary receivers who drop too many passes, or scrambling so much that it puts his health at risk. We may have seen the best of Griffin for 2012, but things are likely to get better in 2013 and beyond once they improve the team around him.

KUHARSKY: They are all great stories. And heck, Ryan Tannehill and even Brandon Weeden have done some good things, too. If we're not entering an era of quick impact quarterbacking from newcomers, then a lot of teams with high draft picks in the near future are going to be disappointed. I know Cold, Hard, Football Facts took me apart for my praise of Luck. But nowhere in that have I suggested anyone else unworthy of his fair share of respect. Luck's in a unique situation. The Colts were horrific last year, it's a new regime that cut a bunch of people and is eating a lot of dead money. It's a thin roster. It found a purpose in rallying to win for Chuck Pagano after his leukemia diagnosis, and while the Seahawks are a maybe and the Redskins are a no, the Colts are very much a probably for the playoffs. I'm far more interested in that than nitpicking completion percentage for a guy who hardly ever throws a checkdown pass.

GRAZIANO: That's the thing, Paul. Are we analyzing what these guys are right now, as compared to the top QBs in the league? Or are we talking about what they've shown in terms of what they can be? All of these rookies have obvious areas in which they can improve, but at least in the case of the guys who were picked 1 and 2 in the draft, I think we're talking about rare talents with incredibly high ceilings. Whether Griffin has been asked/required to throw downfield as much this year as he'd eventually like to seems immaterial to me, especially with the Redskins not yet ready to contend. He's shown presence in the huddle. He's shown an ability to lead a game-winning drive. He's made good decisions. Much of what he's accomplished is tied to his remarkable all-around athleticism and speed, sure, but he hasn't relied exclusively on that the way, say, a young Michael Vick or Jeff George might have. Griffin's shown a desire and an ability to treat the quarterback position as a craft to be honed, and a willingness to work on the minuscule detail aspects of it. That speaks to where he's headed as much as anything he's done on the field does.

SANDO: I'm with Paul in looking beyond passer rating with Luck in particular. He ranks among the NFL leaders in attempted passes. He's carrying that offense. The Colts are also asking him to make more difficult throws. His passes travel 10.3 yards past the line of scrimmage on average. That leads the league and it's not even close. We're not talking about a team dinking and dunking to protect its rookie passer. Luck is doing so much more than that. I think this is a perfect test case for our Total QBR metric. It's got Luck trailing only Peyton Manning, Tom Brady and Matt Ryan when it comes to doing the things quarterbacks must do to help their teams win. Those five rushing touchdowns he has aren't showing up in the passer rating stat, to cite just one example. It's why I've listed Luck in the last couple MVP Watch items. The Seahawks did not ask Wilson to do nearly as much early in the season. They've asked him to do more in recent weeks and Wilson has responded. He's improving quickly and ranks among the NFL's top seven in QBR and top five in passer rating since Week 6. Wilson has a real chance to finish this season as the best rookie quarterback in the league.

KUHARSKY: And there we have the crux of the question, I believe -- what would make him the best? Passer rating? QBR? Team success? I love Wilson and his story. I hope he opens doors for others who don't look the part. But Luck looks the part and fits it too, and I'm not downgrading him for it. For what's left of this season, of the rookie quarterbacks, he's the one I'd take, without question. For what's left of their careers, he's the one I'd take, without question. And my picking him is all about what he has, not about anything the other guys don't. And he should be the choice. He was the top pick for a reason.

GRAZIANO: I think you're right, Paul. I spoke with Mike Shanahan last week, and as much as he raves about his guy, he still insists he'd have been thrilled with Luck and that the whole point this year was to get one of the first two picks because you were looking at two transcendent talents. Stats? RG3 is ninth in passer rating, 10th in QBR, sixth in Pro Football Focus' rankings (eighth as a passer and second, behind only Luck, as a running QB). There's not a rating system that doesn't love him, and again, he's done this without the wide receiver they signed to be his top target and big-play guy. If Griffin has to "draft" Luck his whole career and be a close No. 2, I imagine he could do worse. But it appears he's got the stuff he needs to keep it a good debate for years to come. And while it may be a matter of taste, when this year ends, you're going to be able to make the case for Griffin as the top rookie quarterback.

