NFL Nation: Bruce Smith

Only the members of the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee know why former Green Bay Packers outside linebackers coach Kevin Greene came up short again in his bid for induction on Saturday.

Greene, who stepped away from coaching last month after a five-year stint with the Packers, probably has a good idea.

Not that he agrees with it.

But given the fact that of the NFL’s top-five career sack leaders Greene is the only one not in the Hall of Fame, he seems aware of the perception that he was a one-trick pony during his 15-year career. That’s something Greene vigorously disputed during an interview late last season.

“You know this position, there’s three phases,” Greene said at the time. “To be successful at this position, you’ve got to be able to do all three. You can’t just do one, and really suck at playing the run and suck at covering people. It just doesn’t jive at this position. If you have success at one of the areas of this position, chances are you’re doing a pretty good job in the other two as well. So it is what it is.”

Greene, who was a finalist each of the past three years, leads all NFL outside linebackers with 160 sacks, and ranks third on the list behind defensive ends Bruce Smith (200 sacks) and Reggie White (198), both of whom are in the Hall of Fame.

Chris Doleman, who is fourth on the all-time list with 150.5, also is in the Hall of Fame. Michael Strahan, who is fifth on the list with 141.5, was voted in on Saturday.

Greene made the cut from the 15 finalists down to 10, but did not make the cut to the final players to be voted on for this class.

“I can tell you first of all that I truly have a peace about what I was able to accomplish,” Greene said late last season. “I know, really, inside, how I played and the time that I put in, the film that I studied. The countless hours on the field, in the workout room -- all those things. I’ve got a peace about that. It’s not something I regret. Should I have done more? Could I have done more? No. I did everything I possibly could to try to be the best at the position in all three phases of the game. Not just one phase.”

Conversation with: Louis Riddick (Part 2)

December, 14, 2013
Louis Riddick endured the chaos in Washington from 2001-07, first as a scout and then as director of pro personnel. He knows the toll it takes and what needs to happen. This is Part 1 of our conversation with the ESPN NFL Insider.

What does Dan Snyder need to do?

[+] EnlargeDan Snyder
AP Photo/Paul SpinelliOne has to wonder just how strong the relationship is between Redskins owner Dan Snyder and star QB Robert Griffin III.
Louis Riddick: He can do whatever the hell he wants. He owns the place. He doesn’t have to ignore players. But he has to understand the delicate culture of an NFL locker room. You can’t empower a first-year quarterback to feel he is bigger than everyone else when you have 8-, 9-, 10-, 11-year vets that you’re not doing things for. You can’t do that to a point where a head coach feels as though he has to make a stand against that kind of stuff to this degree – if you believe that’s what’s happening now and why wouldn’t you believe it considering the fact that to different degrees you’ve seen it before with Bruce Smith or Clinton Portis. You’ve seen players say, 'I can do what I want because I’m tight with the main guy.' … You have to respect how the game has to be managed from the ground level, not from the board room and be cognizant of the power and authority the head coach deserves and needs. If it’s just about, ‘I’ll do what I do because I have a right to do it,’ then don’t be mad when the results are what they are. This is a long-winded way of saying you have to make some adjustments, otherwise you’ll face this over and over.

There’s nothing wrong with wanting to be personable. This is a relationship business. It’s still a people business. I don’t think the upper level of management has to be so cold and impersonal that it lacks the ability to relate to or communicate effectively with the people who work for you. But the dynamic of running an NFL team from a head coach’s perspective is very unique and you can’t in any way undermine it.

Assuming this staff is gone, someone will take this job.

Riddick: Yes. … I know Dan cares about this team dearly, desperately. I know he does. He just has to make some adjustments.

I know from Robert Griffin’s perspective all the talk about his relationship with Snyder is off the mark, that they’re not as close as it’s being leaked.

Riddick: A lot of times it’s funny how when you’re a part of it and part of the problem you don’t realize how much you’re part of the problem. 'How can what I’m doing be so bad? I’m not doing anything. I’m just hanging out.' If you could have him step outside himself and look at himself. … When I used to look at old pictures of myself as opposed to now, I was wearing earrings and had all the chains and I was like, ‘What the hell is that? That can’t be me.’ While I was doing it I thought this is the way it’s supposed to be. You don’t have perspective. Perspective is going to be the key.

What’s the formula for Snyder?

Riddick: The hardest part for him is to be objective. You can’t help from keeping his subjective feelings and preconceived attitudes and biases about this game out of it. He just can’t help it. He is really attracted to the names, the star power, the perceived star power and big names and doesn’t dig deep to see what’s substance and staying power those star power names have, whether or not it really is something and if star power and names have earned all the accolades and attention they get. If you look at Mike [Shanahan], you can ask 50 different people and get all kinds of different opinions, and one thing you’ll constantly hear people say is if it wasn’t for John Elway, now what? They’ll keep saying that. That’s what they’ll keep saying. If you look past that, once he left and started to get total control and was building the organization, what happened then? What do people say about you after that point? Dan needs to stop chasing names and start trying to look for substance and look for real qualifications and then he has to re-examine his information gathering process and let the process lead to the name instead of looking to the name and saying the process took care of itself because I got the name. It’s almost like doing it backwards. He’ll eventually get what he wants if that process is sound, which is to stop getting embarrassed.

The sad part is the process once led them to Jim Zorn.

Riddick: It’s just as important in the head coach hiring process for the people who are doing the interviewing to have prepared and studied and researched what they need to ask and what they need to hear as it is for the person who is being interviewed. If you have taken the time to find out what the answer is I’m looking for, what characteristics I’m looking for that are going to take my organization to the places I want to take it to. If you don’t know what they are, then you have no shot. You’ll hire this guy, try that guy. You need to stop and look at yourself and say, 'Am I respecting the process and respecting the game and how hard it is to build a winner?'

Redskins' past turnarounds unpredictable

November, 12, 2013
ASHBURN, Va. -- The Washington Redskins have gone on four excellent runs to turn their season around and close with a flourish since 2001. Will they make it a fifth? Based on their recent play it's tough to predict such a run. But history also shows that these runs aren't always predictable.

