NFC South: Blaine Gabbert

Newton posts league-low Total QBR

October, 8, 2012
Of the 26 quarterbacks to start Sunday, Carolina’s Cam Newton had the lowest Total QBR: 15.1.

That came in a loss to Seattle. Jacksonville’s Blaine Gabbert (19.7) had the only score that was even close to Newton’s.

New Orleans Drew Brees had a season-high 83.7 to finish fourth in Total QBR in Sunday’s games. Atlanta’s Matt Ryan was No. 8 at 74.4.

For the season, Ryan is third in the league at 78.4. Brees is No. 15 at 62.8.

Newton (42.4) is No. 25 and Tampa Bay’s Josh Freeman, who had a bye Sunday, is No. 31 at 33.1.

Observation deck: Falcons-Jaguars

August, 30, 2012

Some quick observations on the Falcons' 24-14 preseason loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars on Thursday night.
  • Coach Mike Smith opened the game with most of his starting defense on the field. He told the defense it would play one series. Well, that series ended up being exactly one play. Defensive tackle Vance Walker scooped up a Blaine Gabbert fumble that set up an Atlanta touchdown on its first offensive play. Smith stayed true to his word. The starting defense, for the most part, was done after that one play. Middle linebacker Akeem Dent and defensive tackle Peria Jerry were the notable exceptions. They got some extended playing time because Dent missed some time earlier in the preseason and needs the experience. Jerry, who appears to be destined to start with Corey Peters injured, continues to show signs he could get back to where he was before he suffered a major knee injury in his rookie season.
  • Undrafted rookie quarterback Dominique Davis got the start and played the entire way. Davis did some good things, particularly making a few wise choices to dump off to secondary receivers (and sometimes just throwing the ball away) when primary targets weren’t able to get open downfield. But Davis did throw an interception as the Falcons were running the two-minute offense late in the game. I think Davis has shown enough to earn a roster spot, but I think he will open the season as the third quarterback behind starter Matt Ryan and Luke McCown. I think the Falcons will be thrilled if Davis can develop into the backup relatively quickly. But I think the smart move is to at least open the season with the veteran McCown as the backup. He has experience in offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter’s offense from their days together with the Jaguars. But I’m impressed by just about everything about Davis. In particular his pocket presence and awareness is a whole lot better than you would expect from an undrafted rookie.
  • Dominique Franks did some good things at cornerback. That along with the fact that he’s wrapped up the punt-returner job, probably means Franks has locked up the fourth cornerback spot. Franks intercepted a Chad Henne pass near the end of the first half.
  • Speaking of guys on the roster bubble, I think Kevin Cone might have helped his case for the final receiver spot. Cone had a nice touchdown reception, where he swatted away several potential tacklers, in the third quarter.
Michael Turner/Maurice Jones-DrewUS PresswireReplacing Michael Turner, left, with the younger Maurice Jones-Drew would upgrade the running back position, but at what cost?

One of the things I like best about this job is that any time there’s even a rumbling that a player might be on the trading block, the questions start coming.

It generally doesn’t matter who the player is. Would the ____ be interested? And you can fill in the blank with the Buccaneers, Falcons, Panthers or Saints.

But the recent reports that Jacksonville running back Maurice Jones-Drew is open to a trade have brought a variation of the usual pattern.

I haven’t gotten a single question about if the Panthers, Saints or Buccaneers might be interested in Jones-Drew. That’s mainly because the Panthers and Saints already have an abundance of quality running backs and the Bucs are hoping rookies Doug Martin and Michael Smith can help push them into that category.

The Atlanta fans, however, have been out in full force. They aren’t simply asking about potential interest in Jones-Drew. They’re going ahead and suggesting terms of the trade -- Jones-Drew in exchange for Michael Turner, straight up.

I can see some of the reasons for the rapid speculation. New Atlanta offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter had a lot of success with Jones-Drew in Jacksonville. New Atlanta coach Mike Mularkey had a lot of success with Turner when he was offensive coordinator in Atlanta. Jones-Drew would bring a lot more variety to Atlanta’s backfield. Turner could bring stability to Jacksonville’s backfield and that’s important as Mularkey tries to develop second-year quarterback Blaine Gabbert.

But there are more compelling reasons why I don’t see Jones-Drew ending up in Atlanta. Let’s run through them:

1. Do you really think the Jaguars would give up Jones-Drew for Turner? Jones-Drew is 27 and Turner is 30. That’s a huge age difference when you’re talking about running backs. Their value simply isn’t the same. The Falcons would have to give up more than Turner to get Jones-Drew.

2. I’m not sure the Falcons really need Jones-Drew. Don’t get me wrong, the guy is a tremendous running back. He led the NFL in rushing yards last season and he also can catch the ball out of the backfield. The Falcons already have made it clear they don’t want Turner getting more than 300 carries this season. The automatic assumption is they want to keep Turner fresh and there’s some truth to that. But I also think a big part of the reason the Falcons don’t want to run Turner so much is because they want to be more of a passing team. If they bring in Jones-Drew, they might be tempted to fall back on the running game and that would take away from the plans they have for Matt Ryan, Roddy White, Julio Jones and Tony Gonzalez in the passing game.

