NFC South: Vince Young


Hall of Fame quarterback Warren Moon said there’s a troubling racial undertone to the criticism of Carolina quarterback Cam Newton.

“I heard somebody compare him to Vince Young,’’ Moon told Yahoo! Sports. “It’s the same old crap -- it’s always a comparison of one black to another black. I get tired of it.’’

Moon also said it’s wrong to suggest the second-year quarterback is a bust.

"I think a lot of this is because so many people want to say, 'I told you so' about him but couldn't because he was so good last year," Moon said. “I think people are overreacting. How can he be a bust? He just had one of the great years a rookie has ever had, and now he can't play? Come on."

Take a look and listen as Stephen A. Smith and Skip Bayless discuss Moon’s comments.

Pat Yasinskas' QB Watch

December, 7, 2011
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Tim Tebow Greg Smith/US PresswireQuarterback Tim Tebow has helped lead the Denver Broncos to five consecutive victories.
When John Fox walked into the hotel lobby at the NFL owners meetings in New Orleans in March, I knew I'd seen this guy before.

He was tan, relaxed and constantly joking, just like the Fox I first met when he was interviewing for the Carolina Panthers' head-coaching job back in 2002. Nearly a decade had passed, but Fox looked young and loose again -- so much different than in his last few years in Carolina.

That's because Fox had recently become head coach of the Denver Broncos. Sometimes change can be a wonderful thing.

Fox and John Elway might be wise to keep that in mind as they ponder what seems like a complex future for the Broncos. In fact, Fox and Elway might be making that future much more complex than it really needs to be.

Looks to me now like Fox's escape from Carolina was only a temporary escape from a permanent position as one of the most conventional coaches in the NFL. He and Elway, the team's executive vice president of football operations and perhaps the best stereotypical drop-back passer of all time, seem to be having a hard time embracing quarterback Tim Tebow.

There's talk the Broncos could go out and draft a more conventional quarterback. Or they could sign one in free agency. I can't guarantee anything, but I'm pretty sure Jake Delhomme and Kyle Orton will be available in March.

Is that really what the Broncos need?

No. Fox and Elway need to forget convention and stereotypes and fully commit to the quarterback who has helped them win six of their last seven games, including five in a row. If nothing else, Tebow has shown uncanny intangibles, and all those wins at the University of Florida didn't come by accident.

Look, I'll be the first to admit I didn't think Tebow was an NFL quarterback. To start with, he doesn't throw the ball anything like an NFL quarterback. He's a running back, fullback or tight end lining up at quarterback and somehow making things happen.

Fox and Elway need to do Tebow and themselves a big favor. They need to accept Tebow for what he is and not bash him for what he is not.

Sure, go ahead and add somebody who was bred as a pocket passer (word is Jimmy Clausen could be available) as an alternative for next year. But Tebow has earned the right to open next season as the starter, and to do it in an offense that's suited to his skills.

Offensive coordinator Mike McCoy is a bright guy who has a much more open mind than Fox and Elway. Whenever this season ends -- and that might not be for a while if Tebow continues his magic -- Fox and Elway should let McCoy disappear for a month.

When he comes back, McCoy should be allowed to hand Tebow a playbook that can put him in consistent positions to succeed. The guy deserves that because he's done a nice job of putting the Broncos in a nice position by simply winging it.

TRENDING UP


TRENDING DOWN


Cam's a slam for Rookie of the Year

November, 17, 2011
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Cam NewtonStreeter Lecka/Getty ImagesCam Newton made a statement early, accumulating 854 passing yards in his first two games.

On the surface, it looks like there’s a great argument brewing out there about who should be the NFL’s Offensive Rookie of the Year.

The names Cam Newton, Andy Dalton and DeMarco Murray are getting tossed around. It makes for great conversation, but let’s face reality.

Newton won the award a long time ago. This race was over two weeks into the season. Despite some really nice deeds by Dalton and Murray, nothing really has changed and it’s not going to.

As the first overall pick in the draft, Newton came with all sorts of flash and glitter. He was a Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback on a national championship team at Auburn and that made him a strong favorite to win Rookie of the Year before the season ever started.

Newton settled it in two weeks. He threw for more than 400 yards in each of his first two games. No rookie quarterback had ever done that, and that’s the kind of thing that’s going to stick in the mind of voters.

Speaking of voters, let’s be very clear. We’re talking about the Associated Press NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year award. There are other rookie honors out there and they matter. Just not as much as the one by the Associated Press.

If you don’t believe me, consider this: If a player gets an incentive clause in his contract for winning a Rookie of the Year award, it almost always is stipulated that he only gets paid if it’s the one from the Associated Press.

[+] EnlargeCarolina's Cam Newton
Streeter Lecka/Getty ImagesCam Newton has passed for 2,605 yards this season and 11 touchdowns, and has also rushed for 374 yards and seven more scores.
The way it works is the voters are writers from every NFL city. Majority rules and, unless Newton suffers a season-ending injury very soon, he’s going to win.

Yeah, I can hear the arguments coming from Dallas and Cincinnati and I respect them. But those folks can save themselves some pain later by realizing now that Murray and Dalton aren’t going to win the award.

I know everything is bigger in Texas and that’s why Dallas fans are going crazy about Murray. He has been incredible since Felix Jones went down with an injury in mid-October. Murray has 674 rushing yards this season with 601 of them coming in the past four games.

And I understand that the Cowboys are “America’s Team,’’ and Dallas is a much bigger media market than Charlotte or Cincinnati. But that actually could end up working against Murray. For a long time, there have been grumbles that it’s harder for Cowboys to get into the Pro Football Hall of Fame because voters feel saturated by anything to do with Dallas.

A lot of those voters are the same ones who select the Rookie of the Year. The Cowboys haven’t had one of those since Emmitt Smith in 1990.

