NFL Nation: John Kasay

One theme emerged in Friday’s NFC South chat that really surprised me.

Multiple readers seem unable to forgive former Carolina kicker John Kasay for his out-of-bounds kickoff late in Super Bowl XXXVIII.

Andy in Durham wrote: “I've had mixed feelings about John Kasey for a while. I understand what he's meant to the team, I understand that he's a good guy. But I have a really had time forgiving him for botching a kickoff that ultimately gave Tom Brady the ball at midfield on the final drive of Super Bowl 38. I know you like the guy, but what are your thoughts on that?’’

Jeff in Virginia followed with this: I have to agree with Andy (Durham). Kasay was a good kicker, but he totally choked during the Super Bowl that handed the game to the Patriots (which I cannot stand the Patriots). It's hard to forgive for something like that.’’

I’m surprised because I didn’t realize there is such lingering bitterness toward Kasay, who officially announced his retirement last week. I was under the impression that Carolina fans had long ago let the memory of that kickoff fade and accepted Kasay as one of the franchise’s icons.

As I thought more about it, I can certainly understand that some people still are upset about the kickoff. It very well might have cost the Panthers a Super Bowl championship. It certainly wasn’t a shining moment in franchise history.

But two thoughts come to mind here.

First, I think the rest of Kasay’s career overshadows one botched kickoff. The guy made a lot of big kicks throughout a very long career. He also was a class act. Perhaps most importantly of all, Kasay might have had more influence in the locker room than any kicker in history. He was a leader, which was unusual for a kicker. He also had an uncommon relationship with Steve Smith. I don’t think there was anyone with the Panthers that did more to cool off the mercurial wide receiver when his emotions ran hot.

Second, I grew up a Red Sox fan and have always thought it was unfair to blame Bill Buckner for the 1986 World Series. Other people made mistakes in Game 6 that had just as much to do with the Red Sox losing as Buckner’s error did. I think it’s the same way with Kasay. Yes, he made a mistake. But there were other mistakes and plays that weren’t made in that Super Bowl. If one of those mistakes wasn’t made or if someone had made a big play, the Panthers could have won that Super Bowl and we wouldn’t be having this discussion.
Click here for the complete list of New Orleans Saints roster moves.

Most significant move: The Saints have a history in recent years of finding obscure running backs (see Pierre Thomas and Chris Ivory). They’ve done it again. Undrafted rookie Travaris Cadet made the roster. So did Thomas, Ivory, Mark Ingram and Darren Sproles. That leaves the Saints very heavy at running back, but that’s not a bad thing. Cadet almost forced the Saints to keep him by having a tremendous preseason. Now, the Saints have the upper hand on any team looking for a running back. Sproles is likely untouchable, and I don’t see the Saints parting with Ingram, who joined them as a first-round pick last year. But Thomas and Ivory have shown they can do a lot of good things, and the Saints could add a future draft pick if a team that’s desperate to add a quality runner is willing to make a trade.

Onward and upward: One of the best kicking battles in NFL history was won by Garrett Hartley, who spent the summer kicking against veteran John Kasay. Both have kicked in the Super Bowl and both kicked well this summer. I don’t think there really was a clear winner. Kasay and Hartley finished in a dead heat, and the Saints made the logical decision. They went with the homegrown guy, who still has four seasons remaining on his contract. As long as Kasay, 42, wants to keep playing, he should be able to find another place to kick because he showed no signs of slipping with his preseason performance.

What’s next: The linebacker corps remains a question mark. Starters Curtis Lofton and David Hawthorne have been injured, and it’s unclear whether they’ll be ready for the season opener. The only other linebackers on the roster are Scott Shanle, Jonathan Casillas, Will Herring and newly acquired Barrett Ruud. I’ve got a strong suspicion the Saints will bring in a linebacker (maybe two) from somewhere else in the next few days.
Olindo Mare, who received a huge contract from the Carolina Panthers last year, won’t be handling the kickoff duties for the team this year.

The Panthers announced Monday that Mare has been released. Presumably, that means former Canadian League player Justin Medlock has won what was a competition for Carolina’s kicking job throughout the preseason.

Mare’s signing last year caused controversy because the Panthers released John Kasay, the final remaining player from their 1995 expansion team, to make room for Mare. The thinking was that Mare was as accurate as Kasay and could also handle kickoff duties. But Mare had a disappointing 2011 season and missed some crucial field-goal attempts. The Panthers brought Medlock in as competition and decided to let Mare go.

Although the Panthers gave Mare a four-year, $12 million contract last year, the salary-cap implications of his release are minimal. Mare was scheduled to count $3.2 million against this year’s salary cap. By releasing him, the Panthers still will be responsible for $3.1 million.

The kicker job isn’t the only area where the Panthers are going in a younger direction. They also released veteran Nick Harris. That means the Panthers are ready to go with rookie Brad Nortman as their punter. The Panthers drafted Nortman in the sixth round. They brought in Harris to compete with him and Nortman won the job.

As Carolina trimmed its roster to 75 players, there were several other moves of note.

Receiver David Gettis, who missed last season with a knee injury, has been placed on the physically unable to perform list. Gettis, who had been considered a candidate to start, wasn’t able to get healthy enough during the preseason. By going on PUP, Gettis now can be activated after six games. The Panthers also placed cornerback Brandon Hogan on the reserve/injured list. Hogan had been considered a candidate for significant playing time, but he also was slow in recovering from a knee issue. In the next five days, it will be decided if Hogan will take an injury settlement, be placed on injured reserve for the entire season or be released.

