NFL Nation: Dan Marino

It's now or never for Ryan Tannehill

February, 28, 2014
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MIAMI -- There is no way around it: The Miami Dolphins are in a dark place.

[+] EnlargeMiami's Ryan Tannehill
Chris Trotman/Getty ImagesRyan Tannehill has done little to establish himself as the Dolphins' franchise quarterback.
They are coming off a season that included a high-profile bullying scandal, a late-December collapse and the firing of general manager Jeff Ireland and offensive coordinator Mike Sherman. There also was the fallout following the Ted Wells report that resulted in the firings of offensive line coach Jim Turner and head trainer Kevin O'Neill.

But one player is capable of removing the dark cloud that hangs over the Dolphins' franchise: quarterback Ryan Tannehill.

The 2012 first-round pick is entering a crucial year. If he develops into a legitimate franchise quarterback, the Dolphins could be a playoff contender next season and many of their problems would be forgotten. But if Tannehill falters in his third NFL season, there will be repercussions. Jobs could be lost in Miami.

That puts a lot of pressure on Tannehill, 25, who is entering a make-or-break 2014 season after throwing for 3,913 yards, 24 touchdowns and 17 interceptions in 2013. Potential must become a reality or there could be a new quarterback under center in 2015.

After two seasons, Tannehill's resume has come closer to resembling former Dolphins draft bust Chad Henne's than Hall of Famer Dan Marino's. Henne was 13-14 in his first two seasons as a starter; Marino was 21-4 over the same span. Tannehill is 15-17, playing mostly in less-than-ideal circumstances.

"I'm a big Tannehill fan," ESPN.com NFL scout Matt Williamson said. "I think his supporting cast, with the [depleted] offensive line and zero running game, has hurt him dramatically.

"I think he excels this year, despite his circumstances. But I also hesitate to say that until I see the status of the Dolphins' opening-day offensive line."

There already was a report this offseason indicating that Tannehill will have a slimmer margin for error. According to CBS Sports, Dolphins coach Joe Philbin told general manager candidates during the interview process that he wants more competition for Tannehill. Philbin, who might need to make the playoffs to keep his job, reportedly informed GM candidates that he would not be afraid to bench Tannehill for backup Matt Moore if Tannehill struggles.

The Dolphins neither confirmed nor denied the report last week at the NFL combine. "I can't respond to speculation," Dolphins GM Dennis Hickey said. "I'm not about that, but I believe in Ryan Tannehill."

The NFL is a passing league, and few quarterbacks get four years to prove they can flourish. Other quarterbacks from the famed 2012 draft class have already experienced success. Seattle's Russell Wilson is a Super Bowl champion. Andrew Luck led Indianapolis to the postseason twice. Nick Foles took Philadelphia to the playoffs this past season and Robert Griffin III did the same for Washington in 2012. These players are firmly grounded in their starting quarterback roles for their respective teams after just two seasons.

Tannehill has not come close to the level of success of his peers. He has yet to record a winning season. Tannehill has been just good enough to keep his starting job but not convincing enough to prove he's the long-term solution in Miami.

Former Chicago Bears GM Jerry Angelo recently offered a scathing scouting report on Tannehill.

"He's an athlete who is trying to develop into a QB. His arm is good, but his accuracy is questionable," Angelo wrote on TheSidelineView.com. "He isn't comfortable from within the pocket. Led the league in sacks, something isn't right, given he's an athletic QB. Protection is one thing, 'feel' is another. When things aren't going well, he can't pull himself or his team out of it. Those aren't good signs for a signal-caller."

The Dolphins changed offensive coordinators in January, hiring Bill Lazor in hopes of lighting a spark to Tannehill's career and addressing his weaknesses. Lazor was the quarterbacks coach in Philadelphia and did wonders last season with Foles. The Dolphins are hoping Lazor has similar success with Tannehill, who arguably has more natural ability than Foles.

"I'm excited to work with him because I see a lot of ability," Lazor recently said of Tannehill. "[But] it would be premature to make an evaluation of what he can be and what he can do because I haven't been around him that much."

Williamson likes the addition of Lazor and what he brings to Tannehill and to Miami's offense.

"A new offensive coordinator could go a long way," Williamson explained. "Tannehill is way better than Foles. At a minimum, I bet Tannehill puts up big numbers. But the offensive line does need major upgrades."

The Dolphins clearly have a leadership void, evident in the findings in the 144-page Wells report. Three offensive linemen -- Richie Incognito, John Jerry and Mike Pouncey -- were allowed to harass and bully Jonathan Martin, other teammates and an assistant trainer, according to the report.

Tannehill is one of the key players who must step up his leadership. One of the key components of being a starting quarterback and a face of the franchise is the ability to lead others. Tannehill has not demonstrated that ability to this point.

In many ways, it's now or never for Tannehill. The Dolphins have waited long enough for him to develop into a consistent, legitimate franchise quarterback. The 2014 season could be his final chance to prove it in Miami.


Tony DungyMatthew Emmons/USA TODAY SportsCoach Tony Dungy and wide receiver Marvin Harrison combined for some very memorable Indianapolis Colts teams.

INDIANAPOLIS – The joke about Marvin Harrison during his 13-year career with the Indianapolis Colts is that he would be in plain sight but he was still hidden because he was so quiet. You didn’t know he was around unless he was embarrassing defenses while catching passes from quarterback Peyton Manning.

Harrison didn't worry about the extra thing. His focus was getting better on a daily basis and helping the Colts win games.

“He was very quiet away from the field,” former Colts general manager Bill Polian said. “Marvin wasn’t one of those guys that thrived to be the center of attention. When it was time to play -- practice time or games -- it didn’t matter, he was business 100 percent of time. He is one of the all-time best.”

Harrison, and former Colts coach Tony Dungy, could be thrust to the forefront Saturday if things go as planned for them.

The Colts receiver and coach are two of the 15 Hall-of-Fame finalist. A finalist must receive 80 percent of the votes.

The statistics scream first-ballot Hall of Famer for Harrison. He’s third in NFL history in receptions, fifth in touchdown receptions and seventh in receiving years to go with eight straight 1,000-yard seasons.

“Marvin Harrison had a tremendous impact on my career,” Manning said. “My very first football game in the preseason, on the third play of the game, I threw my first pass. I threw him about a 4-yard pass, and he ran 48 yards for a touchdown. I said, ‘Boy, this NFL is pretty easy. All you do is throw it to Marvin Harrison and he runs for touchdowns.’ That’s pretty much what he did throughout the time we played together. He is just an outstanding football player. A great teammate, and he truly helped me out a lot.”

Harrison was a perfectionist of his craft. His footwork had to be precise, he tried to catch anything thrown in his direction. He wanted the team’s best defensive backs defending him in practice, not a practice squad player who could be released at any moment.

“That was Marvin for you,” Polian said. “His unique ability at his size to get open and continue to play for as long as he played is witness to his phenominal athletic ability, great hands and work habit. He’s extremely, extremely gifted athlete. Far more than people realize because he’s made it look so easy. He was a clutch performer.”

Harrison’s career, which included going to the playoffs 10 times and winning a Super Bowl, ended in February 2009 when the Colts terminated the final three years of his contract because he didn’t want to take a pay cut.

"It was time," Harrison said told the Indianapolis Star in a recent interview. "I had the perfect owner (Jim Irsay), the perfect team, one team my whole career, Dungy leaving, I played my one year in the new stadium (Lucas Oil).''

