NFC South: Matt Hasselbeck

Matt Hasselbeck in NFC South?

March, 18, 2013
The Tennessee Titans released Matt Hasselbeck on Monday and the quarterback’s name has already been tied to two NFC South teams.

ESPN’s Chris Mortensen mentioned New Orleans and Tampa Bay as two organizations that are showing interest. Mortensen also listed Arizona, Buffalo, Chicago, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Indianapolis and the New York Giants.

Hasselbeck is a guy that’s been in the league since 1999 and he’s been both a starter and a backup.

The Saints are looking for a backup for Drew Brees after Chase Daniel left for Kansas City. Hasselbeck would be an ideal backup because he’s a student of the game and could quickly pick up Sean Payton’s complicated offense.

But there might be at least a chance for something bigger in Tampa Bay. Josh Freeman is the Buccaneers’ starter and everyone involved with the team desperately wants him to succeed. But Freeman struggled with consistency during a five-game losing streak at the end of last season. He also is headed into a contract year. The Bucs are going to give Freeman every chance to succeed and Hasselbeck could be a nice mentor.

But what if Freeman starts off badly and the Bucs decide he’s not their guy for the long term? They could hand things off to Hasselbeck, who can still be a competent starter, at least for the short term.

Observation deck: Titans-Buccaneers

August, 17, 2012
TAMPA, Fla. -- Some quick thoughts on the Buccaneers’ 30-7 loss to the Tennessee Titans on Friday night at Raymond James Stadium:
  • I don’t want to speculate too much on LeGarrette Blount's injury, but it’s a pretty major concern any time a running back suffers what appears to be an injury to the knee or leg. Blount went down with 2 minutes, 18 seconds left in the first half. He stayed on the ground for a long time and the medical staff appeared to be looking at his left leg or knee. Blount eventually left the sideline and went to the locker room, presumably for further testing. Blount had a strong training camp and had gotten the start in each of the first two preseason games. Blount appeared to have a shot at keeping his starting job or at least get serious playing time in tandem with rookie Doug Martin. But, if Blount’s injury is serious, Martin might have to be a do-it all running back. Rookie Michael Smith, Mossis Madu and De'Anthony Curtis would be candidates for backup duty if Blount is out for an extended period.
  • I’ll let you know if coach Greg Schiano has any update on Blount’s injury in his post-game press conference. But I’m guessing it might be a day or two before we know anything for sure.
  • Tampa Bay’s run defense, especially on the second level, struggled. The Titans ran for 123 yards in the first half and Chris Johnson seemed to stroll into the end zone on both of his touchdown runs.
  • Jake Locker and Matt Hasselbeck combined to throw for just 37 yards in the first half. Give Tampa Bay’s pass defense some credit for that. But Locker might have helped the Bucs look good as he completed just 4 of 11 passes for 21 yards while getting the start.
  • Safety Ahmad Black had Tampa Bay’s biggest defensive play of the night. He intercepted a Locker pass and returned it 29 yards to the Tennessee 2-yard line. Two plays later, Josh Freeman hit Mike Williams with a touchdown pass.
  • Freeman had an unspectacular outing. He completed 4 of 10 passes for 21 yards before giving way to Dan Orlovsky.
  • I’d say depth on the offensive line is an issue. Orlovsky was sacked four times. Mobility is not his strength, but Orlovsky didn't have a chance most of the time.
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:

Pat Yasinskas' QB Watch

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Wrap-up: Saints 22, Titans 17

December, 11, 2011
Thoughts on the New Orleans Saints' 22-17 victory against the Tennessee Titans on Sunday at LP Field:

What it means: It wasn’t pretty, but the Saints got a win. At 10-3, they’re atop the NFC South. They also recorded their third straight 10-win season, something that had never happened in franchise history. The Saints also moved to 3-2 in outdoor games this season and it’s been mentioned more than a few times that the Saints are not a good outdoor team. But they beat a good team, although Tennessee quarterback Matt Hasselbeck was injured and rookie Jake Locker had to step in. You could make a case the Saints showed they can win outdoors. But the fact that they didn’t win impressively probably will continue to fuel speculation the Saints could face trouble if they have to go to Green Bay or San Francisco in the postseason.

What I liked: The play of Marques Colston. He caught two fourth-quarter touchdown passes. Colston sometimes gets overlooked because the Saints have so many great offensive weapons and his statistics aren’t what they could be if he played in an offense that didn’t spread the ball around so much. But this guy deserves more credit than he gets. He might not be the best receiver in the league, but he’s in the top 10.

What I didn’t like: The Saints moved the ball early, but had to settle for field goals. That rarely happens with the Saints and you have to think this was a one-time thing.

