NFC South: Tom Coughlin

A softer Greg Schiano?

February, 22, 2013
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Amid all the talk about the draft prospects, there’s a significant story out of the combine that’s related to the NFC South.

Schiano
In this story, Tampa Bay coach Greg Schiano admits he might relax some of his methods in his second year. After his hiring last January, Schiano quickly gained a reputation for taking a hard-line approach.

“We had one big thing we had to do. We had to establish a culture in the building,’’ Schiano said. “Sometimes, you have to go overboard one way or another to get that culture established. But I think at this point, our football team understands who I am and how our football program is going to be run. I think that happened as the season went on.’’

Schiano said he might cut back on some of his rules going forward.

"Oh, just some mandatory things I don't think grown men need,’’ Schiano said. “Take mandatory meals. If a guy is meeting his weight -- we have goal weights a guy has to meet each week -- if a guy is meeting his weight, I don't think they need any of our staff making sure they check in for breakfast and for lunch. They're grown men, they're professional athletes. But again, we had to establish a culture of accountability. But now they understand. And if your weight isn't where it's supposed to be, you will get checked in.’’

This might not seem like all that big a deal, and I don’t expect the atmosphere around One Buccaneer Place to return to the way it was when Raheem Morris occupied Schiano’s office. Schiano still is going to be a stickler for detail, but he sounds like he knows it’s time to ease off the accelerator just a little bit.

This could be significant. As I read Schiano’s quotes I couldn’t help thinking of New York Giants coach Tom Coughlin. In his first year with the Giants, and throughout his Jacksonville tenure, Coughlin ran what might have been a tighter ship than Schiano.

But, after that first season in New York, Coughlin eased up a bit and the Giants have won two Super Bowls since then.

NFC South wrap: Year of the Falcons

December, 27, 2012
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NFC Season Wraps: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Five things to know and my all-division team.

Division MVP: Matt Ryan, Falcons. You can make a case for him as the MVP of the entire league. With one game remaining in his fifth season, Ryan already has career highs in completions (394), passing yards (4,481) and touchdown passes (31). His 69.0 completion percentage also is far above his career average.

[+] EnlargeMatt Ryan
Josh D. Weiss/US PresswireFalcons QB Matt Ryan has made a case to be the league's MVP.
But the most impressive thing about Ryan’s season might be the 13 wins he already has led the Falcons to. It all has come in a season in which the Falcons have overhauled their offense to make the passing game a priority. With the running game posing almost no threat, Ryan has carried this offense.

Biggest disappointment: The Carolina Panthers. Back in the preseason, the Panthers were a trendy pick as a team on the rise. The media, myself included, thought quarterback Cam Newton would only build on a fantastic rookie season and that Carolina had fixed its defense. Fans got giddy, and even center Ryan Kalil joined the fray, taking out a full-page ad in The Charlotte Observer that promised a Super Bowl victory.

Instead, the Panthers didn’t even come close to making the playoffs. They started so poorly that general manager Marty Hurney was fired in October and coach Ron Rivera clearly is on the hot seat. The current three-game winning streak might get Rivera another year. But you have to wonder why a team with this much talent didn’t open the season playing the way it is now.

The story that never stopped: The New Orleans Saints dominated the offseason headlines for the entire league (maybe the entire sports world) when the NFL exposed their three-year bounty program. Coach Sean Payton drew a season-long suspension, general manager Mickey Loomis got eight games, and assistant head coach Joe Vitt was suspended for the first six games. Linebacker Jonathan Vilma was given a season-long suspension and defensive end Will Smith was hit with a four-game suspension.

While all that was going on, fans also started sweating as contract negotiations between quarterback Drew Brees and the team dragged on far too long. Brees finally signed, and Vilma and Smith tied things up in the appeals process before eventually having their suspensions vacated. All the drama took a toll as the Saints started 0-4 before getting on a bit of a roll and briefly entering the playoff picture. But the soap opera isn’t over. During the season, it was revealed that the NFL had voided the contract extension Payton signed last year. He could end up being a free agent when he is reinstated.

Has the window closed? Even if Payton does return to the Saints, they might not automatically be the winning team they were the previous three seasons. This team will face major salary-cap issues in the offseason, and veterans such as Vilma, Smith and Roman Harper could be gone.

The defense needs lots of work up front and more help in the secondary. Left tackle Jermon Bushrod is eligible to be a free agent, and the wide receivers are getting older. No matter who is coaching the Saints, they’re going to need some major work in the offseason.

