NFL Nation: Dan Reeves

The Denver Broncos honored their history this week and tied up a few loose ends along the way.

The team selected three more people for its Ring of Fame, and did it with a needed nod to the past. Too often, whether it’s the Pro Football Hall of Fame, a team’s list of all-time greats or simply somebody’s all-everything team in cyberspace, too much attention is paid to the highlight generation, not enough to when the trail was carved in the first place.

So, it was good to see the Broncos add Gene Mingo, Rick Upchurch and Dan Reeves to its list of all-timers.

[+] EnlargeDan Reeves
AP Photo/Ron HeflinFormer coach Dan Reeves says late comebacks are his favorite memories from his Denver days.
For some, the Broncos’ history starts with Hall of Famer John Elway or even Mike Shanahan’s long tenure with the team that included Super Bowl wins in each of the final two seasons of Elway’s playing career. So, many of the “omissions" folks want to talk about in the Ring of Fame, or even the Hall of Fame, are often just a discussion of the post-90s Broncos.

So, to see Mingo honored, an original Bronco who played in the team's first five seasons, shows some respect for what came before the Broncos were the Broncos for many people.

Upchurch spent nine years with the Broncos, his last season was Elway’s rookie year in 1983, but was good enough to make the league’s all-decade team for the 70s as a kick returner. All-decade players are rare, all-decade players not in their team’s Ring of Fame are rarer still.

And Reeves’ selection shows time has perhaps healed some old wounds, at least enough to honor what was done in his tenure. Owner Pat Bowlen fired Reeves in 1992 after 12 seasons with the team and there are plenty of stories still swirling in the city about the level of friction that did or didn't exist between Reeves, Shanahan and Elway in those years.

Reeves is the first coach in the team's Ring of Fame. He won five division titles and made three Super Bowl appearances in a four-year span. As a player, assistant or head coach Reeves has participated in more Super Bowls -- nine -- than any other player or coach in league history.

"It’ll probably be a tremendous emotion, I know that," Reeves said of the Week 2 ceremony in the coming season. “So many great memories. My family basically grew up, my three children, they only had to move one time from the time they got into school and the time they went to college. That wouldn’t happen with many football coaches."

When asked about his most memorable games as Broncos head coach, Reeves was quick to invoke the team’s top football executive -- Elway.

"We talk so much about the Super Bowls and all, but you know we played probably one of the more exciting championship games in Cleveland," Reeves said. “Every year you get to see that because that was noted as “The Drive” and the next year was “The Fumble,” but those were two great championship games. Probably one of the championship games we lost up in Buffalo was one we very easily could have won, but that was a great year for us, too. It’s something where when you win that many games, there were so many phenomenal comebacks that we had. One that sticks out was when John was a rookie and we played Baltimore, the Colts you know, and it was such a big deal about John not going to play for the Colts and they came in there and had a big lead in the fourth quarter and we came from behind and I think that’s when we all realized that as long as we had John Elway, we could have a chance in the fourth quarter if we just even kept it close. When you look back at all the many comebacks that we had in the fourth quarter, it gave me a lot of grey hairs, but it was exciting."

When the names go up on the stadium façade in September, it will be a deserved honor for all three whose time had come. And those who don't remember their history are often doomed to not enjoying all of the good parts, too.
ATLANTA -- The San Francisco 49ers and Atlanta Falcons were division rivals for more than three decades until the NFL realigned into eight four-team divisions in 2002. Their matchup Sunday in the NFC Championship Game marks the fifth game between the teams since the Falcons joined the NFC South.

Keith Hawkins of ESPN Stats & Information reached into the vault to pull out three memorable games between the teams. The Falcons won two of them, including one on Steve Bartkowski's last-play pass to Billy "White Shoes" Johnson in 1983. I remember living in Northern California at the time and listening to the ending of that game -- or perhaps highlights of the ending, I'm not sure -- on the radio in my dad's old Ford pickup truck.

NFL.com has video from that final play, featuring a prescient announcer's call: "You've got to go to Billy 'White Shoes' and let him do a little dance with the ball and go to the end zone."

The two other games Hawkins singled out included the 49ers' 45-35 victory over the Falcons in 1990. Joe Montana set a career high with six touchdown passes. Jerry Rice caught five of them. Rice finished the game with 13 receptions for 225 yards.

More recently, in the divisional playoffs following the 1998 season, the Falcons scored a 20-18 victory over the 49ers in Dan Reeves' first game back from quadruple-bypass surgery. The Falcons went to the Super Bowl that year, losing to Denver.

The 49ers and Falcons faced one another for the first time in 1966 before becoming division rivals the following year. The 49ers hold a 44-30-1 lead in the all-time series, counting playoffs. That includes 43-26-1 as division rivals. The Falcons have won all four meetings since realignment.

The teams played to a 10-10 tie in 1986 when the 49ers played without Montana, who had undergone back surgery following a Week 1 injury that was considered career-threatening. David Archer's fourth-quarter touchdown pass to Sylvester Stamps tied the game for Atlanta. Archer completed 16-of-35 passes for 176 yards and three interceptions. Jeff Kemp completed 13-of-29 passes for 146 yards and two picks for the 49ers.

Relief performances such as that one from Kemp contributed to the 49ers' decision to acquire Steve Young from Tampa Bay in 1987.

