NFC South: Rex Ryan
Two of the NFL’s most dynamic personalities will face off once again on Sunday in New York. Rex is head coach of the New York Jets (4-4). Rob is defensive coordinator of the New Orleans Saints (6-1).
Rex once donned a long blond wig and wore a pillow under his shirt to imitate his brother before a matchup. And Rob wore a weight-room belt to mimic his brother’s lap band surgery.
The trash talking doesn’t stop after the matchups either. After Rex’s Jets beat Rob’s Dallas Cowboys two years ago, Rob admitted to the media that he heard about it afterward.
"He left some really unflattering messages, but it’s to be expected,” Rob said, describing the messages as rated “R or worse,” according to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. “There is no compassion there at all.”
But Rob promised at the time, “It’s coming back to him one of these days.”
With the Saints on a roll this year -- and the defense especially playing so well all season long -- Sunday’s matchup might offer Rob his best chance yet to finally beat Rex in a NFL game.
Rex is 4-0 in these head-to-head matchups over the past decade -- twice when Rex was the Jets’ head coach and Rob was defensive coordinator of the Cowboys and Cleveland Browns; and twice when Rex was defensive coordinator of the Baltimore Ravens and Rob was defensive coordinator of the Oakland Raiders.
Rob was 2-0 when they faced each other as college assistant coaches in the 1990s, though.
Saints players said Monday that Rob hasn’t mentioned his brother yet this week. But safety Kenny Vaccaro said it’s no secret how much Rob’s family means to him (Rex and their father Buddy, a former NFL coaching great).
And of course, players said they know how passionate Rob is.
“You know Rob wants to beat his brother. That’s just the competitor in Rob. And I don’t think he just wants to beat him, he wants to destroy his brother,” Saints linebacker Curtis Lofton said. “So I think he’ll be geeked up for this week. And I think Rex feels the same way. Both those guys have huge personalities, and it will be interesting to see his twin brother on the other sideline.
“I think Rob’s gonna go about business as he normally does and get us well prepared for the game. But I think he’ll be a little juiced to get this win against his brother, get some bragging rights.”
Added Saints outside linebacker Junior Galette: “He won’t want it to be a distraction ... but I know he’s gonna bring his A game every day.”
After the Jets got two tries at a game-winning field goal because of a rare penalty call, reports surfaced that they had alerted officials to be on the lookout for the Patriots’ illegal pushing technique. Many speculated that Jets coach Rex Ryan might have gotten a tip from his twin brother, Rob, since the Patriots had gotten away with using the same tactic a week earlier against the Saints.
Alas, the Jets must have noticed it themselves through good old fashioned film study.
“No, absolutely not. I had nothing to do with that,” Rob Ryan said when asked if he deserved an assist Friday. “I never saw it on the field, it was a special teams play. I was trying to get our guys ready. So absolutely none.”
Rob certainly won't be doing any favors for Rex next week. They'll battle head to head when the Jets host the Saints in Week 9.
“I talked to him and told him how much we were proud of him for winning that game against Atlanta,” Rob said, referring to the Jets’ Monday night victory against the Saints’ division-rival Atlanta Falcons.
But he said that’s about as far as the help went this week.
“You know, the thing is with us, we’re close as we can be … but I don’t think either one of us listens to the other very much,” said Rob, who said the Saints believe in their own approach, which includes ideas that bounce around between several coaches inside the building. “We just try to do better than he does.”
"He’s on fire, there’s no question," the coach said of Ryan. "He’s so accurate with the football; [a] student of the game. You see his preparation obviously is tremendous. I don’t know if he’s quite there yet with [Tom] Brady and Peyton Manning, but he’s certainly close."
As they continue preparation for the Jets on Monday night, questions abound about why the 1-3 Falcons can’t punch it into the end zone. They are ranked 29th in the league in red-zone efficiency, scoring just seven touchdowns in 18 trips (38.9 percent).
Irate fans are pointing the finger at Ryan, who admitted throwing a few bad red-zone passes in last Sunday’s loss to New England. Ryan understands the concerns from the outside world. At the same time, he’s been around long enough to realize how to react to negativity.
"You have to be able to eliminate kind of the noise from the outside, when things are good or bad," Ryan said. "We’ve kind of have both of those in this locker room. We’ve had it where people are on the bandwagon, then people are off the bandwagon. And it’s about trying to eliminate that and staying focused on us, and how we prepare and how we get ourselves ready to play.
"And I think regardless of good or bad, you have to have that camaraderie. And I think we do. I think we have a really good locker room. I think guys are continuing to battle, do all the things that we need to do in order to give ourselves a chance to win."