Defense rises: I thought the New Orleans defense played well through most of last week’s victory against Detroit. The defense also stepped up in the final minutes against Tennessee. The Saints stopped the Titans on a fourth-and-1 with a little over two minutes left. Linebacker Jo-Lonn Dunbar also sacked Locker as time expired.

The streak lives: It took a little longer than usual, but Drew Brees ran his streak of consecutive games with at least one touchdown pass to 40. That’s second on the all-time list. Johnny Unitas (47) holds the record.

What’s next: The Saints play the Minnesota Vikings next Sunday at Mall of America Field.

Around the NFC South

December, 8, 2011
Time for a look at Thursday morning's top headlines from around the NFC South.

Atlanta linebacker Sean Weatherspoon is starting to make some big plays. Apparently, Weatherspoon also is a flashy dresser.

The Panthers are ready to turn to Andre Neblett and Frank Kearse as their starting defensive tackles, after losing Sione Fua and Terrell McClain to season-ending injuries.

The last time the Saints faced Tennessee quarterback Matt Hasselbeck was when he was playing for Seattle. That was in a playoff game the Saints lost last season. The Saints will face Hasselbeck again Sunday.

Tampa Bay cornerback Aqib Talib has been playing through a hamstring injury most of the season. He hasn’t missed a game. But Talib was sent to have some tests Wednesday to see if the injury has worsened.

NFC South evening update

November, 23, 2011
I was a little tied up this afternoon, working on a Thanksgiving story on a former NFC South player that will appear Thursday morning. But there was a lot happening throughout the division Wednesday afternoon, so let’s hit the links to catch up.

Atlanta coach Mike Smith said he expects rookie receiver Julio Jones, who has been sidelined by a hamstring injury, to return to practice Thursday.

The Falcons might be catching a break Sunday. Minnesota running back Adrian Peterson is still wearing a boot and his high-ankle sprain may keep him from playing in the game with Atlanta.

Tampa Bay safety Tanard Jackson, who had been sidelined with a hamstring injury, returned to practice Wednesday. Coach Raheem Morris sounded optimistic about Jackson’s chances of playing Sunday. Morris wasn’t as optimistic about defensive end Michael Bennett, who has a groin injury.

The Buccaneers, who have struggled to sell out home games in recent years, announced their pricing plan for 2012 season tickets. The team says the new plan will drop prices on 80 percent of the seats at Raymond James Stadium.

It looks like the Bucs will see Matt Hasselbeck at quarterback for the Titans on Sunday. Hasselbeck had to leave last Sunday's game with an elbow injury and the Titans had to turn to rookie Jake Locker. But Hasselbeck and coach Mike Munchak both said the injury should not be an issue.

Carolina rookie quarterback Cam Newton said he feels safer running than when he’s sitting back in the pocket. Makes plenty of sense. Newton is big and strong enough that the chances of him getting hurt while running aren’t that high. Newton’s most vulnerable when he’s stationary in the pocket and defenders can hit him from the blind side.

Bradley Handwerger writes about how successful the Saints have been coming off their bye week since coach Sean Payton changed his approach about time off in 2009.
Mike SmithKevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesSince Mike Smith took over in 2008, the Falcons are 16-3 after a loss -- and 8-0 since 2009.

ATLANTA – If you looked at and listened to Falcons coach Mike Smith in the media room deep within the Georgia Dome last Sunday and this Sunday, you probably wouldn’t have noticed much difference.

Other than a couple – really, only a couple – of quick smiles after this Sunday’s 23-17 victory against the Tennessee Titans, Smith was the same guy he was last week. That was when the Falcons suffered perhaps the most emotionally draining loss of Smith’s career.

That was when he made a decision that backfired in overtime and the Falcons lost to the New Orleans Saints. Win or lose, Smith is always the same guy.

That’s why the Falcons bounced back with a crucial win against the Titans.

“I think that’s the mark of a fantastic football coach, when he can keep his emotions in check at moments when a lot of us might not be able to do that,’’ Atlanta general manager Thomas Dimitroff said. “Mike’s an even-keel guy. He’s competitive and he gets fired up, but he keeps it in check.’’

The Falcons, playing as well as they have all season for the first three quarters, jumped out to a 23-3 lead. Yeah, there were a few bumps near the end, when rookie quarterback Jake Locker replaced an injured Matt Hasselbeck and rallied the Titans to a pair of touchdowns. But that didn’t really matter.

What did matter was how the Falcons started. A lot of other teams might have folded after a loss like the one the Falcons suffered to the Saints. A lot of other teams might have let their season spiral out of control.