Final Word: 49ers at Falcons

January, 18, 2013
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» NFC Championship: 49ers-Falcons » AFC Championship: Ravens-Patriots

Five nuggets of knowledge about Sunday’s NFC Championship Game between the San Francisco 49ers and Atlanta Falcons:

[+] EnlargeTony Gonzalez
AP Photo/Perry KnottsWill the 49ers see Atlanta's Tony Gonzalez line up in the slot or as a tight end in the NFC title game?
Staying grounded: San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick is not a good matchup for the Atlanta defense. Kaepernick rushed for 181 yards against the Packers in the divisional round. The Falcons had problems with mobile quarterbacks in the regular season and against Seattle’s Russell Wilson in the divisional round. Quarterbacks have averaged a league-high 8.9 yards per carry against the Falcons. Including the playoffs, the Falcons have faced 42 read-option plays (second highest in the league), according to ESPN Stats & information. On those plays, the Falcons have done a good job when the quarterback hands off. Running backs averaged 3.9 yards against Atlanta on the read option. But quarterbacks have averaged more than 20 yards per carry.

Been a long time: The Falcons and 49ers have met just once before in the postseason. That was in the 1998 season in a divisional playoff game, which was the first game back for Atlanta coach Dan Reeves after quadruple-bypass surgery. The Falcons won that game, 20-18, and went on to make the only Super Bowl appearance in franchise history. The Falcons and 49ers were NFC West rivals until the NFC South was founded in 2002. Since then, the teams have had four regular-season meetings, and the Falcons have won all four.

Comeback kids: The Falcons got the ball with 31 seconds remaining and rallied for a win against Seattle. That marked the third time this season the Falcons started a game-winning drive in the final minute of the fourth quarter. The rest of the league combined for eight such drives. In the last 10 years, the only other teams with multiple game-winning drives that started in the last minute of regulation were the 2010 Jets and 2010 Jaguars, both with two.

Tight end or receiver? Technically, Tony Gonzalez is Atlanta’s tight end and Harry Douglas is the slot receiver. But that’s not always how they line up. Gonzalez has had 55 receptions when lined up in the slot, including three in the divisional playoff.

Red-hot Crabtree: Wide receiver Michael Crabtree has become much more of a factor since Kaepernick took over for Alex Smith as the starting quarterback. When Smith was starting, Crabtree averaged 4.9 receptions and 56.7 receiving yards per game and had four touchdowns. With Kaepernick, Crabtree has averaged 6.3 receptions and 89.3 yards per game and has caught seven touchdown passes.

Falcons not where they want to be yet

October, 14, 2012
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Matt Bryant AP Photo/John BazemoreThe Falcons needed a 55-yard field goal from Matt Bryant in the closing seconds to stay unbeaten.
ATLANTA -- In a Georgia Dome stairwell, the chant echoed and kept getting louder as more fans got on the steps.

"6-0, 6-0, 6-0," more than a few dozen fans yelled repeatedly after the Atlanta Falcons defeated the Oakland Raiders 23-20 on Sunday.

A long-suffering bunch, Atlanta fans have every right to be giddy about a 6-0 start. The Falcons have never been there before. Heck, they never have been any better than 4-0 until this season.

But let’s not get too carried away just because the Falcons are in uncharted territory. There’s still plenty of territory they haven’t entered yet.

In coach Mike Smith’s postgame news conference, there was a question about how the Falcons should handle potential talk about how they’re the best team in football as they head into their bye week.

Smith chuckled at the question.

"They'll watch the tape and they'll realize that we've got a lot of work to do," said Smith, who got his 49th career victory to tie Dan Reeves for the most wins in franchise history. "I can assure you that. They don't need to have myself or any of the coaches in there watching it. They're off during the bye week, but they will be in there watching tape. That’s the way we do things. That's a great locker room and they realize that we haven’t played the best football that we're capable of playing."

[+] EnlargeMatt Ryan
Josh D. Weiss/US PresswireFalcons QB Matt Ryan had a subpar game, but he came through when it counted on the final drive.
Despite their lofty record, the Falcons definitely aren't the best team in the NFL. They're not even the best team in the NFC at the moment. I’m not sure which team is the best in the NFL or the NFC, but it's not the Falcons. At least not yet.

The game against Oakland was firm proof of that. Throw in the previous two games, against Washington and Carolina, and we haven't seen the Falcons play a real good game since Week 3 at San Diego.

They're just getting by and Sunday was the closest escape yet. The Falcons needed a 55-yard field goal by Matt Bryant with one second remaining to get a home win against what is one of the worst teams in the league.

For the third straight week, the Falcons were sloppy in a lot of areas, and no one was sloppier than quarterback Matt Ryan. He’s been mentioned in MVP conversations, but any more games like Sunday will put a stop to that.

Ryan was intercepted three times in the first half. But Ryan, who completed 24 of 37 passes for 249 yards and a touchdown, did what he had to do when it mattered most. For the third straight week, he led a game-winning drive in the fourth quarter.

This one began with the game tied (20-20) and the Falcons getting the ball at their own 20-yard line with 40 seconds remaining. Ryan worked the sideline perfectly, completing five of six passes to get the Falcons within Bryant's range.

"We need to strive to play our best," said Ryan, who entered the game with only three interceptions on the season. "I don’t think we've done that the last couple weeks. It's going to be critical for us to use this week to find ways to improve."

The Falcons aren't the best team in the league right now, but that doesn't mean they can't get there. By skill and by luck, they're the only undefeated team in the NFC and they’re running away with the NFC South.

The Falcons know they have to get better if they want to keep winning and go deep into the playoffs. There are issues on offense and defense that have to be patched up.

"We've definitely got something special on this defense," veteran cornerback Asante Samuel said. "We're going to put it all together by the end."

