NFC South: Kyle Orton


Don't expect any fine offensive displays Sunday at Raymond James Stadium.

That's because the Minnesota Vikings and Tampa Bay Buccaneers both are struggling on offense. The Vikings (2-5) and Bucs (1-5) are starting young quarterbacks and ranked near the bottom of the league in most offensive categories.

The Vikings, led by rookie quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, rank No. 29 in overall offense and are last in passing offense. The Bucs have been starting second-year pro Mike Glennon and they're ranked No. 30 in overall offense.

ESPN Vikings reporter Ben Goessling and ESPN Buccaneers reporter Pat Yasinskas preview the matchup:

Yasinskas: Ben, I know the numbers aren't pretty. But has Bridgewater been showing any signs of progress?

Goessling: He has shown some. He hit 12 of his 15 throws after a pair of interceptions in Buffalo on Sunday, and I thought he did a better job of trusting himself to find his receivers downfield than he has in recent weeks. He has looked great at times, especially in the Vikings' win over Atlanta last month, but he's still figuring a lot of things out.

He needs to be better about throwing on target, and he has fallen victim to the same problems that plague many rookies, when he has held the ball a little too long or thrown late because he didn't make up his mind soon enough. But it's important to remember Bridgewater doesn't have Adrian Peterson, Kyle Rudolph and an offensive line that can protect him. The Vikings have given up 27 sacks this season, which is the second-most in the league, and they've forced Bridgewater to run for his life on a number of other occasions.

Speaking of quarterbacks, will Glennon remain the starter or will Josh McCown get the job back now that he's getting healthy?

Yasinskas: Coach Lovie Smith has been coy about his plans. My best guess is Glennon will get at least one more start because McCown returned to practice only this week and was out for more than a month. I think Glennon has played well enough to be the full-time starter, but I'm not sure Smith sees it that way. McCown was Smith's hand-picked quarterback and the two have history together from their Chicago days. Smith's history has shown he prefers to go with veterans. Back in Chicago, he once benched Kyle Orton, who was playing well, as soon as Rex Grossman got healthy. It wouldn't surprise me if Smith goes back to McCown.

You mentioned Minnesota's offensive line. I know it has been banged up. Will it be any healthier this week, and can it at least give Bridgewater some protection against a Tampa Bay pass rush that hasn't been good?

Goessling: It's hard to say at this point if it will be healthier. Guard Vladimir Ducasse is optimistic about his chances to play after injuring his knee on Sunday, but John Sullivan is still going through the concussion protocol, and his loss would be a big one. He's the Vikings' most reliable blocker, and does plenty to help Bridgewater set protections.

The biggest problem, though, has been left tackle Matt Kalil, who got beat again several times on Sunday and has struggled in pass protection all season. Kalil was the No. 4 pick in the draft in 2012 and made the Pro Bowl as a rookie, but got hurt last year and hasn't looked like the same guy. The Vikings were able to protect Bridgewater effectively against Atlanta, another team with an underwhelming pass rush, so I'd expect they'll fare better this week than they have against Detroit and Buffalo.

Shifting to the defensive side of the ball, how has the Vikings' old coach, Leslie Frazier, fared as the coordinator? The Bucs have obviously been shredded on defense; how much of that do you think is Frazier and Smith's old Cover 2 scheme and how much is personnel?

Yaskinsas: Tampa Bay ranks last in total defense and also is No. 32 in pass defense. That's shocking since Smith and Frazier are supposed to be defensive gurus. I think this team has good defensive personnel, especially with tackle Gerald McCoy and linebacker Lavonte David. But the pass rush has been non-existent, and that has taken a toll on the secondary. The main problem might be Smith's stubbornness. He's sticking with the Tampa 2 scheme even though it looks like it might be outdated. I'm not saying he should totally ditch the Tampa 2, but it might be wise -- and productive -- to mix in some man coverage at times.

The Vikings lost a last-minute game against Buffalo last week. That reminded me that the Vikings lost a lot of games in the final minutes last season. Is there some sort of flaw there or is this just a young team that needs to learn how to win?

Goessling: They believe it's the latter. The approach the Vikings took on the final drive on Sunday didn't look like what they did last year, when they sat back in coverage on a lot of those final drives. They were aggressive with their fronts, blitzing Orton four times on the drive and sacking him twice. But there were breakdowns that probably can be traced to inexperience. Josh Robinson needed to reroute Sammy Watkins when he pressed him on third-and-12, Xavier Rhodes misplayed Watkins' game-winning touchdown, and first-year coach Mike Zimmer said he probably should have called a timeout before a fourth-and-20 play -- like Frazier did in a couple games last season -- to get the defense settled. The Vikings gave up a first down there after Chad Greenway was trying to get Captain Munnerlyn in the right spot in a no-huddle situation. Greenway had his head turned at the snap and didn't get deep enough in coverage to keep Orton from hitting Scott Chandler for a first down.

