NFL Nation: Jake Delhomme

When I looked at Josh McCown's bio Tuesday night, I saw Rodney Peete.

I’m talking circa 2002 when Peete quietly landed with the Carolina Panthers and ended up as the starter. In my eyes, the McCown of today and the Peete of more than a decade ago are the same guy -- smart, experienced and not prone to mistakes.

McCown
But, just like Peete was for the Panthers, McCown is at absolute best a short-term answer. McCown turns 35 in July.

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have to keep that in mind as McCown makes a free-agent visit that started Tuesday night. McCown isn’t going to come in and be the franchise guy for the next five or 10 years. Besides, if McCown was all that great, he would have started more than the 38 games he has in a career that dates to 2002.

At the absolute best, McCown is a "bridge quarterback" in that he could serve as a bridge until the Bucs find their quarterback for the long term. McCown is the kind of guy that can get you by as long as the rest of the team is good. But he’s not going to do anything special.

Peete was the ultimate bridge quarterback. He beat out Chris Weinke and started for a year until the Panthers found the guy they were looking for in Jake Delhomme, who took them to a Super Bowl in his first season.

At worst, McCown is a backup. That would be a good thing, because it would mean that Mike Glennon, who started 13 games as a rookie, emerges out of training camp and the preseason as the starter. In a perfect world, Glennon never lets go of the job and the Bucs remain happy with him. With Glennon, there is upside and the chance to play more than another decade.

With McCown as the starter, the Bucs would be just buying time.

QB run in AFC title game continues

January, 18, 2014
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PITTSBURGH -- Here is a question that will stretch the memory and makes for great trivia: Name the last AFC Championship game that didn't have Tom Brady, Ben Roethlisberger or Peyton Manning playing in it?

Answer: That hasn't happened since 2002, when the quarterbacks were Rich Gannon (Raiders) and the late Steve McNair (Titans).

Brady, Roethlisberger and Brady have played in a combined 13 AFC Championship games since 2003. That number increases to 15 on Sunday when the Patriots and Broncos meet in Denver.

That is an incredible number, especially when juxtaposed with the NFC Championship game during that span.

Only one NFC quarterback has played in more than two championship games since 2002, with Philadelphia's Donovan McNabb (three) heading that list. The only other NFC quarterbacks to play in two championship games since 2002 are New York's Eli Manning and Carolina's Jake Delhomme.

After Sunday, Brady will have played in an astounding seven of the last 11 AFC Championship games followed by four apiece for Roethlisberger and Manning.

Delhomme: Current Panthers dangerous

November, 3, 2013
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Jake Delhomme was a part of arguably the best team in Carolina Panthers history, and he says the current team has a chance to be better.

"This is a dangerous football team," Carolina's all-time leading passer said prior to Sundays' game against the Atlanta Falcons. "I don't think too many teams in the NFL want to play this football team."

Delhomme
Delhomme
Delhomme quarterbacked the Panthers (4-3), winners of three straight games and four of five, to the Super Bowl in 2003 where a last-second field goal by the New England Patriots kept them from being World Champions.

He was released after the 2009 season and retired two years later after stints with Cleveland and Houston.

Sunday was his first time back at Carolina for a game since being released. He was brought here to pound the big snare drum before the game to inspire the crowd.

Delhomme has been impressed of late by the play of quarterback Cam Newton, who over the last three games has completed 77.3 percent of his passes and compiled a quarterback rating of over 130.0. But what Delhomme likes best about Newton is his legs.

"When he takes off running, defenses, you don't want to tackle that guy," Delhomme said. "He's a freak of nature."

While at Carolina, Delhomme played for now-Denver coach John Fox, who was hospitalized in Charlotte on Saturday for a heart condition. Delhomme texted Fox on Sunday morning but hadn't heard back.

He did hear from Fox a week ago.

