NFC West: Mike Tomlin

Jim HarbaughChristian Petersen/Getty ImagesJim Harbaugh has reached the NFC title game in each of his three seasons, so why would the 49ers look elsewhere?

Coach Jim Harbaugh's situation in San Francisco has been one of the most talked-about stories in the league in recent weeks.

If a resolution on his contract isn't reached, it will likely hover over the franchise all season and would be a major story next January, when Harbaugh could leave the team, although Harbaugh told Sports Illustrated this week he is happy with all aspects of his job and doesn’t see any way he will leave the team before the end of his contract. Still, getting the contract done would ease a lot of issues.

We all know the backdrop: Harbaugh has led the 49ers to the NFC title game in all three of his seasons as coach. He got them to the Super Bowl after the 2012 season. He is entering the fourth year of a five-year contract that pays him $5 million per year. Harbaugh and the 49ers have been in discussion about a new deal for about a year, but are not close to an extension. Team owner Jed York recently told the Sacramento Bee he thinks contract talks will resume after the NFL draft in early May.

Things got interesting when the Cleveland Browns pursued a trade for Harbaugh. The 49ers were not interested, but that could change next year.

There have been rampant reports that Harbaugh has had trouble with some in the 49ers' front office, including general manager Trent Baalke. York, Harbaugh and Baalke have long downplayed the friction, indicating that they can coexist.

However, there is enough smoke here to think this situation go could south if a contract isn't agreed upon this year. Let's look at some issues that may be part of this story as it further develops:

The history: While it would be stunning to see the 49ers-Harbaugh marriage disintegrate after such a stellar start, similar breakups have happened before.

[+] EnlargeJimmy Johnson and Jerry Jones
AP Photo/Ron HeflinJim Harbaugh would not be the first successful coach to leave during a team's prime. Jimmy Johnson left the Cowboys after winning two Super Bowls because of fighting with owner Jerry Jones.
After winning two straight Super Bowls, Jimmy Johnson famously left the Cowboys in 1994 after fighting with owner Jerry Jones. Following the 1998 season, Mike Holmgren shocked the NFL when he left quarterback Brett Favre and a Green Bay Packers team in its prime after a seven-year run that included a Super Bowl win. Holmgren left for more power and much more money in Seattle. In 2002, the Raiders traded coach Jon Gruden to Tampa Bay for a massive amount of draft picks. The Raiders were burned as Gruden led the Buccaneers to a Super Bowl win against Oakland in his first season. In 2007, the Chargers sided with general manager A.J. Smith in his feud with coach Marty Schottenheimer even though the Chargers went 14-2 the season before.

If Harbaugh leaves the 49ers, it wouldn't be the first time a coach and team split despite success.

The highest-paid coaches: Harbaugh told Sports Illustrated he is not unhappy with his pay, but the man is underpaid considering his massive NFL success. Nine of the 32 NFL coaches in 2013 made at least $7 million. Only five of them had won a Super Bowl.

I'd think it has to bother Harbaugh that Chip Kelly earned $6.5 million in his first NFL season and NFC West rival Jeff Fisher made $7 million in St. Louis. Coaches' salaries are at a premium and, by NFL standards, Harbaugh is underpaid.

The best coaches without power: He is hypercompetitive and likes to be in control. So, Harbaugh probably isn't always thrilled to defer personnel decisions to Baalke. But I don't sense Harbaugh wanting to be the general manager and making every decision as he said. He is a coach.

I don't see this as a deal-breaker.

There are plenty of great NFL coaches who don't have total power, including Harbaugh's brother, John, in Baltimore. There's also Mike McCarthy in Green Bay, Mike Tomlin in Pittsburgh and Pete Carroll in Seattle. So, a lack of total power in the NFL really isn't a big deal anymore for coaches.

[+] EnlargeDavid Shaw
AP Photo/Matt YorkWould Stanford coach David Shaw be a candidate to follow Jim Harbaugh again?
Where could Harbaugh land? Harbaugh's situation could cause teams to adjust their plans late in the season. I could see many owners prematurely firing a coach to get a shot at Harbaugh if he goes into January unsigned.

