NFC West: Mike Smith
Their NFC Championship Game preview begins at the 4:35 mark of the above-linked podcast. Check it out.
Tucker expects the Falcons to play well after finally claiming their first postseason victory since coach Mike Smith and quarterback Matt Ryan arrived in 2008. He thinks the Falcons will be well-prepared for Colin Kaepernick's running.
"Ultimately, however, I just think the 49ers have better football players, especially on the defensive side of the ball," Tucker said. "I think they are better up front on both sides of the ball, and that that is what will ultimately carry the day."
Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. envisions the Falcons picking off Kaepernick once or twice, but he's leaning toward the 49ers as well. As for Soderberg? He makes his pick at about the 13:10 mark.
Related: Check out ESPN's expert picks for the week. Chris Mortensen and Keyshawn Johnson are taking the Falcons to beat the 49ers.
Sixteen days have passed since the Arizona Cardinals fired coach Ken Whisenhunt.
One of their declared candidates, Andy Reid, signed with Kansas City without visiting the Cardinals. Another candidate, Mike McCoy, signed with San Diego before conducting a second interview with the Cardinals.
The situation is naturally a little unnerving for Cardinals fans. Should the Cardinals have hired a coach by now?
The team's media relations director, Mark Dalton, notes via Twitter that the home teams in the upcoming championship round hired their coaches relatively late in the process: Mike Smith to Atlanta on Jan. 23 (2008) and Bill Belichick to New England on Jan. 27 (2000).
The NFL's Record & Fact Book lists hiring dates for all NFL head coaches.
The San Francisco 49ers hired Jim Harbaugh on Jan. 7, 2011. The Seattle Seahawks hired Pete Carroll on Jan. 11, 2010. The Cardinals hired their previous coach, Ken Whisenhunt, on Jan. 14, 2007. The St. Louis Rams hired Jeff Fisher on Jan. 17, 2012.
Those are official hiring dates. In some cases, the teams had singled in on a candidate or reached informal agreement with one in advance of those official dates.
Specific hiring dates provide context. Cardinals fans should be looking for signs Arizona has a clear plan for upgrading its coaching situation. From the outside, it's been tough to see whether such a plan exists. That makes the waiting tougher to take.
Seattle is fresh off its first road playoff victory since 1983, having won 24-14 at Washington in the wild-card round. The Seahawks are now 2-1 in postseason play during Pete Carroll's first three seasons as head coach.
As for the Falcons, well, you know the story. They're the No. 1 seed in the NFC and they'll be playing at home. But as NFC South blogger Pat Yasinskas can attest, they haven't accomplished anything yet.
That's where we pick up the conversation.
Yasinskas: The world knows the Falcons have yet to win a playoff game in the Mike Smith-Matt Ryan era. That places enormous pressure on the Falcons, and the Seahawks look a little reminiscent of Atlanta's past two playoff opponents -- the Packers and Giants, who each went on to win the Super Bowl. The Seahawks won their last five regular-season games and seven of their past eight. Throw in their playoff victory against Washington on Sunday and you've got a team that's red hot. Atlanta has the better record and home-field advantage, but the playoff drought brings tremendous pressure. If the Falcons don't win this time around, the patience of owner Arthur Blank will become very thin.
Sando: The Falcons' past struggles in playoff games have invited skepticism from a lot of us. I've taken heat from some Falcons fans this season for allegedly underrating Atlanta in the power rankings. How good is this team right now and how much confidence should Falcons fans have in this team against Seattle?
Yasinskas: Yes, Atlanta fans have shared their opinions with me about where you ranked the Falcons on your ballot. But you might not have been that far off. The Falcons were a bit of an enigma much of the season. They were winning a lot of games, but weren't winning them impressively. They did come on late in the season, aside from a meaningless loss to Tampa Bay in the season finale. This is a team with a tremendous amount of individual talent, and the Falcons are very good at home. But they can't afford to revert back to their early-season ways of playing just well enough to win, because that might get them beat.
Sando: The Seahawks are playing without the burden of expectations. They are very good at quarterback, running back and in the secondary. The read option has added an unconventional element to their offense. Still, winning a 10 a.m. PT game on the road against a very good offensive team will be tough. The Seahawks have started slowly in their past two games. I think they'll have a harder time if that happens again. Along those lines, have the Falcons been able to jump on teams early at home and finish them off? One memory I have is watching Arizona pick off Ryan five times.
Yasinskas: The Arizona game was the only time in Ryan's life (including college, high school and youth league) when he's thrown five interceptions in a game. That was a fluke. Some of those balls were tipped. Ryan generally is very efficient. And starting fast is one of the trademarks of Ryan and the Falcons. Since Ryan entered the league in 2008, the Falcons have scored more points on their first offensive drives than any team in the NFL. They pride themselves on starting fast, and they're particularly good at that in the Georgia Dome.
