NFL Nation: Larry Coyer

The Washington Redskins announced Wednesday that they have hired Larry Coyer as an advance scout. Coyer worked under current Redskins coach Mike Shanahan when Shanahan was the coach of the Denver Broncos. He was Denver's defensive coordinator from 2003-06, and held the same position with the Indianapolis Colts from 2009-11.

I bring this up because I know people are going to ask. Defensive coordinator Jim Haslett is the Redskins' assistant most often the target of fan wrath, and there was a large segment of the Redskins' fan population that spent last season convinced Shanahan would fire Haslett (in spite of some of us consistently telling you he would not). Now, when the Redskins' defense inevitably struggles, some will wonder whether Coyer, a former Shanahan defensive coordinator, was brought on board as a replacement-in-waiting for Haslett.

I don't think so. Haslett is the man Shanahan picked to bring with him to Washington and convert the Redskins from a 4-3 defense to a 3-4 defense. He has expressed no dissatisfaction whatsoever with the choice or with the job Haslett has done. If you look at what happened to the Redskins on defense last season with injuries and other personnel issues, the job Haslett did holding the defense together week-to-week while the Redskins made their run to the division title was actually one of the better coaching jobs in the entire league. I believe Haslett to be safe.

Just as was the case earlier in the offseason when the Redskins added former Chargers GM A.J. Smith to the front office, I think this is Shanahan taking the opportunity to bring on board someone whose opinion he respects, to add a helpful voice to the meeting rooms and the planning process. I really wouldn't read any more into it than that. Coming off a division title and with Robert Griffin III looking set to lead the Redskins into the future at quarterback, there's more stability around the Redskins right now than there has been in quite some time.
Before the start of the 2012 NFL season, I spent an evening writing some overdue notes.

Like Sal Paolantonio of ESPN, who has a book on thank-you notes in the works, I have a thank-you-note rhythm. I don’t write them nearly as frequently as Sal Pal. But when players, coaches or executives leave teams I cover, I strive to touch base, thank them for dealing with me, wish them well and say I hope we meet again.

I wrote a dozen or 15 notes, some brief, some beefier, before the guys who left the AFC South started up somewhere else.

One guy wrote me back. And I was not at all surprised to find an envelope with a Ravens logo as part of the return address and a note from Jim Caldwell.

He’s as steady and as nice a guy as you’ll meet, not just in the NFL but anywhere.

And with his success guiding Baltimore’s offense in its build-up to the Super Bowl, and no minority hires in eight filled coaching jobs, there are calls for him to get a second chance, like this one from my colleague Ashley Fox.

If Baltimore’s offense and Joe Flacco are good again in 2013, I’d certainly expect Caldwell to draw interest.

[+] EnlargeJim Caldwell
AP Photo/Patrick SemanskyJim Caldwell's success with Baltimore's offense might get him on the radar, but his head-coaching bona fides are hardly indisputable.
And I’m not saying he’s unworthy.

But he inherited a great team from Tony Dungy in 2009 and had Peyton Manning lead the way to the Super Bowl, where his team was favored and lost -- and of which one overriding opinion was that Caldwell was outcoached by New Orleans counterpart Sean Payton, who surprised the Colts with an onsides kick to open the second half.

In 2010, Caldwell had another playoff team, and a questionable Caldwell timeout set up the Jets for a surprise victory at Lucas Oil Stadium.

And in 2011, as Manning recovered from neck surgeries and the Colts crumbled, Caldwell stuck with Curtis Painter as the replacement quarterback far too long when Dan Orlovsky turned out to be a far better option.

Caldwell was in a difficult situation with Bill Polian over him. That the guy running the Colts was so strong made the coach weak, and such weakness isn’t a quality from a three-year head-coaching resume that will make other teams want to hire Caldwell.

He can lead men and convey themes, and that is hard work.

But he could be conservative at the wrong times. He wasn’t always a great clock manager. He didn’t make good fourth-down decisions on when to punt, try a field goal or go for it. His public image was one of a pushover on a team with Polian and Manning really running things. His choices for defensive coordinator (Larry Coyer) and special-teams coach (Ray Rychleski) didn’t produce great results and Polian prompted the firing of Coyer with five games left in 2011.

