NFC South: Ray Hamilton
- The Tampa Bay Buccaneers announced this afternoon that wide receiver Steve Smith, who signed with the team in April, is retiring. Smith had some history with offensive coordinator Mike Sullivan from their days together with the New York Giants. But I don’t think Smith’s decision is catastrophic for the Bucs. At best, Smith might have been the third wide receiver. But the Bucs seem to think that Tiquan Underwood or Kevin Ogletree can be solid in that role.
- Jeff Duncan writes that the arrest of Joe Morgan for allegedly driving under the influence is coming at a bad time. Morgan is one of several candidates the Saints view as their potential third receiver. This type of incident isn’t going to score points with any coaching staff. It could end up costing Morgan what could have been a great opportunity.
- Atlanta defensive line coach Ray Hamilton said defensive end Jonathan Massaquoi seems more comfortable as he gets ready for his second season. The Falcons have a lot of young defensive ends, but I think Massaquoi is the one the coaching staff is hoping can step forward to give the pass rush a boost.
- Let’s close this one out with a little levity. Carolina offensive tackle Jordan Gross, who is one of the most humorous players I’ve ever covered, had a little fun with quarterback Cam Newton after Wednesday’s workout. Check out this video.
Mark Bradley does a nice job of describing a scene that was more obvious to viewers at home than to those of us in the Georgia Dome press box. The television broadcast clearly showed Atlanta coach Mike Smith slightly shoving assistant coach Ray Hamilton as Smith called a timeout before Carolina tried a Hail-Mary play. The problem was the Falcons didn’t have a timeout left. Smith knew that, but called it anyway because he knew rules don’t penalize a team for calling a timeout it doesn’t have. The officials simply told Smith he didn’t have a timeout left and that conversation allowed the Falcons to get an 11th defender on the field. Smith apologized to Hamilton on Monday for the shove.
After missing two games with a concussion, Atlanta nickel back Christopher Owens has been cleared to return to practice later this week. Dominique Franks and Robert McClain have taken turns at nickel back. As long as Owens is healthy, my guess is he’ll jump right back ahead of Franks and McClain.
Quarterback Cam Newton will appear in an ESPN commercial. There’s irony here because Newton is telling a joke in the commercial. In real life, he hasn’t had much to laugh about in Carolina’s 1-3 start.
Scott Fowler says that coach Ron Rivera made a “play-not-to-lose’’ decision when he elected to punt instead of going for it on fourth down late in the game. I see both sides of this one, but I don’t have a huge problem with Rivera’s call. His defense had been putting pressure on Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan all day. If the defense had done that one more time, the game would have been over.
NEW ORLEANS SAINTS
Defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo said football is a game of inches. He’s right. But this is nothing new. It always has been and always will be. Your defense is supposed to stop offenses from turning inches into yards and eventually into points.
The Saints keep saying they’re going to get better. But the fact is they’re 0-4 and that means they’re in a very deep hole. The season is not over, but, as Bradley Handwerger writes, the Saints are in a situation where they have almost no margin for error the rest of the season.
TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS
Rookie linebacker Lavonte David had a strong outing Sunday. That’s why I see more hope down the line for the Bucs than I do the Saints or Panthers. Tampa Bay is getting good production from a lot of young guys and the Bucs still are adjusting to a new coaching staff. Things haven’t started great, but they should eventually get better.
Offensive tackle Donald Penn says he believes the Bucs are close to turning the corner. He may have a point. The Bucs are doing some things really well, but need some obvious work in other areas. I’ve seen scenarios shape up like this before, back in the mid-1990s as the Bucs started to get good and in the early 2000s, when the Panthers started grasping onto John Fox’s system. However, it's important to note this is a process that takes time.
- Defensive end Ray Edwards has been a frequent target of criticism after signing as a free agent with the Falcons last year and didn’t have a big season. But defensive line coach Ray Hamilton defended Edwards, saying the defensive end had a knee injury last year and bigger things are expected this season.
- Even if Edwards doesn’t step up, one writer believes fifth-round pick Jonathan Massaquoi can provide immediate help for Atlanta’s pass rush.