The turnaround that wasn’t: Right from the start of the season, it appeared that new Buccaneers coach Greg Schiano was having a huge positive impact. At first, the Bucs were piling up moral victories by playing close against good teams. Then they started winning and got to 6-4; the playoffs looked like a possibility and Josh Freeman was looking like a franchise quarterback.

But things have gone horribly wrong the past five games. Freeman suddenly reverted to his 2011 form, the pass defense has been ridiculously bad, and the Bucs are having a second straight miserable December. That makes you wonder whether the team is buying into Schiano’s hard-line style. It works for guys such as Bill Belichick and Tom Coughlin because they win. But when a coach like that is losing, you have to wonder if he’s another Nick Saban or Ray Perkins.

All-Division Team

You will quickly notice that the Falcons dominate the All-NFC South team. That’s largely because they ran away with the division, and winning counts for a lot in my eyes. That’s why I took Julio Jones as the second receiver over Vincent Jackson, Steve Smith and Marques Colston. Those three had stats as good or better than Jones, but his play has helped the Falcons win 13 games so far. I also used that logic in choosing both of Atlanta’s starting cornerbacks, although it certainly helped that the other three teams had major problems at cornerback.


Around the NFC South

December, 7, 2012
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Time for a look at the top Friday morning headlines from around the division:

ATLANTA FALCONS

Coach Mike Smith said Jacquizz Rodgers has shown he has what it takes to be a feature back. This could be the week that actually happens. The Falcons gradually have increased Rodgers’ playing time. Starter Michael Turner has been limited in practice because of an elbow injury.

Carolina defensive end Greg Hardy caused a stir this week when he said the Panthers are better than Atlanta. The Falcons seem to be taking the comments in stride. Veteran tight end Tony Gonzalez said, "What else is he going to say at this point? They haven’t won many games."

CAROLINA PANTHERS

As Carolina gets ready to host Atlanta, it’s worth looking back at Cam Newton’s crucial fumble in the Week 4 meeting between the Panthers and Falcons. If Newton didn’t fumble, Carolina would have been 2-2 and had some momentum. It’s at least worth wondering if the season would have gone differently for the Panthers if they had come away with a big win in the Georgia Dome. If Newton hadn't fumbled, maybe the Panthers wouldn't be 3-9. Maybe Marty Hurney still would be the general manager and maybe coach Ron Rivera's job would be secure.

Speaking of plays that could have changed the outcome of the first meeting between Atlanta and Carolina, safety Haruki Nakamura reflects on not getting to Roddy White in time to break up a pass that set up the game-winning field goal.

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS

Bradley Handwerger points out that the current Saints are similar to the 2007 and ’08 editions. They’re not playing well in the fourth quarter, and that’s why they’re 5-7. If you want evidence, look no further than quarterback Drew Brees. His fourth-quarter passer rating this year is 53.8. Last season it was 93.7.

Giants coach Tom Coughlin went out of his way to explain defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul’s comment that said it’s easier to prepare for Brees than Washington’s Robert Griffin III. I think it’s pretty obvious that Pierre-Paul wasn’t slighting Brees. He simply was pointing out that Griffin’s running ability is a unique challenge for a defense. But coaches and players are going to use anything close to a perceived slight as motivation.

TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS

The Bucs will gather their Super Bowl team for a 10-year celebration on Sunday. But defensive back Ronde Barber won’t be able to take part in all the festivities because he’s the only member of that team still playing. Barber, 37, told Martin Fennelly he’ll stop playing as soon as he declines. There hasn’t been any decline yet, and I think the Bucs gladly would welcome Barber back for one more season.

At 6-6, the Bucs need a strong finish to reach the playoffs. But Gary Shelton points out Tampa Bay’s December history often has been less than stellar. This team might be different though. If the Bucs can re-establish running back Doug Martin and get quarterback Josh Freeman back on the path he was on before losing the past two games, a playoff berth is possible if the Bucs add three or four more wins. Even missing the playoffs with a 9-7 or 8-8 record would be a successful season for a team that was 4-12 last season.

Report: Mike Sullivan on BC's radar

December, 2, 2012
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We’ve known that New Orleans assistants Aaron Kromer and Pete Carmichael were on the radar for the head-coaching job at Boston College. But, apparently, they aren’t the only NFC South coaches being linked to the job.

ESPN’s Adam Schefter just reported that Tampa Bay offensive coordinator Mike Sullivan has expressed an interest in the Boston College job.