But the Falcons now are 6-4 and only a game behind the Saints in the NFC South standings. That’s because the Falcons aren’t like a lot of other teams and Smith isn’t like a lot of other coaches.

“It starts at the top,’’ said Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan, who threw for 316 yards, a touchdown and was not intercepted. “Smitty does a great job of teaching off the tape from the week before and really ingraining in all of us that it’s time to move on.’’

Smith has a 24-hour rule. Basically, that means you’ve got 24 hours to celebrate a win or think about a loss. After that, it’s on to the next game.

Lots of teams and lots of coaches have some sort of similar rule. It might sound cliché and Smith is certainly capable of spewing clichés. But the difference is the Falcons really do buy into the 24-hour rule.

Consider this: Since Smith’s arrival in 2008, the Falcons are 16-3 in games after a loss. Since 2009, they’re 8-0.

“We really do flush it after 24 hours,’’ said defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux, who batted down two third-quarter passes, had two quarterback hurries and two tackles for a loss. “We have a great leader in Mike Smith. Whatever he tells us to do, we do. We’ve seen the results of his 24-hour rule and I think that’s why we buy into it totally.’’

You can’t argue with the results. But Smith, who was more than willing to step up and take the blame last week, wasn’t standing around and take the credit this week. Instead, he pointed at his players.

“It says a lot about the guys,’’ Smith said. “Regardless of the outcome, we know it’s a long season. Regardless of the outcome, we have to move on to the next football game. Our guys have done an outstanding job since we’ve been here. That’s one of the things from the very first day that we got together, we talked about what the formula for being a successful football team is and one of the things is to put defeats behind you and move to the next ball game. Our guys really have bought into that. We don’t let things linger.’’

There’s no doubt the players deserve plenty of credit for bouncing back against the Titans.

“We have a mature locker room and we have a group of guys that understand what it takes to be a professional,’’ Ryan said. “You’re going to have some tough losses and you need to move on from that. I think, collectively, all 53 guys and our practice-squad guys take that to heart and that’s probably the reason why.’’

The maturity of Atlanta’s players may set the Falcons apart from a lot of teams. The Falcons have some very strong leadership from veterans like Babineaux, tight end Tony Gonzalez and center Todd McClure. Some younger guys, like Ryan and middle linebacker Curtis Lofton also have emerged as very strong leaders.

“When our backs are against the wall, everybody gets locked in and we are on the same page,’’ Lofton said.

But the maturity of the coach might be what matters most. Just as an example, let’s compare Smith and the Falcons to another NFC South team. Let’s compare the Falcons to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Tampa Bay coach Raheem Morris took a lot of criticism after last week’s loss to Houston. He spent a lot of the past week firing back at critics, criticizing some of his own players and talking about how difficult Tampa Bay’s schedule has been. No matter how much Morris said he had moved on from the Houston loss, he hadn’t. The Bucs went up to Green Bay on Sunday and lost to the Packers. Tampa Bay now is on a four-game losing streak. At 4-6, the Bucs’ hopes of a playoff berth are fading away.

After the loss to New Orleans, Smith took way more criticism than Morris; Smith didn’t respond a single time. He never singles out players for criticism and you’ll never hear him using anything that sounds remotely like an excuse.

That’s why the Falcons still are very much in the NFC South race. The Falcons are far from flawless and they’ve yet to be very consistent this season. But you look at their roster and you look at their coach and it’s not all that hard to imagine everything suddenly clicking, maybe at just the right time. The rest of their schedule really isn't that difficult and they've got a rematch in New Orleans the day after Christmas.

The Falcons have faced some adversity, but they still have their heads well above water. That’s why anything remains possible for this team. Smith is the reason for that.

“Mike Smith is a guy of positivity and passion,’’ Dimitroff said. “He’s a guy that is so competitive. Mix all those things together and that’s what he presents to the players, day in day out and game in, game out. The players feel that he has their back and I think it’s vice versa that they have his back.’’

Smith is a model of consistency. With that kind of example every day, maybe the Falcons will become a consistently good team before this season is over.

Rapid Reaction: Falcons 23, Titans 17

November, 20, 2011

Thoughts on the Atlanta Falcons’ 23-17 victory against the Tennessee Titans on Sunday at the Georgia Dome.

What it means: The Falcons did a great job of bouncing back from last week’s devastating loss to New Orleans. It was the kind of loss that could have sent their season into free fall, but that didn’t happen. Coach Mike Smith had his team ready, and the Falcons played one of their most complete games of the season. They’re 6-4 and only one game behind the Saints in the win column of the NFC South standings.