The Vikings are young in the secondary, especially, and I think that showed up Sunday, but I continue to see progress in what they're doing. They have Pro Bowl-caliber players in Anthony Barr and Harrison Smith, and Rhodes has continued to improve as a corner. It'll take another year of player acquisitions, but they're headed in the right direction.

To wrap this up, why has the Buccaneers' ground game struggled so much? It might be a function of playing from behind as much as they have, but it seems like they've struggled to run the ball in closer games, too. What do you think the problem has been there?

Yasinskas: It's true they have had to abandon the running game at times because they've fallen so far behind. But even at the start of games, they've struggled to run the ball. That's puzzling because they have a rebuilt offensive line and running back Doug Martin is healthy after missing much of last season with a shoulder injury. I put the majority of the blame on the offensive line. But I also put some blame on Martin. He is averaging only 2.9 yards per carry. His backup, Bobby Rainey, is averaging 4.9 yards a carry. Martin needs to make more out of his opportunities.



The way things have gone for the Philadelphia Eagles this season, you half expected to hear that Drew Brees fell down an elevator shaft or was hit by some space junk. But no, the New Orleans Saints' superb quarterback will not go the way of Aaron Rodgers, Adrian Peterson and Tony Romo the week before their teams played the Eagles.

Of course, that doesn't mean anyone knows which Brees will show up for the first-round playoff game Saturday night at Lincoln Financial Field. Will it be the Brees with the 8-0 record at home, or the Brees who has gone 3-5 on the road this season?

In search of the answer to this and other questions, ESPN.com reporters Mike Triplett in New Orleans and Phil Sheridan in Philadelphia exchanged insight and info.

Phil Sheridan: Let’s start with the obvious: the disparity between the Saints at home and on the road. Is it mostly Brees? The fast track at the Superdome versus grass fields elsewhere? Exposure to electromagnetic waves in the outdoors? Some combination?

Mike Triplett: Shoot, if I had the answer to that question, I’d probably be interviewing for some of these head-coaching vacancies around the league. It really is a mystery. Of course, the most obvious answer is that it’s harder for all teams to play on the road -- especially when weather conditions become a factor. And the Saints have had some road struggles in the past (including an 0-3 playoff record with Sean Payton and Drew Brees). But even in those playoff losses, their offense showed up. We've never seen a season quite like this, where they've had so much trouble scoring points on the road.

Honestly, it’s really come down to the football stuff: Early turnovers that put them in a hole, drive-killing penalties, an inability to stop the run. I expect their offense will still put up plenty of yards and points in this game, but I’m curious to see if they can avoid those costly turnovers -- and if they can find a way to contain LeSean McCoy. Those are the trends they must reverse from their previous road losses.

While we’re dwelling on the negative, what could be the Eagles’ fatal flaw? If something goes wrong for them in this game, what do you think it will be?

Sheridan: The Snowball Effect. While the Eagles' defense has done a remarkable job of keeping points low -- 11 of the past 12 opponents have scored 22 or fewer -- there is a persistent suspicion that the smoke could clear and the mirrors could crack. Matt Cassel hung 48 points on them two weeks ago, the most since Peyton Manning put up 52 in Week 4. Even Sunday night, Kyle Orton was only a couple of slightly better throws away from scoring another touchdown or two. Brees is obviously capable of making those throws. If the Saints can move the ball the way many teams have, plus translate the yards into points, it could force the Eagles to play catch-up. And we haven’t really seen Nick Foles in a shootout-type game yet. Jay Cutler didn't show up two weeks ago when the Bears came to town, and a freak snowfall took Detroit's Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson out of their game.

The stats say Rob Ryan has transformed the Saints' defense from a farce into a force. Does that align with what you see when you watch them? Does Ryan have the scheme and the personnel to be physical with the Eagles' receivers while getting pressure on Foles?

Triplett: That’s absolutely true, Phil. Ryan has been an outstanding fit for this team. I know Philly fans didn't see his best results with the Dallas Cowboys the past two years. But it must have been a perfect storm here, where the Saints' defense had just given up the most yards in NFL history under former coordinator Steve Spagnuolo in 2012. The players were ready for a change -- and Ryan is all about change. He constantly adapts his approach from week to week, building around his players’ strengths and tailoring game plans for certain opponents.

Several young players are having breakout years -- including pass-rushers Cameron Jordan and Junior Galette (12 sacks each this season) and cornerback Keenan Lewis, who is a true No. 1 corner. He’s physical with long arms and plays well in man coverage. I imagine he’ll be matched up a lot against DeSean Jackson.