The Panthers also waived receiver Darvin Adams, guard Roger Allen, receiver Michael Avila, receiver Brenton Bersin, guard Will Blackwell, defensive end Eric Norwood, running back Lyndon Rowells, tight end Greg Smith, running back Josh Vaughan and receiver Rico Wallace.

Observation deck: Saints-Patriots

August, 9, 2012
8/09/12
10:43
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Do not be discouraged that the New Orleans Saints scored only three points in the first half of Thursday night’s 7-6 preseason loss at New England.

You know the points will come in bunches when Drew Brees is getting more than a few snaps in the regular season.

What you should be encouraged about is that the New Orleans defense didn’t allow a point in the first half. That came with Tom Brady, who has been known to put up huge numbers, playing almost the entire first quarter. That’s a huge accomplishment for a New Orleans defense that still is adjusting to coordinator Steve Spagnuolo’s scheme.

New Orleans' first and second defenses regularly stopped New England’s first and second offenses. The Patriots didn’t score until the third quarter, when both teams were playing third-stringers. That’s huge improvement over what we’ve seen out of the New Orleans defense in recent years.

Let’s take a look at some other observations on the Saints:
  • Spagnuolo’s defense relies heavily on getting a strong pass rush from the front four. There were signs that was working. Defensive end Will Smith put a nice hit on Brady and the ball popped loose. Linebacker Curtis Lofton recovered the fumble.
  • Brees attempted only four passes and completed one for 4 yards. Like I said, don’t read anything into a very short and quiet night for Brees. You know he’ll show up for the regular season.
  • Rookie defensive tackle Akiem Hicks had a flash play in the second quarter. He swatted down a pass by Ryan Mallett, which is even more impressive when you remember Mallett is 6-foot-6.
  • Martez Wilson has done a nice job making the switch from linebacker to defensive end. But Wilson needs to clean things up on special teams. He was flagged for roughing the kicker and gave the Patriots a first down after lining up offside as New England was about to punt.
  • Cornerback Marquis Johnson has had a nice camp and his momentum is carrying over into the preseason. Jackson, thanks to some more pressure from up front, came up with a second-quarter interception.
  • We all know Garrett Hartley and John Kasay are competing for New Orleans’ kicking job. The Saints let Kasay attempt a long field goal in the first half and he showed he has some leg left by connecting on a 46-yard attempt. Kasay missed a 41-yard attempt in the fourth quarter that could have given the Saints the lead. This might end up being the toughest call of all when the Saints have to trim their roster to 53. They might be wise to shop one of their kickers for trade. Kasay and Hartley both are better than a lot of guys who currently are projected as No. 1 kickers elsewhere.
METAIRIE, La. -- As he prepares for his third NFL season, it sounds as if New Orleans tight end Jimmy Graham has figured out the secret to NFL success.

"I was told to never tug on Superman’s cape," Graham said.

He was talking about quarterback Drew Brees. Graham noted how the quarterback challenged him to a sprint race at the start of training camp and said he let Brees win. Graham was partly joking, but there was some deep wisdom in his words.

More than ever, the Saints are Brees’ team. They’ve been through an offseason unlike one any other team has faced. They’ve been through the painful drama of the bounty scandal and they’ll move forward without coach Sean Payton, who is suspended for the season, and general manager Mickey Loomis, who is suspended for the first eight games.

Brees, the league's highest-paid player, is coming off a season in which he set a NFL single-season record for most passing yards. No, let other teams try to tug on Brees’ cape. If the Saints really are going to endure all this adversity successfully, they need Brees’ skill and leadership more than ever. They need to ride the coattails of the most positive thing they have at the moment.

Brees knows this high-flying offense as well as anyone, including Payton. The Saints remain loaded at offensive skill positions. There’s little doubt this team still is going to score a lot, and that alone will keep it competitive.

But Brees can’t do everything by himself. Even before the word "bounty" started flying in March, the Saints knew they had to overhaul their defense. That became clear in last season’s playoff loss to San Francisco. That’s why defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo was hired. Predecessor Gregg Williams had a gambling philosophy, going all-out to produce turnovers. The negative side effect was that the Saints gave up too many big plays.

Spagnuolo brings a more balanced philosophy. Sure, he wants turnovers, but he also wants to be able to shut down offenses from time to time. A big theme of this camp is the installation of Spagnuolo’s defense. Even though that’s not his side of the ball, Brees shows a lot of interest in the defense. Even in camp, the Saints are implementing game plans.

“[Spagnuolo] is going to try to find every flaw, just like we are going to do to them,’’ Brees said. “Along the way, I am certainly going to be picking his brain as to what he is seeing with our offense, how we can improve. That is how you help one another. That is a habit that we got into, me talking to the defensive guys, even if it is just the secondary guys, saying, 'You give away that blitz whenever you do this.' We are competing against each other, but in the end we are on the same team. I want them to be able to go out and have as much success as possible, just like they want us, on game day, to have as much success as possible.”

Maybe that’s the best way to improve the New Orleans defense. Practice against Superman every day. After you’ve been through that, everything else should be easy.

[+] EnlargeNew Orleans' Mark Ingram
Derick E. Hingle/US PRESSWIREMark Ingram rushed for 474 yards and five touchdowns during his rookie season with the Saints.
THREE HOT ISSUES

1. Mark Ingram’s playing time. Fan expectations for Ingram might be significantly higher than the team's. That’s somewhat understandable, because the Saints traded back into the first round in 2011 to draft Ingram. He played at a college powerhouse (Alabama) and won a Heisman Trophy. Instant stardom was expected by fans, but it didn’t turn out that way in Ingram’s rookie season.