Attacking the Jets won’t be easy. Coach Ryan already has a blueprint on how to defend the Falcons based on the success his brother, New Orleans defensive coordinator Rob Ryan, had during a Week 1 win over the Falcons. The Jets have a big, physical corner in Antonio Cromartie (6-foot-2, 210 pounds) capable of matching up with Julio Jones and Roddy White. Not to mention the Jets -- with seven new starters on defense -- are tied for third in the league in sacks (14) and are second in tackles for a loss (18), which is why they boast the second-best total defense and fifth-best rushing defense.
"Their front seven is extremely physical,’’ the quarterback Ryan said. "They’re in a 3-4 scheme but they play some four-down and three-down fronts. And they’re really good against the run. They’re stout. But they’re really good pass-rushers, too, which, from a 3-4 team, sometimes their two-gapping guys and their pass-rush isn’t quite as fast as some others. But the Jets' pass rush is really good."
The Jets have done their homework. Coach Ryan timed quarterback Ryan delivering the ball out of his hands in an average of two seconds. A veteran corner such as Cromartie might be inclined to jump a route knowing how quickly the quarterback is likely to deliver the ball.
Quarterback Ryan was asked about Coach Ryan’s timing claim.
"I didn’t put a stop-clock on it," Ryan said with a laugh. "That’s the way it’s been up until this point. We’ve done some things getting the ball out fairly quickly. We’ve been pretty effective.
"We haven’t score as much as we would like to, but we’ve gone against some good front sevens, too. And when you do that, you need to get the ball out."
The Bucs, of course, are coached by Greg Schiano, who often is compared to the likes of Bill Belichick and Tom Coughlin for his disciplined approach. The man made “toes on the line’’ a catch phrase in his first season and seemed to clean up the mess of Morris’ loosey-goosey regime.
One play summed up the day quite succinctly. It came with 15 seconds left and the Bucs holding onto a 17-15 lead. Jets quarterback Geno Smith scrambled for a 10-yard gain and linebacker Lavonte David, who had played an excellent game to that point, hit Smith after he went out of bounds.
The 15-yard penalty moved the Jets into position for Nick Folk to kick a 48-yard field goal to win the game.
“[David] made a lot of plays to keep us in the game,’’ middle linebacker Mason Foster said.
“That wasn’t the only penalty,’’ Schiano said.
No, it wasn’t. David’s play was pretty much the norm for the Bucs. They were called for 13 penalties, which handed the Jets 102 yards. Safeties Mark Barron and Dashon Goldson also were called for 15-yard penalties. Some of the penalties were penalties of aggression, which aren't necessarily a bad thing. But some of them were just plain stupid, which is a terrible thing for a team that's supposed to be disciplined.
“We had nine penalties in the first nine minutes,’’ Schiano said. “We could go two weeks and not have nine penalties.’’
That might have been true last season. But, against the Jets, the Bucs were in disarray from the start. They were called for four penalties (one of them declined) and had to burn a timeout because of problems with the radio that carries offensive coordinator Mike Sullivan’s play calls to the helmet of quarterback Josh Freeman on their first possession.
The technical difficulties were unfortunate. But guess what? Things like that happen. A truly disciplined and well-coached team falls back on hand signals. A truly well-coached and experienced quarterback knows how to get a play off under any circumstances.
Freeman wasn’t able to do that and you can go ahead and start wondering about his future. It’s fair game now because he lost. Smith was far from perfect, but he was better than Freeman. That doesn’t bode well for Freeman, who is in a contract season and has third-round draft pick Mike Glennon looking over his shoulder.
"[Schiano] breaks the season down very simply -- 16 one-game seasons,'' said Freeman, who completed 15 of 31 passes for 210 yards with one touchdown and one interception.
What happened Sunday doesn’t bode well for Schiano if the next 15 games look anything like this one. New York’s Rex Ryan was supposed to be the coach entering the season on the hot seat with a team that’s preseason made it look like things were in disarray.
Instead, it was the Bucs that looked totally off kilter. That cannot continue.
If the Bucs don’t get things cleaned up in a hurry, Freeman, Schiano and a lot of other people are going to be on the hot seat in Tampa Bay.
Breakdown: The Saints may be coming off a losing season, but they still are going to get plenty of national attention. They’ll play four games in prime time, including two at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. The Saints’ schedule is tied for the second-hardest slate in the NFL (a .539 winning percentage by opponents in 2012). But the best news might be that coach Sean Payton will make his official return to the sideline following a one-year suspension in the opener against Atlanta at home. The Saints and Falcons are one of the league’s hottest rivalries (the Saints have won 11 of 14 meetings since 2006) and Payton’s return only adds another storyline. The key to New Orleans’ season might be the four-week stretch from Nov. 10 to Dec. 2. In that span, the Saints will host Dallas and San Francisco and then travel to Atlanta and Seattle.
