NFC South: DeAngelo Hall
At least on paper, they only have one hole on their roster.
That’s at cornerback, where the Falcons suddenly became thin with Saturday’s news that Brent Grimes left for Miami as a free agent. The departure of Grimes comes after the Falcons released Dunta Robinson at the start of free agency.
The good news is the Falcons have no other glaring needs after signing defensive end Osi Umenyiora to upgrade the pass rush, signing running back Steven Jackson to improve the running game and coaxing tight end Tony Gonzalez to put off retirement.
The bad news is there might not be a lot of great options at cornerback. Coach Mike Smith and defensive coordinator Mike Nolan frequently talk about how they like to have three cornerbacks that are capable of starting.
Atlanta still has Asante Samuel and Robert McClain, but they’re No. 2 and 3 guys and I don’t think the Falcons view Dominique Franks as anything more than a No. 4 cornerback. That means the Falcons have to add a cornerback, preferably someone that can be a No. 1 guy, in free agency or the draft.
It’s more than likely the Falcons will have to find a cornerback in the draft. The remaining cast of free-agent cornerbacks is highlighted by DeAngelo Hall, Quentin Jammer, Nnamdi Asomugha, Antoine Winfield and Sheldon Brown. Hall, who began his career in Atlanta, probably is off any list off possibilities for the Falcons. Atlanta hasn’t seemed to have shown much interest in the other veterans, but that could change now that Grimes is officially gone.
The Falcons also are limited by a tight salary-cap situation. But there’s no guarantee the Falcons will be able to get a top cornerback at No. 30. Alabama’s Dee Milliner widely is considered a top-10 pick and Washington’s Desmond Trufant and Florida State’s Xavier Rhodes are the only two corners consistently projected to go in the first round.
If Trufant or Rhodes lasts until No. 30, the Falcons can fill their one remaining need. But both could be gone before No. 30 and that might prompt general manager Thomas Dimitroff, who has shown a willingness to trade up in the draft and is holding 11 draft picks, to try to jump up higher.
I don’t know that Dimitroff will try to pull off a Julio Jones type of deal to get Milliner. But he might be wise to trade up into the late teens or early 20s to get Trufant or Rhodes.
Get one of those guys and everything on Dimitroff’s offseason list will be crossed off.
In the case of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, they might even be looking for two. The New Orleans Saints already signed Keenan Lewis, but they also are pursuing Nnamdi Asomugha. The Bucs have shown some interest in trading for Darrelle Revis.
A Revis deal might take some time, but I’ve got a hunch we’re about to see a run on cornerbacks in the NFC South. Asomugha is expected to make a decision soon and, if he lands in New Orleans, the Saints’ defense suddenly gets a lot better.
But the market is shrinking fast and NFC South teams could be running out of time to fill some big needs. Let’s turn to our Insider Free-Agency Tracker and look at the remaining cornerbacks.
As I see it, there are five strong cornerbacks left in free agency – Brent Grimes, DeAngelo Hall, Quentin Jammer, Asomugha and Antoine Winfield. After that, you get into a group of guys that come with questions.
Aside from Asomugha and Revis, I think the key to how cornerbacks in the NFC South shake out could be Grimes. The Falcons want to re-sign him. But the Bucs also are interested and there could be other teams involved.
If Atlanta can’t keep Grimes, the Falcons have to go out and get another No. 1 cornerback because Asante Samuel and Robert McClain are nice as No. 2 and No. 3 guys, but nothing more. The Bucs could score a major coup if they somehow could land both Revis and Grimes.
The Saints would be set at cornerback if they can get Asomugha. If they can’t, I suspect they’ll quickly try to land one of the other top cornerbacks.
That leaves Carolina. The Panthers have shown some interest in re-signing Captain Munnerlyn and that may happen. But Munnerlyn isn’t a No. 1 cornerback. Carolina could roll the dice and try to get a No. 1 cornerback in the draft. But, even though the Panthers have salary-cap issues, I could see them getting creative and signing one of the better free-agent cornerbacks because they have to keep up with the rest of the NFC South.