He finished with 122 carries for 474 yards and five touchdowns. Injuries were part of the reason his numbers weren’t bigger. But even before the injuries, Ingram shared playing time with Darren Sproles and Pierre Thomas, and Chris Ivory did a nice job joining the rotation after Ingram’s injury problems started. Ingram had a couple of offseason surgeries and said he’s completely healthy.

But that doesn’t mean Ingram suddenly is going to become a 300-carry guy. New Orleans’ offense is based on diversity, and that’s not going to change. The Saints aren’t going to take playing time away from Sproles, who set an NFL record for all-purpose yards last season, and Thomas is going to play because he has earned it with his performance.

Assuming Ingram stays healthy, I expect him to get more carries than last season, but a 200-carry season for about 800 yards is a reasonable expectation.

2. Will the linebackers be better than last season? I think they’ll be markedly better. Many believe the season-long suspension of Jonathan Vilma is going to hurt the Saints. If this were two or three years ago, I’d agree. But Vilma was bothered by knee problems last season, and his age seemed to be catching up to him. I think free-agent addition Curtis Lofton is an upgrade over Vilma in the middle. In fact, I think Lofton is pretty similar to what Vilma was two or three years ago. The Saints will be just fine in the middle.

Plus, the Saints didn’t sit still at outside linebacker. They signed free agents David Hawthorne and Chris Chamberlain. It looks as if Hawthorne is well on his way to winning a starting job. That leaves Chamberlain competing with Scott Shanle, Will Herring and Jonathan Casillas for the other starting job. There’s no true favorite here, and Shanle is the fallback option as the safe choice because he’s smart and dependable. But Chamberlain, Herring and Casillas are more athletic and at least come with the possibility of producing big plays. The hope is that one of those three can step forward to win the starting job.

3. Can the offensive line, minus Carl Nicks, be as good as last season? Nicks took the big money and left for Tampa Bay in free agency. Losing a player many scouts consider the best guard in the NFL must take a toll. But the Saints already had Jahri Evans, who might be the closest thing to Nicks. Loomis did a nice job getting Ben Grubbs to replace Nicks. Grubbs isn’t quite on the Nicks/Evans level, but he’s an above-average player and came at a much lower salary than Nicks. The Saints build their offensive line around the interior, and Evans and Grubbs will form a very strong guard tandem.

Brian de la Puente did a nice job taking over at center last year and should be fine with Grubbs and Evans surrounding him. The tackles are more of a question. The Saints are sticking with Jermon Bushrod on the left side and Zach Strief on the right. They’re serviceable, but Bushrod and Strief aren’t all-pros, and the presence of Evans and Grubbs should be enough to keep this offensive line among the better ones in the league.

REASON FOR OPTIMISM

Spagnuolo’s history. There is legitimate concern about the pass rush, because Spagnuolo likes it to come mostly from his front four. Aside from defensive end Will Smith, who will serve a four-game suspension at the start of the season, the Saints don’t have a proven pass-rusher. Many fans are worked up about the potential of Junior Galette and converted linebacker Martez Wilson. Those guys could turn into something, but maybe fans aren’t looking in the right direction.

Second-year pro Cameron Jordan might be a big factor. Yeah, I know that sounds like a stretch because Jordan had one sack as a rookie, but he was a first-round pick and still has plenty of untapped potential. There’s more than that, though. Look at Spagnuolo’s past. When he became defensive coordinator for the New York Giants in 2007, Justin Tuck had gone through two NFL seasons with one sack. In Spagnuolo’s first season, Tuck had 10. In 2008, Tuck recorded 12.

If Spagnuolo can get anything close to double-digit sacks from Jordan, he may have short- and long-term answers for his pass rush.

REASON FOR PESSIMISM

How much adversity can one team take? The Saints will use all that happened to them in the offseason as a rallying cry, providing strong motivation. But it’s tough for any team to ride one emotion (anger, in this case) for an entire season. This franchise has been through a lot, and you have to worry about that taking a toll at some point.

[+] EnlargeNew Orleans' Drew Brees and Tom Benson
Derick E. Hingle/US PRESSWIREWith a new contract and instability in the coaching staff, Drew Brees will be asked to be even more of a leader for Tom Benson's Saints.
You also have to worry about the Saints being a target for opponents, especially those who spent the past few months hearing that the bounty program had targeted some of their own players. Then throw in the fact that assistant head coach Joe Vitt, who has run the team in Payton’s absence, must serve a six-game suspension at the start of the season. At that point, the Saints are expected to make another of their assistants the acting head coach. Yes, this is a veteran team with outstanding leadership, but it sure looks like a lot of things are stacked against the Saints.