From what I've read about Chip Kelly, it seems as though he’s a kindred spirit of both Ryan and Sean Payton -- trying to create confusion and mismatches. Is it possible for you to boil down his philosophy to one or two paragraphs?

Sheridan: Force the issue. That’s the underlying principle. It’s behind the no-huddle, up-tempo approach, and it drives many of the unusual things he does with formations and blocking schemes. Kelly wants to spread the field horizontally and vertically, forcing defenses to account for every offensive player and every square foot of grass. He’ll line right tackle Lane Johnson out like a wide receiver, or left tackle Jason Peters at tight end on the right, or DeSean Jackson in the backfield, just to see how the defense responds. If he sees a mismatch, he’ll exploit it until the defense corrects it.

It must be said that Kelly inherited a lot of offensive talent that was pretty darn good under Andy Reid. The line has been outstanding and, just as important, healthy. Jackson, McCoy and the other skill players are exceptional. The X factor has been the way Foles has mastered what Kelly wants to do. There are a lot of quick reads and decisions for the quarterback to make -- whether it’s a zone-read or a package play with run/pass options -- and Foles has translated Kelly’s dry-erase board to the field very well, leading the Eagles to a 7-1 record since they were 3-5 at the midway point.

Payton is a similar creative offensive mind with an NFL pedigree. The first time I met him, he was the Eagles' quarterback coach on Ray Rhodes' late 1990s teams, trying to win with Bobby Hoying and various Detmers. Is he any different or more driven since serving his one-year suspension? Is there a sense the Saints are back where they belong and determined to make a deep run?

Triplett: I think it’s a great comparison. Although the offenses don’t look identical, the philosophies are the same -- create, identify and exploit mismatches. The Saints will actually rotate in a ton of different personnel groupings early in games, as well as mix up their formations, to see how defenses react.

Payton hasn't changed drastically this season. One of the things that stood out to me most early in the season was his patience in games -- how he’d stick with a methodical attack, settling for a lot of check-down passes, etc., to win games against teams such as Chicago and San Francisco. Lately, Payton's been a little stumped in similar-style games on the road, though.

Overall, the idea with him is that he is hyperfocused on every detail that can help this team win. Brees keeps saying Payton’s leaving no stone unturned. It started with switching defensive coordinators on his second day back on the job, then things such as changing the team’s conditioning program, then recently switching out the left tackle and kicker heading into Week 16.

I’ll leave you with a quick question, Phil. Who are the one or two players we haven’t talked about much who could have a big impact on this game? From my end, the answer would probably be those young pass-rushers, Jordan and Galette.

Sheridan: I’m going to go with the Eagles’ key pass-rushers, too -- Fletcher Cox, Trent Cole and Connor Barwin. The Eagles didn't sack Orton at all Sunday night in Dallas. Orton is no Brees, but he does get the ball out quickly. So it might not result in many sacks against the Saints, but the defense has to disrupt Brees' rhythm as much as possible. Cole had eight sacks in the second half of the season. Cox has been outstanding at collapsing the pocket. Barwin is as likely to jam Jimmy Graham at the line of scrimmage as rush the passer.

But somebody from that group -- or maybe it will be Brandon Graham or Vinny Curry -- has to make Brees feel uncomfortable, or it’s going to be a long night for the Eagles. As you pointed out, the Saints have made more mistakes on the road than at home. Forcing some of those mistakes, preferably early, could make the air feel colder and the wind feel sharper.


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All the talk about Drew Brees' quest for a new contract that will make him the highest-paid player in the NFL got me thinking about quarterback salaries and average per year.

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

But what about the rest of the NFC South quarterbacks?

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

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

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

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

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

The final results are in and I’m happy to announce the Atlanta Falcons gained a grand total of 68 yards on screen passes this season.

Although the Falcons say they have plenty of screens in their playbook, they don’t use them very often. Quarterback Matt Ryan attempted just 20 screens during the regular season and completed 16 of them.

Kevin Kolb (62 yards), Matt Cassel (17 yards) and Kyle Orton (17 yards) are the only quarterbacks with fewer yards on screen passes than Ryan, according to ESPN Stats & Information. The difference there is that Ryan started all 16 games, while Kolb, Cassel and Orton all missed time due to injuries or poor performance.

Carolina rookie Cam Newton led the NFL with 497 yards on screen passes, while completing 58 of 63. New Orleans’ Drew Brees was No. 4 with 437 yards. Brees completed 54 of 62 screens.

Tampa Bay’s Josh Freeman was No. 11 with 290 yards. He completed 39 of 46 screen attempts.

