NFC South: "Hard Knocks''

Today in NFC South history

March, 21, 2013
On this date in 2011, I reported from the NFL owners meeting in New Orleans that the Tampa Bay Buccaneers were a leading candidate to appear on HBO’s “Hard Knocks’’.

As it turned out, that didn’t happen. The show, which features a behind-the-scenes look at a team during training camp, didn’t air in 2011. That was due largely to the lockout that summer.

But there’s a behind-the-scenes story about why the Bucs, a team that could have used some national exposure, ultimately declined to be featured.

The Bucs were coming off a 10-6 season in 2010 and were viewed as a team on the rise. When the talks first started, former Tampa Bay coach Raheem Morris was a big proponent of opening the doors for “Hard Knocks.’’ Some people in the marketing and ticket departments also thought this was a good idea.

There was a lot of debate within the organization and the team came close to accepting. But, when the dust settled, the final decision was to pass because the Bucs ultimately decided they truly hadn’t arrived and didn’t want to put too much pressure on a young team.

That ended up being a wise move. The 2011 season ended up being a disaster for the Bucs and for Morris. The Bucs got off to a 4-2 start, but they didn’t win another game. All sorts of bizarre things took place during a 10-game losing streak that ended up costing Morris his job.

Around the NFC South

August, 14, 2012
Let's take a look at the top headlines from around the division:


Quarterback Matt Ryan still has some time to go before he joins what coach Mike Smith calls “the over-30 club." But Ryan’s been getting some of the same benefits as the team’s senior citizens this camp. He’s been getting a little time off. Consider that another way the Falcons are trying to keep a key player fresh for late in the season.

The Falcons released their unofficial depth chart for their upcoming game with the Bengals. There were no major changes. But you have to wonder if the Falcons are going to give rookie Peter Konz a preseason start at right guard. Garrett Reynolds is the incumbent there and the Falcons drafted Konz to provide an eventual upgrade. The third preseason game is when teams generally like to settle on their starting lineups. I wouldn’t be surprised if Konz gets a start this week or next.

As expected, middle linebacker Akeem Dent will sit out this preseason game after suffering a concussion. But it doesn’t sound like this is an injury that will keep Dent out for an extended period. Smith said Dent already is showing signs of improvement.


The Miami Dolphins, who play the Panthers this week, are being featured on HBO’s “Hard Knocks’’ this summer. Coach Ron Rivera was asked if he’d like his team to be on the show and he firmly said no. Doesn’t surprise me. Rivera is a guy who's all about business and I don’t see him doing anything that would open his team to possible distractions. Besides, even if Rivera felt differently, I can’t see the Panthers on a reality-television show as long as Marty Hurney is the general manager and Jerry Richardson is the owner. It simply is not their style.

Third-team quarterback Jimmy Clausen was sacked five times in the preseason opener. You could say Clausen was the victim of some terrible play by the third-team offensive line. But there were at least a couple situations where Clausen should have gotten rid of the ball. Although he’s practiced well in camp, it’s become obvious Clausen is not going to vault over Derek Anderson into the backup job. That leaves Clausen as the No. 3 quarterback this year, assuming the Panthers don’t follow a league trend and carry only two quarterbacks on their active roster.


Defensive end Junior Galette is sporting a lot more facial hair these days. That’s led to one of the more innovative chants (“fear the beard’’) I’ve heard in a while. It’s been getting a lot of use because Galette has been making some plays in training camp. He’s done that before. But the real test will be if Galette can have a bigger impact in the regular season.

The Saints finally got back to a bit of normalcy at cornerback. Starter Patrick Robinson returned from a shoulder injury Monday. But fellow starter Jabari Greer, who had surgery to repair a sports hernia, isn’t expected to return until shortly before the start of the regular season. That means more first-team work for second-year pro Johnny Patrick.


Backup quarterback Dan Orlovsky said he knows a big part of his job is to provide support for starter Josh Freeman. He also knows he’s not going to play unless Freeman is injured. But Orlovsky said he also is preparing daily as if he will play. That’s what you want out of any backup because one injury could change everything.