- D. Orlando Ledbetter has his list of things to watch as the Falcons begin the on-field portion of their organized team activities. Whether Lofa Tatupu or Akeem Dent is working at first-team middle linebacker is one big question, and if Dunta Robinson will be covering the slot receiver when the Falcons go to their nickel package is another.
- Tampa Bay coach Greg Schiano is trying to use the Florida heat to give his team a conditioning advantage. Does that work? Rick Stroud runs through how different coaches in franchise history have approached the heat. Some have tried to work around it and some have practiced through the worst parts of the day. The results have been mixed.
- Unknown Rennie Curran has been working with the first team at weak-side linebacker so far for Tampa Bay. That’s not going to last. As soon as rookie Lavonte David gets settled in, he’ll be the starter.
- New Orleans running back Chris Ivory had a slight restructuring of his contract.
- Haruki Nakamura spent the last four seasons backing up Ed Reed in Baltimore. There are no future Hall of Famers at safety for the Panthers, so Nakamura has a chance to compete for a starting job.
- Former New Orleans cornerback Randall Gay says he is living with post-concussion syndrome.
- San Francisco linebacker Patrick Willis became the latest to chime in on quarterback Alex Smith’s claim that wins are more important than statistics. Smith claimed that Carolina quarterback Cam Newton’s stats were inflated because the Panthers often were trailing last season. That prompted Carolina linebacker Jon Beason to jump to Newton’s defense. Willis now has defended Smith, saying wins are more important than passing numbers.
|Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images|
|Mike Smith's stable of coaches is one of the reasons for Atlanta's revival.|
When he found out he was interviewing for the coach job with the Atlanta Falcons in 2008, the first thing Mike Smith did was assemble an imaginary three-deep depth chart. He wasn’t stacking players. He was lining up coaches.
Smith was envisioning who he would hire as his assistants. He drew up a wish list that turned into a dream team. With the possible exception of drafting quarterback Matt Ryan, that might have been the single-best move Smith has made.
I’ll make the argument that Smith’s stable of assistants is one of the main reasons he took a franchise out of the dumpster and took it to the playoffs last season and has the Falcons off to a 4-1 start heading into Sunday’s game against Dallas. I’ll also make the argument that, from top to bottom, Atlanta’s coaching staff is as good as any in the league.
That’s no accident. Smith put as much time into putting this group together as he did studying Ryan before last year’s draft. In both cases, he hit the jackpot.
“I always say there are more unsuccessful coaching staffs than unsuccessful head coaches,’’ Smith said. “You all have to have same philosophy and, as a head coach, you have to empower them to do their job.’’
Smith’s staff does its job very well. Look at what offensive line coach Paul Boudreau has done with a group that includes only one blue-chip player (left tackle Sam Baker), look at what coordinator Brian VanGorder has done with a defense that had very little individual talent last year and only slightly more this season or look at how offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey and quarterbacks coach Bill Musgrave have made Ryan so good so fast.
How much difference can a coaching staff really make?
“First and foremost, you have to have players,’’ Smith said. “Rosters around the NFL aren’t all that much different from one through 32. There are lots of great players everywhere across the league. But I think it’s very important your team is fundamentally and schematically sound. You have to be good Xs and Os guys and you have to be able to work in a team framework and know dynamics of a team change every day.’’
Those were high on the list of qualities Smith was looking for as he assembled a staff that now has a collective 207 years of experience coaching in the NFL. Heck, when you look at how much experience each of Atlanta’s 17 coaches have in the NFL, Smith is tied with Musgrave for ninth place with 11 years.
But Smith was looking for more than experience as he put together this group. Sure, he jumped right on assistant head coach/secondary coach Emmitt Thomas, who had been on the previous Atlanta staff and he was quick to scoop up Boudreau, receivers coach Terry Robiskie and defensive line coach Ray Hamilton, who each have at least 22 years of NFL experience. But Smith was also looking for balance and that’s why he went out and hired guys like running backs coach Gerald Brown and tight ends coach Chris Scelfo, who were coaching in the college ranks, but had never coached in the NFL.