Here are the four seasons in which Washington has finished on a hot stretch, taking a season from bad to excellent:


How they started: The Redskins lost their first five games under coach Marty Schottenheimer -- and looked terrible in doing so. It also happened to follow a horrible preseason. The Redskins were outscored 143-33 in those games.

[+] EnlargeDan Snyder & Marty Schottenheimer
Chris Knight/AP PhotoThe 2001 season was a roller coaster of wins, losses and emotions for Redskins owner Daniel Snyder and coach Marty Schottenheimer.
Low point: Players were unhappy with Schottenheimer and his methods early in the season, with several voicing their complaints (even mild-mannered second-year offensive tackle Chris Samuels was displeased). But the two who were most upset? Corner Darrell Green and Bruce Smith.

Thoughts of a turnaround: None. The Redskins had played poorly since the preseason and they had cast-off Tony Banks at quarterback and no legitimate playmakers on offense. But what did start to change was the impression of Schottenheimer. Players started to respect his methods. They started to become a tough, physical team. A LaVar Arrington interception versus Carolina in a 17-14 win turned it around.

How it ended: The Redskins won five straight to reach .500 en route to an 8-8 record. Schottenheimer was well-liked by most players in the locker room, though Smith and Green, by most accounts, did not buy in. Owner Dan Snyder did not buy in, a fact that upset numerous players, as he fired Schottenheimer. It was a mistake.


How they started: The Redskins actually played well at the start of the season, winning their first three games and they were 4-2 after six games. But they lost four of their next five to sit 5-6 after 11 games.

Low point: The Redskins lost three straight games, including the last two at home. One of those was as bad as the Minnesota game last week as they lost 16-13 to a three-win Oakland team that lost every game the rest of the season. They followed that with an overtime loss at home to San Diego.

Thoughts of a turnaround: Solid, despite the skid. Players were genuinely confused about what had happened. They knew Gibbs’ first year would be a struggle, but I remember talking to players, tackle Jon Jansen in particular, about what was happening. Their belief was that they were at least a nine-win team, that they had worked too hard and believed too much in what they were doing. I didn’t think they would win every game the rest of the season, but a strong finish? Doable.

How it ended: The Redskins won their last five regular season games to finish 10-6 and reach the playoffs. No opponent scored more than 20 points and the Redskins topped 30 in each of the last three games.


How they started: The Redskins won five of their first eight games coming off a 6-10 season. Things looked good.

Low point: Sean Taylor’s death. The Redskins then lost a crushing game to Buffalo, 17-16, and flew to Miami for his funeral. It was their fourth straight defeat as they fell to 5-7.

Thoughts of a turnaround: None. It was asking too much for them to turn it around given the circumstances. They were a drained team. But, as in 2005, there were a lot of true professionals that provided reason to believe they could win again.

How it ended: Todd Collins entered and played well at quarterback for an injured Jason Campbell and the offense started to click. The team overall played inspired football and the Redskins won four in a row to reach the playoffs. They lost in the first round and Joe Gibbs retired.


How they started: Washington lost three straight, including at home to Carolina, 21-13, to fall to 3-6.

Low point: Losing at home to previously one-win Carolina after two straight defeats to the New York Giants and Pittsburgh. Against the Giants, the Redskins played a solid game and lost on a last-minute touchdown pass. But Robert Griffin III's heroics provided hope that they were never out of a game. They lost at Pittsburgh in part because of nearly a dozen dropped passes and the Steelers’ defense had been dominating all year. Neither were terrible losses. But at home to the Panthers? That was bad.

Thoughts of a turnaround: After the bye week, the players returned refreshed and energized and expressed a belief that they could play better and finish strong, with fullback Darrel Young saying they would do “something special.” Too many players believed in what they were doing to write them off; it was similar to the 2005 feeling I had. So I anticipated improved play? But a seven-game streak? No way.

How it ended: With seven straight wins and a home playoff loss to Seattle, and the injury to Griffin. But with a belief that they had turned a corner.
To review: J.J. Watt’s defensive player of the year season in 2012 included 107 tackles, 20.5 sacks, 39 tackles for loss, 42 quarterback hits, 16 batted passes, four forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries.


Is it possible for Texans defensive lineman J.J. Watt to have a better year than he did in 2012?


Discuss (Total votes: 2,867)

“It was the best I’ve ever seen, the best I’ve ever been around,” Houston Texans defensive coordinator Wade Phillips recently reiterated.

Watt is the biggest sports star Houston has seen in some time and I don’t think he’ll let up for a second in preparing for his third year, even as he allows himself to enjoy his celebrity.

Still, one has to wonder: Can he match that enormous season or is a statistical drop-off almost inevitable?

The Titans drafted right guard Chance Warmack in part because they think he will be able to slow Watt down. The Colts also emphasized their interior offensive line in the draft. Those moves will hardly make Watt scared. They simply serve to help illustrate how big of a concern he is.

[+] EnlargeJJ Watt
Troy Taormina/USA TODAY SportsJ.J. Watt had 20.5 sacks and 16 batted passes in 2012.
“We started seeing it toward the last of the year, they started hollering in the field, ‘Don’t let him get to the quarterback,’ that sort of thing,” Phillips said. “Teams were even drafting for him, it sounded like.

“He’s going to draw a lot of attention, but as long as you have other guys who can rush, it’s hard. We put him in some situations where he’s one-on-one and we also move him around quite a bit. We think those things will help.

“There will be more attention on him, there will be more trying to see where he is and trying to help. But I think they tried to do that last year quite a bit. He’s a great player. He’s going to do well no matter what.”

But can he match those stats?

“I don’t know if you can have a better year than last year. He had a tremendous year,” Phillips said. “I’ve never been around a defensive linemen that made that many plays. And I had Reggie White, I had Bruce Smith, I had Elvin Bethea who’s in the Hall of Fame, Curly Culp who’s fixing to go in the Hall of Fame. Nobody’s had a year like that kid had last year.

“You just don’t make that many plays. It was a phenomenal year. I don’t know if he can have a better year than that. He’s working towards it, I know that. He’s first in every drill we do, he wins every wind sprint that they run out there, he’s a leader. The sky’s the limit for that guy.”