Like Ryan, Samuel and the defense experienced highs and lows against the Raiders. Samuel seemingly won the game when he intercepted Carson Palmer and returned it 79 yards for a touchdown with 2:40 remaining.

But, largely with help from Samuel losing Derek Hagan on a 38-yard pass play, the Raiders moved right down the field to tie the game with a touchdown.

"I think we can improve so much," cornerback Dunta Robinson said. "We're not where we want to be as a defense. We want to be perfect."

The Falcons aren't where they want to be as an offense or a defense, but that’s not a bad thing with a week off coming to correct flaws and get some rest.

"It's good that we've got some time off because we have a long list of guys that are banged up right now," Smith said.

The week off may help the Falcons get defensive tackle Corey Peters, who has been on the physically unable to perform list, back on the field. That should help a defense that allowed the Raiders to rush for 149 yards. The time off also should help linebacker Stephen Nicholas get healthy. Nicholas came into the game dealing with an ankle injury and played only sparingly after aggravating it or realizing he wasn’t fully ready.

The Falcons allowed 474 yards, but there were bright spots, like John Abraham's three sacks and Samuel's interception.

"We need to use this week to make sure we get better ourselves," safety Thomas DeCoud said.

That applies to offense, defense and special teams because the 6-0 record might be a wonderful thing, but it's also a bull's-eye on their back.

"The thing now is we know we're going to get everyone's best shot," Robinson said. “We've got to take our game to another level."

If the Falcons can take their game to another level and start putting together complete games, then the chants and talk of them being the best team in the NFL could be justified.

But the Falcons aren’t there -- yet.
The St. Louis Rams wanted their next general manager to work well with new head coach Jeff Fisher.

Snead
They found a candidate whose history suggests that will not be a problem.

Atlanta Falcons director of player personnel Les Snead, who accepted the job Saturday, has worked with four head coaches and two interim coaches during a Falcons tenure dating to 1998. Dan Reeves, Bobby Petrino, Jim Mora and Mike Smith were the head coaches. Wade Phillips and Emmitt Thomas were the interim coaches.

Snead's ability to rise through the ranks with the Falcons across multiple regimes and an ownership change suggests he's adaptable. The Rams hired Fisher to remake the team. They wanted a GM to provide the personnel expertise to facilitate the transformation.

Snead worked under Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff most recently. He replaces former Rams general manager Billy Devaney, who had also come to St. Louis from the Falcons' front office.

Snead, listed by the Falcons as 37 years old entering the 2011 season, is about 15 years younger than Fisher. He was a tight end at Auburn from 1992-93, where he played with NFC West alums Chris Gray and Frank Sanders.

The Rams did not immediately announce the hiring. Snead interviewed over the phone for the San Francisco 49ers' GM job a year ago, but the team hired Trent Baalke instead.

Falcons have found balance since Vick

September, 15, 2011
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Michael Vick Jan-Michael Stump/US PresswireMichael Vick, who played with the Falcons for six seasons, is returning to Atlanta on Sunday.

This is a story about the present and the future. So let’s get rid of the past right at the start.

“No, that’s not my house,’’ Michael Vick said on a conference call with the Atlanta media Wednesday. “That’s Matt Ryan’s house. I’m just a visitor.’’

When Vick and the Philadelphia Eagles come to face Ryan and the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday night, the game will be about two teams mentioned as Super Bowl contenders playing a crucial early-season game. Yeah, there may be a few memories -- pleasant and unpleasant -- in the Georgia Dome, but they'll be off in the distance.

The past is gone now. We all know about Vick’s downfall in Atlanta. But in NFL years, that time now is ancient history. Vick went to prison for running a dog-fighting ring and came out and redeemed himself quite nicely in Philadelphia. That’s the glamorous story line, but there’s another one at play here as well.

The Falcons also moved forward quite nicely and quite quickly. With three consecutive winning seasons, they’re in better shape than the franchise ever has been. Forget an ugly season-opening loss in Chicago for just a second and it looks like there should be lots more good times in Atlanta for the foreseeable future.

When Vick was going through his legal troubles and coach Bobby Petrino was walking out on the team in 2007, many predicted it would take years for the Falcons to recover. It didn’t.

That’s largely because an entire organization learned from its mistakes and went out and added multiple pieces that brought quick stability that should last for a long time. If you spend any time around the Falcons, you quickly get the sense they’re a grounded, well-balanced franchise with everyone in the building working toward a common goal.

[+] EnlargeAtlanta coach Mike Smith
Mike DiNovo/US PRESSWIREMike Smith is the only coach in Falcons history to have four straight winning seasons.
It wasn’t that way in the Vick and Petrino days and it certainly wasn’t there when Vick was playing for Jim Mora, a coach whose up-and-down emotions had the franchise on a perpetual roller-coaster. It wasn’t even there in Vick’s early years when Dan Reeves was the coach and Vick was struggling with an extremely complicated offense and Reeves wasn't exactly sure how to use his uniquely-talented quarterback.

Throughout Vick’s tenure, there were moments of brilliance. But the Falcons were up and down that entire time. They never put together back-to-back winning seasons with Vick. In franchise history, they never put together back-to-back winning seasons until coach Mike Smith’s first two years.

That’s no coincidence because Smith epitomizes what the current Falcons are all about. In his first team meeting, Smith told his players, "We’re moving forward. We need to forget the past."

But it goes even deeper than Smith. In the aftermath of Petrino and Vick, team owner Arthur Blank did a lot of soul searching. One thing he realized was the Falcons put all their eggs in one basket with Vick. It was his face you saw on billboards all over town and his face you saw on television commercials. When the guy you made the sole face of your franchise crashes and burns, you’ve got no one else to pick up the pieces -- on or off the field.

