NFC South: Owners Meeting 2010

Falcons still high on Abraham

March, 29, 2010
Still working my way through the tape recorder and notebook after last week’s owners meeting in Orlando. Just came across some interesting stuff from Atlanta’s Mike Smith that came up during the NFC coaches breakfast.

We all know that the pass rush was an area where the Falcons struggled last season and they probably will address it in the draft. But it sure doesn’t sound like the Falcons aren’t anywhere near ready to give up on John Abraham. He had 16.5 sacks in 2008, but that number dropped to 5.5 last season.

I asked Smith for his assessment of what happened.

“His numbers were not nearly as good last season,’’ Smith said. “We watched the tape and spent time evaluating him. We felt like John still had some very effective rushes. The sacks just did not come last season. You can look at it historically. John has gone through and had a down year every third or fourth year and he has bounced back. We really anticipate that he will bounce back. We watched and analyzed everything very closely. His hurries and pressures were high. We missed some pressure up the middle when Peria Jerry went down in Week 2. [Jerry] was coming along and we felt like he could win some one-on-ones. What ended up happening was peopled turned the protections to John and we weren’t able to take advantage of the one-on-ones on the inside.’’

I also asked Smith about Jamaal Anderson. He began his career as a defensive end and never reached his potential. The Falcons moved him inside at times last year and he looked a little better at tackle. But it doesn’t sound like there’s any plan in the works to keep Anderson inside on a full-time basis.

“I thought Jamaal made big strides in terms of defensive end play in our base defense,’’ Smith said. “Then, he moved inside the majority of the time in our sub packages. That’s the plan right now to have him play left defensive end in our base package and then to move him inside in our sub package. He ended up playing about half his snaps last year reduced down in playing three technique.’’

AP Photo/John AmisFalcons owner Arthur Blank (front) and general manager Thomas Dimitroff are looking for more then their third consecutive winning season in 2010.
The absolute best thing you can say about the Atlanta Falcons these days is their vision is very clear.

They have a positive and realistic grasp of where they are and a positive and realistic outlook on where they want to go from here. Listen to owner Arthur Blank, coach Mike Smith and general manager Thomas Dimitroff for just a few minutes and it becomes instantly obvious they’re on the same page. For perhaps the first time in franchise history, you don’t need to put on a pair of heavy-duty, rose-colored glasses to see that something good could be on the long-term horizon for the Falcons.

Instead of just randomly going through life and hoping for good things, the Falcons are methodically preparing for great things.

“Being average in this league is not acceptable,’’ Blank said Tuesday during a break at the NFL owners meeting. “It’s not acceptable to me as an owner. It’s not acceptable to our organization. And it certainly is not acceptable to our fan base.’’

Wow, mediocrity is not acceptable to a team that’s basically defined the word for over four decades?

“I view our team as an ascending team,’’ Blank said. “I think the most important thing about the back-to-back winning seasons and breaking that 44-year hex or jinx is that, symbolically, it represents where this team is. That’s the most significant part of it. I’m excited about that.’’

Blank should be excited about where the Falcons are and where he wants them to go. They’re shooting for the stars -- years of winning and winning big while doing it on a platform they hope gets bigger. Do that and the Falcons can become something they have never truly been -- a huge part of Atlanta’s overall fabric.

They’ve made a splash every few years and had occasional flash with Deion Sanders and Michael Vick. But listen to Blank, Dimitroff and Smith and it’s obvious they’re shooting to make the Falcons more than they’ve ever been. They want this team to be good year in and year out.

You know what? They just might be well on the way. After a stunning 11-5 season and playoff berth in Smith and Dimitroff’s first year, the Falcons went 9-7 last year -- their first back-to-back winning seasons in franchise history.

“That’s a nice accomplishment and it’s significant because of the history of the franchise,’’ Dimitroff said. “But our goal every year is to be in the playoffs. That didn’t happen this past season.’’

It’s pretty clear the Falcons celebrated their back-to-back winning seasons for all of about three seconds. Maybe the Falcons jumped ahead of “the process’’ Smith likes to talk about in 2008 and maybe last season was a bit of a reality check. Maybe, in the third year of Smith/Dimitroff, the process is exactly where it should be.