OBSERVATION DECK
  • There was a lot of buzz about cornerback Marquis Johnson in the first few days of camp. He made some nice plays and usually was around the ball. The Saints hope second-year pro Johnny Patrick can be their No. 3 cornerback after starters Jabari Greer and Patrick Robinson. But Johnson has a chance to compete with Patrick and may have one slight advantage. The third-year player spent his first two seasons in St. Louis, where Spagnuolo was the coach. Johnson knows the system, and that might be why he’s off to a fast start in camp. If he can sustain it, he’ll have a chance to move past Patrick. At worst, Johnson has a chance to be the fourth cornerback and a key player on special teams.
  • The Saints have almost an embarrassment of riches at kicker. They have Garrett Hartley back from an injury that kept him out last season and veteran John Kasay, who filled in nicely for Hartley. Hartley and Kasay each have made a lot of big kicks in their careers. Although Kasay is 42, he’s not showing signs of slowing. Hartley has the stronger leg, but Kasay has been a model of consistency throughout his career. The Saints will let this competition play throughout camp. If it ends in a dead heat, it might be the toughest call of all when it’s time to trim the roster. Brought in by Loomis, Hartley has earned a spot in franchise history with some clutch kicks. But Loomis and Kasay go all the way back to the early 1990s, when they were together in Seattle.
  • There’s been a lot of talk about New Orleans’ young wide receivers early in camp. Adrian Arrington, Nick Toon, Joe Morgan, Andy Tanner and Chris Givens have made spectacular catches. But let’s keep that in perspective. Those catches came before the Saints put pads on and before defenders could hit. The Saints are looking for fourth and fifth receivers, but let’s not anoint any of these guys yet. The preseason games will determine who wins the final roster spots at receiver. Arrington’s entering his third season, and it’s time for him to start showing something. Toon comes in after a solid career at Wisconsin. They probably are the favorites to make the roster at this point. But Morgan, Tanner and Givens might be able to change the pecking order if they can make catches in traffic in preseason games.
  • The Saints thought they might get an eventual starter when they drafted Charles Brown in 2010. There was even hope that he might turn into the long-range solution at left tackle. That hasn’t come close to happening. Bushrod has settled in nicely at left tackle. The Saints hoped Brown at least would be able to start at right tackle. But that hasn’t happened, either. Strief beat out Brown for the starting job last season. When Strief was injured, Brown got playing time, but his play wasn't pretty. (If you don’t believe me, look at the tape of the loss to the Rams.) The Saints still say that Strief and Brown are competing for the starting job this season, but Strief has received all of the first-team work, and I didn't hear any buzz at all about Brown from coaches. As a matter of fact, I’m not sure Brown even will be on the roster when the regular season starts.
  • Speaking of offensive linemen who could be on the bubble, don’t forget Matt Tennant. The Saints drafted Tennant in 2010, thinking he'd be the heir apparent to Jonathan Goodwin at center. It hasn’t worked out that way. When Goodwin left via free agency last year, the Saints took an early look at Tennant and quickly signed Olin Kruetz, the former Bears star. When Kruetz abruptly decided to retire, the Saints didn’t turn back to Tennant. They turned to de la Puente, who now has a strong grip on the starting job. Like Brown, Tennant could be fighting for a roster spot. The Saints used to have a good reputation for finding offensive linemen beyond the first round of the draft (Evans, Nicks and Bushrod), but Brown and Tennant may have eroded that trend.
  • The Saints appear set with Graham and David Thomas at tight end. Graham is a great pass-catcher, and Thomas is a jack of all trades. But keep an eye on Michael Higgins, who spent much of last year on the practice squad before getting promoted to the regular roster late in the season. Higgins already has demonstrated he can block, and showed signs of being a good receiver early in camp. Thomas has had injury problems, and the Saints may not want to overuse him. Higgins could provide another alternative.
  • There has been talk that strong safety Roman Harper might not be a great fit in Spagnuolo’s defense because he isn’t known for great coverage skills. But I believe Spagnuolo will find a way to make this defense work for Harper. There’s really not an alternative behind him. His backup is Jonathon Amaya, whose only claim to fame is that he was part of the Reggie Bush trade.

Saints bring back John Kasay

April, 23, 2012
4/23/12
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A little bit of news on the Saints and, this time, it’s not controversial.

Kasay
The Saints have re-signed veteran kicker John Kasay to a one-year contract. Kasay, who spent much of his career with the Carolina Panthers, joined the Saints last season after Garrett Hartley suffered a preseason injury. Kasay, 42, went on to set franchise records with 147 total points and 63 extra points last season. He connected on 82.4 percent of his field-goal attempts.

Hartley injured his hip last year and all indications have been that he’ll be ready for this season. The Saints may have brought Kasay back as insurance or they might want to put Hartley in a competitive situation during training camp.

Final Word: Saints vs. 49ers

January, 13, 2012
1/13/12
1:30
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Divisional Final Word: Saints-49ers | Broncos-Patriots | Texans-Ravens | Giants-Packers

Three nuggets of knowledge about Saturday's Saints-49ers divisional game:

[+] EnlargeBrees
Derick E. Hingle/US PresswireNew Orleans QB Drew Brees has recorded 18 TDs and two interceptions in playoff games.
Cracking the code on Brees: The 49ers led the NFL in turnover differential at plus-28 this season. They tied for second in interceptions with 23. Carlos Rogers, Dashon Goldson and Tarell Brown have combined for 16. But in Saints quarterback Drew Brees, the 49ers are facing the all-time record holder for consecutive postseason passes without a pick. Brees' streak is at 215 pass attempts and counting. This stat, provided by the NFL, seemed improbable. The Saints lost to Seattle in the wild-card round a year ago, after all. But the numbers are even better than the 215-attempt streak would indicate. Brees has 13 TD passes without an interception in his past five playoff games. He has 18 TDs with two INTs in eight career playoff games. Brees last threw a postseason pick during a Jan. 21, 2007 defeat at Chicago. Detroit missed a couple chances in the wild-card round.

About the contrasts in style: The Saints' 626-yard total against the Lions last week exceeded by 41 yards the 49ers' combined yardage totals for their games against Dallas (206), Seattle in Week 1 (209) and Baltimore (170). Fortunately for the 49ers, the Saints will not have the Dallas, Seattle or Baltimore defenses on their side. The Saints allowed 18 touchdowns in 18 red zone possessions against Green Bay, Chicago, Carolina (Week 5), Tampa Bay (Week 6), Indianapolis, St. Louis and Detroit (wild-card round). Those shortcomings proved critical in defeats to the Packers, Bucs and Rams. The 49ers' red zone touchdown percentage bottomed out during a six-game stretch with only three TDs in 18 such possessions. The 49ers need to build on recent improvement in that area by featuring Vernon Davis and their ground game.

