NFL Nation: Dan Henning

Mike Tolbert plans to do it all

June, 13, 2012
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- There seems to be a lot of confusion among fans of the Carolina Panthers about what position Mike Tolbert will play.

The Panthers keep saying he is a fullback and then rave about his versatility. Throw in the fact that Tolbert carried the ball 121 times for San Diego last season and it’s understandable where the confusion stems from.

[+] EnlargeMike Tolbert
AP Photo/Chuck BurtonMike Tolbert prides himself on his versatility.
Carolina still is a relatively new franchise. For much of its existence, Brad Hoover lined up at fullback and blocked for a variety of runners including Stephen Davis, DeShaun Foster, Williams and Nick Goings. The roles were clear. The running backs ran the ball and Hoover blocked. Hoover was a fan favorite and it’s a little difficult to imagine the Panthers using a fullback any way other than they used Hoover.

But the days of Hoover and former coach John Fox are long gone. This is the second year for coach Ron Rivera and offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski, who never will be confused with former coordinators Dan Henning or Jeff Davidson. One of the first things Rivera and Chudzinski did this offseason was reach back into their past. Both previously were assistants in San Diego and they went out and lured Tolbert to Carolina.

Rivera and Chudzinski know Tolbert well and they have a clear vision of how they want to use him. He’ll block for Williams and Stewart at times, but that’s not all Tolbert will be asked to do.

“I think the different things 'Chud' has him incorporated in as far as running the ball and catching the ball and blocking, splitting him out and moving him around and those types of things, I think those are positives,’’ Rivera said. “When you have a guy that versatile, it helps your football team.’’

That still may sound a bit vague, so I asked Tolbert to describe the role he expects to play for the Panthers.

“Just a versatile player that helps in any way I can -- special teams, fullback and running back," Tolbert said. “I pride myself on being able to do it all. Letting my game evolve over the last four years in San Diego has really helped me to get to where I’m at today.’’

You could make a case that Carolina’s backfield already was overcrowded before Tolbert arrived. Williams and Stewart, who each have been 1,000-yard rushers in the past, had to share carries last year in an offense that suddenly turned pass happy with rookie quarterback Cam Newton. Stewart was on the field for 55.2 percent of the offensive plays, while Williams took part in 42.7 percent of the plays. In San Diego, Tolbert took part in 44.4 percent of the Chargers’ offensive plays.

But Tolbert insists there is enough room for all three backs to get plenty of playing time and he throws out some scenarios that Carolina fans might have trouble picturing right now.

“I think we mesh well together,’’ Tolbert said. “They are different types of backs. DeAngelo is more the slicer and Jonathan is more of the power guy and I kind of fit in between. It’s going to be fun for all of us to get in the backfield at the same time or myself with DeAngelo or with Jonathan or just one out of there at times. It’s going to be fun to put it all together and see what happens.’’

All three of them in the backfield at the same time? Tolbert playing tailback in a single-back set?

Yeah, it’s all possible. We’ll have to wait until the fall to really see it. But you’re going to see some unique things out of the Carolina backfield in 2012. Don’t believe me? Think back to last year when Chudzinski first arrived. Did anybody really expect to see Newton throwing for 400 yards in each of his first two games?

Of course not. But this is a different Carolina team and as we move into the second year of Chudzinski’s offense, we’re going to see it evolve even more.

I’m heading out to the practice field shortly to catch another session of Carolina’s minicamp. I’ll be back with more this afternoon.

Panthers have added dimensions

August, 15, 2011
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We got our first glimpse of coordinator Rob Chudzinski’s offensive system Saturday night when the Carolina Panthers opened their preseason against the New York Giants.

It didn’t look much like schemes previous coordinators Jeff Davidson and Dan Henning ran under former coach John Fox. There were passes to the tight ends, a reverse to Armanti Edwards and some downfield throws.

And that was just a first glimpse. There are other nuances we haven’t seen yet. The Panthers still will run the ball a fair amount because DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart are quality running backs, but there’s going to be more balance in the offense.

That’s a refreshing change for the players, even the offensive linemen, who generally pride themselves on run blocking.

“We got in a situation the last year or two where we were very much a one-dimensional offense,’’ Pro Bowl center Ryan Kalil said during my recent visit to Carolina’s training camp. “Teams were putting eight or nine men in the box. We were still running the ball pretty well. But you can’t do just that and win in this league.’’

The Panthers didn’t win very often last year. They went 2-14 and replaced Fox with Ron Rivera. Although Rivera comes with a defensive background, he realized Carolina needed to change its offensive philosophy. That’s why he brought in Chudzinski, who had been the tight ends coach in San Diego. The plan is to run an offense similar to what the Chargers use.

“There are dynamics to our offense that we haven’t had in a while,’’ Kalil said. “I’ve always felt we’ve been one-dimensional with the running game. That whole aspect of the offense is going to completely change now.’’

Panthers don't need gimmicks

August, 11, 2011
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I really like the fact the Carolina Panthers are trying to be creative with their offense.

They weren’t even close to being creative when John Fox and Jeff Davidson were running the show. I’d say the last time the Panthers showed any creativity on offense was back when Dan Henning was the coordinator, but I know there are plenty of Carolina fans that wouldn’t go along with that. They’d say the last time the Panthers had an interesting offense was in George Seifert’s first two seasons.

However, there’s one thing I don’t like about what the Panthers are doing. They recently spent 30 minutes of practice letting Armanti Edwards work at quarterback. Yes, Edwards is a former college quarterback, but he was drafted to be a return man and a wide receiver.

The Panthers still think his future is at those two positions, but they’re inserting a Wildcat package in which Edwards will sometimes line up at quarterback. The team talked about shifting quarterback Cam Newton out wide in those situations.

Great, you’ll have an undersized quarterback who hasn’t passed since college throwing to a quarterback, who is not a receiver. Yeah, it might be flashy, but it makes less sense than most of what Fox and Davidson did the last couple of years.

I’m not saying it’s a bad idea for the Panthers to use Edwards in the Wildcat for a couple plays a game, but no more than that, when the regular season rolls around. And I’m also saying it’s a waste of valuable training-camp practice time to give Edwards a lot of work at quarterback.

Newton and Jimmy Clausen need all the work they can get after not having an offseason program to learn a new offense. They need all that work at quarterback, not wide receiver.

And Edwards needs to get his work as a receiver and a return man. Let guys do what they do best.

There’s a theory subscribed to by New Orleans’ Sean Payton and Atlanta’s Mike Smith. It goes something like this: If you have a real quarterback, you don’t resort to gimmicks and take the ball out of his hands.