Complaint department: Saints fans might call it a conspiracy by the NFL and they might be right. But the schedule makers have set up an Oct. 13 game at New England that could be historic. Tom Brady currently has a streak of 48 games with at least one touchdown pass. New Orleans’ Drew Brees set the record (54). As long as Brady can keep the streak going, he’ll have a chance to tie Brees’ record against the Saints. That could give new coordinator Rob Ryan some material to motivate his defense for Brady.
Road warriors: The Saints are used to hitting the road. They’ve had to get out of New Orleans due to weather and Payton often has had his team practice elsewhere in the preseason. That experience might come in handy. The Saints have three separate times when they will have to play back-to-back games on the road. But the bright side is the Saints will play three of their first four games at home and they also will be home with Tampa Bay in the final week of the regular season.
Saints Regular Season Schedule (All times Eastern)
Week 1: Sunday, Sept. 8, Atlanta, 1 p.m.
Week 2: Sunday, Sept. 15, at Tampa Bay, 4:05 p.m.
Week 3: Sunday, Sept. 22, Arizona, 1 p.m.
Week 4: Monday, Sept. 30, Miami, 8:30 p.m.
Week 5: Sunday, Oct. 6, at Chicago, 1 p.m.
Week 6: Sunday, Oct. 13, at New England, 4:25 p.m.
Week 7: BYE
Week 8: Sunday, Oct. 27, Buffalo, 1 p.m.
Week 9: Sunday, Nov. 3, at NY Jets, 1 p.m.
Week 10: Sunday, Nov. 10, Dallas, 8:30 p.m.
Week 11: Sunday, Nov. 17, San Francisco, 4:25 p.m.
Week 12: Thursday, Nov. 21, at Atlanta, 8:25 p.m.
Week 13: Monday, Dec. 2, at Seattle, 8:30 p.m.
Week 14: Sunday, Dec. 8, Carolina, 1:00 p.m.
Week 15: Sunday, Dec. 15, at St. Louis, 1 p.m.
Week 16: Sunday, Dec. 22, at Carolina, 1 p.m.
Week 17: Sunday, Dec. 29, Tampa Bay, 1 p.m.
But, as I travel, let me leave you with some nuggets from ESPN Stats & Information to look ahead to Sunday’s NFC Championship Game between the 49ers and Falcons:
- This will be the second postseason meeting between the two teams. The first was when the Falcons beat the 49ers, 20-18, in the divisional round in the 1998 season. That’s the season the Falcons went to their only Super Bowl.
- The Falcons and 49ers used to be NFC West rivals. Since leaving for the NFC South in 2002, the Falcons are 4-0 against the 49ers.
- This will be the 14th NFC Championship Game for the 49ers. They’re 5-8 in those games and have lost two straight and five of their last six.
- The 49ers set a postseason franchise record with 579 yards of total offense in their divisional round victory against Green Bay. That’s the fourth-highest postseason total in NFL history.
- San Francisco’s 323 rushing yards against Green Bay were the most in the postseason by any team since the Falcons in the 2004 divisional round.
- San Francisco’s Jim Harbaugh is the fourth coach in history to reach a championship game in each of his first two seasons. George Seifert and Barry Switzer each went 1-1 in those games and Rex Ryan went 0-2.
- In the win against Green Bay, the 49ers gained 176 yards on 16 read-option rushes. In quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s seven previous starts, the 49ers gained 140 yards on 26 read-option runs.
- Since Kaepernick became the starter in Week 11, Michael Crabtree ranks fifth in the league with 50 catches, fourth with 714 receiving yards and is tied for second with seven touchdowns. In the first 10 weeks of the season, Crabtree was tied for 41st in the league with just 59 targets.
- In their history, the Falcons are 7-11 in the postseason. They’ve won two playoff games in a season only once. That came in the 1998 season.
- Including Sunday’s victory against Seattle, Atlanta’s Matt Ryan has completed 70 percent of his passes in the final two minutes of either half this season. In the first four seasons of Ryan’s career, he completed only 50 percent of his passes in the final two minutes of either half.
- Atlanta tight end Tony Gonzalez got the first playoff win of his 16-year career against Seattle. Gonzalez went into the game with 254 regular-season appearances, the most ever without a playoff victory.
- Including the Seattle game, the Falcons have allowed 8.9 yards per rush by quarterbacks (excluding kneeldowns) this season. That’s the worst average in the NFL. Kaepernick has averaged 8.7 yards per rush, the best average by any quarterback with at least 30 rushes.
If you looked in those same stands, you also would have seen a lot of empty seats. The past 10 regular-season home games (all eight last year and the first two this season) have not been sellouts.
Is this a fan base living in the past?