Superlatives on Falcons' victory

December, 16, 2011
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ATLANTA – Let’s take a look at the statistical highlights from the Falcons' 41-14 victory against Jacksonville on Thursday night.
  • My favorite of the bunch comes from ESPN Stats & Information and puts into perspective just how big a game defensive end John Abraham had. He became only the sixth player since the start of the 2001 season to record at least 3.5 sacks and force at least two fumbles in a single game. All of Abraham’s sacks came on downs when the Falcons only sent four pass rushers. He is the first player in the past two seasons to record more than three sacks via standard pass rushes in a single game.
  • Abraham now has 111 career sacks and moved past Greg Townsend (109.5 sacks) and into 16th place on the NFL’s all-time list.
  • Quarterback Matt Ryan was especially good when throwing inside the numbers. He completed 11 of 12 passes (91.7 percent), for two touchdowns and averaged 8.7 yards per attempt. In the first 13 games, Ryan completed 65.1 percent of his passes between the numbers and averaged 8.5 yards per attempt with 14 touchdowns and 11 interceptions.
  • Ryan targeted Roddy White on 62 percent of his attempts. That’s the second-highest target percentage for any player since the start of the 2008 season. (The highest was when Denver’s Kyle Orton targeted Brandon Marshall on 68.3 percent of his throws in a 2009 game against the Colts.) All seven passes Ryan threw that traveled at least 15 yards in the air were intended for White.
  • White increased his franchise record for 100-yard receiving games to 27.
  • Ryan threw three touchdowns against Jacksonville after passing for four in the previous game, against Carolina. That marked the first time in his career he has thrown three or more touchdowns in back-to-back games.
  • Ryan’s career record in December improved to 10-3 (.769 winning percentage). Only Tom Brady (.900), Philip Rivers (.857) and Peyton Manning (.833) have better December winning percentages.
  • Atlanta’s 41 points were a season high.
  • The Falcons are now 25-6 at the Georgia Dome since 2008. That’s the best home record for any NFC team in that span.
  • Atlanta’s five sacks tied a season high. The Falcons first had five sacks in the season opener against Chicago.
The Atlanta Falcons continue to lag behind the rest of the NFL when it comes to the screen pass.

Matt Ryan has attempted just 13 screens, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Kyle Orton and Kevin Kolb are the only other quarterbacks who have played enough to make the list with fewer attempts on screens. Orton and Kolb have each attempted 11. Orton has lost his starting job to Tim Tebow and Kolb has missed time with an injury.

Ryan has completed 11 of those screens, but they haven’t amounted to much. The Falcons have gained just 18 yards on screens and have not scored off a screen.

The screen hasn’t been a big part of Atlanta’s offense since Ryan’s arrival in 2008, but I thought it would be used a bit more this season. The Falcons drafted running back Jacquizz Rodgers, who looks like the perfect guy to throw screens to, but he hasn’t had a lot of playing time.

Most of the rest of the NFC South is using the screen pass fairly often. Carolina’s Cam Newton ranks No. 2 in the league in yardage on screen passes (266). He’s completed 31 of 34 screens.

New Orleans’ Drew Brees is fourth in screen yardage (233). Brees has completed 37 of 40 screens with one touchdown. Tampa Bay’s Josh Freeman has thrown for 137 yards on screens, while completing 19 of 23 attempts.

Checking NFC South Total QBR

October, 10, 2011
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If it wasn’t for horrible games by Kevin Kolb and Kyle Orton, Tampa Bay’s Josh Freeman would have had the league’s worst Total QBR from Sunday’s games.

Orton put up a 5.1 rating before getting yanked in favor of Tim Tebow and Kolb’s rating was 5.4. Only those two were below Freeman, who came in at 13.8. Atlanta’s Matt Ryan also had an anemic rating (28.8) in a loss to Green Bay.

The other two NFC South quarterbacks were at the other end of the spectrum. New Orleans’ Drew Brees was No. 3 at 86.7 and Carolina rookie Cam Newton was No. 10 at 64.0.

For the season, Brees is No. 4 at 77.3. Ryan is No. 15 at 53.5. Newton is No. 18 at 49.8 and Freeman is No. 19 at 48.9.

Looking at who Bucs should extend

August, 16, 2011
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Much to the chagrin of many of their fans, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have made it very clear they have a plan that involves building through the draft and largely ignoring free agency.

Other components of that plan involved developing the players the Bucs draft and, then, at some point, making sure they keep the ones they want for the long term. Whenever people point to how much salary cap space the Bucs have (at the moment it’s $29.5 million because only the top 51 cap figures count in the preseason and the Bucs have about $14 million in cap room when you count all their contracts, which is how it works in the regular season), the team quietly reminds you that money will be spent.