But right now, the list of teams that may be making a change next year and may make sense for Harbaugh isn't very long.

Miami and Dallas would be among the biggest suitors. Miami tried to hire Harbaugh before he went to San Francisco. The team has deep pockets, a need for good public relations, and the Dolphins have a good young quarterback in Ryan Tannehill. Dallas has big bucks and Tony Romo. Harbaugh could like both places.

Other possibilities could include both New York teams and Atlanta (coaching Matt Ryan would surely be intriguing). A potential long shot could be Oakland. Harbaugh was an assistant in Oakland and he could stay in the Bay Area. But the Raiders have to find a quarterback and ownership would have to be willing to shell out financially to make it work. Plus, the 49ers would need to get a haul from the Raiders to trade him to their Bay Area rival.

If I had to give odds on the early favorite, I'd look toward Miami.

Who could replace Harbaugh? It's only logical to think that San Francisco ownership, in the back of its mind, is thinking post-Harbaugh just in case.

The chance of getting draft picks for a coach the 49ers can't come to an agreement with could interest the team next offseason. Also, the idea of front-office peace could be at the forefront as well, especially if things go haywire the rest of this year.

The first place the 49ers would likely look to replace Harbaugh is on the current staff. Because the team has been so successful, I could see the 49ers having interest in staying close to home. Offensive and defensive coordinators Greg Roman and Vic Fangio, respectively, would likely be on the 49ers' list. Defensive line coach Jim Tomsula is a favorite of the front office. He was a candidate when Harbaugh was hired and his players love him.

Here's another name the 49ers could look at -- David Shaw. He replaced Harbaugh at Stanford. I'm sure he wouldn't be afraid to do it again.

Shaw has been steadfast in his desire to stay at Stanford. But if he were ever to leave for the NFL, this would likely be an appealing situation. He and his family could stay in their house and he'd go to a near perfect NFL situation with a franchise quarterback in Colin Kaepernick.

There is plenty to unfold in this situation in the next several months. Harbaugh and the 49ers could end it all by coming to a contract extension. But as we have realized early this offseason, it's not that simple.
PHOENIX -- A few NFC West notes before heading to the airport for a trip home following the NFL owners meeting, which concluded Wednesday:

Arizona Cardinals: The team is leaving open the door for signing Cleveland Browns unrestricted free-agent receiver Josh Cribbs, who is recovering from knee surgery. Cribbs visited the Cardinals this week, but he could be weeks away from passing a physical. ... The Cardinals have signed nine players at a combined charge of $12.9 million against the 2013 salary cap after clearing $13 million in space by releasing Kevin Kolb and Kerry Rhodes. The nine: Rashard Mendenhall, Jerraud Powers, Drew Stanton, Antoine Cason, Jasper Brinkley, Lorenzo Alexander, Rashad Johnson, Matt Shaughnessy and Yeremiah Bell. ... Coach Bruce Arians said he sees six quarterbacks in the 2013 draft with clear potential to stick in the NFL for the long term. Arians also said he thought the Cardinals could win regular-season and playoff games with Stanton as the starter. The team could still add to the position, of course, but Arians plans to name a starter sooner rather than later -- definitely before training camp.

St. Louis Rams: The Rams expect to add another big running back after parting with Steven Jackson. Coach Jeff Fisher wants second-year back Daryl Richardson to get more touches, especially as a receiver. He also expects more from 2012 second-round pick Isaiah Pead. ... Fisher said he goes strictly by feel with no regard for advanced stats when making in-game decisions such as when to go for it on fourth down. ... The Rams will look to re-sign veteran safety Quintin Mikell, who was released with salary-cap savings in mind. The team's other starting safety from last season, Craig Dahl, signed with San Francisco last week. ... Fisher sees receiver Chris Givens as more than a deep threat, noting that one of Givens' five receptions covering 50-plus yards came on a slant route. ... Fisher, unlike Pittsburgh Steelers counterpart Mike Tomlin, thinks the read-option will be around for a while.