Dungy wasn’t far behind Harrison in leaving the Colts. He stepped down as coach almost two months later.

Dungy, who coached in Tampa Bay and Indianapolis, is in the top seven in wins amongst coaches with at least 100 victories. The Colts won at least 10 games in all seven seasons under Dungy. They won five division titles during that same time span, and Dungy is the first African-American head coach to win a Super Bowl.

“Everybody who makes the finals deserves to be in, but Tony is in a class by himself,” Polian said. “His record speaks for itself. He has replaced Wellington Mara as the public conscience of the NFL. “

Manning added, “Coach Dungy’s influence on me and our entire team was very strong…I’m indebted to him for his help for me in my career, and of course, our teams there in Indianapolis. I was very honored to play for him for a number of years.”

NFLN survey/Super Bowl QB: Broncos

January, 29, 2014
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NEW YORK -- Champ Bailey has seen plenty of quarterbacks work at crunch time, with the clock grinding, timeouts gone.

“And the guys with the same expression, the look in their eyes, that they know what to do, they’re comfortable doing it, they’ve been there before and won before,’’ Bailey said. “Those are the guys you want with the ball in their hands with your team and the guys, as a defense, you know are always a threat to beat you. Peyton [Manning] is one of those guys.’’

Manning has led the Broncos to the franchise’s seventh Super Bowl and when ESPN.com NFL Nation reporters asked over 320 players: “Two-minute warning and the Super Bowl is on the line. Whom do you want at quarterback?’’ Manning was one of the top choices.

But he wasn’t the top choice. League-wide the quarterback the Broncos beat to go to the Super Bowl -- New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady -- was the top pick. Forty percent of the players surveyed picked Brady, who has won three Super Bowls in his career and been to five.

Manning received 26.9 percent of the votes league-wide and Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers was third with 32 percent.

Among the 10 Broncos who were surveyed, Manning was the overwhelming choice. Since the AFL/NFL merger in 1970, Manning leads all quarterbacks with 50 game-winning drives in the fourth quarter.

Hall of Famer Dan Marino is second, since the merger, with 47. In a season when the Broncos have piled on the points, the Broncos have needed just one such drive, for a game-winning field goal in Dallas in Week 5.

“I always say when you have a guy like Peyton at quarterback, you always have hope,’’ Bailey said. “You’re always going to be in the mix and that’s all you can ask for as a player.’’

“The guys who make the plays when it counts are the ones that understand everybody in that huddle is looking to them,’’ said Broncos executive vice president of football operations John Elway, also a pretty fair game-on-the-line quarterback on his way to the Hall of Fame. “A quarterback in that situation has to believe he can get it done, be prepared to get it done and done the work in those situations to be able to get it done. When you’ve got that kind of guy, you’re going to have a chance to win a world championship.’’
It’s been 29 years since the Miami Dolphins last played in a Super Bowl. It has been 40 years since Miami actually won the big game on Jan. 13, 1974.

The Dolphins and their fans are rightfully proud of their two Lombardi Trophies. The team proudly displays both in the front lobby of its training facility. You also constantly hear about the glory days when the Dolphins were a dominant franchise that consistently competed for championships.

However, four decades have passed since Miami’s last championship, and nearly three decades since its last Super Bowl appearance. The Dolphins’ run at the top of the NFL has become a distant memory.

[+] EnlargeDon Shula
AP Photo/Dave BergmanThe Dolphins haven't been to a Super Bowl since Don Shula roamed the sidelines.
What will it take for Miami to get back to its once-elite status? ESPN.com’s Dolphins page has some suggestions:

  • Stability at head coach: The Dolphins had Don Shula, one of the greatest head coaches of all-time, at the helm during their glory years. Shula brought smarts, motivation and stability to the head-coaching position in Miami. He coached the undefeated Dolphins during the 1972 season, the Super Bowl champs again in 1973, and the two appearances in the early 1980s. Since Shula retired in 1995, Miami has gone through a litany of bad head coaches. Nick Saban, Cam Cameron and Tony Sparano all failed in Miami. Current Dolphins head coach Joe Philbin is 15-17 in two seasons. It remains to be seen if Philbin is the long-term solution.
  • Long-term solution at quarterback: In today’s NFL, you must have an answer at quarterback. Dan Marino provided stability in the 1980s and 1990s. Since then, the Dolphins have played the game of revolving doors over the years with quarterbacks such as Chad Henne, Cleo Lemon, Joey Harrington, Jay Feely and Jay Fiedler. They hope 2012 first-round pick Ryan Tannehill is the answer. He’s shown promise, but also some holes in his game. Tannehill will get a third season to prove he’s the guy. If not, Miami must look elsewhere to find their long-term solution, especially now with the NFL increasingly becoming a heavy passing league.
  • A better front office: Talent evaluation is a huge part of a team’s long-term success, and the Dolphins have been hit and miss in that department over the years. Miami needs a general manager who is consistently adding talent and helping provide the identity of a team. What was Miami’s identity last year? The Dolphins weren’t an offensive team or a defensive team. They didn’t pass the ball well, run the ball well, or consistently stop the pass or run. The front office needs to work with the coaching staff to bring everyone together for one mission and one focus.

These are issues three decades of owners, coaches and players have yet to figure out. Miami was 8-8 last season and made a little progress from 2012. But there is still plenty of work to be done, including the hiring of a new general manager after recently parting ways with Jeff Ireland.
Kaepernick-WilsonGetty Images49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick and Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson will square off for the third time this season.
ALAMEDA, Calif. -- When the San Francisco 49ers and Seattle Seahawks meet Sunday for the NFC title, it will mark the 18th time since the AFL/NFL merger of 1970 that teams from the same division play in a conference championship game.

But it’s only happened four times since 2002, when the Seahawks moved from the AFC West to the NFC West as part of the league’s realignment. This year marks No. 5.

Still, when the Raiders were a mainstay of the AFC title game – they played in eight such games between 1970 and 1983 – they faced a team from their division, the AFC West, a mere one step away from the Super Bowl three times.

It’s interesting to note that all three of those meetings would have happened in the divisional round today because, from 1970 through 1989, two teams from the same division could not meet in the playoffs until the conference title game.

A look, then, at those three meetings ...

Jan. 1, 1978, Mile High Stadium

Denver Broncos 20, Oakland Raiders 17

The defending champion Raiders were the AFC’s lone wild-card team at 11-3 – in those days, only the then-three division winners and the second-place team with the best record qualified for the playoffs – and were coming in off their breathtaking “Ghost to the Post” double-overtime divisional playoff win at the Baltimore Colts, 37-31.

The top-seeded Broncos, in the heyday of their “Orange Crush” defense, had gone 12-2 with one of their losses at home to the Raiders – the teams split the regular-season series, each winning on the road – and had just handled the Pittsburgh Steelers in the divisional round, 34-21.

The Broncos, who allowed an AFC-low 148 points, never trailed the Raiders, who led the NFL in scoring with 351 points, and led by scores of 14-3 and 20-10. But the Raiders, appearing in their fifth straight AFC title game, remember it for a play that never happened. At least, from the officials’ perspective.

“(Rob) Lytle’s fumble?” the late Al Davis told NFL Films. “No one saw it, so they said.”

Leading 7-3 midway through the third quarter, the Broncos set up at the Raiders’ 2-yard line and had a first-and-goal when Lytle ran into the pile and was hit by Jack Tatum. The ball popped out, Mike McCoy scooped it up and was off to the races for the game-changing touchdown. Except ...