3. I can’t help but wonder if the Falcons might look at this scenario and think about their recent history. They paid a lot of money to cornerback Dunta Robinson because he thought he might be the missing link to a Super Bowl championship. They did the same thing with defensive end Ray Edwards. They gave up a lot in terms of draft picks to get Jones last season. So far, the Falcons haven’t reached a Super Bowl. If they still were in the one-player-away mode, wouldn’t they have at least made a run at Mario Williams in free agency? There obviously is urgency for the Falcons to win big quickly, but they spent the offseason keeping what they had and tweaking it. It sure don’t seem like their current mindset would be to make an explosive move right before the start of the regular season.

4. The thing that’s being overlooked in all this is the very reason Jones-Drew is holding out in Jacksonville. He has two years remaining on his current contract and wants a new deal. When players like Jones-Drew hold out, it’s because they want to be among the top-paid players at their position. Adrian Peterson averages $14.2 million a season. Chris Johnson averages $13.5 million. Jones-Drew wants something comparable -- no matter where he plays. The Falcons really aren’t in a position to spend that kind of money. They already have $117 million committed toward a 2013 salary cap that’s likely to be somewhere around $123 million and they might have to factor in a contract extension for Ryan before then (and there's also the matter of re-signing some potential free agents and signing next year's draft class). Plus, let’s go back to Jones-Drew’s age. Do you really want to tie up huge money in a running back that’s averaged over 300 carries a season the past three years? Do you really want to tie up huge money in a guy that’s going to be in the same situation as Turner in two or three years?

NFC South preseason story lines

August, 21, 2012
It’s the third week of the preseason, which is significant. That’s because teams usually take the third game more seriously and play their starters into the second half.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at some storylines for each of this week’s NFC South games:

Atlanta at Miami, Friday

Preseason results may not matter. But the Falcons have the NFL’s longest active preseason losing streak (seven games). Atlanta’s first-team offense and defense have looked good in the first two weeks. It’s the backups that have cost the Falcons victories. You can bet Mike Smith has been stressing the importance of “finishing."

Rookie tackle Lamar Holmes missed the first two preseason games with a broken toe. But Holmes is expected to play against the Dolphins and all eyes will be on him. With veteran Will Svitek out with a season-ending injury, Holmes becomes the next option after Sam Baker.

New England at Tampa Bay, Friday

Buccaneers coach Greg Schiano has said he’s patterned a lot of what he does after New England coach Bill Belichick. The two coaches are friendly and their teams will hold joint workouts in Tampa on Wednesday and Thursday.

I know coaches hold a lot back in the preseason and there’s nothing wrong with that. But I would like to see the Tampa Bay combination of Josh Freeman and Vincent Jackson at least click a little bit. Jackson has only one catch in the preseason.

Houston at New Orleans, Saturday

Against a Jacksonville team that didn’t have Maurice Jones-Drew and did have quarterback Blaine Gabbert last week, the New Orleans first defense didn’t look good. Coordinator Steve Spagnuolo still is teaching his system, but this is the last real audition for the Saints (who are playing their fourth preseason game) to grasp it.

With backup Chris Chamberlain lost for the season and starters Curtis Lofton and David Hawthorne banged up, linebacker suddenly has become a hot topic for the Saints. Some young linebackers that came into camp with little apparent chance to make the roster, now have a shot to be contributors early in the season.

Carolina at New York Jets, Sunday

Coach Ron Rivera has hinted that linebacker Thomas Davis could make his preseason debut in this game. According to Carolina’s medical staff, Davis is attempting to become the first NFL player to come back from three torn ACLs.

Cam Newton and Tim Tebow will be in the same stadium. That alone is significant because of the hype they bring. But they also have history. Newton once was a backup to Tebow at the University of Florida.