The Panthers still don’t know for sure what they have in Newton. But they think he can be a franchise quarterback. Let him be the quarterback.

Henning wants Henne to keep QB job

July, 7, 2011
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Dan Henning went all D.B. Cooper when he parachuted from the Miami Dolphins after last season. He was largely blamed for the Dolphins' offensive woes and might've been the most unpopular member of the organization -- until Stephen Ross publicly humiliated Tony Sparano.

[+] EnlargeDan Henning
Steve Mitchell/US PRESSWIREDan Henning thinks Chad Henne has what it takes to lead the Dolphins on the field.
By then, Henning had stepped down as offensive coordinator and disappeared.

Six months later, Palm Beach Post reporter Ben Volin tracked him down. Henning talked about his three seasons, which were supposed to be just two when old pal Bill Parcells convinced him to come out of retirement in 2008.

Dolfans expected big things from their boys last year. They'd won the AFC East title in 2008 and slipped to 7-9 the next season, but Chad Henne had a season of NFL starts to his credit and was the clear starter. Ricky Williams was coming off a 1,000-yard season and the Dolphins traded for Brandon Marshall, the presumed missing piece to unlocking the offense.

The Dolphins floundered. They finished 30th in scoring and 21st in yardage. A once-proud ground game also checked it 21st. Their passing offense was 16th.

Henning was the popular scapegoat. I never bought into that sentiment. Henning and quarterbacks coach David Lee were considered progressive-minded wizards when they installed the Wildcat offense and helped the Dolphins go from 1-15 to the division title.

"What we accomplished, with what we took over, was a very good thing for everybody’s feelings down there, that there was still a spark," Henning told Volin. "And there was a great deal of enjoyment in being able to turn it around like that."

The difference, of course, wasn't that Henning got stupid overnight. The loss of Chad Pennington at quarterback was what dropped the team's collective IQ.

But Henning said he still believes in Henne.

"I feel like Chad will get the opportunity to turn it around; I really do," Henning said. "He's always ready to do what you ask him to do, very studious about the game, good questions, aware of personalities and idiosyncrasies with player personnel that he has to deal with. No problem working with Chad Henne."

Miami's backfield about diminishing returns

June, 10, 2011
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Ronnie Brown Mark Zerof/US PresswireRonnie Brown averaged 3.7 yards per carry last season, a career low.
Quite recently, the Miami Dolphins' running game was considered vibrant, cutting-edge and borderline dominant.

The Wildcat unleashed all sorts of possibilities for Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams in 2008. They were an envied backfield tandem. Brown went to the Pro Bowl.

In 2009, with Brown battling injuries, Williams rushed for over 1,100 yards. The Dolphins tied for the NFL lead with 22 rushing touchdowns. They ranked fourth in run offense and eighth in average yards per carry.

Perceptions swung 180 degrees last year. The Dolphins went from a model of rushing excellence to anemic. They ranked 11th in carries, but 21st in yards. Their average carry plummeted 0.7 yards to a measly 3.7. Only the Cincinnati Bengals were worse.

What in the world happened?

A combination of inconsistent offensive line play, creeping age and lack of an offensive identity were to blame. Now, the two running backs many Dolfans thought could run for 1,000 yards apiece in the same season are free agents who might not be wanted anymore.

Before the draft, Dolphins head coach Tony Sparano told reporters at the NFL owners' meeting in New Orleans he thought Brown and Williams were fine last year.

"I honestly thought both players played well for us," Sparano said. "I really did. I said it during the season, I didn't have a problem with how either guy played."

Even with All-Pro left tackle Jake Long in place and the reliable Vernon Carey at right tackle, Sparano cited the offensive line's inability to bust holes into the defense's second level as a serious problem.

[+] EnlargeRicky Williams
AP Photo/Hans DerykRicky Williams' carries and rushing yards in 2010 both shrank considerably from 2009.
ESPN Stats & Information came up with data to back that sentiment. The Dolphins ranked fifth in runs up the middle with 247 attempts, but their average tied for 27th at 3.5 yards. Of their runs up the middle, they scored a touchdown on only 2 percent (tied for 24th) and gained a first down on only 18.6 percent (26th).

No wonder they drafted Florida center Mike Pouncey with the 15th overall pick. The Dolphins also traded up to make Kansas State running back Daniel Thomas their second-round pick, adding him to a depth chart that also includes Lex Hilliard and Kory Sheets, who's coming off an Achilles injury.

But back to the offensive line for a moment. The Dolphins have been plagued by Sparano's seemingly uncontrollable tinkering on the interior. Pouncey should become the Dolphins' fourth starting center in as many seasons. At guard, they've shuffled through draft picks, waiver claims and street free agents. Sparano, an old offensive line coach himself, fired his first O-line assistant after just one season.

That's a significant reason why Brown went from hip to a blip. He's now an NFL afterthought at 29 years old.

NFL.com senior analyst and former New York Jets executive Pat Kirwan recently rated Brown 31st among all running backs and trending down from there. Kirwan wrote: "Teams seeking a backup for 10 carries and a Wildcat role should value Brown."

ESPN.com's fantasy football crew rated Brown the 45th-best running back.

Williams, 34, has a worse outlook. Kirwan didn't list him at all. In fact, three other Williamses did make the chart, and one of them was Arizona Cardinals rookie Ryan Williams. On the fantasy rankings, Ricky Williams was the 53rd running back.

At the end of last season, Williams took a couple of swipes at Sparano's penchant for micromanaging. But on Wednesday, Williams tweeted "I'd love nothing more than to finish my career winning a Super Bowl with the Dolphins, but that's gonna take some cooperation from others."

"Cooperation," in this case, almost certainly is synonymous with "lovely contract."

Maybe Williams' change of heart has to do with Brian Daboll replacing Dan Henning as offensive coordinator. Daboll oversaw an impressive Cleveland Browns run game that featured Peyton Hillis.

Sparano has said Miami still will emphasize the run under Daboll.

"We're going to continue to run the football because that's my nature," Sparano said. "That might not be popular with everybody, but that's what I like to do. So we're going to continue to run the football."

And they will -- with or without Brown and Williams, running backs who were trendy a year ago, but aren't considered to be much of anything anymore.

Draft Watch: AFC East

March, 24, 2011
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» NFC Draft Watch: East | West | North | South » AFC: East | West | North | South

Each Thursday leading up to the NFL draft (April 28-30), the ESPN.com NFL blog network will take a division-by-division look at key aspects of the draft. Today's topic: schemes and themes.