The implication is that the Bucs are going to extend the contracts of some of their key young players to make sure they never get near free agency. We’ve talked several times about how quarterback Josh Freeman has to be at the very top of that list.

[+] EnlargeJosh Freeman
AP Photo/Margaret BowlesQuarterback Josh Freeman should be at the top of the Bucs' list of players to offer an extension to.
He’s under contract through 2013, but you could make the argument that Freeman already has outperformed his rookie deal. His average per year pay is $5.24 million. That may sound like a lot to you and me, but it terms of quarterbacks, it’s not great pay.

Freeman’s average per year ranks 24th in the league and he’s below guys like Kyle Orton and Charlie Whitehurst. If Freeman isn’t already a top-10 quarterback, he will be soon.

He’s also the franchise and you want to keep him happy. It’s pretty much a no-brainer that the Bucs should offer Freeman a pile of money and try to lock him up for the long term. But, after Freeman, who else should the Bucs target for extensions?

When I first thought about it, not a lot of names were coming to mind. That’s when I pulled out my list of the contract status for every player on the team and started really thinking about it. Once I did, I came up with a pretty lengthy list. I’ll give it to you in order of importance -- at least in my eyes.

Running back LeGarrette Blount. He’s under contract only through this season and could be an exclusive-rights or restricted free agent until he’s played four seasons. But the Bucs don’t need to play those games. If Blount picks up where he left off last season, the Bucs should lock him up. He’s not quite the franchise, like Freeman, but he’s a pretty important part of the franchise. He’s only making minimum ($450,000) this year and you want to keep key players happy.

Receiver Mike Williams. He’s under contract through 2013. But, like Freeman and Blount, he’s already outperformed his rookie contract as a fourth-round pick. If Williams didn’t have two more years on his contract, I’d rank him ahead of Blount. I think Williams has already shown that he’s going to be a very good player for a very long time.

Defensive tackle Roy Miller. He’s only under contract through 2012 and he’s quietly become a very solid player. We still don’t know if Gerald McCoy and Brian Price are going to be good and we’ve seen signs both might be injury prone. Miller doesn’t have the upside of McCoy and Price, but he’s the one sure thing the Bucs have at defensive tackle.

Cornerback Aqib Talib. Yeah, I said it. But humor me and listen to my logic on this one. I’m not saying the Bucs need to go out and give him an extension immediately. Talib’s under contract through 2012 and he’s got a trial scheduled for next March for his latest off-field incident. Let’s say Talib isn’t punished by the NFL and isn’t convicted by the legal system. And let’s say that he’s a model citizen from here on out. Then, it might make some sense to extend him. The kid is a heck of a talent and there are some important people in One Buccaneer Place who believe Talib isn’t a bad person, but has made some questionable decisions. They also know more about the off-field incidents than we do and they don’t think Talib was the instigator in any of them.

Linebacker Geno Hayes. He’s under contract only through this year. Hayes is a decent, but not great player. But the coaches like him and he’s viewed in much the same way as fellow linebacker Quincy Black. If the Bucs were willing to recently give Black a new contract, I think they’d do something similar for Hayes.

Cornerback E.J. Biggers. A lot will depend on how Talib’s situation plays out. Biggers is under contract through 2012. Ronde Barber's not going to play much longer. The Bucs could have one or two starting cornerback jobs open before long. Biggers has become a very good No. 3 cornerback and easily could transition into being a starter.

Safety Sean Jones. He’s 29 and only under contract through this season. He’s not young and he’s not a star. In fact, he's pretty ordinary. But the Bucs might want to extend him for a year or two. Jones brings stability to the safety spot and the Bucs don’t know if Tanard Jackson will be back after his one-year suspension.

Offensive lineman Jeremy Zuttah. He’s only under contract through this season and he’s a nice backup at center and guard. Center Jeff Faine's probably not going to play a lot longer and Zuttah could be his eventual replacement.

Quarterback Josh Johnson. He’s in the final year of his contract. Although he rarely has played, the Bucs like him a lot. But, even if they approached Johnson about an extension, they might not have much luck. Johnson knows he’ll never start in Tampa Bay as long as Freeman is healthy. He’s got some talent and might want to go to a place where he at least has a shot at a starting job.

Safety Cody Grimm. He’s under contract through 2013, but he’s getting paid like the seventh-round choice he was last year. There’s no need to rush. But if Grimm, who is expected to start, plays well and Jackson’s not coming back, then it might be time to start thinking about extending him.

Receiver Sammie Stroughter. Like Grimm, there’s no rush on this one and the Bucs need to see more out of Stroughter, who is under contract through 2012. He looks like he could be a nice third receiver and return man. If he can provide some more evidence of that, he might be a candidate for an extension.
Just got a call from AFC West colleague Bill Williamson with some pretty big news. John Fox will be the new head coach of the Denver Broncos.