Observation deck: Jaguars-Saints

August, 17, 2012
Some quick observations on the New Orleans Saints’ 27-24 loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars on Friday night at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome:
  • After looking very good in the first two preseason games, the first-team defense didn’t have a good outing against the Jaguars. It is only the preseason and, ordinarily, you could say the Saints still are getting into Steve Spagnuolo’s scheme. But this one deserves at least a little concern. Jacksonville quarterback Blaine Gabbert looked better than he did at any point in his rookie season. Gabbert completed 13 of 16 passes for 112 yards. Plus, it wasn’t like Gabbert had Maurice Jones-Drew in the backfield. Instead, Rashad Jennings was the main ball carrier and he had 62 yards on 11 carries in the first half. The Jaguars had 101 rushing yards in the first half.
  • There were a couple of Saints' injuries that didn’t look good. Linebacker Chris Chamberlain appeared to injure his knee and receiver Andy Tanner was carted off with an apparent injury to his left leg. No details on the injuries were available immediately, but losing either player for an extended period could hurt. Tanner, who had a nice training camp and start to the preseason, is competing for a roster spot as the fourth or fifth receiver. Chamberlain, who played for Spagnuolo in St. Louis, has a shot at being a starter or key backup.
  • Drew Brees didn’t get a lot of help from his offensive line early on. Brees was sacked and lost a fumble with 9:00 left in the second quarter. But Brees bounced back and the Saints had a nice drive late in the first half to cut Jacksonville’s lead to 17-10. Brees finished the night completing 10 of 13 passes for 133 yards and a touchdown.
  • Backup quarterback Chase Daniel had a very efficient outing. He completed 16 of 21 passes for 185 yards and two touchdown. Daniel led what should have been the game-winning drive, connecting with running back Travaris Cadet on a 24-yard touchdown pass late in the fourth quarter. But Jacksonville rallied for a touchdown with 13 seconds left to keep Daniel and Cadet from being the heroes.
  • Defensive end Junior Galette continued his strong preseason, putting pressure on Gabbert several times. I think Galette could end up starting as Will Smith serves a suspension for the first four games. After that, Galette could be a regular in the rotation because he has some explosiveness as a pass-rusher.
  • Giving 110 percent, as Raheem Morris said he always did, cornerback Elbert Mack tipped a third-quarter pass that turned into an interception for Isa Abdul-Quddus. Mack, who came over from Tampa Bay, has a chance at a roster spot as a backup cornerback and special-teams player.
All the talk about Drew Brees' quest for a new contract that will make him the highest-paid player in the NFL got me thinking about quarterback salaries and average per year.

It remains very likely that, sometime between now and Monday afternoon, Brees and the Saints will work out a contract that pays him somewhere around an average of $20 million per season. That would put Brees on top of the list of quarterback pay. He’s earned that honor.

But what about the rest of the NFC South quarterbacks?

First off, let’s be clear that none of them are at the same level as Brees. But two of them are likely to come up for contract extensions sooner rather than later and Brees could help raise the bar.

As it stands right now, Atlanta’s Matt Ryan is tied for No. 13 in average per year at $11.25 million. Ryan’s contract currently runs through the 2013 season and there have been some rumblings the Falcons could start looking to extend him. Unless he goes out and wins the Super Bowl this season, I don’t think Ryan falls into the category of elite quarterbacks, but I think it would take an average of somewhere between $14 million and $16 million a season to lock him up.

Tampa Bay’s Josh Freeman ranks No. 22 with a $5.24 million average per year. Freeman’s coming off a tough season, but still has plenty of upside and also has a contract that expires after the 2013 season. If the Bucs really believe he is their franchise quarterback, they might be wise to try to extend him before Freeman gets a chance to get back on the field and really drive his price tag into the upper echelon. Then again, the Bucs might want to wait a bit to see if Freeman can recapture his style of play from the 2010 season before making any big commitment.

Carolina’s Cam Newton is No. 21 with a $5.506 million average salary. Although he was the No. 1 overall pick in last year’s draft, Newton’s first contract was less than a lot of guys drafted in the years just ahead of him because the league put in new rules last year that limit rookie contracts. If Newton continues to play like he did as a rookie, he could be looking at numbers like Brees a few years down the road.

I’ve assembled a list of the top 32 quarterbacks, based on average salary per year. Here it is:

Drew BreesDerick E. Hingle/US PresswireIf Drew Brees opted to sit out this coming season, the Saints could tumble back into mediocrity.
The title of a project on the division blogs this week is “Dream/Nightmare scenarios’’ for each NFL team. When I first received the instructions, I called my boss.

I asked about the possibility of taking it one step further. I asked if I could write about the nightmare of all nightmares.

Let’s be clear: It’s not something that I think will happen. But nightmares, after all, are supposed to be the worst thing you can concoct. And there’s one remotely possible scenario in the NFC South that would go way beyond the run-of-the-mill nightmare scenario I cooked up in the team post on the Saints.

What if quarterback Drew Brees doesn’t get a long-term deal and somehow ends up sitting out the entire 2012 season?

If you’re a New Orleans Saints fan, this is where your stage of sleep goes from just dozing off to the start of the worst nightmare ever. This is where all the good feeling Brees has brought to New Orleans since 2006, and especially since the start of the 2009 season, disappears. This is where the Saints go from being the elite team they’ve been the past few years back to the mediocrity that was their trademark through almost their entire previous existence. This is where Chase Daniel takes the first snap of the season at home against the Washington Redskins on Sept. 9 and starts through the regular-season finale Dec. 30 at home against Carolina.

This is the land of 8-8, or maybe even 6-10.

Unlikely? Highly. I still believe Brees will sign a long-term contract, straighten out what’s been a mess of an offseason for the Saints and carry the team to another postseason berth, no matter how many coaches and other players are suspended.

But with each day that passes without Brees having that long-term deal, Saints fans must start worrying a little bit more. Brees carries the franchise tag, and the deadline for him to finalize a long-term contract is July 16. If he doesn’t have a deal by then, he has only one option -- sign the franchise tag and play for a little more than $16 million this season.