Murray is good, but he’s not Emmitt Smith. You could make the case that we saw Murray last year. Tampa Bay’s LeGarrette Blount rushed for 1,000 yards in basically half a season (and for his next trick he’s trying to learn how to pass block) and he didn’t even come close to winning the award.

Sam Bradford did.

That’s because Bradford is a quarterback. Let’s face it, quarterbacks generally are going to win popularity contests simply because they’re quarterbacks. Four of the past seven winners have been quarterbacks. Heck, even Vince Young won it in 2006.

Once in awhile, as happened in 2007, an Adrian Peterson comes along. And in the years when no rookie quarterback does much, the award goes to a Percy Harvin or a Cadillac Williams. This isn’t one of those years.

That brings it down to Dalton and Newton.

Dalton is doing what Bradford did last year and what Matt Ryan did in 2008. He’s come in, played very well and his team is winning. The Bengals are 6-3 and Dalton has thrown for 1,866 yards and 14 touchdowns. He’s smart, doesn’t make big mistakes and there’s no doubt Dalton is a big reason Cincinnati is one of the league’s most surprising teams.

But he’s not the only reason. Cincinnati’s defense has been shockingly good. Dalton really hasn’t been shocking. He has only had one 300-yard game, and only one game in which he’s thrown more than two touchdown passes.

Is anybody really ready to call Dalton a franchise quarterback? Yeah, I know it might be a little tempting because it’s been tough to even call the Bengals a franchise for most of the time they’ve been in the league. But Dalton is not Newton. He’s not even close.

By about halftime of the opener, the world knew Newton was a franchise quarterback. He threw for 422 yards that day in Arizona. Then, he came back the next week and threw for 432 against Green Bay, and, suddenly, the Panthers had hope for the first time in a long time. They've still got it.

Yeah, both those games were losses, and, despite Newton’s play, the Panthers have continued to do a lot of losing. They’re 2-7 and we are talking about a game that’s supposed to be the ultimate team sport.

But Rookie of the Year isn’t a team award, which is significant because if you factored in the play of Carolina’s defense, Newton would be wearing heavy anchors on both his legs.

Rookie of the Year is an individual honor, and even if it wasn’t, Newton still would have the edge. He’s thrown for about 800 yards more than Dalton. Oh, and since we mentioned Newton’s legs, let’s take a look at rushing stats. Newton has rushed for 374 yards and seven touchdowns.

Dalton has run for 26 yards. If you really want to pad his stats, you could say he’s run for 78 feet, which is nice. But we’ve seen Dalton before. He compares nicely to guys like Ryan, Bradford, Joe Flacco and Mark Sanchez as rookies.

We’ve never seen anything like Newton before. You could say he runs like Tim Tebow or Michael Vick. Or you could say he throws like Dan Marino or Peyton Manning. You’ve never been able to say both things about any single quarterback. Until now.

Yeah, Newton’s not perfect. He has thrown 10 interceptions (but Dalton has thrown nine on 40 less attempts). It also would be nice to see Newton get some wins. But those will come next season when the Panthers have had time to rebuild a defense that got shredded by injuries.

This is about this year. There’s no question Newton and Dalton have turned heads. But Newton is the only rookie who has had heads spinning.

Final Word: NFC South

October, 28, 2011
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NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 8 (remember, the Buccaneers and Falcons are on bye):

The Chris Weinke Bowl. Carolina’s Cam Newton and Minnesota’s Christian Ponder will meet in a matchup of rookie quarterbacks, but they have more in common than that. During the lockout, Newton and Ponder worked under the tutelage of Weinke at IMG Academy in Florida. Weinke, who played for Carolina and grew up in Minnesota, obviously was doing something right. Newton’s off to a great start, and Ponder has shown some positives since taking over the starting job. By the way, Newton will become the first rookie quarterback since 1967 to face two other first-round quarterbacks from the same draft class. He already faced Jacksonville’s Blaine Gabbert.

[+] EnlargeCam Newton
Jeremy Brevard/US PresswireCarolina's Cam Newton already has seven rushing touchdowns this season.
History in the making. Speaking of Weinke, Newton already has passed him and Tim Tebow on the list for most rushing touchdowns by a rookie quarterback since the AFL-NFL merger. Weinke and Tebow each ran for six touchdowns as rookies. Newton already has seven and is tied for No. 1 with Vince Young. I’m thinking Young’s moving to No. 2 very soon.

Going wide. As we noted Thursday, the New Orleans Saints are making great use of running back Darren Sproles. They’re lining Sproles up as a wide receiver quite frequently. When lined up as a receiver, Sproles has been targeted on 33 pass attempts. Matt Forte and C.J. Spiller are tied for second on the list of running backs lining up at receiver. Forte and Spiller each have been targeted nine times in those situations. When lined up at receiver, Sproles has 24 catches for 182 yards.

Chasing Brett Favre. New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees is closing in on another significant milestone. Brees has thrown at least one touchdown pass in 34 consecutive games. That puts him at No. 3 in history. But Brees is getting close to Favre, who is No. 2 at 36 games. The record is 47, set by Johnny Unitas over the course of five seasons.

Running at the Rams. The Saints are thought of as a pass-first offense. But don’t be surprised if they change things up a bit this week. The Rams have one of the worst run defenses in recent history. St. Louis allowed 293 rushing yards to Dallas in Week 7. The Rams already have allowed 1,103 rushing yards this season. Since 2000, only two defenses have allowed more rushing yards in their first six games.

Cam Newton cooling off

October, 20, 2011
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After a record-setting start to the season, Carolina rookie quarterback Cam Newton has cooled off a bit in recent weeks.

In Sunday’s loss to Atlanta, Newton had his first game without a touchdown pass and he was intercepted three times. He now is tied for the league lead with nine interceptions.