If Sullivan were to land the Boston College job, it would be a big blow to the Buccaneers. In his first season as Tampa Bay’s offensive coordinator, Sullivan has revived quarterback Josh Freeman’s career and given the Bucs the most entertaining offense in franchise history.

In addition to what he’s done on the field with the Bucs, Sullivan could have one other edge in getting the Boston College job. Sullivan previously was an assistant to New York Giants coach Tom Coughlin, who is a former Boston College coach with deep ties to the school.

Jaws: Josh Freeman becoming superstar

November, 21, 2012
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With the Tampa Bay Buccaneers winning and the offense putting up big numbers, a lot of people are jumping back on the Josh Freeman bandwagon. Count ESPN analyst and former NFL quarterback Ron Jaworski as one of them.

Freeman
Jaworksi spent a lot of time singing the praises of the Tampa Bay quarterback in a recent conference call with the national media.

"Josh Freeman is playing phenomenal football," Jaworski said. "I thought last year he really struggled with his accuracy. As their season wore on and their record got worse, disinterest might be the wrong word, but there just didn't seem to be a fire in that Bucs offense. That usually reflects upon the quarterback, and I thought Josh really struggled last season. Two years ago I thought he was really coming on and had the potential to be a superstar. I'm seeing that superstar potential now come to the forefront.

"I think clearly Freeman is on his way to becoming a superstar in this league. He's got all the attributes you would want in a quarterback. Clearly those are being refined."

Jaworski cited the new offensive scheme of coordinator Mike Sullivan for much of Freeman’s improvement. Jaworski proudly pointed out that Sullivan worked at his alma mater (Youngstown State) as an assistant and went on to coach receivers and quarterbacks with the New York Giants.

"Here's what I like, and it is crystal clear what this offense is about,’’ Jaworski said. "It's about discipline. We know (coach) Greg (Schiano) has brought that to the Buccaneers in general. But when you watch this offense, and the first thing that stood out to me, it's much like the Giants' offense. It's not complex; it's not sophisticated. We're not going to beat you at shifts, motions and gimmicks and gadgets. We're going to play football first. That template has worked for Tom Coughlin and the New York Giants. Mike Sullivan is cut from that same cloth."

Jaworski also praised how the Bucs have dealt with a rash of injuries on their offensive line.

"I'm here in Philadelphia, and people are complaining about all the losses in the offensive line," Jaworski said. "Well, Tampa's lost four of their starters in the offensive line. No one's whining, no one's complaining. Go out and do your job. They've developed that nextmanup philosophy that's been heard of around the league. People say it, but you actually have to go on the field and perform."

NFC South: Land of confusion

November, 1, 2012
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Cam NewtonAnthony J. Causi/Icon SMIAt 1-6 Cam Newton and the Panthers have had a disastrous start to the season.
Back in the good old days, namely 2008 through 2011, the NFC South was the NFL’s most stable division.

At times, it even bordered on boring and predictable. The New Orleans Saints and Atlanta Falcons would go out and win a bunch of games. The Carolina Panthers and Tampa Bay Buccaneers had some ups and downs, but at least the Panthers won 12 games in 2008 and the Bucs were a pleasant surprise when they went 10-6 in 2010.

Even when the Panthers collapsed in 2010, you knew it was because owner Jerry Richardson was preparing his franchise for the labor lockout and, all the while, the Panthers had veteran general manager Marty Hurney around to keep sanity and be the voice of reason. In a somewhat similar way, the Bucs leaned on general manager Mark Dominik as they went through major changes after last season.

But it’s looking like 2012 will be remembered as the season of chaos in the NFC South. It’s like someone sent a memo saying, “Hey, let’s see who can generate the most turmoil." The memo somehow didn’t get to Falcons’ headquarters in Flowery Branch, Ga. (a town as quaint and peaceful as its name suggests), but the other three NFC South teams have taken it to heart.

The Falcons are going to win the division, but it looks like the real battle is for the title of “most dysfunctional team."

Let’s take a closer look at that race:

New Orleans Saints: This team has lived the biggest soap opera in NFL history since March 2. That’s the day the NFL announced its investigation of the alleged bounty program.

You know the story from there. Coach Sean Payton drew a season-long suspension, general manager Mickey Loomis got eight games and assistant head coach Joe Vitt got six games. Linebacker Jonathan Vilma got a season-long suspension and defensive end Will Smith got four games, but those suspensions are tied up in the appeals process and the legal system and I’m starting to think we might not see a final resolution this season.

Oh, and let’s not forget quarterback Drew Brees’ tumultuous negotiations before finally getting a new contract in July.