SANDO: Most never expected Wilson to be part of this discussion. Even the Seahawks weren't sure how much his lack of height would limit him. Wilson has demonstrated an ability to find and create throwing lanes. Jared Allen alluded to this before his Minnesota Vikings watched Wilson toss three first-half touchdown passes against them. If the height isn't going to be a negative, then Wilson can absolutely become an elite quarterback. He has the arm and the professional baseball pedigree to prove it. He has big hands, not just for his size, but overall (10 1/4 inches, fourth-biggest at the 2012 combine and bigger than Luck's or Griffin's hands). His work ethic led Carroll to joke about how Wilson decided to take some time off -- maybe three hours, he said -- during the bye week. The results have certainly been positive on the field. From everything I've seen, Wilson will be part of this conversation in the future.
FRANKLIN, Tenn. -- It’s blazing hot in the Nashville area. We could have a record high today.

[+] EnlargeHeimerdinger
Brett Davi/US PresswireEven while undergoing chemotherapy, Mike Heimerdinger continued to coach and call plays for the Titans without missing a game.
Nevertheless, NFL royalty including Mike Shanahan, Jeff Fisher, Gary Kubiak and Jay Cutler have gathered here to play a round of golf to help raise money for a cause very dear to them.

The Drive for Dinger, organized by Mike Heimerdinger’s wife and two children, aims to raise money for a foundation in his name. Heimerdinger worked as an assistant for Denver, Tennessee and the Jets. He was diagnosed with cancer during the 2010 season and died Sept. 30, 2011.

His family is now trying to do good work in his name, including providing meals with specific nutritional needs tailored to cancer patients to take one worry away from them and their families.

More broadly, they say this:
"Our Mission: To enable families affected by cancer to have the necessary information, patient support, and financial resources to seek out effective treatment options."

I was happy to be at last night’s great dinner and silent auction and I’m equally pleased to sweat through a round today to help the cause -- we’re teeing off as this post publishes.

I covered two offensive coordinator stints for Heimerdinger with the Titans, and I loved his style: no nonsense, no sugar-coating, no holding back.

Here’s the remembrance I wrote about him after he passed away last fall.

On The Midday 180 today I've been part of interviews with Kubiak, Fisher, Shanahan and Dave McGinnis (now one of Fisher's chief lieutenants in St. Louis), who talked about Heimerdinger. And more.

They'll be posted here in short order.
What kind of scheme will fit Peyton Manning best?

One that’s a lot like what he ran while he was with Indianapolis.

We can do a lot of speculating about what’s most important to Manning going forward. My belief is a guy who is a creature of habit and loves routine and repetition will be most inclined to go somewhere where he gains a good measure of control. Where the coach and offensive coordinator will be willing to bend things to him. Where he can continue to do the things he's been honing for years.

That’s why I don’t see Washington as a good fit at all.

[+] EnlargePeyton Manning
Jerry Lai/US PresswirePeyton Manning would likely do best in an offense that's similar to the one he ran in Indianapolis.
Mike Shanahan is a control freak and his son and offensive coordinator, Kyle, is a chip off the old block. Toss Manning into that mix and there isn’t enough control to go around.

Ken Whisenhunt in Arizona has shown a willingness to fit a scheme to a signal-caller. Joe Philbin in Miami is just starting out and would surely be willing to tilt things. Pete Carroll in Seattle seems to be a flexible guy when dealing with big personalities and stars. Romeo Crennel in Kansas City is a defensive guy.

John Fox is intense, but he and John Elway wouldn’t jump in unless they would mold things for Manning. And we certainly know they are willing to move away from the offense Tim Tebow was running.

“In the end, the chances are that whichever team Manning lands with will incorporate its present offensive system intertwined with what Manning did with the Colts,” writes Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc Insider. “Manning's offense in Indy included a zone run-blocking scheme that featured athletic, movement-based linemen, limited personnel groupings and formations, a ton of pre-snap reads, and a timing-based passing attack that thrived after hours and hours of practice time.”

I can’t give away the store of the Insider piece, so I won’t share the order Williamson lists the matches in. We’ll go alphabetical as we share some snippets. As a bonus, my blog network brethren have chimed in with a flexibility rating for the coach/staff/scheme. A "10" means the team would hand over the keys to Manning and a "1" means he’d be expected to run precisely what the coaching staff wanted.