Unsurprisingly, after Polian was fired and Ryan Grigson took over as general manager, he let Caldwell go and hired Chuck Pagano.

Pagano and his offensive coordinator, Bruce Arians, did great work in overseeing a rebound from 2-14 to 11-5 with a great new quarterback in Andrew Luck but also with a roster lacking in several areas.

Could Caldwell be a very good NFL head coach in the right circumstances? Perhaps. But while a good stretch as offensive coordinator with a hot team might enhance his best qualities from his three years as head man in Indy, it doesn’t wash away the stuff he did wrong in Indianapolis.

It hardly makes him an automatic hire or success.

He certainly should have to explain that bad in-game stuff as he sells himself for a second chance. If he gets it, I sure hope he's not under a strong GM's thumb.
There’s no doubt the Denver Broncos should be disappointed that they are losing defensive coordinator Dennis Allen.

When the Broncos hired Allen last year, they knew he’d likely get some head-coaching opportunities, but they thought he’d stick around Denver for two or three years. Yet Allen was plucked by Oakland as its head coach after one season as head coach. The Broncos’ defense improved immensely under Allen’s guidance.

Now Denver's defense will have its seventh defensive coordinator in seven seasons. Think about that. Champ Bailey and D.J. Williams have both worn a Denver uniform since 2004. They will now have their seventh coach in seven years.

The transition this year will not nearly be as difficult because Denver head coach John Fox is defensive-minded. While Allen did a good job, Fox deserves a lot of credit for Denver’s improvement and will ensure the Broncos don’t take a step backward on defense.

I think the two names we have to look at as a candidate to replace Allen are former Jacksonville coach Jack Del Rio and Denver linebacker coach Richard Smith. Del Rio was a coordinator for Fox in Carolina and Smith is extremely experienced as well.

The Broncos will miss Allen, but I think they are in better shape on defense than it may appear.

Here is a look at the Broncos’ defensive coordinators in the past six years: Larry Coyer (2006, fired), Jim Bates (2007, fired), Bob Slowik (2008, fired), Mike Nolan (2009, departed in mutual decision), Don Martindale (2010, fired), Allen (2011, hired by Oakland).
It may be a while before we know if Jim Caldwell will remain in place as the Indianapolis Colts coach.

If he does, he will have a new special teams coach. The team announced it will not renew the contract of Ray Rychleski.

“I felt we needed to make a change and head in a new direction,” Caldwell said in a statement released by the team. “Although the special teams unit made some improvement as the season progressed, it was not enough to continue our current situation. We appreciate Ray’s service and hard work during his three seasons with the team.”

When Caldwell took over the top job following Tony Dungy’s departure in 2009, the new coach made two significant hires. Defensive coordinator Larry Coyer was fired late in the season and now Rychleski will also be replaced.

Jim Irsay spoke highly of Caldwell in his Monday news conference discussing the firing of vice chairman Bill Polian and general manager Chris Polian. While Caldwell remains with the team, a new general manager will likely have a hand in determining the coach’s fate. That’s an awkward situation and most incoming executives given full powers prefer to hire their own coach.

In that news conference, Irsay praised Caldwell for his accountability and said he had admitted Coyer was a poor fit to run the Colts' scheme and it amounted to a mistake.

It does not say a lot for Caldwell that both the coaching hires that qualifies as his guys are no longer on the staff.

Bill Polian de-emphasized special teams and it's an area that a new regime should pay more attention to.
Colts vice chairman Bill Polian said on his Monday night radio show that any change was good change for the Colts.

To which I wondered why they hadn’t inserted Dan Orlovsky at quarterback, replacing Curtis Painter.

Now, on the same day they dumped defensive coordinator Larry Coyer, coach Jim Caldwell said he is making the quarterback switch.

Let’s be clear: Orlovsky is a bad quarterback. But based on how poorly Painter’s been playing, why not try something different?

Twitter is abuzz with people wondering if the point spread for the Colts game at New England Sunday is moving based on the change. Indianapolis was a 21-point underdog when Painter was expected to play.

It’s easy to say it can’t be worse with Orlovsky. But if the Patriots are determined to embarrass their AFC rival, they could be shooting to top New Orleans’ Oct. 23 62-7 win over the Colts.