Wait, there is actually a second option. Brees could just decide to sit out the season.

Public perception is that Brees never would do that because he’s such a competitor. I’m not here to rain on Brees’ public perception. My experience around him leads me to believe he is what he’s perceived to be -- and that’s not true of all the people I cover. Brees really is a fierce competitor.

But that’s part of the problem. It’s hard to say exactly what he would do if the deadline passed with no deal. At this point, Brees himself might not even know what he would do. But my impression of him leads me to believe there’s at least the possibility he could feel like he has been wronged by the Saints and could swing back as strongly as possible.

Brees has made it clear he despises the idea of playing without any long-term security, so maybe he just doesn’t play. That would be beyond disastrous for the franchise.

This team might have lost its mastermind when head coach Sean Payton was suspended, but I think the Saints could go on nicely with Brees around. If he’s not, this team loses its heart, soul and at least as many games (eight) as it did the past two seasons combined.

Take Brees away from the Saints and you have the Jacksonville Jaguars. Wait, at least the Jaguars have Blaine Gabbert. Yeah, he was terrible as a rookie, but there were at least some reasons why he was a first-round draft pick.

Daniel, who was undrafted in 2009, has completed only six passes in his NFL career. Some people like to say Daniel is the second coming of Brees. He's not. The only things Brees and Daniel have in common are that they’re short by NFL quarterback standards and know the Saints’ playbook. Brees is a once-in-a-lifetime talent. Daniel might look fine in preseason games when he’s plugged into Payton’s system. But start him over an entire regular season, especially one in which Payton isn’t around, and you’ll get a quick reminder of why teams generally avoid quarterbacks who are 6 feet or shorter.

Daniel doesn’t have Brees’ arm, experience in the offense or his magic. Yeah, I know there’s a school of thought that says you could throw any quarterback out there with the likes of Jimmy Graham, Darren Sproles, Marques Colston, Devery Henderson and Lance Moore and he’d do just fine.

I don’t buy it. Daniel could get the Saints through a game or two (maybe a little more if Payton were around) if Brees were banged up. Brees could get the Saints through a season without Payton.

But Payton’s not going to be around. If, somehow, Brees joins him, the Saints suddenly would become a team with a defense that might or might not be average, some good skill-position players on offense and no threat at quarterback.

That sounds like a formula for instant mediocrity -- and a huge nightmare for a franchise and a fan base that has gotten very used to winning big.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers had an exciting free-agency period and added a promising draft class, but I’m not so sure that means Raymond James Stadium will be packed in the 2012 season.

Most of you know the history. The Bucs have sold out only two home games in the past two seasons and most of you know that home games that aren't sold out aren't broadcast live locally.

You would think the addition of the free agents (Vincent Jackson, Carl Nicks and Eric Wright), the draft class (highlighted by Mark Barron, Doug Martin and Lavonte David) and coach Greg Schiano would create some excitement in the Tampa Bay area. I live here and I sense there is some excitement, but I’m not sure that’s going to translate into instant sellouts. At the NFL owners meeting in March, Bucs co-chairman Joel Glazer said the team had seen some growth in season-ticket sales after the free-agent signings. But Glazer wasn’t ready to predict that Tampa Bay would sell out most of its games. Glazer declined to say where Tampa Bay's season-ticket base stands.

Glazer might have been wise to hold back his optimism. There’s a less-than-encouraging report out about Tampa Bay’s economy. According to the quarterly Consumer Distress Index put out by the credit counseling agency CredAbility, no major metropolitan area is as stressed as Tampa Bay in the combined factors of job market, tight credit, household budget constraints, lower net worth and the job market.

Yes, Tampa Bay has moved ahead of Detroit. The Miami area also didn’t fare well in the report and that comes after there’s been talk about the Dolphins having problems selling season tickets. The Jacksonville Jaguars have struggled to sell tickets for several years. As a state, Florida ranks fifth in terms of financial distress for consumers.

The Jaguars, with Blaine Gabbert at quarterback, aren’t exactly an exciting team right now. Miami fans have griped about the team’s offseason, with the Dolphins coming up short in attempts to land Jeff Fisher as their coach and Peyton Manning as their quarterback.

The Bucs might have the most exciting – and potentially the best – team in Florida. But the lagging economy means the Bucs might not see big results at the box office.

All-NFC South team: Defense

January, 24, 2012
Defense wasn’t a strength in the NFC South in the 2011 season. In fact, it was a big problem for the New Orleans Saints, Carolina Panthers and Tampa Bay Buccaneers and only an occasional strength for the Atlanta Falcons.

But there were some solid individual performances. With that in mind, let’s roll out the All-NFC South defense.

Defensive end: Charles Johnson, Panthers. He got his huge contract in the summer, but didn’t take the money and disappear. Johnson came through with nine sacks and also played the run fairly well.