Sando: The Seahawks fell behind St. Louis and Washington early. They have shown an ability to come back. They were down by 13 to New England and won. They trailed Washington by 14 points and won. They're not slow starters by rule. Seattle was tied with Atlanta for seventh in first-quarter touchdown drives (11) during the regular season. It has been in only the past couple weeks that teams have thrown off the Seahawks early with their blitzes. Seattle came out passing against the Redskins. We'll see heavier early doses of Marshawn Lynch on Sunday.
Yasinskas: I'm certain we will see heavier doses of Lynch. Stopping the run is not Atlanta's strength. The Falcons ranked 21st against the run in the regular season and they've been known to have problems with power runners. That's why it's crucial for the Falcons to get an early lead and force the Seahawks to pass. The other thing I think you'll see is a lot of middle linebacker Akeem Dent. The Falcons used a lot of the nickel package in the regular season, and that kept Dent on the sidelines. But against the Seahawks, I think it's more important for the Falcons to focus on stopping the run, and they'll want Dent on the field for that.
Sando: Interesting. Seattle could counter by shifting into its three-receiver offense and then going with its read-option package. Lynch scored the winning 27-yard touchdown against the Redskins on an option run from three-receiver personnel against Washington's nickel defense. The option has become a reliable tactic for Seattle. Opponents have a tough time determining whether Lynch or Russell Wilson is going to run with the ball. They also must respect the play-action passing game. The Seahawks had 11 rushes for 110 yards on option runs on Sunday. They had 224 yards rushing overall. I noticed Cam Newton had 202 yards rushing in two games against the Falcons this season. What was the nature of those rushes and do you see anything Seattle can cull from that?
Yasinskas: Newton did have success against Atlanta, but the Falcons still were able to split with the Panthers. They also held Robert Griffin III to one carry for 7 yards in an early victory at Washington. They won against another mobile quarterback in Michael Vick. So the Falcons have some experience in facing mobile quarterbacks and the read option. I'm sure they used the bye week to prepare to see it again because they knew they'd be facing Wilson or Griffin. Outside linebacker Sean Weatherspoon is the key player against the read option. He's the leader of the defense and probably the best player on the unit.
Sando: The Panthers had 21 carries for 120 yards and a touchdown using the option against Atlanta in Week 4. There will be other keys to this game. Wilson's ability to deal with the Falcons' blitzes could be one of them. Wilson had seven touchdowns, no picks, three sacks and the NFL's third-best Total QBR score (87.2) against five-plus pass-rushers from Week 8 through Week 16. That included going 6-of-6 for 91 yards and a score with a perfect 100.0 QBR against the 49ers' blitzes during a 42-13 victory in Week 16. Wilson wasn't quite as good in this regard against the Rams in Week 17, taking three sacks against their pressure. The Redskins held Wilson to a season-low 9.7 QBR against the blitz. Wilson has taken eight sacks against the blitz over the past two games after taking eight total over the previous 15 games.
Yasinskas: Wilson is incredibly poised. But he still is a rookie coming into a tough venue in a playoff game, so I'm pretty sure defensive coordinator Mike Nolan will try every way possible to pressure him. Drew Brees and Matthew Stafford were the only quarterbacks all season to have much success against Atlanta's blitzes. Nolan likes to mix things up. The Atlanta pass rush starts with defensive end John Abraham, but Nolan has found ways to complement him. Nolan's not afraid to drop defensive end Kroy Biermann into pass coverage and let a linebacker or a defensive back blitz. The Falcons often talk about "disguising" their pass rush, and I'm sure they'll try to do lots of that against a rookie quarterback.
Sando: Wilson has generally improved as the season has progressed, but he has been hit-and-miss all season against DB pressure. Wilson has three touchdowns, two picks, four sacks and a 17.9 QBR score when opponents rush a member of the secondary. He did make Minnesota, Miami and San Francisco (twice) pay for the tactic, however.
There's so much to consider in this matchup, Pat, that we haven't even gotten to one of the most crucial ones. Seattle's 6-foot-4 Brandon Browner and 6-3 Richard Sherman can be dominant cornerbacks. They disrupt receivers' timing and generally get under their skin. You might recall Carolina's Steve Smith just about losing it against Sherman earlier this season. Even the Redskins' left tackle went after him Sunday. If the Falcons win this game, Ryan is going to be the reason, I think. Should the Falcons' receivers like their chances? Or could we see Ryan becoming a bit tentative against big, physical, ball-hawking corners?
Yasinskas: I think the Falcons have to come out and be very aggressive with their passing game. It's the strength of their offense. This is a different team from those of the past. Michael Turner is at the end of his career and this is not a running team any longer. Roddy White and Julio Jones are big, physical receivers, so I say let's see strength on strength with Seattle's corners. I think White and Jones can get open against anyone, so the Falcons need to take their chances. Plus, this passing game is about more than just Jones and White. They command so much attention that tight end Tony Gonzalez and slot receiver Harry Douglas could be forgotten. I think Douglas and/or Gonzalez could end up being key players in this game.
