NFC South: Baltimore Ravens
Since the start of last season, the Saints are 2-5 when Graham finishes with three catches or fewer. But, when Graham has at least four catches, New Orleans is 13-6.
How will the Ravens cover Graham? At 6-foot-7 and 265 pounds, Graham is bigger and more athletic than most tight ends. It's tough to ask linebackers to cover him because of his leaping ability, and it's tough to line up a safety against him because of his size.
"Anytime you have to match up against a natural mismatch like that, it is a challenge. You can’t just do it one way," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "You’re not going to just find one method to do that. You match up in many different ways, and that’ll be a challenge with Jimmy Graham. He’s one of the premier receivers in football. That’s going to be tough for us, but we’ll have to do it man coverage, zone coverage, on the line, off the line. There will be a lot of different ways we’ll have to face that challenge.”
Since 2011, Graham ranks fifth in the NFL (and first among tight ends) with 329 catches for 4,130 yards and a league-leading 43 touchdown catches. Where Graham inflicts most of his damage is in the red zone. Of those 43 touchdowns, 32 have come inside the 20-yard line (74.4 percent). That's two more red-zone touchdowns than anyone else in the NFL over that time.
Based on what defensive coordinator Dean Pees said about safety Will Hill a couple weeks ago, it could be his job to defend Graham in the red zone Monday night.
"He’s a little better matchup on a lot of the tight ends that we face, because a lot of times if you’re a smaller safety against these doggone huge tight ends that everybody has, that’s a tough duty -- especially down in the red area where they just like to throw the ball up to them," Pees said.
The Ravens have done an outstanding job in limiting tight ends this season. There have been four tight ends who have caught more than four passes against the Ravens: Jermaine Gresham, Heath Miller, Dwayne Allen and Austin Seferian-Jenkins. Only two tight ends have caught touchdowns against the Ravens this season (Allen and Pittsburgh's Matt Spaeth), and none have surpassed 60 yards receiving.
The last tight end to record 100 yards receiving against the Ravens was Denver's Julius Thomas in the 2013 season opener. But Graham isn't your typical tight end.
"He’s unique," Pees said of Graham. "There have been some really talented tight ends [that we’ve faced, but] none of them are as big as he is. Like all those teams, they split him out and try to do some things with him [to] get you singled up on him, but there’s nobody that is quite that big and that big of target and [has] that good of hands. He’s a special tight end, no doubt about it.”
In his victories against the other NFC South teams, he has averaged 297 yards passing with 10 touchdowns and two interceptions. His Total QBR against the Carolina Panthers, Atlanta Falcons and Tampa Bay Buccaneers is 97.0 (out of a possible 100). How impressive is that? That's the second-highest QBR of any quarterback against a single division in the same season since ESPN began QBR in 2006, and you make an argument that it's actually the best.
The highest Total QBR for a quarterback against one division in the same season is 97.5, which was set by Josh McCown against the NFC East last year. But it should be noted that McCown made only one start against the NFC East in 2013.
Flacco has taken advantage of a division where Carolina, Atlanta and Tampa Bay all rank in the bottom 10 in pass defense. He gets a similar opportunity against the Saints, who have the ninth-worst pass defense. New Orleans has allowed an average of 255 yards passing with 16 touchdowns given up and six interceptions.
The Saints' secondary is as beaten up as the Ravens' defensive backfield. Keenan Lewis, the Saints' top cornerback, is struggling with a knee injury, and safety afety Jairus Byrd suffered a season-ending knee injury in October. Byrd's backup, Rafael Bush, suffering a fractured tibia last Sunday.
Flacco hasn't enjoyed the same success against the rest of the NFL. He is 3-4 this season against the teams outside the NFC South with a Total QBR of 47.1. He has averaged 232.8 yards per game with seven touchdowns and six interceptions.
When the Atlanta Falcons play at the Baltimore Ravens, it will mark only the second time that the two most accomplished Class of 2008 quarterbacks go head-to-head.
The Ravens' Joe Flacco has a Super Bowl ring and the most victories of any quarterback (75) since he entered the NFL. The Falcons' Matt Ryan has passed for over 4,000 yards and thrown at least 26 touchdowns in each of the last three seasons.
In their only meeting four years ago, Flacco put the Ravens ahead 21-20 with 1:05 remaining in Atlanta, only to watch Ryan throw a winning 33-yard touchdown to Roddy White with 20 seconds left.
Now, it's a matchup of two teams going in opposite directions. The Ravens (4-2) have won four of their last five games, while the Falcons (2-4) have lost three in a row.