If it comes down to a kicker: We've broken down this matchup from the major angles. Special teams are another consideration. The 49ers have dominated in that area most of the time. Their kicker, David Akers, made the most of the team's red zone issues, setting a league record for field goals in a season. The 49ers battled high-scoring teams to close finishes. If it happens again, the kickers could prove decisive. We know about Akers. He was sensational amid trying circumstances. The Saints' kicker, John Kasay, has been around, too. He broke into the league with Seattle in 1991. Kasay has made a higher percentage outdoors (14 of 16) than indoors (14 of 18) this season. Those numbers correlate with Kasay's totals on grass (13 of 15) and turf (15 of 19). Kasay has made a higher percentage when the Saints were trailing (7 of 7) than when they were leading (17 of 21). He has made 4 of 6 kicks in fourth quarters, and both misses were from 50-plus yards. Kasay, 42, has made 1 of 4 tries on the road from 50-plus yards. He has attempted two kicks from 40-49 yards in tie games, missing both.

NFC South Stock Watch

December, 13, 2011
12/13/11
1:00
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NFC Stock Watch: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

FALLING

1. Greg Olson, Buccaneers offensive coordinator. Coming into the season, Olson was getting some mention as one of the “hot’’ coordinators and could have ended up with a shot at a job as a head coach with another good season. That hasn’t come anywhere close to happening. Like everything else with the Bucs, Olson’s offense has taken a step back. Heck, even if the Bucs wanted to fire coach Raheem Morris right now, they probably would be very hesitant to do it because Olson would be the likely candidate to take over on an interim basis and his season has been just as bad as Morris’.

2. Olindo Mare, Panthers kicker. Carolina made a controversial move in the offseason, letting go of kicker John Kasay, the last remaining member of the 1995 expansion team. They brought in Mare with a contract worth $12 million over four years. The thinking was the team could save a roster spot because Kasay hadn’t kicked off in years and the team had carried a kickoff specialist. Mare has been as good as any kicker in the league in recent years and the team believed he could be at least as accurate as Kasay on field goals and might be able to make some longer kicks. Well, Mare missed a 36-yard attempt in Sunday’s loss to Atlanta. He also missed a 31-yard attempt that would have sent an earlier game against Minnesota to overtime. Coach Ron Rivera said Monday the Panthers may take a look at some other kickers.

3. Donald Penn, Buccaneers left tackle. For most of the season, Penn has been the least of Tampa Bay’s troubles. But that changed in Jacksonville. Penn allowed a sack that led to a Josh Freeman fumble and didn’t have a good game all the way around. That comes at a bad time because Dallas’ DeMarcus Ware, who has 15 sacks, is coming to town Saturday night.

RISING

[+] EnlargeMike Smith
Bob Donnan/US PresswirePanthers coach Ron Rivera and Falcons coach Mike Smith shake hands following their Week 14 game.
1. Mike Smith, Falcons coach. He was back at practice Monday night after having to check into a Charlotte hospital following Sunday’s victory against the Panthers. Smith declined to go into any specifics about his health, but said a series of tests showed no major problems. Smith said it will be business as usual as the Falcons prepare for Thursday night’s game against Jacksonville. But maybe somewhere in all of this, there is a lesson for Smith and every other coach in the NFL. They’re in a very competitive business and work ridiculous hours with almost no time off once training camp starts. But even in those circumstances, coaches need a little balance. An extra hour of rest or exercise here and there might do just as much overall good as an extra hour in the film room.

2. Gregg Williams, Saints defensive coordinator. His defense came up with two big stops late in the victory against Tennessee and has looked better overall in recent weeks. Williams needs to keep building on this positive momentum. Although Drew Brees and the offense generally have carried the Saints, they’re going to need some good outings from the defense if they want to get by San Francisco and Green Bay in the NFC playoffs.

3. Julio Jones, Falcons receiver. It sure looks like Jones is maturing right in front of our eyes. He came off a bad game against Houston and got off to a rough start Sunday against Carolina. But the coaching staff and quarterback Matt Ryan kept faith in Jones. That was rewarded in the second half as Jones had two touchdown catches to help the Falcons rally to a victory.

Blame begins, ends with Mike Smith

November, 13, 2011
11/13/11
8:00
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Mike SmithScott Cunningham/Getty ImagesCoach Mike Smith is taking the blame for the Falcons' 26-23 overtime loss to the Saints.
ATLANTA – When he walks into a postgame news conference, Atlanta Falcons coach Mike Smith typically gives an opening statement. Sometimes he will go on for several minutes and the media must wait to ask questions.

On Sunday, it was different. Smith made a few quick remarks before making his most daring decision of the day.

“With that, I’ll open it up,’’ Smith said. “I know there are probably lots of questions that you guys have. I’m ready for them.’’

The avalanche was on. For the next 9 minutes, 20 seconds, Smith basically fielded the same question about a dozen times and gave the same answer repeatedly.

That’s what happens when you make a call like Smith did in Sunday’s 26-23 overtime loss to the New Orleans Saints. With a fourth-and-inches at his own 29-yard line and 10:52 remaining in overtime, Smith elected to go for the first down instead of punting. The play wasn't even close to being successful.

“It’s something that I take full responsibility for,’’ Smith said. “It is my decision and my decision solely.’’

Point the fingers at Smith and keep them there the rest of the season if the Falcons (5-4) don’t catch up to the Saints (7-3) in the NFC South.