Speaking of Freeman, wide receiver Vincent Jackson caused a stir Monday when he said the quarterback was one of the five best in the league. At this moment, I don’t know if you can even rank Freeman in the top 20. But Jackson is projecting ahead, based on what he’s seen on the practice field and there’s no doubt Freeman has lots of upside. Jackson also might be trying to send a dose of confidence to Freeman, which might not hurt when you think about what a rough season the quarterback had last year.
Now that it’s been officially announced that the Miami Dolphins will appear on HBO’s “Hard Knocks’’ this summer, the NFC South can let out a collective sigh of relief.

The reality show that chronicles training camp can be entertaining and a wonderful marketing tool. But signing up to appear on the show is something NFC South teams haven’t been willing to do in recent years and you can’t argue with their logic.

The Atlanta Falcons were courted heavily to be this year’s featured team. There was some legitimate interest from some corners of the team’s facility. Meetings, with all departments present, were held. But it was the voice of the football people that eventually won out. They wanted the focus to be on football and didn’t want any distractions. They politely declined a request to be reality-television stars.

That made plenty of sense because the Falcons will be under enough pressure next season. They’ve had four straight winning years, but haven’t won a playoff game in that stretch. I don’t think adding more pressure would have been a constructive way to get the Falcons over the postseason hump.

Back in 2011, HBO and NFL Films were talking to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers about appearing on the show. At the time, the Bucs were coming off a 10-6 season, yet struggling to sell tickets for home games. Letting the world get to know them on TV was a tempting marketing tool. There even were some prominent people on the football side of things that were very interested in appearing on the show. But the Bucs ultimately decided they hadn’t arrived and didn’t want to open themselves up to distractions when they had such a young team.

In hindsight, that was a brilliant conclusion. The Bucs went 4-12 last season and coach Raheem Morris was fired. From what I’ve seen of coach Greg Schiano, I don’t see the Bucs going on “Hard Knocks’’ anytime soon.

This wasn’t the year for the New Orleans Saints or Carolina Panthers, either. The Saints have enough turmoil already. The Panthers are kind of like the Bucs last year. They look like a team on the rise, but nobody knows for sure.

In a year or two, the time might be right for “Hard Knocks’’ in the NFC South. The Bucs and Panthers could arrive, the Falcons could get over their playoff hurdle and things can only get closer to normal for the Saints. But the timing wasn’t right for any of those four teams this year.
As we told you a little bit ago, a league source said the Atlanta Falcons have declined an opportunity to be the featured team on HBO’s “Hard Knocks" this summer.

Now, let’s delve into this a little deeper so we can understand why the Falcons made this decision.

[+] EnlargeRoddy White
Dale Zanine/US PresswireThe Falcons want the 2012 season to be about on-field action instead of camera action.
First off, the Falcons explored the possibility of being the featured team very thoroughly. There was intrigue throughout their building and the franchise fully realized that appearing on the show during training camp could help greatly in raising the national profile of a franchise that hasn’t been all that successful until recent years. Virtually every department in the building was involved in discussions about whether the Falcons should accept the invitation.

This wasn’t an easy decision, and the Falcons did have serious interest. In the end, though, they declined. The decision should not be viewed as a knock on the show, the source said. The Falcons saw plenty of positives, but they ultimately decided it was in their best interest – and in the best interest of their fans – to turn it down.

The Falcons want all their focus for the 2012 season to be solely on the field. This makes plenty of sense. The Falcons are facing a critical season. They’ve had four straight winning seasons, but haven’t won a playoff game in that span. After losing to the New York Giants in a January playoff game, owner Arthur Blank, general manager Thomas Dimitroff and coach Mike Smith pledged to do everything in their power to get the team to the next level.

Instead of making a major splash in free agency, the Falcons chose mostly to retain their own players. There’s a strong belief in the building that new offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter and defensive coordinator Mike Nolan will bring a change in schemes and attitude that could take the Falcons a step forward.