Matt Ryan continues to be talked about as an MVP candidate, but the quarterback doesn’t want to hear it. That’s exactly what I’d expect from Ryan, who doesn’t like to be praised publicly. If he continues as an MVP candidate, I’m sure his company line will be that he’ll just do his job and everything else will take care of itself.
Washington cornerback DeAngelo Hall and Atlanta coach Mike Smith said they’ve made up after an incident in a 2009 game where things got a little physical. But Hall’s always been an emotional player, so anything’s possible Sunday when he faces the team that first drafted him.
Free safety Haruki Nakamura shaved his head as part of symbolic fresh start. Nakamura knows things have to change if he’s going to hold onto his starting job. Nakamura had a disastrous outing Sunday in Atlanta, but the Panthers have said he will remain as the starter.
Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson has been overwhelmed with ticket requests for Sunday’s game at Carolina. That’s understandable because Wilson has deep ties to the area. He spent three years at NC State and played minor-league baseball in North Carolina. Wilson said he’s told some friends they may have to find their own tickets because he’s got to concentrate on getting ready for the game.
NEW ORLEANS SAINTS
Running back Darren Sproles had a rare and crucial drop in the loss to Green Bay. So he and Drew Brees stayed after practice Wednesday and ran the same play a bunch of times. Brees made it a point to let it be known Sproles caught the pass every time.
Although Brees has taken some shots in the past at the San Diego Chargers for giving up on him, he said he has a good relationship with the quarterback that replaced him. Brees said he and Philip Rivers, his former backup, worked well together when they were teammates and remain friends.
TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS
The Bucs have used the bye week to try to convince quarterback Josh Freeman to put his trust in their offensive system, the play calls and his training. The early bye might have come at a good time for Freeman. He’s had some bright moments, but needs to be much more consistent.
Another point of emphasis during the bye week has been to find ways for rookie Doug Martin to get some more explosive runs. Martin’s longest run so far has been 17 yards. But the blame for that shouldn’t all fall on Martin. Tampa Bay’s offensive line still is searching for continuity after losing Pro Bowl guard Davin Joseph to injury late in the preseason.
Back in 2007, this matchup prompted perhaps the biggest meltdown in NFC South history. At the time, Hall was playing for the Atlanta Falcons. It was early in the disastrous tenure of Bobby Petrino and Hall’s behavior that day in the Georgia Dome might have been the first real outward sign of trouble.
Smith and Hall had once been friends, but Hall had made some previous comments that irritated the Carolina receivers. Both players talk a lot on the field and things really escalated late in the game.
With a little coaxing from Smith, Hall was called for three penalties that totaled 37 yards and helped the Panthers rally for a 27-20 win. Verbal shots flew back and forth in both locker rooms and Hall was benched the next week.
Hall and Smith kept their comments about one another toned down this week.
“I don’t think it was ever a level of dislike between us,” Hall said. “We’re two fierce competitors and we’re a lot alike that way. We want to get the best out of each other and try to beat the other one down. That’s probably not going to change. It’s going to be the same kind of scenario come Sunday. He’s going to come out and try to impose his will on me and I’m going to do likewise.”
Smith didn’t have much to say when asked about Hall this week.
“He’s a good opponent and he can play,” Smith said. “So you have to be ready to play.”
But don’t be surprised if things heat up again Sunday. Hall and Smith downplayed their rivalry leading into the game. But, once they’re on the field together, old emotions could surface.
Amazingly, a real estate transaction has become the hottest NFC South story so far this offseason. The Saints are expected to issue a statement about coach Sean Payton buying a house in Dallas. I’m hitting the refresh button on my e-mail continuously and will post the statement as soon as I get it.
Our new friends at HoopDat have a look ahead at how NFC South teams may fare against opponents in 2011. Keep in mind this is a Saints blog, but they make some good points.
Washington cornerback DeAngelo Hall and Atlanta coach Mike Smith, who once had a pretty heated tussle, cleared the air when they worked together at the Pro Bowl.
Pat Yasinskas: The fellows at Pewter Report have a point. The Bucs weren’t thrilled with Zuttah’s play last year. That’s why they signed Keydrick Vincent, who has a good chance to start. Zuttah could be headed for backup duty.