ESPN Falcons reporter Vaughn McClure and Ravens reporter Jamison Hensley discuss a few key elements of Sunday's 1 p.m. ET game.
Hensley: With the main storyline being Ryan versus Flacco, let's take a closer look at the quarterbacks. How would you assess Ryan's season? In what areas has he stepped up? And what have been his shortcomings?
McClure: I think Ryan got off to a tremendous start in a season-opening overtime win against New Orleans, when he passed for 448 yards and threw three touchdowns without an interception. Then he set team single-game records for completion percentage (87.5) and passer rating (155.9) in a 56-14 blowout of Tampa Bay in Week 3. He showed mobility a lot of folks had never seen from him before, so most figured he was in for a career season. But the negative has been his play on the road. In three road losses, he has six of his seven interceptions and has yet to post a passer rating above 87.2. Not even Ryan himself can pinpoint his road woes, but he has to overcome them, with the next four games away from the Georgia Dome.
Many folks thought at the start of the season, when Ryan diced up the Saints, he had joined the truly elite quarterbacks. But even Ryan would say a Super Bowl is an important part of the equation. How does Flacco respond to the whole elite topic and has he taken his game to another level?
Hensley: Flacco's stance is every quarterback should think he's the best or he shouldn't be playing in this league. He showed the ability to play at an elite level in 2012, when he led the Ravens on that magical Super Bowl run. The biggest knock on Flacco is his consistency. He followed up an MVP performance by throwing the second-most interceptions in the NFL last season. His play is back on the upswing under new offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak. Flacco has produced the top two passer ratings of his career over the last three games. On Sunday, he became the fastest to throw five touchdowns, accomplishing the feat in 16 minutes, 3 seconds. Kubiak's emphasis on higher percentage throws and a quicker release has put Flacco on track for a career season.
Flacco and the Ravens haven't thrown the ball deep as often this season, but the Falcons have given up a lot of big plays in the passing game. Is this where the Falcons are the most vulnerable on defense?
McClure: They are vulnerable on defense everywhere, Jamison, as they yield a league-worst 6.22 yards per play. Yes, big pass plays have hurt the Falcons once again this season. In last week's loss to the Bears, they surrendered five explosive pass plays totaling 192 yards, including a 74-yarder. They gave up a 76-yard touchdown pass in a Week 2 loss at Cincinnati. In talking to defensive coordinator Mike Nolan on Tuesday, he said the blame has to be spread around and not just put on one person who happens to be the last one in coverage on that particular play. The biggest issue has been the Falcons' inability to generate pressure as they stand 28th in the league in sacks per pass play. It's putting even more pressure on an inexperienced secondary with three second-year players starting: Desmond Trufant, Robert Alford, and Kemal Ishmael. Jonathan Massaquoi showed some positive signs rushing the passer last week, so maybe he can help the Falcons at least generate a respectable amount of pressure moving forward.
The Falcons' defense is very familiar with one Ravens player, wide receiver Steve Smith, from his days in the NFC South. Has he surpassed expectations since joining the Ravens and to what would you attribute his resurgence? Do you expect him to have some explosive plays against a suspect Falcons' defense?
Hensley: The Ravens had a good feeling they were going to get this type of season out of Smith because they've seen it before. This is a team that watched tight end Shannon Sharpe, safety Rod Woodson and wide receiver Anquan Boldin have strong seasons after getting dumped by the teams that originally drafted them. But no one has had a bigger chip on his shoulder than Smith. He plays like he has something to prove with each catch. Where Smith has surpassed expectations is his ability to get deep. The Ravens envisioned Smith to come up big on third downs and clutch situations. But the fact he has caught the three longest touchdown passes of the season from Flacco -- 80, 61 and 56 -- shows he has something left in those legs. If the Falcons don't give safety help on Smith, the Ravens won't hesitate to go deep to him.
Besides Smith and Flacco, the other part of the Ravens' team that's heating up is their pass rush. The Ravens recorded five sacks and 15 quarterback hits last Sunday. What are the chances they get to Ryan consistently on Sunday?
McClure: I think they'll get some pressure on Ryan, but I also think the Falcons know they have to run the ball more and give the offense more balance because the up-tempo attack hasn't been as effective as expected. The Falcons have a running back foursome in Steven Jackson, Jacquizz Rodgers, Antone Smith and rookie Devonta Freeman. Smith is the home-run hitter with a team-high five total touchdowns and an average of 51 yards per scoring play. So, in my opinion, utilizing the four-headed running back tandem will only help alleviate some of the pressure from Ryan, although the Falcons still are at their best when the passing game -- particularly Ryan to Julio Jones -- is firing on all cylinders.