That’s when Blank realized his franchise needed more of a team concept. He started by hiring general manager Thomas Dimitroff, who came from New England, the capitol of the team concept.

When Dimitroff began interviewing head coaches, he quickly became enamored with Smith, a low-profile assistant in Jacksonville. Smith kept talking about the importance of a team and having the right kind of chemistry. He also talked a lot about having a long-term plan for sustained success. It also didn’t hurt that Smith, who can get a little excited on the sidelines on game days, has as calm and balanced a demeanor as you’re going to find the rest of the time.

He quickly was hired.

The next thing Smith and Dimitroff did was go out and draft Ryan to play Vick’s old quarterback spot. Again, they were looking for balance in addition to physical skills.

On the day before the draft, the top prospects were doing a media session in New York. Dimitroff, already pretty sure he was going to take the quarterback from Boston College, called a team employee who was at the event and asked for a scouting report on Ryan. He didn't want to talk football. Instead, he asked what Ryan’s demeanor was like with the media.

“Now, I see why they call him “Matty Ice’’,’’ the team employee said.

With that, Dimitroff signed off because he knew he had the kind of calm quarterback he wanted. Ryan came in and won right away and displayed an uncommon work ethic. He has the team fax him the game plan each Tuesday because he wants to be ahead of the game when practices start on Wednesdays. Since he's been in Philadelphia, Vick has said multiple times that he regrets not working harder at the game in his Atlanta years.

But Ryan’s just a part of the reason the Falcons have assembled a team that looks like it should be good for the next decade or so. Dimitroff’s a former scout and he can assess physical skills with the best of them. But he’s built the Falcons around more than physical skills.

Dimitroff looks for certain personality traits when he’s drafting because he wants the right chemistry on his team. He looks for guys who put the team and winning above all else. That’s why draft picks like linebackers Curtis Lofton and Sean Weatherspoon, free-agent pickup Michael Turner and Tony Gonzalez, who came in a trade, have fit in so nicely.

The Falcons saw the same thing in receiver Julio Jones, who they traded up 21 spots to get in this year’s draft and they saw it in linebacker Akeem Dent a third-round pick and they'll continue to look for it in the future. They’ll sprinkle in a free agent who fits that same profile here and there, but this team is made up mostly of guys drafted by Smith and Dimitroff and that’s a reason why the Falcons should stay good for a long time.

Sustained success is what Dimitroff and Smith want. It’s also what Blank wants. The Falcons lived on highs and lows during the Vick years and even in the franchise’s long history before that. That’s all in the past now.

The Falcons have changed for the better. They’re operating on a nice, even keel, which might be precisely the reason they’re winning and expect it to continue.
The late St. Louis Rams owner Georgia Frontiere, astrologically inclined as she was, might have said the planets aligned for this blog entry.

How else to explain such freakish timing?

With ESPN.com's ongoing power rankings series focusing on helmets later Tuesday, I decided to visit the UniWatch blog to see whether those concerned with "the obsessive study of uniform aesthetics" might have anything to say on the matter.

By dumb luck, the blog was currently leading with an interview featuring helmet- and uniform-related reflections from longtime Rams equipment manager Todd Hewitt. The interview, which originally appeared at helmethut.com, is a fascinating read for any Rams fan or anyone interested in football lore.

I'll break out a few highlights below, but please do check out the full transcript. Great stuff. Among the revelations:
    [+] EnlargeMerlin Olsen
    Focus on Sport/Getty ImagesMerlin Olsen and the Rams used to sport blue-and-white uniforms since they showed better on black-and-white TV.
  • The team used only Riddell helmets for years because Hewitt's father knew John Riddell. But Dennis Harrah had other ideas.
  • At one point, the Rams settled on a certain shade of yellow they liked, but then-owner Dan Reeves forced a change upon learning the color carried a sissified name -- "buttercup" yellow.
  • The Rams considered 15-20 color combinations when changing uniforms in 2000. Frontiere went with "new century gold" and "millennium blue" because the combination "made cosmic sense" entering the 21st century, even though she thought other colors looked better.
  • The team favored blue-and-white uniforms, without gold, beginning in the 1960s because the combination reproduced better on black-and-white TV.
  • Carroll Rosenbloom had an eye toward Hollywood when pushing to incorporate gold after taking over the team in 1972.
  • The team has never, ever considered removing the iconic horns from its helmets. Hewitt and his father had been the only ones to apply the helmet decals since the team went away from painted horns nearly 40 years ago. That is changing now that Hewitt no longer works for the team.
  • Former coach Ray Malavasi favored white jerseys at home because he thought they made players look bigger. Comfortable pants were a higher priority for former coach John Robinson. Mike Martz loved white uniform pants, but team exec John Shaw hated them (not that the Rams went through any front-office turmoil during those years).

I listed the Rams' helmets among the top five in the NFL in balloting for the power rankings, which ran on Bill Williamson's AFC West blog Tuesday.
What key event significantly changed the fortunes of the Falcons – for better or worse? Give us your take and we’ll give you our definitive moment on May 25.

Born out of a war between the National Football League and the American Football League, the Falcons began play as an expansion team in 1966. That makes them one year older than the Saints and the team with the longest history in the NFC South.

But the early history of the Falcons was far from brilliant. There were a few flashes with Steve Bartkowski and Deion Sanders, but success never seemed to last. The Falcons hit their high point in the 1998 season when coach Dan Reeves, running back Jamaal Anderson and quarterback Chris Chandler led them to their first Super Bowl.