Mike Sando's MVP Watch

December, 12, 2012

Five of our eight NFL divisional bloggers think Peyton Manning stands as the favorite for league MVP through Week 14.

Two of the bloggers favoring Tom Brady have something in common: Both were at Gillette Stadium for Brady's four-touchdown performance during a 42-14 victory over the previously 11-2 Houston Texans on Monday night. Sometimes, seeing in person is believing.

"Peyton Manning's comeback story is amazing," AFC South blogger Paul Kuharsky said, "but Brady's been a small notch better in my eyes."

Those eyes saw firsthand what Brady wrought against the Texans' defense. Our AFC East blogger, James Walker, was there as well.

Brady posted his fifth game of the season with a Total QBR score in the 90s. Only Manning has more of them (seven). Ben Roethlisberger, Eli Manning, Joe Flacco, Robert Griffin III and Russell Wilson are next with three apiece.

Brady has 29 passing touchdowns, three rushing touchdowns and only four picks.

"I will go with Brady," AFC North blogger Jamison Hensley said. "Manning is a better story, but Brady's spectacular year shouldn't be downgraded because of it."

The gap between the elder Manning and Brady might be small, but the gap between those two and everyone else continues to grow. Manning (82.4) and Brady (80.6) have a commanding lead over Matt Ryan (73.7) for the QBR lead. They are on pace to post the sixth and seventh full seasons in the 80s since 2008. Manning has done it twice previously, Brady once.

"I'll go with Peyton Manning," NFC South blogger Pat Yasinskas said. "John Fox has an elite quarterback for the first time in his career and that could mean a Super Bowl title for the Broncos."

Manning's Broncos have won eight in row after winning eight games all last season.

"Brady did this last year too," NFC East blogger Dan Graziano said. "And the year before. Last year's Broncos were 8-8. This year's may be the best team in the league. Valuable."

What makes an MVP candidate? NFC North blogger Kevin Seifert and I will discuss that subject during our "Inside Slant" podcast later Wednesday. You'll be able to find it at the Podcenter. First, let's take a look at the MVP Watch list through Week 14.

ESPN Stats & Information contributed to this item.
Chris DolemanManny Rubio/US PresswireChris Doleman had a knack for getting to the quarterback and jarring the ball loose.
Chris Doleman was a long-armed pass rusher with the height (6-foot-5) to match up with big left tackles and the speed to run around them. He retired in 1999 with 150.5 sacks, which at the time qualified as the second-most in NFL history, while playing two stints for the Minnesota Vikings.

What you might not know: Doleman also retired with the most forced fumbles of any player since the NFL began tracking the statistic. He forced 44 fumbles in 232 career games, and on the eve of his enshrinement in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, it might be Doleman's most enduring legacy.

As fun and momentum-shifting as a violent sack might be, Doleman was among the first to realize that pulling back a bit on the force provided a better opportunity to achieve a more impactful play.

"The era that I played in, we had some pretty good defensive linemen," Doleman said in a conference call this week. There was Bruce Smith. Reggie White. They had their own style. When I was at that defensive end position, I definitely wanted to be perceived as a pass-rusher. But would I be a speed rusher? A power rusher? A guy that takes plays off? One of the things I found I [had a knack for] was separating the quarterback from the ball.

"When you separate the ball from a running back, you just have a fumble. But for a quarterback, that's a sack and a fumble. That's a much bigger play. It wasn't about putting brutal hits on them, but controlling them and getting the ball from them."

As the chart shows, the recently-retired Jason Taylor passed Doleman on the all-time list, and the latest generation of pass-rushers have achieved a higher ratio of forced fumbles per game. Players like Taylor, Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis made an art of reaching their hand toward the ball even when they're being blocked away from the quarterback. Doleman deserves his share of credit for proving the value of those efforts.
Thaisport from San Francisco wants my take on the Peyton Manning news regarding the San Francisco 49ers. He thinks this is a "win-win" situation because Manning would deliver an NFC West title to the 49ers, Manning would make every offensive player better and the team knows Alex Smith will still be there as a fallback.

"A solid core of offensive players around a decent QB can make him look good," Thaisport writes. "A great QB around a solid core of players would make them look great. I think the 49ers front office is making all the right moves so far this off season. Your thoughts?"

Mike Sando: It's clear we need to break old habits when analyzing the 49ers. They were an easy team to mock when Jed York was publicly guaranteeing division titles with an 0-5 record, Mike Singletary was dropping trou as head coach, the team was changing offensive coordinators every year, Smith was floundering and the stadium situation remained a mess.

We should not underestimate this organization. York has led a successful push for a new stadium. He went against convention when hiring Trent Baalke as his general manager, with better-than-expected results (think NaVorro Bowman, Carlos Rogers, Donte Whitner, paying Ray McDonald instead of Aubrayo Franklin). The organization secured Jim Harbaugh as head coach when Harbaugh was the hottest and, it turns out, best candidate. Gideon Yu and Kunal Malik were also strategic additions.

Now, one week into the Manning circus, we find out the 49ers have made a very calculating move to position themselves for the quarterback's services. This strikes me as something the 49ers would not have seriously considered right after the season, when the bond between Smith and Harbaugh was strongest. This decision was easier to make a couple months into the offseason, when strategic thinking takes its firmest hold.

This is a bold move, and one an organization doesn't make without leadership at the ownership level. York presumably saw this as a rare opportunity to seize upon a championship window. Sticking with Smith would have been more comfortable. The 49ers might wind up going that route, anyway. They could have some damage control to do if that is the case. But nothing ventured, nothing gained. Randy Moss' addition was another move with the short term in mind.

Smith has shown he's adept at swallowing his pride. And in this case, we're talking about Peyton Manning, not some average quarterback. I'm reminded of Arizona defensive end Darnell Dockett's public support for Manning as Kevin Kolb's replacement on the Cardinals. Dockett said he would have no trouble with someone lobbying for the team to sign a new defensive end if Reggie White or Bruce Smith were the ones under consideration.