Arizona

Williamson: “This is the offense I would expect to change the most for Manning. Ken Whisenhunt is a very good offensive mind, but his philosophies have changed dramatically in his tenure as head coach, depending on the quarterback he's had at his disposal.”

Flexibility index from Mike Sando: 7

Denver

Not on Williamson’s list.

Flexibility index from Bill Williamson: 10

Kansas City

Williamson: “Adding Manning should make the team the clear favorite to win the AFC West, if not more. But, without a quarterback of the future on the roster, if Kansas City swings and misses on this acquisition, it could cost it dearly. Cassel is mediocre, and probably always will be, which could make the Chiefs too complacent in terms of finding a replacement or successor. It's time for them to be aggressive.”

Flexibility index from Bill Williamson: 10

Miami

Williamson: "With Joe Philbin taking over in Miami, the team will be installing an offense very similar to the one in Green Bay, which would fit Manning with all the pre-snap reads it requires. Also, limiting some of the injury risk of signing Manning and putting all the eggs in that basket is that Miami has Matt Moore returning. Although Moore is far from elite, you could do much worse as backups go."

Flexibility index from James Walker: 7

New York Jets

Williamson: "I don't think Manning would put New York over the top because it has problems at right tackle, No. 2 wide receiver and possibly at running back on offense. On defense, the Jets have a hole at safety, at outside pass-rusher and with an inside linebacker who excels in coverage."

Flexibility index from Walker: 10

San Francisco

Williamson: “Manning wouldn't have to put the entire team on his shoulders in San Francisco. The wide receiver position certainly needs upgrading, but Manning could have a reduced role from his time in Indianapolis -- which might be best for him now -- and consistently get his team into strong play choices at the line of scrimmage.”

Flexibility index from Sando: 3.5

Seattle

Williamson: "With a power ground game, an improving offensive line and some young receiving weapons to work with, Manning might be able to accomplish quite a bit with this offense. If Seattle signs Manning, it definitely could make a run."

Flexibility index from Sando: 8

Washington

Williamson: I also have some concerns about how well Mike Shanahan would be able to -- and how willing he would be to -- alter his offense, which stresses a move-oriented quarterback, to fit Manning's cerebral skill set.

Flexibility index from Dan Graziano: 3
Reading the coverage…

Houston Texans

Derrick Mason’s first NFL practices were in Houston, just before the Oilers moved to Tennessee. Dale Robertson of the Houston Chronicle examines Mason’s return to the city. I’m interested to see how Gary Kubiak thinks Mason can best help, both now and after Andre Johnson returns.

Jacoby Jones’ game against the Raiders was not as bad as it seemed, writes John McClain of the Chronicle. Good tape breakdown here.

Indianapolis Colts

Bob Kravitz of The Star looks at people who have a lot to play for no matter the Colts' record. The Chris Polian angle is appropriately first.

A look at Dwight Freeney’s impressive collection of sacks, which is nearing a total of 100. Usually his best moves are non-sacks, he told Phillips B. Wilson of the Star.

Eighteen things Nate Dunlevy of 18to88 will be looking for in Colts-Bengals.

Jacksonville Jaguars

Cornerback Rashean Mathis leads a weekly meeting of defensive backs that does not include coaches, writes Tania Ganguli of the Times-Union.

Defensive coordinator Mel Tucker talked to Jacksonville media and didn’t really say anything as you can see in this notebook by Vito Stellino of the T-U.

Tennessee Titans

On the day of Mike Heimerdinger's funeral, Mike Shanahan talked to Jim Wyatt of the Tennessean about his closest friend.
When the Titans' 2010 season unraveled, it was a huge disappointment. But it was laced with sadness too because in the middle of it all, offensive coordinator Mike Heimerdinger learned he had cancer and began a battle he couldn't win.

Heimerdinger, who had two stints in the coordinator post for Jeff Fisher in Tennessee, died Friday night at the age of 58.

It’s a big blow to those who knew him. He was a gruff and demanding coach, but his public persona was painted too broadly based on those qualities. He was not all about screaming and hollering, though he tended to be loud as he tried to help players see the error of their ways and come to understand the right way to do things.