As intriguing as “Hard Knocks’’ was from a business and marketing standpoint, the decision ultimately came down to football. The Falcons didn’t want to put added pressure on Koetter and Nolan as they tried to install new schemes. Although the Falcons generally are a quiet team, they did recognize some potential dangers in opening all their doors to cameras for training camp. Receiver Roddy White can be outspoken and flamboyant at times and having cameras on him at all times could have presented the potential for controversy. There are a few other players on the roster that also could have brought some risk if the Falcons had decided to open things up.

In the end, the Falcons decided to go about their business quietly. I think that sends a pretty strong message. They’re focused totally on taking the next step and they want to do it by doing everything the right way on the football field. “Hard Knocks" might have brought them attention in the short term.

But the best and purest way the Falcons can enhance their national profile is going out and winning games, especially playoff games.
I just wanted to give you a heads-up to some breaking news.

A league source told me Saturday afternoon that the Atlanta Falcons have declined an opportunity to appear on HBO’s "Hard Knocks" this summer. You can read the news story here.

I’ll be back shortly with an analysis that explores why the Falcons decided not to appear on the show.
Breakdown: The Falcons might as well go ahead and appear on HBO’s “Hard Knocks’’ during training camp because they’re going to be regulars on national television. They’ll play two Monday night games (Week 2 against Denver and Week 16 at Detroit), once on Sunday night (against Dallas in Week 9) and a Thursday night game against the New Orleans Saints in Week 13.

This will be the second consecutive season the Falcons have been featured in four prime-time games. This gives Atlanta a chance to really raise its national profile to the highest level in franchise history. That brings pressure, but it also brings a world of opportunity for a franchise that’s trying to get over the hump and win a playoff game for the first time since coach Mike Smith and quarterback Matt Ryan have been around.

You’ve got to like the fact the Falcons don’t play the New York Giants until Dec. 16. That will be a rematch of last season’s playoff disaster. By that point, we should have a pretty good idea whether the Falcons are legitimate contenders, and facing the Giants should be a reminder of where they’ve been and where they might be going.

Complaint department: The Falcons play at New Orleans on Nov. 11 and host the Saints on Nov. 29. That’s two games against the Falcons’ biggest rival in 18 days. I don’t know about you, but I’d rather see at least one of those games being played in the last week or two of the season.

Back and forth: The people who made the schedule played it right down the middle on the Falcons. Amazingly, the Falcons don’t play back-to-back home games or consecutive road games all season. They alternate between home and road games all through the season.

Falcons Regular-Season Schedule (All times ET)
Week 1: Sunday, Sept. 9, at Kansas City, 1:00 PM
Week 2: Monday, Sept. 17, Denver, 8:30 PM
Week 3: Sunday, Sept. 23, at San Diego, 4:05 PM
Week 4: Sunday, Sept. 30, Carolina, 1:00 PM
Week 5: Sunday, Oct. 7, at Washington, 1:00 PM
Week 6: Sunday, Oct. 14, Oakland, 1:00 PM
Week 7: BYE
Week 8: Sunday, Oct. 28, at Philadelphia, 1:00 PM
Week 9: Sunday, Nov. 4, Dallas, 8:20 PM
Week 10: Sunday, Nov. 11, at New Orleans, 1:00 PM
Week 11: Sunday, Nov. 18, Arizona, 1:00 PM
Week 12: Sunday, Nov. 25, at Tampa Bay, 1:00 PM
Week 13: Thursday, Nov. 29, New Orleans, 8:20 PM
Week 14: Sunday, Dec. 9, at Carolina, 1:00 PM
Week 15: Sunday, Dec. 16, NY Giants, 1:00 PM
Week 16: Saturday, Dec. 22, at Detroit, 8:30 PM
Week 17: Sunday, Dec. 30, Tampa Bay, 1:00 PM

Film of the NFC South chat

April, 14, 2012
Lots of good questions in our weekly NFC South chat. Let’s take a look at some of the highlights.

Brian (New Orleans): What are realistic expectations for the Saints this season? Assuming Brees is back.

Pat Yasinskas: Let's see what happens as far as player suspensions and how that will impact the defense. But, assuming Brees situation gets resolved, I would expect the offense to be as productive as it's been in recent years, so that should keep them in decent shape.