"He sent me a text last Saturday morning out of the blue," Delhomme said. "I think he was updating his iPhone. He sent me in clips, JD, this is JF, still your number? So we went back and forth about the families."
A few thoughts on each of the known candidates for the Arizona Cardinals head coaching vacancy:
  • Andy Reid: Hiring Reid would have been the safest move for several reasons. Reid has 130 regular-season victories and a Super Bowl appearance, so he's proven. Reid could have assembled an experienced staff quickly. Arizona would have won the hiring-day news conference had Reid taken the job. Finding the next up-and-coming coach is tougher than identifying the established ones. Reid was the safest choice, but was he the best one? He favors a relatively traditional West Coast offense. Most of the league appears to be heading in another direction.
  • Ray Horton: The Cardinals' defensive coordinator presumably remains in consideration while the team interviews other candidates. On-field results suggest he's done a very good job coordinating the Cardinals' defense. Some have hinted that Horton might be able to land Norv Turner as offensive coordinator, but it's unclear whether that is true. Horton has said he would hire someone to run the defense if Arizona promoted him to head coach. That would free up Horton to focus on being a head coach, but a trade-off could be weakening the one area where Horton could make the Cardinals strongest, on defense.
  • Mike McCoy: The Denver Broncos offensive coordinator will presumably remain occupied by the playoffs for as long as his current team remains in contention. He gets credit for successfully adapting the Broncos offense to Tim Tebow last season and Peyton Manning this season. McCoy previously spent most of his career with Carolina. The Panthers ranked near or below the NFL averages in third-down conversion rate, touchdowns, points per drive and NFL passer rating from 2004 through 2008, the years when McCoy coached quarterbacks or coordinated the passing game. McCoy is known for getting along well with others. He had a positive working relationship with Jake Delhomme and was instrumental behind the scenes in relating to mercurial wide receiver Steve Smith.
  • Jay Gruden: Gruden just finished his second season as the Cincinnati Bengals offensive coordinator. He played quarterback in college and should have a good feel for the position, a plus for the Cardinals as they try to improve behind center. Gruden's work with 2011 draft choice Andy Dalton works in Gruden's favor. Gruden, 45, had a winning record as a head coach in the Arena League. Dalton's postseason struggles (zero touchdowns, four interceptions) and overall ineffectiveness on third down may or may not reflect on Gruden. Dalton ranked 36th out of 36 qualifying quarterbacks in Total QBR on third down this season (10.5). Even Mark Sanchez was better (16.4). Arizona's Ryan Lindley (4.1) and John Skelton (1.4) were worse than Dalton, but neither played enough to qualify in the rankings. They were 38th and 39th, respectively, in third-down QBR among players with at least 50 pass attempts. Kevin Kolb was 33rd at 19.2.
  • Todd Haley: Haley wants the job, but he has been reluctant to embrace the process without first knowing how serious the Cardinals are about hiring him. The Cardinals have turned over much of their offensive roster since Haley left his job as the team's offensive coordinator following the 2008 season. Sure, Haley knows Larry Fitzgerald, but that isn't reason enough to hire a head coach. The Cardinals would have to feel Haley could help them identify talented quarterbacks and then develop them quickly. Haley was Kansas City's head coach when Chiefs quarterback Matt Cassel tossed 27 touchdown passes with seven interceptions in 2010. The team finished 10-6. Cassel, despite a 93.0 NFL passer rating that year, graded out as merely average that season in Total QBR (52.2), however, and he no longer projects as a starter. That might actually reflect positively on Haley. Perhaps he was able to get a winning season from Cassel while other coaches could not. But as some have mentioned, Charlie Weis could have played a more prominent role. He was the Chiefs' offensive coordinator in 2010.

More to come as long as the wireless remains functional on my 5-hour, 41-minute flight from Washington, D.C., to Seattle.
What happened with the Carolina Panthers on Monday morning is a reminder that the NFL is a cold, hard business and the win-loss record is all that really matters.

The Panthers fired general manager Marty Hurney. It was inevitable. Carolina came into the season with very high expectations but is off to a 1-5 start. The Panthers haven’t had a winning season since 2008.

Fans are getting restless, and so is team owner Jerry Richardson, a man who spent a ton of money coming out of this past summer’s lockout.

[+] EnlargeMarty Hurney
AP Photo/Bob LeveroneMarty Hurney had been the Panthers' GM since 2002.
Someone had to take the fall, and Hurney was the choice. You can question whether Hurney was the right guy to sacrifice, and some already are doing that.

“Marty wasn't the reason we are losing!" Carolina defensive end Charles Johnson said on his Twitter account. “That's bs! Unbelievable! Marty might be the realist GM that I know #InMyMind BS BS BS BS!"

You can wonder if maybe head coach Ron Rivera, offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski or defensive coordinator Sean McDermott should have been ousted. At least to me, it looks as though the Panthers have a talented roster that is not being coached very well.

And you can certainly question the timing of Hurney’s firing. Does it really make sense to fire the guy who runs the personnel department after Week 7?

No, it doesn’t. The Panthers will bring in someone from outside or elevate director of pro scouting Mark Koncz, but either way, they’re not going to right the ship in the middle of the season. Any personnel moves that can help this team will have to come in the offseason.

But this wasn’t just a football move. It went much deeper than that.

To understand what I mean by that, you have to know a bit about Hurney and Richardson. They were -- and even now probably will remain -- exceptionally close. After saying he’d never have a general manager again after Bill Polian’s ugly departure, Richardson hired Hurney to manage the salary cap in 1998.

The two hit it off, and Hurney quickly gained Richardson’s trust. When former coach George Seifert ran the franchise into the ground in 2001, Richardson reversed course and promoted Hurney to general manager. He also essentially let Hurney hire John Fox as coach.