Buffalo Bills

The Bills went through a defensive overhaul last year under new head coach Chan Gailey and coordinator George Edwards. They morphed from Dick Jauron's 4-3 Tampa 2 scheme to a traditional 3-4 set. The Bills drafted accordingly, but as the season wore on and they failed to stop the run -- they ranked dead last in the league in rushing yards allowed per carry and per game -- they sunk back into a 4-3 mindset and frequently added another defender to the line. They've also hired Dave Wannstedt as assistant head coach and linebackers assistant. Wannstedt is a 4-3 devotee. All of this adds up to the Bills being interested in the best available defenders they can find, regardless of whether or not they fit into a preconceived scheme.

Miami Dolphins

Rightly or wrongly, the Dolphins' offensive identity the past three seasons has been the Wildcat. Those days would appear to be over. Offensive coordinator Dan Henning and quarterbacks coach David Lee (the man who introduced the Wildcat) are gone. Wildcat trigger man Ronnie Brown and speed-motion back Ricky Williams don't have contracts, and both could be on other teams. The one player the Dolphins drafted specifically to enhance the Wildcat, quarterback Pat White, was released after one season. Miami's new offensive identity has yet to be determined under new offensive coordinator Brian Daboll. Nobody can say for sure what he'll be looking for, but the run game must be strengthened. Head coach Tony Sparano said this week the Dolphins will remain a power rushing team. Brown and/or Williams will need to be replaced, and reliable interior linemen must be found.

New England Patriots

The Patriots are the NFL's most flexible club entering the draft. They own two picks in each of the first three rounds and in three of the top 33 slots. Bill Belichick can go any direction he chooses and certainly will have his staff working the phones for trade possibilities. The Patriots have a rich history of trading back to accumulate more picks, but they might be more open to trading up this year. They have decent youth on the roster, so when you consider the possibility of adding six more players drafted no later than the third round -- plus their picks in the fourth, fifth and sixth rounds -- you have to wonder if there will be room for them all on the 53-man roster. The glut of picks also allows the Patriots to select the best available player and not fret about specific needs with any given pick.

New York Jets

The Jets made it to the AFC Championship Game again and will draft 30th. Head coach Rex Ryan has playfully groused about the late position and the fact the Jets will have to rummage for the best player still on the board. The Jets drafted cornerback Kyle Wilson 29th last year and immediately named him the team's starting nickelback and punt returner. That didn't work out. Wilson started six games, made 19 tackles, defensed five passes and returned 15 punts. While that negative experience could entice the Jets to return to their usual ways and move up in the draft for a prospect they truly covet -- as they did with cornerback Darrelle Revis, linebacker David Harris and quarterback Mark Sanchez -- an inability to trade players until there's a new collective bargaining agreement might make that difficult.

Leading Questions: AFC East

February, 16, 2011
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With the offseason in full swing, let's take a look at one major question facing each AFC East team as it begins preparations for the 2011 season:

BUFFALO BILLS

Can the defense become a difference-maker?

That abysmal 0-8 start and a record meager enough to lock down the third overall pick in the draft suggest the Bills were an utter mess in 2010. Statistically, they were on both sides of the ball.

Yet there's an unquestionably different vibe about the Bills' offense despite ranking 28th in points, 25th in yards, 18th in rushing offense and 24th in passing offense. Bills fans debate whether Ryan Fitzpatrick is an adequate starter. Running back Fred Jackson and wide receiver Steve Johnson are fan favorites.

There's a general belief head coach Chan Gailey has his young offense trending upward.

Buffalo's defense generates no such sentiment despite similar rankings: 28th in points, 24th in yards, 32nd in run defense and a misleading third in pass defense -- because opponents didn't need to throw. Opposing quarterbacks still recorded the league's fifth-highest passer rating against the Bills.

Buffalo needs an overhaul on defense, and they appear willing to try. Gailey brought in old pal Dave Wannstedt as assistant head coach and linebackers assistant. Wannstedt's influence is uncertain at the moment, but he has better credentials than defensive coordinator George Edwards, who oversaw a switch from a 4-3 to a 3-4 and, in the end, mashed them together.

The Bills also re-signed outside linebacker Shawne Merriman. He's a reclamation project. But who knows? At least they're trying.

Much more must be done. The Bills have a foundation player in defensive tackle Kyle Williams, but he's surrounded by flotsam. Inside linebacker and leading tackler Paul Posluszny is a free agent. Merriman was worth the gamble because the Bills are desperate for pass-rushers with 2009 first-round pick Aaron Maybin looking like a bust and a half.

The draft won't solve all their problems, and general manager Buddy Nix is averse to patching holes with free agents. Unless the Bills strike big in the draft and Merriman turns out to be worth the risk, expect the defense to cost them more games in 2011.

MIAMI DOLPHINS

Will Chad Henne be their long-term quarterback?

The Dolphins revealed a lack of faith in Henne in 2010. They benched him twice.

The first time was an out-and-out demotion. In Week 10 -- with Tom Brady performing like an MVP, Mark Sanchez well on his way to the playoffs again and Fitzpatrick giving Bills fans something to cheer about -- the desperate Dolphins replaced Henne with Chad Pennington. There's no telling how long Henne would have remained on the sideline if Pennington didn't reinjure his throwing shoulder shortly after kickoff.

The next time Tony Sparano pulled Henne was in the season finale, a blowout loss to a Patriots squad that rested some of its best players and had nothing to play for. Henne completed six of his 16 passes, threw an interception and had a 25.8 passer rating. Not the way any quarterback wants to enter the offseason.

Henne was the Dolphins' supposed quarterback of the future. They drafted him in the second round in 2008, the year they took his Michigan teammate Jake Long first overall. Henne hasn't worked out yet. He studied under Pennington for a season and then took over in 2009, when Pennington got hurt two games into the season.

In his two nearly full seasons, Henne, at best, has looked decent. Great games have been rare. He has frustrated Dolfans more often than not. Henne has a career 75.3 passer rating. He has thrown six more interceptions than touchdown passes.

There are no guarantees Henne will remain Miami's starter, although the prediction here is that he will be in 2011. A new infrastructure is in place, and whenever a young quarterback has new idea men around, there's a tendency to extend opportunities -- especially when owner Stephen Ross, a Michigan man himself, has promoted Henne as a future Dolphins legend.

The Dolphins said goodbye to offensive coordinator Dan Henning and hired Brian Daboll, formerly of the Cleveland Browns. Henne's position coach, David Lee, left to be offensive coordinator at Mississippi. Receivers coach Karl Dorrell was switched to quarterbacks.