Sando: Seattle has been very good against tight ends for the most part. I'd be surprised if Gonzalez factored in a big way. Seattle has allowed three touchdown passes to tight ends this season, tied for second-fewest in the NFL. The Seahawks have allowed 10 scoring passes to wide receivers, the fifth-fewest in the league. Sherman had eight picks and three forced fumbles this season, joining Ed Reed, Charles Woodson and Walt Harris as the only players to reach those totals in a season over the past decade. The Seahawks are not as strong at nickel corner, however. And with leading sacker Chris Clemons likely out with a knee injury, life could get tougher for Seattle in the secondary.
Yasinskas: Mike, like just about everyone in the media, I'm skeptical of the Falcons because of their recent playoff losses. But I think this is the year they finally get a victory in the postseason. This is a different team from past years. I think the Falcons will put the game in Ryan's hands and I think they'll win 28-20.
Sando: I think the Falcons are finally ready to break through and win in the postseason. I'm just not sure they've drawn the right opponent to make that happen. Seattle is the more physical team. The Seahawks have beaten seven teams that finished the regular season with a winning record (the number is two for Atlanta). While Seattle was posting the NFL's best strength-of-victory percentage, the Falcons were fattening up on the NFL's easiest schedule. Atlanta is at once the No. 1 seed and the team stepping up in class. Ryan's going to need a great game to prove wrong my 27-20 prediction for another Seahawks victory.
Thoughts on the Arizona Cardinals' 23-19 defeat to the Atlanta Falcons in the Georgia Dome on Sunday:
What it means: The Cardinals have now lost six consecutive games following a 4-0 start. This game was a bit like their season. Arizona started quickly thanks to a strong defense, but quarterback issues dragged it down over time. Coach Ken Whisenhunt emphasized accountability during the bye week. He backed it up by benching quarterback John Skelton while the Cardinals held a 13-3 lead. Skelton missed a wide-open Larry Fitzgerald in the end zone as the Cardinals failed to fully capitalize on three first-quarter interceptions off Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan. The fact that Arizona picked off five passes and still lost highlighted the team's glaring issues at quarterback.
What I liked: The defense was fantastic and did enough to win this game with only average play from the quarterback position. Defensive end Darnell Dockett was disruptive. He batted one pass to set up an interception. He blew up running plays. The bye week seemed to restore Dockett's health and productivity. William Gay, Kerry Rhodes and Greg Toler had first-quarter interceptions. Inside linebacker Daryl Washington added a fourth pick in the second half. Sam Acho produced a fifth, collecting a pass that bounced off teammate Dan Williams' helmet as Williams leaped to defend the pass. LaRod Stephens-Howling gained 127 yards on 22 rushes. He had 52- and 40-yard runs in the half. The 52-yarder featured a jump cut for the ages. William Powell had a 65-yard kickoff return. Punter Dave Zastudil and the coverage units positively affected field position as the Cardinals jumped to their early lead. Toler made an outstanding effort at throwing a loose ball back inbounds so Arizona could recover for a turnover.
What I didn't like: The quarterback play was horrendous by NFL standards. Skelton had completed 2 of 7 passes for 6 yards when the Cardinals benched him. Rookie Ryan Lindley completed 2 of 7 passes for 18 yards on his first seven attempts. He completed 9 of 20 passes for 64 yards (3.2 per attempt) overall. The Cardinals ran the ball well and have talent at wide receiver. They needed more production from their passing game under the circumstances. The offense wasn't alert enough when the Falcons picked up a loose ball and returned it for a touchdown. The whistle had never blown. Arizona gave away free points on that play. Washington, though outstanding this season, committed a 15-yard penalty after the Cardinals stopped the Falcons on third-and-15. The Cardinals, after holding firm defensively much of the day, gave up a quick touchdown drive to lose the lead late. Fitzgerald could not finish a fourth-and-2 reception in Falcons territory as the team made its final push to retake the lead.
Notable: Minus the one game he had missed thanks to injury, veteran safety Adrian Wilson had played a higher percentage of defensive snaps than any Cardinal other than cornerback Patrick Peterson. Wilson wasn't on the field early in the game. His snaps were down overall. Was this one of the switches Whisenhunt had alluded to when he said during the bye that changes would be made? The quick hook for Skelton had to be one. Also, the Cardinals went away from rookie receiver Michael Floyd after he appeared to line up incorrectly, leading to a turnover.
Coaching gaffe: Falcons coach Mike Smith threw his challenge flag before officials initiated a mandatory review following the third-quarter turnover Toler helped to force. Smith's challenge was in violation of the rules. And because he threw the flag before booth officials initiated their review, the play became unreviewable. The Cardinals took over possession, short-circuiting a Falcons drive deep in Cardinals territory. Everyone makes mistakes, but coaches earning millions should know basic rules regarding challenges.