The Panthers reached the Super Bowl in Hurney and Fox's second season together, 2003. Two seasons later, they were back in the NFC Championship Game.

But soon after that, Richardson started to see cracks. He wanted to see back-to-back winning seasons, and he was starting to worry about growing egos.

Richardson’s worries eventually turned into realities. Fox never produced consecutive winning seasons, and the level of trust between the coach and Richardson seemed to erode to a point where things became downright hostile in Fox’s final season, 2010.

But the Richardson-Hurney relationship survived all that, and Richardson let Hurney hire Rivera to replace Fox. Part of the reason is Hurney is one of the nicest, most down-to-earth people you’ll ever meet in football or anywhere else. He’s the kind of guy who picked up the phone to offer condolences to a reporter whose father had died the moment he heard about it.

Hurney is the kind of guy who would call a reporter on draft night just to exchange thoughts on what happened around the league. He’s the kind of guy who would never lie to you and always try to steer a reporter in the right direction, even if it wasn’t necessarily in his best interest.

On the job, Hurney made some brilliant moves through the years -- signing Jake Delhomme and Stephen Davis as free agents, drafting the likes of Julius Peppers, Jordan Gross and Ryan Kalil. His drafting of quarterback Cam Newton looked brilliant last year, but not so much this season.

He also made some very questionable moves -- signing Delhomme to a big contract extension after the quarterback had flamed out, drafting Armanti Edwards, Jimmy Clausen, Dwayne Jarrett, Terrell McClain, Eric Norwood, Everette Brown, Jeff Otah and some other busts. He also committed $80 million of Richardson’s money to running backs DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart and Mike Tolbert.

But for some reason, the coaching staff isn’t making much use out of Williams, Stewart and Tolbert. Is that Hurney’s fault?

I don’t think so. And I don’t think Richardson totally believes that, either.

Still, it really doesn’t matter. Richardson needed a scapegoat, and it had to be hard for him to decide on Hurney. But keep in mind, Richardson once fired his two sons (Mark as team president and Jon as stadium president). His logic on that move was that their dysfunctional relationship was taking a toll on the other 300 people who worked in the building and on fans.

The logic on Hurney was similar. Things weren’t going well, and fans were giving up on the Panthers.

When I spoke to Hurney last week, he seemed resigned to the idea that his time was running out, but it seemed he thought the move would come more toward the end of the season.

That might have been more logical. But Richardson had to send a message now to his fans that he still cares about winning and that the current product is unsatisfactory. It would be difficult to fire the entire coaching staff or fire Rivera and elevate one of his assistants in the middle of the season.

Someone had to go now, and that was Hurney. But I think it should be clear to Rivera, every assistant coach in the building and every player that if Richardson is willing to get rid of Hurney, no one is sacred.

There’s going to be a lot more housecleaning in Carolina after the season. This was just the first step.

Cam Newton needs a new act

October, 4, 2012
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Cameron NewtonStreeter Lecka/Getty ImagesCam Newton's sideline demeanor has come under scrutiny the past two weeks.
After watching Cam Newton in his past two games, it occurred to me: I have seen this act before.

The incredibly talented Carolina quarterback has been sulking on the sidelines when things don’t go well, waiting nearly an hour to talk to the media after a game and not saying much when he does. Instead of acting like an NFL quarterback, Newton is acting like a child.

I saw the same thing back in small-town Pennsylvania in the 1970s and ‘80s. I had a neighbor and friend, who was a grade behind me in school. Like Newton, he was a physical specimen. He also had one of those late birthdays, so, in his final year of Little League, he was playing with kids a grade behind him in school.

You know the type -- at 12, they’re 6-foot and 175 pounds. You see one of them carrying a team to Williamsport every year, and that’s exactly what was expected of my friend. He hit home runs in bunches and struck out almost every batter he faced during his regular Little League season.

Then, he got to an All-Star game against a team from a much larger town. Late in the game, he gave up a crucial home run with a couple guys on base. In anger, he slung his glove toward the dugout and his athletic career essentially flew with it. He was tossed from the game.

By high school, he’d given up baseball and basketball because he no longer took any joy from them. His final athletic stand came when he was the starting quarterback as a junior, and a team with high expectations started 0-3. I remember thinking it was time for my friend to come down with an injury or simply walk away. In the fourth game, he hurt his knee.

It was the kind of injury that coaches thought might cost him only a few games. But my friend never played again. An enormous amount of athletic talent was wasted, not because he never learned to lose, but because he never learned how to deal with adversity and overcome it.

I’m not drawing the parallel to suggest Newton is going to just give up. He’s not, because he’s too much of a competitor. But that’s part of his problem.

There’s no question Newton can play quarterback in the NFL. But, if he wants to truly succeed, he has to start acting like an NFL quarterback and act with some balance.