Will new voices be enough to inspire Henne to another level? I'm skeptical. While it's easy to scapegoat Henning -- and to an extent Lee -- for the offense's struggles, it should be noted Henning and Lee were considered geniuses when Pennington ran the offense and the Wildcat became an NFL trend. I doubt Henning and Lee turned vapid when Henne became quarterback.

NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS

Will the defense remain a weakness?

Week by week, the Patriots' defense evolved into a commendable unit. In four of their last five regular-season games, they allowed 20 combined points. Two of those opponents were playoff teams.

They sent four defensive players to the Pro Bowl: nose tackle Vince Wilfork, inside linebacker Jerod Mayo, cornerback Devin McCourty and safety Brandon Meriweather. Three of them were starters.

Not bad.

The numbers tell a different story. The Patriots ranked eighth in points allowed, but 25th in yards allowed, 11th in run defense and 30th in pass defense. The Patriots were dead last in third-down efficiency. They let opponents move the chains 47 percent of the time. They improved over the final few games, but in December they were on track to record the fifth-worst defense on third down since the NFL-AFL merger.

The Patriots gave up 34 points to the Browns, 30 points to the Bills and 24 points each to the Detroit Lions and Cincinnati Bengals.

Bill Belichick's defense can improve simply with another year of experience and the return of a couple of key contributors who missed 2010 with injuries.

The Patriots were young on defense. They started four rookies a couple of times. Their top secondary -- cornerbacks McCourty and Kyle Arrington, safeties Meriweather and Patrick Chung -- went into the season with four combined NFL seasons.

Not only will the defense improve by being another year older and wiser, but they'll also be reinforced when defensive end Ty Warren and cornerback Leigh Bodden come back.

Hip surgery wiped out Warren's season. Warren was a fixture at left end and forced the Patriots to juggle their line continually. A shoulder injury sidelined Bodden, and while McCourty emerged as a Pro Bowler, Bodden's presence over undrafted sophomore Arrington would have given the Patriots a much more formidable secondary.

New England's obvious need is a pass-rusher. With two draft choices in each of the first two rounds and the wherewithal to lure a free agent, there are plenty of reasons to expect New England's defense to upgrade in 2011.

NEW YORK JETS

Can the Jets retain their loaded receiving corps?

The Jets are in a bad spot when it comes to free agency in general, but particularly in regard to their wide receivers.

Contracts are up for Santonio Holmes, Braylon Edwards and Brad Smith. They accounted for 17 of the club's 39 touchdowns.

Holmes spent the first four games on suspension, but he and Edwards combined for 105 receptions, 1,591 yards and 12 touchdowns. Smith was less of a threat in the receiving game, but he lined up as an option quarterback. He threw a touchdown pass and returned two kickoffs for touchdowns.

Jets general manager Mike Tannenbaum declared his intentions to re-sign them all, but he added the plan was in pencil and expressed considerable doubt he would hammer out any deals before March 3, when the collective bargaining agreement is expected to expire.

Until there's a new CBA, nobody knows what free agency will look like. When will the signing period commence? How many seasons of NFL experience will determine restricted or unrestricted free agency? What will salary-cap parameters be?

That's why bringing back all three receivers will be unlikely. Once they hit the open market, the Jets will have to compete with the rest of the league for three players who will be coveted.

The Jets acquired Holmes and Edwards because they had baggage, but they have enhanced their reputations immensely. Holmes served his suspension and was on his best behavior. Edwards defied his rap as a habitual ball-dropper.

The always-respected Smith once again proved to be a versatile weapon at a time when such players are in high demand.

The Jets must keep at least two of them. They can't afford to give Sanchez less to work with. The young quarterback has many admirable traits, but he has shown little capacity to carry the offense himself. Sanchez requires a strong support staff.

The Jets might be able to get away with losing one of these receivers. Tight end Dustin Keller was sensational while Holmes was suspended. Through the first four games, Keller had 19 receptions for 234 yards and five touchdowns. Then Keller got lost in the offense and didn't score another TD.

How do AFC East QBs stack up for 2011?

January, 27, 2011
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All four AFC East starting quarterbacks are under contract and in place for 2011.

Yet each comes with his own set of intriguing circumstances and at least one major question for next season.

[+] EnlargeTom Brady
Greg M. Cooper/US PresswirePatriots quarterback Tom Brady led the NFL in TD passes this season.
Even the resident superstar, New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, hasn't won a playoff game in three years and faces a recovery from foot surgery.

The other three -- Mark Sanchez, Ryan Fitzpatrick and Chad Henne -- certainly don't come with any guarantees.

Sanchez's sophomore season seems like a success in the afterglow of another deep postseason run with the New York Jets, but he still has a long way to go to deserve his Sanchize nickname.

The Buffalo Bills like Fitzpatrick but could be tempted to draft a quarterback with the third overall pick. The Miami Dolphins already could be searching for Henne's replacement.

With those issues in mind, let's look ahead to the 2011 season by breaking down each quarterback in the context of what we learned about him in 2010.

I've ranked them in terms of impact and asked Scouts Inc. analyst Matt Williamson to weigh in with his thoughts.

1. Tom Brady


Big 2011 question: How long can he keep doing it?

Pluses: Brady showed he can win with practically any supporting cast. His teammates have been transitory regardless of perceived significance (e.g. Randy Moss). Even with inexperienced help and a few retreads, Brady obviously was the league's MVP and earlier this week was announced as the only unanimous All-Pro selection.

Brady is the ultimate field general. He manipulates defenses, makes quick decisions at the line of scrimmage and delivers the ball with pinpoint accuracy. He broke the record for consecutive throws without an interception and led the NFL in touchdown passes.

Minuses: The combination of age and injuries are the biggest concern -- if there is one. Brady will turn 34 before next season begins and had foot surgery last week to repair a stress fracture. It was his second major operation in three years. At this rate, we can't expect Brady to be in his prime four or five more years. The window is closing.

Brady, though, doesn't rely on mobility. Perhaps his biggest shortcoming -- a flaw that opened the door for people to make a case for Michael Vick as MVP -- is that Brady doesn't make plays with his legs. As Williamson noted, Brady's not the best improviser when a play breaks down.

Brady also has lost three straight postseason games. While some would chalk that up to happenstance, it's a trend that certainly will be on Brady's mind the next time they make it, which should be in a year.

Williamson's take: "To me, he's still the king of the castle. It's pretty hard to argue against Brady or Peyton Manning. The bar is set so high that 30 teams in the league would kill for either of those guys to be their quarterback, and that will be true a year from now.

"He's so competitive. His work ethic is so great. He can throw the football as well as anyone. His supporting cast is phenomenal. His head coach isn't going anywhere. If your biggest problem is 'How much longer is he going to last?' then that's not much of a problem. The guy's great."