Mike [via mobile]: Do you think that Joe Vitt will be a good coach?

Pat Yasinskas: Yeah, he's a long-time NFL assistant. He's respected around the league. Players respect him. He'll keep things as close to the Payton way as possible.

Steve Albarado (Ventura, CA): Been a longtime fan of your blog Pat, I check it daily. Just gonna put this out there though. The Saints will move on from this huge dissapointing scandle, and us Saints' fans look to you and your blog to keep us informed very often. Any way you can stop all your Saints bashing?

Pat Yasinskas: Bashing? I work with what is there to work with. There's not a way I can put a pretty spin on what's been going on and say everything is rosy right now. For the last three years, I wrote almost all glowing things about the Saints because they were winning.

Laurin (Chatham,VA): Since the Panthers extended Steve Smith's contract and resigned Jordan Senn, where does that put them in respect to the Salary Cap?

Pat Yasinskas: Looked at that this morning. Think they're about $5.1 or $5.2 million under. Also, keep in mind, they're lugging around the full $7.6 cap hit for Travelle Wharton until June 1. After that, they can spread that between this year and next.

Trey (charlotte nc): Do u think the panthers can revive their defense this year like they did their offense last year?

Pat Yasinskas: Not sure it will be as dynamic as the offense. But I think simply getting Ron Edwards and Jon Beason back makes them a lot better on defense.

donte (Chattanooga): Pat, your article yesterday (Door Open In NFC South) insinuates my Falcons are on the way down...guess that means I can go ahead and purchase my Super Bowl tickets now?

Pat Yasinskas: Really, you took it that way? I think I just mentioned the fact they haven't done much in offseason and could still be dealing with mental aspects of playoff loss to Giants. I only slightly suggest it's at least possible they could slip. I don't think they will slip.

Matt Riddle (Atlanta, Ga): As a Falcon fan there is nothing I would enjoy more than to have a Hard Knocks featuring my team and I hope that they accept the offer. Having said that, there's a lot of speculation that Atlanta is more of the methodical, workmen-like, or in other words boring type of team compared to some others out there. Being in the locker room and knowing the players, do you agree with this stereo-type and do you think the Falcons can provide a highly entertaining product to the nation? Thanks.

Pat Yasinskas: I think it's probably going to happen. Their locker room isn't filled with the type of drama many locker rooms have. But I think they'd still be interesting. They're a team that clearly is feeling pressure to take the next step. Plus, Roddy is capable of being entertaining or creating drama of his own at any time.

Otto (Jackson, MS): Is there any word on the Bucs season ticket sales since making a splash in FA?

Pat Yasinskas: They haven't given any exact numbers or anything like that. But they said they have seen a sales increase since the big signings.

Tony (new jersey): Pat as a lifelong bucs fan I am a rare breed up north, I just want to know is there a real possibilty of the bucs replacing blount at rb, i know he needs to improve in certain areas but the reality is he can be a good back with good coaching, your thoughts..

Pat Yasinskas: Might want to ask Greg Schiano about that one. He's been sending some pretty strong messages on that.

Here’s the complete transcript of Friday’s NFC South chat.

Matt Ryan working to bulk up

April, 13, 2012
Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan was a recent radio guest on 790 The Zone and he said he wouldn’t have any big problem with the Falcons being featured on HBO’s “Hard Knocks’’ this summer.

[+] EnlargeMatt Ryan
Bob Donnan/US PresswireAtlanta QB Matt Ryan said he's hoping that some added muscle will help him be more effective in late-season games.
“I think we’ve got a veteran team,’’ Ryan said. “We’ve got guys who have been around for a long time, especially on the offensive side of the ball. I know on the defensive side of the ball, we’ve got a bunch of vets, too. So I don’t think it’d be too much of a distraction. We know what it takes to prepare ourselves to play. We know what it takes to win in this league, so I don’t think it’d be too big of a distraction.’’