Sustained success really didn’t come until this century. The Falcons had some good years with Michael Vick, but his legal troubles and the quick tenure of coach Bobby Petrino left the franchise in shambles. Things started to change as soon as general manager Thomas Dimitroff and coach Mike Smith arrived in 2008.

In their first two seasons, the Falcons put together the first back-to-back winning seasons in franchise history. They made it three straight when they went 13-3 last season.

If you vote Other, give us your suggestion in the comments area below.
Colleague Kevin Seifert showed some daring by sending TCU quarterback Andy Dalton to the Minnesota Vikings at No. 12 in a recent ESPN.com mock draft.

He wasn't arguing for Dalton's value so much as saying the Vikings' need for a quarterback might compel them to take one there.

[+] EnlargeSam Bradford
AP Photo/Winslow TownsonDid the Rams "reach" to get quarterback Sam Bradford in the first round last year?
"To me," Seifert later wrote with first-year Vikings coach Leslie Frazier in mind, "there is no better time to jump to the other side than in a coach's first year, giving him a building block for the rest of his program."

The key, of course, is not mistaking anchors for building blocks.

Steve Mariucci was the San Francisco 49ers' first-year coach when the team used a 1997 first-rounder for Jim Druckenmiller, a blunder softened only by Steve Young's presence on the roster. That experience should not directly influence the 49ers' thinking as they consider first-round quarterbacks for new coach Jim Harbaugh, but it's a reference point.

With Harbaugh and the 49ers in mind, I went through recent drafts to see which teams with first-year head coaches used first-round selections for quarterbacks. More precisely, I looked at all first-round quarterbacks since 2000 to see which ones had first-year head coaches.

Six of the last eight first-round quarterbacks -- Matthew Stafford, Mark Sanchez, Josh Freeman, Matt Ryan, Joe Flacco and JaMarcus Russell -- joined teams with first-year head coaches. All but Russell remain franchise quarterbacks in their teams' eyes. All but Russell are still playing for their original head coaches. Four of the six had winning records in 2010.

For most of those franchises, value and need lined up pretty well, and first-year coaches benefited.

"If you don't have a quarterback, you're drafting maybe a different kind of running back, maybe a different kind of offensive lineman, than if you have somebody," Lions coach Jim Schwartz told reporters at the scouting combine. "We had Calvin Johnson, but our ability to get Jahvid Best, Nate Burleson in free agency, to draft Brandon Pettigrew -- those pieces were because of the quarterback that we have."

We could also argue that the St. Louis Rams were better off building their offensive line and other areas of their roster before making Sam Bradford the first overall choice in 2010. They could have drafted Sanchez or Freeman instead of defensive end Chris Long in 2009, then spent subsequent selections on players to build around one of those quarterbacks.

Bradford and Denver's Tim Tebow were the "other" first-round quarterbacks in the eight-man group featuring Stafford, Sanchez, Freeman, Ryan, Flacco and Russell.

In general, getting the right quarterback for a first-year head coach puts a franchise in strong position for the long term. There's no sense forcing the issue, however, because the wrong quarterback can drag down any coach, regardless of tenure.

A coach such as the Vikings' Frazier might have a harder time waiting. His contract runs only three seasons and ownership expects quick results. Harbaugh has a five-year deal with the 49ers. Expectations are high, but there's less urgency for immediate results.

The first chart shows the 14 first-round quarterbacks since 2000 that landed with returning head coaches.

The second chart shows the 14 first-round quarterbacks since 2000 that landed with first-year head coaches.
As we wait to find out who the New Orleans Saints will play in the first round of the playoffs (it will be the winner of tonight’s game between St. Louis and Seattle), let’s take a look at some superlatives on the Atlanta Falcons.
  • With their 31-10 victory against Carolina, the Falcons finished 13-3. That’s the second-highest win total in franchise history (14 in 1998 is the best) and it gives the Falcons the No. 1 seed in the NFC playoffs and the NFC South title.
  • The division title is the first the Falcons have won since 2004 and only the fourth time in franchise history Atlanta has won a division. Their 1980 and 1998 titles were as champions of the NFC West. The only other time the Falcons have been the NFC’s top seed was 1980.
  • Matt Ryan tied Dan Marino for most wins by a rookie quarterback in his first three seasons since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger. Ryan has a 33-13 record as a starter. In games Ryan has started in the Georgia Dome, the Falcons are 20-2. His .909 winning percentage is the best among all active quarterbacks at their home stadium.
  • Coach Mike Smith is 33-15 in his three seasons with the Falcons. Dan Reeves and Jim Mora shared the previous best record with 26 wins in their first three seasons.
  • Eric Weems returned a punt for a 55-yard touchdown against the Panthers. That makes him the first player in franchise history to return both a kickoff and a punt for a touchdown in the same season. Weems also had a kickoff return for a touchdown against Tampa Bay in Week 13.
  • Roddy White set a new record with 112 catches for the season. Terance Mathis previously held the record with 111 catches in 1994.

So how would Dan Reeves defend Vick?

November, 18, 2010
11/18/10
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Michael VickHunter Martin/Getty ImagesMichael Vick's record-breaking performance against the Redskins proved he's once again one of the most dangerous players in the NFL.
Like any other fan, former coach Dan Reeves sat on his couch Monday night and marveled at what Eagles quarterback Michael Vick did to the Washington Redskins in a 59-28 win. With his record-breaking performance, Vick inserted himself into the MVP conversation and served further notice that his remarkable comeback could be the story of the 2010 season.