And is there anyone in the league who could challenge Caldwell’s ability to understate?

"[Painter] did some things better,” Caldwell said. “But overall obviously not quite what we were looking for."

Not quite? I understand Painter wasn’t going to be close to Peyton Manning. But I’d hope the Colts’ expectations haven’t been lowered so much that what Painter’s done qualifies as anything but a whole lot worse than what the team was looking for.

Lockout leaders: Colts stand to gain

February, 16, 2011
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If there is a lockout -- when there is a lockout -- players are going to turn into coaches.

Tampa Bay quarterback Josh Freeman has already talked about organizing Bucs workouts at Tampa high schools.

It’s a situation that will help the rich get richer. If you are a good team with quality leadership, you’ll be better organized and get more done and be more ready when games roll around. If you are not a good team and lack leadership, you’ll suffer and have trouble catching up, maybe even lose ground.

The sort of worst-to-first jumps we’ve grown accustomed to will be far more difficult to pull off if there are no OTAs and a shortened training camp, I believe.

So here is a look at how our four teams stand if they are reliant on player-leaders.

[+] EnlargePeyton Manning
AP Photo/Darron CummingsThe Colts are in a good position with a team leader like Peyton Manning.
Indianapolis Colts

The venues will change, but Peyton Manning is the most coach-like player in the league. Indianapolis’ offense will have well-organized work. I suspect it won’t differ much from what the Colts would do regularly, outside of the missing coaches and changed venue. I envision Gary Bracket taking the lead on the other side of the ball.

Those two should have precise plans and suggestions in hand from Jim Caldwell, Clyde Christensen and Larry Coyer. It could be about as close to business as usual as any team pulls off.

Status: Excellent

Houston Texans

Offensively, Matt Schaub and Andre Johnson are steady offseason guys who should be able to rally the troops for work. The system is the same and Gary Kubiak can easily hand down instructions before things shut down.

Defensively, things will be different. The system is changing to Wade Phillips’ 3-4, and none of the defenders will know the coordinator well yet. DeMeco Ryans is coming off a serious Achilles injury, so while he may be an organizer, he won’t be a participant. Who is there to mentor the young corners?

Status: Just OK

Jacksonville Jaguars

The systems will stay in place, but Mel Tucker is taking over the defensive play calling from head coach Jack Del Rio. Aaron Kampman would be the top veteran leader on defense, but he’s rehabilitating a knee injury. Daryl Smith may be the best player, but does he have the personality to take charge? There is no clear point person on D.

David Garrard needs to show he can handle a situation like this. Coordinator Dirk Koetter can spell out a plan, but seeing will be believing when it comes to Garrard’s ability to follow through on it. Maurice Jones-Drew will certainly do what he can to chip in, but he may not be ready to do anything full speed after knee surgery.

Status: A bit of a mystery

Tennessee Titans

This is an awful scenario for the Titans. The quarterback is the obvious guy to lead the offense in such a time, and Tennessee doesn’t have one. (No offense, Rusty Smith, but you're not qualified to handle this yet.) Mike Munchak and his staff want to change things, but players organizing workouts together won’t ever have been through a practice run by this staff.

Who’s an offensive point person for new offensive coordinator Chris Palmer, who’s only got a couple weeks to get to know anyone? Ahmard Hall’s a candidate, but a fullback who’s not on the field full time only carries so much weight no matter how good of a leader he is. And he's not under contract for 2011.

The defense lacked leadership, and a guy like Jason Babin isn’t under contract. Again, who’s the point man for new coordinator Jerry Gray? Maybe Will Witherspoon?

Status: Potentially disastrous

Broncos have to end firing game

December, 7, 2010
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The Denver Broncos have to get out of the firing business.

This team hasn’t been to the playoffs since the 2005 season and there has been an avalanche of change in Denver since. The team has been in a firing frenzy. That trend was started by former coach Mike Shanahan, who was famous for firing people if the Broncos ever slipped. But owner Pat Bowlen has continued that trend after he fired Shanahan.

Denver has to find the right people for the job and it extends past the head coach. The Broncos must find the right person to replace Josh McDaniels, who was fired 23 months after taking over for Shanahan, who lasted 14 years on the job.