In the first four games of the season, Newton completed 59.5 percent of his passes, averaged 346.5 passing yards with five touchdowns and five interceptions and compiled an 84.5 NFL passer rating.

In the past two games, Newton has completed 56.1 percent of his passes, averaged 230.5 passing yards per game with two touchdowns and four interceptions while compiling a 62.8 NFL passer rating.

On the bright side, Newton continues to rank high in several other categories. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Newton’s 46.9 completion percentage when under duress or hit while throwing ranks fifth in the league.

Newton also continues to make plays with his legs. He has run for six touchdowns already and that ties him with Tim Tebow and Chris Weinke for the most rushing touchdowns by a rookie quarterback since the NFL-AFL merger. The record is seven and was set by Vince Young in 2006.

Pat Yasinskas' QB Watch

September, 14, 2011
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Cam Newton and Andy DaltonGetty ImagesCarolina's Cam Newton, left, and Cincinnati's Andy Dalton are the latest examples of quarterbacks who started the first game of their rookie seasons.
There’s an ancient NFL proverb that says you shouldn’t play a rookie quarterback right away. If you do, the logic goes, you might ruin him.

In breaking and somewhat related news: The world is flat.

Yeah, Christopher Columbus shot the second one down, and let’s turn to Cam Newton and Andy Dalton to take care of the first. Let’s label the exhibits Rookie QB 1 and Rookie QB 2.

Just look at the evidence Newton and Dalton put on the field Sunday as the only two rookie quarterbacks to start the season. Newton threw for 422 yards, the most ever by a player making his NFL debut.

And this was a guy who some fans and draft gurus said wouldn’t be able to run an NFL offense?

Then there was Dalton. He wasn’t as flamboyant as Newton, and he left the game with an injury. But, before he did, Dalton was a very efficient 10-of-15 passing for 81 yards with one touchdown and no interceptions to help the Cincinnati Bengals kick off the post-Carson Palmer era with a victory against Cleveland.

And Dalton slid all the way to the second round of the draft?

There’s a lesson to be learned from what Newton and Dalton did on Sunday. You can start a rookie quarterback right off the bat. And this theory’s not exactly brand new.

Take a look at recent years. Sam Bradford, Matt Ryan, Joe Flacco and Mark Sanchez have played quickly and fared well. As a matter of fact, can you name the last early draft pick who truly got "ruined" by playing too soon?

I say it’s David Carr, and that was a long time ago and in unique circumstances. Carr was playing on the expansion Houston Texans, who never really did anything to build a quality offensive line during his tenure.

You can throw out names like Joey Harrington, JaMarcus Russell, Vince Young and Alex Smith. But I think those were guys who were going to struggle no matter how soon they played.

Yeah, maybe in a dream world you can let Aaron Rodgers sit behind Brett Favre for a few years. But the NFL’s not a dream world, and maybe it’s time for those still clinging to the myth that a quarterback has to sit to let go.

Maybe it’s time -- or at least close to time -- for the Vikings, Jaguars and Titans to realize they’ve got nothing to lose by playing Christian Ponder, Blaine Gabbert and Jake Locker sooner rather than later.

In a new age when first-round rookie contracts are limited to four years with an option for a fifth, there’s a sense of urgency to find out what a quarterback can do. Yeah, you can make the argument that’s throwing a guy to the wolves. But the Panthers threw Newton to the Cardinals and the Bengals threw Dalton to the Browns and no one got ruined.

This is the inaugural edition of Quarterback Watch. We’ll be here every Wednesday throughout the season, examining the trends and themes involving quarterbacks and looking at whose stock is on the rise and whose is declining.

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TRENDING DOWN


We have a very interesting story over on our news side that reveals the National Football League has proposed to divert about $300 million a year from guaranteed money for rookies to benefits and salaries for veterans.

We’ve gone a little further into that because the resolution of the labor situation and how rookies are paid could have a huge and direct impact on the Carolina Panthers, who hold the No. 1 pick in the draft.

Under the old system, that pick likely would make somewhere around $50 million in guaranteed money. According to figures obtained by ESPN.com, the past five No. 1 overall draft picks have received $180.8 million in guaranteed compensation before ever playing a down in the NFL. That’s an average of $36.169 million per player.

Last year’s top draft pick, St. Louis quarterback Sam Bradford, got $50 million guaranteed in his contract. Matthew Stafford, the top pick in 2009, was given a deal with $41.7 million in guaranteed money. Miami’s Jake Long got $30 million guaranteed when he was taken in 2008. Oakland’s JaMarcus Russell, one of the biggest busts in recent years, was given $32.019 million in 2007 and 2006 top pick Mario Williams got $27.125 million in guaranteed money.

Much of the pre-draft speculation has Carolina taking a quarterback at No. 1, and Auburn’s Cam Newton and Missouri’s Blaine Gabbert are the names that have come up most often. But drafting a quarterback early doesn’t always mean success, although it has meant big money.

The last 15 quarterbacks selected in the top 10 (going back to Michael Vick in 2001) have had contracts that guaranteed them more than $367 million. That’s an average of $24.474 million per player, and only six of those 15 quarterbacks have been selected to a Pro Bowl.

Here’s a list of those quarterbacks that includes their draft year, team and guaranteed money.
I said last week the Carolina Panthers need to take Auburn quarterback Cam Newton with the first overall pick in the upcoming draft. I also said there are pretty good indications the Panthers are at least giving very serious thought to using the pick on Newton or Missouri quarterback Blaine Gabbert.

Nothing’s changed in my eyes and my ears tell me nothing’s changed in how the Panthers are thinking.

But as I was working ahead on our weekly Draft Watch post, I realized something that adds even more reason for the Panthers to go ahead and draft a quarterback. I thought about the rest of the NFC South.