Blank might be right on target when he talks about the Falcons as an “ascending’’ team.

“If you look at the talent on the team, other than a couple of positions, it’s all young,’’ Blank said. “Thomas and Smitty have done just a fabulous job the last couple of years in the draft.’’

It all starts with quarterback Matt Ryan, Atlanta’s first-round pick in 2008. The common perception among fans is Ryan had a great rookie year and took a little step back last season. That’s not what the people in the Falcons’ building think at all.

“I think Matt improved from Year 1 to Year 2 and I think there will be significant improvement from Year 2 to Year 3,’’ Smith said. “I think he has improved on and will continue to improve on the two traits that all the great quarterbacks have. No. 1 is their decision making and No. 2 is their accuracy with the football. I think that Matt has really improved in his decision making in terms of what he can see and where to go with the football. His accuracy has improved as well. Matt is a guy that we’ve given more to. We’ve opened up the playbook more from Year 1 to Year 2, especially in our no-huddle offense. I think we’ll be able to continue to expand what we want to do offensively.’’

It should be noted that Ryan dealt with a toe injury that cost him two games and he limped through some others. An ankle injury also severely limited running back Michael Turner for about half the season. Ryan, Turner and receiver Harry Douglas (knee injury) all are expected back at full health next season and the parts all seem to be in place on offense.

“We love our young quarterback,’’ Blank said. “It doesn’t mean he’s perfect, but he’s getting better. Twenty-two touchdown passes last year versus 16 the year before. He’s learning more about the NFL and more about who he’s working with on his team. He’s one of these young men that’s first to work and last to leave. Great leadership on and off the field and he’s earned the respect of the players. I think he’ll continue to ascend to that role as a stronger leader in the years to come.’’

Blank likes to say he doesn’t cross the line into the football side, instead focusing on what he can do to help the football people succeed. But he is scheduled to have dinner with Ryan in a couple of weeks. One of the subjects on the agenda is leadership. The Falcons believe Ryan has done a great job in that area in his first two seasons and Blank wants to remind him that expectations grow every year.

“We’ll talk about his role and his responsibility,’’ Blank said.

Expectations are greater everywhere with the Falcons right now. After signing cornerback Dunta Robinson, the Falcons feel much better about their defense. They’d still like to improve the pass rush and it’s likely an attempt to do that will come in the draft.

Throw in a pass-rusher, project all the injured guys back as healthy and there’s really no reason to think Atlanta can’t string together three consecutive winning seasons. But Blank, Dimitroff and Smith are thinking about more than just that. They’re looking ahead and imagining a long string of winning seasons… and a new stadium.

As much as Ryan, a new stadium is part of the overall plan for this franchise right now. Blank has taken a proactive approach and the Falcons have been making noise about their desire to get a new facility to replace the Georgia Dome. They’re working with the Georgia World Congress Center and hoping they can get a new facility on the same ground, or surrounding ground. There’s encouragement on that front because there is a bill in front of the state assembly to extend a tax on hotels and motels that would largely finance a new building. Staying close to where they’re at is the priority, but the Falcons also are looking around the Atlanta area for other potential sites. So far, Blank and the Falcons have been relatively patient about this, but they’re not sitting still. Team president Rich McKay spends most of his time working toward a new stadium.

“There is some haste about this,’’ Blank said. “When you look at the planning, the designing, the construction and all the elements that go into a new stadium, there is a timetable of seven or eight years. The clock is ticking. We need to move forward on this. There are 25 stadiums in the league that have been built or significantly rebuilt and upgraded since 1992 when the Georgia Dome was opened up. We want to make sure that our fans have the very best NFL experience that we can offer them and make sure that we’re competitive on that front.

“You’re competing with somebody sitting at home watching a 52- or 56-inch screen television, kicking back and drinking a cold beer and saying, 'let’s just stay home.' The burden is that we’ve got to create an even better in-game experience for them.’’

No doubt a flashy new stadium would help. But there’s also no doubt that continued winning will help build a new stadium and make the in-game experience the best it’s ever been in Atlanta.
People ask me all the time to predict how the NFC South will shake out next season. I’m hesitant to do it because it’s only March and lots can change between now and September.