San Francisco 49ers: Coach Jim Harbaugh gushed over receiver Ricardo Lockette, a physically gifted prospect signed last season after stints on Seattle's practice squad and 53-man roster. "There is something special there -- I can feel it," Harbaugh said. Lockette had 44- and 61-yard receptions for Seattle late in the 2011 season. ... Colin Kaepernick is the 49ers' undisputed starting quarterback, but Harbaugh would like to make the position more competitive after Alex Smith's departure by trade. Harbaugh said the quarterback position is "no sacred cow" in terms of being immune from competition. ... Harbaugh and his brother, John, spent Sunday afternoon playing in the hotel pool like a couple of kids. "Did you see us breaking all the rules on the slide?" John Harbaugh asked. "It was a race down the slide. Two guys diving at the same time and racing down the slide. The only time we didn't go down [the slides] together was when we had two kids stacked on us."

Seattle Seahawks: The Seahawks think former Cardinals receiver Stephen Williams could have a bright future. ... Defensive end Cliff Avril's addition could affect the Seahawks' needs at linebacker. Coach Pete Carroll compared Avril in body type to Brian Cushing and Clay Matthews, two players Carroll coached at USC. He said Avril could play strongside linebacker at times. That arrangement could work because K.J. Wright has the flexibility to play weakside LB, something Wright already does in the nickel defense. Those roles will sort out through training camp. ... Carroll said he "reached out" to Richard Sherman after the cornerback's contentious exchange with Skip Bayless on ESPN's "First Take." Carroll said they discussed humility and said Sherman is "working on ways to express himself." Carroll supported Sherman and said the team has no concerns with the All-Pro corner. I'll revisit that one separately.

Only a select few outlasted Whisenhunt

December, 31, 2012
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Ken Whisenhunt, hired by the Arizona Cardinals in 2007, had outlasted all but eight NFL head coaches when the team fired him Monday.

Bill Belichick, Marvin Lewis, Tom Coughlin, Mike McCarthy, Gary Kubiak and Sean Payton were hired by their current teams no later than 2006. Lovie Smith and Andy Reid were also in place before 2007. Both were fired Monday.

Whisenhunt, Pittsburgh's Mike Tomlin and San Diego's Norv Turner remained from the 2007 hiring class until Monday, when Turner joined Whisenhunt among the ranks of former coaches.

As Jerry Glanville put it years ago, NFL means, "Not For Long."
The San Francisco 49ers' Jim Harbaugh, known to walk past the first-class cabin to his seat in coach, should be relieved to have missed Forbes' list of 10 highest-paid coaches.


Harbaugh's three NFC West contemporaries made the list, with the St. Louis Rams' Jeff Fisher and the Seattle Seahawks' Pete Carroll earning a reported $7 million annually.

Coaches presumably do not make available their contracts or tax returns, so these listings qualify as unofficial. They are generally consistent with media reports, at least.

The Arizona Cardinals' Ken Whisenhunt checks in at tied for eighth ($5.8 million).

Note that the listings include sports beyond football, but not including hockey. Five of the 10 highest-paid coaches have won championships: Bill Belichick, Mike Shanahan, Doc Rivers, Gregg Popovich and Mike Tomlin.

Harbaugh, who promoted a blue-collar culture complete with work shirts last season, reportedly earns $5 million per season. That would rank Harbaugh among the higher-paid coaches in the NFL, but with 14 regular-season and postseason victories last season, the price tag has been a bargain to this point.

Carroll and Fisher would have to produce 19.6 victories in a season to match the $357,142-per-victory average for Harbaugh. Whisenhunt would have to produce 16.2 victories.

710ESPN Seattle audio: NFC West Week 16

December, 22, 2011
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Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin knew exactly why the San Francisco 49ers had dominated his team so thoroughly Monday night.