[+] EnlargeCam Newton
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesThe Panthers may try to follow fellow NFC South members and try to get a franchise quarterback like Cam Newton or Blaine Gabbert.
What’s the first thing New Orleans coach Sean Payton, Atlanta coach Mike Smith and Tampa Bay coach Raheem Morris did when they were hired? The methods varied and they each had some help from their general manager, but Payton, Smith and Morris went out and got a franchise quarterback.

You can’t argue with the results. Payton won a Super Bowl title, Smith has had three straight winning seasons and Morris took the Bucs from 3-13 to 10-6 last season.

You know Payton got Drew Brees, Smith brought in Matt Ryan and Morris found Josh Freeman. But what you might not realize is how specifically each of those three coaches targeted each of those three guys.

Coming into New Orleans the season after Hurricane Katrina, Payton decided quickly he wasn’t going to go draft Matt Leinart. In his book “Home Team,’’ Payton describes at length how he and general manager Mickey Loomis saw a rare opportunity to get an established franchise quarterback. The San Diego Chargers were letting Brees walk into free agency because they had Philip Rivers and Brees was coming off major shoulder surgery.

In his book, Payton wrote that the Saints were competing with the Miami Dolphins for Brees. Payton and Loomis decided they had to “overpay’’ to get Brees to avoid the comforts of Miami and come to a city and a franchise that was in a total rebuilding mode. The Saints jacked up their offer, got Brees and it turned out to be the best move in franchise history.

When Smith took over, the Falcons had needs just about everywhere. But Smith and Dimitroff realized you might as well start building a program with a quarterback and they took Ryan with the third overall pick, after spending some nervous nights worrying the Dolphins and Rams might botch their plans. But Miami and St. Louis passed on Ryan and Atlanta’s been winning ever since.

It was basically the same thing in Tampa Bay. Although fans and media were screaming for defense, mainly because that’s what the Bucs had trained people to do since the franchise started, general manager Mark Dominik and Morris decided they had to get a quarterback. There are some, mainly Doug Williams, who will tell you the Bucs wanted Mark Sanchez. But Dominik and Morris have said all along Freeman was the guy they wanted. In fact, they initially were slated to draft at No. 19. But, fearing someone would jump into the No. 18 spot to get Freeman, the Bucs moved up to No. 17 and got their quarterback.

New Carolina coach Ron Rivera comes from a defensive background. But, in his hiring process, it was established the organization now realizes the NFL is a quarterback-driven league. General manager Marty Hurney is fully committed to giving Rivera the kind of quarterback he needs to win.

Could there be someone like Brees out there if the lockout ends and free agency and trades are allowed? It’s not real likely. The names you hear might be available are guys like Donovan McNabb, Carson Palmer, Vince Young and Kevin Kolb. McNabb was a franchise quarterback for a long time, but he’s on the downside of his career. Palmer might have briefly been a franchise quarterback, but his career has regressed. Young was drafted to be a franchise quarterback, but hasn’t come close. Kolb’s basically a career backup with some upside, but it’s a stretch to envision him as a franchise quarterback.

More and more I think Hurney and Rivera need to do what the other three franchises did when their current regimes started. They need to go out and get a franchise quarterback and it’s looking like the draft is the only spot to do that this year.
New Carolina coach Ron Rivera has seemed to be a lot more forthcoming than predecessor John Fox so far. That continued Thursday morning as Rivera spoke to the media for about 45 minutes. That’s about 43 minutes more than most Fox meetings with the media in his Carolina days.

Smith
Rivera didn’t disappoint as he continued to admit nothing is a given when it comes to the future of veteran receiver Steve Smith.

“Steve is a Carolina Panther,” Rivera said. “Let us put it all together and see if it works first.”

That’s a good and honest answer at this point. Smith has been told to ponder his future and let the team know if he wants out. If he does, the team may consider trading him. But there also are some in the organization that want to keep Smith, who remains under contract through 2012.

But the Panthers really can’t do anything with Smith until the labor situation is settled. There are no indications Smith has told the team he wants out and he’s probably wise to see how several situations sort out. The labor situation is most significant. But Smith also might want to wait to see what the Panthers do at quarterback before making any major decisions.

The Panthers may consider Cam Newton or Blaine Gabbert in the draft. But there also could be several veteran quarterbacks (Donovan McNabb, Carson Palmer, Kevin Kolb and Vince Young) available either through the draft or free agency.

Like Rivera said, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to make any decisions on Smith until the Panthers have other parts in place and know where the receiver might fit.

Leading Questions: NFC South

February, 15, 2011
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With the offseason in full swing, let’s take a look at one major question facing each NFC South team as it begins preparations for the 2011 season:

ATLANTA FALCONS

How do the Falcons take the next step?

Atlanta went an NFC-best 13-3 in the regular season, but got eliminated at home in the playoffs by Green Bay. That was painful proof that the Falcons haven’t quite arrived despite three consecutive winning seasons since coach Mike Smith took over. The Falcons played like a well-oiled machine through most of the regular season and it would be easy to say the machine just got clogged in the playoffs. But that’s not what really happened. The Falcons were successful during the regular season because they played smart football and didn’t do anything to beat themselves. But the reality here is the machine might need a few more parts for the Falcons truly to go out and beat other teams.

The core is solid with guys like quarterback Matt Ryan, receiver Roddy White, running back Michael Turner and linebacker Curtis Lofton. But White was the only real playmaker on offense last season, and defensive end John Abraham, who is nearing the end of his career, was the only one on defense. Whether it’s a speed back or a wide receiver who can provide a deep threat, the Falcons need to find a difference-maker on offense. They need the same thing on defense, and a pass-rusher to complement, and eventually replace, Abraham could be the top priority in the draft.

CAROLINA PANTHERS

What does Carolina do at quarterback?