Lytle was ruled down, the officials explained, saying that his forward progress had been stopped before the ball came free. Replays showed otherwise and then Art McNally, the former head of NFL officials, came clean to NFL Films, albeit, a decade later.

“It was a fumble,” he said, “and we were wrong on the call.”

Too little, too late for the Raiders as Jon Keyworth punched it in for Denver one play later and the Broncos led, 14-3, en route to the victory and Super Bowl XII, where they were thumped by the Dallas Cowboys, 27-10.

It was John Madden’s final playoff game as he retired a year later and Oakland would not return to the postseason until 1980.

Jan. 11, 1981, Jack Murphy Stadium

Oakland Raiders 34, San Diego Chargers 27

Five AFC teams finished 11-5 in 1980, the Buffalo Bills, the Cleveland Browns, the Houston Oilers, the Chargers and the Raiders.

A second wild-card team had been added to the playoff mix two years earlier and the Raiders were the top-seeded wild card. First they beat a familiar face in Kenny Stabler and the Oilers, 27-7, in the conference’s wild-card game, then they traveled to Cleveland, where the wind chill was minus-36 degrees, and upset the Browns, 14-12, in the “Red Right 88” game when Mike Davis picked off Brian Sipe in the end zone with less than a minute to play.

The Chargers, meanwhile, were the AFC’s top seed due to a better conference record than Cleveland and Buffalo and won the West over the Raiders, with whom they split the regular-season games as each team won at home, based on better net points in division games. San Diego beat the Bills, 20-14, in its first playoff game.

Oakland began the season just 2-3 and recently acquired quarterback Dan Pastorini was lost in Game 5 with a broken leg. Enter Jim Plunkett and his Lazarus act. Under Plunkett, the Raiders had won 11 of 13 games, including the playoffs, and started hot again against the high-scoring Air Coryell Chargers as Oakland opened up a 28-7 first-half lead.

San Diego woke up with 17 unanswered points , creeping to within 28-24 in the third quarter.

“Ted Hendricks grabs me by the jersey and he starts shaking me and says, ‘Keep scoring. We can’t stop them,’” Plunkett told NFL Network.

A pair of Chris Bahr field goals gave the Raiders some breathing room before Rolf Benirschke’s field goal made it a one-score game with less than seven minutes to play.

The Raiders' offense did not heed Hendricks’ advice this time; it simply ran out the clock on a 15-play drive that included 14 runs and four first downs.

“That game in the end, when all was said and done, came down to our offensive line and Mark van Eeghen,” Matt Millen, then a rookie linebacker, told NFL Network.

The iconic image of the game, then, is of left guard Gene Upshaw’s heavily padded right arm holding the game ball aloft as he exited the field. The Raiders went on to beat the Philadelphia Eagles, 27-10, in Super Bowl XV as Plunkett was named the game’s MVP and Tom Flores became the first minority head coach to win a Super Bowl.

Jan. 8, 1984, Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum

Los Angeles Raiders 30, Seattle Seahawks 14

The 1983 Raiders are considered one of the best teams of all time and yet, they lost four games that season – one at Washington, in which an injured Marcus Allen did not play, a head-scratcher at home in the penultimate week of the season to the St. Louis Cardinals and two to, yes, the Seahawks.

Indeed, all you NFL newbies, the Raiders were in L.A. from 1982 through 1994 and the Seahawks used to live in the AFC West (from 1977-2001) and they were even a little chippy and, yes, lippy back then.

“Seattle knew us so well,” Allen told NFL Network. “It’s no secret, I mean they even knew our plays. I looked across the line of scrimmage at Kenny Easley, I shook my head, I said, ‘I’m coming right there.’ I think he shook his head back and said, ‘OK.’”

The Seahawks had swept the Raiders that year by scores of 38-36 in Seattle and 34-21 in L.A. over a three-week period. The sweep got the Seahawks into the playoffs as the top wild-card team at 9-7 and they beat rookie John Elway and the Broncos, 31-7, in the wild-card game at Seattle before upsetting another ballyhooed first-year QB in the Miami Dolphins’ Dan Marino, 27-20, at the Orange Bowl.

The top-seeded Raiders had just thumped the Pittsburgh Steelers, 38-10, before a crowd of 92,434 at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum and awaited the Seahawks.

“We had lost to Seattle twice,” Howie Long told NFL Network. “We took that as we had gotten our ass kicked and it was time for redemption.”

It was an alley fight of a game and the Raiders, who led the AFC with 442 points scored, dominated Seattle, the conference’s second-highest scoring team with 403 points. L.A. jumped out to a 27-0 lead as Allen, playing with a mouse under his right eye, finished with 216 yards from scrimmage, with 154 yards rushing on 25 carries and 62 yards receiving and a TD on seven catches.

“All I remember was coming out with a black eye and seeing stars,” Allen said. “But I wasn’t going [to stay] out of the game.”

L.A.’s defense picked off five passes from Seahawks quarterbacks Dave Krieg and Jim Zorn, with two interceptions from Mike Davis, and the Raiders also had five sacks, two by rookie Greg Townsend.

The Raiders then went to Tampa Bay for Super Bowl XVIII and beat defending champion Washington, 38-9, with Allen winning MVP honors on the strength of a then-record 191 rushing yards on 20 carries, including his reverse-field 74-yard touchdown run.

It is still the Raiders’ most recent Super Bowl title.
IRVING, Texas -- John Elway is in his third year as the Denver Broncos' executive vice president of football operations. It's a fancy title that says, basically, he's in charge of all things football when it comes to the Broncos.

The Hall of Fame quarterback has been able to ride Tim Tebow to a playoff appearance -- and win -- and was able to lure Peyton Manning to the Broncos as a free agent.

[+] EnlargeTroy Aikman
AP Photo/James D SmithBringing Troy Aikman into the front-office fold would help the Joneses generate goodwill with Cowboys fans.
Before Elway took that job, his personnel experience consisted of owning the Colorado Crush of the Arena Football League.

The Broncos have gone 26-6 in the last two seasons with Manning as quarterback and are the AFC's top seed in the playoffs for the second straight year.

The Dallas Cowboys do not have an executive vice president of football operations.

They have Jerry Jones as owner, president and general manager. They have Stephen Jones as chief operating officer, executive vice president and director of player personnel. Will McClay is the assistant director of player personnel.

On Sunday, I was fortunate enough to appear on "The Score With Babe Laufenberg." Sportscaster Bill Jones asked what changes could or should the Cowboys make in 2014. I came up with change the defensive coordinator. I mean, how hard is that when Monte Kiffin's defense was as bad as it was?

Laufenberg, the former Cowboys quarterback, sports director at KTVT and Cowboys radio analyst, had an ingenius thought.

Hire Troy Aikman.

Brilliant.

Think about the goodwill that would give Jones, who has long been criticized for being the general manager by just about everybody upset with the lack of success the Cowboys have had. Think of the jolt it would give the franchise.

Last year, Jones talked about sometimes having to do something "inordinate" to get the change you seek. His idea of change was to fire Rob Ryan as defensive coordinator and have Bill Callahan call plays. And the Cowboys still went 8-8.

In his role as a Fox analyst, Aikman has been closer to the game than Elway was when he took over. I wonder if a part of him sees what Elway has done and thinks, "I can do that." Is Elway poring over player reports every waking minute and up on all of the salary cap machinations? Not necessarily.