It’s not quite that simple. In fact, things are on the cusp of changing. When the Buccaneers host the Indianapolis Colts on "Monday Night Football," the game will be sold out. So an entire nation will have a chance to view the Buccaneers, who have been in the NFL’s version of the witness-protection program even in their own backyard.
The past 10 home games haven’t been shown on local television, and even fans who go to the games haven’t really had a chance to get to know the NFL’s youngest team (25.17 years was the average age of the opening-day roster) like they knew Brooks, Alstott, Lynch and Sapp.
“It’s a team I want our town to fall back in love with,’’ Tampa Bay general manager Mark Dominik said.
The Bucs went 10-6 last season and are off to a 2-1 start this year, but the speed-dating process really could kick in with the national stage. Once fans really get a look at the Bucs, they could fall in love. Some fans don’t know it yet, but there’s a lot to like about the Bucs.
Let’s take a look:
Freeman’s physically gifted and already has shown a knack for leading fourth-quarter comebacks. He comes across as a bit shy and soft-spoken in group interviews. But when Freeman, 23, was leading players-only workouts during the lockout, you could easily spot rare leadership skills and more personality than he displays in public.
In the Atlanta game, Freeman stepped outside himself a bit, flapping his wings in what could be interpreted as an imitation of the Falcons’ “Dirty Bird’’ celebration.
“It was good to see him come out of his shell a little bit,’’ running back/fullback Earnest Graham said.
The gregarious head coach. Public displays of emotion aren’t lacking when it comes to Raheem Morris. The guy can talk, sometimes a little more than he should. With the possible exception of Rex Ryan, Morris might have the most entertaining news conferences of any NFL coach. But following Gruden -- who will be in the “Monday Night Football’’ broadcast booth -- and Dungy is not an easy task.
Gruden won a Super Bowl, and Dungy changed the direction of the franchise. Fans still aren’t quite sure what to make of Morris, who remains the league’s youngest head coach at 35. Morris has more public charm than Dungy and Gruden did as coaches. He just needs to keep winning.
The completely unknown portion of "the triplets." When the Bucs started winning last season, that’s the nickname (borrowed from when the Dallas Cowboys had Troy Aikman, Michael Irvin and Emmitt Smith) that was given to Freeman, receiver Mike Williams and running back LeGarrette Blount. Williams and Blount were rookies last year, and both made good first impressions on the field. Williams instantly became Tampa Bay’s No. 1 receiver, and by midseason, Blount had replaced Cadillac Williams as the feature back. Still, there’s been a little apprehension from fans about both of them, and that goes back to their college days.
Blount is most famous for punching an opponent at the end of a game, and Williams was labeled as a "quitter" for leaving the Syracuse football team in his last year of college. But if you get to know them, you’ll see that labels can be deceiving. Williams is the anti-diva wide receiver. He comes across as quiet and humble.
Blount’s a punishing runner on the field, but is gentle off it. When he made his pre-draft visit to One Buccaneer Place, Blount ate his lunch and then went into the kitchen to thank every member of the staff. After last week’s victory in Atlanta, Blount sat in the locker room an hour after the game and told a staff member, "I don’t want to go home."
The big investments on the defensive line. In the past two years, the Bucs have used four draft picks in the first two rounds on defensive linemen. They brought in defensive tackles Gerald McCoy and Brian Price last year and defensive ends Adrian Clayborn and Da'Quan Bowers this year. We’re only starting to see what they can do. Price and McCoy both got hurt as rookies. They’re starting this year, along with Clayborn, and there’s a lot to like.
Price is quiet on the surface, but there’s a depth to him. He’s coming off a rare surgery in which doctors inserted screws into his pelvis, and he's showing signs he can really play. McCoy’s had a gregarious personality from the start, but we’re still waiting to see big results. Clayborn’s outgoing like McCoy and already has made some plays. If this unit can continue growing, the Bucs could have a very good defensive line for a long time.
The new “quarterback’’ of the defense. A lot of fans were upset in the offseason when the Bucs let middle linebacker Barrett Ruud, another holdover from the Gruden days, walk via free agency. They should start getting over that, because third-round draft pick Mason Foster is showing signs he can make more big plays than Ruud ever did. The Bucs were a little hesitant to put too much on Foster right away and started the season by letting outside linebacker Quincy Black wear the radio helmet and call the defensive plays.
By his third career start, Foster had taken on those roles. It might not have been a coincidence that the Bucs went out and had their best defensive performance since the days when Monte Kiffin was running the defense for Gruden.
The Bucs once were beloved by their fans. There’s no reason they can’t be that way again. The parts are in place. The world just needs a chance to get to see and know them.
“It’s an opportunity to show everybody what they’ve been missing,’’ Morris said.
That chance comes Monday night.