Defensive end: Adrian Clayborn, Buccaneers. Yes, I’m taking the rookie over Atlanta veteran John Abraham. I know Abraham ended up with 9.5 sacks, but 3.5 of them came against Jacksonville and rookie quarterback Blaine Gabbert. Abraham was ordinary most of the season and was on the field for only 13 percent of Atlanta’s defensive snaps. Clayborn finished with 7.5 sacks. He also was on the field for about 80 percent of Tampa Bay’s defensive snaps, showed he can rush the passer and played the run well. Not much went right for the Bucs in the 2011 season. But they hit on their first-round draft pick.

Defensive tackle: Corey Peters, Falcons. He started in 2010, but was only a run-stuffer then. Peters emerged into a complete defensive tackle in his second season and showed signs he can generate a pass rush in the middle.

Defensive tackle: Brian Price, Buccaneers. Off the top of my head, I was preparing to go with Atlanta’s Jonathan Babineaux or New Orleans’ Sedrick Ellis. Then I looked at their statistics and I couldn’t bring myself to do it. I’m going with Price, who quietly put together a nice season. He finished with three sacks and was one of the few Bucs who played the run well. More importantly, Price made a nice comeback from surgery on his pelvis and played through the pain of an ankle injury for most of the second half of the season.

Linebacker: Curtis Lofton, Falcons. In a year in which Carolina’s Jon Beason was hurt and New Orleans’ Jonathan Vilma slowed down, Lofton emerged as the NFC South’s best middle linebacker.

Linebacker: Sean Weatherspoon, Falcons. The second-year pro might now be the division’s best all-around linebacker. Weatherspoon is a playmaker and plays with an attitude that the rest of Atlanta’s defense needs to copy.

Linebacker: James Anderson, Panthers. With Beason and Thomas Davis going down early, Anderson was the bright spot in Carolina’s linebacker corps.

Cornerback: Jabari Greer, Saints. He often gets overlooked, but this guy is the best cover corner in the division.

Cornerback: Chris Gamble, Panthers. Gamble got benched by coach John Fox at the end of the 2010 season and his career appeared to be on the downside. But Gamble got a fresh start with coach Ron Rivera and bounced back with a strong season.

Safety: Malcolm Jenkins, Saints. He didn’t make as many big plays as I think he’s capable of, but Jenkins is an enormous talent. If the Saints can add a pass rush, the big plays will flow for Jenkins.

Safety: Thomas DeCoud, Falcons. He was benched briefly early in the season, but DeCoud seemed to get the message that he needed to play better. He finished the season with four interceptions and 86 tackles.
New offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter hasn’t started the job just yet, but he’s pledging to put a balance offense on the field next season.

“Balance is difficult to defend,’’ Koetter said in a conference call with the Atlanta media Wednesday morning. “When you have the weapons that Atlanta has in the run game and the pass game, you’d be foolish not to take advantage of everything that has to offer. There are various ways to get guys the ball. You have to get your play makers the ball in a place to make plays.’’

[+] EnlargeJacksonville Jaguars offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter
Jake Roth-US PRESSWIRENew Falcons offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter is looking to create balance in Atlanta.
Getting big plays was an issue for the Falcons in a 2011 season that was marked by inconsistency on offense and a playoff loss to the New York Giants in a game in which the Atlanta offense did not score a point.

Koetter, who spent the last five years as offensive coordinator in Jacksonville, replaces Mike Mularkey, who became the head coach of the Jaguars. Owner Arthur Blank, coach Mike Smith and general manager Thomas Dimitroff each have said simply making the playoffs isn’t good enough. The Falcons have made the playoffs in three of Smith’s four seasons, but have yet to win a postseason game. Clearly, part of Koetter’s job will be to help the Falcons take the next step.

“There’s pressure everywhere and nobody puts more pressure on me than I put on myself,’’ Koetter said. “All I can say is I’ll be extremely dedicated to the task at hand and I understand the task at hand.’’

After a 2011 season in which Jacksonville wound up playing rookie quarterback Blaine Gabbert and a very ordinary group of wide receivers, Koetter is stepping into a situation in which he inherits quarterback Matt Ryan, receivers Roddy White and Julio Jones, tight end Tony Gonzalez and running back Michael Turner.

“Everybody can read the stats and know they have excellent skill players,’’ Koetter said. “How everything fits together, that will be stuff that we’ll be working on once we get up there.’’

Koetter said he expects to arrive in Atlanta and begin working later this week. He already met with Ryan while he was interviewing for the position.

“You can tell Matt’s a guy that really understands offensive football and that he’s got a great passion for not only playing, but for winning,’’ Koetter said. “I couldn’t be more excited to work with Matt as well as some of the other players they have in that offensive group.’’

Koetter said his offense in Atlanta will be a combination of the existing offense and some things he’s done in the past.

“I don’t know if anybody owns any offense out there,’’ Koetter said. “There’s a lot of good offense out there. I think it will be a combination of some of the things that I’ve done in the past and things that Atlanta has done well in the past. I think we’d be foolish to not build on some of the things Atlanta is already doing very well.’’

