NFC South: Brian Billick
The Falcons may have a little edge on the Seahawks when it comes to preparation. The Falcons were off all last week and the coaching staff used that time to prepare for any of the three possible opponents. Once it was decided Seattle was the opponent, Atlanta’s coaching staff began focusing in on the Seahawks, who were flying across the continent Sunday night and will have to make another long flight to Atlanta.
Joseph Person has an overview of six candidates for the general manager position. The Panthers have been very quiet on this front, so it's at least possible there is another candidate or two in the mix.
NEW ORLEANS SAINTS
Larry Holder writes that the injury to Washington quarterback Robert Griffin III could clear the way for Drew Brees to be named to the Pro Bowl as an alternate.
TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS
Former NFL coach Brian Billick says Josh Freeman’s problems with accuracy stem from the decision-making process. He has a point. Too often, it was like Freeman was trying to force things and make the big play instead of settling for safer alternatives.
Fox Sports’ Brian Billick, who was scheduled to be the analyst alongside play-by-play man Thom Brennaman, is out with a bad back.
Charles Davis, who lives in the Orlando area, has been called in to take Billick's place.
Let’s take a look at the maps on the506.com to see what games will be televised in what markets.
The late afternoon game on FOX (with Joe Buck and Troy Aikman) between the New Orleans Saints and San Francisco 49ers is almost a national game. It will air just about everywhere, except the markets around St. Louis and all of Arizona, where the game between the Rams and Cardinals will be shown.
The 1 p.m. ET game between Atlanta and Tampa Bay (on FOX with Thom Brennaman and Brian Billick) also will be available to a wide audience. It will air through almost the entire Southeast , with parts of Florida as the exception. The game won’t air in the Tampa Bay market because the Bucs didn’t sell enough tickets to lift the local television blackout, and South Florida will get the game between Seattle and Miami.
The game between Tampa Bay and Atlanta also will be available going West. It will air in markets right up to the Louisiana/Texas border. It also will get some play in New England, airing in Boston and several surrounding markets.
Their 1 p.m. ET game on FOX, with Kenny Albert and Daryl Johnston in the booth, will be televised throughout most of the nation.
Let’s turn to the506.com for a look at what markets Sunday’s NFC South games will be shown in.
The Saints and Redskins will be shown in the vast majority of markets. The few exceptions are markets that will air a game that features a local team. One of those will be the Atlanta Falcons at Kansas City Chiefs. That game also will be on FOX with Thom Brennaman and Brian Billick as the announcers. The Atlanta game will air throughout Georgia and Missouri. Other than that, it will be pretty much limited to Colorado and Kansas.
The late-afternoon game between Carolina and Tampa Bay (on FOX with Ron Pitts and Mike Martz) won’t get wide exposure. Since it didn’t sell out, the game will be blacked out in the Tampa Bay area. It will air in the Carolinas, Georgia, parts of Louisiana and a couple of isolated pockets of Florida. The game between San Francisco and Green Bay will air in the majority of the country during that time slot.
That’s when we found out the Falcons were getting strong consideration. Now, there’s an updated report that they’ve been offered to be the team featured on the show throughout training camp and the preseason. So, the ball is in the Falcons’ court, and there likely will be some high-level meetings at their Flowery Branch facility before a final decision is made.
Back when “Hard Knocks’’ made its debut in 2001, Smith was a low-level defensive assistant with the Baltimore Ravens. He also is the brother-in-law of former Baltimore coach Brian Billick. The Ravens were the first team to be featured on “Hard Knocks’’ and Smith had an up-close view of the thinking that went into the team accepting that role and how the process worked.
The Ravens were coming off their Super Bowl victory. At the start of training camp, Billick was asked about why the Ravens chose to be on “Hard Knocks.’’ Thanks to AFC North colleague Jamison Hensley, who covered the Ravens for The Baltimore Sun back in those days and was able to dig up the following quote from his archives.
“I can't imagine much that would be thrown at us in terms of a distraction during the season that we would not have already experienced,’’ Billick said. “Very truthfully, training camp is about providing learning experiences, and that's what this is for my players."
Billick wanted his players to be prepared for the spotlight. They didn’t get back to the Super Bowl, but the 2001 Ravens did go 10-6 and won a playoff game before getting eliminated.
Smith has had four winning seasons since taking over the Falcons. But he’s never won a playoff game. Clearly, the Falcons are a team looking to get over the hump.