Jonathan in Fort Mill, S.C., writes: Why do NFL GM's wait until the last moment to start negotiations? There has to be some logical reason because every NFL team does this, but it just boggles the mind. You draft a player in April, then wait until the end of July to begin contract talks, when there is a snag, they miss training camp and the million dollars the team just invested is delayed until the player can master the play book & schematics. What gives?
Pat Yasinskas: Well, let’s put some, but not all of the blame on the general managers. I’d put most of the blame on agents. They’re out to get every penny they can and they like to wait as long as possible to see what a client’s market value is. It doesn’t make a lot of sense, but that’s pretty much the way it’s been in the NFL.
John in Anchorage writes: What happened to Jermaine Phillips? it seems like all the talk of the strong safety battle is between Sean Jones and Sabby Piscitelli. Is he being thrown in the OLB rotation? Or is his career in Tampa over with?
Pat Yasinskas: Phillips isn’t currently on Tampa Bay’s roster -- or any roster. He was a free agent and the Bucs chose not to re-sign him. I’m not sure what his health status is, but no other team has stepped forward to sign Phillips.
Chris in Atlanta writes: Obviously with our recent history with Michael Vick, DeAngelo Hall and especially Bobby Petrino the Falcons are committed to "character" guys throughout the organization. While they have done well so far, do you think this approach is effective enough to win Super Bowls or will they have to loosen the standards and take more risk on high talent perhaps marginal character players that we see playing in Pro Bowls and getting the lion share of media hype?
Pat Yasinskas: I like the approach and I salute owner Arthur Blank, coach Mike Smith and general manager Thomas Dimitroff for carrying it out. I’d give it a little more time before you start shouting for the rules to bend. I saw this approach work pretty well in Tampa Bay during the Tony Dungy/Rich McKay years and it’s been working in Carolina after owner Jerry Richardson took some early lumps and decided he didn’t need any more players who were prone to trouble.
Brett in Raleigh writes: I just saw Jonathan Stewart was put on the PUP list. What do you know about this? Is it the active one that Wes Welker is on that doesn't really mean anything or is he on the one the makes him ineligible for the first 6 weeks?
Pat Yasinskas: No, this is only a procedural thing for the start of training camp. Stewart can come off the list and begin practicing at any time in the preseason. I suspect the Panthers are just being cautious on this one and you’ll see him before too long.
That would be against NFL rules because fans and teams can’t pay fines for individual coaches or teams. Smith will have to pay the fine on his own, but the fans want to use their money to show support for Smith and donate it to a charity of his choosing. Not sure the NFL will allow that either, but I don’t see anything wrong with it.
By the way, this might be the best $15,000 Smith has ever spent. Smith already was very popular with his players. But standing up to Hall (and standing up to Tampa Bay’s Antonio Bryant earlier in the season) sends a strong message to the team that Smith really is behind the players. I’m also guessing owner Arthur Blank didn’t really mind seeing his coach getting fiery with a former Falcon who played his way out of Atlanta and has taken some shots at the organization.
Smith also was asked about his old friend DeAngelo Hall and his future in Carolina. You can see the whole interview here.
“You sneeze good and turn around Drew Brees is really just square in between their numbers,’’ Smith said in a radio interview with 790 The Zone in Atlanta. “I am not hating, but I think honestly I have watched those guys run routes and they don’t necessarily have to run the best routes because their quarterback is ridiculous.”
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.
Former Falcons cornerback DeAngelo Hall told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution he does not trust Atlanta general manager Thomas Dimitroff. Hall went so far as to say that Dimitroff lied to him before shipping him to Oakland.
Obviously, I wasn’t there for whatever conversations took place between Hall and Dimitroff. But I know Dimitroff and have found him to be one of the more honorable people in the NFL. I also saw Hall try to trash-talk with Carolina receiver Steve Smith, which probably qualifies as the dumbest move a cornerback can make.
Besides, the bottom line here is that Dimitroff made the right call in unloading Hall as quickly as possible. It’s not like Hall has done anything to prove the general manager wrong since he left for Oakland and went on to Washington.