Dan Marino tried to do this in 2004 and it didn't take. He lasted just three weeks as the senior vice president of football operations. Last fall Marino hinted he would be interested in a front-office gig once again, referencing Elway's success.

A lot of this is pie in the sky. We know Jones won't give up the GM duties. Ever. We also don't know if Aikman would ever consider giving up the Fox gig for something a little more grinding than calling games about 20 weekends a year. And we don't know if he could work with (or for) Jones again.

As we sit and wait to see what changes Jones will or will not make in this offseason, it sure is fun to ponder a Cowboys' life with Aikman in the front office.

Thanks for the idea, Babe.
HOUSTON -- With a 30-13 lead against the Houston Texans, 5 minutes,16 seconds left in the game, the ball on the Denver Broncos' 44 yard line and 50 passing touchdowns for the season, head coach John Fox said three words into the headset.

"Coach Fox said 'go play ball,' that's what he told [offensive coordinator] Adam [Gase] and that's what Adam told me," said quarterback Peyton Manning.

[+] EnlargePeyton Manning
John Leyba/The Denver PostPeyton Manning celebrates his record 51st touchdown against the Texans.
And with that Manning and the Broncos offense went about the business of chasing down history. Running back Knowshon Moreno, who finished with 76 yards rushing in the game for his first 1,000-yard season, gained four yards on the first play of the drive.

Manning threw two incompletions, one that included a pass interference penalty on Houston Texans' safety Eddie Pleasant that moved the ball to the Houston 25-yard line. And, on first-and-10, with tight end Julius Thomas lined up wide right as the only receiver, Manning had the 1-on-1 matchup he wanted with the Texans cornerbacks matching up wide left with the Broncos wide receivers.

Thomas simply ran by linebacker Darryl Sharpton and Manning lofted the 51st touchdown pass of the season into Thomas' hands. Thomas, with the exuberance of youth perhaps, dropped the football to celebrate, letting a remember-when item simply roll into the grass.

"It wouldn't have surprised me if Julius wouldn't have went handed it to some babe in the stands trying to get her phone number in exchange for the ball," Manning said with a smile. "That would be right up Julius' alley, that is pretty in line with his thinking sometimes. Great catch, great route by him."

Manning tied the previous record, set by Tom Brady in 2007, with a 20-yard scoring pass to Eric Decker just 2:39 before the record-setter. Manning called Decker's catch on the left sideline of the endzone "awesome, one of the best ones of the year in my opinion."

Manning also said Gase has "been awesome all year" as the team's play-caller. He also paid homage to Hall of Famer Dan Marino as well as Brady following the game and said he believed his record may be short-lived in today's NFL.

On Marino, Manning said; "I still think Dan Marino's record in '84 is extremely special. Certainly the game has changed since then and for him to throw 48 touchdowns in '84 is still one of the most remarkable ones. It lasted so long and he was one of my favorite quarterbacks growing up so to break his record was really special. And Tom in 2007 was nothing short of phenomenal."

On the record Manning said; "It may be only temporary. I personally think all season records are going down, especially if they go to 18 games and there won't be an asterisk. Brady will probably break it again next year if not the year after, so we'll enjoy it … Hopefully the Hall of Fame will send the ball back when somebody throws for more."

And on setting the record on a day when the Broncos also clinched the AFC West title as well as a first-round bye, Manning said; "Losing record and you break an individual record and you're just throwing a lot and getting some yards and you don't have a chance to make the postseason, that doesn't mean a whole lot."
Years ago, conventional wisdom would have applauded Carson Palmer for topping 4,000 yards passing with the Oakland Raiders last season.

Now, conventional wisdom has evolved to the point where mainstream analysis discounts those 4,000 yards because Palmer, entering his first season with the Arizona Cardinals, accumulated those yards in a losing context. Palmer went 4-11 as a starter.

Andy from New York hit the NFC West mailbag with a challenge we'll take up here. He thinks Palmer deserves more credit than he's getting.

"After two minutes of research, I found on the Hall of Fame's website that only 48 quarterbacks have thrown for more than 4,000 yards in a season (a combined 110 times)," Andy wrote. "Of those 110, only 18 times has it been done on a losing team (14 more times with a .500 record). If it is so 'easy' for a QB to rack up yards when playing from behind (when the defense knows it is a passing situation), why has it been accomplished only 18 times on a losing team in the entire history of the NFL?"

It's an interesting point. Passing for that many yards in a season requires some talent, obviously. But there is nothing inherently magical about the 4,000-yard plateau. Palmer passed for 3,970 yards while posting a 4-12 record in 2010. The 48-yard gap between 2010 (3,970 yards) and 2012 (4,018 yards) means nothing.

Palmer, Jon Kitna and Drew Brees each owns two seasons with at least 4,000 yards and a losing record. Elvis Grbac, Josh Freeman, Trent Green, Jeff Garcia, Bill Kenney, Peyton Manning, Dan Marino, Cam Newton, Aaron Rodgers, Matt Schaub, Matthew Stafford and Vinny Testaverde have each done it once.

Some of those quarterbacks were or are great players. Others were not so great.

ESPN developed the Total QBR metric to measure a quarterback's contributions to winning, whether or not the quarterback accumulated lots of passing yards. Manning scored a league-high 84.1 out of 100 last season. Mark Sanchez scored a league-low 34.0.

QBR can tell us something about the recent run on 4,000-yard seasons. Quarterbacks have combined for 42 of them since 2008. The QBR score Palmer posted last season (44.7) ranked 42nd out of those 42 on the list. The chart shows the seven times over the past five years when a quarterback passed for at least 4,000 yards without posting a winning record. Palmer probably had the worst supporting cast, but if anything, QBR affirms the general feeling on Palmer.

Now, back to Andy's point. Why aren't more quarterbacks from losing teams passing for 4,000 yards regularly? I'd venture that most quarterbacks good enough to pass for that many yards will be good enough to help their teams win most of the time. The question here is whether Palmer is one of those quarterbacks. Recent evidence suggests he might not be, but I think his prospects will improve with Larry Fitzgerald, Michael Floyd, Andre Roberts, Rob Housler and possibly even Patrick Peterson catching his passes.
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Facing arguably the greatest challenge of his 14-year NFL career, stripped of his go-to receiver Wes Welker and then some, New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady arrived at training camp hoping to do more.

Never before has the team had such a youthful look at the position, where there have been more struggles than successes in drafting and developing talent. The Patriots opened training camp with 12 receivers on the roster, six of whom are rookies.

Three of those young pups -- second-round draft choice Aaron Dobson, fourth-rounder Josh Boyce and free-agent Kenbrell Thompkins -- have taken more repetitions with Brady through the first three days of training camp than most could have imagined. One reason the results have looked fairly sharp is the extra work that was put in thanks to Brady's early arrival (rookies reported the day before Brady).

It is almost as if Brady is more than just the team's quarterback now; he's part coach, too. Unlike his record-breaking 2007 season, when there was an immediate connection with veterans Randy Moss, Welker and Jabar Gaffney, there is a certain teacher-student dynamic in play now. Brady, a stickler for detail, can be tough to please.

"He’s one of the greatest quarterbacks to play the game, so he’s definitely demanding,” said the 6-foot-3, 200-pound Dobson, a smooth-strider from Marshall who the Patriots hope will fill the outside role that Chad Johnson (2011) and Brandon Lloyd (2012) filled the past two years. “[He’s] definitely tough to play for.”