Watch Drew Brees some time. No one is as competitive as Brees. But, out on the field, you never see Brees let his emotions get the best of him. It’s similar with the other two NFC South quarterbacks, Matt Ryan and Josh Freeman. Winning or losing, you usually can’t tell by their actions or body language.

I think back on quarterbacks through Carolina’s history. Steve Beuerlein and Rodney Peete were as even-keel as they come. Jake Delhomme had a visible competitive edge about him, but never freaked out when things didn’t go well. In fact, Delhomme was at his best when things got tight.

That’s part of being an NFL quarterback. You have to set the tone for your team, and it can’t be too high or too low.

There’s no question Newton is in a pressure cooker. After a record-setting rookie year, the expectations in Carolina went up about six notches. Center Ryan Kalil bought a full-page ad in The Charlotte Observer, promising a Super Bowl win. Fans just nodded their heads and agreed.

But the Panthers are off to a 1-3 start, and most of the blame is falling on Newton. Some of that’s simply because Newton is the quarterback, so he’s always going to warrant attention.

But, sometimes it’s about how you handle attention that determines perception and reality, and Newton is not doing a great job of that. He has set himself up for the fall by doing his Superman pose when things do go well. And he has made the fall even steeper by pouting when things go wrong.

ESPN’s Chris Mortensen reported that Newton has been working with a life coach to help deal with the pressure. Newton denied that report. But maybe Newton should be letting his feelings out privately to someone.

He’s not helping anyone by letting his feelings run wild on the field, and he’s not helping anyone by being so adamant about not changing.

“Losing is difficult, period,’’ said Newton, who won a national championship in college and junior college. “A person that says losing is not difficult, I don’t even want to be around that person. Obviously that person has never won anything relevant in their life. So, for a person to say, 'Yeah, we lost and we have to keep going …' Yeah, you keep saying that and sooner or later you’re going to look up and be 0-16. You have to take it personal. Do I take it personal? Absolutely right. Do I take it too personal? Who knows? But I’d rather take it too personal than lackadaisical.’’

I respect the fact that Newton doesn’t like losing, and that he takes it personally. You want that, to some degree, from every player on your roster.

But Newton, who spent a lot of time in the offseason talking about how he wanted to be a better teammate, isn’t helping himself or his team with his actions.

I realize Newton is only 23. Not many of us were finished products at 23. But, then again, not many of us were NFL quarterbacks at 23, or ever.

When you’re making millions of dollars and are the face of an NFL franchise, the standards are a lot different, and you can’t act like you’re 12.

Newton needs to find a new standard -- one that’s not too high or too low -- that his teammates can follow. It’s time for Newton to grow up, mature or whatever you want to call it.

If he doesn’t, you’re going to see a lot more people pouting on Carolina’s sideline and in the stands.

Numbers say Matt Ryan already elite

September, 5, 2012
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Over the past few years, and especially this preseason, there’s been a lot of debate about if Atlanta’s Matt Ryan is an “elite’’ quarterback.

I’m not sure what the exact qualifications are for elite status. But I’ve always been a big believer that the most important thing a quarterback can do is win games.

Ryan
Ryan
If that’s true, Ryan qualifies as elite. In four seasons, he’s won a lot of games. Ryan’s career record as a starter is 43-19. That’s a .694 winning percentage, which puts him third among active NFL quarterbacks that have made 10 regular-season starts.

Only Tom Brady (.780) and Ben Roethlisberger (.708) have better winning percentages, and I think pretty much everyone agrees they’re elite. Ryan’s winning percentage is ahead of guys like Peyton Manning (.678), Aaron Rodgers (.661) and Drew Brees (.601) and I don’t think there’s any question they’re elite quarterbacks.

Yeah, I know the difference with Ryan is that he never has won a postseason game. But people used to knock Manning for not being able to win the big one early in his career and he now is on his way to the Hall of Fame.

I think Ryan already is an elite quarterback. But there’s only one way to permanently end the argument. That’s for Ryan to go out and start winning some postseason games.

By the way, Ryan’s winning percentage is far superior to predecessor Michael Vick’s (.588). It’s also better than another guy who had some success in the NFC South -- former Carolina quarterback Jake Delhomme (.583).

Aside from Ryan and Brees, let’s take a look at the career winning percentages of the other current NFC South quarterbacks.

Tampa Bay’s Josh Freeman is 17-23 (.425). Carolina’s Cam Newton is 6-10 (.375).

There are even a few NFC South backups who qualified for the list by making at least 10 career starts, but their winning percentages aren’t very impressive. Carolina’s Derek Anderson is at .419, Tampa Bay’s Dan Orlovsky is at .167 and Carolina’s Jimmy Clausen is at .100. But, hey, at least Clausen doesn’t rank dead last in winning percentage among active quarterbacks with at least 10 career starts. Tyler Thigpen (.083) holds that distinction.
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. - John Fox has long been known as a coach who preferred to play with veteran quarterbacks.