Koetter said he and Ryan discussed the no-huddle offense, something the Falcons have had success with in recent years. Koetter said Ryan made it clear he likes the no-huddle system and that’s something the Falcons will continue to use at times. But Koetter said he’s not ready to declare a percentage on how often the Falcons will go without a huddle.

Koetter said both the running game and vertical passing will be big parts of his offense. But he also said something that should come as welcome news to Atlanta fans, who often griped that Mularkey almost never used screen passes.

“I’m a big believer in the screen game,’’ Koetter said. “Coach Smith has mentioned to me that he would like us to be a better screen team and that’s definitely a part of what we’ll try to do there.’’

Dirk Koetter likes screen passes

January, 16, 2012
All those Atlanta fans that aren’t thrilled with the hiring of Dirk Koetter as Atlanta’s offensive coordinator might find some good news in the numbers I’m about to reveal.

Unlike previous offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey, Koetter likes to use screen passes. That’s pretty obvious from his days as the coordinator in Jacksonville.

In 2011, Jacksonville rookie Blaine Gabbert completed 36 of 45 (80 percent) of his attempts on screen passes for 190 yards, which ranked No. 19 in the league, according to ESPN Stats & Information. The Jaguars may have thrown even a few more screens than that. Gabbert started the final 14 games. Luke McCown started the first two games and we can likely assume he attempted at least a few screens. We don’t know for sure because ESPN Stats & Information’s list of numbers on screen passes only goes 36 quarterbacks deep.

Right near the bottom of the list is Atlanta’s Matt Ryan. He attempted only 20 screens while starting all 16 regular-season games. He completed 16 of those attempts for 68 yards -- that yardage total ranked No. 32 among quarterbacks.

Koetter wasn’t simply trying to take pressure off his rookie quarterback. He’s got a history of using the screen. In the 2010 season, former Jacksonville starter David Garrard completed 37 of 42 screen passes (88.1 percent) for 316 yards.

Relax, Atlanta, Koetter is credible

January, 15, 2012
I know there are a lot of Atlanta fans freaking out that the Falcons hired Dirk Koetter as their new offensive coordinator.

I understand that it’s easy to look at the Jacksonville Jaguars offense Koetter orchestrated in 2011 and not get too excited. But I think you might want to look at the bigger picture before calling this move a huge mistake.

[+] EnlargeDirk Koetter
David Butler II/US PresswireDirk Koetter is a widely-respected assistant around the NFL.
Yeah, the Jaguars were a bad team, but that’s not Koetter’s fault. As AFC South colleague Paul Kuharsky notes, Koetter was a good coach in a bad situation. In 2011, the Jaguars had a head coach (Jack Del Rio) who was melting down and doing desperate things. That left Koetter having to try to make miracles with rookie quarterback Blaine Gabbert and a bunch of wide receivers who don’t belong in the NFL.

Don’t judge Koetter on one season because I don’t think that’s what Atlanta coach Mike Smith was thinking when he made the decision. Do you really think Smith is going to hire someone who he thinks is inept to fix his offense?

I don’t. Smith’s future depends largely on this hire and the hiring of a defensive coordinator that he’ll be doing soon. When offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey and defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder left, Smith lost his insulation. It was pretty clear in the aftermath of the playoff loss to the New York Giants that owner Arthur Blank wasn’t satisfied with the season. The coordinators are gone and that means Smith is on the hot seat if the team doesn’t meet expectations next season.

Smith worked with Koetter in Jacksonville and I’m sure Smith could have hired any number of other candidates. He chose Koetter and this wasn’t a quick choice. It was pretty well known around the league for about a month that Mularkey was going to become the head coach in Jacksonville. Smith had lots of time to think about this one and he got the guy he wanted.

“Dirk is a veteran offensive coach who will bring years of NFL experience as an offensive coordinator as well as a fresh set of ideas to our offense,’’ Smith said in a statement released by the team to officially announce Koetter’s hiring. “He is bright, he understands the intricacies of the vertical passing game, but he also wants to be able to run the football which is very important in the NFL. I look forward to working with Dirk and have tremendous confidence that he will be a great addition to our team and our coaching staff."

I haven’t covered Koetter yet, but I’ve heard very good things about him from people who have covered him, including Kuharsky. I’ve also heard very good things about him from others who have coached with him. Koetter’s respected around the league and that’s almost always a good sign. I hadn't heard the same things about some of the other names that were linked to this position.

Before this ugly season in Jacksonville, Koetter was viewed as a potential head coach. He did some good things in his first four seasons in Jacksonville. In that time span, Jacksonville’s offense ranked 13th in the NFL in total yards (338.6 per game), sixth in rushing (134.2), fifth in third-down conversions (43.0 percent) and fifth in average yards per rush (4.5). In his first season with the Jaguars (2007), Koetter directed a record-breaking season as the offense set franchise records for points (411 total and a 25.7 average), touchdowns (50) and touchdown passes (28).