“I wanted to have some guys that could deal with young players because I knew we were going to be a very young team,’’ Smith said.
Other than sharing his basic philosophies, Smith was looking for balance, not any across-the-board requirements. Different strokes for different coaches. Thomas, a Hall of Fame player, Robiskie, Hamilton and Musgrave were hired only in part because they were good coaches.
“I wanted to have some former NFL players on the staff,’’ Smith said. “I think that’s important. Emmitt, Terry, Ray and Bill are guys who have sat in the locker room and they know what the players go through.’’
Ask Smith what was his single-most important answer and he doesn’t give you coach speak and try to dance around the topic to avoid hurting feelings.
“Getting Mike Mularkey was the first thing on my list,’’ Smith said. “My background is defense. To have a guy with Mike’s offensive experience and success is a big advantage.’’
Smith didn’t know Mularkey personally before interviewing him.
“I had to coach against him when he was with Pittsburgh and I was in Baltimore,’’ Smith said. “I was always impressed with his offenses. They were a running team, always physical, but Mike always made it hard because you had to spend lot of time figuring out what he was doing on formations. He was the first guy I talked to. We talked a couple times mainly to find out what kind of guy each other was.’’
It also didn’t hurt that Mularkey had been head coach of the Buffalo Bills. For that matter, Thomas and Robiskie had been head coaches on an interim basis and VanGorder had been a head coach on the college level. Some first-time coaches might not have wanted guys who were potential threats around. But Smith, who doesn’t have a massive ego, didn’t see it that way.
“I don’t have problem bouncing things off them,’’ Smith said. “In fact, I want it to be that way. I believe you have to have interaction with staff. These guys have seen it all and I value their opinions.’’
Even in the younger coaches, Smith wanted guys who eventually could grow into bigger roles.
“The one thing I learned from Brian Billick in Baltimore was the importance of putting a good staff together,’’ Smith said. “I mean Brian had guys like Jack Del Rio, Rex Ryan, Mike Nolan and Marvin Lewis. You want guys who have been coordinators or are going to be coordinators someday. They all have to understand the coordinator’s role.
That brings us to the one potential downer about the staff Smith has. If the Falcons keep having success, it might not stay together. Each win might put Mularkey and VanGorder closer to a head job or Musgrave and Hamilton closer to a spot as a coordinator elsewhere.
“I hope we have a whole bunch of success and these guys want to stay around forever,’’ Smith said.
But Smith is a realist.
“I know that all the guys on our staff are going to have chance to advance at some time,’’ Smith said. “I know it’s a possibility. You have to have a succession plan if that were to happen.’’
There is a succession plan already in place that Smith won’t reveal unless he needs to. But somewhere in Smith’s desk at the Falcons’ Flowery Branch facility, there’s a continually-updated depth chart that goes at least three deep at every coaching position.
Ray Hamilton, Brian Baker, Bill Johnson, Todd Wash and Robert Nunn have more in common than being defensive line coaches in the NFC South.
They also might face the biggest challenges of any coach on their individual staffs this season. There's a common theme through all the NFC South teams this year -- the defensive lines have to get better.
That's going to be largely up to the guys in charge of the defensive lines. Here's a look at the NFC South defensive line coaches and the challenges they face.
Ray Hamilton. He's a veteran and has long been recognized as being one of the best in the business. Hamilton did a fine job last year as veteran end John Abraham had a huge season and the Falcons were able to get by with the aging Grady Jackson in the middle of their line. But the Falcons had almost no pass rush outside of Abraham and Jackson is now gone. That brings new challenges for Hamilton. He's worked very hard this offseason with underachieving end Jamaal Anderson and there's hope Anderson can emerge in his third year. But the Falcons have Chauncey Davis as an insurance policy and drafted a project in Lawrence Sidbury. In a perfect world, Anderson steps up, Davis plays a role and Sidbury can be groomed as an eventual replacement for Abraham. Hamilton's also got a lot of work to do in the interior. Jonathan Babineaux has emerged as a very solid tackle, but Hamilton will have to break in rookie Peria Jerry next to him.