Smith might follow the lead of his brother-in-law and embrace the spotlight as a way to help his team take the next step.
On his Twitter account, Billick referred to the possibility as a “lose/lose situation for both. Strange."
When asked why he referred to it as a losing situation, Billick tweeted “For Parcells? Would just be a 1-year puppet. For Payton? Winning proves Saints don’t need him and his $7M salary."
I understand Billick’s perspective. But I disagree with it. I think letting Parcells take over while Payton is suspended for a year might be the best possible situation for the Saints. They could keep offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael and an efficient offensive system in place. Defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo has experience as a head coach, but is new to the Saints and doesn’t know their personnel yet. Bringing in Parcells would allow Carmichael to do what he does best and give Spagnuolo time to focus solely on the defense.
Would showing that the Saints can win without him be a bad thing for Payton? I’m not so sure about that. I think he simply wants the team he built to continue to succeed, and letting Parcells take over his office and wear his whistle might be the best way to assure the Saints continue to thrive.
And what about Parcells’ perspective? Well, we have no idea if he’d be interested in a return to coaching. Payton is Parcells’ mentor and friend. Would taking over the Saints for a year make Parcells a puppet?
Just my opinion, but I have a hard time seeing Parcells being a puppet for anyone.
Jeff Duncan writes that it’s time for Saints owner Tom Benson to step out of the background and start making some important decisions, starting with making sure quarterback Drew Brees signs a long-term contract very soon. I agree totally and wrote something pretty similar the other day. Benson also needs to decide who will replace coach Sean Payton and general manager Mickey Loomis during their suspensions. Benson’s been a hands-off owner, at least when it comes to football operations. It’s time for that to change. Someone has to seize control of this situation and start the healing process. That’s got to be Benson.
Brian Billick wonders if Payton, who will be suspended for one year, might be gone from the Saints for good. It’s a legitimate question. Billick says Benson could dismiss Payton “for cause."
Josh Johnson, who had been the backup quarterback for Tampa Bay, has signed with the San Francisco 49ers. No big surprise there. The Bucs didn’t want Johnson back and had already signed Dan Orlovsky to take over as Josh Freeman’s backup. Johnson played for San Francisco coach Jim Harbaugh when the two were together at the University of San Diego. Johnson will go in as the backup to Alex Smith, who is coming off a solid season, so it’s not like Johnson has a chance to compete for a starting job.
Former New Orleans cornerback Tracy Porter has agreed to terms with the Denver Broncos. Porter had a key interception in the Saints’ Super Bowl victory, but gradually became expendable as the Saints drafted Patrick Robinson and Johnny Patrick in back-to-back years.
Steve Spagnuolo, Pete Carmichael and Aaron Kromer are reportedly the three in-house candidates to fill in for Payton during his one-year suspension. Those are the same three names I speculated on the other day and it didn’t take a great deal of time to come up with that list. It’s pretty obvious those are the three best-qualified candidates on the current staff. Defensive coordinator Spagnuolo has been a head coach before in St. Louis. Offensive coordinator Carmichael is very close to Brees, who carries plenty of clout in the organization. Offensive line coach Kromer is a rising star and his name was tied to several head-coaching openings this offseason.
John Manasso writes that the Falcons stand to benefit from the Saints’ punishments. That’s very true. But, to varying degrees, I think you can say the same of the Panthers and Buccaneers.
Clemson defensive tackle Brandon Thompson said he has a pre-draft interview scheduled with the Falcons. Makes a lot of sense because Jonathan Babineaux is coming off an unproductive season and Peria Jerry has never been able to fully bounce back from the major knee injury he suffered as a rookie.
LSU cornerback Morris Claiborne, who has been tied to the Buccaneers as a possibility at the No. 5 pick, revealed at his pro day that he will have surgery to repair ligament damage in his wrist on Friday. I don’t think that’s going to hurt Claiborne’s draft stock. I also think he helped his stock by running the 40-yard dash in 4.39 seconds.
They need to replace Mike Mularkey, who left to become Jacksonville’s head coach. The early list of candidates includes some pretty big names.
Reportedly, former Baltimore head coach Brian Billick, former Jacksonville coordinator Dirk Koetter, former Jets coordinator Brian Schottenheimer and Green Bay quarterbacks coach Tom Clements are on the list.
Koetter and Billick each have deep ties to Atlanta coach Mike Smith. Koetter and Smith worked together in Jacksonville. Smith once was on Billick’s staff in Baltimore and the two are related through marriage
Atlanta quarterbacks coach Bob Bratkowski, who previously was a coordinator in Cincinnati, also could be a possibility.