Some used to say the same thing about Miami Dolphins great Dan Marino, and there is a connection in play between Marino and what Brady currently faces. Because Marino had played for so long in Miami (1983 to '99), the offense grew so much each season that it was difficult in Marino’s later years for any young or new receiver to handle. So when go-to receivers Mark Clayton and Mark Duper were no longer in the mix -- they had grown with Marino in the offense -- it was a challenge to find anyone capable of stepping in.

Patriots coach Bill Belichick has acknowledged that’s a similar dynamic to what his team is currently navigating. This is Brady’s 14th year in the Patriots’ offense, which has evolved in many layers since his first year in 2000, and there is a lot there for any receiver to handle, let alone a rookie.

That is a big reason why the Patriots were drawn to Dobson and Boyce in the draft, and why Thompkins -- an older rookie at 25 who went undrafted after two years at Cincinnati -- has been an under-the-radar surprise to this point. All have a high football IQ. And so does free-agent signee Danny Amendola, who has developed a quick rapport with Brady that stands out.

Still, the Patriots might have to “trim the fat” in some areas of the playbook, according to Belichick. There will also be times when patience will be tested.

But watching Brady through the first three days of camp, part of it seems to have invigorated him. Those close to him say he is more committed than ever before; he turns 36 on Aug. 3, craves another Super Bowl championship, and knows that if all the receiver changes are going to produce the desired results -- especially with the rookies -- it is going to take extra work.

THREE HOT ISSUES

1. Distractions from tight end Aaron Hernandez.

In an unprecedented move, Belichick called a news conference two days before the team’s training camp practice to address Hernandez’s murder charge and its impact on the franchise. Then Brady spoke to reporters the following day. The goal was to balance the fine line between showing empathy and perspective to something bigger than football, but also position the club to move forward.

Because of that proactive approach, Hernandez wasn’t much of a topic of discussion from a media perspective by the second day of training camp. But will that change as new developments come to light in the case against Hernandez?

As one would expect, Belichick addressed players about the situation in a team meeting at the start of camp.

“He had comments, but that’s between him and the team. If he wants to share it, that’s fine,” said offensive lineman Logan Mankins, one of the team’s captains. (No surprise, but Belichick hasn’t been in the sharing mood.)

Mankins, the third-longest tenured player on the team (nine years) after Brady (14) and Wilfork (10), touched on how players are attempting to move on.

“At the time, you kind of reflect, but now it’s football season and everything goes in a drawer; no matter how you feel about it, it’s put away,” he said. “It’s football, it’s straightforward, and that’s all you can concentrate on or you’ll fall behind. Bill puts so much pressure on everyone and demands so much work and focus that if you’re not just focusing on football, then you’re in trouble.”

2. Void at top of tight end depth chart.

By the time the Patriots had blazed a trail through the NFL in 2011 with their innovative two-tight end offense, Rob Gronkowski had played almost 95 percent of the offensive snaps and Hernandez about 77 percent. The results were impressive, and others around the league considered plans to attempt to duplicate it.

That’s also when the Patriots extended the contracts of both players -- Gronkowski through 2019 and Hernandez 2018 -- with the idea of building their offense around them (over Welker).

The plans obviously haven’t worked out as desired, and if Gronkowski isn’t ready for the regular-season opener Sept. 8 at Buffalo after a surgery-filled offseason, it sparks the questions: Who fills the void, and how does it impact plans to play with multiple tight ends?

[+] EnlargeJake Ballard
AP Photo/Charles KrupaThe Patriots may lean heavily on former New York Giants TE Jake Ballard early in the season as Rob Gronkowski rehabs from injury.
Former New York Giant Jake Ballard (6-6, 260) and returning veterans Daniel Fells (6-4, 260) and Michael Hoomanawanui (6-4, 260) are the top candidates, while rookie free agent Zach Sudfeld (6-7, 260) is a potential sleeper.

“I don’t want to say this is Wally Pipp and Lou Gehrig, but that’s the classic story … it’s there if they can do it,” Belichick said.

Still, it would be a surprise if the Patriots run as many multiple-tight end sets as they did in 2011. The numbers were down to about 50 percent last year when Gronkowski and Hernandez missed significant time with injuries.

3. Tim Tebow’s role.

On a scale of 1-10 in terms of importance to the team’s success, No. 3 quarterback Tim Tebow is closer to the “1” than the “10.” Yet there is intrigue.

Tebow hasn’t been consistent as a drop-back passer in practices and appears to be at his best on the move or as a runner. That explains why he has been the only quarterback in the drill in which ball carriers run with the football in a confined space after making a catch, and then the defenders execute proper tackling technique.

Do the Patriots see enough value in him, possibly as a scout-team quarterback, to reserve a coveted spot on the 53-man roster? That’s a hot-button topic that has generated passionate response from both circles.

“He’s a good guy first, a super-nice guy and a good guy to talk to,” Mankins said of Tebow. “He works his butt off, so we’ll see if he can find a role.”

REASON FOR OPTIMISM

Since Brady is the quarterback, Belichick is the coach, and the team is playing in the AFC East, what’s not to like? And we’ve made it to this point with nary a mention of the team’s defense, which should be improved when factoring in that 10 of 11 starters return and the addition of a few complementary pieces, such as veteran safety Adrian Wilson, who brings size (6-3, 230) and an intimidating presence.

Last year, the Patriots traded up in the first round for defensive end Chandler Jones and linebacker Dont’a Hightower, and they could be difference-makers. Jones was hobbled by an ankle injury for most of the second half of last year and said one of his primary goals this offseason was to improve his upper-body strength. Hightower played 51 percent of the defensive snaps in 2012 but looks primed to possibly become more of a three-down option this year.

Furthermore, cornerback Aqib Talib had a significant impact -- both on the field and in the meeting room -- after he was acquired in November. Having him for a full year, in theory, should help the defense improve.

REASON FOR PESSIMISM

There has been too much turbulence this offseason, including starting cornerback Alfonzo Dennard’s arrest for suspicion of driving under the influence. Dennard is due in court in Lincoln, Neb., on Aug. 27 to determine if he violated his probation and could potentially face an NFL suspension.

Uncertainty with Dennard, the unknown in the passing game, Gronkowski’s health questions, and layers of the roster that appear thin on depth (interior DL) mean that the margin for error the Patriots traditionally have doesn’t seem as big as before.
Finally, the departed Welker was known for his consistency and durability. The Patriots are hoping Amendola can fill the void -- and the early returns are positive -- but there are questions about whether he can play a full 16-game season based on his injury history.

OBSERVATION DECK

• The Patriots’ coaching staff returns intact from 2012, marking only the second time in Belichick’s 14-year tenure that has happened. Former Chiefs offensive coordinator Brian Daboll, who joined the Patriots in January, has the title of “offensive assistant.” At times in practice, he’s worked closely with Tebow.

Devin McCourty, the 2010 first-round draft choice who made the Pro Bowl as a cornerback in his first season, appears to be settling into the safety position nicely. McCourty first moved to safety in the middle of last season, and his command of the defense, along with strong communication and sideline-to-sideline skills, make him a solid fit at the new position.

• Teammates call Wilson “The Incredible Hulk” because of his chiseled physique. Wilson and fellow veteran Steve Gregory are the top candidates vying for a starting role next to McCourty at safety.