Key injury: Peterson suffered a hamstring injury, apparently in the fourth quarter.
What's next: The Cardinals are home against the Rams in Week 12.
Atlanta Falcons director of player personnel Les Snead, who accepted the job Saturday, has worked with four head coaches and two interim coaches during a Falcons tenure dating to 1998. Dan Reeves, Bobby Petrino, Jim Mora and Mike Smith were the head coaches. Wade Phillips and Emmitt Thomas were the interim coaches.
Snead's ability to rise through the ranks with the Falcons across multiple regimes and an ownership change suggests he's adaptable. The Rams hired Fisher to remake the team. They wanted a GM to provide the personnel expertise to facilitate the transformation.
Snead worked under Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff most recently. He replaces former Rams general manager Billy Devaney, who had also come to St. Louis from the Falcons' front office.
Snead, listed by the Falcons as 37 years old entering the 2011 season, is about 15 years younger than Fisher. He was a tight end at Auburn from 1992-93, where he played with NFC West alums Chris Gray and Frank Sanders.
The Rams did not immediately announce the hiring. Snead interviewed over the phone for the San Francisco 49ers' GM job a year ago, but the team hired Trent Baalke instead.
Nice work, '66.
We'll charge forward into the playoffs even though the NFC West has the wild-card round off. Simply use the comments section of this item to predict winners and scores for the following wild-card games:
- Cincinnati at Houston.
- Detroit at New Orleans.
- Atlanta at New York Giants.
- Pittsburgh at Denver.
The Falcons have to be the most nervous heading into the weekend. They have yet to win a playoff game with coach Mike Smith and quarterback Matt Ryan. They have not won one since Jim Mora and Michael Vick were central figures in Atlanta following the 2004 season. The Falcons beat St. Louis that season in what stands as the most recent playoff game for the Rams.
Back to the contest this week. You'll notice I've cleaned up the Wall of Fame to show only 2011 winners. The Wall was getting a little cluttered. I've also broken out a separate chart showing our repeat winners. pope_c_hawk owns one victory in each of the past three seasons. No one else can make that claim.
Congrats to all our winners, and good luck this week.
On a side note, the "You Called It" Wall of Fame board voted 1-0 to list pre-2011 winners separately in 10-person blocks, arranged alphabetically:
- _Mr_Zero_, 2_Zero_Sickness, 49ers r golden, ahlycom08, allenjr16, alvaden, artman9865, asowinski33, ballsthompson, BrandonD28;
- brobbb91, CardsCrush85, catterbu, ccolling7979, chahen, cloudturo, CoasterNiner, cobra7282, cole barrick, DiLune2;
- DirtyDezzzzert, egravning, Elion245, fadein, fundadfor2, guillermoman, habitat730, henlex, IAmAtATotalLoss, IamJonasJones;
- jayric81, Jeremy-Clark, Joe_Couch, John510asb, JohnnyBloodletter, juicy2446, kstaub869, Leesters, Lv4Sublime, MalibuRuffRider;
- noahhasabs, pglenn33, pope_c_hawk, Primeau1203, redng0ld, RedRumRBS, Redzone59, RiWeagley, roadto_1, RVAninersFAN;
- salukininer, SeahawkBell, Seahawks Ya Dig, skinavich, Superfuzz777, TACOREV, the_FREAKs_cousin, TLinkWC, ttmonee, vamp2q;
- whoknewitt, wonderfuldan, workmantiny, WRESTLEMASTER24,
And now, on to the newly configured 2011 Wall ...
He wasn't arguing for Dalton's value so much as saying the Vikings' need for a quarterback might compel them to take one there.
The key, of course, is not mistaking anchors for building blocks.
Steve Mariucci was the San Francisco 49ers' first-year coach when the team used a 1997 first-rounder for Jim Druckenmiller, a blunder softened only by Steve Young's presence on the roster. That experience should not directly influence the 49ers' thinking as they consider first-round quarterbacks for new coach Jim Harbaugh, but it's a reference point.
With Harbaugh and the 49ers in mind, I went through recent drafts to see which teams with first-year head coaches used first-round selections for quarterbacks. More precisely, I looked at all first-round quarterbacks since 2000 to see which ones had first-year head coaches.
Six of the last eight first-round quarterbacks -- Matthew Stafford, Mark Sanchez, Josh Freeman, Matt Ryan, Joe Flacco and JaMarcus Russell -- joined teams with first-year head coaches. All but Russell remain franchise quarterbacks in their teams' eyes. All but Russell are still playing for their original head coaches. Four of the six had winning records in 2010.
For most of those franchises, value and need lined up pretty well, and first-year coaches benefited.
"If you don't have a quarterback, you're drafting maybe a different kind of running back, maybe a different kind of offensive lineman, than if you have somebody," Lions coach Jim Schwartz told reporters at the scouting combine. "We had Calvin Johnson, but our ability to get Jahvid Best, Nate Burleson in free agency, to draft Brandon Pettigrew -- those pieces were because of the quarterback that we have."