I read somewhere that Terrell Suggs believes he should have a lot more sacks. Now he'll be up against the Falcons team that just surrendered four sacks against the Bears. Not to mention starting left tackle Jake Matthews is battling through an ankle injury and not playing up to his full potential due to the injury. Will Suggs and company take full advantage and get after Ryan?
Hensley: That's going to be the biggest key to the game for the Ravens, because their secondary is struggling so much. When opposing quarterbacks are hit or under duress from the Ravens, they are 18 of 47 (38.3 percent) for 230 yards with no touchdowns and three interceptions. That passer rating of 27.8 is fifth-best in the NFL. When quarterbacks aren't pressured by the Ravens, they are 124 of 180 (68.9 percent) for 1,393 yards with six touchdowns and one interception. That 102.4 passer rating is 13th-worst in the league. That's why it's so critical for the Ravens to get in Ryan's face. They can't let him have time to pick apart this secondary.
"My advice to Steve would be, 'Shock the world. Surprise everybody. Don't even say a word the whole game -- go into a shell!,'" Harbaugh said.
The chances of that actually happening are slim. Remember, it was six months ago when Smith delivered this warning -- and a quite graphic one at that -- about a reunion with the Panthers, "Put your goggles on because there's going to be blood and guts everywhere."
Even Harbaugh doesn't really believe anyone will see a subdued Smith on Sunday at M&T Bank Stadium.
"I don't think he’s going to take that advice," Harbaugh said. "I think he's going to be himself, and Steve knows how to control his emotions. He's going to be fired up, but he knows how to focus it the right way."
That also, according to Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera, may be Smith's downfall.
At least at 35, which he'll be in May.
Before I go any further, that wasn't why the Panthers released their all-time leading receiver a few weeks ago. Rivera was just answering a question about whether Smith still has what it takes to be a top receiver for his new team, the Baltimore Ravens.
"Steve still has it,'' Rivera said. "There are some things Steve will do very well for [Baltimore]. Steve is an explosive, dynamic player. He's a veteran guy. One of the things, in my opinion, Steve needs to do is learn to tone things down. He practices very hard. He's going to give 100 percent. He's going to challenge.
"At his age, his seniority, he has to handle himself. But he still has it. He made the big catch for us in the playoffs.''
Rivera was referring to a 31-yard touchdown pass Smith caught down the left sideline to give Carolina a 7-6 lead over San Francisco in the second quarter of the NFC divisional playoff loss.
It should be noted that Smith beat the San Francisco secondary after being questionable all week with a knee injury that forced him to miss the regular-season finale.
It also should be noted that Smith's work ethic is one of the things Baltimore coach John Harbaugh wants to rub off on his young receivers.
But Rivera still believes Smith needs to tone his practice habits.
"He's going to wear himself down,'' he said. "Steve wants to take every rep. I'll give you an example. We tell Steve today's your day off. We go out there and he's in pads. He says, 'I just want to wear them out when I go through drills.' The next thing you know he's in team drills.
"That's just the way he is. He wants to do everything all the time.''
Whether Smith will tone down remains to be seen. The chip on his shoulder after being cut by Carolina has gotten bigger. He's said repeatedly he wants to be in the best shape a 35-year-old receiver can be.
And as Rivera said, "Steve will find ways to make plays.''
But sometimes you have to do less to do more.
Smith brings impressive receiving numbers as well as a colorful past from Carolina to Baltimore. ESPN.com Ravens reporter Jamison Hensley and Panthers reporter David Newton weigh in on the signing.
Hensley: Smith turns 35 in May. He had only 64 catches for 745 yards last season, among the worst numbers of his career when healthy. He acknowledged he's no longer a No. 1 wide receiver. What kind of production do you think Smith will have in 2014?
Newton: Probably slightly more than he would have had at Carolina now that the chip on his shoulder has gotten a little bit bigger. I can easily see him with 60 to 70 catches for 700 to 800 yards. But what Smith brings to the Ravens will go beyond catches. He'll make the running game better because he's a tenacious blocker. He'll draw coverage to free up the other wide receivers and tight ends. And he'll bring an attitude that will demand that everybody on offense plays better. I see this as a win-win-win for the Ravens and a loss for the Panthers.
My question to you is since Smith says he's no longer the No. 1 receiver, how do you see him fitting into the Baltimore lineup?