“I know it will be scrutinized all week long,’’ Smith said. “And again, I want everybody to understand, I take full responsibility for that.’’

It should be noted Smith slowly emphasized each of the last six words of that quote. He also used some form of “I take full responsibility’’ at least four times.

That might end up being the title of this Falcons’ season if this team somehow misses the playoffs. In general, you can say that one play doesn’t decide a game and a handful of plays don’t decide a season.

But what happened Sunday was an exception to generalizations. Smith’s decision cost the Falcons a very big game – and, in the long run, maybe a lot more.

For the record, let’s review the series of events that led to a decision that will be talked about for a very long time in Atlanta. After falling behind 23-13 with 7:13 remaining in regulation, the Falcons rallied with a touchdown pass from Matt Ryan to Tony Gonzalez and a 27-yard field goal by Matt Bryant as the clock on the fourth quarter ran out.

In overtime, the Falcons ran three plays and punted. Then, the Saints ran three plays and punted. The Falcons ran three more plays and, at first, it looked like fullback Mike Cox had a first down after catching a short pass. But the play was reviewed and the ball was placed just short of the first-down marker.

That’s when Smith sent his punting team onto the field. Then, he called a timeout. Then, he suddenly put his offense back onto the field and the Saints called a timeout.

Then came, what could end up being a historic moment.

The Falcons handed the ball to Michael Turner, who was met by defensive tackle Shaun Rogers and defensive end Will Smith. Instead of gaining a few inches, Turner lost a few feet and the Falcons lost the game. Well, that actually came four plays later when John Kasay booted a 26-yard field goal that was more a formality.

The game was decided the second Smith decided to put his offense back on the field. So let’s hear his thought process.

“We were going to punt the football, then had a change of heart,’’ Smith said. “I wanted us to go for it. I thought the ball was inside half a yard and we could get it. Did not want to give the ball back to the Saints. In previous games, close games that we’ve played them, we’ve punted the ball with three minutes to go in the ballgame. We never saw it again and they ended up winning the ballgame. That was the decision-making process that I went through.’’

You can make the case that maybe the Falcons should have had Ryan run a quarterback keeper. But it wasn’t the play call, so much as it was the decision to go for it with poor field position. New Orleans’ offense had cooled off, not scoring a touchdown on its three-fourth quarter possessions or its first possession of overtime.

“It wasn’t that we didn’t have faith in the defense,’’ Smith said. “That’s a very good quarterback (Drew Brees). By no means is that a lack of faith in the defense. It’s a matter of what has happened when we’ve played them in the past that is always a part of the decision-making process.’’

Smith’s decision was universally supported in the Atlanta locker room.

“As a player, you’ve got to love the confidence he has in the offense,’’ Ryan said.

“That’s what you’ve got to do in these types of games -- be aggressive,’’ linebacker Sean Weatherspoon said.

It also drew high praise in one corner of the New Orleans locker room.

“It takes some steel you- know-what to make that call,’’ Brees said.

In another corner of the locker room came the wisest words anyone said all day. Those words came from Will Smith when asked what kind of a message the Falcons sent when they put their offense back on the field.

“We’re big, bad and stronger than you guys,’’ Will Smith said. “And we stood up and said, 'No, you’re not.'’’

Someone then mentioned that it’s not uncommon for a team to go for it on fourth down and inches.

“Yeah, but not on the 30,’’ Will Smith said. “In overtime. If they don’t get it, that’s game over.’’

In between taking “full responsibility,’’ Mike Smith repeatedly tried to explain his decision was part of his plan to be aggressive throughout the game.

“When you get the ball, you want to go ahead and try to end it,’’ Smith said. “I felt that we had been very aggressive in everything we did throughout the day in what we did offensively, defensively and on special teams, and we wanted to stay that way through the end of the ballgame.’’

Being aggressive can be a wonderful thing, especially when it’s the smart thing. But the sad reality is Smith’s decision was neither aggressive nor smart. The smart and aggressive thing would have been to punt, trust his defense, and put his offense in a better position to win the game. The smart and aggressive thing would have been for Smith to do the first thing that popped into his mind -- not the second thing.

You have to wonder if anything else was running through Smith’s mind during the timeout before he sent the offense out. Did he hear the noise from the crowd and his offensive players, begging him to go for it? Did he feel pressure from a front office and ownership that seemingly was shooting for Super Bowl or bust this season?

“It’s my responsibility as the head football coach and you have to make tough decisions,’’ Smith said. “I take full responsibility for it.’’

It’s good that Smith is blaming himself for this one. Because there’s absolutely no one else to blame on this one.

NFC South Stock Watch

November, 1, 2011
11/01/11
1:00
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NFC Stock Watch: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

FALLING

1. The New Orleans offensive line. Drew Brees was sacked six times and the running game never got going in Sunday’s loss to St. Louis. Right tackle Charles Brown struggled mightily and it’s likely he’ll be back on the bench soon because Zach Strief is coming back from injury. But the problems weren’t all due to Brown. New Orleans has some highly regarded players across the rest of the line, but none of them played well Sunday. Guard Carl Nicks had a bad game and fellow guard Jahri Evans also appeared off. Jermon Bushrod has developed into a dependable left tackle, but he wasn’t dependable against the Rams.

2. Jonathan Vilma, Saints linebacker. He has been one of the top players in the NFC South the past few years. But Vilma doesn’t look the same this year. Part of it might be because of a knee injury that’s been bothering him all season. Against the Rams, I saw Vilma miss a couple of tackles he never would have missed a few years ago.