Roddy’s revival: One of the things that impressed me most about receiver Roddy White the previous three seasons was his uncanny ability to bounce back from a bad play. It used to seem like every time White dropped a pass or committed a penalty, he would respond with a huge play. It was almost like, after every mistake, White was saying to Smith, “Hey, I owe you one.’’ But, for reasons I haven't been able to figure out, it hadn’t been working that way at all this season. White came into the week leading the NFL in dropped passes (eight), according to ESPN Stats & Information. White wasn’t making up for mistakes by following up with big plays. But that finally changed Sunday. Early in the third quarter, White had a Matt Ryan pass sail right through his hands. Just a few plays later, White made a great over-the-shoulder catch for a 43-yard gain. The play also provided evidence that the Falcons actually might have a downfield passing game. White finished with a season-high 147 receiving yards.

Dunta’s big play: A lot of people have been suggesting the huge free-agent contract the Falcons gave cornerback Dunta Robinson last year wasn’t a prudent move. I’ve always taken a different point of view. Robinson hasn’t come up with a lot of interceptions, but I think his presence has helped the rest of the secondary. But maybe Robinson silenced a few of his critics by coming up with an interception in the first quarter that set up a field goal. It was Robinson’s first interception of the season and only his second since joining the Falcons. Robinson also had a nice breakup on a third-down pass in the fourth quarter.

Most impressive two-play stretch: With around 11 minutes left in the third quarter, Atlanta defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux batted down Matt Hasselbeck passes on two consecutive plays. I left Babineaux off the midseason All-NFC South team, largely because he missed three games with an injury earlier in the season. But Babineaux is doing a very nice job of re-establishing himself as the division's premier defensive tackle.

What’s next: The Falcons host the Minnesota Vikings next Sunday.

Checking NFC South Total QBR

October, 3, 2011
Atlanta’s Matt Ryan had the best game of the three NFC South quarterbacks who played Sunday and was third-best in the NFL. That’s according to Total QBR.

Although the Falcons nearly squandered a 24-7 halftime lead, Ryan scored plenty of points early and finished with a 92.0 rating. That was behind only Tennessee’s Matt Hasselbeck (97.8) and Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers (96.2).

New Orleans’ Drew Brees was No. 12 with a 62.1 Total QBR. Carolina’s Cam Newton was No. 17 with a 42.4 rating. Tampa Bay’s Josh Freeman plays Monday night against Indianapolis.

For the season, Brees is No. 6 with a 73.3 Total QBR. Ryan is No. 14 at 58.5. Freeman is No. 15 at 57.8 and Newton is No. 21 at 46.6.

Pat Yasinskas' QB Watch

September, 28, 2011
Manning/FitzpatrickUS PresswireNew York's Eli Manning, left, and Buffalo's Ryan Fitzpatrick both helped their teams snap long losing streaks against divisional foes this past Sunday.
Back in the New Orleans Saints’ 2009 championship season, coach Sean Payton repeatedly told his players that if they wanted to go somewhere they’d never been before, they’d have to do things they never did before.

That philosophy helped the Saints win the first Super Bowl in franchise history, and it looked like some quarterbacks around the league were borrowing that motto recently. Week 3 of the NFL season was a time for quarterbacks to stop some unpleasant streaks.

Ryan Fitzpatrick helped the undefeated Buffalo Bills snap a 15-game losing streak against the New England Patriots. That streak dated back to 2003. Eli Manning had beaten the Philadelphia Eagles earlier in his career, but not recently. That changed Sunday when Manning and the New York Giants broke a six-game losing streak against their division rivals.

Speaking of ending bad streaks against division rivals, Tampa Bay quarterback Josh Freeman helped the Bucs break a five-game skid, dating back to 2008 when Jon Gruden was still coaching the team, against the Atlanta Falcons. Finally, Carolina rookie Cam Newton got his first NFL victory as the Panthers defeated the Jacksonville Jaguars.

With the streaks off their backs, all four quarterbacks let out sighs of relief. The role reversals showed that things might be changing for the better for the Bills, Giants, Buccaneers and Panthers.

“It’s huge," Freeman said. “It’s about time one went our way. They’ve been really close games. Since I’ve been here, they’ve won the first four [plus one before Freeman arrived], and they’ve all been close. I can think back to my rookie year. We went in to Atlanta, and had the lead down to the very end of the game. And [Chris] Redman [playing for an injured Matt Ryan] came in and hit it on a fourth down. They’re a great divisional opponent. I’ve got a lot of respect for those guys, offense and defense. They’re a good team. We’ll get to see them again. I’m looking forward to that."

Fitzpatrick was the only one of the four streak-busting quarterbacks to have a truly huge day. In a game similar to what he did against Oakland the week before, Fitzpatrick rallied the Bills after they fell behind 21-0 in the third quarter. He threw for 369 yards and helped set up Rian Lindell’s game-winning field goal as time expired.