Whatever direction the Falcons end up going in, they need to make some adjustments to their offense. Atlanta’s offense was very inconsistent in the 2011 season. There were times when Matt Ryan, Roddy White, Julio Jones, Tony Gonzalez and the passing game looked good and there were times when Michael Turner ran the ball well.
But the Falcons never truly were able to establish an offensive identity. Smith and whoever he hires as his new coordinator need to come up with a clear plan of exactly what kind of offense the Falcons want to have in the future.
Bill Cowher: He’s made it sound like he plans to stay in television. Even if that changes, there’s almost no shot of Cowher coming to Tampa Bay. If he coaches, it likely will be in a major market and not with a team that needs major rebuilding.
Tony Dungy: He’s said he doesn’t want to coach again and he’s told that to several teams that have inquired. The Bucs might even be one of those teams. It might be fruitless, but I say the Bucs make a run at Dungy (even if they already have) and beg him to return to the franchise he once made respectable. He could do it again, better and quicker than anyone else. Throw all the money and power you have at Dungy and if getting him means co-chairman Ed Glazer has to wash Dungy’s car three times a week, get out the bucket and the sponges. But this almost certainly won’t happen.
Mike Sherman: When you fire a coach, you usually go hire the opposite. Sherman’s very different than Morris. He’s mature, he believes in discipline and he comes from an offensive background. He also won during much of his stint in Green Bay. Sherman’s name keeps popping up with this job, so don’t rule him out. There’s a good reason for that. Sherman has the same agent as general manager Mark Dominik, who is likely to have a big say in this story.
Mike Mularkey: The Atlanta offensive coordinator is going to interview for the Jacksonville job, but he could fit the profile for the Bucs. He’s done a nice job developing Matt Ryan and he has previous experience as a head coach in Buffalo. Mularkey’s got the resume to make people believe he can straighten out Josh Freeman. Plus, Mularkey started his coaching career with the Bucs under Sam Wyche.
Brian Billick: He once had a reputation as an offensive guru, but he won his Super Bowl in Baltimore with great defense. Billick’s also been out of the game for a bit. But he is a name and this franchise needs to sell tickets.
Rob Chudzinski: The Carolina offensive coordinator is a hot name after Cam Newton’s stunning rookie year. He’ll get some interviews, but may need one year as a coordinator before he gets a job as a head coach.
Todd Bowles: He finished the season as Miami’s interim head coach and will interview for the permanent job. But, if Bowles is available, I’ve been told he could get a look. He doesn’t have the offensive background. But he’s viewed as a rising star who is older and more mature than Morris.
Mike McCoy: Like Chudzinski, McCoy could be a year or two away from a job as a head coach. But he’s done a great job as Denver’s offensive coordinator. He also has the charisma to win over players and fans. Oh, he also shares the same agent as Dominik and Sherman.
Former NFL coach Brian Billick has a list of guys he thinks will be the top 10 defensive linemen in free agency. Pay close attention here because Billick obviously knows the game and the NFC South is likely to be a player when it comes to defensive linemen. Atlanta seems almost certain to pursue a pass-rusher, and Carolina still could be in the market for a defensive tackle. Some of the names you see on this list could end up in those places.
Atlanta cornerback Dunta Robinson said the Falcons are a team that will be ready coming out of the lockout.
A house owned by former New Orleans running back Deuce McAllister is being put up for auction.
Anticipating the lockout will end soon, Carolina linebacker Dan Connor returned to Charlotte to get ready for the possible opening of training camp on July 28.
If the lockout prevents the 2011 season from taking place, the Georgia Dome will lose $1.5 million, according to the Atlanta Business Chronicle.
Dawson Devitt highlights his favorite Falcons of all time. Some of the players he selected might surprise you.
The Panthers kept things relatively quiet Tuesday during their first players-only workout of the offseason.
In an effort to keep outsiders away from the workout at Charlotte Christian School, the Panthers hired a police officer to maintain some semblance of secrecy.
New Orleans Saints
NFL.com takes a look at the myriad options in the Saints' backfield.
The Saints' "commitment to community," is one of the things The Sporting News listed on its "100 reasons we still love the NFL during the lockout."
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Cadillac Williams remains hopeful that he will be able to stay with the Bucs once the lockout ends.