Posted by ESPN.com’s Pat Yasinskas
Nice move by Atlanta general manager Thomas Dimitroff on Tuesday morning as he traded for cornerback Tye Hill.
We don’t know exactly what kind of draft-pick compensation the Falcons had to give to the Rams yet, but credit Dimitroff with seeing a need for help in the secondary and addressing it. Also give him credit for not panicking and going after some aging player.
Hill is a guy who still has some upside. In fact, Hill is the kind of first-round talent the Falcons haven’t had on their roster since ... well, DeAngelo Hall, but that’s a bad example. Atlanta went through last season kind of patching things together at cornerback and they seemed destined to do the same thing this year.
They didn’t have any blue-chip corners and appeared ready to go into the season with Chris Houston and Brent Grimes as the starters and rookie Chris Owens and second-year pro Chevis Jackson as the backups. Houston’s been good at times, but not so good at other times. He came into the league as a second-round draft pick and Grimes came in as an undrafted free agent. Owens and Jackson were third-round choices.
There’s a belief in the NFL that top-flight cornerbacks come only in the first round. Hill was a first-round pick by the Rams in 2006. He had a very good rookie season, but has been limited the last two seasons by injuries.
Is he a true shutdown corner? You can’t call him that at the moment. But he was viewed as a first-round talent at one point and he has the potential to develop into a shutdown corner. Even if he’s just a decent corner, he’s probably an upgrade.
Although the Falcons love Grimes’ athletic ability, they’re concerned about other teams trying to exploit his size. Grimes is listed as 5-foot-9, which may be generous. Hill’s listed as 5-foot-10. He’s not known for being the most physical corner.
But Hill can cover receivers and that’s something the Falcons really needed.
|Getty Images/AP Photo|
|Aqib Talib, Jabari Greer and Richard Marshall are part of the changing of the guard at the cornerback position in the NFC South.|
Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas
In an otherwise-quiet offseason, the NFC South has turned the corners.
If there's one common theme in the division, it's that there will be lots of change and plenty of youth at cornerback. For better or worse, each team is going to have at least one new starter at cornerback and many familiar faces are gone.
Yes, Tampa Bay's Ronde Barber and New Orleans' Mike McKenzie are still around, but that may be more for show and sentiment than anything. The days of big-name cornerbacks in this division are over -- at least until some of these new guys make names for themselves and they're going to get every chance.
Somebody has to step up and guard the likes of Steve Smith, Roddy White, Marques Colston and Antonio Bryant. That may seem like a big task for a bunch of young and unproven cornerbacks, but that's what it's going to come down to.
Every team in the division suddenly needs major production from young or new cornerbacks.
|Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images|
|The Saints get a healthy Tracy Porter back after injury cut short his promising rookie campaign.|
Start with the Saints because they could have the most change of all. The entire secondary has been a mess the last couple of years, but the problems have been particularly bad at cornerback. McKenzie's gone down with major injuries in each of the last two seasons and the Saints have been forced to go with the likes of the undersized Jason David and the antiquated Aaron Glenn playing big roles.
It hasn't really mattered how many yards Drew Brees has thrown for the last two seasons because the New Orleans defense has given up just as many. But the plan is for that to stop. Although McKenzie, David and Randall Gay remain on the roster, there's a chance the Saints could end up with Greer and Porter as their starters.
New defensive coordinator Gregg Williams wants to bring an aggressive approach and Greer has been the highlight of New Orleans' free-agency class. He was signed away from Buffalo, where he was a starter the last two years. The four-year, $23 million deal the Saints gave Greer likely means they're counting on him being the No. 1 cornerback.
But don't rule out the possibility of Porter being just as good before all is said and done. A second-round pick last year, Porter got off to a strong start as a rookie. He showed all the physical skills and tremendous confidence before going down with an injury just before midseason.
Tampa Bay also could have two new starters as new coach Raheem Morris takes over. You can pretty much assume that Aqib Talib, last year's first-round pick, will move into a starting role. Starter Phillip Buchanon departed through free agency and Talib showed promise as the nickelback last year. He may have to become Tampa Bay's No. 1 cornerback because nobody knows what the future holds for Barber, who is nearing the end of his career.