It’s a bigger story for Williamson than for us, but it still is a big deal in the NFC South world. After all, Fox spent nine years coaching the Carolina Panthers and was the dean of NFC South coaches -- a title now held by New Orleans’ Sean Payton.

I think Denver fans should be excited by this move. Yeah, I know Fox went 2-14 in his final season with the Panthers, but I still think he was the best candidate on the market. Say what you want about the end of Fox’s tenure in Carolina.

But the guy did a good job for a long time. His message might have gotten stale in the later years and his relationship with ownership deteriorated. But Fox can flat-out coach and he’ll bring some instant energy to the Broncos.

Fox needs to take a couple of lessons from his early Carolina days to make things work in Denver. First, he needs to go out and get a top-notch offensive coordinator and Fox might want to give that guy a little more flexibility than he ever gave Dan Henning or Jeff Davidson.

As soon as he hires a coordinator, Fox needs to decide on a quarterback. It doesn’t matter if it’s Kyle Orton or Tim Tebow. Let the coordinator and whoever the quarterbacks coach is handle the quarterback.

The best thing Fox can do is focus on the defense and the overall running of the team and keep his hands off the offense.

By the way, Fox already is in the process of filling his coaching staff. That could mean he'll bring in some guys who were with him in Carolina. I'd keep an eye on running backs coach Jim Skipper and defensive coordinator Ron Meeks.
Lots of great questions in Friday’s NFC South chat. Let’s take a look at some of the highlights.

Marcus (Concord, NC): Hey Pat, do you think that the Panthers are even gonna look at a guy like Josh McDaniels for the OC job? Also will they shop around their pick and try to pick up either Kyle Orton or Vince Young in a trade down?

Pat Yasinskas: I suspect whoever the Panthers hire as OC might be a bigger name than their head coach. They've got to get the offense right. Not sure if McDaniels would be the guy, but somebody like him. As far as QB, they've got to get someone who is at least a viable alternative to Clausen. With Luck out of the picture, that will have to come through free agency or a trade.

John (Mission, TX): Why does the Bucs win over saints not get any praise. All you hear is Ssaints had injured players. So did the Bucs and they had many rookies starting. Why does this happen? Bucs will be a team to look out for in the next year..

Pat Yasinskas: No argument here. Bucs went out and showed they can beat a good team. They're going to be good going forward. Heck, with Freeman, they should be good for the next decade.

redzonejones (NY): Do you think the Bucs will do what they did last year and grab two bookend DE?

Pat Yasinskas: Yep, in some way, shape or form. Might not be first and second picks like it was with DTs. But they may get a couple throughout the draft or draft one and sign one as a free agent. It's an obvious need and they know they have to take care of that.

Matthew (Mississippi): Pat, will Jerious Norwood ever be a factor in ATL? He has shown flashes but can't seem to shake the injury bug.

Pat Yasinskas: No, I think they'll let Norwood go and look for a speed back in the draft.

JP (Inverness, FL): Who are you more impressed with Ryan after a season and a half, or Freeman? I know Ryan developed a little differently, but it was not that long ago he was about where Freeman is now and since I think they may be the next great division QB rivals, now is a great time to speculate.

Pat Yasinskas: Excellent question. I really like them both. They're two different guys in two different offenses, so it's hard to compare them. But I think their presence means Falcons and Bucs should be good for the next decade or so. And Brees still has some good years left, so the NFC South is going to be strong for a long time to come.

Here's the complete transcript of the NFC South chat.
It’s never too early to start talking about the "Monday Night Football" game between the New Orleans Saints and the Atlanta Falcons, so let’s go ahead and get it started.

While coaches don’t go around handing out game plans in advance, I think there is one thing we might be safe in assuming. The New Orleans defense is probably going to come after Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan hard.

That makes sense because no team has blitzed more than the Saints this season and it’s pretty unlikely defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, a creature of habit, is suddenly going to change his whole defensive philosophy.

According to ESPN Stats & Information, the Saints have sent five or more pass rushers on 50.7 percent of the drop backs by opponents this season.

But there is a flip side to that. Ryan has seen plenty of blitzes this season and handled them quite well. Ryan has faced five or more rushers on 179 of his drop backs. Only St. Louis rookie Sam Bradford (214) and Denver’s Kyle Orton (180) have faced more blitzes.

Those situations have not thrown Ryan off his game. He has completed 64.2 percent of his passes against the blitz for 1,262 yards, 13 touchdowns and four interceptions. Ryan’s 99.9 passer rating against the blitz ranks sixth in the league.