That is how I feel about teams pursuing Manning when they already have quarterbacks in place. Those teams' existing quarterbacks might not like it, but that is too bad for them. Owners, executives and coaches have a responsibility to act in the best interests of their organizations. Looking into Manning qualifies as that type of move.

These aren't the 'same old Redskins'

February, 21, 2012
ShanahanGeoff Burke/US PresswireSince Mike Shanahan's arrival, the Redskins' personnel decisions have been more disciplined.
I get it, Washington Redskins fans. You've been hurt. You've been burned too many times by big March headlines you thought would bring lasting happiness but instead brought heartache, and now it's difficult for you to trust. You don't want to be hurt again.

How else to explain the horrified reaction by a quarterback-starved fan base to the idea of signing Peyton Manning? Judging by the reactions from the folks in our comments section all the way up to the mayor of Washington, D.C., you'd think we were talking about handing the starting quarterback's job to Dan Snyder's teenage nephew. This is what Mayor Vincent Gray had to say on the topic to a D.C. television station last week:
"You know, I think it depends on what role he would play, Bruce," Gray said. "But I really think the Redskins need a quarterback that they can build with for the future. You know, Andrew Luck is probably going to go to the Colts, but there's Robert Griffin III, and there's a couple other promising quarterbacks that are out there. We've kind of been down this pathway with quarterbacks who've been great but maybe are in the back end of their career, and even if he comes in and plays a year or two, where do we go from there?"

Well, jeez, Mr. Mayor. At that point, you go with the guy you drafted in 2013 because you weren't able to trade up and get Griffin in 2012. Or you go with a young guy you picked later in that draft who's been apprenticing for a year or two under Peyton Manning, for goodness' sake. What Gray and many other Redskins fans seem to be missing here is that Mike Shanahan can't just go to the "franchise quarterback" aisle at the Wegman's down the road from the team's Ashburn, Va., training facility and pick one. Only one team's going to get Griffin, and if the Redskins aren't that team, they need to have a good Plan B. If Manning is fully healthy and shows he can throw the ball the way he was throwing it two years ago before his neck injury, he's the greatest Plan B in alphabetically themed planning history.

Redskins fans, the mayor included, are looking at this whole thing through the disappointing prism of free-agent signing periods past. I'm hearing names such as Bruce Smith, Deion Sanders, Albert Haynesworth and yeah, Donovan McNabb -- a list of big-name, star players the Redskins brought in to great fanfare and who flopped for one reason or another. Because of this, the chorus moans, Manning isn't the way to go. The Redskins have done the big-name/big-contract thing before and it just never works out. They need to stop doing business this way.

Well, guess what? They kind of already have. Yeah, McNabb was a mistake -- a flyer Shanahan took thinking he could re-light a spark that had gone out in Philadelphia and maybe sneak into the playoffs in his first year in Washington. He acknowledges it was a risk that didn't work out. But (a) Manning is not McNabb, who was no longer driven to excel by the time the Redskins got him and (b) the McNabb acquisition is an outlier among the moves Shanahan and Bruce Allen have made since taking over personnel decisions two years ago. Everything else they've done in the draft and free agency has been focused, sober and competent, and they deserve the benefit of the doubt, even from Redskins fans scarred by the mistakes of past administrations.

[+] EnlargePeyton Manning
AP Photo/Frederick BreedonAdding Peyton Manning for the right price would make a lot of sense for the Redskins.
Snyder doesn't pull these strings anymore. Part of the agreement Shanahan signed when he took the job was that Snyder would let him build the team, as he puts it, "the right way." Last year's draft was an exercise in patience, as Shanahan refused to reach for quarterbacks he didn't think were the long-term answer simply because he had a need at that position. He traded back, trying to build depth, and picked up key future pieces such as Ryan Kerrigan, Roy Helu, Evan Royster, Jarvis Jenkins and Dejon Gomes. He has eight picks this year and will have to decide how many of them he's willing to sacrifice if he wants to move up to draft Griffin. Shanahan knows how many needs his team has, so he's not going to make that decision lightly.

In the meantime, there is free agency, and although the Redskins didn't make a big splash last summer, they did very well in free agency. Shanahan targeted specific players in the 27- to 29-year-old age group -- guys he believed were already established but still young and hungry enough to grow and develop with the team. He plans to use the same formula this year to address wide receiver, offensive line and the secondary. He's not after the biggest name out there. He's after the specific types of players he believes his team needs in order to build a consistent, year-to-year winner.

Which brings us back to Manning, one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time. Shanahan's not going to give Manning a big, five-year, huge-money deal. I don't think anyone is, given the health concerns, but if the market gets that crazy, I don't expect the Redskins to play in it. It just wouldn't be smart. Bringing Manning in on a one-year or two-year deal with incentives to allow him to prove he's healthy is smart, because if Manning is healthy, he's worth as much as any quarterback in the league.

That's the important thing to remember here, Redskins fans. Manning isn't a "fading star" who's past his prime. He was, before his neck injury, playing at as high a level as any quarterback in the league. He got hurt and missed a season. Now, it appears he'll be available again. And if he shows teams he can throw the ball the way he did in 2010, he's a smart short-term investment for a team that needs a quarterback answer now and for the future. The ideal solution would be both, but if that's not out there, the Redskins need to be smart about addressing the former while keeping their eye on the latter. So far, the Shanahan regime has shown that it doesn't do business like those "same old Redskins" who've hurt you so many times.
We spent plenty of time in recent days discussing the tough road for wide receivers making the Pro Football Hall of Fame. In the process, we ignored where the selection committee has turned its attention: pass-rushers.

Not a single receiver made the last cut to five modern-day finalists in Saturday's balloting in Indianapolis. But former Minnesota Vikings defensive end Chris Doleman became the third consecutive NFC North pass-rusher to earn enshrinement, following Richard Dent in 2011 and John Randle in 2010. Former Minnesota Vikings receiver Cris Carter once again failed to make the cut, a victim of the perceived value between pass-rushers and wide receivers.