Since 1970, only four new head coaches have opened their season on the road with rookie quarterbacks. Only one of those combinations has produced a win in the opener. Here’s a look at the history of new coaches starting rookie quarterbacks in openers on the road.
On the bright side of history, Newton’s had success at University of Phoenix Stadium. That’s where he played his final collegiate game. He led Auburn to a BCS National Championship with a 22-19 victory against Oregon on Jan. 11. In that game, Newton completed 20 of 34 passes for 265 yards, two touchdowns and an interception.
This article asks if the Carolina Panthers should bring in veteran Kerry Collins as a mentor for rookie quarterback Cam Newton. It almost makes some sense. Collins has faced the pitfalls that come with being a young franchise quarterback in Charlotte. He’s changed his life and mended fences with most of the people within the organization. But the Panthers don’t need reminders of the past. Besides, they’ve got a coordinator, Rob Chudzinski, and quarterbacks coach, Mike Shula, to serve as mentors.
The Falcons will follow the lead of the Saints last week and conduct a players’-only minicamp starting today. Matt Ryan and most of the big names are scheduled to attend. The Bucs and Panthers also have done some smaller-scale workouts.
If the Panthers trade receiver Steve Smith, Pat Kirwan suggests the likely compensation would be a fourth-round draft pick, with the possibility of a third-round pick. Sounds about right. Smith’s age and recent injury history will hold back his value.
Once again, Reggie Bush’s verified Twitter account is stirring things up. He might want to consult with Atlanta receiver Roddy White for advice on how to master Twitter.
In his new book, Jets coach Rex Ryan said that New York’s choice on a quarterback in 2009 came down to Mark Sanchez and Josh Freeman. Ryan said interviews with both players went very well, but the deciding factor might have been pro day workouts. At USC, Ryan said 24 receivers showed up to catch Sanchez’s passes. At Kansas State, only two receivers showed up. Ryan said that convinced the Jets that teammates had respect for Sanchez. That all may be true, but it’s a little easier to get 24 receivers, hoping to show scouts and coaches they belong in the league, to gather in Southern California on a March day than it is to get a similar group together in Kansas. Since his arrival in Tampa Bay, I don’t think there’s been any doubt about teammates respecting Freeman.
But let’s look again at our poll and let’s get hypothetical. I’m not particularly wowed by some of the coaches who made the list and Rex Ryan and Mike Shanahan pop to mind. I respect Philadelphia coach Andy Reid’s total body of work, but I’m not so sure he’s currently as good a coach as he once was.
Anyway, let’s just have some fun and say Jon Gruden and Tony Dungy were still coaching in the NFC South. For those who like to get real technical, let’s make it clear Dungy never coached in the NFC South. The division was created right after Dungy left the Bucs and was replaced by Gruden. Let's also remember Pittsburgh's Mike Tomlin, Indianapolis' Jim Caldwell and Chicago's Lovie Smith, who made the list, came from the Dungy tree.
I know time is very relative and our Power Rankings dealt only with current head coaches. But I’m thinking you could make a case that Gruden or Dungy, when they were at their best, might have come in ahead, or right around Payton. Just like Payton, Gruden and Dungy (with the Colts) have a Super Bowl win on their résumé.
Gruden and Dungy each are out of the league and in broadcasting, but I think you could make a case their coaching reputations have gotten better in the last couple years, while Shanahan’s has gotten worse.
So I’m asking you to be a little creative. Close your eyes and picture Gruden and Dungy at their best and imagine where they’d fit on the current list. Heck, for that matter, do the same with former Carolina coach John Fox and stay flexible on the parameters.
Yeah, Fox had a horrible last season with the Panthers and that’s why he’s now in Denver. It’s also why he didn’t get any votes in the Power Rankings. But be creative again and imagine where Fox would fit if this was, let’s just say the 2008 season, when his team was 12-4.
I think Gruden, Dungy and Fox -- at their best -- were better than at least some of the coaches on the list. So hit the comments section below or my mailbag in the upper-right corner of this page and let’s hear your thoughts on where Gruden, Dungy and Fox would fit hypothetically.
Pat Yasinskas: With the possible exception of Rex Ryan, I don’t know of too many coaches who view themselves as entertainers when they are coaching. Like a lot of coaches, Payton is guarded when speaking to the media. That’s largely because coaches try not to give competitive advantages with injury information and they’re careful not to provide bulletin-board material for other teams. But this will be a different venue for Payton and I’m sure he’ll approach it that way. In his coaching days, Tony Dungy was as dry as could be. In his television job, he’s opened up. I’m sure Payton will do the same and the fact he’ll be working with his old buddy Jon Gruden should make him more comfortable.
Michael in Rockton, Ill. asks if I can post how much each team has committed to the 2011 salary cap.