"I think we need to acknowledge that was 49er football tonight," Tomlin said following the 49ers' 20-3 victory. "We played the game on their terms in a manner of which they play when they play winning football. They created turnovers, they got us with a few concept plays, they controlled the ball offensively."

This statement came to mind when Dave Grosby, Bob Stelton, Dave Wyman and I discussed the Seattle Seahawks' chances against the 49ers as part of our latest NFC West conversation on 710ESPN Seattle. I compared the 49ers to a casino that wins by stacking the odds in its favor incrementally. Opponents have a chance from play to play or game to game, but the the 49ers stack the odds in their favor over the long term. They do this most subtly through their dominance of field position.

The 49ers lead the NFL in average starting field position (own 33.6-yard line on average) and in opponents' average starting field position (average starting field position (23.7-yard line). Those yardage advantages translate to points.

That was the case when the 49ers defeated the Seahawks in Week 1. The 49ers began their drives at their own 38-yard line on average. The Seahawks' average drive starts were at their own 22.
Vernon DavisJason O. Watson/US PresswireVernon Davis' third quarter score was the 49ers' first red zone touchdown in three games.
SAN FRANCISCO -- Tight end Vernon Davis sold the run block, disengaged from outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley and broke into the clear for a touchdown catch so easy, he could have made it in the dark.

By then, city engineers had restored power to Candlestick Park, allowing all to see a performance complete enough to restore the San Francisco 49ers as worthy contenders in the NFC. Davis' 1-yard scoring reception, the first of two 49ers touchdowns in the red zone Monday night, carried them to a 20-3 victory over the defending AFC Champion Pittsburgh Steelers.

"This one was big," Davis said, and he was right.

The 49ers improved to 11-3, remaining on course to claim the NFC's second seed and a first-round playoff bye. They beat an NFL power with a 10-3 record coming into the game, suppressing doubts that lingered following two recent defeats. They solved long-running problems in the red zone, scoring touchdowns twice in three chances. And they allowed zero sacks after taking 18 in their previous three games.

"It showed the world that we're serious and we can play big games on the national stage," Davis said.

Steelers fans are entitled to break out the asterisks. They can point to quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's obvious limitations related to an ankle injury. They can point to James Harrison's suspension and Woodley's bum hamstring. They can even question some of the officiating calls that worked against Pittsburgh in this game.

None of that matters to the 49ers. For them, this game showed the path for San Francisco to keep pace with higher-scoring competitors in the NFC. The 49ers in their current state are never going to win games the way the Green Bay Packers and the New Orleans Saints typically win them. But if they can start turning field goals into touchdowns, as they did Monday night, their chances for beating championship-caliber teams in the playoffs will increase exponentially.

That is especially true against any pass-oriented teams venturing into Candlestick Park in mid-January, when the slick playing surface, shifting winds and potential precipitation can turn an already ornery 49ers defense into something even greater.

"Everybody has to take us seriously, man," defensive end Ray McDonald said. "We're not the old Niners any more."

The new Niners won this game against the Steelers their way, and without apologies. They dominated field position, holding a 21-yard advantage over Pittsburgh in average drive start. They forced four more turnovers, giving them a plus-25 differential, best in the NFL. They went a 15th consecutive game without allowing a rushing touchdown. They beat a playoff-caliber opponent by 17 points while gaining only 287 yards.

The 49ers out-Steelered the Steelers, and Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin knew it.

"I think we need to acknowledge that was 49er football tonight," Tomlin said. "We played the game on their terms in a manner of which they play when they play winning football. They created turnovers, they got us with a few concept plays, they controlled the ball offensively."

The power outages threatened to disrupt both teams. But just as coach Jim Harbaugh embraced the lockout and the challenges it presented a first-year head coach, his team handled the disruptions without trouble. Harbaugh did not hesitate when asked what it was like in the locker room before the game.

"It was dark," he said, to thunderous laughter.