But the true gauge on this drama has been the first seven games. The Saints, a team with plenty of talent and veteran leadership, have fallen apart. They are 2-5 and their defense is on pace to shatter all sorts of records for futility.

For the longest time, it was hard to question any personnel move Loomis and Payton made. Now, it’s easy. Was signing defensive tackle Brodrick Bunkley to a five-year deal that averages $4.5 million a season really a good idea? Shouldn’t the Saints have acquired some pass-rushers for coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, since that’s what his system is based on? Why did the Saints keep running backs Chris Ivory and Travaris Cadet on the roster when they’re barely using them?

Dysfunction rating: 100 percent. Maybe things will turn around when Payton returns and after Loomis has had a full offseason to massage the salary cap and tweak the roster. But, with a defense that can’t stop anyone and an offense that’s not the machine it once was, I see only more trouble for the Saints this season.

Carolina Panthers: Hurney got fired after a 1-5 start and the Panthers now have extended their record to 1-6. Coach Ron Rivera probably has about as much chance of keeping his job as John Fox did in 2010.

Quarterback Cam Newton isn’t doing well on the field, and the results of his postgame news conferences have been even more disastrous.

What’s most stunning about this is that the whole world thought the Panthers were a team on the rise after going 6-10 in the first season for Newton and Rivera. I’m still trying to figure out how the Panthers have spun into chaos so quickly and in such spectacular fashion.

Dysfunction rating: 100 percent: With Hurney gone, different people who work in Bank of America Stadium give you different answers about who’s in charge. At the moment, this team is a rudderless ship.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: They’re 3-4 and there have been some signs coach Greg Schiano has this team headed in the right direction. But there still is a lot of work to be done.

That’s because predecessor Raheem Morris let things get so out of control last year that the Bucs were every bit as dysfunctional (or maybe even more so) as the Saints and Panthers are now. Schiano has cleaned out some of the problems (Tanard Jackson and Kellen Winslow), and he seems to be reconstructing quarterback Josh Freeman’s confidence.

But the Bucs haven’t completely turned the corner into a sea of tranquility. Schiano has a hardline, old-school, or whatever you want to call it, approach. Players seem to be tolerating it, and that’s easy to do when there are positive signs. But, if the Bucs regress at all, players could turn on Schiano the way Tom Coughlin did.

The Bucs are coming off a huge win at Minnesota, but they lost All-Pro guard Carl Nicks to a season-ending injury earlier this week. It seems every time the Bucs start to take a step forward, something pulls them back.

Dysfunction rating: 35 percent. There’s been a lot of change here and most of it seems to be for the better, but at least a couple of players seem to need attention deficit disorder medication to focus in on what’s happening in Tampa Bay.

Atlanta Falcons: They’re the only undefeated team in the league, and it’s largely because of the tone of stability set by coach Mike Smith and general manager Thomas Dimitroff. When fans called for major moves in free agency, Smith and Dimitroff simply re-signed their own guys.

Running back Michael Turner and defensive end John Abraham each have had an off-field legal issue this season. That’s unfortunate, but not uncommon in the NFL.

Those events caused only minor distractions, and that’s because the Falcons have such strong leadership from the very top and because winning can take attention off everything else.

Dysfunction rating: 5 percent. That number can be knocked down to zero if the Falcons receive the memo, coming soon to Flowery Branch, that says, “Win a playoff game," and then they go out and make it happen.
Tampa Bay coach Greg Schiano has drawn the wrath of other coaches and players from other teams in his first NFL season.

New York Giants coach Tom Coughlin and some of his players were critical of Schiano for having his defense go all -ut as quarterback Eli Manning was taking a knee at the end of the game. The tactic, which Schiano used at Rutgers and has said he has no regrets about doing in the NFL, also has drawn harsh words from elsewhere in the league.

Now, it’s not just opponents criticizing Schiano’s approach. Check out this Inside The NFL interview with two replacement officials on Showtime.

Most of it focuses on the controversial call at the end of the game between Green Bay and San Diego. But there’s one moment (right about the 5:45 mark) where replacement official Jim Core is asked who was the toughest coach he had to work with.

With very little hesitation, Core, a former college official, singled out Schiano.

“He’s college,’’ Core said. “The rest of them acted at a different level. You could just tell working with them, they were at a different level than what I felt like he was.’’