He had success with Jake Delhomme in Carolina, and that was one of the reasons Kyle Orton started over Tim Tebow at the beginning of last season in Denver. Fox is hours away from beginning training camp practice with one of the best quarterbacks of all time, as his Broncos enter the Peyton Manning era Thursday morning.

As he met with the media Wednesday, Fox’s excitement was evident. Yes, Manning, 36, is coming off a neck injury that kept him out of the 2011 season, but Fox is positive that Manning is ready to lead Denver after what he has seen from him in the offseason.

“Peyton’s done everything humanly possible, both physically and mentally, to get ready for this,” Fox said. "He’s excited. The rest of our team is excited. He’s a tremendous competitor and we’re very blessed to have him.”

Fox said Manning continued to make progress working on his own in the five weeks since organized team activities ended. Indeed, Manning has made strides each month since signing with Denver.

“I think, physically, he’s made tremendous improvement,” Fox said. “I’m not sure I’ve been around a player with as intense of a work ethic as him, both physically and mentally. He’s worked very hard and didn’t take the last five weeks off by any stretch. By all indications, he’s made great progress and we’re happy with where he is.”

The Broncos kept Manning on a pitch count of sorts during the offseason, and Fox indicated Wednesday that firm limits will be necessary in camp.

“We haven’t really gotten too deep into that now, and I think he’s pretty strong,” Fox said. “At some phase of camp or the season, typically, that does occur.”

Make no mistake, Fox is counting the days until he can unleash Manning in the season opener Sept. 9 against visiting Pittsburgh.
In its infancy, the NFC South was a division filled with defensive superstars.

In the division's first year of existence (2002), Derrick Brooks, Warren Sapp, John Lynch and Simeon Rice led Tampa Bay to a Super Bowl title. The Bucs were so good on defense that they won it all with Brad Johnson, an average quarterback at best.

In 2003, Carolina defensive linemen Julius Peppers and Kris Jenkins emerged as the second coming of Rice and Sapp. With a little help from linebacker Dan Morgan, who was relatively healthy that season, they carried the Panthers all the way to the Super Bowl -- and that came with Jake Delhomme in his first full season as a starting quarterback.

But Sapp, Lynch and Rice eventually left the Bucs. Jenkins was dominant for a bit, but his career flamed out after a couple of knee injuries. The last true defensive superstars disappeared from the NFC South when the Bucs unceremoniously released Brooks after the 2008 season and Peppers signed with the Chicago Bears after the 2009 season. There hasn’t been anything close to a dominant defensive player in the division since. The Saints won their Super Bowl in 2009 with defensive standouts Jonathan Vilma, Will Smith and Darren Sharper having nice seasons, but quarterback Drew Brees was the reason for that title.

Could this be the year the NFC South returns to its roots and a dominant defensive player emerges? Of course, the NFL is a quarterback-driven league and rules favor offense. But there are several prospects in the division who could turn out to be the NFC South’s next defensive superstar. Here's a rundown:

[+] EnlargeSean Weatherspoon
Scott Cunningham/Getty ImagesWith his athleticism and leadership skills, Sean Weatherspoon has become the focal point of Atlanta's defense.
Sean Weatherspoon, linebacker, Falcons. Based on what the Falcons have said about Weatherspoon this offseason, you would think he already is a Pro Bowl regular. He has had two promising seasons but really hasn’t done anything special, so maybe the Falcons are getting ahead of themselves here.

Weatherspoon is a very athletic outside linebacker. His potential and leadership skills were partially why Atlanta was willing to part with Curtis Lofton, even though that probably means a dropoff at middle linebacker. New coordinator Mike Nolan apparently wants to build his defense around Weatherspoon. That might not be a bad idea. The great Tampa Bay defenses were built around Brooks, not the guy in the middle. Of course, that concept only works if Weatherspoon turns out to be the next Brooks.

Luke Kuechly, linebacker, Panthers. Carolina didn’t have a desperate need at linebacker with Jon Beason and Thomas Davis returning from injuries and James Anderson already in place. There were more obvious needs elsewhere. But the Panthers locked in on Kuechly with the No. 9 overall pick in this year’s draft.

The Panthers have yet to declare if Kuechly or Beason will open the season in the middle. But it’s clear the Panthers have huge plans for Kuechly. Coach Ron Rivera comes from a defensive background and he needed to reload his defense. He drafted Kuechly to build a defense around him.

Don’t underestimate the influence of general manager Marty Hurney on this pick. Hurney was around during the Morgan days, and he’s one of many people in Carolina’s building who believe Morgan would be headed for the Pro Football Hall of Fame if he had been able to stay healthy. In Kuechly, the Panthers envision a healthy and young Morgan.