How Panthers misjudged their offense

December, 8, 2010
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All season long, we (that means you, me and virtually every person on the planet) have been ripping apart Carolina’s quarterback play. Understandable because Matt Moore, Jimmy Clausen and even future Hall of Famer Brian St. Pierre have been down-right awful.

I’m not going to defend them, mainly because that’s not humanly possible. But I was just flipping through some stuff from ESPN Stats & Information that I think at least adds a little perspective to what’s happened in Carolina.

Remember the last couple years when DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart were running wild and making up cute nicknames for themselves? Well, I’m sure coach John Fox and general manager Marty Hurney remembered that as they went into this season.

It’s pretty safe to assume that Fox and Hurney though Williams, Stewart and an offensive line that used to be very good would help ease the transition for the young quarterbacks. Well, it hasn’t worked out that way at all. Williams and Stewart both were banged up and Williams is now on injured reserve and out for the rest of the season. The offensive line suddenly fell apart and even though substitute running back Mike Goodson stepped in and had a few nice games, the Carolina running game no longer scares anyone.

We’ve got the numbers to prove it. I’m looking at a list that has the numbers for every quarterback in the league who has thrown at least 20 passes out of play action. There are 38 names on the list.

If you go by passer rating (or just about any other category), Clausen is No. 37 and Moore is No. 38. Clausen’s passer rating off play action is 45.6. Moore’s is 35.7. Numbers for St. Pierre and Tony Pike, who also played a little, aren’t available because they didn’t meet the minimum requirements.

But let’s just pull out the calculator and total up how many touchdown passes Clausen and Moore have thrown out of play action. The answer is one (it was thrown by Moore). For perspective, Tom Brady leads the league with 11 touchdown passes off play action.

Combined, Clausen and Moore have completed 33 of 72 play-action passes for 354 yards and five interceptions.

Anybody want to take a guess which quarterback leads the league in passing yards off play action? It’s Denver’s Kyle Orton with 1,268. Now, the Broncos aren’t lighting it up either, but that’s due to reasons that go way beyond Orton.

Let’s be real honest here. Orton isn’t all that much more talented than Moore or Clausen. But these numbers show that, when you give a quarterback a little help, he at least can make things happen.
Bob Donnan/US Presswire
How much longer can Carolina coach John Fox stick with struggling quarterback Jake Delhomme?

Posted by ESPN.com’s Pat Yasinskas


I wasn’t at John Fox’s press conference Monday because I’m three states away, but I’ve been there before.

Anybody who has been in one of those sessions with Fox or seen the results in the media knows the drill: Fox comes out and defends quarterback Jake Delhomme and tries to spread the blame around.

“People on the outside can make big deals out of it,’’ Fox said Monday. “They've made big deals out of it before. You expect it. It's how you respond inside that room that's key.’’

Fox has made similar statements on similar Mondays through the years and his calm, “stick-with-it’’ approach usually has reaped positive results. But this time is different. This time, people on the outside are making a big deal out of Delhomme’s play and this time, people on the inside can’t just shrug their shoulders.

We’re one week into the season and the Panthers have a full-fledged quarterback crisis on their hands. Delhomme suddenly can't complete a pass to anybody wearing the same jersey, backup Josh McCown is hurt -- just placed on injured reserve and replaced by veteran A.J. Feeley -- and the Panthers only want to use Matt Moore if it’s a last resort.

Sad part is, it’s getting close to that point. Fox said Monday that Delhomme will start Sunday’s game against the Atlanta Falcons, who suddenly seem to have a good defense. If Delhomme plays the way he did Sunday against Philadelphia and the way he did in January’s home playoff loss to Arizona, Atlanta’s defense suddenly could be great and Carolina’s season, as well as Delhomme’s career, could be just about over.

No matter what Fox and general manager Marty Hurney say publicly, it has come to that point. Heck, one more Delhomme disaster and Fox and Hurney could be on their way out the door.

It’s that bad -- really.

Fox and Hurney never make panic moves, but maybe it’s time to at least start the process. They went 12-4 last year, but their season is on the verge of collapsing because one of the league’s most reliable quarterbacks no longer comes close to that description.

Maybe Delhomme goes down to Atlanta, plays a turnover-free game, Carolina wins and the Panthers -- as we know them -- live happily ever after. But how can you expect that after Delhomme has turned the ball over 11 times in his past two games?

You can’t and, surely, Fox and Hurney aren’t putting all their eggs in that basket. If they are, Hurney’s usually red face is suddenly going to be yellow (as in yoke). No, Fox and Hurney have to be at least preparing for another Delhomme fiasco and thinking about pulling the plug.