3. Olindo Mare, Panthers kicker. Carolina cut veteran and fan favorite John Kasay to make room for Mare, who landed a huge contract. Mare has kicked well most of the season. But he missed a 31-yard field-goal attempt that would have sent Sunday’s game with Minnesota into overtime. Yeah, Kasay was old and couldn’t kick off, but I don’t recall Kasay ever missing very many 31-yard kicks.

RISING

[+] EnlargeTampa Bay Buccaneers running back Kregg Lumpkin
Fernando Medina-US PRESSWIRETampa Bay Buccaneers running back Kregg Lumpkin is about to have an increased role.
1. Kregg Lumpkin, Buccaneers running back. He’s 27, but this reserve has all of 14 career carries and has never scored an NFL touchdown. Ready or not, Lumpkin’s about to get an increased role. With Earnest Graham lost for the season to injury, Lumpkin is going to be the top backup to LeGarrette Blount. He also is likely to be used as the third-down back. The Tampa Bay coaches are high on Lumpkin and they better be right because he’s only a Blount injury away from being the feature back.

2. Jason Snelling, Falcons running back. Fullback Ovie Mughelli has been lost for the season with a knee injury. The Falcons did sign Mike Cox and he could be used as the lead blocker for Michael Turner at times. Snelling is the top backup to Turner at tailback, but he has filled in at fullback from time to time. Don’t be surprised if the Falcons decide to let Snelling and Cox share the duties at fullback. At 237 pounds, Snelling might be a little light for a fullback. But he’s a good blocker and his ability to run and catch passes could add a new dimension to Atlanta’s offense if he’s playing fullback.

3. Julio Jones, Falcons receiver. The rookie was off to a pretty good start before missing the past two games with a hamstring injury. The bye week helped Jones get healthy and he returned to practice Monday. I’m expecting a big second half of the season from Jones. Remember, he was thrown right into the starting lineup and didn’t have a true offseason because of the lockout. He seemed to catch on pretty quickly, but this little break has given Jones a little time to really process everything.

Wrap-up: Vikings 24, Panthers 21

October, 30, 2011
10/30/11
4:43
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Thoughts on the Carolina Panthers24-21 loss to the Minnesota Vikings on Sunday at Bank of America Stadium:

What it means: The hope that the Panthers had turned the corner with last week’s win against the Redskins is gone. Carolina is right back to where it was before last week -- maybe even a couple of steps back. The Panthers played pretty well in some areas, like they did in their previous five losses, but couldn’t pull it out at the end. That’s tolerable against good teams. But nobody is accusing the Vikings of being a good team this season.

Goat of the game: The Panthers had a chance to force overtime. They moved the ball into what should have been easy field goal range for Olindo Mare. It turned out not to be so easy. Mare was wide left on a 31-yard try. Think there might be some Carolina fans longing for the days of John Kasay right about now?

Goats of the game: Just about everyone on Carolina’s defense. The Panthers have struggled defensively much of the season. But they were facing rookie quarterback Christian Ponder. They made him look like a seasoned veteran. Ponder threw for 236 yards and a touchdown and was not intercepted. The Vikings also had 132 net rushing yards.

All for naught: Carolina receiver Steve Smith continues to have a huge season. He had seven catches for 100 yards and a touchdown. But Smith isn’t the kind of guy who is content to put up big stats in losing efforts. He wants to win as much as anybody. This may sound crazy, but I’ve got a suggestion for Carolina coach Ron River: Let Smith play defense. He’ll put everything he has into it.

What’s next: The Panthers have a bye next Sunday. They resume their three-game homestand when Tennessee comes to Bank of America Stadium on Nov. 13. That’s why the loss to Minnesota hurts so badly. The Panthers could be on a two-game winning streak right now, with a chance to extend it to three coming out of the bye. Instead, they’re 2-6.

Wrap-up: Saints 30, Panthers 27

October, 9, 2011
10/09/11
4:31
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Thoughts on the New Orleans Saints’ 30-27 victory against the Carolina Panthers at Bank of America Stadium:

What it means: The gap in competitive balance between the top and bottom of the NFC South has narrowed. The gap in the standings has not. As they’ve been doing most of the season, the Panthers kept things very close. They played a New Orleans team that’s been to the playoffs the last two seasons very tightly. But, ultimately, Drew Brees and the Saints rallied to score (on a touchdown pass to Pierre Thomas) with 50 seconds remaining. That puts the Saints at 4-1 and, depending on how Tampa Bay does in its later game at San Francisco, no worse than a share of first place in the division. The Panthers are much improved and there’s little doubt they’ll pull of some upsets later in the year. But the bottom line is Carolina is 1-4.

Weirdest scene of the day: John Kasay in a Saints’ uniform. Yes, this was the fifth game Kasay has played for the Saints. But seeing him go against the Panthers in Bank of America Stadium seemed very odd. Kasay joined the Panthers when they were an expansion team in 1995 and was with them until he was released as the lockout came to an end.

Weirdest call of the day: A timeout by the Panthers with two seconds left in the first half as the Saints were scrambling to get on the field to kick a field goal. It appeared the clock would have run out before New Orleans could get a kick off. But the timeout allowed the Saints to get set and Kasay made the field goal to give New Orleans a 20-13 halftime lead.

Unconventional wisdom: Who says the option can’t work in the NFL? It can when Carolina’s Cam Newton is running it. He pitched to DeAngelo Williams out of the option for a 69-yard touchdown run in the second quarter. Newton also kept the ball on an option play for a crucial first down early in the fourth quarter.