Mark Barron, safety, Buccaneers. Rivera didn’t get to use his first draft pick on a defensive player because the Panthers had to take quarterback Cam Newton with the No. 1 overall pick in 2011. But Greg Schiano already had Josh Freeman at QB when he took over in Tampa Bay, allowing Schiano to focus on defense. He selected Barron with the No. 7 pick.

Conventional wisdom says that might be a little high to draft a safety. But with passing games dominating, maybe conventional wisdom must change. We don’t know exactly what Schiano’s defense will look like, but investing so much in Barron is a pretty strong clue that safety will be a very important position.

Malcolm Jenkins, safety, Saints. Scouts and coaches have predicted greatness from Jenkins since he came into the league. Entering his fourth season, he did not have an interception last season. But Jenkins has physical talent and a great work ethic, and I think this season he will put everything together. In former coordinator Gregg Williams’ system, Jenkins often had to blitz or cover for other defensive backs who blitzed. In Steve Spagnuolo’s defense, Jenkins will be allowed to simply play center field, which is what he does best.

Adrian Clayborn, defensive end, Buccaneers. In a rookie year in which everything around him went wrong, Clayborn put together a nice season in 2011. He had 7.5 sacks and forced three fumbles. If he was able to do that amid chaos, he should be able to do much more in Schiano’s new world. Of course, it would help if Gerald McCoy and Brian Price could stay healthy and provide some help at defensive tackle.

Charles Johnson, defensive end, Panthers. He just turned 26 and, of all the players on this list, he has done the most so far. Johnson had 20.5 sacks the past two seasons for a team that often played from behind. Carolina has a good offense now, and the addition of Kuechly and the return of injured players should help the defense. If Johnson's sack total reaches the high double digits, he could become what Peppers once was -- a dominant NFC South defensive player.
Early thoughts on the Texans scheduled to become unrestricted free agents come March 13, with thanks to Mac’s Football Blog, where you can find complete team-by-team lists that include exclusive rights and restricted free agents.

Running back Derrick Ward -- A third-stringer who has good experience and could be important if Arian Foster is lured away with an offer sheet as a restricted free agent.

Tight end Joel Dreessen -- Though largely underrated from the outside, he’s been a nice contributor and certainly has value for the Texans.

OG Mike Brisiel -- A solid starter they’d surely like to keep in order for their very good offensive line to remain intact.

C Chris Myers -- A very valuable cog in the machine and a great system fit, he may have been the best center in the NFL in 2011.

Wide receiver Bryant Johnson -- He was a non-factor as the team’s fourth receiver and they need to upgrade the spot.

Linebacker Tim Dobbins -- Played well when he got on the field, but may find better opportunity elsewhere.

Outside linebacker/defensive end Mario Williams -- If the Texans can’t lock him up before March 13, he will become the biggest prize of the free-agent class. It would be a huge accomplishment to find a way to re-sign him.

Cornerback Jason Allen -- He’s been a virtual “co-starter” with Kareem Jackson and has typically outplayed him. But based on this list, he’s not close to a priority.

Kicker Neil Rackers -- Rackers has been a steady guy for the Texans, who surely would like to keep him rather than shopping for a replacement.

Also UFAs:

Final Word: Giants at Packers

January, 13, 2012
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Divisional Final Word: Saints-49ers | Broncos-Patriots | Texans-Ravens | Giants-Packers

Three nuggets of knowledge about Sunday's Giants-Packers divisional round game:

Run, Giants, run: The Giants, who averaged a league-worst 89.2 rush yards per game in the regular season, ran for 172 in their wild-card round victory over the Atlanta Falcons. It was the first time this season that the Giants had rushed for more than 150 yards in a game. According to ESPN Stats & Information, the Giants have won their past 14 games in which they have rushed for at least 150 yards. So although the Week 13 results and the Packers' league-worst pass defense (299.8 yards allowed per game) could tempt Eli Manning & Co. into a shootout, the Giants' best bet may be to try to wear down the Packers' run defense, which gave up just 111.8 yards per game on the ground.

[+] EnlargeNew York's Brandon Jacobs
Andrew Mills/US PRESSWIREBrandon Jacobs ran for 92 of the Giants' season-best 172 yards on the ground in the wild-card round.
Vulnerable down the field: ESPN Stats & Info also reports that the Giants gave up 24 passing touchdowns this year when using five or more defensive backs -- the most in the league while in such formations. Just more proof of why the Giants don't blitz and rely on their front four to pressure the quarterback. They need all the help they can get on the back end of the defense, and in a game like this against Aaron Rodgers and his array of weapons, that's more true than ever.