The Bucs pursued Greer and several other free-agent cornerbacks. They likely aren't done making moves at this position and that could be a sign that they're considering moving Barber to the nickel role.
Only a year ago, a lot of people thought Carolina had the best trio of cornerbacks in the NFL. But that trio is now just a duo. Chris Gamble remains as probably the division's best cornerback, but he's going to have a new starter beside him.
The Panthers whacked veteran Ken Lucas in a salary-cap move this week. Lucas' play declined late last season. There are a lot of people who believe Richard Marshall, the nickelback the last couple of years, is ready to step in and provide an upgrade over Lucas.
That may turn out to be true, but Marshall's elevation raises another question that doesn't have an obvious answer: Who's going to be the nickelback? All the Panthers have at the moment is C.J. Wilson, who barely has played and veteran Dante Wesley, who may not be much more than a special-teams player. That means there's a good chance the Panthers, who have almost no salary-cap room, will have to draft a cornerback.
|AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin|
|Chevis Jackson, a third-round pick in 2008, should have a larger role in 2009.|
That's a route the Falcons may also follow because they have the division's least-defined cornerback situation at the moment. This team unloaded the talented, but troubled DeAngelo Hall before last season and made it to the playoffs with smoke, mirrors
and luck at cornerback last season. But some of that luck already is gone.
Domonique Foxworth, who emerged as a pleasant surprise last season, went to Baltimore after getting a massive deal in free agency. But the Falcons don't seem too worried. They could have made a stronger attempt to keep Foxworth, but didn't.
That makes you wonder whether coach Mike Smith has a higher opinion of his cornerbacks than the rest of us do. Chris Houston returns as a starter, but he hasn't yet shown he can be a true No. 1 cornerback. Smith must be thinking Houston can grow into that role because there aren't any other options on the roster.
In fact, it's far from clear who the other starter will be. Von Hutchins will be back after missing last season with an injury and Brent Grimes, who was a part-time starter last year, also remains a possibility.
But keep an eye on Jackson, a third-round pick last year, who started to show some big-play capability at the end of last season. The Falcons may be looking for Jackson to start or, at very least, be the nickelback.
If Jackson can do that, he'll fill a big void. He'll also be one of the faces of change at cornerback in the NFC South.
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 -- The news that New Orleans cornerback Mike McKenzie suffered a fractured right kneecap has a lot of implications.
First, you have to wonder if this could mean the end of McKenzie's career. He's 32 and this is the kind of injury that often takes more than a year to recover from. McKenzie already showed an amazing work ethic in bouncing back from a torn ACL in the same knee last December. He was back on the practice field during training camp and his comeback had been a success.
But this is a huge setback and going through major rehabilitation two years in a row could be very difficult at McKenzie's age.
In the short term, McKenzie's injury is another blow to a secondary that already has had plenty of problems. Rookie Tracey Porter, who showed early promise, already is out for the season with an injury.
Randall Gay is the starter on the other side and the Saints are going to have to go with veteran Aaron Glenn, Usama Young and Jason David the rest of the way. Glenn's near the end of his career, David's been inactive the last couple weeks because he can't cover anybody and Young might be nothing more than a special teams player.
Maybe the Saints should have made a stronger run at DeAngelo Hall before he signed with the Redskins last week.
Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas
On the way to the to the airport in Tampa, I heard a very interesting clip of an interview with Falcons owner Arthur Blank on Sirius NFL Radio.
Blank was asked about former Atlanta cornerback DeAngelo Hall, who was cut by the Raiders and picked up by the Redskins this week.
"I think he needs to grow up,'' Blank said.
Give Blank a ton of credit for flat-out stating the truth. Hall, a former first-round pick by the Falcons, forced his way out of Atlanta and Oakland. Sometimes, Hall's emotions spilled out unproductively on the field. More often, though, his words and actions in the locker room and off the field prevented him from ever reaching his massive potential.
Blank went on to mention Hall's great physical talents, but said the cornerback needs to learn to play within a system.