[+] EnlargeVikings defensive end Chris Doleman
AP Photo/NFL PhotosNot only was Chris Doleman a sack specialist, but the former Vikings star is also among the NFL career leaders in fumble recoveries.
At least one pass-rusher has won election in each of the past five years. Bruce Smith and Derrick Thomas were part of the 2009 class, and Fred Dean was in the class of 2008.

Doleman's 150.5 career sacks rank third in NFL history, behind Smith (200), Reggie White (198) and Kevin Greene (160). Smith and White are both in Canton, and as of Saturday, eight of the 10 players with the highest career sack totals have or will be enshrined. Greene and the recently retired Jason Taylor (139.5) are the only players who have been left out.

(More on Greene, who didn't even make the cut from 15 finalists to 10, in the coming days.)

I don't want to take anything away from Doleman, who was a pass-rushing force for an extended period in the NFL. His two best seasons -- 21 sacks in 1989 and 15 sacks in 1998 -- came nine years apart. Doleman was part of four teams that finished the season with the NFL's top-ranked defense, recovered the seventh-most fumbles (24) in league history and was an eight-time Pro Bowler.

But with the exception of Greene, it's clear that sack totals are among the most reliable tickets to the Hall of Fame. Minutes after Doleman's election was announced, longtime Twin Cities sports analyst Patrick Reusse (also a colleague of mine at ESPN 1500) tweeted: "Apparently, it's all about sacks, since in his absolute prime, Doleman was 2nd best D-lineman on his team, behind Keith Millard."

To me, the definition of a Hall of Fame player is that he was one of the best of his era. Doleman was named to the NFL's 1990's All-Decade team, along with three other defensive ends. Was he one of the best players of that generation? He was if you accept that pass rushing is as important as the voting committee considers it.

But enough of that. I'm not going to diminish Doleman's big day by questioning his credentials. There is little doubt he was a great player for a long time in this league.

Yes, the beauty of the annual Hall of Fame announcement is that it produces as much debate afterwards as it did beforehand. Chris Doleman is a Hall of Fame player because the voting committee places premium value on his particular skill set. (Again, Greene appears to be the lone exception to that rule.)

Cris Carter isn't in the Hall of Fame because the voting committee doesn't value his position and corresponding statistics nearly as much. There are still only 21 receivers in Canton, the lowest total of any position other than tight end and kicking specialist. That's the deal -- no more and no less.

Faces of lockout: Hangout for Bills' fans

June, 1, 2011
Dan DeMarcoTim Graham/ESPN.comOwner Dan DeMarco of the Big Tree Inn in Orchard Park, N.Y. The wooden statues, from left, are Chris Berman, Jim Kelly and Andre Reed.
The NFL lockout has put players and owners in limbo. The ripple effects are also felt by people whose lives or businesses touch their teams. Here are their stories:

ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- The Big Tree Inn has been a Buffalo Bills institution for decades.

The beloved watering hole and wing joint is about 600 yards of Abbott Road sidewalk away from Gate 4 at Ralph Wilson Stadium. Signed jerseys from Jim Kelly, Thurman Thomas, Andre Reed, Kent Hull, Bruce Smith and Darryl Talley adorn the walls of the modest 1,600-square-foot space. Ruben Brown, the perennial Pro Bowl guard, has his own corner.

The Big Tree Inn is a gathering spot for fans and a rite of passage for the players who pass through during the week -- and after home games -- to hang out with hardcore patrons. Wise visiting players place to-go orders for the bus ride to the airport or the outbound flight.

Reed called the Big Tree "a hallowed place" that when he walks through the door gives him the same feeling others might get when they walk into Fenway Park or Yankee Stadium.

"That was the first place I walked into as a so-called Bills rookie at that time," Reed said. "Every time you walk in there, you get a sense of what the Bills are all about."

You can imagine how much a Ralph Wilson Stadium neighborhood restaurant with 12 employees would rely on NFL games to remain profitable. With the lockout threatening to wipe out exhibitions and maybe even regular-season dates, Big Tree Inn owners Dan DeMarco and Brian Duffek are nervous.

"We're just praying," Duffek said on a quiet Tuesday afternoon at the bar. "If this is the crowd we have on a Sunday in October, we've got a big problem."

The Big Tree is as much of the game-day routine for many Bills fans as putting on a parka. Duffek said home games account for about 30 percent of the Big Tree's annual revenues. The till already had been shorted by games the Bills outsourced to Toronto through 2012.

In addition to the business' bottom line, bartenders could lose out on hundreds of dollars in tips each day. Hours likely would be cut for the whole staff.

"Everybody says 'There's only eight or nine home games,' but people don't realize that a home-game crowd starts showing up on Thursdays and pour into Mondays," DeMarco said from behind the bar. "People flock in from out of town and fill the motels around here. They give us four or five days of business every home game."

DeMarco joked about his regular crew of "season-ticket holders" who prefer to watch the home games at his place rather than in person.

A large wood carving of Reed stands outside the entrance alongside versions of Kelly and ESPN's Chris Berman. Bottles of Reed's Over the Middle Sauce are stationed around the bar.

"It's been cemented in my life," Reed said. "When we became a team in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the Big Tree was a huge part of that.

"The camaraderie was always evident when we showed up there and, over some beers and some wings, would talk about our team and what our goals were. Every Friday we went to the Big Tree, talked about the week's practice and could be ourselves away from the coaches and the stadium. A lot of tension was released there. A lot of things were gotten off our chests in that place. Any time I go back up there, it's a lot of memories."

There are a lot of ghosts wafting around the Big Tree, but Sundays could make the place look like a ghost town if the lockout endures.
Jake from Lafayette, Calif., strongly disagrees with my decision to rank DeMarcus Ware third and Darrelle Revis only ninth in our rankings for top defensive players. He says Ware has yet to "consistently perform at an elite level, and he can't even anchor the Dallas defense to a decent level," while Revis "consistently shuts down any superstar wide receivers" for a playoff-tested defense.

Mike Sando: It's misleading to say Ware has not consistently performed at an elite level, or that he has not played for good defenses.