2. Mark Sanchez

Big 2011 question: Can he evolve into a truly great quarterback in his third season?

[+] EnlargeMark Sanchez
Alan Maglaque/US PresswireJets quarterback Mark Sanchez continued to play his best in big games this season.
Pluses: Sanchez seemed ordinary for major chunks of 2010. I would have ranked Fitzpatrick ahead of him halfway into December. But Sanchez proved to be a money quarterback with two more road playoff victories and another solid performance in the AFC Championship game.

Sanchez is developing into a clutch quarterback, a topic I examined in a column last week. Authorities such as Bill Parcells and Sam Wyche have been impressed with Sanchez's ability to rise to the occasion. His postseason stats dwarf his regular-season numbers. He has five fourth-quarter comebacks and won back-to-back overtime road games this season, something that never had been done before.

Sanchez is only 24 years old and already has played in six playoff games. His combination of age, experience and potential will keep him in the spotlight for a long time. Jets backup quarterback Mark Brunell told me last week that Sanchez is "going to be an elite quarterback someday."

Minuses: There are plenty of negatives to keep Williamson and me from jumping on the Sanchez bandwagon. Sanchez is inconsistent from game to game and inaccurate with his throws. He's prone to turnover flare-ups, proving he can be rattled. He has trouble coping with blitzes.

Sanchez completed 54.8 percent of his attempts, third-worst in the NFL. He threw only 13 interceptions (wonderful number compared to the 20 he threw as a rookie). But Football Outsiders charted 15 more dropped interceptions, an excessive number. Football Outsiders managing editor Bill Barnwell noted Sanchez should have thrown more interceptions than a year before because he had only five dropped as a rookie. Defenders held onto 80 percent of potential picks in 2009, but just 46 percent this season.

So Sanchez's abysmal 75.3 passer rating (fifth from the bottom and behind Henne) downplayed how scattershot he was. Take away Sanchez's four games with 100-plus passer ratings and he threw six touchdowns and 12 interceptions.

You can see why the Jets need to maintain their infrastructure and not become dependent on Sanchez yet.

Williamson's take: "I have been a huge basher of him. I think he's been vastly overrated. To talk about him as a top 10 quarterback, top 12 or 15 quarterback, is crazy to me. But these last two games have opened my eyes. I will give him much more benefit of the doubt now.

"I still need to put an asterisk next to him. In the AFC Championship Game, that's as good as he's going to play, and that's good enough for the Jets to win. They have the formula. He has great receivers, a great line and one of the best defenses in the league. But he still has issues. His best moments are something that anybody can do. He still struggles with the blitz. His arm is still average. He's not a guy who can attack outside the numbers. He can't drive the ball deep downfield.

"I'd rather play against him than with him. Still, he plays his best when it matters most, and most quarterbacks don't. His intangibles are really encouraging. I don't think the stage ever is too big for him."

3. Ryan Fitzpatrick

Big 2011 question: Will he be the long-term answer or just a stopgap?

[+] EnlargeRyan Fitzpatrick
Luc Leclerc/US PresswireBuffalo quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick could enter next season as the Bills' starter after some inspired play this season.
Pluses: Fitzpatrick was a journeyman backup who could be on the verge of his first full-fledged offseason as somebody's starting quarterback. The Bills brain trust opted for Trent Edwards at the start of training camp and gave him all of the first-team reps. But two games into the season, new head coach Chan Gailey had seen enough and inserted Fitzpatrick.

Despite Fitzpatrick's limited interaction with the first-teamers, he provided a noticeable spark with his mobility and deep throws. The coaching staff and his teammates almost immediately seemed to have renewed faith in the offense. He helped previously anonymous receivers such as Steve Johnson and David Nelson turn into dangerous contributors.

Fitzpatrick also became easy for Bills fans to root for. He was a seventh-round draft choice out of Harvard who nearly became the first Bills quarterback to throw 30 touchdowns in a season since Jim Kelly. Fitzpatrick challenged defenses and took chances downfield.

Minuses: Fitzpatrick is 28 and probably has hit his ceiling. He might be satisfactory as a caretaker, but his prospects as a playoff quarterback are dubious. He was a backup his first five years in the league and didn't stand out in 15 starts with the St. Louis Rams and Cincinnati Bengals. The fact he signed with the Bills to be a backup in 2009 reflected his worth on the open market.

Fitzpatrick is fun to watch because he takes chances, but his swashbuckling tendencies get him into trouble. He's liable to feather a pass between two defenders or throw a horrendous interception on any given play. He committed five turnovers in Week 16 against a Patriots team that had nothing to play for.

General manager Buddy Nix told Buffalo News reporter Mark Gaughan this week that the Bills need to draft a quarterback in April. Whether the Bills grab Cam Newton or Blaine Gabbert with the third overall pick will clarify the plan for Fitzpatrick as a long-term solution.

Williamson's take: "I don't think Fitzpatrick is the answer. I don't think he can ever be in the top 50 percent of starting quarterbacks in this league. He can get you to 8-8, but in the end you're going to want to replace him. But I wouldn't fault the Bills at all to say 'Let's give him another year. Let's give him an entire offseason as The Man.' They should say 'This is your team, and we're going to go out and get you a receiver, a defense and a blocker or two.'

"The Bills can jump off that bridge a year from now. The Bills can't reach on a quarterback in the first round and have him sit behind Fitzpatrick. That organization has too many issues. Their needs are too great to spend No. 3 money on the 12th-best player in the draft. You tread water with Fitzpatrick for now and hope he gets a little better."

4. Chad Henne

Big 2011 question: Will he be able to seize the starter's job again?

Pluses: Henne was benched once and pulled from a game late in the season. He had a rough year, but he's 25 years old -- young enough to be considered a prospect yet with substantial experience. Henne was a four-year starter at Michigan and sat for a year behind Chad Pennington before taking over the Dolphins' job in 2009.

Henne has a strong arm and can make all the throws. He's also tough, missing only one week with a knee injury that the South Florida Sun-Sentinel reported would "more than likely" end his season. Henne returned in Week 12 and, on the other side of the country with the season on the line, threw for 307 yards and two touchdowns against the Oakland Raiders.

Henne could benefit from some new voices. Offensive coordinator Dan Henning retired, and quarterbacks coach David Lee took a job with Ole Miss. The Dolphins hired young offensive coordinator Brian Daboll, who has been exposed to Brady and Brett Favre. Receivers coach Karl Dorrell, the former UCLA head coach, will be Henne's position coach.