Hensley: I see him as an excellent fit with the Ravens. This reminds me of the times when the Ravens added experienced receivers Derrick Mason in 2005 and Anquan Boldin in 2010. Actually, Smith shares similarities with both receivers. Just like Mason, he can move the chains with comeback routes. Just like Boldin, he brings that fiery attitude that was sorely lacking in the Ravens' offense last season. Smith just has to be a complementary piece in the passing attack. Last season, defenses only had to worry about wide receiver Torrey Smith because tight end Dennis Pitta was hurt for most of the season. Now, teams have to defend Torrey Smith going deep, Pitta running over the middle and Steve Smith making a big play after breaking a tackle.
Steve Smith is known for his extreme personality. Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman reportedly felt it was a distraction. Should the Ravens be concerned about Smith's influence in the locker room?
Newton: As I've said repeatedly through this process, the Steve Smith of five years ago might have been an issue in the locker room. The Steve Smith of today -- not so much. He's grown up a lot since his last incident with a teammate in 2008. I won't say he's mellowed, but football no longer is his entire life as it once was. He's enjoying life on and off the field more than ever. Does that mean he won't get in the face of a teammate if he feels that player isn't pulling his weight? No. But don't you want that to a certain level? Smith is a fiery player, and sometimes he gets fiery with his teammates. He's also a player teammates and opponents have to respect.
On that note, the statement from Baltimore management said Smith will add leadership to the team. Is this something that has been missing and something an outsider can correct?
Hensley: The Ravens have leaders on offense, but they're all low key. Joe Flacco, Torrey Smith and Pitta aren't going to bring that emotional spark. They're nice guys, perhaps too nice at times. What I think Ravens officials really meant by leadership is Steve Smith's desire to make clutch plays. You hear it all the time: Big-time players step up in big games. That's where the Ravens really missed Boldin last season. Boldin didn't put up spectacular numbers, but he wanted the ball on third downs and in the fourth quarter. Based on Smith's history in Carolina, the Ravens feel he can fill that void.
Smith signed a three-year deal. How many years do you think he has left?
Newton: It all depends on avoiding injuries. His goal is to finish his career ranked in the top 10 all time in receptions and receiving yards. It'll probably take three years for him to get there. He may have lost a step or two over the years, but he's still solid at creating separation and getting open -- maybe better at that now than he was earlier in his career from what he calls a few "tricks" Panthers wide receivers coach Ricky Proehl taught him. He's also in incredible shape, aside from a recent stop at In-N-Out Burger on a trip out West. Carolina coach Ron Rivera said during training camp this past year that nobody works harder than Smith. He'll work harder to prove he's not washed up.
Having said that, do you think Baltimore signed him in hopes that he'll play three years or as a one- or two-year stopgap?
Hensley: The Ravens would be happy if he was able to play a couple of years, but they realize this could be a one-year rental. The way his contract is set up, they would have only $2.3 million in dead money if they cut him after one season and they would have to pay him only $3 million each season (a relative bargain) if he plays in 2015 and 2016. So, the Ravens can let Smith's play dictate how long he'll be with them. That said, the signing of Smith won't stop the Ravens from drafting a wide receiver in May. It's a deep draft at that position, and the Ravens want to add as many targets for Flacco as possible. The Ravens are hoping an experienced leader like Smith will mentor a young group of wide receivers. They're paying Smith for what he can do for this team on and off the field.
Quarterback: As I wrote Sunday, you can't put all of the blame on Joe Flacco. But Flacco was bad. He threw a career-worst five interceptions, and three of them were his fault. Flacco didn't see the defender on two, and he underthrew Torrey Smith in the end zone on another one. Why was he throwing to the shortest player on the field (Ray Rice) in the end zone in the fourth quarter? His vision and decision-making were awful at times. Grade: F.
Running backs: The Bills took Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce out of the game in the first half, and offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell did so in the second half. The Ravens ran the ball just twice after halftime. Rice averaged 3.4 yards per carry, and his longest run was seven yards. Pierce gained seven yards on four attempts. You could give the running backs a 'D' for disappeared but that would be too kind. Grade: F.
Wide receivers/tight ends: Smith was the one offensive player who showed up in Western New York. He caught five passes for 166 yards, a 33.2-yard average. Marlon Brown made a tough catch in the end zone, and Deonte Thompson showed the ability to stretch the field. But Ed Dickson and Tandon Doss can't catch. One interception was the result of a pass bouncing off Dickson's hands. Dallas Clark had trouble getting open. Grade: C-minus.