Podcast: Buccaneers coach Greg Schiano

September, 20, 2012
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Buccaneers coach Greg Schiano covers Tom Coughlin's reaction to the final play of Tampa Bay's loss to the Giants, preparing for the Cowboys, Eric LeGrand and more.

Panthers need to let Cam Newton run

September, 19, 2012
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Cam NewtonJeff Siner/Charlotte Observer/MCTAfter rushing for just 4 yards in the season opener, Cam Newton gained 71 yards and scored a TD on the ground against the Saints in Week 2.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- New York Giants coach Tom Coughlin spouted off about the Tampa Bay Buccaneers breaking an unwritten rule Sunday. As Thursday night’s game between the Giants and Carolina Panthers approaches, Coughlin should know he’s going to see another unwritten rule broken by an NFC South team.

The old adage about not having your quarterback run goes out the window with the Panthers, because they have something rare. They have Cam Newton.

Robert Griffin III, Michael Vick and Tim Tebow all have run versions of the read-option offense, but nobody does it better than Newton, and it shouldn’t be just a fad or a gimmick that’s used occasionally.

The Panthers need to use the read-option often. They did Sunday. In a victory against New Orleans, Carolina had 41 rushing plays, which went for 219 yards. Of those plays, 23 were designed options, and they resulted in 143 yards and a touchdown. Newton rushed for a career-high 71 yards on 13 carries.

That came only a week after the Panthers ran just one option play and rushed for only 10 yards in a loss to Tampa Bay.

Let’s hope Carolina’s coaching staff has learned a lesson from those two games. Newton also is a good passer, and the Panthers can’t abandon that. But they need a healthy dose of the running game in their offense, and they need Newton to be a big part of that.

Some might say 13 runs by a quarterback are way too many. And for a lot of quarterbacks, that’s true. It’s often a formula for disaster to have a quarterback running in the open field. Take a big hit from a linebacker, and the quarterback’s season could be over.

But that’s not much of a concern with Newton because he’s as big as or bigger than most linebackers. He’s 6-foot-5 and 245 pounds. At times in the past, Carolina's coaching staff has talked about possibly limiting Newton’s carries. It sounds as if the staff is starting to realize that’s not a good idea.

"He gets hit, but not big," coach Ron Rivera said. "And I think there’s a difference in that, as well. And a lot of the runs that we have are calculated. He’s reading for the most part as to whether or not it’s a good idea to hand it off or keep it."

It’s good to hear that Rivera realizes that. The chances of Newton getting hurt on a running play are minimal because of his size and strength. I think there’s a much better chance of Newton getting hurt if he sits back in the pocket too long and gets blindsided by a large defensive lineman while standing still.

"I'm a football player at the end of the day," Newton said. "If they want me to run, I'll run. If they want me to throw, I'll throw. If they want me to block, I'll block. If they want me to go get some water to better the team, I'm going to do it."

[+] EnlargeCam Newton
AP Photo/Margaret BowlesCam Newton has scored 15 rushing touchdowns in his young career.
The Panthers need to let Newton run because it causes major problems for opponents, and it sets up the passing game nicely.

The read-option concept is simple. The quarterback goes up to the line of scrimmage, and reads the defensive ends and outside linebackers. He then takes the snap and goes to one side or the other with a tailback behind him. Depending on how the ends and linebackers react, the quarterback has the option of keeping the ball or pitching it to a running back.

It might not be conventional in the NFL, but even Coughlin, who is all about convention, isn’t going to take Rivera to task for running his quarterback. Instead, Coughlin is bracing himself and trying to figure out ways to help his defense get ready for Carolina’s read-option.

"Not only are they looking to read certain individuals in a defensive front, they’re also setting up other things by his reaction, not just simply if you keep, pull or pitch," Coughlin said. "All of that comes to prevail, and when you have a couple of obvious runners with the ability of [DeAngelo] Williams and [Jonathan] Stewart, it even puts more pressure on you because you’re not going to arm tackle those guys. They’re both fast and they’re both capable of going the distance."

Newton’s teammates know his running ability is an asset, and they’re in favor of using it.

"If he wants to do it, then let him run the ball," veteran left tackle Jordan Gross said. "Because he’s a big, strong guy and he’s one of the best goal-line backs in the league, too."

Newton rushed for 14 touchdowns as a rookie last season. That’s an NFL record for a quarterback. The Panthers are 6-3 when Newton rushes for at least 50 yards.

It’s pretty obvious that when Newton is running, the Panthers have a better chance to win. So don’t worry about convention. Let him run a lot.