Beyond that exterior coaching personality, he was funny and smart, loyal with high standards. He was a no-nonsense Chicago guy who I thought could one day wind up coaching the Bears and being reunited with Jay Cutler, a player who had some of his best days working with Heimerdinger in Denver.

Two successful NFL head coaches, Mike Shanahan and Fisher, counted Heimerdinger among their closest friends and valued his football opinion.

In Heimerdinger's first term as Fisher’s coordinator with the Titans, he helped round out the late Steve McNair’s game and was a big factor in McNair’s co-MVP award in 2003.

I got to know him as a Titans beat writer, and he was the kind of coach a reporter had to respect. If he saw something he thought was wrong, he would search for you and spell out why.

[+] EnlargeMike Heimerdinger
Brett Davis/US PresswireMike Heimerdinge, who had two stints with the Titans as offensive coordinator, passed away Friday after a bout with cancer.
Once, after I’d written that the organization was simply too protective of McNair when it maintained a poor game was not his fault, he pulled me into his office.

He clicked through film of every drop-back McNair took in the game in question, his red laser pointer drawing my eye to the important spots. McNair made the right read and went to the right place with all but two throws that day. He showed me that in great detail, spelling out the reads. A lot of plays that didn’t come off correctly, he illustrated, were because of good defense, a bad block or route or a bad play call by the coordinator. I left with a new understanding I could put to use as I covered that offense going forward.

It amounted to the best, most memorable postgame review of a player I’ve ever had with a coach.

Heimerdinger was in Mexico, where his search for aggressive treatments led him, when he died.

His wife, Kathie, released a statement that’s part of Jim Wyatt’s piece on his passing.
We have been overwhelmed and incredibly touched by all of the support that we have felt from family, friends, fellow coaches, players, fans and the league this past year. It is with a heavy heart, but a trust in God, that we say goodbye to our beloved Dinger who lost his courageous battle with cancer yesterday. Mike approached cancer with the same vigor and tenacity that he approached any football game — to win. Even in the final minutes he never gave up — that was our Dinger.

He was a deeply devoted husband and father, loving son and brother, loyal friend and committed coach who loved the game and life. The coming days will be challenging for our family and we graciously and respectfully ask that you allow us to grieve privately.


Here’s ESPN.com’s story and Liz Merrill’s piece on Heimerdinger during his fight.

Here are statements on Heimerdinger released this morning by the Titans:

General manager Mike Reinfeldt
We are saddened today to hear the tragic news of Mike passing. Mike was a good man that brought a great level of dedication and professionalism to his job. He was brave in his fight over the last year and showed such a commitment to the game. Nothing was going to stop him last season from being a part of the team and having his stamp on the games. Our thoughts go out to Kathie and his kids through this difficult time. Mike and his family will always be with us.

Head coach Mike Munchak
My prayers are with his family. Mike was a great football coach; and over the years, we had a great relationship. I learned a lot of football from Mike and I have a number of great memories and experiences that will always be with me. It is just hard to believe his is gone. It is a sad day for his family and for those who knew him.

Running back Chris Johnson
He was a great coach and a tough coach. I know I wouldn’t have become the player I am without his confidence and the trust that he showed in me. My thoughts go out to his family.

Tackle Michael Roos
You don’t expect these types of things to happen and they shouldn’t happen. I felt confident that he was going to beat this after seeing his resolve last season in dealing with it. He was such a competitor and a fighter – the things that made him such a good coach were also the traits that I thought would lead him to beat the cancer. My prayers are with his family.

Former Titans center and current NFLPA President Kevin Mawae
It is with great regret and sorrow that we learn of the passing of Coach Mike Heimerdinger. "Dinger", as many people knew him, was a great coach and a good man. For those who knew him and played for him, they knew Dinger was a man who loved his family, enjoyed his players, and loved the game of football. Dinger's fight with cancer was indicative of the type of person he was; determined and courageous. It was my privilege to play for Dinger while with the New York Jets and the Tennessee Titans. I am better for having known and played for him. The NFL community has lost a great member of its fraternity this week. On behalf of the National Football League Players Association, the players offer their condolences to Kathie, Alicia, Brian and the rest of the Heimerdinger family.