Agreed, if there’s one NFC South team that’s ready for all that comes with “Hard Knocks’’ right now, it’s the Falcons. The Saints are working through lots of issues and don’t need any more distractions. The Bucs and Panthers are young and need to get a bit more established before they’re ready for that kind of attention.

Ryan also revealed his getting ready to deal with some hard knocks on the field. The quarterback admitted he spent his offseason trying to add some bulk.

“Heading into each offseason, I try and take two or three areas to really improve on,’’ Ryan said. "This year, it was getting a little bit stronger in the weight rooms. So I’ve been working out pretty hard this offseason to try and put on a little bit of weight to get a little bit stronger and I think that’ll help me out on the field. Also, I think we need to be more effective with some of our throws down the field and that’s something that I’ve certainly worked on early this offseason. And I think a combination of those two things will help our success.’’

I think the added bulk could be a good thing. Ryan hasn’t been injury prone, but he doesn’t have as much bulk as a lot of other quarterbacks. Adding a little muscle could help keep him healthy -- and make him a better quarterback -- in the long run.

“I think it’s one of those things you’ve got to give yourself every opportunity to play every week,’’ Ryan said. “And that’s one of the hardest things to do in the NFL. And, then also, have that endurance, when we get into November, December and January to be at your top form. That’s something that, quite frankly, I haven’t done a good enough job of in the past -- playing my best football in January. That’s what I want to do better this year.''

NFC South chat Friday at 1 p.m.

April, 13, 2012
This easily has been the most interesting offseason in the NFC South since we started the ESPN Blog Network in 2008.

There has been so much going on that last year’s lockout (and the boredom that came with it) seems like it was about 10 years ago. We’ve got the ongoing saga of the New Orleans Saints’ bounty program and its fallout. We’ve got the Atlanta Falcons apparently giving serious consideration to appearing on HBO’s “Hard Knocks."

And, by the way, we’ve got the NFL draft now less than two weeks away. Tampa Bay and Carolina each has a top-10 pick in that draft, so there’s a whole bunch to talk about and we’ve got the perfect venue for it.

We’ll hold the weekly NFC South chat Friday at 1 p.m. ET. Bring your questions and join us if you can. Here’s the free ticket to get you into the chat.
I shared my thoughts with you Wednesday on why the Atlanta Falcons could be a good fit on HBO’s “Hard Knocks’’ this summer.

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.

One person that’s likely to have a big voice in all this is coach Mike Smith. Some coaches like to keep their teams out of the spotlight, and I’d generally say Smith falls into that category. He’s a low-key guy without much of an ego. But when you look at Smith’s history -- and the current state of the Falcons -- it’s not difficult to see him embracing the opportunity, and intentionally putting some potential distractions in front of his team.

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.
We could see an NFC South team on HBO’s “Hard Knocks’’ this summer.

Rich Cimini reports the Atlanta Falcons have emerged as a strong candidate to be featured on the show, which chronicles a team throughout training camp.

This topic seems to come up about every team in the division every year and I’m not always a big advocate of teams opening up everything to the camera crews. I don’t think the Carolina Panthers and Tampa Bay Buccaneers are at a point in their development where they could easily handle the increased pressure that comes with being on the show. I don’t get the sense the New Orleans Saints will be in the mood to let anyone with a camera (or a tape recorder) behind the scenes any time soon.

But I could see the Falcons being a perfect fit for “Hard Knocks." They’re a veteran team without a lot of drama, as long as Roddy White doesn’t decide to show off his Twitter skills for the cameras. The Falcons also have a nice storyline. They’re a team that’s had four straight winning seasons, but they haven’t yet won a playoff game with quarterback Matt Ryan, coach Mike Smith and Thomas Dimitroff, and it’s pretty well known that Atlanta’s goal is to take the next step.

I also think appearing on the show makes sense for the Falcons from a marketing standpoint. This is a team that doesn’t have a high national profile. Heck, even in Georgia it’s only been in recent years that the Falcons really have caught on, and they still are overshadowed at times by the University of Georgia, Georgia Tech and baseball’s Braves.

This would be a chance for the Falcons to really allow people to get to know them. They’re a likeable team with nothing to hide. This might be the right time for the Falcons to open their doors and let the nation in their locker room.