Harbaugh and staff had the right answers during the game, too. They found ways to free Davis for key receptions after Pittsburgh initially covered the Pro Bowl tight end effectively. They also came out ahead in five key areas discussed here heading into the game:

  • Pass protection. The 49ers had taken more sacks in their three defeats (20) than in their 10 victories (19). They countered the Steelers' pass-rush with quick passes to the perimeter. Their offensive line was on point with its assignments. Quarterback Alex Smith moved effectively, at one point scrambling for 14 yards. Pittsburgh sent five or more pass-rushers on 21 of 32 dropbacks, according to ESPN Stats & Information, and still the Steelers could not sack Smith.
  • Roethlisberger's mobility. The ankle injury limited Roethlisberger's scrambling ability, but the Steelers' quarterback had been much more effective throwing from the pocket this season (8.5 yards per attempt, compared to 5.8 outside the pocket). The Steelers predictably had Roethlisberger in the shotgun formation more frequently, hoping he could set up quickly and deliver the ball. But as the game wore on and San Francisco pulled ahead, the Steelers had no answer for Aldon Smith. The 49ers' rookie outside linebacker finished the game with 2.5 sacks and seven quarterback hits.
  • Mike Wallace's deep speed. The Steelers came close to connecting on a couple long passes that would have changed the game early. Roethlisberger did wind up with 330 yards, completing passes for 39 and 36 (twice) yards. Wallace averaged only 13.2 yards per reception, however. That was a manageable number for the 49ers.
  • Ted Ginn Jr. and special teams. Ginn, the 49ers' return specialist, did not return after suffering an ankle injury on the kickoff return opening the second half. Punter Andy Lee posted a 49.2-yard net average while pinning the Steelers inside their 20-yard line four times in six chances. One punt-and-penalty combination had Pittsburgh beginning at its own 16-yard line after the 49ers punted from their own 12. The Steelers' average drive start, the 15, was the worst for any team in the NFL this season, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
  • Smith in the red zone. This area remains a work in progress for the 49ers. Two red zone touchdowns against the Steelers were positive steps, not a long-term solution. Continued progress in that area will be critical for the 49ers to beat the best teams. "If we can get aggressive in the red zone, we will be unstoppable," Davis said.

The 49ers are not there yet, but this was undeniably a step forward for them. They weren't afraid to say it, either. Afterward, Harbaugh promoted Smith for the Pro Bowl. Davis and teammates declared their legitimacy. They welcomed skeptics.

"We played good football tonight," Harbaugh said. "I'd really like to focus on that -- not the lights, not the locker room before the game, not the contingencies. ... I'm proud to be a part of that team."

Around the NFC West: Bradford's recovery

September, 15, 2011
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The replay showed St. Louis Rams quarterback Sam Bradford making his usual follow-through, except for one thing. His right index finger snagged on Juqua Parker's hand as the Philadelphia Eagles' defensive lineman contested the pass.

It's somewhat amazing to me that Bradford didn't suffer a broken finger on the play. Bradford somehow completed a 31-yard pass down the left sideline to a diving Brandon Gibson one play later before leaving the game.

Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch says there's no doubt about Bradford's availability in Week 2. The quarterback practiced without restriction Wednesday. Bradford: "I really was worried about it. I wouldn't have come out of the game if it wasn't serious. I couldn't feel (the finger). I couldn't move it that night, and so I really was concerned. But our training staff's done a great job. It's starting to come around." Noted: Bradford took pride in taking every offensive snap during his 2010 rookie season. His exit from the game seemed to signal something serious. I'll be interested to see whether Bradford takes more snaps from the shotgun formation while the finger heals. The velocity generated during a snap is greater than one might imagine, complicating center exchanges for quarterbacks with hand injuries.

Also from Thomas: a chat transcript with thoughts on the Rams. Thomas: "The game plan going in was to try to run the ball on Philly's undersized front seven and mix in play action. Last time I checked the Eagles had arguably the best trio of corners in the league. Not many people get open against them. That doesn't mean you don't try. But I think the game underscored the fact that the Rams don't have anyone that can stretch defenses other than Danario Alexander, who was inactive. It also takes more time for most downfield throws, and the pass-blocking Sunday was far from superb, particularly after it became a 2-score game." Noted: I'd say pass protection and dropped passes hurt the Rams' passing game as much as anything.