[+] EnlargeTommy Kelly
Mike Reiss/ESPNDT Tommy Kelly should add some punch to the middle of the Patriots' defense, forming a strong 1-2 duo with Pro Bowler Vince Wilfork.
• Former Oakland Raiders defensive lineman Tommy Kelly (6-6, 310) projects as a starter next to Vince Wilfork; defensive end Rob Ninkovich called Kelly an under-the-radar player who is making a mark. Mankins said: “He’s been impressive so far, very athletic for his size. He’s quick for an inside guy. I like his work ethic. He’s been giving great effort, and if he gives us that kind of effort all season, I think he’ll have a good season.”

• Running back Stevan Ridley lost two fumbles in the team’s third practice, with Belichick sending him to run two punishment laps. Ridley led all Patriots running backs in playing 45 percent of the snaps last season, and the projection is that he should match that number this year. But if he struggles to hold on to the ball, former Tampa Bay Buccaneers running back LeGarrette Blount and second-year man Brandon Bolden are the top candidates to step in to that bigger back role. Blount was 2-for-2 in a goal-line running drill on Sunday. Shane Vereen looks primed to fill the void created by Danny Woodhead’s defection to the Chargers to serve as the team’s “passing back.” On Sunday, he was featured as a pass-catcher when the team worked on the screen game.

• The entire offensive line returns intact, although there could be a competition at right guard, where third-year player Marcus Cannon (6-5, 335) has been working with the top unit while incumbent Dan Connolly (shoulder) works his way back.

• Top draft choice Jamie Collins, the linebacker/defensive end from Southern Mississippi (52nd overall), has received his initial work at linebacker. He’s the first linebacker to rotate into 11-on-11 drills, often replacing middle linebacker Brandon Spikes, who has been more of a two-down player.

• Former Canadian Football League defensive lineman Armond Armstead opened training camp on the non-football illness list. Belichick said the illness is different from the heart condition that led him to leave Southern Cal in 2011 and land in the CFL, and there is no indication when/if Armstead might join the team at practice. In addition, receiver Julian Edelman and Gronkowski opened camp on the physically unable to perform list.

Leon Washington, who signed with the Patriots after three seasons with the Seahawks, has served as the primary kickoff returner, where the Patriots are banking on improved results after ranking 25th in the NFL last season (21.2-yard average).

• Ballard, who said he played at 278 pounds in New York, is down to 260. The hope is that it doesn’t affect him at the line of scrimmage as a blocker, but makes him faster and takes pressure off his knee.

• Incumbent punter Zoltan Mesko, who is entering the final year of his contract, is joined on the roster by rookie Ryan Allen, the two-time Ray Guy Award winner from Louisiana Tech. Both are lefty punters; Belichick has employed a left-footed punter in each of his 14 seasons as coach.
Ryan TannehillAP Photo/Wilfredo LeeRyan Tannehill hopes to be the next quarterback from the 2012 class to lead his team to the playoffs.
DAVIE, Fla. -- NFL Hall of Fame quarterback Dan Marino showed up to Miami Dolphins' minicamp on Wednesday. There was no major announcement or holding court with the media. Marino simply arrived, kept close tabs on second-year quarterback Ryan Tannehill and the offense, then quietly left about two hours into practice.

Marino's mere presence was symbolic of the pressure Tannehill faces in Miami. No Dolphins quarterback has come close to filling the large shoes of Marino after he retired after the 1999 season. Miami’s quarterbacks in this millennium have either been awful (Cleo Lemon, Joey Harrington), former draft busts (Chad Henne, John Beck) or caretakers who couldn’t consistently take over games (Chad Pennington, Jay Fiedler).

But something appears different about Tannehill. He is more Marino than Harrington in arm strength and physical ability. The 2012 first-round pick was also taken higher than Henne, but you don’t get that same feeling of bust potential. Unlike Fiedler, Tannehill has already demonstrated that he can take over a game and explode for 400 yards, as he did in September in an overtime loss to the Arizona Cardinals.

But what are realistic expectations for Tannehill in Year 2? Fellow rookies Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III and Russell Wilson each led their teams to the playoffs last season. Tannehill showed promise but was a couple of notches behind his peers. He threw for 3,294 yards but had more interceptions (13) than touchdowns (12). Tannehill also had a losing record (7-9) and was left on the outside looking in during the postseason.

However, the Dolphins are showing the same confidence in Tannehill that the Indianapolis Colts are showing with Luck or the Washington Redskins are with RG III. More than anything, Miami’s coaching staff said, they love Tannehill’s work ethic and mental approach. Combine that with Tannehill’s athleticism and ability to make all the throws, and the Dolphins believe the sky is the limit for their young quarterback.

“One thing about Ryan is he never gets too high and he never gets too low,” Miami quarterbacks coach Zac Taylor told the AFC East blog this week. “Last year things never got too big for him. It’s not that he never made mistakes -- there were drives and stretches here and there. But I don’t think it ever got too big where he totally broke down, and that’s encouraging for a rookie quarterback. With all the looks that he saw, I thought he handled it pretty well.”

Taylor was a former assistant coach at Texas A&M and has been around Tannehill since he was 19. Taylor watched Tannehill, 24, grow from a redshirt freshman who played receiver his first two years in college to an NFL quarterback with high expectations. According to Taylor, Tannehill is much more comfortable in his position as a building block in Miami.

It was noticeable in organized team activities and minicamp that Tannehill is in control of the offense. He’s more vocal with teammates and has a quiet confidence that this is his team.

Miami is in search of leaders after several veterans like Reggie Bush, Karlos Dansby and Kevin Burnett were released or didn’t return in free agency. Tannehill is one of the young, inexperienced players who must fill that void.

“It’s night and day compared to last year,” Tannehill said of his standing on the team. “Just the confidence and the knowledge of the game and what is going on. I still have a lot of work to do, but I am comfortable with where I am at and where this team is at. Anything we can do to get better, myself included, it’s easier to build this year compared to last year.”

[+] EnlargeMike Wallace
AP Photo/J Pat CarterThe Dolphins opened up their wallet to bolster their offense, including giving Mike Wallace a five-year, $60 million deal.
Tannehill has all the tools to succeed this year. The Dolphins have put together as nurturing an environment as possible to ensure Tannehill takes the next step in his development. Miami spent $60 million to land free-agent receiver Mike Wallace and an additional $15 million total to land starting tight end Dustin Keller and slot receiver Brandon Gibson. Tannehill now has deep speed at receiver and a safety valve at tight end that he lacked last season. The Dolphins were 26th in passing in 2012 and scored only 18 points per game.

If minicamp is any indication, the Dolphins will not be afraid to air it out this year. Tannehill is taking his shots deep and throwing the football all over the field in practices. Tannehill is also routinely making more checks and changes at the line of scrimmage to get out of bad plays, an area where he struggled in 2012.

“He can see a safety start to creep up or lean a certain way, or a linebacker's depth from the line of scrimmage from the heels of his defensive lineman,” Dolphins offensive coordinator Mike Sherman said. “Determining whether we turn and protect there or do we go the other way because that guy is in coverage, which I think [is] more recognition of defenses. ... We threw the book at him last year in the hopes that he would get to a point where we are at right now, where now he is just focused and not so much on the offense but on the defense.”

It also doesn’t hurt that Sherman and Dolphins head coach Joe Philbin know what a talented quarterback looks like. They have coached future Hall of Famers Brett Favre (Sherman) and Aaron Rodgers (Philbin) during their stints with the Green Bay Packers and know how to make it easy for quarterbacks. The fact that they both view Tannehill as a franchise starter carries a lot of weight.

“They’re able to relate those experiences with Ryan and the struggles [Favre and Rodgers] had and the success they were eventually able to achieve,” Taylor said. “So they’ve kind of seen the step-by-step process those guys took and [are] able to use that to relate it to Ryan.”