Saints on 'Hard Knocks'?

April, 4, 2012
USA Today sports television writer Michael Hiestand throws out a fascinating suggestion, writing that the New Orleans Saints should be featured on HBO’s “Hard Knocks’’ this summer.

It would be a fascinating story -- a close-up look at a team preparing to go through a season without suspended head coach Sean Payton. There could be even many more layers to this story before training camp arrives. Bill Parcells could be in Payton’s place and it’s possible multiple players also could be facing suspensions. This is unprecedented stuff for an NFL team and the drama could be tremendous.

Would the Saints accept if the show is offered to them? Tough question. In normal years, I’d say no. Payton runs a tight ship and I’d have a tough time seeing him giving cameras total access to his team. But this is not a normal year. Despite all the turmoil that has come out of the bounty program, the Saints have some charming players that could put this team back in a positive light. This might not be a bad move.

Could any other NFC South teams be candidates for the show?

The Atlanta Falcons last year made some vague statements that they could be interested if the time was right. Atlanta has the kind of veteran team that could probably handle the distractions that might come with this. But I have a tough time seeing coach Mike Smith being in favor of opening up his locker room and meeting rooms to the world.

The Carolina Panthers are viewed as a team on the rise and quarterback Cam Newton is a media darling. That could make the Panthers interesting to HBO and NFL Films. But as long as Marty Hurney is the general manager, I don’t see the Panthers going down this road.

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers were courted for the show last season and former coach Raheem Morris was lobbying for his team to be on the show. Ultimately, the Bucs declined. They said they wanted to make sure their young team was at a point in its development where it could handle potential distractions. That was probably a wise move because last season showed the Bucs were far from a finished product. My early impressions of new coach Greg Schiano are that he’s not the kind of guy that would want to put his team in the spotlight. That could change once Schiano’s been around a year or two, but I’m guessing the Bucs aren’t interested this year.

NFC South awards time

January, 25, 2012
Newton/BreesChuck Cook/US PresswireCam Newton, left, was the AFC South's top rookie; Drew Brees was its MVP.

The 2011 season was memorable across the NFC South for many reasons, both good and bad. We saw the Saints go 13-3 while setting all sorts of records and we saw Tampa Bay fall apart about as completely as any team ever has.

We saw the Atlanta Falcons, at times, look like a great team and, at other times, look very ordinary. We saw the rebirth of the Carolina Panthers, who ended the season as a team very much on the rise.

So let’s take a look back at the season with a lists of awards and “bests’’ and “worsts’’.

Most Valuable Player: This one’s as easy as it gets. New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees carried the Saints and set a new single-season record for passing yardage.

Most Valuable Player (non-quarterback): This one’s not all that difficult either. New Orleans’ Darren Sproles set a new NFL record for all-purpose yards. He also made it impossible for opposing defenses to match up with the Saints.

Defensive Player of the Year: This one’s difficult because the NFC South isn’t known for strong defense. It also didn’t help that Carolina linebacker Jon Beason, who might be the division’s best overall defensive player, missed almost the entire year with an injury, and New Orleans middle linebacker Jonathan Vilma was slowed by a knee injury most of the season. That’s why I’m going with Atlanta’s Sean Weatherspoon. Look around the division and tell me if there’s a guy who makes more big plays. I couldn’t find one.

Rookie of the Year: This is almost as easy as giving Brees the MVP. Carolina’s Cam Newton wins easily. He set a rookie record for passing yards and had more rushing touchdowns in a season than any quarterback in NFL history. His “Superman’’ celebration truly fits.

Defensive Rookie of the Year: This one’s not as obvious as Newton. But when you give it a little thought, Tampa Bay defensive end Adrian Clayborn easily was the best rookie defender in the division. Clayborn was one of only about two or three bright spots for the Bucs. He showed he’s a complete defensive end — one who can rush the passer and play the run.