Those options aren’t especially bright this time of year, but that’s what happens when you watch Delhomme turn the ball over six times against Arizona and turn around and extend his contract. Yes, owner Jerry Richardson had to be on board with the Delhomme contract extension, but Fox and Hurney could be overboard if it turns out to be the colossal mistake it’s looking like now.

Where do the Panthers turn for potential help? Feeley's been a decent short-term fix at times in his past, but never has been a long-term answer and there were reasons why he wasn't on an opening-day roster. Feeley's a career backup, who could end up being thrown into a starting role very quickly.

If Delhomme really is done, this situation could be far worse than in 2007, when he went down with an elbow injury. Back then, Fox liked to publicly say that nobody was coming to his team’s rescue. The implication was everybody had to rise up. Back then, the Panthers had David Carr, who was Fox and Hurney’s hand-picked backup with the potential to be a starter and, unlike Feeley, he had the chance to spend an entire offseason with the playbook.

Only there was one big problem. Delhomme went down before Carr had a chance to overcome his five years of shellshock in Houston. Carr actually played worse than Delhomme has in his past two games and the Panthers turned it over to Vinny Testaverde, who, I think, played with Richardson on the 1958 Baltimore Colts.

Testaverde at least got the Panthers through the season in a somewhat respectable manner and Fox took cover in the old “You can’t win without your quarterback’’ excuse. That held some weight at the time, but it doesn’t now because Delhomme’s not hurt, he’s just suddenly horrible and Fox and Hurney hitched their wagon to him with the extension.

Now, Delhomme can drag them right down. Richardson is well aware that his franchise never has had back-to-back winning seasons. The owner isn’t showing a lot of patience these days, forcing his sons to resign as team presidents right before the season started.

You think he’s going to be patient with Fox, Hurney and Delhomme if this season goes as badly as it’s shaping up to? How long do you think mercurial wide receiver Steve Smith is going to stay quiet if he keeps getting three catches for 21 yards each week? Or fellow receiver Muhsin Muhammad, who is only slightly more polished in the art of sounding like a teammate (ask Kyle Orton about that)?

Something’s got to give here -- and very soon. Somebody’s got to rescue the Panthers before it’s too late, if it’s not already.

Either Delhomme’s got to suddenly recapture just a bit of that magic that led the Panthers to the Super Bowl in the 2003 season or Feeley's got to come in and suddenly be better than he ever was.

There’s no excuse for Fox and Hurney right now. They made the decision to stick with Delhomme. If he goes down, and there is no miracle from elsewhere, they all go down.

Morris addresses QB trade talk

August, 26, 2009
8/26/09
4:29
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Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas

TAMPA, Fla. -- There could be even another element to the quarterback situation for the Buccaneers.

The team could be looking to trade one of its quarterbacks for a draft pick. Coach Raheem Morris wouldn't confirm an NFL.com report that the Bucs are shopping three of their quarterbacks for a trade, but he didn't deny it either.

"Oh, man, they're Nostradamus," Morris said when asked about the report. "Everybody in this league, all 32 teams around this time start calling front offices. I can't control who calls us. Everybody's interested in everybody's roster and everybody's looking to nit-pick off everybody's roster. Everybody has talent and you're trying to accumulate the best talent on your football team. That's just all that talk is what that is."

But it makes total sense for the Bucs to at least try to find out what the market value might be for Byron Leftwich, Luke McCown or Josh Johnson. They're not about to let go of rookie Josh Freeman, who they call their franchise quarterback.

But that's likely in the future. For now, it appears the Bucs will open the season with either Leftwich or McCown as their starter. They're about even at this point and a potential trade could play into Morris' decision, although the Bucs likely would be able to get only a late-round pick (at best) for any of their quarterbacks.

Leftwich, a former starter in Jacksonville, probably has more trade value because of his experience. McCown has only seven starts. Johnson, a second-year pro, has yet to play in an NFL game and probably wouldn't bring much in a trade.
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Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas

TAMPA, Fla. -- In a strange way, the Bucs might have won the Jay Cutler war after all.

The Bucs weren't able to pull off a trade for Cutler (as part of a three-way deal) back in February. The Broncos weren't able to keep Cutler and finally had to trade him.

In the end, Denver has Kyle Orton as its quarterback. In the end, Tampa Bay has Josh Freeman, the quarterback the Bucs were convinced Denver would have taken. The Broncos were sitting at No. 18 and the Bucs at No. 19.

Tampa Bay general manager Mark Dominik told me the Bucs decided to swap into the 17th pick that was held by Cleveland to make sure they got Freeman. The cost was a sixth-round pick.

The cost of Cutler to the Bears and the Broncos was significant. In the end, the cost of jumping into the Cutler situation in the first place was nothing for the Bucs.

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