Ware has 80 sacks in six NFL seasons, including 46.5 over the past three. The Cowboys were second in points allowed two seasons ago. They have ranked among the top 10 in yards allowed three of the past four seasons. Football Outsiders' defensive rankings also put them in the top third to top half of the league multiple times.

The Cowboys haven't had great defenses, but they've had decent defenses. Ware has been a dominant player for those defenses.

Consider that the great Bruce Smith had 76.5 sacks in his first six NFL seasons, but he never had more than 43 sacks over a three-year stretch of his 19-year career.

Kevin Greene, who ranks third on the since-1982 career sack list, once had 45 sacks in a three-year span. Reggie White, who ranks second, had 57 sacks over three seasons.

Sacks do not define players, but the great pass-rushers tend to get a lot of them. Ware certainly does.

Even if Revis played cornerback better than Ware played outside linebacker, it's still plausible to rank Ware higher based on overall impact.

Quarterbacks can decide to throw away from Revis. They have apparently done this, explaining why Revis had zero interceptions last season. Quarterbacks cannot avoid Ware as easily. Teams can set their blocking schemes to handle him, but if they do this, they're making significant sacrifices in other areas. I think those sacrifices outweigh the sacrifices associated with throwing away from Revis. Teams can send up to four other players into pass patterns.

Great cornerbacks still have value, of course. But the overall principle applies in the NFL.

That's why LSU cornerback Patrick Peterson lasted until the fifth overall choice even though he was arguably the best player in the draft, independent of positional considerations. The Arizona Cardinals were thrilled to get Peterson, but there's a reason pass-rusher Von Miller went second overall. Teams value what Miller does more than they value what Peterson does, even though Peterson also provides value in the return game.
Shaun CodyThomas Campbell/US PresswireShaun Cody is confident he can play nose tackle in Houston's 3-4 defense.
Shaun Cody's got a stable full of doubters, but the faith of one key person.

He understands the former and intends to prove himself worthy of the latter.

How is the seventh-year defensive tackle who’s “just” 304 pounds going to man the nose in Wade Phillips’ 3-4 front?

Fans and analysts are skeptical, but Phillips has repeatedly pronounced that Cody and second-year man Earl Mitchell will be fine in the nose tackle spot, a key to most 3-4s.

“When you hear 3-4 defense, the thing that pops in your mind is you want a big, huge, mountain of a guy who’s 350, 350-plus in the center of it,” Cody said. “That’s what I thought until I heard how Wade Phillips wants to do it, how he’s had undersized guys before. That’s what gave me the confidence about the kind of role I’ll be in.

“There are always going to be naysayers and guys who want a change. But I think Earl and I will be good for the job and we’ll hold it down for them.”

Phillips is charged with revamping a defense that ranked dead last (268 ypg) against the pass in 2010 and gave up 74 points more than the league average.

He got a defense-heavy draft class that didn’t include a nose tackle and initially cast Mario Williams as Bruce Smith (who Phillips coached in Buffalo) at defensive end, but now has Williams as a weak outside linebacker with the hope he will become DeMarcus Ware (who played for Phillips in Dallas).

Recently, in clarifying how the outside linebackers will be deployed, Phillips said it will function more like a 5-2. That’s a scheme that will put a strain on the corners, a topic for another column.

There is, at this point, an element of mystery about what Phillips’ defense will look like with his Texans personnel. One coach told me he expects it will amount to an "under" defense with a four-man line, with Williams always standing up on the open end of the line. If that's the case then identifying the fourth rusher, the big challenge in facing a 3-4 scheme like Pittsburgh’s, won’t be a mystery with Houston and Williams.

Both Cody (who was listed at 6-foot-4, 304 pounds last season) and Mitchell (6-3, 291) will be looking to show the system can work with a less-than-giant nose guard. It will be more of an adjustment for Mitchell, who started his college career at Arizona as a fullback before moving to defense. Cody won’t see a great change from the way he lined up in last season’s 4-3, and he and Mitchell will not be responsible for two gaps the way monster defensive tackles in many 3-4s are.

“I’ve had huge nose guards,” Phillips said after the Texans’ recent golf tournament. “They’ve all played different techniques because of what their body type was and what they could do well. Greg Kragen, who was in the Pro Bowl in Denver, was smaller than the guys we have now. I know the league is bigger now. But he was one of the smaller guys and he played it really, really well.

“Cody actually played the technique that we play with our nose quite a bit last year in some of the under defense they ran and played it well.”

During a break in his day in Southern California earlier this week, Cody said he understands his role and his niche. He was part of the Detroit team that didn’t win a game in 2008. As a free agent following that season he visited New Orleans and Houston before signing with the Texans.

“I think and I hope I’m known for stopping the run,” he said. “I’ve played predominantly on first and second down and I think I’ve done a good job of it and I think that’s one of the reasons they wanted me back …

“Every guy wants to rush the passer and I’d love to help more with that. But we have a great bunch of pass rushers on this team. I’m a team guy first. I know that D-linemen love rushing the quarterback and I love rushing the quarterback, too. But to be on a team where you can have a role on it, I love filling out that role.”

In discussing Cody and Mitchell, Phillips has also talked of Jay Ratliff, his undersized nose tackle in Dallas.

Mitchell actually has common friends with Ratliff and plans to talk with him soon, picking his brain. But Ratliff won’t be able to pass along to Mitchell his super-violent hands, a key to Ratliff's effectiveness.

“I’ll ask him what goes into being productive in this defense and about what I can expect,” Mitchell said. “He knows Wade Phillips and he understands what he wants to get done in this defense. It’s my first time playing 3-4 and I want to understand the best way to be a productive part of the team. I’ve watched a lot of his film, I think I can do a lot of things that he does. It gives me a good sense of the defense coming this year.”

Both Cody and Mitchell met Phillips briefly before the lockout, and the new coordinator was able to convey his confidence in them. While Phillips’ vision for Williams has evolved, his approach to the middle of the defensive line has not.

Cody, who was heading for his second tour of unrestricted free agency, was one of the handful of players around the league who got a new contract before the labor impasse reached a boiling point.