Nick Wagoner of stlouisrams.com says the Rams are making adjustments to their secondary.

John Boyle of the Everett Herald says Steelers coach Mike Tomlin is building up the Seahawks even though oddsmakers have made Seattle at least a two-touchdown underdog in Pittsburgh. Boyle: "Tomlin seemingly couldn't say enough good things about the Seahawks. And while it's nothing new for a coach to say nice things about an opponent, Tomlin takes it to a Lou Holtz level."

Clare Farnsworth of seahawks.com runs through highlights and notes from Wednesday.

Kent Somers of the Arizona Republic draws up the perfect analogy for Tim Hightower's first game against his former Arizona Cardinals teammates: "Like anyone about to see the ex for the first time since the breakup, Tim Hightower wants to prove that he's doing fine, and in the process, maybe make his former partners realize how good they had it." Noted: Hightower carried 25 times for 72 yards and one touchdown for the Redskins in Week 1. His 2.9-yard average was down from 4.8 over the 2010 season with Arizona.

Darren Urban of azcardinals.com says the NFL will not fine Richard Marshall for the cornerback's hit on Panthers cornerback Cam Newton, an indication officials erred in calling Marshall for a personal foul. Also, the Cardinals gave a tryout to former Rams receiver Donnie Avery. Noted: The call against Marshall wiped out what would have been a second interception for Cardinals linebacker Daryl Washington.

Matt Maiocco of CSNBayArea.com asks 49ers center Jonathan Goodwin for thoughts on the team's struggles running the ball against Seattle in the opener. Goodwin: "They have a pretty decent group up front. And for whatever reasons, they probably played a little better in the run game. I know we didn't have that many yards rushing. So that's something we won't be happy with."

Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee says the 49ers knew they were going to have problems running the ball against Seattle, largely because of Earl Thomas' presence in the Seahawks' secondary. Barrows: "During the lead-up to the Seattle game, both Jim Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Greg Roman were asked separately about the Seahawks defense. The first name out of both of their mouths was Thomas', and he lived up to their compliments. ... One sequence in the second quarter typifies what happened with the 49ers run game on Sunday. ... Alex Smith pitches wide to his left to Gore. Tight ends Delanie Walker and Vernon Davis block down on Seahawk defenders and left tackle Joe Staley, who is very good at hitting moving targets, goes wide and absolutely crushes Kam Chancellor. Gore seemingly has plenty of room to pick up the first down and much more, but Thomas, who was initially 15 yards from the play, comes streaking in, steers Gore back to the inside and then cuts him down after only a yard pickup."

Cam Inman of the San Jose Mercury News says the 49ers value Smith's mobility.

Grant Cohn of the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat explores Davis' affinity for fine artwork. Davis, a studio art major at Maryland, likes Leonardo da Vinci and Claude Clark.
One million dollars per regular-season victory seems like a reasonable price for NFL teams already paying much more in player salaries.

That was the rate a couple NFC West teams paid their head coaches last season, according to a Forbes magazine report.

The report ranks Seattle's Pete Carroll third among NFL coaches, behind Bill Belichick and Mike Shanahan, at $7 million per season.

Lovie Smith is next at $6 million, followed by the Arizona Cardinals' Ken Whisenhunt at $5.75 million. Tom Coughlin ($5.25 million) and Mike Tomlin ($5 million) were next.

The chart breaks down the averages by 2010 victory totals, sorted by average per year. The figures cited for the San Francisco 49ers' Jim Harbaugh and the St. Louis Rams' Steve Spagnuolo reflect previous reports.

The Seahawks and Cardinals have both enjoyed playoff success under their coaches. Carroll commanded a premium coming off a successful run at USC. Whisenhunt posted a 4-1 postseason record, complete with a Super Bowl appearance, before receiving a raise last offseason.