Brian Baker. He's new to the Panthers and so is most of the defensive staff. Baker has a fine resume and has gotten big results out of Leonard Little, Robert Porcher, Luther Elliss and Kevin Williams in his previous stops. That's a good start because the coaching of the defensive line has been a controversial issue for the Panthers for most of John Fox's tenure. Once upon a time, the Panthers had Julius Peppers, Mike Rucker, Kris Jenkins and Brentson Buckner up front and they were coached by Mike Trgovac, who was regarded as one of the best defensive line coaches in the game. But Trgovac moved up to coordinator in his second season. That led to the hiring of Sal Sunseri as defensive line coach and some raised eyebrows around the league. A lot of people thought Sunseri, who was new to the NFL and had a background with linebackers, wasn't ready for the position and was hired because he was Fox's friend. Some players on the defensive line also held that view and the perception never went away. For reasons that haven't been fully explained, Jenkins asked out and got traded to the Jets, and Peppers still is asking out. Sunseri left after the season to coach at Alabama. Baker inherits a group that doesn't have nearly the talent level the Panthers once did, even if Peppers stays. He's going to have to coach up rookie Everette Brown very quickly and get some role players to overachieve. In the old days, Fox's teams were built around the defensive line. That's no longer the reality, but Baker has to bring this unit up to a respectable level.
NEW ORLEANS SAINTS
Bill Johnson. This was a critical hire as the Saints, once again, overhauled their defense and brought in coordinator Gregg Williams and a bunch of new personnel. Johnson's inheriting a group with lots of talent, but some players who haven't consistently lived up to their potential. It's Johnson's job to draw that from them and he'll start with defensive ends Charles Grant and Will Smith. In his first season with Denver, Johnson helped second-year pro Elvis Dumervil get 12.5 sacks. There's no reason why Smith and Grant both shouldn't be around the double-digit mark in sacks. One way Johnson will try to help those two is to give them some help from the inside, and the Saints have the potential to get that from second-year pro Sedrick Ellis, who had a solid rookie season. But Johnson's not counting on just Ellis. He helped bring veteran Rod Coleman out of retirement. There's history with Johnson and Coleman. They worked together in Atlanta and Coleman produced 28 sacks in their time together. Coleman's age may prevent him from being the force he once was, but he gives Johnson another guy who can make things happen up front.
TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS
Todd Wash and Robert Nunn. Wash is coaching the defensive ends and Nunn is handling the defensive tackles. That combo approach is probably a good thing because the Bucs need all the help they can get up front. The defensive line was a major player in last year's late-season collapse, and there will be at least two new starters as end Kevin Carter and tackle Jovan Haye have left the team. Wash's main task is to get third-year end Gaines Adams to be more productive. There's talent there, but Adams needs to add some moves to go with his physical skills. Nunn's got to get young tackles Roy Miller and Dre Moore ready quickly because Chris Hovan didn't look like he had a lot left at the end of last season, and Ryan Sims and Jimmy Wilkerson are role players. New coordinator Jim Bates is bringing a whole new scheme to the Bucs, but that transition should be helped by the fact that Nunn worked with Bates in Miami and Green Bay.
|Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images|
|Jamaal Anderson, drafted by the Falcons eighth overall in 2007, has yet to meet expectations on the field.|
Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas
FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- If you press a certain button on Ray Hamilton's computer, you get the best of Michael Strahan and Kevin Greene. It's all part of an attempt to get the best of Jamaal Anderson.
Hamilton is the defensive line coach for the Atlanta Falcons and Anderson is the No. 8 pick from the 2007 draft who hasn't come anywhere close to tapping his enormous potential in his first two seasons.
That's why Anderson has spent a large chunk of his offseason sitting in Hamilton's office watching clips of two of the greatest pass-rushers in history. They have a couple of hundred sacks between them. Anderson has just two, and those didn't come until his second season.
"They had great usage of their hands," Anderson said. "They always had great leverage. I'm just trying to take some of the things they did and use them to make myself a better player."
Although many fans already have declared Anderson a bust, the Falcons haven't. He still lined up at defensive end with the first team in the three-day minicamp that concluded Sunday. That's a pretty strong indication that the hope is Anderson will step up and keep that position.