In 2010, the Buccaneers finished fifth in Brian Billick's TOX Rating.
Pat Yasinskas: It’s true the Bucs made a strong run at Haynesworth last year. They offered him more money than the Redskins and not getting him turned out to be a blessing in disguise. I don’t think the interest will be there from Tampa this time around. First off, last year’s interest came before the Bucs had really embraced the whole youth movement concept. Now they’re serious about going with young players. They just drafted defensive tackles Gerald McCoy and Brian Price. Haynesworth doesn’t fit Tampa Bay’s profile.
Dan in New Orleans writes: I just read your response to John Clayton's article about Matt Ryan being an elite QB. My question is this: why did Drew Brees have to win a Super Bowl before anyone even dared to mention him as elite, but we're already calling this kid who hasn't even won his division yet elite? It just doesn't make sense to me.
Pat Yasinskas: A solid point. A lot of people wouldn’t consider Brees among the elite until he won a Super Bowl and I don’t really know why that was the case. Maybe because Brees’ height would seem to make him something less than the stereotypical franchise quarterback? I don’t know why that was. But I do know for sure Brees now is an elite quarterback. I think Ryan’s on the way to that, but I think there remains a big gap between Brees and Ryan.
Al in Washington, D.C., writes: I know I'm chiming in late on this one, and I don't have too much of a gripe with Sean Payton pulling down #2 on your list of greatest coaches in the NFC South, but is important for everyone to remember that Brian Billick (and to a lesser extent) Jim Fassel were both riding pretty high after their first four years as head coaches. Now they can't even get head coaching interviews (in the NFL).
Pat Yasinskas: Point taken, one of the reasons I didn’t choose Payton over Tony Dungy is because Payton’s only coached four years, still is coaching and we don’t know what his legacy will look like. But, so far, it’s looking pretty darn good.
Craig in Mechanicsville, Va., writes: As a proud fan of the New Orleans Saints. I was wondering about the Saints either having re-signed or have under contract 21 out of the 22 Starters of the Super Bowl. Do you recalled any other team that have done that before? If there was another team that have done that before what did they do the following year?
Pat Yasinskas: I’m just going off the top of my head here because I’ve got a recent example from within the NFC South. This team didn't make
> the Super Bowl, but the 2008 Carolina Panthers went 12-8 and won the division. They spent the 2009 offseason bragging about how they were returning 21 of 22 starters. Sounded like a great thing at the time, but the Panthers hadn’t really addressed depth and some of those starters got old or hurt. They ended up taking a huge step back last year, so keeping your roster the same isn’t always the right move.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- I made it out of New Orleans before any impact from the storm in the Gulf of Mexico. I’m sincerely hoping the Gulf Coast weathers this one as well as possible.
In other matters, let me nip this rumor before it gets started. Brian Billick was in Charlotte this morning. But, no, he’s not coming to replace John Fox -- at least not yet, anyway. Billick, who did the television broadcast of Sunday’s game between the Saints and Panthers was on my flight out of New Orleans.
But Billick didn’t leave the airport. I saw him go to another gate to catch a connecting flight.
I obviously wasn’t able to do much with the DeAngelo Hall incident in Atlanta on Sunday because I was in New Orleans to cover the Saints and Panthers. But Daniel Cox has a detailed version of the events here. One thought on this: If you’re going to spout off, you should be able to back it up. I haven’t seen Hall being able to back up anything the past couple of years.
I’ll be checking back in with more later this afternoon when I get to Tampa, home of the red-hot Buccaneers.
|Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images|
|Mike Smith's stable of coaches is one of the reasons for Atlanta's revival.|
When he found out he was interviewing for the coach job with the Atlanta Falcons in 2008, the first thing Mike Smith did was assemble an imaginary three-deep depth chart. He wasn’t stacking players. He was lining up coaches.
Smith was envisioning who he would hire as his assistants. He drew up a wish list that turned into a dream team. With the possible exception of drafting quarterback Matt Ryan, that might have been the single-best move Smith has made.
I’ll make the argument that Smith’s stable of assistants is one of the main reasons he took a franchise out of the dumpster and took it to the playoffs last season and has the Falcons off to a 4-1 start heading into Sunday’s game against Dallas. I’ll also make the argument that, from top to bottom, Atlanta’s coaching staff is as good as any in the league.
That’s no accident. Smith put as much time into putting this group together as he did studying Ryan before last year’s draft. In both cases, he hit the jackpot.