Minuses: The Dolphins publicly expressed their dissatisfaction in Henne by benching him. He flopped in 2010 even though the Dolphins made one of the offseason's biggest acquisitions, trading two second-round draft choices and committing a metric ton of cash to star receiver Brandon Marshall. Henne also had one of the league's top slot receivers, Davone Bess.

But Henne's erratic play doomed their season. He produced a trio of three-interception games and posted a passer rating below 70 five times.

Henne plays like a robot. Every motion appears purposeful, as though it was programmed, rather than coming naturally. He doesn't perform well off the script, can lock onto receivers and freezes in the pocket.

Williamson's take: "If we had this conversation 365 days ago, I would have been all about Chad Henne. I was very much a believer in him before this season. There wasn't one player in the league who let me down more than Henne. I thought he was on the verge of being really good.

"The Dolphins really handcuffed him with the play-calling and lack of a vertical passing game. That hurt him. He needs to throw the ball a lot. He needs to go deep. He needs to use his arm.

"But when you watch him play the game now, he's not even close to being good enough. I think a change of scenery would do him a world of good, but they can't afford to get rid of him for nothing. They would be foolish not to bring competition in for him.

"I like his skill set and think he can be very good, but he looks the worst I've ever seen him, and I was involved at trying to recruit him out of high school to Pitt. He was horrible this year."

Pennington lauds Daboll, wants to play

January, 17, 2011
1/17/11
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Miami Dolphins backup quarterback Chad Pennington gave his endorsement for their new offensive coordinator and said he intends to play another season despite a fourth surgery on his throwing shoulder.

Pennington
Pennington
Pennington told Palm Beach Post reporter Ben Volin that Brian Daboll had a major impact on his development as a quarterback and was influential in teaching Pennington how to read a defense, instruction Dolphins starter Chad Henne certainly could benefit from.

Daboll was New York Jets quarterbacks coach in 2007 and 2008, encompassing Pennington's last year with them and Brett Favre's stopover.

"A lot of the coverage knowledge that I have and understanding defenses comes from Brian," Pennington said. "The year I spent with him, I just learned so much about how defenses attack offenses and all of the nuances of coverage that I didn't understand before."

Daboll was a low-level defensive aide to New England Patriots defensive backs coach Eric Mangini for two seasons before head coach Bill Belichick promoted Daboll to receivers coach. Daboll followed Mangini to the Jets and then the Cleveland Browns, where Daboll was offensive coordinator the past two seasons.

"He made me a better quarterback and helped make me become a quarterback who not only understood what I was doing, but how to do it, and why, why we are running certain plays and why we were attacking certain coverages the way we were," Pennington said.

Previous offensive coordinator Dan Henning retired. Quarterbacks coach David Lee left to become offensive coordinator at Ole Miss.

As for Pennington's future, he told Volin he will extend his career if his shoulder holds up through yet another rehabilitation. Pennington is the only two-time Comeback Player of the Year winner in league history.

"I'm going to make a run at it, and the reason I am is that I still have that fire inside," Pennington said. "I have to go out and see if my shoulder can respond. If it doesn't respond, I can live with that. But if it does, or it could have responded and I didn't give it a chance, I don't think I could live with that."

Dolphins hire Brian Daboll to run offense

January, 17, 2011
1/17/11
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Brian Daboll knows all about the AFC East.

He was raised in the Southtowns of Buffalo, got his start in the NFL as a New England Patriots gopher and was New York Jets quarterbacks coach when Brett Favre was there.

[+] EnlargeBrian Daboll
David Richard/Icon SMIBrian Daboll will get a chance to fix Miami's anemic offense.
And he'll be the Miami Dolphins' next offensive coordinator, multiple sources tell ESPN. Daboll was the Cleveland Browns' offensive coordinator the past two seasons under Eric Mangini, who was fired.

Daboll, 35, is a disciple of former Dolphins head coach Nick Saban and Patriots head coach Bill Belichick. And like many of their protégés, Daboll's career is a story of perseverance from the ground floor.

He went from unpaid volunteer at a nonscholarship Division I-AA program to three Super Bowls rings as an assistant and now his second crack as an offensive coordinator.

Daboll graduated from St. Francis High in suburban Buffalo. He played safety at the University of Rochester, a Division III college.

His first coaching job was a volunteer assistant at William & Mary. Then he flooded Division I schools with his résumé. Saban, the head coach at Michigan State, took in Daboll as a graduate office assistant.

Saban's connection with Belichick led to a grunt assignment as a Patriots defensive aide in 2000. Daboll worked with Mangini, who was New England's defensive backs coach. Daboll's thankless duties included breaking down game film to record formations and personnel groupings.

Belichick was impressed enough with Daboll to make him wide receivers coach in 2002. He held the post until he went to the Jets as quarterbacks coach in 2007, working with Dolphins backup Chad Pennington and Kellen Clemens the first season and Favre the next.

When the Jets fired Mangini after their collapse from 8-3 to not in the playoffs, Daboll migrated with him to Cleveland and was named offensive coordinator.

The Browns had quarterback problems throughout the past season because of injuries and inexperience. They ranked 31st in points per game, 29th in total offense, 20th in rushing offense and 29th in passing offense.

Cleveland fielded one of the few offenses worse than Miami's.

The Dolphins ranked 30th in scoring, 21st in total offense, 21st in rushing offense and 16th in passing offense. The campaign, which included a benching of supposed franchise quarterback Chad Henne, was brutal enough to convince Dan Henning to retire.
Just got a call from AFC West colleague Bill Williamson with some pretty big news. John Fox will be the new head coach of the Denver Broncos.

It’s a bigger story for Williamson than for us, but it still is a big deal in the NFC South world. After all, Fox spent nine years coaching the Carolina Panthers and was the dean of NFC South coaches -- a title now held by New Orleans’ Sean Payton.

I think Denver fans should be excited by this move. Yeah, I know Fox went 2-14 in his final season with the Panthers, but I still think he was the best candidate on the market. Say what you want about the end of Fox’s tenure in Carolina.

But the guy did a good job for a long time. His message might have gotten stale in the later years and his relationship with ownership deteriorated. But Fox can flat-out coach and he’ll bring some instant energy to the Broncos.

Fox needs to take a couple of lessons from his early Carolina days to make things work in Denver. First, he needs to go out and get a top-notch offensive coordinator and Fox might want to give that guy a little more flexibility than he ever gave Dan Henning or Jeff Davidson.

As soon as he hires a coordinator, Fox needs to decide on a quarterback. It doesn’t matter if it’s Kyle Orton or Tim Tebow. Let the coordinator and whoever the quarterbacks coach is handle the quarterback.

The best thing Fox can do is focus on the defense and the overall running of the team and keep his hands off the offense.