Not even Coughlin, who was furious that Tampa Bay’s defensive players still were going hard when the Giants were in their victory formation Sunday, can question going against this unwritten rule.

In Carolina, the rule is the Panthers are a better team when Newton is running.

NFL Power Rankings: NFC South

September, 18, 2012
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ATLANTA -- After Monday night’s victory against Denver, the Atlanta Falcons are one of the top three teams in the NFL.

That’s according to ESPN.com’s Power Rankings. The Falcons, who were No. 6 last week, jumped up to No. 3 and trailed only the 49ers and Texans.

I don’t think that’s too high a ranking for the Falcons. But I do think they’ll need to be more consistent to stay near the top. Their offense carried them in Week 1, but was relatively quiet Monday night and the defense had to carry them against the Broncos.

After the Falcons, there is a steep drop off until the rest of the NFC South teams. The Carolina Panthers, coming off a victory against New Orleans on Sunday, jumped four spots to No. 19. I think Carolina has the potential to be rated much higher, but the Panthers have to win some more games to prove that.

Despite losing to the New York Giants, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers stayed put at No. 21, although Tom Coughlin reportedly had them at No. 33 on his ballot. Seriously, Tampa Bay’s effort in a road game against the Giants came up short, but it got the attention of a lot of people.

Finally, the New Orleans Saints are the lowest-ranked team from the NFC South. That’s the first time I can remember that happening.

The Saints fell eight spots to No. 24. The Saints still have enormous talent and it’s hard to imagine them being ranked so low. But that’s what happens when you start off 0-2.

Experts: Greg Schiano was doing his job

September, 17, 2012
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Tampa Bay coach Greg Schiano is getting some pretty strong support from high places for the way he handled the end of Sunday’s loss to the New York Giants.

Although the Giants were lining up in the victory formation to run out the clock at the end of the game, Schiano still had his defense going hard and going after the ball. New York coach Tom Coughlin was critical of Schiano’s tactics immediately after the game.

But, as the story comes under closer scrutiny Monday, others are saying there’s nothing wrong with Schiano’s approach.

“There’s no doubt Tom Coughlin owes Greg Schiano an apology for how he reacted after the game,’’ ESPN and former NFL analyst Ron Jaworski said in this radio interview .

Jaworski went on to say, “You play to the end of the game."

Former NFL player and coach Mike Ditka also said there was nothing wrong with what Schiano did in this radio interview .

“You’ve got pads and a helmet on," Ditka said. “The game’s not over. Play."

I’m with Jaworski and Ditka on this one. If the Giants had been ahead by two scores or more, then Schiano might have been breaking some unwritten rules. But his team was down by only a touchdown. It was a long shot that the Giants would botch a snap or a handoff. But when you're only down a touchdown, you have to do everything you can with that hope in mind.

Coughlin might not have liked the way the Bucs played. But it’s not Schiano’s job to make Coughlin happy. His job is to try to win. He tried to do his job and he did it legally.

You’re welcome to agree or disagree in the comments section below. Also, please head over to SportsNation, where you can cast a vote on whether you think Schiano or Coughlin is right on this one. Last I looked, the majority of fans were backing Schiano.

Jeremy Shockey might want to play

March, 15, 2012
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It’s been all quiet on the Jeremy Shockey front in Carolina since the combine, when coach Ron Rivera said he thought the veteran tight end was retiring, and general manager Marty Hurney said he’d heard nothing of the sort.

Shockey
Shockey
In fact, we’re still not certain if Shockey has told the Panthers if he intends to play or not this season.

But it appears Shockey has let one NFL team know of his intentions. Shockey reportedly has let the New York Giants know he’d like to return to them. That’s where he started his career and had some good years before forcing his way out in 2008 with a trade to the New Orleans Saints. Shockey had three productive and peaceful (by his standards) seasons with the Saints.

Then, Shockey joined the Panthers last season and was a nice role player behind Greg Olsen, who was Carolina’s main pass-catcher at tight end. I suspect the Panthers wouldn’t mind bringing Shockey back for another season if the price is reasonable. But it’s not a high priority for the Panthers, because they have Olsen.

Besides, it looks like Shockey might have his mind on something else. He wants to return to New York, where he once clashed with quarterback Eli Manning and Tom Coughlin. But I’m not so sure the Giants are waiting with open arms for the 31-year-old tight end. They already have signed tight end Martellus Bennett from Dallas.

Bucs may have winning formula at OC

February, 11, 2012
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Friday night’s hiring of Mike Sullivan as offensive coordinator is the biggest move Tampa Bay coach Greg Schiano has made so far. Down the road, it could end up being his most important move ever.