The Dolphins are going all-in with Tannehill, and much is expected this season. On paper, Miami looks like a team ready to make a playoff push in 2013, and much of that will come down to Tannehill’s development and improvement.

Tannehill may not get the same press and national attention as other quarterbacks in his draft class, but his goals are the same.

“Ryan wants to win Super Bowls at the end of the day,” Taylor said. “I do think he has a long ways to go right now. He knows that. So every day he’s just trying to become a better player, and be better than the day before and don’t make the same mistake twice.

“What that ceiling is, it’s hard to predict. Time will tell.”
Former head coach Jimmy Johnson is best known in the NFL for winning back-to-back Super Bowls with the Dallas Cowboys. Johnson took a 1-15 team in 1989 and turned it into a multiple Super Bowl winner by the time he left the Cowboys in 1993.

Johnson
Johnson
But Johnson also has very strong ties in Miami, where he had success both at the collegiate and NFL level. The total body of work earned Johnson the No. 13 spot on ESPN.com’s list of all-time great coaches.

Johnson’s rise to fame among the coaching ranks began during his five very successful years as head coach of the Miami Hurricanes from 1984-88. Johnson's fiery coaching style led the Hurricanes to a national championship in 1987 and a stellar 52-9 overall record at Miami.

After leaving Dallas in 1993, Johnson came out of retirement three years later to lead the Dolphins. Johnson’s goal was to get Hall of Fame quarterback Dan Marino a Super Bowl ring, but that never materialized.

Johnson had a 36-28 record in Miami and led the Dolphins to the playoffs in three of his four seasons. But Johnson was 2-3 in the postseason with the Dolphins and wasn't able to get over the hump. Johnson retired for the last time after 1999 season, which also happened to be the same time Marino retired. Both had a huge influence on the Miami football landscape in the 1980s and 1990s.
Most experts agree that the NFL draft's most talented quarterback class was in 1983. Three Hall of Fame signal-callers came from that group in the first round, and ESPN's "30 for 30" series did a tremendous job documenting it Tuesday night.

A total of six quarterbacks were taken in the first round, with four AFC East teams drafting the position. Half of the division landed Hall of Famers and the other half whiffed.

Here is a recap of the first round of the 1983 draft for the AFC East:
  • The Bills drafted Jim Kelly No. 14 overall. He went on to lead Buffalo to four Super Bowls and became the franchise's all-time leading passer. The Bills dominated the AFC East and won the AFC from 1990-93 but came up short each time in the Super Bowl. Kelly is a staple in Buffalo and still lives there.
  • The Patriots drafted Tony Eason one pick after Kelly, at No. 15 overall. His career highlight was helping to lead New England to the Super Bowl during the 1985 season. But Eason was mostly a bust and only reached double figures in touchdown passes three times. He would have an injury-plagued career and posted a 28-23 record in as a starter in right seasons.
  • The Jets drafted Ken O'Brien No. 24 overall. Jets fans were disappointed that the team passed on Dan Marino for O'Brien -- and they were correct in their assessment. But O'Brien had a decent career that included two Pro Bowls, and he was actually 8-7 head-to-head against Marino during their AFC East rivalry in the 1980s and early 1990s. But O'Brien could never come close to matching Marino's overall numbers and victories. O'Brien was 50-59-1 as a starter in his career.
  • Fortunately for the Dolphins, Miami landed Marino at No. 27, the second-to-last pick of the first round. Marino went to a very good Dolphins team and a Hall of Fame coach in Don Shula. The pair turned out to be the second-winningest quarterback-coach combination of all time, trailing only New England's Tom Brady and Bill Belichick. Marino's super-quick release and arm was one of the best ever. But like Kelly, Marino never won a Super Bowl.
  • The old Baltimore Colts were also in the AFC East in 1983. They drafted quarterback John Elway No. 1 overall, and you know the rest: Elway did not want to play for Baltimore and threatened to play baseball. As a result, the Colts traded Elway to the Denver Broncos, where he went to five Super Bowls, won two titles and had the most accomplished career of this famed quarterback class.

It's mind-boggling to think of the possibilities with every AFC East team drafting a quarterback in 1983.

What if the Jets took Marino? What if the Bills passed on Kelly and he went to New England one pick later?

The history of the AFC East would've been entirely different.

NFC East Pro Bowl analysis

December, 26, 2012
12/26/12
7:46
PM ET
NFC Pro Bowl: East | West | North | South AFC Pro Bowl: East | West | North | South

Perfect sense: Washington Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III ranks second in the league in passer rating behind Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers and has 26l touchdowns (20 passing, 6 rushing) against just five interceptions. He has led the Redskins to the cusp of a division title in his first season, finished second in the NFC in fan voting and is a worthy and unsurprising selection as a reserve quarterback. The only other rookie quarterback ever to be selected to the original Pro Bowl roster (i.e., before people start dropping out and being replaced by alternates and such) was Dan Marino. ... I think Griffin's left tackle, Trent Williams, also made perfect sense, and he made it as a reserve tackle in his third season and one year after serving a four-game drug suspension. Williams has come a long way. ... Lorenzo Alexander is a special-teams ace, and his versatility there and at linebacker has been a major asset for the Redskins this season as it is every season. Good to see him get recognized. ... The New York Giants' Jason Pierre-Paul and the Dallas Cowboys' DeMarcus Ware are no-brainers as NFC starting pass-rushers. Even though neither has the sack numbers they'd like to have, they're still disruptive forces that command the attention of blockers and can dominate games. ... Jason Witten remains as reliable a tight end as there is in the league, especially in what's been a bit of a down year at the position. Witten has 103 catches for 983 yards to lead all tight ends in both categories.

Made it on rep: Giants guard Chris Snee is not having his best season, and I don't think he's even the best guard in the NFC East. I think the Philadelphia Eagles' Evan Mathis has outplayed him, especially considering Mathis has lost all four of his offensive linemates to injury, but the Eagles have no Pro Bowlers at all. ...Giants wide receiver Victor Cruz is sixth in catches, ninth in receiving yards and fifth in touchdowns among NFC wide receivers. He's not a bad pick, but at least one other from this division could have made it ahead of him, as we'll address in the next portion of this post.

Got robbed: Cowboys wide receiver Dez Bryant has scored at least one touchdown in each of his past seven games. He has six more catches, 271 more yards and three more touchdowns than Cruz. He's even playing with a broken finger. (Not that you get extra consideration for that, but while we're listing his accomplishments...) Bryant has simply been a better player this year than Cruz has, but Bryant's likely a victim of the fact that many of the impressions that lead to this voting are made early in the season and his season didn't turn otherworldly until mid-November. It was already a good season before that, though, and right now the only wide receivers better in the NFC are Calvin Johnson and maybe Brandon Marshall. ... Mathis, linebacker DeMeco Ryans and kicker Alex Henery are the Eagles who might have merited consideration, but linebacker is an overloaded position in the NFC and Henery lost out to a guy (Blair Walsh) who's 9-for-9 from 50-plus yards and Henery hasn't made any from that distance. ... You could argue that Anthony Spencer is having the better season at outside linebacker than teammate Ware is ... Redskins running back Alfred Morris is third in the NFC in rushing yards and has 10 rushing touchdowns and may have a gripe about Frank Gore making it over him. ... Redskins center Will Montgomery surely should have made it ahead of Green Bay's Jeff Saturday.