We could also argue that the St. Louis Rams were better off building their offensive line and other areas of their roster before making Sam Bradford the first overall choice in 2010. They could have drafted Sanchez or Freeman instead of defensive end Chris Long in 2009, then spent subsequent selections on players to build around one of those quarterbacks.
Bradford and Denver's Tim Tebow were the "other" first-round quarterbacks in the eight-man group featuring Stafford, Sanchez, Freeman, Ryan, Flacco and Russell.
In general, getting the right quarterback for a first-year head coach puts a franchise in strong position for the long term. There's no sense forcing the issue, however, because the wrong quarterback can drag down any coach, regardless of tenure.
A coach such as the Vikings' Frazier might have a harder time waiting. His contract runs only three seasons and ownership expects quick results. Harbaugh has a five-year deal with the 49ers. Expectations are high, but there's less urgency for immediate results.
The first chart shows the 14 first-round quarterbacks since 2000 that landed with returning head coaches.
The second chart shows the 14 first-round quarterbacks since 2000 that landed with first-year head coaches.
- Why past performance mattered more for head coaches, specifically Mike Shanahan, than it did for players in our previous power rankings;
- How I could justify leaving off the Atlanta Falcons' Mike Smith based in part on playoff losses to teams with inferior records, since those teams advanced to the Super Bowl;
- Why Tom Coughlin ranked third despite enjoying the organizational support and stability that contributed to a lower ranking for Mike Tomlin.
The point you make on Coughlin and Tomlin is compelling. The Giants have strong ownership. They have had only three general managers in the last 30-plus years. I stand by the No. 3 ranking, but acknowledge that I might have considered ranking him lower if this conversation occurred prior to voting.
Coughlin ranked higher than Tomlin on my list for a few reasons I haven't explained:
- Coughlin brought quick success and stability to Jacksonville when the Jaguars were an expansion franchise. That was impressive.
- The Giants became more productive offensively under his watch, even with a young, inconsistent quarterback. Eli Manning is not the greatest passer. The Giants have ranked among the NFL's top eight in scoring four times under Coughlin after never ranking higher than 12th over a 15-year span under four other coaches.
- Coughlin showed a capacity to change during his Giants tenure, becoming more responsive to players.That was important during the Super Bowl season.
Your question about Shanahan is easier to answer. The abilities a coach possesses early in his career do not necessarily deteriorate the way a player's physical skills deteriorate. Shanahan's 152-108 regular-season record, 8-5 postseason record, nine winning seasons and two Super Bowl titles worked in his favor.
Doug from Newbury Park, Calif., wonders whether I thought the San Francisco 49ers replaced Gary Plummer because they felt he was too critical as the team's radio color commentatory.
Mike Sando: Plummer has been outspoken for years. If his outspokenness were a problem, the team presumably would have replaced him years ago. He had handled the job since 1998 and never held back. Fans accustomed to Plummer will be paying close attention to see how his replacement, Eric Davis, couches his criticisms. I expect Davis to speak his mind in his own style -- a style less combative than the one Plummer brought to the job as a former linebacker.
Joe from Phoenix wonders whether the St. Louis Rams could trade out of the 14th overall choice with a team looking to draft running back Mark Ingram in that spot. He thinks teams are better off with one dominant runner than a committee approach, and he wonders specifically whether New England might be a team to watch from a trade standpoint.
Mike Sando: The Patriots traded up to get Daniel Graham in 2002. They traded up into the 13th spot for Ty Warren a year later. New England has been much, much more likely to trade down in the first round over more recent drafts, however.
- 2003: The Patriots traded down from the 19th spot with Baltimore, which took Kyle Boller.
- 2007: They traded out of the 28th spot with San Francisco (Joe Staley).
- 2008: They traded down from the seventh pick with New Orleans (Sedrick Ellis).
- 2009: They traded out of the 26th spot with Green Bay (Clay Matthews).
- 2009: They traded out of the 23rd spot with Baltimore (Michael Oher).
- 2010: They traded out of the 22nd pick with Denver (Demaryius Thomas).
- 2010: They traded out of the 24th spot with Dallas (Dez Bryant).
The Patriots would likely have to part with their third-round choice, 92nd overall, to jump three spots to No. 14. Recent history says that is unlikely.
As for running backs, the trend has been toward having multiple backs share the load. No more than seven backs in one season have reached 300 carries since 2007. There were at least nine backs with 300 or more carries in 10 of the previous 12 seasons, peaking with 13 in 2003.
The Patriots have had only one such player -- Corey Dillon in 2004 -- since Bill Belichick became head coach.
None of this prevents New England from climbing three spots to nab Ingram. If it happens, however, it'll be a little surprising.