Sullivan comes to the Buccaneers from the New York Giants, where he spent the past two seasons as quarterbacks coach and six seasons before that working with wide receivers. Sullivan never has been an NFL coordinator before and the Bucs talked to some experienced coordinators, like Ron Turner and John Shoop, before hiring Sullivan.

[+] EnlargeMike Sullivan
AP Photo/Julio CortezMike Sullivan, left, has been Eli Manning's quarterbacks coach the past two seasons.
I initially thought the Bucs would bring in a coordinator who had handled that role on an NFL level before. Experience seemed to be a priority as the Bucs searched for someone to fix quarterback Josh Freeman and an offense that struggled last season.

But I’m thinking the Bucs went the right way when they chose Sullivan. He may not have coordinator’s experience, but he knows how to win. The Giants just won their second Super Bowl since Sullivan joined the team in 2004 and quarterback Eli Manning obviously has been playing at a high level.

Sullivan learned at the side of head coach Tom Coughlin and offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride and that can only be viewed as a positive. Sullivan also worked in Jacksonville in Coughlin's last two seasons there, so he has a pretty lengthy NFL history, even if he hasn't been a coordinator. Besides, it’s not like Shoop or Turner had enormous success in their previous stints as coordinators.

Taking a leap of faith and handing the offense to Sullivan might end up being a very good move for the Bucs. Schiano and Butch Davis, who is expected to join the team as a senior assistant and adviser, come from defensive backgrounds. But the Bucs also are putting some experience and insulation around Sullivan. They reportedly are adding longtime NFL assistant Jimmy Raye II as a senior offensive assistant.

Raye has been a coordinator before and he can help guide Sullivan. But, more importantly, the Bucs landed Sullivan, a coach who may have some fresh ideas and knows how to win.

Another name for Bucs' OC search

February, 10, 2012
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Let’s go ahead and throw another name into the mix to be the new offensive coordinator for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

New York Giants quarterbacks coach Mike Sullivan reportedly will interview for the job. There previously have been reports that Ron Turner and John Shoop are candidates for the job and the Bucs also were denied permission to speak with several NFL assistants about the position.

Sullivan’s stock obviously is on the rise after the Giants won the Super Bowl. He’s spent the past two seasons as quarterbacks coach and Eli Manning has produced big results.

Sullivan actually has been with the Giants since 2004, but worked as wide receivers coach for his first six seasons with the team. Prior to that he spent two years as an assistant in Jacksonville and coached at various colleges.

Sullivan obviously has deep ties to Giants coach Tom Coughlin. That’s not a bad thing to have going for you right now. After winning his second Super Bowl, Coughlin suddenly is getting tons of praise. When that happens, other teams typically start looking at the guys around the star coach.
Matt RyanAl Bello/Getty ImagesMatt Ryan and the Falcons struggled mightily against the Giants, ending an uneven season.

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Their season ended sooner than expected, so the Atlanta Falcons haven’t had time to come up with a title for their highlight film.

I’ll throw them a few suggestions:

  • "Fourth-and-inches: Next year, we’ll just kick it."

  • "Explosive or implosion?’"

  • "How I lost that Jacksonville job," narrated by Mike Mularkey.

  • “That Allstate commercial is not going to happen, but maybe I can fill in for that Mayhem guy," hosted by Roddy White.

Hey, wait, we just got a submission from Atlanta coach Mike Smith.

"It was a lot like our season, very inconsistent," Smith said after his Falcons lost 24-2 to the New York Giants in the wild-card round Sunday at MetLife Stadium. "We played some that were good. We played some that were not so good. I think that’s really the story of our 2011 season."

Take any of those suggestions or add your own. There are seemingly endless ways to summarize how a team with Super Bowl expectations came up dramatically short.

Since the arrival of Smith and quarterback Matt Ryan in 2008, the Falcons had been to the playoffs twice before. They lost both those games, including a home game against Green Bay last season when the Falcons were the No. 1 seed in the NFC.

But this loss was far worse because the Falcons weren’t even competitive. That was mostly their own fault, because the Giants were as inconsistent as the Falcons during the regular season. On Sunday, the Falcons made the Giants look like champions.

The offense White referred to as “The Greatest Show on Turf’’ in the preseason didn’t score. Atlanta’s points came on a safety. How does an offense that has Ryan, White, Julio Jones, Tony Gonzalez and Michael Turner get blanked?