By the way, Fox already is in the process of filling his coaching staff. That could mean he'll bring in some guys who were with him in Carolina. I'd keep an eye on running backs coach Jim Skipper and defensive coordinator Ron Meeks.
Ron RiveraAP Photo/Chuck BurtonNew Carolina coach Ron Rivera said he's willing to employ a more "balanced offense."
Watching Ron Rivera’s first news conference as coach of the Carolina Panthers was a lot like watching John Fox’s introduction back in 2002.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Although Fox’s time with the Panthers didn’t end well, his overall tenure was a success. Rivera’s can be even better if he learns some lessons from what went right and what went wrong for Fox.

“I’d like to be an aggressive, physical football team,’’ Rivera said Tuesday afternoon as he met with the media in Charlotte.

That was Fox’s message coming in and pretty much throughout his entire tenure. That style worked, especially in Fox’s early years. In those days, Fox built his team around his defensive line and the Panthers truly were an aggressive and physical team. They went to the Super Bowl in Fox’s second year and it wasn’t really until a trip to the NFC Championship Game in the 2005 season that Fox’s flaws started to show.

Back in the early years, Fox stuck to what he knew: defense. One of his first hires was Dan Henning as offensive coordinator -- Fox viewed that as a coup at the time. Early on, Fox trusted the veteran Henning with his offense and the Panthers won with ball control and the occasional big play.

Things began to fall apart in the 2006 season when the Panthers got too conservative on offense. Henning took the fall for that and was fired at the end of that season. In hindsight, Fox was the guy to blame. He insisted on sticking with his style even when it obviously wasn’t working. Fox brought in Jeff Davidson as the replacement and the Panthers haven’t had much of a passing game since.

That’s why I’m saying Rivera could end up being better than Fox. When Rivera uttered the words “balanced offense," I could almost hear fans in the Carolinas cheering.

I almost cheered when someone asked Rivera to describe himself for people who don’t know him.

“A listener, someone who understands,’’ Rivera said.

That’s a great thing because Fox refused to change or adapt and that's why he's gone. I’m certain general manager Marty Hurney, team president Danny Morrison and owner Jerry Richardson made it clear the Panthers must be much better and much more open minded when it comes to offense.

Rivera said he’s going to stick mostly with the defense and let the assistants he hires handle the offense.

“I’m looking for guys that are going to coach and teach," Rivera said.

That’s a good thing because the Carolina brain trust didn’t feel there was enough teaching or coaching going on at the end of Fox’s tenure. That was needed because the team had gone to a full-blown youth movement. You can bet that Rivera has already given some names of potential offensive coaches to Hurney, Morrison and Richardson. They probably wouldn’t have offered him the job if they didn’t like those names.

Ron Turner, Rob Chudzinski and Marc Trestman are coaches Rivera might target and that’s a good start. Rivera ran through his offensive roster and sounded very satisfied with the offensive line and the running backs. That’s usually as far as Fox’s eyes went on offense.

But Rivera kept going. He talked about the three tight ends -- Jeff King, Dante Rosario and Gary Barnidge -- and said he liked them all and the Panthers could upgrade in the draft or free agency. Rivera also praised young receivers Brandon LaFell and David Gettis. Then he saluted wide receiver Steve Smith's career and said he’d “love to visit with him and see how he’s doing."

That’s important. Smith might be the best player in franchise history. He’s been frustrated by the losing and the team's offensive struggles. Smith has not asked to be traded or released, but team officials have told him to think about his future. They’ve made it clear to him that he’s welcome back if he’s satisfied with the new direction of the team. If not, they’ll accommodate him and trade him.

Smith still has some good years left and Rivera can do himself a favor by winning over the receiver. But that might have to be done over time because Rivera must take care of some other challenges first.

“We need to see if there is a quarterback on this roster that can be that franchise guy that you need,’’ Rivera said.

In other words, Rivera and whoever he hires as his offensive coaches must decide if Jimmy Clausen can be a franchise quarterback. Fox never really gave Clausen a chance in his rookie season. He made Clausen spend much of training camp working behind Hunter Cantwell, who didn’t even make the team.

Fox only turned to Clausen after Matt Moore got off to a disastrous start. Fox benched Clausen twice after that and the offensive system made it impossible to tell if the rookie has any upside.

At the very least, Rivera made it sound like he’s at least open to giving Clausen a chance. The Panthers took a hit when Stanford’s Andrew Luck decided not to enter the draft. The Carolina brass realizes the franchise's hopes can’t be put entirely on Clausen, and it’s certain that another quarterback will be added through the draft or free agency.

That puts Rivera one up on Fox. He’s coming in with an open mind about the offense. He’s not coming in hell bent on using square pegs when you’ve got a bunch of round ones.

Dolphins regular-season wrap-up

January, 5, 2011
1/05/11
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» NFC Wrap-ups: East | West | North | South » AFC: East | West | North | South

Arrow indicates direction team is trending.

Final Power Ranking: 22
Preseason Power Ranking: 11

[+] Enlarge Chad Henne
AP Photo/Lynne SladkyChad Henne had a disappointing season in his second year as Miami's starter.
Biggest surprise: The Dolphins seemed to have all the parts in place for a vibrant and diverse offensive attack. They traded for prolific receiver Brandon Marshall. They've fielded a quality offensive line since they drafted left tackle Jake Long. They had a capable backfield tandem Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams. The team harbored high expectations for second-year starting quarterback Chad Henne. And they stunk. Miami ranked 30th in points, 21st in total offense, 21st in rushing offense and 16th in passing offense. Henne was benched at one point. The Wildcat became a farce because defenses figured it out. The interior O-line, tinkered with for three years, fell apart.

Biggest disappointment: The Dolphins started the season with a pair of road games and won them both. At 2-0 and with all eight home games to go, they bolted to a gargantuan head start in the playoff race. Since the NFL went to its current playoff format 20 years ago, only nine teams had done that. Six went to the playoffs. Four won their division. The Dolphins went 6-2 on the road. Had they split their home games, they would have gone 10-6. If the New York Jets were one of those home victories, then the Dolphins might have gotten into the playoffs. Alas, the Dolphins posted a shameful 1-7 home record, losing in Sun Life Stadium to the Buffalo Bills, Cleveland Browns and Detroit Lions.