Rob from Phoenix wonders whether the Cardinals would select Auburn defensive tackle Nick Fairley with the fifth overall choice, if available, even though the team doesn't have obvious needs on its defensive line. Texas A&M pass-rusher Von Miller would not be available under this scenario.
Mike Sando: The scouting reports say Fairley projects better in a 4-3 defense. The same could be said for Cardinals defensive end Darnell Dockett, however, and the Cardinals have learned the hard way about favoring need (tackle Levi Brown) over value (running back Adrian Peterson) when picking fifth.
So, if Fairley is available and clearly the best player, the Cardinals would have to consider him. But I tend to think he projects as a higher-risk prospect based on concerns over his emotional stability and the consistency of his effort. That could scare off Arizona. Throw in other factors -- fit and need specifically -- and I envision the Cardinals going in another direction.
General thoughts: These rankings were easier than the positional ones we've done. There are only 32 head coaches, for starters. Five have never coached an NFL game. Eight others have losing career records. Four with winning records have coached two or fewer seasons and only two of those, Rex Ryan and Jim Caldwell, have enjoyed postseason success. It became clear early that we were working from a relatively short list. Only 13 coaches received votes.
My top 10: Bill Belichick, Andy Reid, Tom Coughlin, Mike McCarthy, Sean Payton, Mike Tomlin, Rex Ryan, Ken Whisenhunt, Lovie Smith and Mike Shanahan.
What mattered to me: I favored coaches that had taken over losing teams, turned them around quickly and then enjoyed success over multiple seasons, including in the playoffs.
Why Mike Shanahan was on the list: Shanahan hasn't produced a winning record since 2006. His teams own one postseason victory since his 1998 Broncos defended their Super Bowl title. The way he misread Donovan McNabb worked against him, too. In the end, Shanahan's 152-108 regular-season record, 8-5 postseason record, nine winning seasons and two Super Bowl titles commanded recognition, albeit in the 10th spot.
Toughest call: Leaving off the Atlanta Falcons' Mike Smith hurt. He walked into a brutal situation and helped revive a flagging franchise. The Falcons have won 68.8 percent of their games under him without posting a losing record in any of his three seasons. Had Smith made my top 10, however, he would have been the only one without a postseason victory. The Falcons are 0-2 in the playoffs under Smith, with both defeats coming against teams that had inferior records during the regular season. That opened the door for others.
A vote for Whisenhunt: Arizona's Ken Whisenhunt ranked eighth on my ballot, 10th on three others and 12th among the 13 coaches receiving votes. His regular-season record dipped to 32-32 after a rough 2010 season. Overall, though, Whisenhunt gets credit for producing an immediate turnaround for a historically inept franchise. Kurt Warner had a 3-12 starting record for the Cardinals before Whisenhunt arrived. His record was 24-18 in the regular season and 4-2 in the postseason with Whisenhunt. Taking the Cardinals to a Super Bowl gave Whisenhunt the edge over some other candidates, including the Falcons' Smith.
The rest of the NFC West: Seattle's Pete Carroll produced a division title and playoff victory during a rebuilding season. He's on the rise if Seattle continues to improve. ... St. Louis' Steve Spagnuolo has a .250 overall winning percentage thanks to a 1-15 inaugural season with the Rams. He'll move into consideration if the Rams start winning division titles with Sam Bradford at quarterback. ... San Francisco's Jim Harbaugh inherits enough talent to compete in his first season as an NFL head coach, provided he finds even a serviceable quarterback.
Also from Maiocco: Team president Jed York says the 49ers need a quarterback, too. There's no time quite like Week 16 for a team to discuss such things. York: "We can't get a quarterback until the draft. Is that a need? Yeah, absolutely."
Gwen Knapp of the San Francisco Chronicle says York waited too long before deciding to hire a strong GM. The timing of former GM Scot McCloughan's departure made it tougher for the organization to hire a strong leader without undercutting Singletary.
Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee quotes York as criticizing the 49ers' coaching during a 25-17 road defeat to St. Louis in Week 16. York: "I mean, we come into a game like this and we look inept on offense in the first half. We didn't get anything done except for two plays that, really, players made. We aren't where we need to be."
Eric Branch of the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat sums up Singletary's season this way: "During the Niners' 0-5 start, he had a testy interview with KPIX host Dennis O'Donnell, fired his handpicked offensive coordinator, Jimmy Raye, didn't shake hands with Falcons coach Mike Smith after a loss in Atlanta and shouted at quarterback Alex Smith on the sidelines during a loss to the Eagles."
Lowell Cohn of the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat says Singletary deserved to be fired. Cohn: "Most of us live small, dedicated lives. We guide ourselves by values of humility and modesty, and Singletary burst upon the scene with a voice too loud and unsupportable bragging. He had no humility, not for a moment. He was going to be an all-time great coach. He wanted winners. He shouted down people who disagreed with him. As a coach he was not a winner. He was a loser if you go by the record, and he got the treatment loser coaches get. He got fired."