Manning didn’t have a big yardage total (254), but he did throw for four touchdown passes against Philadelphia’s highly paid and highly hyped secondary. Freeman only threw for 180 yards and was intercepted twice, but he scored the first rushing touchdown of his career and got plenty of help from a defense that probably played its best game since coach Raheem Morris took over in 2009. Newton threw for a career-low 158 yards (he threw for more than 400 in each of his first two starts), but he threw a game-winning touchdown pass to Greg Olsen with four minutes and 20 seconds remaining on a day when heavy rain made throwing the ball difficult.

Newton won’t have to face the Jaguars again this season, unless Carolina and Jacksonville somehow end up meeting in the Super Bowl. But Fitzpatrick will have to face the Bills again, Manning will play the Eagles later and Freeman and the Bucs will have to go up to the Georgia Dome.

They won’t be carrying the burden of those ugly streaks and that may help them get to more places they’ve never been before.



We already have talked quite a bit about players from the NFC South who are expected to become unrestricted free agents. We’re going on the assumption that players not under contract who have at least four accrued seasons can become unrestricted free agents.

With that in mind, and with some help from ESPN Stats & Information, let’s take a look at some of the more prominent potential free agents from the rest of the league.

QUARTERBACKS: Marc Bulger, Kerry Collins, Rex Grossman, Matt Hasselbeck, Patrick Ramsey, Alex Smith, Billy Volek, Kellen Clemens, Brodie Croyle, Trent Edwards, Bruce Gradkowski, Tarvaris Jackson, Matt Leinart, Troy Smith and Tyler Thigpen.

RUNNING BACKS: Cedric Benson, Ronnie Brown, Kevin Faulk, Mewelde Moore, Sammy Morris, Clinton Portis, Dominic Rhodes, Tony Richardson, Kevin Smith, Darren Sproles, Fred Taylor, Brian Westbrook, Ricky Williams, Joseph Addai, Ahmad Bradshaw, Jerome Harrison, Brandon Jackson, Laurence Maroney and LeRon McClain.

WIDE RECEIVERS: Mark Clayton, Braylon Edwards, T.J. Houshmandzadeh, Randy Moss, Santana Moss, Terrell Owens, Donte’ Stallworth, Steve Breaston, Malcom Floyd, Santonio Holmes, James Jones, Sidney Rice, Mike Sims-Walker, Brad Smith and Steve Smith (of the New York Giants, not the Steve Smith of Carolina).

TIGHT ENDS: Desmond Clark, Donald Lee, Randy McMichael, Bo Scaife, Kevin Boss, Owen Daniels, Daniel Fells, Zach Miller, Ben Patrick and Matt Spaeth.

OFFENSIVE LINEMEN: David Baas, Jammal Brown, Robert Gallery, Adam Goldberg, Kyle Kosier, Olin Kreutz, Matt Light, Sean Locklear, Casey Rabach, Chris Spencer, Langston Walker, Casey Wiegmann, Floyd Womack, Damien Woody, Chris Chester, Jeromey Clary, Daryn Colledge, Willie Colon, Doug Free, Jared Gaither, Charlie Johnson, Deuce Lutui, Samson Satele, Lyle Sendlein and Marshal Yanda.

DEFENSIVE TACKLES: Aubrayo Franklin, Tommie Harris, Chris Hoke, Chris Hovan, Kris Jenkins, Bryan Robinson, Gerard Warren, Jamal Williams, Pat Williams, Alan Branch, Barry Cofield, John McCargo and Brandon Mebane.

DEFENSIVE ENDS: Jason Babin, Dave Ball, Raheem Brock, Andre Carter, Shaun Ellis, Cullen Jenkins, Travis LaBoy, Trevor Pryce, Marcus Spears, Ray Edwards and Mathias Kiwanuka.

LINEBACKERS: Akin Ayodele, Keith Bulluck, Kevin Burnett, Dhani Jones, Kirk Morrison, Julian Peterson, Matt Roth, Takeo Spikes, Jason Taylor, Mike Vrabel, Stewart Bradley, Bobby Carpenter, Manny Lawson, Paul Posluszny, Ernie Sims and Stephen Tulloch.

CORNERBACKS: Nnamdi Asomugha, Phillip Buchanon, Chris Carr, Drayton Florence, Ellis Hobbs, Carlos Rogers, Lito Sheppard, Ike Taylor, Fabian Washington, Drew Coleman, Antonio Cromartie, Chris Houston, Johnathan Joseph, Dimitri Patterson, Josh Wilson and Eric Wright.