Good playoff omens: The Packers this year scored 560 points, which is the second-highest single-season total in NFL history. The only team that scored more was the 2007 Patriots, who of course went undefeated until losing in the Super Bowl to the Giants. Also, Manning has three career playoff road wins (all in that 2007-08 postseason, and not counting that Super Bowl victory on a neutral field). If he wins this game, he'll tie the record for the most career playoff road wins, which is shared by Roger Staubach, Jake Delhomme, Mark Sanchez, Joe Flacco and Len Dawson. Flacco's playing at home this weekend, and the rest of those guys are off. Though I guess Delhomme is the Texans' backup, so if T.J. Yates got hurt, Delhomme could technically pick up a fifth and make this note moot. Hey, we're covering all bases here.
James CaseyThomas B. Shea/Getty ImagesVersatile James Casey, left, and the Texans showed off their depth Sunday against the Titans.
HOUSTON -- The Texans sought to restore order and momentum in their season finale, while avoiding any more of the injury misfortune that’s beset them all season long.

Despite suffering a 23-22 loss to the Tennessee Titans at Reliant Stadium, the team seemed to achieve those goals and is now ready to turn to its first postseason. As the No. 3 seed, the Texans will host the Cincinnati Bengals.

“Nobody’s disappointed,” said receiver Andre Johnson, who estimated he played 15 snaps as he worked back from a hamstring injury. “Of course we wanted to win the game. We didn’t come out on top, but there is next week. Some teams don’t have next week. We have next week.”

“Those first couple drives, we kind of had that swagger back a little bit,” said quarterback T.J. Yates, who left the game with a bruise of his non-throwing shoulder in the first quarter. “Everybody was aggressive, flying around, very talkative on the sideline. It felt like we were back to normal out there.”

A postseason appearance is definitely not normal for the Texans. Houston has an NFL playoff game for the first time since 1993.

Here are some things we learned along the way on Week 17’s game between the division’s two best teams:

Texans fullback James Casey remains a weapon: He’s not your standard fullback. The converted tight end started the Texans' first five games, then missed a couple with a chest injury and never got back ahead of the more traditional Lawrence Vickers.

But Casey’s really more of a pass-catcher than a blocker by nature, and the Titans did poorly in figuring out how to stop him from getting free for seven receptions on seven targets for a team-high 91 yards.

Casey helped get the Texans in range for one of Neil Rackers’ field goals with a brilliant catch, keeping the ball in the air with a left-handed tip before diving to collect it.

“We were lining up in different formations with different personnel, and as a defense it’s kind of hard to understand exactly what we’re going to do,” Casey said. “Because we’re not just doing base things. We’re motioning all over the place. They don’t know if I’m fullback or tight end. It’s tough sometimes for them to set their blitzes or their coverage. Hopefully you can get guys out of spots, out of gaps in the run game and out of their zones in the pass game and try to take advantage of that.”

Next week, with Johnson playing full time and Owen Daniels and Arian Foster back in the lineup, odds are Casey qualifies as only the fourth- or fifth-best receiving option when he’s on the field.

“James has some crazy hands,” Johnson said. “He’s probably the guy I’ve seen make the most one-handed catches. His hands are very, very good, I think he has the best hands on this team. I don’t know who has the best in the league, but I think he’s right up there.”

The Texans are quite deep: Typically a team that scratches key starters like Foster, Daniels and cornerback Johnathan Joseph for a game that doesn’t have great meaning, is willing to yield some. Especially if it doesn’t jump out to a lead.

And the Texans have proven all season they have quality depth, as they’ve replaced defensive end Mario Williams, quarterbacks Matt Schaub and Matt Leinart, punter Brett Hartmann and linebacker Daryl Sharpton, and played stretches without Johnson, safety Danieal Manning and guard Mike Brisiel.

Sunday as they rested some guys and pulled others early, they called on even more depth.

Beyond Casey, the Texans got solid contributions from a lot of role players like receiver Bryant Johnson, running back Derrick Ward and linebackers Tim Dobbins and Bryan Braman, along with quarterback Jake Delhomme.

“It says we have quality players all across this locker room,” Foster said. “We have guys that can play.”

Said Titans receiver Nate Washington: “This is a new Texans team that they take pride in. Even their backups come in there and they are playing hard. They’re going to make plays. We have to find a better way to close out those games.”

One piece of depth they were missing: a center behind Chris Myers who could make a quality shotgun snap in the clutch. The Texans could have won it with a 2-point conversion at the end, but guard Thomas Austin put the shotgun snap over Delhomme’s head at the end of the game. Kubiak said Austin had snapped enough that it shouldn’t have been an issue.

Kubiak understands a “meaningless” game: He’s never been a playoff head coach before, but he’s been part of a lot of good teams. That’s why he didn’t hesitate after Bryant Johnson’s 5-yard touchdown reception with 14 second left to keep his offense on the field for a 2-point try.

Even after Joel Dreessen’s false start, Kubiak stuck with it.

He wanted a win, sure, but he wanted overtime even less.