Keeping his cool: Carolina receiver Steve Smith got into a scuffle after catching a touchdown pass late in the first quarter. That’s not unusual for the feisty Smith. But before you go saying Smith was up to his old tricks, he wasn’t. Smith didn’t start this one. New Orleans safety Roman Harper started it when he hit Smith, after it was clear the receiver already had crossed the goal line.

Rising star: Much like safety Malcolm Jenkins did last year, New Orleans cornerback Patrick Robinson is emerging in his second season. Robinson picked off Newton early and had a nice return to set up a New Orleans touchdown early in the game.

What’s next: The Saints play the Buccaneers next Sunday at Raymond James Stadium. The Panthers play the Atlanta Falcons at the Georgia Dome next Sunday.

Inactives for the New Orleans Saints

September, 8, 2011
9/08/11
7:27
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GREEN BAY, Wis. -- We just got the list of the inactives for the New Orleans Saints in Thursday night’s game against the Green Bay Packers.

Kicker Garrett Hartley, receiver Lance Moore, running back Joique Bell, cornerback Johnny Patrick, offensive lineman Matt Tennant, tight end John Gilmore and defensive tackle Tom Johnson will be inactive.

Hartley and Moore are out due to injuries. The Saints brought in veteran kicker John Kasay to fill in for Hartley. In Moore’s absence, the Saints will rely on Marques Colston, Devery Henderson and Robert Meachem, but they also have activated Adrian Arrington and he could get some playing time.

NFC South Stock Watch

September, 6, 2011
9/06/11
12:41
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We won’t start our leaguewide Stock Watch feature until next week. But I’m going to go ahead and do one for the NFC South this week because we have more than enough to work with.

FALLING

[+] EnlargeTampa Bay Buccaneers cornerback Aqib Talib
AP Photo/Gail BurtonAfter a turbulent offseason, Aqib Talib needs to step up on the field and stay low key off of it.
Aqib Talib, cornerback, Buccaneers. We’re starting his stock low because he had a turbulent offseason and he’s going to be under the microscope. This guy can’t afford a wrong move on or off the field. He’s got to stay focused on football and get his career on a good path.

Mike Peterson, linebacker, Falcons. All indications are the veteran has lost his starting job to Stephen Nicholas, who got a big contract to stay with the team. Peterson re-signed for the veteran minimum and Nicholas got first-team work throughout the preseason. But the good news is Peterson’s the kind of guy who can handle a backup role and be a mentor. He also still might be able to step in and play a little bit, if needed.

John Kasay, kicker, Saints. He starts off the season on the hot seat after missing a field goal and an extra point in his preseason debut with New Orleans. Released by Carolina earlier this summer, Kasay’s a proven veteran who has made many big kicks throughout his career. He was signed to fill in while Garrett Hartley is out with a hip injury. But coach Sean Payton isn’t the most patient guy in the world when it comes to kickers, so Kasay better get on track in a hurry.

RISING

Garrett Reynolds, guard, Falcons. He won the starting job at right guard by beating out Mike Johnson. This is a chance for Reynolds to pave the way to a nice, long career. He’ll be playing next to right tackle Tyson Clabo and that will help. Offensive line coach Paul Boudreau is a master at working with guys who were drafted late or not at all and turning them into reliable players.

Sione Fua and Terrell McClain, defensive tackles, Panthers. Ready or not, the two rookies are going to play extensively. The Panthers tried to buy them some time by signing free agent Ron Edwards, but he got hurt. The Panthers tried a few other veterans, but they either couldn’t play or were hurt. The Panthers are just going to have to throw McClain and Fua out there and hope they grow up in a hurry.

Julio Jones, receiver, Falcons. We’re going to start this rookie’s stock very high because that’s exactly what the Falcons have done in the preseason. They’ve showcased their first-round draft pick, throwing to him often and letting him run reverses. You generally like to save those things as surprises for the regular season. But my guess is the Falcons wanted to go ahead and make opposing defenses very aware of Jones because that may free things up for some other offensive players.

Saints should stick with John Kasay

September, 2, 2011
9/02/11
10:59
AM ET
With the start of the regular season just days away, the New Orleans Saints suddenly seem to have a major problem.

John Kasay, the veteran kicker the team signed earlier this week, missed a field goal attempt and an extra point attempt in Thursday night’s preseason finale. Kasay was signed after regular kicker Garrett Hartley injured his hip.

Kasay
There are reports Hartley could be out anywhere from six to 10 weeks, but coach Sean Payton after Thursday night’s game called those reports inaccurate. He said if Hartley was going to be out that long he probably would be placed on the injured reserve list and indicated that’s not in the plans.

Still, it appears obvious Hartley will miss at least several games. Can the Saints afford to stick with Kasay after what they saw Thursday?

Payton hasn’t always shown a great deal of patience with kickers. But, in this case, I think he needs to be sure he doesn’t overreact. I wouldn’t go judging Kasay on one game.

He’s made a bunch of clutch kicks in his career and there aren’t many guys I’d rather have lining up for a field goal with the game on the line. Kasay is 41 and had been out of work for more than a month after the Carolina Panthers released him.

Although Kasay had been working out on his own, he’s had very little practice time with the Saints. He kicks with his left leg and that means there’s an adjustment period for the holders.

Lots of other kickers will come free as teams cut their rosters to 53 players by Saturday evening. It might be tempting to grab one of them and scrap Kasay.

But that also might end up being a mistake. Maybe Kasay just needs a little time to adjust to a new holder and long-snapper.

You don’t know what you’re getting with another kicker. Despite Thursday night’s performance, you know what you’re getting with Kasay. You’re getting a guy who’s been consistent throughout his career and made plenty of big kicks.

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