Prior to that, Koetter led Arizona State to four bowl games in his six seasons as head coach and finished with a 40-34 record. He also served as offensive coordinator and helped the Sun Devils average nearly 30 points per game over six seasons, and the team was ranked in the top 20 in the nation in passing offense in five of his six seasons.

Give this guy a chance with Matt Ryan, Roddy White, Julio Jones, Tony Gonzalez and Michael Turner and I think Atlanta fans might be pleased with the results.
ATLANTA – The Jacksonville Jaguars reportedly have asked the Atlanta Falcons for permission to interview offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey for their head coaching position.

It wasn’t immediately clear if the Falcons have granted that permission, but that’s not likely to be a stumbling block. Coach Mike Smith and general manager Thomas Dimitroff generally don’t stand in the way of assistants who get a chance to move up. Plus, Smith has a good relationship with the Jaguars. He worked as Jacksonville’s defensive coordinator before taking the Atlanta job in 2008. Mularkey also has a son who works in Jacksonville's personnel department.

Mularkey’s name has been tied to the Jacksonville job since Jack Del Rio was fired. He has previous head coaching experience as a head coach with Buffalo. The Jaguars likely will want a coach who can help rookie quarterback Blaine Gabbert develop and Mularkey has largely been credited for the success of Atlanta’s Matt Ryan in his first four seasons.

It’s not known when Mularkey will talk to the Jaguars, but the Falcons have a playoff game to get ready for Sunday against the New York Giants.

Mularkey also potentially could be a candidate for the Tampa Bay job, if the Bucs part ways with Raheem Morris. Mularkey started his coaching career with the Bucs in the mid-1990s and his reputation as a quarterback builder could be attractive for a team that’s looking to get Josh Freeman back on track.

Pat Yasinskas' QB Watch

December, 28, 2011
Aaron Rodgers and Drew BreesBrian D. Kersey/Getty ImagesAfter a shootout in Week 1, Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers, right, and New Orleans' Drew Brees remained on top of their game throughout the 2011 season.
This will be this season’s final edition of QB Watch, a weekly project I’ve enjoyed tremendously this season. With that in mind, we will make this our awards edition.

Here are the awards:

Most Valuable Player: Aaron Rodgers, Packers. He carries Green Bay and is more valuable to the Packers than any player on any team. He also seems to have the ability to do whatever he wants, whenever he wants. We all should enjoy what may be the golden age of quarterbacking. We know all about Tom Brady, who may be the greatest ever and is still outstanding, but he might be only the third-best quarterback in the league.

Best quarterback: Drew Brees, Saints. Rodgers will win the MVP award and he should, because without Rodgers, the Packers would be the Colts without Peyton Manning. But Brees is setting all sorts of records and the Saints are having a great season. You could argue Brees gets to play in one of the most quarterback-friendly offenses in history and has as many weapons as any team ever has. But it’s tough to imagine another quarterback running the New Orleans offense as efficiently as Brees.

[+] EnlargeMatt Moore
AP Photo/Gregory BullMatt Moore has been solid for the Dolphins this season.
Best surprise: Matt Moore, Dolphins. If the Dolphins had turned things over to Moore a bit earlier, their season might have been respectable. Moore’s been efficient without a lot of weapons around him. Whoever is coaching the Dolphins next year has to at least consider keeping Moore as the starter.

Worst surprise: Josh Freeman, Buccaneers. I truly believed we’d see greatness out of Freeman this year. His 2010 season, his first as a starter, was filled with all sorts of promise. But 2011 has been a disaster. Freeman deserves some of the blame, no doubt. But his supporting cast has been dismal and that’s made him look even worse. The Bucs have to do something dramatic or else they’re going to ruin this kid.

Worst injury: Jay Cutler, Bears. Before he went down, the Bears were on target for the playoffs. Once Cutler went down, they fell apart.

Best non-injury: Matthew Stafford, Lions. For the first time in his career, Stafford has been healthy enough to start every game. It’s no coincidence the Lions are in the playoffs for the first time in a generation.

Best response to injury: After starter Matt Schaub and backup Matt Leinart went down, the Texans turned to rookie T.J. Yates. He led them to victory in his first appearance and won his first two starts. The Texans have stumbled and lost the past two games, but Yates did enough to get the Texans into the playoffs for the first time in franchise history.

Best fullback playing quarterback: Tim Tebow, Broncos. Let’s be honest. Despite all the miracles, Tebow does not throw like an NFL quarterback. But he can run and he can buy so much time that it sometimes doesn’t matter if his passes are fluttering toward receivers.

Best rookie quarterback ever: Cam Newton Panthers. The numbers say it all. He’s already broken the rookie record for passing yards and has a chance at 4,000. He’s also run for more touchdowns (14) than any quarterback in history. He’s also turned around a franchise that had absolutely no hope a year ago.

Cam newton
AP Photo/Nam Y. HuhCam Newton has helped make Carolina Panthers football exciting once again.
Best rookie if this had been a normal season: Andy Dalton, Bengals. Carson Palmer has been forgotten in Cincinnati. Dalton (along with Newton) is just one of five rookie quarterbacks in history to throw for 20 touchdowns.