Biggest need: The Dolphins crave offensive help. The defense did just fine under new coordinator Mike Nolan, ranking sixth in total defense, seventh in run defense and eighth in pass defense. The Dolphins probably will be looking for a new offensive coordinator with Dan Henning reportedly about to retire. They'll also be in the market for a running back. Brown and Williams are free agents. Williams recently made comments that strongly indicated he will be gone. Interior O-line reinforcements are a necessity. But there's still a major problem at quarterback. The Dolphins know what a reliable quarterback could mean. Chad Pennington parachuted into training camp in 2008 and guided them from a 1-15 season to the AFC East title. If the Dolphins can stomach bringing in another quarterback -- they've had 15 starters since Dan Marino retired -- then a steady free agent probably is the best way to pull the offense together.

Team MVP: Cameron Wake, outside linebacker. The Canadian Football League import broke out in his second NFL season. He recorded 14 sacks to rank third in the league.

Pivotal moment: Sept. 7 was a symbolic date for the Dolphins. Just five days before opening day, the Dolphins made a bizarrely timed announcement that Bill Parcells was stepping down as football operations vice president to become a mere "consultant." The Dolphins gave off the vibe of an adrift franchise from that moment on -- and played like it. Parcells packed up his office shortly thereafter, leaving general manager Jeff Ireland and head coach Tony Sparano to fend for themselves. Parcells hired them while working for previous owner Wayne Huizenga. But with Parcells on a golf course or at the race track, jobs seemed increasingly tenuous under current owner Stephen Ross, and the uninspiring product on the field didn't measure up either.

Marshall on Henne: 'We have to evaluate'

December, 30, 2010
12/30/10
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The blockbuster acquisition of star receiver Brandon Marshall failed to make the Miami Dolphins better.

In fact, they got worse. The Dolphins won the AFC East two years ago. They went 7-9 last season but still had playoff hopes entering their finale.

Marshall

Marshall


The best they can do this year is 8-8. They were eliminated from playoff contention two weeks ago.

At his weekly news conference, Marshall was asked for his thoughts on the team's direction. He didn't hesitate to endorse head coach Tony Sparano's return for next year, but withheld any praise for quarterback Chad Henne or offensive coordinator Dan Henning.

Marshall said he came to Miami with aspirations he and Henne would achieve greatness.

"I'm not sure," Marshall said. "We had some opportunities this year to do that, and we didn't get it done. I guess we have to evaluate what we've done this year and see if we can improve and see if can become good before we become great."

Marshall joined the Dolphins with three straight 100-reception campaigns and 10 touchdowns last year.

With one game left, he has 81 catches and three touchdowns.

Marshall advised Henne to chuck the ball around more often and trust him to make the catch. In talking about Marshall's previous quarterbacks, he said "Jay Cutler was my guy. He threw it up."

"Just got to let it go, you know?" Marshall said in a story by South Florida Sun-Sentinel reporter Mike Berardino. "Don't worry about the consequences. Just throw it up and see what happens. Throw a pick or whatever. Let's live and die by it.

"We want to play smart football, and we want to be consistent, but at the same time if you look at what teams do with Roddy White, Calvin Johnson, that's something I'm used to in the past, just guys believing in me.

"You make plays like that, you build confidence in each other. You get a little snowball effect. We didn't get that this year, and it's disappointing."

Final Word: AFC East

December, 24, 2010
12/24/10
4:05
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» NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South » AFC: East | West | North | South

Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 16:

Notable Miami Dolphins could experience their final games at Sun Life Stadium. Teams never remain exactly the same from year to year, but the Dolphins might experience more turnover than most organizations before next season. Thanks to a 1-6 home record entering Sunday's game against the Detroit Lions, head coach Tony Sparano's job carries no guarantees. Offensive coordinator Dan Henning likely will be gone. Defensive coordinator Mike Nolan should be considered for head coaching vacancies. Running backs Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams also will leave the field not knowing if they'll be back.

[+] EnlargeRicky William and Ronnie Brown
AP Photo/Wilfredo LeeSunday could be the final Dolphins home game for Ricky Williams, 34, and Ronnie Brown.
Mark Sanchez's shoulder injury is disconcerting. Reports out of New York indicate Sanchez will play Sunday against the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field, but the mere idea his status is in question reminds us who the Jets' backup quarterback is. Mark Brunell is 40 years old. Since 2006, he has started one game and attempted 31 passes. The Jets are on the cusp of clinching a playoff berth. Although Sanchez is rated 28th among all NFL passers, he makes improvisational plays with his legs a rusty quadragenarian cannot. The Jets' chances would diminish substantially if Brunell were forced to take over.

The New England Patriots are in a "hat and T-shirt game." ESPN analyst and former Patriots linebacker Tedy Bruschi emphasized the importance of donning division championship regalia, which the Patriots can do with a victory or tie against the Buffalo Bills in Ralph Wilson Stadium (or if the Jets don't win in Chicago).

"Those hats and T-shirts mean something. It means you've accomplished something," he said in the latest "Bruschi's Breakdown" at ESPNBoston.com. "There have been plenty of teams that have been wild-card teams and gone to the AFC or NFC Championships and have nothing to show for it -- no division title or anything. When you win your division, it says something, right there on the hat and T-shirt: 'Division Champs.' I was always proud to put those T-shirts on, and you want a set of three -- division, conference and you all know what the last one is. It starts with that first one, though."

Buffalo's defense deserves some credit. The Bills' defense has been ranked at or near the bottom of the league all season. But it has quietly put together some impressive performances. The Bills have allowed more than 16 points in regulation time just once since Thanksgiving and have given up only 20 points over their past two games. Encompassing the entire season, Buffalo still has the NFL's worst run defense. But take away Cleveland Browns bulldozer Peyton Hillis' first five carries on the opening drive in Week 14, and the Bills have held Hillis, Ricky Williams and Ronnie Brown to 118 yards on 31 carries.

AFC East players are approaching some milestones. With two games left, it's appropriate to take a look at some season stats. Bills receiver Steve Johnson needs two touchdown receptions to set the team record. Bills running back Fred Jackson needs 189 yards to hit 1,000 in back-to-back seasons. Ryan Fitzpatrick is seven touchdown passes away from 30, which would trigger a promise from Buffalo News columnist Jerry Sullivan to run down Hertel Avenue in his underwear. Dolphins receivers Brandon Marshall and Davone Bess need three catches to break the team record for two receivers set by Mark Duper and Mark Clayton in 1984. Cameron Wake needs 4.5 sacks to tie the Dolphins record of 18.5 held by Bill Stanfill and Jason Taylor. Patriots quarterback Tom Brady must average 219.5 passing yards to hit 4,000 for the fourth time. Patriots running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis is 176 yards from hitting quadruple digits. Wes Welker needs 17 receptions to get 100 a fourth straight season. Jets running back LaDainian Tomlinson is 114 yards from reaching 1,000 for the first time in three seasons.

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