Pat Yasinskas: For spaces purposes, I’ll limit it to the four NFC South teams and try to provide some perspective by telling you that the league average for team salary-cap figures is $99.9 million. The Saints and Falcons are slightly above average, while the Panthers and Buccaneers are well below average. At the moment, the Saints lead the division with $104.8 million committed toward a 2011 cap. The Falcons are at $102.1 million. The Panthers are at $73.1 million and the Bucs are at No. 32 with $59.4 million scheduled to count toward the cap.
Dwayne in Sacramento, Calif. writes that the Bucs tried to trade for Jay Cutler when he wound up in Chicago and asks how things might have played out if he had come to Tampa Bay.
Pat Yasinskas: Well, it’s impossible to know for sure. But the one certainty is the Bucs would not have drafted Josh Freeman if they had traded for Cutler. I think we all can agree that Freeman is well on his way to being a true franchise quarterback. There aren’t many of those out there, so I’d say it’s a good thing the Bucs didn’t get Cutler.
Anil in Atlanta asks if the Falcons will dive into free agency this year.
Pat Yasinskas: It’s hard to give a complete answer right now because we don’t know what’s going to happen with the labor situation. If it does get resolved, I wouldn’t look for the Falcons to go crazy. General manager Thomas Dimitroff has set a precedent in recent years. He generally goes after only one or two free agents and relies on the draft for everything else. I’m guessing Dimitroff will follow a similar path again. I think defensive end could be a possibility due to John Abraham’s age and the fact the Falcons didn’t get huge production from the rest of their pass rush.
Sean Arden in N.C. writes: Do you think the impending NFL lockout could deter Andrew Luck from turning pro? Or does his stock figure to be as high as it's going to get, and he'll come out regardless?
Pat Yasinskas: Good question because it seems like everybody’s assuming Luck automatically would come out after his junior year and I was falling into that trap. But the word I’m now hearing is that’s far from guaranteed. Luck may decide to play another year at Stanford. Not sure if that’s because of the possibility of a lockout or just that he might want to spend another year at Stanford. Now, let’s be clear that no matter what the labor situation looks like in the spring, there will be a 2011 college draft.
Haile in Durham, N.C., writes: Remember Jerry Richardson promised he would field a winning team and that starts from the top down. Now that being said, how could he justify hiring a college coach or no-name guy? [How] would that coach fair against a Sean Payton, Mike Smith, Bill Belichick or Rex Ryan? I believe he would get crushed more times than not, so doesn't Jerry Richardson have to hire a top-notch guy? Who can do what John Fox used to; outcoach other NFL coaches and come with a superior game plan?
Pat Yasinskas: I respect your points and they’re all good. But let me throw out a few points based on what I know about the Panthers and some other things around the NFL. Carolina general manager Marty Hurney, who will spearhead the coaching search along with team president Danny Morrison, firmly believes that the best NFL head coaches are first-time NFL head coaches because they bring enthusiasm and energy to the job. Now, that doesn’t mean he’s going to look for a first-time head coach just for the sake of looking for a first-time head coach. He’s going to look for a guy that’s ready for the next step. Along those same lines and also referring to your mention of “no-name’’ guys, John Fox was a no-name guy when Hurney found him and sold him to Richardson. Mike Smith was a no-name guy when he got the Atlanta job. I think the next coach of the Panthers will be someone like Fox or Smith -- a guy who is ready for the next step. One other thing, and this is just a personal opinion, but I wouldn't be ranking Rex Ryan in the same category as Bill Belichick, Sean Payton or Mike Smith. Again, that's just my opinion.
James in White Plains, N.Y., writes: With the fans not really voting for NFC South players, what is the probability that coaches or players would put Lance Moore in the Pro Bowl for being the most consistent player on the Saints’ offense?
Pat Yasinskas: Probably a long shot. I like Moore as a receiver and he can do a lot of different things. But he is somewhat overshadowed by Marques Colston. If any New Orleans receiver goes to the Pro Bowl, it will probably be Colston.
Chandler at Andrews Air Force Base writes: Do the Atlanta Falcons have a nickname for this season? If not can I suggest the name "Do Work Falcons". Let’s be honest the Falcons haven't been the flashiest team in the league. No, my team has, week by week, shown up and "done work" on every opponent they have played. Just a suggestion any feedback would be greatly appreciated!
Pat Yasinskas: Haven’t heard any new nicknames for the Falcons this year. Let’s throw it out there and see what Atlanta fans think.
Otis in Iraq, by way of Thomson, Ga., writes: I've noticed that the Falcons don't really use the screen game although we have an offensive line that seems to love to get out there and hit people. What kind of impact do you think adding screens would have on our offensive production and the defensive schemes of other teams?