SAFETIES: Aaron Francisco, Ken Hamlin, Michael Lewis, Brandon McGowan, Quintin Mikell, Lawyer Milloy, Brodney Pool, Gerald Sensabaugh, Roy Williams, Gibril Wilson, Atari Bigby, Melvin Bullitt, Abram Elam, Dashon Goldson, Michael Huff, Dawan Landry, Danieal Manning, Bernard Pollard, Eric Weddle and Donte Whitner.

NFC South, Ricky Williams, Gibril Wilson, Gerald Sensabaugh, T.J.Houshmandzadeh, Braylon Edwards, Santonio Holmes, Terrell Owens, Steve Smith, Lawyer Milloy, Ronnie Brown, Phillip Buchanon, Jammal Brown, Billy Volek, Jason Taylor, unrestricted free agents, Mark Clayton, Chris Hovan, Rex Grossman, Tyler Thigpen, Randy Moss, Kris Jenkins, ESPN Stats & Information, Chris Houston, Alex Smith, Brandon McGowan, Danieal Manning, Bruce Gradkowski, Michael Lewis, Fred Taylor, Steve Breaston, Roy Williams, Nnamdi Asomugha, Trevor Pryce, Santana Moss, Tavaris Jackson, Pat Williams, Kellen Clemens, Julian Peterson, Donte Stallworth, Kerry Collins, Brodie Croyle, Cedric Benson, Clinton Portis, Zach Miller, Brian Westbrook, Damien Woody, Troy Smith, Marc Bulger, Kevin Faulk, Ray Edwards, Sidney Rice, Antonio Cromartie, Jamal Williams, Mathias Kiwanuka, Patrick Ramsey, Aaron Francisco, Joseph Addai, Darren Sproles, Matt Leinart, Tony Richardson, Ike Taylor, Josh Wilson, Matt Hasselbeck, Atari Bigby, Cullen Jenkins, Jason Babin, Marcus Spears, Jonathan Joseph, Paul Posluszny, Matt Light, Trent Edwards, Mewelde Moore, Sammy Morris, Dominic Rhodes, Kevin Smith, Ahmad Bradshaw, Jerom Harrison, Brandon Jackson, Laurence Maroney, LeRon McClain, Malcolm Floyd, James Jones, Mike Sims-Walker, Brad Smith, Desmond Clark, Donald Lee, Randy McMichael, Kevin Boss, Owen Daniels, Daniel Fells, Ben Patrick, Matt Spaeth, David Baas, Robert Gallery, Adam Goldberg, Kyle Kosier, Olin Kreutz, Sean Locklear, Casey Rabach, Chris Spencer, Langston Walker, Casey Wiegmann, Floyd Womack, Chris Chester, Jeromey Clary, Daryn Colledge, Willie Colon, Jared Gaither, Charlie Johnson, Deuce Lutui, Samson Satele, Lyle Sendlein, Marshal Yanda, Aubrayo Franklin, Tommis Harris, Chris Hoke, Bryan Robinson, Gerard Warren, Alan Branch, Barry Cofield, John McCargo, Brandon Mebane, Raheem Brock, Andre Carter, Shaun Ellis, Travis LaBoy, Akin Ayodele, Keith Bulluck, Kevin Burnett, Dhani Jones, Kirk Morrison, Takeo Spikes, Mike Vrabel, Stewart Bradley, Bobby Carpenter, Manny Lawson, Ernie Sims, Stephen Tulloch, Chris Carr, Drayton Florence, Ellis Hobbs, Carlos Rogers, Lito Sheppard, Fabian Washington, Drew Coleman, Demitri Patterson, Eric Wright, Ken Hamlin, Quintin Mikell, Brodney Pool, Melvin Bullitt, Abram Elam, Dashon Goldson, Michael Huff, Dawan Landry, Bernard Pollard, Eric Weedle, Donte Whitner

Marshawn Lynch and Tracy PorterMike Nelson/US PresswireMarshawn Lynch pushed Tracy Porter and the Saints' defense around on his 67-yard score.
SEATTLE -- The memories of their Super Bowl season will last forever. The magic did not.

The feel-good story of last season -- or maybe the past decade or two -- is over. It ended unexpectedly and more than a little embarrassingly for the New Orleans Saints. The defending Super Bowl champions came into Qwest Field on Saturday to play the first team in NFL history to make the playoffs with a 7-9 record.

It ended with the Seattle Seahawks, a team that stumbled to the NFC West championship, defeating the Saints 41-36. Just like that, the magic and miracles that carried the Saints all the way to Miami and last year’s Super Bowl are over.