Former Titans running back Eddie George
Any time you lose a friend, you feel it. My heart goes out to his family, it is a terrible loss. Mike was a highly competitive coach and person, who expected and demanded nothing but the best from you. He was a good guy to be around and he will surely be missed in this world.

Former tight end Frank Wycheck
I am really sad to hear the news today. Mike was a man of many qualities – he was humble, he was funny and he was demanding. I loved being with him on the golf course, he was a lot of fun to hang out with. From the coaching side, he brought a different element to our offense when he arrived. He took us to a different level in the passing game. He expected all of us to be accountable and he was a perfectionist when it came to executing his offense.

Over the last year, what he went through gave him great perspective of his life -- he was thankful and proud of what he accomplished.
What I think they are thinking, or should be thinking, at the four team headquarters of the AFC South…

Houston Texans

We decided we could make things work on defense with a young secondary and a thin pass rush. But we did so expecting that we’d have one of the top offenses in the league and would put up significant points ever week. But we’ve scored 13 touchdowns while we’ve given up 16, and that’s just not going to cut it. Kansas City will be bringing a tough, underrated defense to town on Sunday, and we need to figure out how to get and maintain some offensive rhythm, the type that produces some points.

Indianapolis Colts

The bye week sure looks appealing, but before we get there we have a tough trip to Washington. The Redskins qualify as an unfamiliar opponent, but Mike Shanahan and his staff know us. Peyton Manning says we’re still trying to figure out our identity. Sure, things don’t automatically carry over from year to year. But as steady as we are and as little non-injury change as we’ve had, shouldn’t we know who we are? Shouldn't we know what we do well and what we don’t by the middle of October?

Jacksonville Jaguars

We’ve done some very good things the past two weeks to pull to 3-2, but without a good showing at home on Monday night against the Titans, a lot of that good can slip away. We need to pressure Vince Young and make things complicated for him so he can’t beat our struggling secondary. We’ve got to limit the Titans big plays from Chris Johnson and Young. And we’ve got to protect David Garrard, who’s played well given time and asked to take the short stuff. This is a good game for us to measure our offensive line. The Titans’ 22 sacks are more than our last two opponents now have combined.

Tennessee Titans

If we can put together the big plays in the passing offense, and the sacks and turnovers from the defense we got in Dallas, we’ll be in good shape. Heck, we can win some games with less than all those ingredients. But doing it against a division opponent who knows us better is a different deal. Garrard is playing with great confidence. We need to smother him early, take away Marcedes Lewis, who’s becoming a dangerous target, and slow down Maurice Jones-Drew and Deji Karim.

Final Word: AFC South

September, 17, 2010
9/17/10
3:35
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» NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South » AFC: East | West | North | South

Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 2:

[+] EnlargeSean Considine
AP Photo/Stephen MortonSean Considine will have to defend against a San Diego team looking for redemption.
Picking it up: Lost in the Colts' pass protection struggles last week was the play of Joseph Addai, who showed what a versatile force and well-rounded player he is. He ran well on his rare chances and I thought he was great in pass protection. Still, I’d like to see the Colts sacrifice three-wide once in a while in order to get Brody Eldridge into the game to help in this area too. Charlie Johnson is already dealing with a bad foot, Jeff Saturday recently had knee surgery and Ryan Diem (neck) is on the injury report too. Will Indy do anything different from what it did when Houston constantly hurried and hit Peyton Manning?

Friendships and familiarity: I think too much gets made of mentor-versus-mentee games such as Mike Shanahan against Gary Kubiak. When it’s over and they shake hands, one will say congratulations and the other will graciously accept. What’s a lot more interesting to me is how Matt Schaub reads and works against Jim Haslett’s creative 3-4 and how well Arian Foster can follow up his big opening game. He’s not the only one who needs to follow up his Week 1 effort. Let’s also see that pass rush force Donovan McNabb operate faster than he would like.

Patience is the key: Chris Johnson and Vince Young often talk of playing patiently and awaiting the right play or situation to come. The Titans' offense will benefit from that approach against the Steelers. The openings against the defense may not show themselves frequently, but Tennessee has to jump into them when it has the chance. The Titans can’t afford to make mistakes while waiting for opportunities, especially with Troy Polamalu lurking, eager to hit Johnson and get his hands on Young's throws.