It was a smart call and the right call, even if Tennessee defensive end Derrick Morgan didn’t agree.

“I understand they want to get the game over with, but after they false started and they still went for 2, I was like, ‘Wow,’” he said. “That’s a slap in the face. But they botched the snap, so whatever.”
HOUSTON -- T.J. Yates and Gary Kubiak brought clarity to the quarterback’s health situation after the Titans’ 23-22 win over the Texans at Reliant Stadium Sunday.

Yates said he has no doubts he will be able to play next week in the franchise’s first playoff game and that he hoped to be a full-go from the start of the practice week.

“I feel good, I just dinged up the left shoulder a little bit, I fell on it on that first play,” said Yates, who’s right handed. “Everything was fine after that. We wanted to make sure that we didn’t do anything futher to it and we were just being safe.”

He said an X-ray showed everything was good.

The Texans made no official announcement on Yates during the game when it’s customary to share what body part is in question and the likelihood of a return. They did say he could have come back if he was needed. Yates said there was no plan prior to the game for him not to play all the way.

Jake Delhomme replaced him and finished the game, though if Delhomme had been knocked out Kubiak would have had to turn back to Yates. Third-string quarterback Jeff Garcia was a healthy inactive and the team’s emergency quarterback, tight end Owen Daniels, didn't dress either.

Starter Matt Schaub (Nov. 13) and Matt Leinart (Nov. 27) suffered season-ending injuries earlier this season.

In a halftime interview during the regular season finale, Kubiak said Yates was still being evaluated -- though Yates spent his time after returning from the locker room in a baseball cap, chatting with teammates and listening in to coaches. There was no continuing interaction with medical personnel.

I guess evaluation doesn’t have to be an active process.

“I have a hard time telling you exactly what happened,” Kubiak said. “He’s got a bruised shoulder at this moment. He’s being evaluated, will be evaluated this evening. We’ll get some pictures of it this evening and I’ll know more tomorrow. He could have gone back in the game. Obviously I didn’t want him to go back in the game. We’ll no better where we’re at tomorrow at this point.”

The Texans got an inaccurate read of Schaub’s injury at Tampa Bay on Nov. 13 and it’s apparently made them wary of assessing injuries to key people.

The team’s stance that a larger degree of real-time injury analysis is not possible is, of course, nonsense. It happens all around the league every Sunday. To suggest it can’t happen in Houston is insulting to the medical staff, the trainers and team sponsor, The Methodist Hospital System.

The bigger issue, obviously: Texans fans should be relieved that Yates said he's is in line to be fine.
HOUSTON -- A couple halftime thoughts from Reliant Stadium, where the Titans lead the Texans 13-10.
  • The Titans smartly came out with something different, using shotgun with an empty backfield. They had great success with it early, but seemed to sag when it didn’t lead to a touchdown drive right out of the gate. An injury to receiver Damian Williams that’s knocked him from the game may force them to use it less than they’d like the rest of the way.
  • Houston’s front is great. The Texans swarmed against a good pass-protecting offensive line and produced two Antonio Smith sacks of Matt Hasselbeck. The linemen and linebackers just come from a different spot on every play. I think that pass rush is going to key them in the playoffs.
  • Jake Delhomme got away with a very bad throw late in the second quarter. Cornerback Jason McCourty would have probably gone for a touchdown if he didn’t flub the pass like a man who had casts on two broken hands.
  • Receiver Donnie Avery benefitted from Williams’ injury and caught the Titans' touchdown on a smartly designed play. Tennessee bunched three receivers right, then had Hasselbeck throw to Avery against Jason Allen on the left from the 1-yard line. It was Avery's first catch of the year.
  • The Texans should pound it with running backs Ben Tate and Derrick Ward in the second half. I think they can break the Titans' defense that way, and that the Titans could be frustrated they aren’t having an easier time considering Houston didn’t dress Arian Foster, Johnathan Joseph or Owen Daniels.
  • I thought rules dictated teams announce in-game injuries. But the Texans have not said what prompted T.J. Yates’ trip to the locker room and exit from the game. And the Titans took a long, long time before finally revealing at the half that Williams has a rib injury and his return is questionable.

Delhomme in at QB for Texans

January, 1, 2012
1/01/12
1:56
PM ET
HOUSTON -- Quarterback T.J. Yates is back on the Texans’ sideline, but he’s wearing a baseball cap and was chatting with Matt Leinart as Jake Delhomme took the field for a second series for the Texans.

The Texans have not said what the injury is that briefly sent Yates to the locker room.

Houston's third quarterback, Jeff Garcia, is inactive. The Texans' emergency quarterback, tight end Owen Daniels, is also inactive.

Meanwhile the Titans are thinning out at receiver. Damian Williams is out and has been taken to the locker room. We don't know what that injury is yet, either.

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