Offensive line: Once again, the line couldn't open any holes for the running backs. This group got smacked in the face physically. The surprising part was the terrible pass protection, which had been decent this season. Flacco got hit 12 times and sacked four times. The line also was flagged four times. It's hard to believe the Ravens won a Super Bowl with essentially this same line. Grade: F.
Defensive line: Arthur Jones got penetration to disrupt some running plays early, and Chris Canty stripped rookie quarterback EJ Manuel. It's tough to remember those moments when the Bills run for 203 yards (3.7-yard average per carry) against the Ravens and do it in between the tackles. The Ravens also allowed their first rushing touchdown of the season. Did Haloti Ngata even play? The stat sheet says he made four tackles, but I can't think of one. Grade: D.
Linebackers: Terrell Suggs was dominant with 17 tackles, one sack and three quarterback hits. Outside of Daryl Smith picking off a deflected pass, this group was awful. Josh Bynes can't cover, and his offside penalty (he leapt over the line before the ball was snapped) was ridiculous. And, just like Ngata, where was Elvis Dumervil? Grade: C-minus.
Secondary: Cornerback Jimmy Smith had a strong game against Steve Johnson (one catch for minus-1 yard), and safety Matt Elam was aggressive in run support early. But losing Lardarius Webb to a thigh injury hurt, and Webb wasn't playing a great game before he was injured. Corey Graham replaced Webb and quickly allowed his fourth touchdown of the season. There were too many times when a receiver was left uncovered, and a more experienced quarterback would have made the Ravens pay. The Ravens have to do better on crossing routes as well. Still, in the end, Manuel completed just 10 passes. Grade: C-minus.
Special teams: Sam Koch averaged 47.3 yards on seven punts, netting more than 52 yards and pinning the Bills inside the 20-yard line twice. Justin Tucker made both of his field goals, from 35 and 24 yards. Thompson had a 34-yard kickoff return, and Doss had a 17-yard punt return. Grade: B.
Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas
Cornerback Domonique Foxworth has been at the Ravens' facility all day and he's been a prime target on Baltimore's radar. The Falcons wanted to keep Foxworth, but didn't want to pay him like a starter. It looks like the Ravens will pay him like a starter.
Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas
No matter how the rest of their careers play out, Atlanta's Matt Ryan and Baltimore's Joe Flacco are going to be paired together as rookie quarterbacks who took their teams to the playoffs. Their early success may even open the door for teams to play young quarterbacks earlier in the future.
But history says the odds are against young quarterbacks doing what Ryan and Flacco have done. Since the NFL-AFL merger, only six rookies have started playoff games and here's how they fared:
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.
Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas
Atlanta's Mike Smith and Matt Ryan already have made history together. With Sunday's victory against Carolina, the rookie head coach/quarterback tandem has paired for seven wins. Baltimore's John Harbaugh and Joe Flacco matched that mark.
That puts the two rookie coach/quarterback combos at the top of the record books. Carolina's Dom Capers and Kerry Collins won seven games together in 1995 to become the first rookie combo to reach seven wins since 1966, or "the Super Bowl era'' as our friends at ESPN Stats & Information call it.
That leaves Ray Perkins and Phil Simms, who won six games with the New York Giants in 1979, in fourth place.
Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas
So much for Tampa Bay's attempt to add Willie Anderson. The veteran offensive tackle signed with the Ravens, according to Bengals.com.
The deal reportedly is for three years and worth $11 million. Anderson was supposed to visit the Bucs today, but problems catching a flight prevented that and he accepted Baltimore's offer in the meantime.
That leaves Tampa Bay with Donald Penn as the starting left tackle and Anthony Davis as the backup. Anderson, a former Pro Bowler, likely would have provided an instant challenge to Penn for the starting job.
Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas
When Marques Douglas signed as a free agent with the Buccaneers back in March, he told the media he expected to be a starter at defensive end and shift inside to tackle for some passing downs.
That never came close to happening as Douglas was a disappointment in training camp. He never was able to climb the depth chart and that made him expendable. This obviously was not a good signing for the Bucs, but they realized it and at least may get something out of Douglas. The Bucs traded him this morning to the Baltimore Ravens for a conditional draft pick in 2009.
The Bucs have second-year pro Gaines Adams as their starting right end. Initially, they thought Douglas could challenge veteran Kevin Carter and Greg White for the other starting spot or at least be a big part of the rotation. But Douglas, 31, didn't show much of anything in camp.
Carter apparently will hold onto the starting job. White, who outperformed Douglas, will play a role in the rotation. The final straw for Douglas might have been the play of Jimmy Wilkerson. He has had a strong preseason and can play both end and tackle. Wilkerson is likely to get playing time at tackle on passing downs.