[+] EnlargePat Bowlen
AP Photo/Joe MahoneyBroncos owner Pat Bowlen needs to establish some continuity within the organization.
The following is a look at some key firings in Denver and how they are still affecting this floundering franchise:

Head coach

Firing history: McDaniels clearly wasn’t the right man to replace Shanahan. Now, after going almost a decade and a half with the same coach, Bowlen has to start a coaching search for the second time in less than two years.

Current state: The Broncos have quickly gone from one of the most stable NFL franchise to being one in disarray. Two years ago, this was perhaps the most attractive job in the league because Shanahan left it in pretty good shape. With a stripped talent base and lack of an identity, this has the look of a team whose reconstruction could take awhile.

Defensive coordinator


Firing history: The defense has been a mess for several years in Denver. The beginning of the end of the Shanahan era was when Shanahan fired defensive coordinator Larry Coyer after the 2006 season. Shanahan was looking for a scapegoat after a late-season collapse. Coyer was the victim. What a mistake. Coyer, now the defensive coordinator in Indianapolis, is one of the best defensive coaches in the league. All stability on that side of the ball left with Coyer. It began a parade of one-year failures. Jim Bates, Bob Slowik and Mike Nolan all lasted one season in Denver. Nolan and McDaniels mutually decided to part ways after last season. Nolan did a fine job in Denver. McDaniels blew it by not making it work with Nolan, who is now in Miami.

Current state: Don Martindale will, in all likelihood, be the latest one-year Denver defensive coordinator, meaning Denver will have six defensive coordinators in six seasons. There is little chance Martindale will be kept by the new head coach. Another coaching change could potentially mean the Broncos could move back to the 4-3 base defense that Shanahan used.

Front office

Firing history: Another underrated loss was when Shanahan fired general manager Ted Sundquist. Shanahan had more power than Sundquist and he got rid of him. It was a mistake. Sundquist was a good personnel man who was detailed-oriented and who built the bottom of Denver’s roster very well. The Broncos’ roster was always deep when Sundquist was around. The team has gotten thin since he left. After Sundquist -- who is still without a job and who would likely jump at the chance to return to the Broncos -- was fired, Shanahan promoted the father-son team of Jim and Jeff Goodman. When Shanahan was gassed, the Goodmans stayed and were part of the group that hired McDaniels. They were abruptly fired less than two months after McDaniels was hired. This was a bad sign. McDaniels played a role in firing two people who were part of the decision-making team that just hired him. He had too much power for a 32-year-old first-time head coach.

Current state: Brian Xanders is the general manager, but McDaniels had more control over the team than Xanders. His future with the team is unclear. The Broncos need experienced help in the personnel department and a strong general manager would help.

Whatever happens, Denver has to stop this string of mistakes and settle on the right people at several positions.
ANDERSON, Ind. -- Presuming a bigger contribution from Bob Sanders, a healthy Kelvin Hayden, improvement from the young defensive tackles and cornerbacks and better options on the edge behind Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis, the 2010 Colts defense could be among the best of the Peyton Manning era.

What’s the weak spot? If there is one, it’s hardly glaring.

“I think whenever you have a collection of guys who’ve been here that long, experience counts for a lot,” Freeney said. “We’ve shown a lot of big strides early. Compared to last year, we were learning the defense, it was new to all of us. This year we know what to expect, have a lot of those veteran guys back there and more experience up front. We should be better.”

The Colts will never be known as a defensive team because they are Manning’s team. But the defense is too often glossed over.

This is a team that went to the Super Bowl with two rookie cornerbacks, Jerraud Powers and Jacob Lacey, playing a ton. It ranked eighth in points allowed, the most important defensive category there is.

Coordinator Larry Coyer will be more comfortable in his second season just as his players will be more comfortable with him. And I expect he asks them to do more.

“I think we’re 10 times better than what we were last year,” Powers said. “The second go-round is always easier. ... We’ve got some problems -- look at safety, we’ve got Melvin Bullitt, Bob [Sanders] and Antoine Bethea. It’s a problem to get everybody on the field and that’s a good thing to have. We’re going to be a pretty good defense.”
ESPN.com NFL Power Ranking (pre-camp): 1

ANDERSON, Ind. -- They could have made a bid at an undefeated regular season and their hopes for a Super Bowl win were snuffed out by an onside kick and an untimely pick.