"Jamaal's worked hard and he's made progress," coach Mike Smith said. "Unfortunately, guys often times are judged by their draft status and that comes with the territory. But my experience here with Jamaal in one season is that we are pleased with his progress. We think he's made huge steps from the first day that we got here and we think he will continue to do that."
It's nice to talk about progress, but fans want production. So do the Falcons and so does Anderson.
"This is a big year for me, no doubt," Anderson said.
That's why he's taken a much more studious approach to the offseason. Ask around Flowery Branch about Anderson and the word is that he has spent more offseason time at the complex than just about any player.
In addition to the countless hours of watching film of Strahan and Greene, Anderson also has spent more time in the weight room than ever. He said he's stronger and quicker than he's been and he wants that to translate into success on the field.
There were some fan-generated rumblings about Anderson perhaps switching from defensive end to defensive tackle. That's not happening, although Anderson will continue to move inside in sub packages, just like he did last year.
"In terms of flexibility, he's a guy that we played last year in base at defensive end and played him inside in our sub package and that probably will continue," Smith said. "That gives you a lot of flexibility on game days."
Anderson strongly believes he's ready to be more productive in his third season. He understands the frustration of the fans. Heck, he's frustrated too. That's why he's worked harder than ever this offseason.
"I try my hardest not to pay attention to what's said, but it's pretty much impossible to tune everything out," Anderson said. "My sister's into gossip and she tries to give me feedback that's out there, but all I can do is trust the people who are here every day and they're giving me positive feedback. But the fact is, I've become my own worst critic."
That's why he's been watching so much of Strahan and Greene, and that's why he's spent so much time in the weight room. Anderson knows this is a make-or-break season and he wants to make it.
Here's a bonus edition of the Atlanta Falcons mailbag, since today's earlier version led to many more questions.
Andrew in Alpharetta writes: I'm concerned about the Falcons size at DB. Who do you see manning up on bigger receivers, like Colston, Jarrett / Muhammad, Clayton / other buc 6'5 receivers?
Pat Yasinskas: Chris Houston and rookie safety Will Moore are the two guys that have the size to do it, so they're the logical candidates. The other thing that would help would be getting a pass rush beyond John Abraham.
Mark in Hegins, PA writes: Pat, I know that Atlanta gave away their 2nd round pick next year to KC. Any thoughts on if Atlanta gives away next years 1st round pick to bring in Peppers?
Pat Yasinskas: I wouldn't count on Atlanta making any play for Julius Peppers. First, I don't think general manager Thomas Dimitroff would give up a first-round pick. Second, I don't think the Panthers want to trade Peppers to a division opponent.
Blake from Athens writes: Pat, I keep hearing that Jamaal Anderson is going to have his breakout year this season! I love Chuck Smith, but Ray Hamilton said the same thing before the start of last season! So, do you think JA has really made progress and if so are the Falcons really going to let him start? I don't understand why they paid Chauncey Davis starter money if they planned to keep him as a rotational player.
Pat Yasinskas: I respect the wisdom of Smith and Hamilton. I still think there's an opening for Anderson to emerge. The guy does have physical skills. But this clearly is a make-or-break season for him. If he doesn't have a good training camp and preseason, the Falcons won't hesitate to start Davis.
Neil in Nebraska writes: Hey Pat great job read your stuff every week, how many of the falcons rookies would you project to start right away and who would you project to start at ss if Moore isn't ready?
|Michael Montes/Getty Images|
|Through three games, John Abraham is leading the NFL with six sacks.|
Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas
They sat John Abraham down in the offseason and told him that, on a rebuilding team, he would not be an every-down player.
As it turns out that meeting with coach Mike Smith, defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder and defensive line coach might have been the best thing ever to happen to Abraham's career. A three-time Pro Bowler and one of the league's most talked about pass rushers during his time with the New York Jets (2000 through 2005), Abraham, like a lot of people in Atlanta, had become somewhat of a forgotten man since joining the Falcons in 2006.