Phillips has not been on the field for work with either player. He saw enough on tape, though, to tell coach Gary Kubiak and general manager Rick Smith they could spend draft picks on other spots, and the team got defensive end J.J. Watt, linebacker Brooks Reed, cornerbacks Brandon Harris and Rashad Carmichael, safety Shiloh Keo and linebacker Cheta Ozougwu.

Both Cody and Mitchell said they appreciate Phillips’ faith, and are determined to show he was right to have it.

“It’s a big deal for me,” Mitchell said. “I feel honored. I have a great deal of respect for the man and just being able to be mentioned, going into just my fourth year ever playing defensive tackle, it gives me a good feeling. I have to go out there and prove him right …

“A lot of people are skeptical. But I know the player that I am. I don’t buy into what people are saying. I don’t really listen to critics. All the stuff people are saying, that’s the stuff that motivated me to get into the NFL in the first place. I know what I can do as a player. I’m going to show my motor, keep playing.”

Said Cody: “My whole career I’ve been in a 4-3 and I’ve always wondered what I could do in a 3-4, what kind of player I’d be in that system. It’s exciting. Hopefully I can prove I can play in any system and be a good football player.”

AFC East leftovers from the combine

March, 3, 2011
INDIANAPOLIS -- Before we get too far removed from the NFL scouting combine and mired in the labor morass, it's time to empty out the notebook from Lucas Oil Stadium. Here are some AFC East-oriented tidbits from the defensive players who met with reporters there.

Clemson defensive end Da'Quan Bowers on the NFL's greatest offensive tackle:
"If I had to pick, I’d have to say Jake Long. One of the best I have ever seen."

Bowers on being compared to Bruce Smith and Reggie White:
"It's amazing. Just to be in the same sentence as those guys is amazing. Anytime anybody can put you in a sentence with Reggie White and Bruce Smith, you must be doing something right."

Ohio State defensive end Cameron Heyward on being compared to Vernon Gholston:
"We're two totally different players. Vern, they had him dropping at linebacker. You've seen my dropping abilities. They're pretty good [joking]. Me, I can play all over the line. I can play 3-technique and 6-technique. We are two different players. We had the privilege of going to The Ohio State, but we're not the same player. I'm never going to compare myself to him, and I don't think he'll ever do the same."

Fresno State outside linebacker Chris Carter about working with former Patriots outside linebacker Willie McGinest:
"We've been working primarily on drops. I know how to rush the passer. That's my big thing, work on drops and perfecting that, getting the hips loose. Making sure we go over the defenses 100 percent and I know everyone's assignment. When you play DE, you pretty much only have to know the front-seven assignments. But as a backer, one thing they emphasized is making sure we know everyone's assignment."

Hampton defensive tackle Kendrick Ellis on a fellow alum with the Miami Dolphins:
"Every time when I used to be at Hampton, I'd watch Kendall Langford. He just gave us hope. Small-school guys, we're not on TV every week. Just with him doing it, it gave us hope that we could do it. Kendall was a good player. So I try to emulate what Kendall did, being strong in the weight room, working hard and trying to be just like him."

Clemson safety Marcus Gilchrist on what he learned from C.J. Spiller:
"Humbleness. A lot times you hear about these big-time, high-profile guys and a tendency to judge them with character issues because they have such a big head. But C.J. is one of the most humble guys you'll ever meet."

Florida punter Chas Henry on speaking with Jets special teams coordinator Mike Westhoff:
"I’d sure love to hear from him. It’s a great organization. They’re going to have a lot of success in the future, and I’d love to be a part of it. ... I’m definitely following their situation."

Illinois linebacker Martez Wilson on comparisons to Dolphins linebacker Karlos Dansby:
"I've heard that a lot. I could definitely see myself as a similarity to Karlos. We're both tall and got long arms. Actually our play styles are very similar. That's a great comparison. He's a great linebacker. Just to have that type of comparison, someone who was in the NFL, is just a great accomplishment."

Clemson defensive tackle Jarvis Jenkins on being coached by the Buffalo Bills at the Senior Bowl:
"It was real good, being coached by the Bills. They opened my eyes a lot. I had to improve my pass-rush a lot, and they taught me a lot about not looking in the backfield, beating my man first, and actually had a good Senior Bowl, got better each day."

Cancer survivor and Boston College linebacker Mark Herzlich on his relationship with Tedy Bruschi:
"Tedy reached out to me first. I remember the date, Sept. 29th, because that's the date I was told I didn't have cancer any more. One thing he told me that night back at my dorm at Boston College was 'Mark, you're a survivor now. Be proud of being a survivor.' Those are words that have stayed with me through my whole process. To me, that meant get your story out there, raise as much money as you can, be helpful to other people."

Leading Questions: NFC West

February, 14, 2011
With the offseason in full swing, let’s take a look at one major question facing each NFC West team as it begins preparations for the 2011 season:


What happens to the offensive line?

We've been asking, answering and asking some more questions about the Cardinals' quarterback situation for months. Let's tap a few brain cells to discuss the guys up front.

Center Lyle Sendlein and right guard Deuce Lutui are without contracts for 2011. Left guard Alan Faneca might retire. Right tackle Brandon Keith is coming off hamstring and knee injuries that shortened his first season as a starter. The Cardinals do not have fresh talent in reserve. They have drafted only one offensive lineman in the first four rounds since Ken Whisenhunt became head coach in 2007. Twenty-seven teams have drafted more. As much as the team trusts assistant head coach Russ Grimm to get the most from its offensive line, Arizona could use fresh young talent for him to groom.

The Cardinals went through the 2010 season with the NFL's oldest offensive linemen, counting backups. That wouldn't matter so much if left tackle Levi Brown were meeting the Pro Bowl expectations that came with his status as a top-five overall selection in the 2007 draft. Brown was underwhelming at right tackle to begin his career and a liability at left tackle last season. His salary balloons in 2012, so this could be his last season in Arizona.


Can the defense take the next step?

The Rams allowed 328 points last season, tied for the third-lowest total since the team moved from Los Angeles for the 1995 season. They allowed seven rushing touchdowns, their lowest total since 1999 and down from 50 combined over the previous two seasons. But with starting defensive linemen James Hall and Fred Robbins turning 34 this offseason, and with questions at linebacker, the Rams' defense will not automatically go from competitive toward dominant.