But I’m always open to hearing other opinions. And I got one that I respect very much Wednesday morning at the NFC coaches breakfast at the owners meeting. I asked Atlanta coach Mike Smith to break down the NFC South.

Smith provided a scouting report. Here it is:
I think arguably the NFC South is the toughest division and I think that has played out over the last five years. With the Saints as the defending Super Bowl champs, they have to go into the season as the favorite. Offensively, they’re very dynamic with Drew Brees and the weapons that he has like Reggie Bush and Jeremy Shockey, Marques Colston, Devery Henderson and Robert Meachem. They’re a very powerful offense. Defensively, last year, they were probably the most opportunistic defense in the league. They do a great job of attacking the football and creating turnovers.

Carolina, every year, John [Fox] has that team playing well and playing hard. I think everything sets up around their two running backs. They’re going to run the ball and they’re always going to play strong defense with John and Ron Meeks. I played against Matt Moore when I was in Jacksonville one year and Jake was injured. I think he’s got a very good skill set. He’s got the height and the arm strong. He doesn’t have the experience yet, but I think he’s got a chance to be a very good quarterback.

In Tampa Bay, with Raheem [Morris] in Year 2, I think you’re really going to see big strides. I really like the big quarterback, Josh Freeman. He can not only throw the football, but he can run. He can extend a play. We played both our games with them in the second half of last season and I saw quite a bit of improvement, especially on the defensive side of the ball. They were really flying around and attacking the offense.’

And what about the Falcons? We’ll have more on them -- through the eyes of Smith, Arthur Blank and Thomas Dimitroff -- later today. I’ll be posting a column on the Falcons this afternoon.
Some random reflections on the owners meeting that ended Wednesday in Orlando.

I know John Fox caused a bit of a stir in some circles when he spoke highly of Tim Tebow. I’m telling you right now, calm down. Let’s put this one in perspective. Fox always praises players on other teams, available free agents and every member of the year's draft crop that he’s asked about. He also never closes the door on anything. Remember last summer when everybody was sure the Panthers were going to sign Michael Vick just because Fox wouldn’t publicly close the door on that possibility? It never happened. Look, I know Fox better than any other coach in the NFC South. If the man is going to make a move that likely will shape the rest of his career, he’s probably not going to reveal it over breakfast with the media.

I agree with New Orleans coach Sean Payton on disagreeing with the changes to the overtime rules. I also respect him for having the courage to voice his displeasure with how it was handled. The owners pretty much pushed this one on the coaches. Payton’s got every right to be mad about it -- for maybe another day or two. After that, he’s got to let it go. Payton’s a big voice in the NFL right now (as he should be), but he’s not bigger than the owners. They sign the checks.

While talking with Atlanta’s Arthur Blank, Thomas Dimitroff and Mike Smith, I got the impression that they’re really expecting a big leap forward by quarterback Matt Ryan in the upcoming season. I’ll have more on this in a column that’s scheduled to run Friday afternoon. But I also think the Falcons have to tweak a few things in their offense to really allow Ryan to make the next step.

Nice of Bucs co-chairman Joel Glazer to step forward and talk to the media. Glazer explained why the Bucs are building through the draft and said his family’s ownership of the Manchester United soccer team has no impact on how the Bucs are run. I know there are tons of fans who doubt that. But why waste your time? As long as the Glazers own the Bucs, they’re going to operate the franchise the way they want.

NFL owners meeting is over

March, 24, 2010
ORLANDO, Fla. -- The owners meeting is over and judging by a quick walk through the hotel lobby, coaches, owners and general managers are scrambling to get out of here.

The NFC South blog is going to get on the road home shortly. But the tape recorder and the notebook are full of stuff that will help get us through the quiet period between now and the start of the NFL draft.
ORLANDO, Fla. -- The Carolina Panthers have fielded several trade inquiries about linebacker Dan Connor this offseason, according to league sources. But the sources say the Panthers have made it clear to other teams that they’re not letting Connor go.

Although Connor has been mostly a backup and special-teams player in his first two seasons, he is expected to compete for a starting job this season. The Panthers released veteran linebackers Na'il Diggs and Landon Johnson last season.

In recent days, coach John Fox and general manager Marty Hurney specifically have mentioned Connor as a player they expect to step up this season. They also have mentioned linebacker James Anderson as another player who has a chance to earn more playing time this season.