Pat Yasinskas: I saw a statistic this week that said the Falcons have attempted a league-low 11 screen passes. I think the biggest reason for that is Atlanta’s personnel in the backfield. As good a running back as Michael Turner is overall, he simply isn’t very good as a receiver. The Falcons had a guy who was sort of the prototype for screens out of the backfield in Jerious Norwood, but he’s hurt and lost for the rest of the season. I don’t think Norwood will be back next season. I suspect you’ll see the Falcons draft someone to fill Norwood’s speed back role. If that guy can catch a little bit, then you might see the Falcons throw some more screens next year.
Rifath in Lithonia writes: This NFC South has become the most competitive division in the league. I just don't know why there hasn't been more coverage nationally. A great example was the Falcons/Bucs game and most of the country were watching the Cowboys/Colts. What disrespect!
Pat Yasinskas: You’re preaching to the choir. But let me tell you a little story. For much of last year, fans were saying the New Orleans Saints weren’t getting enough respect, even as they were winning their first 13 games. When they won the Super Bowl, the Saints got all sort of attention. So I guess the best way for the NFC South to get attention or respect this season is for the Falcons, Saints or Bucs to go on and win the Super Bowl.
Hunter in Winston-Salem, N.C., writes: I am heading down to Charlotte on Sunday to watch my Birds run the Panthers out of the stadium! This is my first time to Bank of America Stadium and I was wondering if you had any tips about where to hang out and/or grab some good food in or around the stadium for a 22-year-oldgrad school student?
Pat Yasinskas: I can’t give free advertising and name places. However, I think Charlotte has one of the best game-day atmospheres and night-before-a-game atmospheres in the entire NFL. The stadium is blocks away from the heart of Uptown Charlotte (which is what they call downtown Charlotte). There are all sorts of restaurants and nightspots in that area. Just wander around and you’ll find something that works for you.
Repeating as Super Bowl champions has become one of the hardest things to do in the modern NFL. Of the 15 Super Bowl champions before the New Orleans Saints, only two were repeat customers.
In fact, it's not uncommon for Super Bowl champions to stumble the next season and not even make the playoffs. Are the Saints, who had one of the greatest feel-good stories in Super Bowl history, the next team to take a fall?
Or can the Saints break the trend and repeat?
In the final installment of our Great Debate series, ESPN.com senior writer John Clayton and NFC South blogger Pat Yasinskas take two very different stances on whether the Saints can repeat.
The main reason I believe this can happen is because the Saints aren't like a lot of recent Super Bowl champions. I think the uncertainty over the labor situation helped them greatly. Super Bowl teams traditionally get ripped apart in free agency. A few marginal or role players usually end up getting big contracts elsewhere just because other teams overrate them and want someone with a Super Bowl ring on their roster. A lot of times, Super Bowl coaching staffs get raided with coordinators moving to head coaching jobs elsewhere.
None of that really happened with the Saints. All they really lost was linebacker Scott Fujita, who got a big contract from Cleveland. Even though the Saints have had some recent injuries at linebacker, Fujita is replaceable. The Saints also cut defensive end Charles Grant and I think that was addition by subtraction.
They replaced Grant with veterans Alex Brown and Jimmy Wilkerson. Neither is going to put up 15 sacks, but both play the run solidly and are consistent, which is something Grant never was. The Saints basically have kept their team and coaching staff intact. Throw in the draft class and a few other minor additions and I'll say the Saints, on paper, are better than they were a year ago. I know you disagree, so go ahead and start shredding that paper.
John Clayton: The Saints' story in 2009 was a great one, but for the Saints to repeat, now you are talking the beginning of a dynasty. I don't see that. Sure, the Saints will make the playoffs. They have Drew Brees, who now ranks with Peyton Manning and Tom Brady as one of the league's three best quarterbacks. You're probably going to call me hypocritical when I say the Colts are my team to repeat as the AFC champion. The reason I did that is I couldn't get behind any other team in the AFC that has a great chance of getting to the Super Bowl.
That's not the case in the NFC. I think the Cowboys have the most talent. I also believe -- and we've talked about this many times -- the Falcons are ready to jump to the top of the division. Matt Ryan is ready. The offense is ready to explode. Mike Smith is getting his defense where he would like it to be. Plus, the schedule is more favorable to the Falcons this year than the Saints. You know from your travels last year you were always going to New Orleans because usually the best games in your division were there. This year, the best home games involving your division teams are in Atlanta. The Falcons play their toughest opponents at home. The Saints play their toughest teams on the road. That's why I don't think the Saints will repeat.