A new era is starting with the arrival of coach Ron Rivera, and everyone in the organization knows it can’t be like the final few seasons of John Fox’s tenure. The Panthers simply stopped having a legitimate NFL offense. Fox’s conservative approach to offense certainly played a role, but the real problem is that the Panthers simply haven’t had a dependable quarterback since Jake Delhomme fell apart in a playoff loss to Arizona at the end of the 2008 season. That’s handcuffed the entire franchise and was the major reason the Panthers went 2-14 last year.

In typical Fox fashion, he handed the starting job to career backup Matt Moore. When that didn’t work, Fox reluctantly turned to Jimmy Clausen and didn’t help the rookie’s confidence by yanking him out of the lineup several times. Although some in the organization believe, with a fresh start, Clausen can develop into a decent starter, the Panthers can’t rely totally on that. This franchise has to do something major to get a viable alternative at quarterback. With the No. 1 pick in the draft, the Panthers could take a leap on Blaine Gabbert or Cam Newton, but neither comes with any guarantees. With talk that Donovan McNabb, Carson Palmer, Vince Young and Kevin Kolb could be available, the Panthers might have to break from tradition and sign or trade for a veteran. With receiver Steve Smith, running backs DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart and a talented offensive line, the Panthers can’t afford to continue to let the offense rot away due to ineffective play at quarterback.

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS

Can the Saints get back to the Super Bowl?

The nucleus of the 2009 team that went on to win the Super Bowl remains largely in place, so there’s no reason the Saints shouldn’t at least be in contention for a deep playoff run. They never really suffered the collapse that’s been common for many recent Super Bowl winners as they went 11-5 in 2010. But they weren’t the same dominant and explosive team. Injuries played a role in that and a few holes were exposed.

But a little better luck on the injury front and a few tweaks could put the Saints right back where they were. After the season, quarterback Drew Brees admitted he played part of the year with a sprained knee. That might explain why he wasn’t as precise as the Super Bowl season, and a healthy Brees automatically would make the Saints better. But the biggest issue on offense is the running game. With Pierre Thomas and Reggie Bush banged-up for most of the season, the Saints weren’t able to run the ball consistently. Chris Ivory stepped in and did a nice job at times, but the Saints know they have to upgrade in this area. Thomas probably will be allowed to leave as a free agent. The Saints probably will use an early draft pick on a running back or sign someone of significance in free agency. On defense, the Saints have to get back to being opportunistic and taking advantage of turnovers like they did in the Super Bowl season. Upgrading the pass rush is the best way to make sure that happens.

TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS

Where will the Bucs find an outside pass rush?

Not on their current roster. Stylez G. White and Tim Crowder are just “guys’’ and that showed all too often as Tampa Bay’s pass rush was anemic. The Bucs broke from tradition and won with offense -- mainly quarterback Josh Freeman -- for the first time in franchise history last season. There is talent elsewhere on defense, but the Bucs need to improve the pass rush to elevate the overall play of the defense and make this a complete team.

Look for something similar to last offseason when the Bucs realized they had problems at defensive tackle. They went out and used their first two draft picks on Gerald McCoy and Brian Price. Both ended up having their seasons shortened by injuries, but both showed some promise. They’ll be back healthy and will be joined by Roy Miller in the middle. That trio should create a decent inside pass rush, but the Bucs know they need more talent on the outside. It might not be the same scenario as last year with the Bucs using their top two picks on defensive ends. They may draft one early and look for another potential starter in free agency.

NFC South weekend hot spots

February, 12, 2011
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Time for a weekend trip into the NFC South mailbag.

Daniel in New Orleans asks if teams ever contact players leaving as free agents to say "We loved having you here, good luck," that kind of thing.’’

Pat Yasinskas: Excellent question, and Daniel’s note referred specifically to Scott Fujita, who left the Saints last offseason. Yes, this kind of thing happens a lot. In Fujita’s case, there was definitely a strong bond between him and the Saints. New Orleans had an interest in keeping him, but the Browns offered much more money than the Saints were willing to pay. The Saints publicly and privately thanked Fujita for his contributions, and warm feelings remain between the player and the organization. Two other prominent NFC South players come to mind with this question. Muhsin Muhammad left the Carolina Panthers for the Chicago Bears, and Warrick Dunn left the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for the Atlanta Falcons on very good terms. Both situations were similar to Fujita’s. Both players were liked very much by their former teams, but they got huge offers to go elsewhere. They left and, later in their careers, Muhammad returned to the Panthers and Dunn returned to the Bucs. That’s why it’s best not to burn bridges. On the flip side, there can be bitter endings. For instance, I don’t see Julius Peppers ever returning to Carolina.


Ed in Cape Coral, Fla. asks if I’ve heard anything about the Glazer family, which owns the Buccaneers, being close to selling the Manchester United soccer team.

Pat Yasinskas: Rumors have been flying about this possibility for a long time. The Glazers repeatedly have said Manchester United is not for sale. I haven’t heard anything lately that would lead me to believe otherwise, but I’m not really plugged into the soccer world.


John in Viera, Fla. asks if the Panthers have any serious interest in Kevin Kolb, Donovan McNabb, Vince Young or Carson Palmer.

Pat Yasinskas: I had a good conversation with Carolina general manager Marty Hurney on Friday. Like any executive, he’s not going to lay out any top-secret plans in public, and with a new staff just coming together, the labor uncertainty and the various scenarios in which the guys you mentioned could be available, I don’t think the Panthers have a firm plan yet. I think that’s still being formulated. But the one thing Hurney was clear on was that the Panthers have to do something at quarterback. He still has hope Jimmy Clausen can develop into a solid starter, but Hurney is very aware he has to have a viable alternative. I think any or all of the guys you mention will at least be considerations.


Hank in Illinois asks if there is any chance of the Falcons moving up in the draft to take a defensive end.