Payton not happy with OT change

March, 24, 2010
ORLANDO, Fla. -- Some strong comments by New Orleans coach Sean Payton on the rule changes for overtime on Sirius NFL Radio this morning.

“Well, No. 1, I’m not a big fan of the rule that was just implemented," Payton said. “I’m going to have to probably spend a half hour explaining it to my wife or any fan that it’s the regular season we’re still in [sudden death] overtime, it’s only in the postseason. In the postseason, now listen, if we score the first field goal then they get the ball back but if we score a touchdown the game’s over."

Payton didn’t stop with that.

“I hate it," Payton said. “I think the old system was an asset, not a liability. I think it was the most exiting overtime in our game. But I’m probably one of a few or one of a handful."

Payton definitely wasn’t the only coach opposed to changing the overtime format. He spoke out against it before the rule change was voted on. Carolina coach John Fox also opposed the change.

But Carolina and New Orleans voted for the change. So did Tampa Bay and Atlanta. Only four teams voted against the change and the vote was done by team owners Tuesday afternoon when coaches and general managers were not in the room. Payton said he wasn’t happy with the process.

“And not just the coaches now," Payton said. “The general managers were out eating lunch, golfing or whatever. That kind of got snuck in the back door interestingly at about 4 p.m."
ORLANDO, Fla. -- The Tampa Bay Buccaneers could be facing local television blackouts for the first time since moving into Raymond James Stadium, team co-chairman Joel Glazer said Wednesday morning.

The real surprise here is that it didn’t happen last year. The Bucs sold out all their home games during a 3-13 season, but there often were lots of empty seats, leading to speculation that the team bought up many unsold tickets to avoid blackouts.

Tampa Bay fans have been a bit spoiled in recent times because the team has been a winner through much of the Tony Dungy and Jon Gruden eras. But blackouts aren’t anything new in Tampa Bay. During some miserable seasons in the old Tampa Stadium, it wasn’t uncommon for the Buccaneers to draw only 30,000 to 40,000 fans.

There’s a simple lesson to be taken from Tampa Bay’s history. If you don’t want blackouts, you have to win games.
ORLANDO, Fla. – I came here fully expecting to find out who the Saints will be hosting in the first game of the upcoming season. That’s not going to happen – yet.

The NFL usually releases a preview of the schedule during the owners meeting and that preview almost always includes the opening Thursday night pairing. But a league official said that will not happen at this meeting. He said the league still is in the process of assembling the entire regular-season schedule and isn’t prepared to release any portion.

The league official also said the entire schedule will be announced in April. The delay has nothing to do with the Saints, the official said. They still are scheduled to host the opening game in the Superdome.

Minnesota, in a rematch of the NFC Championship Game, appears to be the most likely opponent. Atlanta and Pittsburgh would be the other two logical alternatives.
ORLANDO, Fla. -- Just came back from the NFC coaches breakfast at the owners meetings and wanted to give you an update from Atlanta coach Mike Smith on the Falcons’ injuries.

Quarterback Matt Ryan and running back Michael Turner, who had injuries late last season, are fine, Smith said. Safety William Moore and defensive tackle Peria Jerry, who missed almost all of their rookie seasons with injuries, are progressing. Receiver Harry Douglas, who tore up his knee in training camp last year, also is coming along.

“Peria and Harry, both those guys are probably going to be guys who won’t participate in our minicamps or our OTAs, but they should be ready to go in training camp,’’ Smith said. “Harry will be about 11 months and Peria will be about 10 months. Matt Ryan, we started off our offseason program and he participated in it this week. Michael Turner started participating in it this week. We’ve got a couple of other guys that had some minor cleanup procedures after the season that aren’t participating right now. But we anticipate that by minicamp we should have everybody but Peria and Harry Douglas.’’

Fox lets his guard down

March, 24, 2010
ORLANDO, Fla. -- Perhaps the best thing I’ve noticed about the NFC coaches breakfast at the owners meetings for most of the last decade is how relaxed Carolina coach John Fox is.

He’s extremely guarded during the season, but Fox tends to let his guard down when there is only a small group of reporters and the first game of the season is months away. That was the case Wednesday morning when Fox provided what might have been the best line of the day when he was asked about the throwing motion of University of Florida quarterback Tim Tebow.