Click here for the complete Pro Bowl roster.
It has been a special season in Denver thus far. Could it also be historic?

The Broncos, who clinched the AFC West on Dec. 2, are 11-3, have won nine consecutive games and are on pace for a first-round bye in the playoffs. They are widely considered a legitimate Super Bowl contender.

Denver has been dominant on both sides of the ball. Although Denver’s season has been a team effort, the work of two players, in particular, stands out: quarterback Peyton Manning and linebacker Von Miller.

Manning and Miller have arguably been the best offensive and best defensive players in the NFL this season. Both are leading candidates for major hardware: Manning is in the mix for the NFL MVP award; Miller is a top candidate for the league's Defensive Player of the Year award.

If both players win, it will, according to ESPN Stats & Information, be just the second time in league history that teammates have won the MVP and Defensive Player of the Year awards in the same season. San Francisco’s Steve Young won the NFL MVP and cornerback Deion Sanders won the Defensive Player of the Year award in 1994. The 49ers went 13-3 and ended up winning the Super Bowl.

Let’s look at Manning’s and Miller’s candidacies:

Manning: This is shaping up as a close, intriguing race. There is no runaway MVP choice; Minnesota running back Adrian Peterson and New England quarterback Tom Brady are competing hard with Manning. Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers could also make a case.

Still, there is reason to think Manning -- in his first season with the Broncos -- has a chance to win his fifth MVP award.

Brady is having a strong season, but the Broncos are 11-3 and the Patriots are 10-4. If the Broncos finish with a better record, Manning could have the edge. Coming back at age 36 from a neck injury that kept him out last season, he's had an immense impact on his new team.

Like Manning, Peterson is coming off a major injury, so the two will fight it out for the NFL Comeback Player of the Year award as well. Peterson needs 294 yards to break Eric Dickerson’s single-season rushing record of 2,105 yards, set in 1984.

[+] EnlargeTom Brady, Peyton Manning
Stew Milne/USA TODAY SportsTom Brady, left, and Peyton Manning are in another tight competition for MVP honors.
Interestingly, Dickerson was not the MVP that year. Miami quarterback Dan Marino won the award. Marino had a monster year, breaking six NFL season pass record, including most touchdowns and most passing yards.

Manning is not having quite that type of season. But his team is having a much better season than Peterson's, and Manning’s stats are strong.

Consider these numbers supplied by ESPN Stats & Information: This is Manning's 12th season with 4,000 yards; he leads NFL in Total QBR, which measures the all-around impact of quarterback play; and his 11 wins are most by a player after missing an entire season. Denver hasn’t won this many games since 2005. If the season ended today, Manning would be the fifth player ever with at least 4,000 passing yards, 30 passing touchdowns and a 67 percent completion rate while throwing 10 or fewer interceptions. Three of the four previous players won the MVP award.

Again, the vote will be close, but there is no doubt Manning will be in the MVP conversation. If history is any indication, it could come down to Manning and Brady. The last time a non-quarterback won the award was in 2006, when San Diego’s LaDainian Tomlinson won. A quarterback has been shut out just four times in the past 20 years.

Miller: Denver took Miller with the No. 2 overall draft pick in 2011. Last season, he was named the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year. He could easily win the Defensive Player of the Year award in his second season.

Miller was considered a top-flight pass-rusher as a rookie. However, he has worked to improve his overall game. He is now strong in coverage and against the run in addition to being a complete terror as a pass-rusher.

“To me, Miller is the best defensive player in football,” said Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc.

Still, the chase for top defensive honors this year is as close as the MVP race. Miller is competing with a pair of fellow 2011 first-round picks -- Aldon Smith of San Francisco and J.J. Watt of Houston -- and Cincinnati defensive tackle Geno Atkins.

When asked about his chances of winning the award, Miller said he wants it, but his plan is this: “I’m just going to keep on playing with a fanatical effort and a relentless pursuit to the ball.”

It’s working.

Miller has 16 sacks, 3.5 off the pace set by Smith and Watt.

Watt is leading the league with a combined 37 sacks and tackles for losses. Miller is second with 29; Smith is third at 21.5.

Because Watt has made several big plays and is the best player on a strong defense on a winning team, he is probably the leading candidate for the award. But Miller has his supporters, too. In the end, I think Manning’s chances of winning may be higher than Miller’s, but both have made major impacts in Denver’s success in 2012.

Final Word: NFC West

December, 7, 2012
12/07/12
12:36
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NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 14:

Seeking divisional breakthrough. The Seattle Seahawks play a divisional game at home for the first time this season when Arizona visits CenturyLink Field. They are 0-3 in NFC West play to this point. That makes the Seahawks one of four teams without a divisional victory this season. Kansas City, Tennessee and Detroit are the others. The Cardinals claimed a 20-16 victory over Seattle in Week 1. Arizona has been outscored by 45 points in NFC West games overall, however. Only the Chiefs (minus-53) and Titans (minus-49) have worse scoring differentials in division play.

[+] EnlargeColin Kaepernick
Derick E. Hingle/USA Today SportsColin Kaepernick's ability to make plays outside the pocket should come in handy against Miami.
Kaepernick on the outside. San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick has thrown three touchdown passes this season, all on passes delivered outside the pocket. He faces a Miami Dolphins defense that ranks 31st in opponents' completion percentage (67.3) and Total QBR (78.9) when defending such throws. Kaepernick could also find opportunities on passes outside the yard-line numbers. Two weeks ago, Seattle's Russell Wilson completed 15 of 18 such passes for 167 yards, two touchdowns and a 142.4 NFL passer rating against Miami. Earlier in the year, St. Louis' Sam Bradford completed 16 of 23 such attempts for 221 yards and a 100.1 rating against the Dolphins.

Sack record within reach. The Dolphins will play without injured left tackle Jake Long this week. Long has struggled as a pass protector this season, at least by his standards, but the Dolphins surely would have preferred Long to rookie replacement Jonathan Martin. The 49ers' Aldon Smith leads the NFL in sacks with 17.5, tying Fred Dean's single-season franchise record. Smith needs five sacks to tie Michael Strahan's NFL record for one season. Note that the NFL did not track sacks officially before the 1982 season.

Rams' rookie show. The Rams head to Buffalo with a chance to further showcase a promising rookie draft class. Rams rookies have 1,354 yards from scrimmage this season, the fifth-highest total for any team's 2012 class. The class has scored 39 of the Rams' 47 points during victories over the past two weeks. That includes three touchdowns from cornerback Janoris Jenkins. Rookie receiver Chris Givens has 16 catches for 207 yards over the past two games. Defensive tackle Michael Brockers hasn't scored points, but he's been increasingly strong against the run. That's a big key for the Rams against the Bills, who rank fourth in rushing yards this season with 1,775.

Wilson milestone near. Seattle's Wilson leads NFL rookies with 19 touchdown passes this season. Peyton Manning (26), Charlie Conerly (22), Cam Newton (21), Andy Dalton (20) and Dan Marino (20) are the only players with more during their rookie seasons. Wilson has nine touchdowns without a pick in his last four games. However, he's facing a Cardinals defense that has traveled well. Arizona picked off Matt Ryan five times in Atlanta. The Cardinals held Tom Brady and the Patriots to 18 points. And while Aaron Rodgers tossed four scoring passes against Arizona, he failed to complete even half his passes. The 49ers' Alex Smith was the lone quarterback to truly torch Arizona's defense this season.

ESPN Stats & Information contributed to this item.

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