But you can't forget him anymore. Through three games, Abraham is leading the NFL with six sacks. At his current pace, he would finish the season with 32 sacks. He's a major part of the reason why the Falcons, 4-12 a year ago, are off to a surprising 2-1 start.
It's all because Abraham has embraced what some would view as a reduced role.
"They came to me and said this would be best for the team," Abraham said.
It turns out it's also best for Abraham to not be out on the field for 50 or 60 snaps a week. At 30 and with a long history of injuries, Abraham has been limited to about 35 plays a week, but that's maximizing his production.
He sacked Kansas City quarterback Tyler Thigpen on the first play of Sunday's victory and forced a fumble with a sack in the third quarter. Abraham had three sacks in the season opener against Detroit and another in a loss to Tampa Bay.
"I think that he has bought into how we are going to use him,'' Smith said.
Abraham has more than bought into his role, which has kept him as the starter at right defensive end. He's welcomed it completely and said he's invigorated after struggling, with everyone else, through last year's disastrous season with coach Bobby Petrino.
"Things are just more relaxed around here this year," Abraham said. "Coach Smith is a professional and he understands players and knows how to mentor young and old players. He talks to us as grownups. He talks to us as men."
Smith and his assistants talked to Abraham as a man back in the offseason and that may be why his career, and the Falcons, are rejuvenated. They told Abraham they were looking for addition by subtracting from his playing time.
"They basically said, 'If we do it this way, it will work and it will help the whole team'," Abraham said. "They were being smart and it's showing up in my numbers right now. I've got to stay fresh and do it that way the rest of the year."
Keeping Abraham fresh was the main goal in Smith's thinking. The arrival of defensive line coach Hamilton reunited Abraham with his position coach from his rookie season with the Jets and that may be another reason why Abraham is looking so youthful.
"It's the same as it was before when I was with Ray. It's fun," Abraham said. "I've got somebody I can talk to. Ray can work through anything. He's trying to see me succeed."
Abraham is succeeding because the Falcons are giving him plenty of rest. They're keeping him on the sideline in a lot of obvious running situations and letting younger defensive ends Chauncey Davis and Kroy Biermann get more playing time.
"I've played the whole game before and that's fine," Abraham said. Now, we have some guys who are accustomed to playing the run and we're using them. That helps me stay fresh and lets me do what I do best."
The reduced role isn't the only way the Falcons are getting the most out of Abraham. They're moving him around a lot, putting him at right defensive end, left defensive end and dropping him into coverage.
"I've moved around some before, but never anywhere close to as much as I'm doing now," Abraham said. "It's good and it's fun."
It's also confusing for offenses that have to figure out where Abraham is and what he's doing. Four of his sacks have come from the right side and two from the left. But being the designated pass rusher isn't Abraham's only role.
He's also become a mentor to Atlanta's other starting defensive end, Jamaal Anderson. A first-round pick last year, Anderson had a disappointing rookie season and still has not recorded an NFL sack.
But the coaches have been complimentary of Anderson's play through the first three games and say it's only a matter of time before the sacks start coming. Like Abraham, Anderson also has been moving around. At times, he slides inside to defensive tackle.
"Jamaal is a totally different player than last year," Abraham said. "He now understands what he has to do. It's not showing up in the stats yet, but it will because he's matured as a person and a player. I've talked to him a lot and told him to just keep doing what he's doing and things will take care of themselves."
That's an attitude that Abraham has carried throughout his career and, now, it's working out better than ever.
Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas
A quick look at this morning's coverage from the local papers before I catch a flight to Charlotte:
A final decision on the status of linebacker Derrick Brooks won't be made until just before Sunday's game. Brooks hasn't practiced this week because of a hamstring injury. He's started 193 consecutive games, the longest current streak by any NFL defensive player.
Part of the reason for John Abraham's fast start might be his reunion with defensive line coach Ray Hamilton. The two were together when Abraham broke into the league with the Jets in 2000.
The Times-Picayune's Jeff Duncan illustrates how the Saints went from having only one "significant'' injury on Monday to a whole bunch later in the week.
Carolina is bracing for Chicago return man Devin Hester.