Pat Yasinskas: It’s at least a possibility. General manager Thomas Dimitroff can be aggressive when the Falcons really see someone they want. They’re sitting at No. 27, and most early mock drafts have the top tier of defensive ends gone slightly before Atlanta’s pick, so moving up could make sense. But we’ve got more than two months before the draft, and the stock of some defensive ends will rise and fall. This also is a draft that’s considered very deep at defensive end, so there is a possibility the Falcons could sit still and get the guy they want. There also is the possibility they might go in a different direction with their first pick and get a defensive end later in the draft or through free agency.
Lots of great questions in Friday’s NFC South chat. Let’s take a look at some of the highlights.

Marcus (Concord, NC): Hey Pat, do you think that the Panthers are even gonna look at a guy like Josh McDaniels for the OC job? Also will they shop around their pick and try to pick up either Kyle Orton or Vince Young in a trade down?

Pat Yasinskas: I suspect whoever the Panthers hire as OC might be a bigger name than their head coach. They've got to get the offense right. Not sure if McDaniels would be the guy, but somebody like him. As far as QB, they've got to get someone who is at least a viable alternative to Clausen. With Luck out of the picture, that will have to come through free agency or a trade.

John (Mission, TX): Why does the Bucs win over saints not get any praise. All you hear is Ssaints had injured players. So did the Bucs and they had many rookies starting. Why does this happen? Bucs will be a team to look out for in the next year..

Pat Yasinskas: No argument here. Bucs went out and showed they can beat a good team. They're going to be good going forward. Heck, with Freeman, they should be good for the next decade.

redzonejones (NY): Do you think the Bucs will do what they did last year and grab two bookend DE?

Pat Yasinskas: Yep, in some way, shape or form. Might not be first and second picks like it was with DTs. But they may get a couple throughout the draft or draft one and sign one as a free agent. It's an obvious need and they know they have to take care of that.

Matthew (Mississippi): Pat, will Jerious Norwood ever be a factor in ATL? He has shown flashes but can't seem to shake the injury bug.

Pat Yasinskas: No, I think they'll let Norwood go and look for a speed back in the draft.

JP (Inverness, FL): Who are you more impressed with Ryan after a season and a half, or Freeman? I know Ryan developed a little differently, but it was not that long ago he was about where Freeman is now and since I think they may be the next great division QB rivals, now is a great time to speculate.

Pat Yasinskas: Excellent question. I really like them both. They're two different guys in two different offenses, so it's hard to compare them. But I think their presence means Falcons and Bucs should be good for the next decade or so. And Brees still has some good years left, so the NFC South is going to be strong for a long time to come.

Here's the complete transcript of the NFC South chat.

Josh Freeman takes lead in air time

October, 13, 2010
10/13/10
9:18
AM ET
We’ve talked quite about how Tampa Bay’s Josh Freeman has one of the strongest arms in the league. Well, the evidence just keeps getting stronger.

Freeman has moved into the lead in a statistical category that’s not officially kept by the league, but it tells us a lot about the league’s quarterbacks and the offensive systems they are in. The statistic is air yards per attempt and it’s kept by ESPN Stats & Information. As it sounds, this stat is how many yards a quarterback actually throws the ball in the air per attempt.

Freeman
Freeman has moved into the lead league in this category. He’s averaging 10.5 yards of air time per attempt. Ryan Fitzpatrick, Vince Young and Brett Favre are the only other quarterbacks averaging at least 10 yards in the air per pass.

After Freeman, there’s a pretty steep decline among NFC South quarterbacks in this category.

Atlanta’s Matt Ryan, who throws a lot of underneath passes to tight end Tony Gonzalez, is No. 24 at 7.62 yards per air attempt. New Orleans’ Drew Brees and Carolina’s Jimmy Clausen are at the bottom of the league in this category.

Clausen is No. 29, averaging 6.77 yards of air per attempt and Brees is No. 30 at 6.42 air yards per attempt.

History of the 'Madden' Curse

April, 22, 2010
4/22/10
10:32
AM ET
New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees officially has been selected to grace the cover of the "Madden NFL 11" video game.

It’s a nice honor for a player from a small-market team. But history has shown it’s not always a good thing to be on the "Madden" cover. Let’s turn it over to our friends at ESPN Stats & Information for a look at what’s happened to the guys who have been on the "Madden" cover in the past.

  • 2010, Troy Polamalu/Larry Fitzgerald: Polamalu only played five games due to knee injuries, Steelers missed playoffs; Fitzgerald wasn’t affected much (97 receptions, 1,092 yards, 13 TD, Pro Bowl).
  • 2009, Brett Favre: Feuded with Packers, traded to Jets, horrible down the stretch (lost 4 of last 5).
  • 2008, Vince Young: Missed 1 game with quad injury; led Titans to first playoff appearance in four years.
  • 2007, Shaun Alexander: Fractured foot, missed six games; fewer yards and TDs in '06 AND '07 than in '04 OR '05.
  • 2006, Donovan McNabb: Sports hernia in first game, missed seven games; feuded with Terrell Owens all year; had been to five straight Pro Bowls, hasn't been since.
  • 2005, Ray Lewis: Broke wrist, missed one game; first season without interception; missed 10 games next year with thigh injury.
  • 2004, Michael Vick: Fractured fibula one day after video game was released, missed 11 games; Pro Bowl next 2 seasons; obvious issues since then.
  • 2003, Marshall Faulk: Ankle injury, missed two games, never rushed for 1,000 yards again.
  • 2002, Daunte Culpepper: 4-7 record before season-ending knee injury.
  • 2001, Eddie George: Career season, but fumbled in playoffs as top-seeded Titans lost first game to Ravens.
  • 2000, Barry Sanders: Retired one week before training camp.
 
  US Presswire
  Can Drew Brees or Matt Schaub take the next step and lead his team to the playoffs?

Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas and Paul Kuharsky

The New Orleans Saints and Houston Texans each finished 8-8 in 2008. Looking back, breaking even was a remarkable accomplishment given the extreme circumstances each team endured.

After Oct. 12, 2008, the Saints did not play another game in the Superdome until Nov. 24, thanks in part to their international game in London and a bye week. They somehow managed to split the four games during that span.

The Texans began last season 0-4, including a devastating Week 5 home loss to the Indianapolis Colts that featured Houston squandering a 17-point fourth-quarter lead.

Each team produced a great salvage job. Which is primed to take the next step to being a contender?

In this edition of Double Coverage, NFC South blogger Pat Yasinskas and AFC South blogger Paul Kuharsky discuss what each team needs to do to break the .500 barrier and make a run to the playoffs.

  2008: Best of Drew Brees
  NFL.com Video
  Check out highlights of the best moments from Drew Brees in 2008.

THE QUARTERBACK FACTOR

Kuharsky: Well, Pat, topflight quarterback play is always a good first ingredient in a big jump for a team. I'm not going to suggest Matt Schaub is going to be better than Drew Brees in 2009. But if he cuts down on turnovers, Schaub can make a major leap and the Texans can be a playoff-caliber team. He's got one of the NFL's best receivers in Andre Johnson and they've established one of those special relationships. His offense ran the ball far better last season thanks to the new scheme of offensive line coach Alex Gibbs and the emergence of running back Steve Slaton. The offseason focus is on improving the defense -- which already has added free-agent end Antonio Smith. If Houston plays more aggressively and better defense under new coordinator Richard Bush, Schaub and the Texans' offense could feel less pressure. All those circumstances suggest to me, if he can stay healthy, Schaub is in prime position to help the Texans score more points per game. And if they tack some onto the 22.9 points per game they averaged in 2008, they've got an excellent shot at improving on 8-8 and making the playoffs.

Yasinskas: Paul, I like Matt Schaub, too, and I think the Texans can win with him. But Brees was the best quarterback in the league last season. He threw for more than 5,000 yards even though top receiver Marques Colston missed a big chunk of time with an injury and tight end Jeremy Shockey was banged up most of the season. Brees was spectacular with a very ordinary supporting cast around him and not much of a running game. He made receiver Lance Moore into a star and made former disappointment Devery Henderson into a respectable receiver. Brees is an absolutely perfect fit in Sean Payton's offense and I expect him to be even better in 2009. With a healthy Colston and Shockey, Brees could put up astronomical numbers. There's also a sense of urgency within the organization because the coaches and front office realize Brees is in the prime of his career and the Saints don't want to waste that with another mediocre season. Brees single-handedly carried the Saints to eight wins last year. With just a little more help around him, he should be able to lead the Saints to double-digit wins.

THE SCHEDULE

Kuharsky: Two seasons ago, the AFC South sent three teams into the AFC playoff field. For the Texans to make their first postseason appearance, the division might have to send three again, because the Titans and Colts are going to have a lot of the same ingredients they had last season. What suggests the Texans can join those teams or pass one? Well, the AFC South plays the NFC West in 2009. While Arizona was a great story last season and one can never accurately predict teams' success from one year to the next anymore, I think if every team in the league could pick one division to play this fall, it would love to have the Cards, 49ers, Seahawks and Rams on its schedule. Say the Texans go 3-1 against those teams, manage 2-2 against the AFC East and sweep the two games assigned based on their third-place division finish in 2009, Oakland and Cincinnati. That's seven wins. If they could pull off just 3-3 in their division, where they have historically done great against Jacksonville but horribly against Indianapolis and Tennessee, they're 10-6 and in range of a playoff berth, I think. Last season's late win over the Titans could serve as a catapult for them in divisional play.

Yasinskas: The most certain thing I can say about the Saints right now is that their 2009 schedule won't be anywhere near as difficult as it was in 2008. That's when the Saints drew the most brutal schedule any NFL team has had in recent memory. The Saints had to spend much of the year on the road, practicing for a week in Indianapolis to avoid an approaching hurricane. But that was the easy part. The Saints had a stretch where they went 42 days without playing in the Superdome as a "home" game in London and a bye week were surrounded by road games. To their credit, the Saints never pointed to the schedule as an excuse. But the fact is they were at a competitive disadvantage that no other team had to deal with. We haven't seen the exact schedule yet, but the Saints don't have an international game this year and it's safe to assume they won't have any stretch that compares to last year. But the Saints have to play better against the rest of the NFC South. They were 2-4 in division play last year and were the only NFC South team with a losing record against division foes.

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  Paul Spinelli/Getty Images
  Mario Williams is just one of many young, up-and-coming defenders on the Texans.

YOUTH MOVEMENT

Kuharsky: The nicest NFL breakout stories are about teams that pieced themselves together relying largely on the draft. It's great to see a young group mature together, gaining confidence and feeding off it. The Texans have the right sort of characters to fit that script. They traded for Schaub, of course, but he'll be just 28 when camp opens. He's throwing to Johnson (also 28) and tight end Owen Daniels (26), handing off to Slaton (23), and enjoying protection on the edges from Duane Brown (23) and Eric Winston (25). The defense is built around Mario Williams, DeMeco Ryans, Smith, Dunta Robinson and Amobi Okoye. Robinson and Smith are currently the old men of that group at 27. It's possible all 11 guys of that core have not yet played their best football -- a great reason to be encouraged. And they've got draft help coming on defense.