So it should concern the rest of the AFC South that the 2010 Indianapolis Colts appear to be better than last year’s version.

They get two high-quality players, who were injured for most of last year, back in safety Bob Sanders and receiver Anthony Gonzalez. The Colts added a third edge rusher and a blocking tight end in the draft.

“Coach [Jim] Caldwell wants us to be a consistent team and not one that plays really well one week and not one that goes into a slump the next couple of games and then comes back,” Peyton Manning said. “I think we have been pretty consistent. Our offseason work, our execution and our attention to detail in training camp make a difference.

“But what has happened in the past doesn’t guarantee you anything for this 2010 season. We have some new players, new coaches and it is up to us to go out and form the identity of his team and to go out and try to win games this season.”

THREE HOT ISSUES

[+] EnlargeBob Sanders
AP Photo/Darron CummingsBob Sanders doesn't plan on changing his style to avoid injuries. "It's a physical game," he said. "I make tackles."
1. Can Sanders stay on the field? The thing that makes him so good is the same thing that makes him so injury prone. He throws himself around like a torpedo, and suffers the consequences. He’s upbeat and happy right now to be spending his time on the field and with coaches and teammates instead of in the training room with medical staff.

“I don’t think you can put yourself in less danger on the field,” Sanders said when I asked if there was any way he could be less reckless to try to preserve himself. “We’re football players so we’re going to be physical. It’s a physical game. I make tackles. You just never know what’s going to happen. You just have to play your best, hope for the best, I pray and put it in God’s hands and just try to do my job.”

When he’s out there, he’ll be more creative than when we last saw him playing consistently. Second-year defensive coordinator Larry Coyer is much more willing to blitz than Ron Meeks was.

As good as Melvin Bullitt's been as Sanders’ replacement, Sanders is a game-altering presence when he’s out there. Sanders is making plays in camp. If he’s out there, the Colts’ defense could be fantastic.

2. Will offensive line changes amount to an upgrade? Left guard Ryan Lilja was let go, so at least one spot will be filled by someone new. Tony Ugoh looked like the early choice, but he’s been pulled back to tackle to work for the injured Charlie Johnson, so Jamey Richard is in play. Richard might shift to center while Jeff Saturday recovers from a knee scope, which could open the door for rookie Jacques McClendon, if he’s healthy, or someone like Jaimie Thomas.

The talent pool now includes McClendon and tackle Adam Terry, but there was no overhaul. Pass protection combined with Manning’s ability to get the ball out quick meant few sacks, but the team needs to run better for balance. Short-yardage bugaboos have been a factor in season-ending losses the past two years.

New offensive line coach Pete Metzelaars has a chance to make minor alterations that could have a bearing, and a quality-blocking tight end like Brody Eldridge could even help revive the once bread-and-butter stretch play.

[+] EnlargeJerraud Powers
Mark J. Rebilas/US PresswireSecond-year cornerback Jerraud Powers had 66 tackles, a forced fumble and an interception during his rookie season.
3. Will secondary depth hold up? Bill Polian purged the roster of some injury-prone corners, then saw third-round pick Kevin Thomas go down shortly after the draft with a serious knee injury. Kelvin Hayden, Jerraud Powers and Jacob Lacey should be a fine top three, but if one gets hurt, Deshea Townsend or Marcus McCauley, who were available recently, could be the next option.

If the Colts have to go that deep down the depth chart, their pass rush will be even more vital. But how many teams would love for the fourth cornerback to be a primary issue heading into a season?

BIGGEST SURPRISE

It’s hard to find them with a very low-key team that drafts and grooms the bulk of its players. Polian’s harped on short-yardage failures, but then the team didn’t add a sure fire starter to the line with Andy Alleman (already gone), Terry and McClendon.

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT

Before the Colts could start to sort things out, injuries dictated they move offensive linemen around. Saturday is out 2-6 weeks after a knee scope, and Johnson and McClendon are sidelined. It would have been nice to see Metzelaars have a full deck for a long stretch in order to best hold competitions and compare and contrast players. The sooner they resolve the lineup and start to build cohesion, the better. Now it’s probably going to be later than would be ideal.