Reeves has a unique perspective on Vick because he traded up to No. 1 in the 2001 draft to select Vick and made him the face of the Atlanta Falcons franchise. Even when Vick was sent to prison for running a dogfighting ring, Reeves was convinced that his former quarterback would once again star in the league. And that's why he's not shocked that Vick has regained his superstar status at age 30. Reeves has coached in seven Super Bowls with the Cowboys, Broncos and Falcons, so he's not easily impressed.

"I've seen [Roger] Staubach, [John] Elway and Michael Vick make you scratch your head and wonder what you just saw," Reeves told me Thursday morning. "I can remember Mike going to Minnesota [in Dec. 2002] and him running for nearly 200 yards [173]. You just don't see those types of things on a normal basis."

Vick's next test will come against a New York Giants team coming off an embarrassing 33-20 loss at home to Jon Kitna and the Dallas Cowboys. Nothing against the 38-year-old Kitna, but it's not as if he requires a defensive spy at this (or any other) point in his career. The Giants are claiming that Vick's not unbeatable, but there's plenty of evidence to the contrary when you look at the four games -- all wins -- that the quarterback has started and finished. Some would say that's too small of a sampling to place a man in the MVP race, but I'd suggest those folks take another peek at his performance against the Redskins, who looked like they were an Atari game system to Vick's Madden 11. (I'm still partial to Intellivision).

Reeves and Vick have remained close throughout the quarterback's struggles. Reeves sent Vick a congratulatory text after Monday's game, to which Vick responded, "Thanks. I'm going to keep working to get better every day." Vick has said numerous times that he didn't work hard enough when he was with the Falcons and that he's now making up for lost time. His former head coach said he didn't have an issue with Vick's work ethic during his three seasons with him in Atlanta, although it always bothered him that the quarterback wanted to spend the offseason in Virginia rather than working out at the team's facility. Reeves had been warned by Vick's college coaches at Virginia Tech to keep a close eye on Vick's associates, so that's exactly what he did when the quarterback was in town.

[+] EnlargeDan Reeves and Michael Vick
AP Photo/Paul BattagliaDan Reeves said opponents never came up with an effective way to stop Vick when he was coaching the QB.
I think one of the things Reeves regrets most about being forced out during the '03 season in Atlanta is that he lost the chance to continue mentoring Vick. He knew that Vick was one of the most unusual players in the history of the game, and he wanted the opportunity to see what the two of them could accomplish. On Thursday, I asked him to put on his coaching hat and come up with the best way to defend Vick.

"I'd try to make sure he had a bad pregame meal, so he couldn't play," Reeves deadpanned. "I'd hate to defend him. It's just a nightmare. The offensive line looks so much better because guys are scared to death to get out of their lanes. And he has unbelievably strong legs, so even if you get to him, he can run through you. And the other thing is that he has one of the quickest releases I've ever seen. Honestly, no one really came up with a way to stop him during the short time I was with him."

That's why Reeves would have to chuckle at some of the bravado coming out of the Giants' locker room this week. It's almost as though they're trying to convince themselves that stopping Vick is a possibility. And given the Giants' record of knocking quarterbacks out of games -- five at last count -- maybe there's some validity to what they're saying.

Giants safeties Antrel Rolle and Deon Grant have set the tone this week in trying to suggest that Vick's an actual human. But you'd have a hard time convincing their Washington counterpart, LaRon Landry, of that after Monday's game. Perhaps Landry wasn't counting on Vick's delivering a ball 63 yards in the air to DeSean Jackson on the first play from scrimmage, but he should've been.

"Ain't nobody Superman out on that field," said Grant per ESPNNewYork.com. "Vick is just like me, ain't won no Super Bowls yet."

With all due respect to Grant, Vick's not like anyone in the league right now. And I hear he's planning to pack the cape for Sunday's game after reading that quote.

The St. Louis Rams have announced Stan Kroenke's approval as majority owner without specifying how the arrangement complies with NFL rules on cross-ownership.

The news release reads in part, "Kroenke currently is the owner of the Colorado Avalanche (NHL), Denver Nuggets (NBA), the Colorado Rapids (MLS) and the Colorado Mammoth (NLL). He is also the largest shareholder of Arsenal FC of the English Premier League."

I've requested clarification from the league. Kroenke is expected to transfer ownership of the Nuggets and Avalanche to his son, Josh, according to Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

The bottom line for Rams fans: The team now has an owner with deeper pockets and a proven record of success when controlling sports franchises. The move should excite Rams fans. The current leadership should be excited and anxious at the same time. It's unclear what Kroenke might think about general manager Billy Devaney, coach Steve Spagnuolo or executive vice president Kevin Demoff.

Kroenke has surely been watching closely as Rams minority owner. To my knowledge, though, he has had very little direct contact with the Rams' current football leadership. I would expect few changes this season because there simply isn't enough time before the opener to consider significant moves.

It's a safe bet, though, that Kroenke will put his stamp on the team during the next offseason. At the very least, the current regime needs to win a few games and provide evidence that Sam Bradford was the right choice with the first overall choice in the 2010 draft.

The Rams provided a chart showing a year-by-year accounting of their majority owners. Some of the years overlap. I divided the seasons this way when putting together won-lost records for each ownership regime: The 1937 through 1941 season records went to Homer Marshman; the 1942 through 1972 seasons went to Dan Reeves; the 1973 through 1979 seasons went to Carroll Rosenbloom; the 1980 through 2008 seasons went to Georgia Frontiere; and the past two seasons went to Chip Rosenbloom.