Tim Kawakami of the San Jose Mercury News says York needs to hire a strong GM. Kawakami: "If York does this right, he will invest the next general manager with more power than any 49ers executive has had in the York ownership tenure. Not coincidentally, if York does this right, he will hire someone who will tell the York family that almost everything they have done has been all wrong. Can York go on a search to find someone to tell him exactly how foolish his family has been? A poor owner -- such as Jed's predecessor, his father, John -- would never do that. An immature heir -- like Jed was in his first few years as an executive -- would avoid that at all costs. A mature executive would know he has to do it this way."
The San Jose Mercury News offers a Singletary slide show.
Daniel Brown of the San Jose Mercury News gives the 49ers an "F" for coaching on his postgame report card.
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando
Three more replay reversals in Week 2 left rookie referee Don Carey with five, three more than any other referee and 4.1 more than the average for the 16 other refs.
Carey suffered two reversals working the Cardinals-49ers game in Week 1. He worked the Panthers-Falcons game in Week 2.
Replay reversals can be telling because they provide documented evidence of mistakes deemed egregious enough for a head coach or replay official to challenge the call. Gerry Austin led the league in reversals for the 2007 season. The league replaced him in 2008. Bill Leavy had the most last season. He has none through two games.
The chart breaks down replay reversals by officiating crew.
Head coaches have challenged Carey five times, winning four reversals. Replay officials have challenged him twice. Falcons coach Mike Smith won two reversals against Carey in Week 2. Panthers coach John Fox won one. Two of the three reversals involved whether passes were completed on third-down plays. One reversal sustained a Falcons drive that ended in the go-ahead touchdown in the second quarter.
Elsewhere in the NFC West, Arizona benefited when Gene Steratore's crew did not call pass interference against Cardinals cornerback Bryant McFadden. The Cardinals then returned a blocked field goal try for a touchdown to produce a 17-3 lead.
At Washington, Jerome Boger's crew did not penalize the Redskins' Albert Haynesworth for landing hard on sliding Rams quarterback Marc Bulger. Defenders were already converging and within striking distances when Bulger initiated his slide, but I've seen lesser offenses penalized.
Leavy's assignment to work a Seahawks game for the first time since Super Bowl XL came and went without incident.
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando
K.C. from Wenatchee, Wash., writes: Hi Mike. I have a research question for you =)
With everything that went on with Jay Cutler in Denver it got me thinking … Bill Belicheck's former assistants haven't been faring too well out there.
Romeo Crennel was fired from Cleveland. Eric Mangini was fired from the Jets (and picked up by Cleveland). Charlie Weiss has been on the hot seat at Notre Dame since he got there. And now Josh McDaniels is losing his star QB because he was too eager to get his former star QB.
So what I'm wondering: Is there a Head Coaching family tree out there somewhere that would show us which coaches came from which coaches? Which of the current Head coaches has had the most success in developing other head coaches?
I'm measuring success by longevity in job, W-L record, and playoff experience, but feel free to throw in anything else that makes sense. Thanks in advance as always!
Oh, and Corey Redding's new deal only means one thing to me. The Hawks are playing to win this year and are looking to rebuild next year. New QB, new LT, new RB, new DL, and new DBs.
Mike Sando: This will come as a great shock to the regulars here, but my roster database does include 30 columns of information for each head coach. I added the 30th column under the heading "coaching tree" in response to your question. Thanks for the idea.
In some cases it's hard to tell which branches lead to which trees. It's not like every head coach owes his advancement to a single mentor. Some coaches spent one or more seasons under multiple head coaches early in their NFL careers.
That said, I went through and assigned mentors to every head coach, based on my judgment.
In keeping with the tree analogy, Bill Parcells leads the way with five branches: Bill Belichick, Sean Payton, Tony Sparano, Todd Haley and Tom Coughlin.
Brian Billick has four: Jack Del Rio, Mike Smith, Mike Singletary and Rex Ryan.
Tony Dungy has three: Lovie Smith, Mike Tomlin and Jim Caldwell.
Mike Holmgren has three: Andy Reid, Dick Jauron and Jim Zorn (although Jauron worked with both of Holmgren's predecessors in Green Bay, and he was with Tom Coughlin in Jacksonville).
Reid has three: Brad Childress, John Harbaugh and Steve Spagnuolo.
Bill Cowher has two: Marvin Lewis and Ken Whisenhunt (although Whisenhunt spent four years as an NFL assistant to three head coaches before joining Cowher's staff).
Belichick has two: Eric Mangini and Josh McDaniels.
The Parcells tree is holding up quite well. Six current coaches led their current teams to a combined nine Super Bowls. Belichick went to four of them. Coughlin went to a fifth. That gives the Parcells tree five of the nine Super Bowl appearances by coaches with their current teams. Belichick and Coughlin are the only current coaches to have led their current teams to Super Bowl victories.