PY: All good points, and I agree the Falcons are a very real threat to New Orleans. Smith and general manager Thomas Dimitroff have assembled a very good roster and I think Ryan is on the verge of taking the next step. The Saints aren't going to coast through their division as they did last year and basically have it wrapped up by November. And they probably aren't going to start 13-0 as they did last season. I think you also have to at least include Carolina in the talk about the NFC South, because it's always a physical football team and the Saints will have to be at their best just to get through the division.
However, there's one big difference between Brees, Payton and the Saints compared to Smith, Ryan and the Falcons. The Saints have won a Super Bowl. They know what it takes.
There's been talk about a Super Bowl hangover, and there's no doubt the Saints spent a big chunk of their offseason celebrating. It might have taken some sort of a toll, but I think that's all gone now. When the Saints came out very sluggish in their preseason opener at New England, Payton ripped into his team and the message was basically, "Last year showed you what hard work and focus can get you." It was only a preseason game, but I think that was a wake-up call the Saints needed to get back into the same frame of mind they had last year.
JC: The Super Bowl hangover theme is giving me a headache because I've heard it so much. It also concerns me when a coach as good as Sean Payton has to rip into his team this year. Ripping into a team is like a chip at a poker game. There are only so many chips you can use during a season. When you bring that up, now you're making me wonder if they are going to make the playoffs. I stay with them making it as a wild card. But don't you see the holes on this team?
So much of their success last season was Darren Sharper intercepting passes off inexperienced quarterbacks. They don't face inexperienced quarterbacks this year, and Sharper is out for at least six games and who knows how much longer because of microfracture surgery. I hate to tell you this, but I intercepted a call in which they were going to ask you to play one of the outside linebacker spots. Scott Fujita is gone. Jonathan Casillas is out for the season. What happens if the team loses one or two defensive tackles to injury? DeMario Pressley and Al Woods -- two draft choices in the past couple of years -- already have been cut.
PY: John, good thing you intercepted that call. As you know, my body type might help the Saints against the pass, but I'd be a liability against the run and I'd also be the tallest linebacker the Saints have had since Fujita. But, yeah, I'll give you the fact that the Casillas injury really hurts the linebacker corps.
As for Jenkins taking over for Sharper, nothing's a given. But Sharper got off to a great start early last year, but was pretty much shot by the end of the season. Jenkins is a great physical talent, and having Jabari Greer and Tracy Porter at cornerback will help make him look good. I'm projecting here, but I think Jenkins is going to be better than Sharper was at the end of last season.
Other than that, I'll fall back on my contention that the Saints are largely intact. Yes, they were lucky at times last season, but they were also very good. I think they're better in a lot of ways this year, and if they can just catch a little bit of luck, I think they can repeat. If I'm wrong, then maybe this time I'll be taking up residence in Atlanta instead of New Orleans in December and January. Better yet, from a selfish standpoint, maybe the Bucs will do the old worst-to-first trick that's been so common in the NFC South and I might actually get to spend a few weekends at home this year.
JC: If the Bucs can pull off a worst-to-first in the NFC South, the Saints, Falcons and Panthers would have to pull a USC and go on probation and be ruled bowl ineligible. Let's look at reality here. The Saints and Falcons are going to be building up a great rivalry over the next few years.
The league needs it. So much of the NFC is settled into the NFC East with those four teams pounding on each other. The AFC East is bubbling over with the Jets and Rex Ryan taking on the Patriots and Dolphins. I don't mention the Bills because I know you would earn a roster spot on that team.
There is a lot that could be good about a Saints-Falcons rivalry over the next few years. Payton has the go-for-broke mentality with his play calling, and Gregg Williams, the defensive coordinator, has a lot of Rex Ryan in him. He'll not only want to tell his players to hit opponents hard, but he'll talk a good game too. The Falcons are the quiet monsters. Mike Smith is a gentlemen on the sideline, but he can gear up his team for good hits, and you know how that offensive line, starting with guard Harvey Dahl, irritates opponents with the way they block. But for a rivalry to happen, you have to have drama. The Saints dominating and repeating would be a great story, but it would take away from the rivalry factor.
By the way, Pat, if you are going to sign with the Bills, hold out for good money.
One item caught my eye. There will be a 40-person crew from HBO’s “Hard Knocks’’ series at the game. As you might have heard, there’s been a little flap about some of the language the Jets (and coach Rex Ryan) have used in what’s aired so far.
Clips from the Carolina game will be used in the third installment of the show, which is scheduled to run next week. I’m not sure about all the logistics and recording devices that can pick up sounds from the field. But knowing the Panthers, I’m guessing they’ll be as protected from the microphones as possible, even though the show is mostly about the Jets.
I’m not saying this just because coach John Fox usually prefers his players keep a low profile. That’s part of it, but this one goes higher than Fox. I’m pretty sure there’s some sort of mandate from owner Jerry Richardson, who cares very much about the image of his team, telling the players to keep things clean on Saturday night.