Yasinskas: The Saints aren't a team you usually think of as being young. But, in a unique way, they've got a youth movement going on. They have only four picks in the 2009 draft at the moment, but it's almost like they've got another rookie class. Several rookies missed all or most of last season because of injuries. In particular, the Saints believe cornerback Tracy Porter and receiver Adrian Arrington can be very valuable players. Throw in the fact that Reggie Bush, Colston, Pierre Thomas and Sedrick Ellis are still young and the Saints have some youthful players who should continue to get better. But they've also got a nice mix of veterans. They've got guys like Brees, Jonathan Vilma and Dan Morgan as leaders who have won some big games in their careers. The Saints aren't relying heavily on many old guys -- defensive tackle Hollis Thomas and cornerback Mike McKenzie might be just role players. This is a team made up mostly of guys who are young or are in their prime and that's a nice combination to have.

THE CHANGES IN DEFENSIVE COORDINATORS

Yasinskas: I sincerely believe the best and most important move the Saints made this offseason was the hiring of defensive coordinator Gregg Williams. Gary Gibbs took the fall for last season and was fired. You can't put all the blame on Gibbs because the defense was decimated by injuries. But the defense was nothing short of horrible and it was the main reason the Saints didn't make the playoffs. Payton recognized that and went out and got the best defensive coordinator available. Williams likes to play very aggressive defense and that's something the Saints haven't done in a long time. Williams is intense and he might be able to light a fire under defensive ends Charles Grant and Will Smith. The return of a lot of injured players also should help and the Saints got linebacker Morgan back from retirement and signed cornerback Jabari Greer. This defense doesn't have to be great because the offense is. Williams just needs to get this defense to be average and the Saints will have a shot to go deep into the playoffs.

Kuharsky: Compared to Williams, we know nothing about Frank Bush, the Texans' new defensive coordinator. He's been part of Gary Kubiak's staff since 2007 and a lot of Texans faithful, fairly or not, really like one thing about him already: He's not Richard Smith. Though Houston made some progress in the latter part of the season when it turned more aggressive, the defense didn't come close to matching the offense in 2008. That needs to change in 2009 and it can if Bush can stamp the group with a defensive identity. Indications are the Texans will move toward making that late-season aggression more permanent. The big addition in free agency came on defense, and Antonio Smith can be a load to handle playing end opposite Mario Williams. Bush is going to get a personnel boost from the draft to help him try -- likely in the form of a linebacker, a tackle and a safety. Can Bush get the group believing and producing? Much like you say, Pat, with the Saints -- the Texans don't have to be one of the league's top defenses. If they move from 22nd to the mid or early teens and if they can knock some points off the average of 25 they allowed last year, that should be a sufficient boost for a team that should be offense-driven.

STAR POWER

 
  Matt Stamey/US Presswire
  The Saints haven't been able to figure out exactly how to use Reggie Bush's unique talents.

Yasinskas: For a small-market team, the Saints have an awful lot of star power. But it would help if all those stars played up to their ability level on a consistent basis. Brees was outstanding all last season and Vilma was very solid. But Shockey, Reggie Bush and Colston weren't able to match their hype for various reasons. The Saints have to get their stars playing like stars again. For Colston, that's just a matter of being healthy. Shockey was banged up almost all of last year, but still has the talent to be one of the league's best tight ends. Then, there's the curious case of Reggie Bush. If he hadn't been such a great college player and such a high draft pick, he'd be considered a decent player. But decent doesn't cut it for him. He's supposed to be spectacular all the time and the Saints haven't done him a lot of favors. They've never been able to figure out exactly how to use his unique talents. Payton is
widely credited with being a brilliant offensive mind. But he needs to focus all his thoughts on getting more out of Reggie Bush. If he ever comes close to being what he was in college, he'll be the biggest star New Orleans ever has seen.

Kuharsky: The Texans are a young team, but several of their guys have been around long enough to establish themselves as premier talents. Andre Johnson doesn't do popcorn stunts and doesn't make brash demands about how often the ball needs to come his direction. But he sets a standard for the franchise and everyone knows they can look to him to see how things should be done. Mario Williams is quiet, too, and he's won over all the Houstonians who wanted Reggie Bush or Vince Young at the top of the 2006 draft. With those two cornerstones, the Texans have the kind of star power a team needs -- not for a fancy marketing campaign or happy stories on "SportsCenter," but as tone-setters who show the other 52 guys that the work ethic, tone and philosophy of the organization can produce names that rank with the best in the league at their positions.

MOMENTUM

Yasinskas: The Saints didn't come close to ending last season on a high note, mainly because they finished with almost 20 guys on the injured reserve list. They never were able to build any momentum. They'd play well one game and horribly the next. That's a problem that has to be fixed next season. What the Saints need more than anything is a fresh start. They need to forget last season's brutal travel schedule and welcome back all the injured guys who are healthy now. Just getting the bulk of those guys back should be a nice shot in the arm.

Kuharsky: The Texans excel at winning at the end of the season. In 2007 they finished 3-1 to get to 8-8 and last year it was a big 5-1 push that got them to .500. That's nice momentum to carry into an offseason. But the team knows the question that now comes attached: Those good finishes are nice, but they came once it was apparent the team wasn't going to the postseason. Now Houston has to fare well enough in the first couple months of a season to earn a chance to show it can win late games that are more meaningful.

CONCLUSION

Kuharsky: Are the Texans better suited to build on 8-8 and be a playoff team in 2009 than the Saints, who are only two years removed from the conference championship game? It's too early to say. I picked the Saints to be in Super Bowl XXLIII, so I am wary of them. But I'd have to give them the edge right now based on two more proven commodities in Brees and Gregg Williams. I'd sure like to sit next to you at Reliant Stadium or in the Superdome to watch them play each other, though. It could well be a 38-37 game.

Yasinskas: Paul, I think the Texans have the potential for a breakthrough year. But I think the Saints will have a breakthrough year. They had an incredible run of bad luck last season, but they've got a ton of talent in place and they've made the moves they had to make to get their defense better. I'll go out on a limb and say the Saints make the playoffs in 2009.

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