As for your thought about the Seahawks rebuilding in 2010, that might happen, but the deal with Cory Redding wouldn't necessarily be an indication, in my view. The Seahawks saved only $1.55 million on the new deal. Redding's salary in 2010 would have been manageable.
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando
INDIANAPOLIS -- The combine pace is quickening as players start filtering through the media workroom. While Ohio State offensive lineman Alex Boone was answering questions, I joined a small group gathered around Mike Smith following the Falcons coach's news conference.
I wanted to ask Smith about the Cardinals and specifically the role former offensive coordinator Todd Haley played in helping Arizona beat the Falcons in the wild-card round.
Smith: "I thought Todd did a great job in that playoff game. He did a nice job changing up what he had done during the regular season. He kept us off-balance. He has a very good knack of calling the game, not only the play calling but what he does formationally in terms of evaluating what he had done in previous games. He changed the tendencies up very well.
"They did a nice job in running the draws with Edgerrin James in that game and they were able to establish the run and that was something going into the first playoff game, they had not run the ball as successfully as I'm sure Ken [Whisenhunt] wanted to, but they were able to do it in the playoffs and I think that was a very good strategic move on their part."
As strong as the Cardinals were on offense, they'll be in the market for a tight end. I asked Smith what a Pro Bowl-caliber tight end would mean for the Cardinals' offense. He wondered if the Cardinals would have enough footballs to feed all those hungry hands. I'm sure that's a problem Whisenhunt and staff wouldn't mind trying to solve.
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando
INDIANAPOLIS -- Kevin Seifert, Paul Kuharsky, Tim Graham, John Clayton and I are among the first reporters set up inside Lucas Oil Stadium for the first media-accessible combine day.
The setup is different from past combines and less conducive to tracking down various team personnel. Coaches and scouts are entering from another side of the stadium. They do not walk past the media area while heading to and from the field area. Frigid, windy conditions outside the stadium make NFL personnel less interested in stopping to chat, and I cannot blame them. It's brutally cold outside.
In past years, team personnel walked past the media area in the warmth of the convention center, which led directly to the since-demolished RCA Dome. Stopping to chat was much easier under those conditions. I'll spend quite a bit of time speaking with NFL people and agents in various hotel lobbies and restaurants this week, always a valuable way to renew contacts and make new ones. That aspect is what makes the combine so valuable beyond the scheduled interviews and news conferences.
The NFL has scheduled Thursday news conferences for Lions coach Jim Schwartz, Colts coach Jim Caldwell, Falcons coach Mike Smith, Steelers director of football operations Kevin Colbert, Saints coach Sean Payton, Dolphins coach Tony Sparano, Redskins coach Jim Zorn and Raiders coach Tom Cable. We will also have access to select offensive linemen, tight ends and specialists.
What does this mean from an NFC West perspective? We'll probably focus on offensive linemen given division teams' obvious needs on the line. The Cardinals could also use a tight end.
The media schedule for Friday is not yet firm, but the league has tentatively scheduled availability for 49ers coach Mike Singletary, 49ers general manager Scot McCloughan, former Cardinals offensive coordinator Todd Haley and Rams coach Steve Spagnuolo. Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt and Cardinals GM Rod Graves are expected to answer questions Saturday.
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando
Dan Bickley of the Arizona Republic says the Cardinals are so close -- but so far away -- from their first Super Bowl appearance. Bickley: "This a young team full of charismatic, likeable players. The locker room is a friendly place. The jerk factor is really low. Larry Fitzgerald has jumped over Amaré Stoudemire as the best show in town. This is the kind of team that already has changed the balance of power in Arizona sports, and considering the way the Suns are playing, that's probably a good thing."
Kent Somers of the Arizona Republic traces the Cardinals' rise over the last two years -- and the last two weeks.
Bob McManaman of the Arizona Republic quotes Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb as saying coach Andy Reid doesn't wear a beard very well.
The Arizona Republic samples predictions for the NFC Championship Game, but you'll have to click through this item to see find Somers' prediction (he likes the Cardinals to win, 24-21, with home-field advantage on their side).
Also from the Arizona Republic: A clearinghouse for recent stories about the NFC Championship Game.
Darren Urban of azcardinals.com says the Cardinals must appreciate the moment even though the Super Bowl promises so much more.
Don Banks of SI.com asks Falcons coach Mike Smith to break down the championship games. Smith pays tribute to the Arizona crowd. He said the Falcons were shocked at the noise levels, which exceeded anything they had experienced in other domed stadiums. Smith also pointed to Antrel Rolle's conversion to safety as a key for Arizona.
Scott Bordow of the East Valley Tribune says 60 minutes of football can reverse 61 years of futility for the Cardinals.
Mike Tulumello of the East Valley Tribune says crowd noise and history are on the Cardinals' side.
Also from Tulumello: Arizona's offensive line faces a stiff test.