“You ever watch Bernie Kosar play?’’ Fox said with a big laugh.

Good point. Fox went on to talk about Tebow’s intangibles at length. He was at Tebow’s workout and there’s been a lot of speculation about the Panthers perhaps drafting Tebow. My take on that? It’s a smokescreen. The Panthers will add a quarterback at some point -- in free agency or the draft. Tebow’s a project and they need someone who can play right away in case Matt Moore isn’t what the Panthers hope he is.

Speaking of speculation, there’s been a lot of fan talk about the Panthers trading DeAngelo Williams for draft picks. Fox was asked about that and said his top running back isn’t on the market and he plans to go into this season with Williams and Jonathan Stewart in his backfield.

Trust Fox on this one. He seriously believes in having two quality running backs because the Panthers rely on the running game so much. Besides, I’ve been told by other team officials that Williams isn’t going anywhere and he’s one of the guys the Panthers want to eventually sign to a long-term contract.
ORLANDO, Fla. -- I’m getting ready to head to breakfast with all of the NFC coaches.

It’s a relaxed atmosphere, with each coach having his own table and the media allowed to float among the coaches. Some of the NFC South coaches, particularly Carolina’s John Fox, can be very quiet in the offseason. But the coaches are required to attend this event and it’s the most extensive offseason interview some of them will give.

I’ll check in with all four NFC South coaches and will provide you with the highlights later this morning.

Saints let RB Bell walk away

March, 24, 2010
ORLANDO, Fla. -- The New Orleans Saints let running back Mike Bell walk away Tuesday night. The Saints decided not to match the $1.75 million offer for one season from the Philadelphia Eagles to the restricted free agent. The Saints won't receive any compensation.

Not exactly a huge surprise, even though Bell was an important part of the rotation last year. With Pierre Thomas and Reggie Bush also in the rotation, and the emergence of Lynell Hamilton late last year, the Saints have plenty of depth at running back.

Hamilton would be the logical choice to take over Bell’s role as the bigger back, but the Saints also could look to add more depth through the draft.

Falcons looking to get healthy

March, 23, 2010
ORLANDO, Fla. -- I got to spend some time with Atlanta owner Arthur Blank and Thomas Dimitroff this evening and we’ll have some parts of those interviews in some stories over the upcoming days.

There was no major news as Dimitroff admitted the Falcons are pretty much focused on the draft after making their one big splash in free agency by signing cornerback Dunta Robinson. But I did want to share with you what Dimitroff said when I asked about the health of Peria Jerry, William Moore, Harry Douglas and Michael Turner, who had significant injuries last season.

“They’re healing up well,’’ Dimitroff said. “They’re fired up about getting in there. I saw Peria the other day and he’s got a little bit of that second-year swagger now, even though he didn’t play a whole bunch last year. He’s excited about coming back.

“Right now, it seems like they’re all on track for camp or definitely for the opening game. But you want to make sure you don’t rush too much because the ultimate thing is to have them ready for the beginning of September.’’

That’s the cautious outlook and the smart one. It’s wise not to set timetables because there are variables involved, but it sounds like the Falcons should be healthy.
ORLANDO, Fla. -- NFC North colleague Kevin Seifert got to sit down with Green Bay president/CEO Mark Murphy earlier Tuesday.

One of the questions Murphy was asked was for his reaction to the speech by Carolina owner Jerry Richardson, in which the only former player to own a team urged his fellow owners to stick together in their negotiations for a new labor deal with the NFL Players Association.

Courtesy of Seifert, here’s Murphy’s quote on Richardson’s speech:

“It was very well received and primarily because Jerry is so respected. And it was very early in the meetings. It was at the end of the commissioner’s state of the NFL talk. Quite honestly, part of it is just what Jerry has been through with his health issues. I know, it’s really been almost a year because of the heart transplant he was unable to attend meetings. I guess some of the meetings he was able to call in. This is the first annual meeting he’s been at. He missed the last one. It’s really good to have him. He’s so respected and has such great experience. I think also his background and perspective, he was a player in the league, it really is beneficial to have him there. It really adds a lot.’’