Safety conscious: The Chargers will be determined to get on track after an opening-week loss to Kansas City. I expect they’ll have plenty of stuff drawn up for Philip Rivers that allows him to test the Jacksonville safeties: Sean Considine and either Anthony Smith, who’s hurt, or Courtney Greene. It’s a soft spot in the Jaguars' defense, and the best way to cover for it is by rushing the quarterback, the way Jacksonville did last week.

Open the screen door: Aaron Schatz tells us that the Texans averaged a league-leading 9.0 yards on screen passes last year, and the Redskins gave up 8.5 yards per screen pass, the third most in the league. Washington had better hope its switch to a 3-4 scheme has fixed that problem. If the Texans really want to test that out, Steve Slaton could have a bigger role in this game. They love him as a pass-catcher, especially on third downs.

Titans should try to add Haynesworth

September, 7, 2010
9/07/10
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If the Titans can get Albert Haynesworth for a third-round pick or less, they should jump on it. If they need to throw in a seventh, they should.

Tennessee’s old defensive tackle is hardly without sin in all that’s transpired in his relationship with the Redskins. But Mike Shanahan’s butchered things as well, often showing more concern with proving who’s boss than with attempting to get production out of a guy who can be dominant.

The Titans can handle him. Haynesworth played his best football for defensive line coach Jim Washburn. They have a good relationship and re-establishing it could help fix Haynesworth and resurrect his game and his name.

They can handle what’s left of the salary. They can handle and manage his personality. They can get him to play hard.

Bring him back, bump Jovan Haye out of the top four tackles. Give the Titans Haynesworth, Jason Jones, Tony Brown and Sen’Derrick Marks as their four interior guys and life gets easier for everyone on defense.

And the Titans would be a better football team.

Early Influence: Rick Smith

July, 29, 2010
7/29/10
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Before training camps kick off, a number of players and some coaches will pay tribute to people who helped them make it to the NFL as part of the AFC South Blog’s summer series: “Early Influence.”

Rick Smith, Texans general manager

“When I got to Denver as a young coach, we won a bunch of games that first year I was there in 96. We ended up losing to Jacksonville. It’s 15 years in the league now and I get it, but you come into the league as a young hotshot coach, you win 13 in a row like we did and you think it’s pretty easy. When we lost that playoff game to Jacksonville, I just remember how distraught I was. I’m at home, and I’m lying on the couch watching TV and the phone rings. It’s 9:30 at night after the game. And it’s Mike Shanahan.

“And I will never forget, he said ‘Rick, I just wanted to let you know, I thought you did an outstanding job this year, we’re close, al we have to do is have a couple tweaks in the offseason and we’ll win it next year. I remember hanging the phone up thinking what kind of presence does this guy have, and what kind of leader he is to pick up the phone and call a defensive assistant. I’m the low man on the totem pole. That just impressed me so much.

“It got me thinking about leadership. And then he gave me the opportunity to move over to the front office when Jack Elway retired. He put me in the position and he exposed me to everything I needed to be exposed to to ready myself for this job. I can pull out a file of quotes and meeting notes that I have taken from him.

“And I’ve made phone calls like that and I try to promote leadership and grow great people. Leadership is action, it’s not position. I’ve learned a lot from Mike.”

Draft Watch: AFC South

April, 14, 2010
4/14/10
1:03
PM ET
» NFC decision-makers: East | West | North | South » AFC: East | West | North | South

» Draft Watch: Biggest needs (2/17) | Busts/gems (2/24) | Schemes, themes (3/3) | Recent history (3/10) | Needs revisited (3/17) | Under-the-radar needs (3/26) | History in that spot (3/31) | Draft approach (4/7) | Decision-makers (4/14) | Dream scenario/Plan B (4/21)

Each week leading up to the NFL draft (April 22-24), the ESPN.com blog network will take a division-by-division look at key aspects of the draft. Today’s topic: Decision-makers, who makes the call in the draft room.

Houston Texans

Gary Kubiak was hired ahead of Rick Smith in 2006, so it was a coach endorsing a general manager as opposed to the more traditional way around. They both have roots in Mike Shanahan’s Denver regime and the compatibility from their long relationship makes for a decision-by-consensus environment as opposed to a big division-of-power setup. Smith’s got a large scouting staff -- some argue too large -- but resources are not an issue for a first-class organization where owner Bob McNair spends what is needed to produce the best chances at success.