“I always say there are more unsuccessful coaching staffs than unsuccessful head coaches,’’ Smith said. “You all have to have same philosophy and, as a head coach, you have to empower them to do their job.’’
Smith’s staff does its job very well. Look at what offensive line coach Paul Boudreau has done with a group that includes only one blue-chip player (left tackle Sam Baker), look at what coordinator Brian VanGorder has done with a defense that had very little individual talent last year and only slightly more this season or look at how offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey and quarterbacks coach Bill Musgrave have made Ryan so good so fast.
How much difference can a coaching staff really make?
“First and foremost, you have to have players,’’ Smith said. “Rosters around the NFL aren’t all that much different from one through 32. There are lots of great players everywhere across the league. But I think it’s very important your team is fundamentally and schematically sound. You have to be good Xs and Os guys and you have to be able to work in a team framework and know dynamics of a team change every day.’’
Those were high on the list of qualities Smith was looking for as he assembled a staff that now has a collective 207 years of experience coaching in the NFL. Heck, when you look at how much experience each of Atlanta’s 17 coaches have in the NFL, Smith is tied with Musgrave for ninth place with 11 years.
But Smith was looking for more than experience as he put together this group. Sure, he jumped right on assistant head coach/secondary coach Emmitt Thomas, who had been on the previous Atlanta staff and he was quick to scoop up Boudreau, receivers coach Terry Robiskie and defensive line coach Ray Hamilton, who each have at least 22 years of NFL experience. But Smith was also looking for balance and that’s why he went out and hired guys like running backs coach Gerald Brown and tight ends coach Chris Scelfo, who were coaching in the college ranks, but had never coached in the NFL.
“I wanted to have some guys that could deal with young players because I knew we were going to be a very young team,’’ Smith said.
Other than sharing his basic philosophies, Smith was looking for balance, not any across-the-board requirements. Different strokes for different coaches. Thomas, a Hall of Fame player, Robiskie, Hamilton and Musgrave were hired only in part because they were good coaches.
“I wanted to have some former NFL players on the staff,’’ Smith said. “I think that’s important. Emmitt, Terry, Ray and Bill are guys who have sat in the locker room and they know what the players go through.’’
Ask Smith what was his single-most important answer and he doesn’t give you coach speak and try to dance around the topic to avoid hurting feelings.
“Getting Mike Mularkey was the first thing on my list,’’ Smith said. “My background is defense. To have a guy with Mike’s offensive experience and success is a big advantage.’’
Smith didn’t know Mularkey personally before interviewing him.
“I had to coach against him when he was with Pittsburgh and I was in Baltimore,’’ Smith said. “I was always impressed with his offenses. They were a running team, always physical, but Mike always made it hard because you had to spend lot of time figuring out what he was doing on formations. He was the first guy I talked to. We talked a couple times mainly to find out what kind of guy each other was.’’
It also didn’t hurt that Mularkey had been head coach of the Buffalo Bills. For that matter, Thomas and Robiskie had been head coaches on an interim basis and VanGorder had been a head coach on the college level. Some first-time coaches might not have wanted guys who were potential threats around. But Smith, who doesn’t have a massive ego, didn’t see it that way.
“I don’t have problem bouncing things off them,’’ Smith said. “In fact, I want it to be that way. I believe you have to have interaction with staff. These guys have seen it all and I value their opinions.’’
Even in the younger coaches, Smith wanted guys who eventually could grow into bigger roles.
“The one thing I learned from Brian Billick in Baltimore was the importance of putting a good staff together,’’ Smith said. “I mean Brian had guys like Jack Del Rio, Rex Ryan, Mike Nolan and Marvin Lewis. You want guys who have been coordinators or are going to be coordinators someday. They all have to understand the coordinator’s role.
That brings us to the one potential downer about the staff Smith has. If the Falcons keep having success, it might not stay together. Each win might put Mularkey and VanGorder closer to a head job or Musgrave and Hamilton closer to a spot as a coordinator elsewhere.
“I hope we have a whole bunch of success and these guys want to stay around forever,’’ Smith said.
But Smith is a realist.
“I know that all the guys on our staff are going to have chance to advance at some time,’’ Smith said. “I know it’s a possibility. You have to have a succession plan if that were to happen.’’
There is a succession plan already in place that Smith won’t reveal unless he needs to. But somewhere in Smith’s desk at the Falcons’ Flowery Branch facility, there’s a continually-updated depth chart that goes at least three deep at every coaching position.
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.