Worst rookie: Blaine Gabbert, Jaguars. Jacksonville threw this rookie in long before he was ready, and it showed. Gabbert’s completed just 50 percent of his passes. While Newton and Dalton have shown they can be the answers for the Panthers and Bengals for the long haul, the Jaguars -- and whoever their new coach ends up being -- are going to have to decide if Gabbert really has a future or if they should look for an alternative.

Best recovery: Alex Smith, 49ers. He’s never going to live up to his 2005 draft status, but the arrival of coach Jim Harbaugh has finally allowed the 49ers to get something good from Smith. He’s not a great quarterback, but he’s shown he can be a very efficient one on a very good team.

Strongest sign that it’s time to hang it up: Donovan McNabb, formerly of the Vikings. Mike Shanahan benched him in Washington last year. The Vikings benched him in favor of Christian Ponder this year. McNabb asked for his release at a time when Chicago and Houston had major injuries at quarterback, but nobody signed him. That should tell McNabb something.

Biggest decision ahead: The Indianapolis Colts. Do they bring back Manning and hope he’s fully healthy? Or do they draft Andrew Luck?



Pat Yasinskas' QB Watch

December, 21, 2011
Cam Newton, Andy DaltonUS PresswireThe Panthers (with Cam Newton) and Bengals (with Andy Dalton) are two examples of teams that successfully used the draft to fill a void at quarterback.
In the past few months, we’ve seen the Panthers, 49ers and Bengals discover they’re just fine at quarterback. In those same few months, we’ve seen even more teams discover that they’re not in great shape.

That’s why the 2012 draft and free-agency period could provide a shopping spree for teams looking for starting quarterbacks. I’m looking around the league and seeing that roughly a quarter of the 32 teams could change starters in 2012.

Maybe they'll find solutions in the draft, as the Panthers did with Cam Newton and the Bengals with Andy Dalton. Or maybe they'll take a guy who has been around for a while, put him in the right situation and find out he can play, the way the 49ers did with Alex Smith.

But neither method is foolproof. Drafting a quarterback early doesn’t always work. That’s why I’m putting the Vikings and Jaguars on my list of teams that might look for a starter in the offseason. Bringing in a veteran, as the Cardinals did with Kevin Kolb, didn’t bring any dramatic changes, and that’s why Arizona also is on my list of teams with uncertain quarterback futures.

Let’s run through the list, in no particular order.

Redskins. Who really thought it was a good idea to go into a season with John Beck and Rex Grossman as your only options? Owner Daniel Snyder and coach Mike Shanahan must realize now that they’re going nowhere with journeyman quarterbacks. That’s why they have to find someone who can be a franchise quarterback.

Seahawks. Same story as the Redskins. Pete Carroll generally had more talent and depth in his quarterback groups at USC than he did when he decided to go with Tarvaris Jackson and Charlie Whitehurst. Letting Matt Hasselbeck go wasn’t necessarily a bad move, but heading into a season with guys who never have been and never will be any good made no sense.

Dolphins. The tandem of Chad Henne and Matt Moore was as uninspiring as what the Seahawks and Redskins brought to the table. That’s why the Dolphins will be looking for a new coach. Moore has played pretty well at times, but ownership seems intent on making a big splash to bring some life back to this franchise. The quickest way to make waves is to add a high-profile quarterback, but keeping Moore around as a backup is a nice insurance policy.

Colts. Had Indianapolis had a backup like Moore, this season wouldn’t have been so disastrous. Everything fell apart as soon as it became apparent that Peyton Manning wouldn't play because of a neck injury. The Colts could get a healthy Manning back, or they could draft Andrew Luck. But, if they let Manning go and draft Luck, they should go out and get a backup who is capable of starting.

Vikings. They tried to use Donovan McNabb as a bridge to first-round draft pick Christian Ponder. The bridge quickly collapsed, and Ponder was thrown in over his head. Ponder may eventually turn into a decent starter, but we’ve seen no solid evidence that will happen. That’s why the Vikings need to have an alternative.

Jaguars. You can put Blaine Gabbert in the same category as Ponder. The jury is still out on him. Like Miami, this is another franchise that will hire a new coach and try to energize a fan base. Just a thought here, but there’s a hometown guy who could sell out the stadium every week, if he somehow becomes available. (See below.)

Broncos. Tim Tebow has pulled off miracles by putting the Broncos in playoff contention. The guy has all sorts of intangibles, but he doesn’t throw like an NFL quarterback. That’s why it looks as though John Fox and John Elway are forcing smiles every time Tebow leads them to an awkward victory. You get the sense that, deep down, Fox and Elway would rather have a conventional quarterback.

Cardinals. The Cardinals thought they found their franchise guy when they traded for Kolb. He hasn’t played like a franchise quarterback, but the Cardinals don’t necessarily have to go outside on a shopping trip. John Skelton has played pretty well in relief of Kolb. Come training camp next summer, let Kolb and Skelton compete and settle this thing once and for all.