Carroll is entering the second year of a five-year contract. Whisenhunt's deal, which the team extended last offseason following back-to-back playoff appearances, runs through 2013. Harbaugh is entering the first year of a five-year contract. The four-year deal Spagnuolo signed in 2009 runs through 2012.

Mailbag: NFL head coach rankings

April, 6, 2011
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Vishal from parts unknown stretched the NFC West mailbag at the seams with a two-part, nearly 400-word dispatch critiquing my ballot ranking the 10 best coaches in the NFL. I'll break out the main points in bullet items before responding. He wanted to know ...
  • 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.
Mike Sando: These were difficult decisions. Some of the trade-offs weren't very satisfying. I put together my ballot over the weekend. Upon revisiting it Tuesday morning, I initially thought I'd left off Smith by accident. Then I remembered he was basically just an odd man out. He's a guy I do think of as being one of the best coaches in the league. John Harbaugh is another one. Those guys are deserving of the recognition they received from our voters. I could have felt good about including them as well.

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.
Our Power Rankings for NFL head coaches are out and Tim Graham has the full breakdown on the AFC East blog.

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.

[+] EnlargeMike Tomlin
Icon SMIThe fact that Mike Tomlin works for a strong organization worked against him in this ranking.
Why Tomlin was only sixth: No one else ranked him lower. As I told Graham, Tomlin took over a healthy operation and kept it going. He deserves credit for that, but not as much credit as if he had produced similar results after taking over a struggling franchise. We should view the success Bill Cowher enjoyed in a similar context. Both worked for an outstanding organization.

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.
The Green Bay Packers drafted 30 of their current players since Mike McCarthy became head coach, a high number. The other Super Bowl team, Pittsburgh, has 23 players drafted under coach Mike Tomlin even though Tomlin inherited a championship team with fewer roster spots up for grabs.

The home-grown continuity those organizations enjoy became a reliable storyline during Super Bowl week.

Both teams got the quarterback position right, of course, and that makes everyone else look smarter. In general, however, the teams with organizational continuity should enjoy more solid footing during a potentially rocky offseason.

The chart shows draft-choice retention rates for NFC West teams. For example, the Arizona Cardinals feature 21 draft choices selected under coach Ken Whisehunt. They have four selected under previous coach Dennis Green and two -- Adrian Wilson and Gerald Hayes -- remaining from the Dave McGinnis era.

The numbers favor Arizona in part because every other team has changed head coaches since the Cardinals hired Ken Whisenhunt in 2007. But Whisenhunt says he isn't necessarily loyal to draft choices. The record proves he's right.

Last offseason, the Cardnials preferred gambling on less experienced quarterbacks to sticking with Matt Leinart on the basis of Leinart's status as a recent first-round draft choice. Whisenhunt has said he would rather admit failure than compromise principles when putting together a roster.

"It's great to keep your draft picks, but only if they are your best players," Whisenhunt told reporters recently at the NFL scouting combine. "We released our third-round pick (Buster Davis) our first year. ... We cut a (former) second-round pick (Cody Brown) last year because we felt we had better players."

I'll be back in a bit with a look at four recent NFC West draft choices, one per team and each highly drafted, facing questions heading toward the 2011 season.

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Carroll, Whisenhunt lead NFC West's way

February, 14, 2011
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The Seattle Seahawks' upset playoff victory over New Orleans let Pete Carroll join the club of NFL head coaches with at least one playoff victory in their current roles.

Jim Harbaugh will be looking to match the feat in his first season with the San Francisco 49ers.

The chart breaks down current NFL head coaches by playoff victories with their current teams.

Tracing Ray Horton's coaching roots

February, 9, 2011
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The Arizona Cardinals hired Pittsburgh Steelers secondary coach Ray Horton as defensive coordinator because they wanted to model their defense after the one the Steelers ran under coordinator Dick LeBeau.

Horton has worked with LeBeau for 12 of the past 14 NFL seasons.

The chart traces Horton's coaching roots back to his first job, under Norv Turner in 1994.