Pressure all on Andy Reid now

July, 28, 2010
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Andy ReidHoward Smith/US PresswireThere are plenty of new faces on Andy Reid's roster heading into the 2010 season.
BETHLEHEM, Pa. -- In the NFL’s often unforgiving circle of life, Philadelphia Eagles head coach Andy Reid has been handed a rare second opportunity -- a chance to hit the refresh button on his team and his career.

And there he was on the first day of training camp at Lehigh University, in his usual command position on the practice field, about 50 yards behind the middle linebacker, all alone, looking at his own reincarnation.

Gone was Donovan McNabb -- Reid’s first training camp in his 12-year head coaching career without the quarterback he drafted in the first round in 1999.

Gone was Brian Westbrook -- the veteran running back who provided much of the late-game heroics and pyrotechnics that often bailed out the Eagles and their head coach.

And there were all the new faces, including Kevin Kolb, who will have the fewest career starts -- just two -- of any prospective starting quarterback in the NFC this year. In all, the Eagles jettisoned 14 players from their 2009 roster -- more than any team in the league.

Kevin Kolb
Howard Smith/US PresswireKevin Kolb takes over at quarterback for the departed Donovan McNabb.
When the veterans arrive on Thursday, there will be 32 new players in camp.

How green are these Eagles? The training camp roster boasts only one non-kicker over the age of 30, the fewest in the NFL.

"There’s a little bit of unknown, which I kind of like," said Reid of his new team, average age 24.1 years old. "I like that."

Now, there is a first. The NFL’s head coaches -- among the planet’s greatest control artists -- rarely embrace the unknown, or at least admit it in public.

Assessing his rebuilt roster, Reid called it "a great challenge." What might be more challenging is convincing his championship-starved fan base that this roster overhaul can work. In Philadelphia, with McNabb now playing for the division-rival Washington Redskins, and so much inexperience wearing midnight green this season, there is little love of the unknown created by Reid.

More like fear.

And that translates into one thing: a whole lot of pressure on Reid. Yes, the head coach was given a three-year contract extension in December. But now failure to bring a Super Bowl title to Philadelphia can no longer be blamed on McNabb’s shortcomings, Westbrook’s injuries or aging veterans such as Brian Dawkins who are long gone.

It’s on Reid now.

"There are some big-name players that have been proven players on this football team that aren’t here," said Reid. "It’s important that the young guys step up and they go."

If they don’t, it will be difficult to try to peddle to Eagles fans that the team was victimized by inexperience. Going young was the franchise decision.

(Read full post)

NFC South Hall of Fame debate

July, 6, 2010
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A weeklong look at current or former players or coaches with Hall of Fame potential in the division.

Saints: Drew Brees, quarterback.

Claim to fame: He led the 2009 Saints to their first Super Bowl championship while throwing for 34 touchdowns and posting a career-best 109.6 passer rating. Brees threw for a career-best 5,069 yards in 2008. He has thrown for 30,646 yards in a nine-year career.

Case for enshrinement: Brees has been more than a quarterback for the Saints. Arriving as a free agent in 2006, Brees has helped New Orleans and the entire Gulf region rebound from the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. Brees has taken an extremely active role in the community and has done just as much on the field.

He is the perfect quarterback for coach Sean Payton’s offense. Brees has made the Saints one of the most fun teams in the league to watch while putting up huge offensive numbers. With Brees, the Saints have reached heights the franchise never came close to before.

Case against enshrinement: This almost certainly will change in another few years, assuming Brees continues to play anything like he has the past few seasons. But, at this moment, Brees would not be a slam dunk for the Hall of Fame because he’s only spent eight seasons as a starter and his years in San Diego were very good, but not great.

A couple more years of big numbers and another Super Bowl title, or at least some more playoff victories, should put Brees over the top.

Bottom line: Barring major injury, Brees is well on his way to the Hall of Fame.

[+] EnlargeTony Dungy
Andy Lyons/Allsport/Getty ImagesTony Dungy laid the foundation for a Super Bowl winner in Tampa.
Buccaneers: Tony Dungy, former coach.

Claim to fame: He took over a disaster of a franchise in 1996 and turned the Bucs into a consistently respectable team for the first time in franchise history. Dungy went on to coach the Indianapolis Colts and won a Super Bowl.

Case for enshrinement: The knock on Dungy in Tampa was that he couldn’t win the big one and the Bucs had to turn to Jon Gruden to get them their Super Bowl victory. But Dungy was largely responsible for building that team and changing the entire football climate in Tampa Bay. Building around Derrick Brooks, Warren Sapp and John Lynch, Dungy took the defensive philosophy he learned in Pittsburgh and built the famed “Tampa 2’’ defense, which became a phenomenon around the league. He also built a lengthy coaching tree with Herm Edwards, Jim Caldwell, Lovie Smith, Rod Marinelli and Mike Tomlin going on to become head coaches.

Case against enshrinement: With all of the defensive talent he had in Tampa Bay and Peyton Manning in Indianapolis, Dungy only won one Super Bowl title.

Bottom line: If I’m voting at the time Dungy comes up for the Hall of Fame, he’s the first name on my ballot. Aside from his record on the field, Dungy brought all sorts of good things to every place he’s ever been. He won with class and did things the right way. He still does things the right way. There was a recent tragedy involving a family member of a former Dungy player. I wish I could tell you the story of how Dungy reached out, but I’m sworn to secrecy. Let’s just say it was a Hall of Fame move.

Panthers: Steve Smith, wide receiver.

Claim to fame: Smith has 574 career receptions for 8,330 yards and 50 touchdowns. With all sorts of injuries at running back, Smith put the 2005 Carolina offense on his back and carried the Panthers to the NFC Championship Game. That season, Smith had 103 catches for 1,563 yards and 12 touchdowns.