“I have no idea,’’ said White, who finished with five catches for 52 yards and dropped at least two passes, after leading the NFL in drops during the regular season.

Since White has no idea, I’ll throw out a few quickies: The Falcons couldn’t run the ball (Turner finished with 41 yards on 15 carries), Ryan was held to 199 passing yards and Smith (and offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey) got outcoached by Tom Coughlin and his staff. All that calls out for more detail.

Let’s start with the coaching, because this has been a huge issue before. On two different occasions, Smith elected to go for it on fourth-and-inches. On two different occasions, that decision failed miserably. Smith decided on the same thing, with the same result, in overtime during a regular-season loss to New Orleans.

The first decision to go for it on fourth down came on the first play of the second quarter. The second came with 4:21 left in the third quarter, when the Falcons were trailing only 10-2. Both times, the Falcons had Ryan, who will never be confused with Michael Vick as a runner, try a quarterback sneak. Both times Ryan came up short. The second one was far more damaging, and even more insulting to anyone with common sense. It came with Ryan lining up with an empty backfield, a clear signal of what was coming.

“It was about half a yard, maybe even less than that,’’ Smith said. “That was the play. We go through the sequence all through the week, and we felt like that was the play that we had up and we just didn’t execute it. We felt like at any point in time that we ought to be able to move the football less than half a yard with a quarterback sneak.’’

Forget the fact the Falcons could have handed the ball to Turner, who has gained more than a half yard plenty of times in his career. The Falcons tried that approach in the New Orleans loss and that didn’t work, either.

What’s more disturbing is that, unlike the Turner play against the Saints, both of these opportunities came when the Falcons were in position to attempt a field goal. Both opportunities came at points in the game when a field goal would have meant a lot.

“You could have gone ahead and attempted the field goal,’’ Smith said. “I felt and we felt as a staff, with our offense, that we could move the ball and we wanted to get seven points.’’

Instead, the Falcons ended up with two points for the day. That’s not the sum total of just a couple of coaching decisions and play calls. That’s a sign of much larger problems for a team that clearly was shooting for the Super Bowl when it dealt draft picks to trade up to get Jones in April and paid a ton for free-agent defensive end Ray Edwards as soon as the lockout ended.

[+] EnlargeJulio Jones
AP Photo/Matt SlocumJulio Jones and Atlanta never got going on offense against the Giants.
Both decisions were based almost entirely on what Smith and general manager Thomas Dimitroff decided was lacking after last season’s playoff loss to Green Bay. They talked repeatedly about how Jones and Edwards would add “explosiveness."

Instead, the Falcons ended up with a dud of a season. People are going to start to question if Smith and Ryan ever can win a playoff game. They’re also going to start to question if the trade for Jones was wise, especially as the 2012 draft approaches and the Falcons are looking to rebuild an offensive line that was built for run blocking and showed it can't pass block no matter how many receiving weapons the Falcons have.

“Well, I think that’s a mistake,’’ Falcons owner Arthur Blank said after he was reminded the Jones trade is officially open to criticism. “Julio stepped up and did everything we wanted him to do this year. He’s going to be an outstanding receiver and player in the league. He has certainly proved his worth this year. He clearly showed his explosive capability throughout the year. You saw that in a number of games. You didn’t see it today.’’

You didn’t see much of anything offensively against the Giants and that took a toll on Atlanta’s defense as the game went on, which just compounded Atlanta’s problems.

“Our expectations for our football team and our organization are much higher than just making an appearance in the playoffs,’’ Smith said.

Blank didn’t sound like a man who was ready to do anything rash. But he sounded frustrated and made it clear he expects Smith and Dimitroff to do some serious introspective thinking as they look back at the season.

“I think the answer is you’ve got to do a thorough diagnostic on the team, the players, the coaches and personnel area on why we didn’t perform the way that we’re capable of,’’ Blank said. “The beauty of Smitty and Thomas is that they will do that. They’re not, by nature, defensive individuals. They’re thoughtful, they’re bright and they care obviously about the franchise and winning. They will do what I would want them to do which is to be objective and go through a detailed analysis and not be emotional about it. Do it from a thoughtful standpoint. Where that takes us, I can’t tell you. That’s not up to me to tell you. That’s up to them to figure it out and we’ll work on it organizationally.’’

One hint to Smith and Dimitroff: As you found out with fourth-and-inches, doing the same thing repeatedly isn’t going to work. Don’t do what you did last year and just fix two glaring holes. Fix every little hole on your team or you’ll never win a playoff game.

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