Best Performance by a Second-Year Player: Weatherspoon was a candidate for this, but the nod goes to New Orleans tight end Jimmy Graham. He had one of the best seasons ever by a tight end. I know the Saints have a lot of pressing contract issues and Graham is under contract for three more seasons. But at some point this offseason, they should give Graham an extension and a huge pay raise. Graham’s only making minimum wage. If ever a player has outperformed his contract, it’s Graham.

Coach of the Year: I respect the job Ron Rivera did in Carolina, but I’ve got to go with New Orleans’ Sean Payton. He got his team to 13 wins, despite having his knee shattered in a sideline collision.

Assistant Coach of the Year: Prior to Payton’s injury, offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael had lived in the shadows of the head coach. But Carmichael started calling the plays when Payton went down. Payton let that continue the rest of the season and the Saints kept winning.

Executive of the Year: It has to be Carolina general manager Marty Hurney. In one offseason, he hit two home runs on two of the biggest challenges a general manager can face. He hired Rivera, who is well on his way to being a good head coach. More important, Hurney found a franchise quarterback in Newton. Many doubted Newton prior to the draft. Hurney did his homework and it paid off.

Best Turnaround: The Panthers might have won only six games, but that’s triple what they won last year.

Worst Collapse: The Tampa Bay Buccaneers had one of the biggest collapses in NFL history. They started 4-2, then lost their final 10 games while appearing totally out of control on and off the field.

[+] EnlargeDarren Sproles
AP Photo/Marcio Jose SanchezDarren Sproles was the best offseason signing the NFL, to say nothing of the NFC South.
Best Offseason Move: There’s no doubt it was the signing of Sproles. He was the best free-agent signing in the entire NFL. And for those Tampa Bay fans who like to bash their ownership and front office for not bringing in Sproles, the fact is you never had a chance. The Bucs and other teams made inquiries about Sproles, but were told it wasn’t going to happen. All along, Sproles was headed nowhere else but New Orleans, for a reunion with former San Diego teammate Brees. They continued spending their offseasons together. Brees was recruiting Sproles throughout the lockout and, in New Orleans, Brees gets whatever he wants.

Worst Offseason Move: That would be Tampa Bay not finding a running back to pair with LeGarrette Blount. It didn’t have to be Sproles and the Bucs weren’t wrong in letting Cadillac Williams go. But they should have gotten a legitimate NFL running back who could catch passes out of the backfield and pass-block. Blount can’t do either — and the Bucs made a severe miscalculation by thinking he could be an every-down back.

Best Bounce-Back Season: The winner here is Carolina receiver Steve Smith. In the offseason, he wasn’t sure he wanted to stay in Carolina. Once he caught a few passes from Newton, everything changed. Smith was back to being the dominant receiver he was a few years back.

Worst Disappearing Act: Soon after signing with the Atlanta Falcons, defensive end Ray Edwards proclaimed himself the "missing link.'' Instead of leading the Falcons to a Super Bowl, Edwards simply was missing most of the season. He played the run all right, but Atlanta’s pass rush didn’t improve and that’s why he was signed.

Best Off-Field Decision: You can accuse Tampa Bay’s ownership and management of being inept all you want. After a 4-12 season, it’s fair game. But someone very high up with the Bucs made an excellent decision when the team turned down the opportunity to appear on HBO’s “Hard Knocks.’’ Whoever that wise person was realized that it might not be such a great idea to open the organization to cameras around the clock. Those cameras could have captured things wouldn’t have looked great – things like assistant coaches trying unsuccessfully to explain the uncomplicated art of pass-blocking to Blount or a gregarious former coach taking the camera crew on a late-night tour of Tampa.

Equipment Manager of the Year: That’s Carolina’s Jackie Miles, of course. I used to say Derrick Brooks was the best player in NFC South history. Now, I’ll admit Brees has at least caught up to Brooks and maybe surpassed him. But, if I had to pick a third guy who’s the best at what he does in the history of the division, it would be Miles. To those who know him, the man’s a legend in many ways and could end up being the first equipment manager in the Hall of Fame.

NFC South programming notes

June, 13, 2011
I’m back at it Monday morning after burning some time off, which I figured I’d better take because there won’t be a dull moment for months once the lockout ends.