[+] EnlargeSteve Smith
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesA few more postseason appearances could help solidify Steve Smith's Hall of Fame status.
Case for enshrinement: He’s the best player in the history of the franchise. Initially expected to be nothing more than a kick returner, Smith made himself into one of the most dynamic receivers in the NFL.

His touchdown catch in double overtime in the divisional playoff round against St. Louis put the 2003 Panthers into the NFC Championship Game.

Case against enshrinement: It’s getting more difficult for receivers to get into the Hall of Fame as the NFL has evolved into more of a passing league. At the moment, Smith’s numbers aren’t even close to Hall of Fame material.

Smith’s also had some troubles. On three different occasions, he has had physical altercations with teammates. Playing in a small market with a franchise that’s never had back-to-back winning seasons doesn’t help either.

Bottom line: Let’s not count Smith out of the Hall of Fame race yet. He’s 31, but he really hasn’t shown any signs of slowing down. He’s going to miss some time in training camp as he recovers from a broken arm, but he should be ready for the start of the regular season.

With either Matt Moore or Jimmy Clausen taking over as the new starting quarterback, Smith’s numbers could suffer. But he remains Carolina’s only proven threat in the passing game. If he can play another four or five years at a high level and get his career yardage above 13,000, he could have a shot. Of course, it would only help if the Panthers can have a few more playoff seasons.

Falcons: Dan Reeves, former coach.

Claim to fame: He led Atlanta to a franchise-best 14-2 record in 1998 and the only Super Bowl berth in team history. Reeves also led the Broncos to three Super Bowls in four years.

Case for enshrinement: Reeves, who also played in the NFL, wasn’t the best head coach ever and he wasn’t the best player ever. But combine what he did as a player and a coach and you’ve got a pretty impressive résumé. Reeves was a very solid player for the Dallas Cowboys in the 1960s and early ‘70s. He primarily was a running back, but also played some quarterback and receiver. He threw a touchdown pass in the legendary "Ice Bowl." The Cowboys made the playoffs every year Reeves played for them. He became Denver’s head coach in 1981. In 12 seasons, Reeves led the Broncos to six playoff appearances, five division titles and three Super Bowls. He took the New York Giants to the playoffs in his first season with that team and took the Falcons to the Super Bowl in his second season with the team.

Case against enshrinement: Reeves’ coaching career was better than his playing career, and you can poke some holes in that coaching career. The strongest argument against Reeves is that he never won a Super Bowl with the Broncos, despite having John Elway in his prime. Despite his early success with the Giants and Falcons, Reeves wasn’t able to keep the level of play that high for very long with either team.

Bottom line: A very tough call because Reeves doesn’t have one overwhelming accomplishment going for him. If he just had been able to win one Super Bowl with Elway, the path would be much easier.

Best Falcons Team Ever: 1998

June, 28, 2010
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Notable players: QB Chris Chandler, RB Jamal Anderson, WR Terance Mathis, LB Jessie Tuggle, K Morten Andersen, LB Cornelius Bennett.

[+] EnlargeJamal Anderson
Getty ImagesJamal Anderson rushed for 1,846 yards and 14 touchdowns in 1998.
If ever there’s been a one-year wonder, it was the 1998 Atlanta Falcons. For the better part of three months, this team was as hot as any team ever and it really didn’t matter who was coaching.

With coach Dan Reeves having open-heart surgery late in the season, Rich Brooks took over as the interim coach and the Falcons just kept on winning with a great defense and Anderson having a huge year. The Falcons went from Oct. 25, 1998, until the Super Bowl on Jan. 31, 1999, and didn’t lose a game.

During a Dec. 13 victory in New Orleans that made the Falcons 12-2, Reeves began experiencing chest pains. When he mentioned it to team doctors the next morning, they took a look and quickly rushed him into surgery. Without Reeves, the Falcons won the next two regular-season games to finish a franchise-best 14-2.

With some help from a first-round bye, Reeves was able to return for two very narrow playoff victories against San Francisco and Minnesota. The NFC Championship Game was in Minnesota, but Atlanta upset the Vikings. That also put the Falcons into the Super Bowl for the first -- and only -- time. The opponent was Denver.

That set up a great subplot as Reeves went against John Elway, the quarterback he had clashed with when they were together with the Broncos. Things didn’t go well for the Falcons even before the game.

Safety Eugene Robinson was arrested the night before the game and that created turmoil for Reeves and the Falcons. In the end, Robinson played, but it didn’t really matter. Elway and the Broncos had the upper hand, winning 34-19.

Most impressive win: The Nov. 1 game against St. Louis gets an honorable mention because it came after the Falcons got trashed by the Jets and it started the long winning streak. But people who were with the team then said the most important game was on Dec. 20 at Detroit. With Brooks coaching the team, the Falcons overcame three deficits to win 24-17 and clinched the NFC West title (this was before the NFC South was formed in 2002).

Research room: The 1998 Falcons led the NFL in takeaways (44), fumble recoveries (25 ) and time of possession (33:10).

Honorable mention

1980: With quarterback Steve Bartkowski and running back William Andrews leading the way, the Falcons won a division title for the first time in franchise history.

2008: In the aftermath of Bobby Petrino and Michael Vick, coach Mike Smith came in and took over a team that was expected by many to be horrible. With rookie Matt Ryan at quarterback, the Falcons went to the playoffs.

2002: This team made history by going into Lambeau Field and handing the Packers their first home playoff loss in franchise history.

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