Indianapolis Colts

Team president Bill Polian has an excellent track record as a talent-finder and his team is built almost exclusively through the draft, a formula that’s worked for a team that’s consistently won double-digit games during his tenure. He trusts his scouts and the team’s systems, which are evolving under Jim Caldwell as he heads into his second year as coach. Polian has a shrewd feel for who’s overvalued and who’s undervalued and for what will be available when. He also knows he’ll be able to fill some roster spots with undrafted rookies ideal for what the Colts do. Owner Jim Irsay has full faith in Polian’s record and résumé.

Jacksonville Jaguars

General manager Gene Smith has control over the draft and the roster. But having come up as a scout and with an early background in coaching, he knows the value of input from people he trusts. Jack Del Rio is no shrinking violet, and his strong opinions are certainly factored in as Smith hits on the popular “consensus” model. Owner Wayne Weaver is looking to be more involved as the Jaguars press to sell tickets and get into the playoff picture. But those who think that means he’ll be moving name cards on draft day are overreaching.

Tennessee Titans

Jeff Fisher has never sought to be a coach/GM but his power in personnel decisions certainly increased a few years ago when Floyd Reese was dumped and Mike Reinfeldt was hired. The Titans talk constantly about consensus. Reinfeldt controls a well-organized scouting staff and measures input from Fisher’s staff as well. Then the two ultimately come to an agreement. It seems to me Fisher is far less likely to wind up with a player he doesn’t want than Reinfeldt is to call a name that might not be his first choice at a specific slot. While Bud Adams made the call on Vince Young in 2006 when it was still Reese’s operation, he’s not regularly meddling.

A quick game of catch-up

April, 13, 2010
4/13/10
8:04
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Vacation was great, thanks for asking.

Please give me some time to catch up on Facebook messages and conversations. It was nice to see some many friend requests and Twitter followers are now over 7,000. Please join them.

While I did disconnect, I didn’t leave the country and inevitably found myself glancing at my UberTwitter feed.

Upside: Fodder for this quick-hitting post:

Pollard: Bravo to the Texans for locking up strong safety Bernard Pollard in short order after they got DeMeco Ryans’ long-term deal done. When Texans fans were getting anxious over the status of Ryans, Owen Daniels and Pollard, I said they had plenty of time but that I thought they’d be well-served to have two of three locked up long term before training camp. They beat my deadline by a long way, and if Daniels is healthy and recovered from the ACL reconstruction that sidetracked him last year, they could go 3-for-3.

Simms: The Titans brought back Chris Simms as their No. 3 quarterback and certainly hope that helps their push to reduce Kerry Collins’ scheduled $5.5 million salary this season. Still, given a choice of who you’d want in the game if Vince Young is down, it’d be hard to go with Simms over Collins. It’s time for Simms to show he can play if needed, or he’s going to qualify only as a No. 3 retread. I haven’t seen the money, but I can't imagine he got much up front and would cost the Titans much if they don’t keep him this season.

Rackers: I like Houston’s Neil Rackers signing a lot, and selling it as a straight camp competition between Rackers and incumbent Kris Brown isn’t simply spin from the team. If Brown outperforms Rackers, the Texans can stick with Brown for just the extra $350,000 they guaranteed Rackers.

Haynesworth: Talk of the Redskins trying to deal Albert Haynesworth seemed to die down pretty quickly after the Donovan McNabb trade info came to light. But if Washington, a team with a small pool of draft picks in the first year of the Mike Shanahan-Bruce Allen era is hell bent on 1) ditching last year’s free-agent prize and 2) adding a pick even after shelling out a secondary bonus of $21 million recently, well, the Titans aren’t the only team that should be calling and calling again during the draft offering at least a third-rounder. The Jaguars and Texans should be push, too. I’m not paid for Redskins insight, but making such a move with Haynesworth a year after falling in love with him would be imbecilic. Never mind moving him. The team’s determination to have defensive coordinator Jim Haslett change to a 3-4 a year after the franchise opened the vault for a premier 4-3 tackle smacks of control-freak disease, wouldn’t you agree?

Seems like things have been pretty quiet on the Jaguars’ and Colts’ fronts. I’ll see if that’s truly the case as I catch up.

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