FORT WORTH, Texas -- New head coaches sometimes "lay down the law" to take control of their teams.

Mike Singletary went this route upon taking over for Mike Nolan as the San Francisco 49ers' coach during the 2008 season. Singletary put players through grueling practices and a tough training camp early in his tenure, complete with "nutcracker" drills. He backed off some when he felt as though he had taken control of the team.

[+] EnlargeKhalif Mitchell and Bear Pascoe
Jed Jacobsohn/Getty ImagesThe 49ers endured physical training camps under former coach Mike Singletary.
Steve Spagnuolo ran a grueling camp in his first season with the St. Louis Rams. Those practices featured live tackling, even on Pro Bowl running back Steven Jackson. Spagnuolo got the Rams' attention, but the team went 1-15 and broke down physically in the second half of the season. Spagnuolo backed off some this past season, and players said they responded.

In Seattle, Pete Carroll went the opposite direction this past season, giving key veterans rest and giving the entire team days off from practice during camp. The Seahawks started and finished strong under Carroll during his first season.

Coincidence? Probably not. It's logical to think teams benefit when their coaches strike the right balance.

The disparate approaches we've seen in the NFC West came to mind Monday when Pittsburgh Steelers receiver Hines Ward was discussing what changed when Mike Tomlin replaced Bill Cowher has head coach following the 2006 season.
Ward: "Well it’s his team now. When he first inherited the team, a lot of those players were under Coach Cowher and did things Coach Cowher’s way. Mike Tomlin was very militant when he came here. He wanted to see who would challenge his authority and he got rid of some of the guys that questioned his authority a little bit. He kept the guys that followed what he wanted. Once he got a full year or two of the guys he knows and sees every day at practice, then he let up a little bit. He gave guys off time and stuff like that. I think guys love playing for him. He’s just a pro’s coach and he stands up for everybody."

Ward said the grueling start under Tomlin left the Steelers tired and beat up heading into the playoffs following the 2007 season. Pittsburgh lost at home to Jacksonville in the wild-card round that season.

These are things to keep in mind as the 49ers begin working under new coach Jim Harbaugh. Harbaugh is intense, but he was also an NFL quarterback, not a middle linebacker. I'll be interested in seeing how his background influences his approach with players, particularly early in his tenure.

On the ground in, well, let's say Texas

January, 31, 2011
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DALLAS -- The NFL's Texas-sized Super Bowl spread looks like this: media center in Dallas, Pittsburgh Steelers hotel in Fort Worth, Green Bay Packers hotel in Las Colinas (near Irving) and buses shuttling between all three.

The game itself is in Arlington.

Mike Reiss of ESPNBoston.com and I departed ESPN's Super Bowl headquarters in Fort Worth at 6:45 a.m. local time, early enough to be first in line for credentials when the media center opened Monday morning. The early start was key to capturing this spectacular photograph of a near-empty media work room.

Side note: We noticed a "Packers" billboard on the drive from Fort Worth to downtown Dallas, but we did not notice one for the Steelers.

Radio Row, set up in its usual spot just outside the media work room, was also mostly quiet, but that is changing quickly. I saw Peter King among a handful of reporters on the air. A producer from Bernie Miklasz's show on 101ESPN St. Louis reached out. I'm planning on speaking with Bernie on the air at 12:15 p.m. ET. You're invited to listen live here.

As for the teams themselves, we'll have access to head coaches and key players this afternoon.

The Steelers' list features Mike Tomlin, Ben Roethlisberger, Flozell Adams, James Farrior, Brett Keisel, Hines Ward and LaMarr Woodley. They are available at 2:30 p.m. ET. The Packers' list features Mike McCarthy, Aaron Rodgers, Donald Driver, A.J. Hawk, Greg Jennings, Clay Matthews and Charles Woodson. They are available at 6:35 p.m. ET.

All good, you say, but this is still the NFC West blog, right? Right. I'll be back in a bit with an NFC West spin on the first-day proceedings.

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