“After you experience raising that trophy, you don’t want to see anyone else lift it,’’ New Orleans linebacker Scott Shanle said. “There wasn’t a person in this locker room that didn’t think we would be lifting that trophy again.’’

That’s not going to happen. Some other team will be hoisting the Lombardi Trophy in February and it will come in a season in which the Saints generally looked like they were avoiding “the curse’’ that has dethroned so many recent Super Bowl champions.

They went 11-5 in the regular season, again riding the arm of Drew Brees and using a defense that looked better overall than it did a year ago. Then, against a team the Saints handled easily in the regular season, it all fell apart.

Instead of looking like the Saints of the regular season or the champion Saints of the 2009 season, the Saints looked a lot more like the New Orleans teams of 2007 and 2008. Those teams could move the ball, but didn’t play much defense. Those teams were mediocre, sort of like the Seahawks.

“We’ll have a chance to look at the film,’’ Saints coach Sean Payton said when asked to explain why his team suddenly collapsed.

Payton’s right. There will be no Super Bowl parades or even any more games this season. The Saints will have months to reflect on what happened.

There will be painful weeks to watch the film of Matt Hasselbeck throwing for 272 yards and four touchdowns. That’s a lot of time to see safety Darren Sharper looking like he waited too long to retire. Time to watch strong safety Roman Harper looking even worse than Sharper and time to watch rookie cornerback Patrick Robinson making a season’s worth of rookie mistakes.

That’s not going to look good on the résumé of Gregg Williams. He’s the defensive coordinator and the man many credit for putting the Saints over the top last season. He has been mentioned as a possible head-coaching candidate in other places in recent weeks. He now will have time to interview. If Williams doesn’t get another job, he and Payton can watch the horror movie together.

[+] EnlargeSaints' Drew Brees
Jonathan Ferrey/Getty ImagesA season after winning their first Super Bowl, Drew Brees and the Saints were ousted in the wild-card round.
“Our eyes were not very good in coverage,’’ Sharper said.

Throw in their legs and their minds too, and don’t limit the blame to the secondary. The front four and the linebackers also got destroyed. Hasselbeck, who couldn’t even play a week ago because of a hip injury, completed 22 of 35 passes and finished with a 113.0 passer rating. Marshawn Lynch ran over the New Orleans defense for 131 yards and a touchdown on 19 carries.

“I think we might have taken for granted the success they had throwing against us earlier in the season,’’ Sharper said.

That’s a reference to the Nov. 21 regular-season game in the Superdome. Hasselbeck threw for 366 yards in that game, but the Saints won 34-19. So what changed between the regular-season game and now? And what happened between last year’s Super Bowl and now?

A team that took pride in saying the only real losses from the Super Bowl were linebacker Scott Fujita and backup running back Mike Bell somehow lost a lot more. Yes, injuries were a factor. The Saints were forced to play Sharper because starting free safety Malcolm Jenkins was injured. Running backs Pierre Thomas and Chris Ivory didn’t play because of injuries and fellow running backs Reggie Bush and Julius Jones got so banged up in the second half that the Saints had to play DeShawn Wynn, who was signed last week.

But the problems started long before Bush and Jones got hurt. The Saints, who had to fly across the country and had only six days between games, started off playing like champions. They jumped out to a 10-0 lead and Seattle was looking every bit the part of a 7-9 team. Then everything changed.

“It’s only appropriate to start off with congratulating [coach] Pete Carroll and the Seattle Seahawks for a big win,'' Payton said. “They played a real good game.’’

Yes, give the Seahawks credit, but the Saints gave them a whole lot of help. Although Brees threw for 404 yards on 60 attempts, any attempt at offensive balance was abandoned in the second and third quarters when the Seahawks outscored the Saints 27-10.

Lynch and the Seattle receivers ran all over Williams’ defense. Things got so bad that Payton had to call for a desperation onside kick near the end of the game instead of using it as a surprise as he did in the Super Bowl win.

The Saints, who danced their way out of Miami after the Super Bowl and posed for pictures on the Atlanta Falcons’ logo in the Georgia Dome a few weeks ago, lost their swagger in Seattle.

The locker room was quiet.

“We knew we had a team we thought could repeat,’’ Sharper said.

“This stings a lot,’’ cornerback Jabari Greer said.

The silence and the sting will last the long flight back home and probably spill over into the coming weeks and months. The Saints lost more than just a playoff game.

They lost their chance at repeating as Super Bowl champions and they did it against a team that had a losing record in the regular season. Instead, they’re left to think about preventing a repeat of what happened in Seattle.

“If we’re ever in this position down the road, we have to remember this experience so it doesn’t happen again,’’ Shanle said.