Hall will be looking to become the 14th player since 1982 (when the NFL began tracking sacks as an official stat) to collect 10 sacks in a season at age 34 or older. The others: Trace Armstrong, Chris Doleman, William Fuller, Kevin Greene, Rickey Jackson, Ed "Too Tall" Jones, Tony McGee, Steve McMichael, John Randle, Warren Sapp, Bruce Smith, Michael Strahan and Reggie White.

Robbins is coming off one of his finest seasons. He joined Keith Traylor, Jeff Zgonina and Ray Agnew among defensive tackles to set career highs for sacks at age 32 or older in the free-agency era (since 1993).

Getting similar production and continued good health from two older players is no given. The Rams also need to find help at outside linebacker after losing 32-year-old Na'il Diggs to a torn pectoral muscle 12 games into the 2010 season. The Rams are set at middle linebacker with James Laurinaitis, but they could stand to upgrade around him.


How well can Jim Harbaugh coach up a quarterback?

When the 49ers' new coach needed a quarterback at Stanford, he recruited one. Andrew Luck set records and led the Cardinal to national prominence. Recruiting isn't a significant part of the equation in the NFL, so Harbaugh will have to settle for the best quarterback he can draft or otherwise acquire. He might even have to give Alex Smith a shot.

The 49ers will need Harbaugh to do what his recent predecessors could not: get good production from limited or flawed talent at the most important position.

Rich Gannon was well-established as an NFL quarterback when Harbaugh arrived as his position coach in Oakland for the 2002 season. The pairing reflected well on all parties. Gannon set career highs for completed passes, attempts, completion percentage, passing yards and passer rating. Gannon was already a good quarterback and the Raiders were already a good team, so it's tough to measure Harbaugh's impact.

Gannon is long since retired. Harbaugh is back in the NFL for the first time since the two were together on the Raiders in 2003. The 49ers don't have a legitimate starting quarterback under contract. Harbaugh has been meeting with Smith and keeping open his options. The stakes are high in the short term because the 49ers have enough talent elsewhere on their roster to compete for a playoff spot.

Outside expectations for Smith are so low that Harbaugh could appear heroic if he could get even a 9-7 record out of the 49ers with Smith in the lineup.


How much more roster turnover lies ahead?

The Seahawks were fearless in overhauling their roster during their first year under general manager John Schneider and coach Pete Carroll.

The team added Marshawn Lynch, Leon Washington, Chris Clemons, Stacy Andrews, Tyler Polumbus, Kentwan Balmer, Kevin Vickerson, Robert Henderson and LenDale White, though Seattle parted with Vickerson, Henderson, White and 2009 regulars Deion Branch, Julius Jones, Owen Schmitt, T.J. Houshmandzadeh, Josh Wilson, Lawrence Jackson, Rob Sims, Darryl Tapp, Deon Grant and Seneca Wallace. The Seahawks watched a couple other starters, Nate Burleson and Cory Redding, leave in free agency.

If those were the moves the Seahawks felt comfortable making right away, I figured there would be quite a few to come after the team's new leadership watched players for a full season. And there still could be, but similar wheeling and dealing could be impractical or even impossible if the current labor standoff continues deep into the offseason.

Teams cannot make trades without a new labor agreement. They cannot know for sure whether or not a salary cap will come into play as part of any new deal. It's just tough to act as decisively as Seattle acted last offseason without knowing the rules. That's a disadvantage for Seattle and other teams with much work to do this offseason.

Richard Dent finally gets his due

February, 5, 2011
DALLAS -- Saturday was old hat for Richard Dent. For six of the past seven years, he sat idle while the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee passed on his candidacy. He passed through the expected phases of disappointment: From anger to frustration to confusion to tranquility.

[+] EnlargeRichard Dent
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesOver 13 years, Richard Dent recorded 137.5 sacks and forced 37 fumbles.
It seemed hard to believe that any man of Dent's generational impact would be excluded indefinitely from the game's highest individual honor. So Dent jetted off to Las Vegas for a weekend of golf. What the heck? If it happened this year, great. If not, well, Vegas is nice this time of year.

Dent's patience was rewarded Saturday when he finally received his invitation. Coincidentally, it came 25 years after he was named the MVP of Super Bowl XX.

"I'm just so thankful," Dent said. "My daughter Mary called me and everything was happening just at that time, and I kind of went into tears. ... It's very appreciated and I'm very happy. It's been a long time coming."

Indeed, Dent was one of the most dangerous pass rushers of his era, beginning with the Chicago Bears in 1983 and finishing with the Philadelphia Eagles in 1997. He was part of two Super Bowl champions, retiring with the NFL's third-highest sack total (137.5) and the second-most forced fumbles by a defensive lineman (37) at the time.

Hall of Fame quarterback Steve Young, who worked as part of the NFL Network crew that announced Saturday's elections, suggested Dent transformed the game as one of the first ultra-athletic defensive ends who were just as comfortable rushing the passer as they were reaching up for an interception or poking the ball loose from the quarterback.

"I got a sense of that from watching [former New York Giants linebacker Lawrence Taylor]," Dent said. "He was the only other guy that was quick enough that he could decide whether to hit the guy or take the ball from him. If you're in it for yourself, you just care about sacks. But I kind of thought like him, that taking the ball away was the best thing because it got you off the field and getting turnovers."

In his most memorable game, Dent forced two fumbles and was credited with 1.5 sacks in the Bears' 46-10 Super Bowl XX victory over the New England Patriots. He is one of three defensive linemen in history to win MVP honors in the Super Bowl.

"You can get sacks," he said, "but if you want to take your game to the next level, it's all about turnovers."

Hall voters first tapped several other pass rushers from Dent's era, including Fred Dean, Bruce Smith and John Randle. The voting committee works in mysterious ways, but there was little doubt it would eventually happen for Dent. This was his year.

Note: Dent is the 27th Bears players to be elected to the Hall of Fame, the highest number among NFL franchises.


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