First off, although things were pretty quiet while I was gone, there are two things I’d like to weigh in on.

Friday’s memorial service for legendary Tampa Tribune sports editor Tom McEwen was every bit as spectacular as you would expect. Steve Spurrier, Lee Roy Selmon and Leonard Levy (a Tampa businessman, community activist and McEwen friend) were outstanding with their eulogies. Spurrier, in particular, had everyone laughing as he delivered an uplifting speech that made us remember Tom’s legacy is staying with us. There was also a moment when McEwen's true power really hit me. As a general rule, a lot of guys don’t sing out loud in public and I’m one of them. At one point, a song was being played and I looked across the church. In my line of vision, I saw football’s Jon Gruden, hockey’s Phil Esposito and baseball’s Tino Martinez all singing. Only McEwen could have created that scene.

On a lighter note, there was a little bit of excitement in Carolina last week when center Ryan Kalil sent out a tweet that suggested the Panthers will be the team featured on HBO’s “Hard Knocks’’ this summer. That’s not happening. The Panthers haven’t had any conversations with the people who run the show. There have been a lot of rumors about “Hard Knocks’’ and NFC South teams in the last few months. Let’s just clarify what’s real and what’s not. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers received an offer to be the featured team. They declined. There have been no talks with the Panthers or Falcons. I’m not sure if the Saints were ever approached or not, but they have no interest in being on the show. In other words, even if training camps take place, “Hard Knocks’’ is not coming to the NFC South this year.

Moving forward, I’m responsible for writing our story on the Power Rankings for left tackles that will appear Tuesday afternoon. I can’t reveal results yet, but I can tell you Carolina’s Jordan Gross and Tampa Bay’s Donald Penn were on my ballot. We’ll see if the rest of the voters thought enough of them to put them in the top 10.

We’ll stay on lockout watch, continue to monitor player workouts and be ready to dive into free agency if something breaks. Also, we’ll resume the NFC South chat Friday at 1 p.m. I’ll put up a reminder and a link later in the week.

Random NFC South thoughts

May, 26, 2011
Random thoughts from around the NFC South.

I generally don’t give a lot of fantasy football advice. But let’s say a friend asked me who would be a good tight end to draft this year. I’d say Tampa Bay’s Kellen Winslow. He says his knee is feeling completely healthy and he’s looked great in offseason workouts. Winslow put up pretty good numbers last season when his knee prevented him from practicing on a regular basis. Give him a healthy knee and all these offseason workouts with Josh Freeman and I think Winslow could put up huge numbers this year.
  • Teams around the NFL are starting to take measures like furloughs and pay cuts to deal with the lockout. As far as I can gather, there’s been none of that in Carolina. In fact, the Panthers just filled an open position on their administrative staff. Say what you want about owner Jerry Richardson “going on the cheap’’ last year. But part of the reason for that was he was anticipating the lockout and he’s a man who thinks about the people who work for him who don’t happen to be players or coaches.
  • Speaking of Richardson, I get the sense that his dream is to get a Collective Bargaining Agreement he views as fair for the league and then sort of back away from day-to-day operations. He won’t just disappear and will make the big decisions, but Richardson hasn’t been in great health and he’d like to step back and let team president Danny Morrison and general manager Marty Hurney run the show. But all indications are Richardson’s still got a very full plate as the point man for the owners in a labor situation that has the potential to get much uglier.
  • We’re seeing two very different approaches to the players-only workouts that each NFC South team is doing (the Panthers will start a group workout next week). New Orleans and Atlanta have been pretty public with their workouts. The Saints even let some fans (winners of a raffle for charity) take part in a recent workout. That works for the Saints and Falcons because they’re established teams. Freeman has been running the show for the Bucs and he’s been doing it very quietly. He finally let a few media members attend sessions this week, but that’s not going to be a regular thing. Freeman said he wants the Bucs to be focused on football. That kind of goes along with what the Bucs said when they turned down an offer to be featured on HBO’s "Hard Knocks." That’s probably the best approach for the Bucs. They’re a promising, but very young team that might not be quite ready to deal with distractions.