Saints-Seahawks by the numbers

January, 8, 2011
SEATTLE – ESPN Stats & Information just sent along a big package of information on the 41-36 victory by the Seahawks against the Saints. Warning to New Orleans fans, this isn’t going to be pretty.
  • Marshawn Lynch’s 67-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter no doubt will be available on television highlights for several days. But we’ll save you the trouble of counting. The Stats & Information people reviewed the play on video multiple times and concluded that eight different New Orleans defenders at least got a hand on Lynch.
  • In 16 regular-season games, the Saints allowed only two passes that were thrown 21 yards or more downfield to go for touchdowns. On Saturday, they allowed Matt Hasselbeck to throw two such passes that went for touchdowns.
  • New Orleans defensive coordinator Gregg Williams is known for being aggressive, but that tactic didn’t really help against Hasselbeck. The Saints sent six or more pass rushers on eight of Hasselbeck’s dropbacks. He completed four of those passes for a touchdown and a 118.2 passer rating. That’s not unprecedented. In the regular-season meeting between the Saints and Seahawks, Hasselbeck completed all six of his pass attempts when New Orleans sent six or more pass rushers.
  • With running backs Pierre Thomas and Chris Ivory out with injuries, the Saints tried to keep some balance in the offense early. They got Julius Jones and Reggie Bush some early carries as they led 10-0 and 17-7. That allowed the Saints to have some early success with play-action passing. Drew Brees was 6-for-6 on his first six-play action passes. That added up to 56 yards, a touchdown and five first downs. But the Saints got away from the run and that took away the play-action success. On his next eight attempts, Brees was 5-of-8 for 20 yards and one first down. For comparison, Hasselbeck was 6-for-6 for 48 yards two touchdowns and a 139.6 passer rating on play action.
  • Although recent opponents had some success when throwing a lot of blitzes at Brees, the Seahawks didn’t take that approach. They sent five or more rushers on only five of Brees’ 62 dropbacks (8.1 percent). Throughout the entire regular season no team used the blitz less frequently than the Seahawks did Saturday. The Cardinals used a similar strategy in a Week 5 meeting with the Saints, using the blitz on just 9.8 percent of Brees’ dropbacks. There’s a theme here. The Cardinals also beat the Saints.

UnLucky day in the NFC South

January, 6, 2011
Two pretty major pieces of news came out as I was making the drive to Tampa International Airport. Neither one of them is good news for either of the NFC South teams involved.

First, quarterback Andrew Luck is staying at Stanford and declining to enter the NFL draft. Second, the Seattle Seahawks said Matt Hasselbeck will start at quarterback in Saturday’s playoff game.

The Luck news is pretty close to devastating for the Carolina Panthers. They hold the No. 1 pick in the 2011 draft and the team was fully intent on taking Luck if he chose to come out following his red-shirt sophomore season. Luck is viewed as most experts as a can’t-miss prospect and the Panthers didn’t disagree with that.

Without Luck, the draft lacks a quarterback that is clearly worthy of the No. 1 overall pick. So what do the Panthers do now?

Well, the easy answer is to try to trade the pick and add extra draft picks. But that’s much easier said than done. There is a possibility no labor agreement will be in place before the draft and teams might be hesitant as they wait to see if a new agreement might include a rookie wage scale.

The Panthers could be stuck with the No. 1 pick. They’ll have to use the Senior Bowl, scouting combine and personal workouts to come up with a guy to put in Luck’s place at the top of their wish list. Chances are, that won’t be a quarterback.

The Panthers still have hope that Jimmy Clausen can develop into a decent quarterback, but they’re not going to go into next season without a viable alternative to Clausen. They might have to use the top pick on a player at another position and look to free agency for quarterback help.

The Hasselbeck news directly impacts the New Orleans Saints, who play the Seahawks on Saturday. While you still can argue the Saints are fortunate they drew a 7-9 team in the wild-card round, a healthy Hasselbeck will make things a bit more difficult.

Charlie Whitehurst played for an injured Hasselbeck in the final regular-season game against St. Louis and helped the Seahawks get the win and the playoff berth. But Whitehurst is a career backup with very little starting experience. Hasselbeck is a proven veteran and probably provides the Seahawks with their best chance of staying with the Saints. Remember, Hasselbeck threw for 366 yards in a regular-season game against New Orleans.

Finally, we’ll close this post with a bit of good news. I got a copy of Jeff Duncan’s book “From Bags To Riches’’ about the Saints and plan to read that on the plane to Seattle. It’s a long flight, so I might get time to finish the entire book. Plus, I’ll have a return flight Sunday, so I’ll go ahead and promise you a book review by next week. And Duncan better have a pen ready to autograph my copy when I see him at Qwest Field on Saturday.