OBSERVATION DECK

  • [+] EnlargeLarry Coyer
    AP Photo/Darron CummingsExpect more surprises out of Larry Coyer's defense this season.
    In Year 2 of Coyer’s tenure as defensive coordinator, I expect the Colts will be more exotic with an occasional surprise look or package -- perhaps most often utilizing their depth at safety where Sanders, Antoine Bethea and Bullitt make for three starting-caliber players.
  • While the defensive line shows fantastic speed and strength, Mitch King looked the least smooth during the drill in which linemen weave through blocking dummies, turn a corner and try to strip a quarterback. For those excited about him, an adjusted timetable might be advisable.
  • As the punter and kickoff man, Pat McAfee is electric. But teams in the market for a kickoff specialist might want to keep an eye on Garrett Lindholm, who looks like he can regularly put the ball in the end zone.
  • Powers carries himself exceptionally well. During a break in one practice, as most guys went to the cool-down tent or took themselves out of football mentality for a minute, he picked the brain of Reggie Wayne. Powers already has become a media favorite, too.
  • Manning could make good money if his only job was to put on clinics about how to best loft red-zone passes to the pylons in the back corners of the end zones.
  • Joseph Addai knows what he’s doing on every play, and Donald Brown is smart enough to follow his lead, though Brown doesn’t shine in pass protection one-on-ones versus linebackers. The Colts will be just fine if the line can block for the runners, and maybe even if it can’t. Brown’s had more than a year to get pass protections down. If that keeps him off the field any this year, it’s no one’s fault but his.
  • Better didn’t mean great for the interior defensive line in 2009. Daniel Muir and Antonio Johnson continue to improve, and Fili Moala will make for a third 300-pounder in there. He appears to be comfortable and ready to contribute.
  • The Colts haven’t emphasized the return game and, at times, it’s felt almost like they de-emphasized it. But undrafted rookie Brandon James is a miniature speedster who is in position to win at least the punt-return job. He could give Manning and the offense a short field once in a while.
  • John Chick, who joined the Colts from the Canadian Football League, could win the fourth defensive end spot if he shows a good learning curve and durability.
Ernest WIlford AP Photo/Phil CoaleReceiver-turned-tight end Ernest Wilford stood out for his performance during OTAs.
Four things that should impact the AFC South this fall:

In Jacksonville …

Ernest Wilford got his money in Miami. When things didn’t work out for him there after a free-agent deal, he returned to Jacksonville for 2009, a receiver turned tight end who was second to Marcedes Lewis. Wilford played in 15 games, catching just 11 balls for 123 yards and a score.

Wilford’s not been talked about much this offseason. It’s second-year man Zach Miller, after all, who’s supposed to be this great piece for Jaguars offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter to use creatively.

But while Miller was banged up and missing work, it was Wilford who got a lot of featured time during offseason work. Wilford might be the big surprise among David Garrard's pass targets and tight ends.

“We think Zach can be that guy, we have high hopes for him,” Koetter said. “The guy that’s really shined bright in [organized team activities] in Zach’s absence is Ernest Wilford. Back in [2007] when we did go to the playoffs, Ernest was our leading receiver. I think Ernest has been kind of reborn.

“He’s got all these reps. We’re excited about the role Zach can play. But I think Ernest Wilford probably made more big plays at OTAs than anybody out there.”

In Indianapolis…

[+] EnlargeSanders
John Pyle/Icon SMIBob Sanders is looking forward to being unleashed on quarterbacks.
Safety Bob Sanders only played in two games last season, the first for Larry Coyer as the Colts' defensive coordinator. Defenders loved that Coyer started incorporating some blitzes, something the team almost never did under Ron Meeks.

I imagine Sanders as a scary blitzer who will get his chances for shots at quarterbacks.

“I think he’d be pretty good at it,” Colts president Bill Polian said. “He’s not blitzed a lot. Almost none, because we weren’t a blitzing team in the old configuration. His explosiveness and speed are something that are really special. We’ve used him in special situations in the past where we’ve assigned him to a running back and he’s done a heck of a job with it. So there is no reason to believe he won’t be a good blitzer.”

Sanders sounded excited during summer workouts about the possibility of adding some sacks to his stats.

“I love it because it just expands my game and each safety around here, it gives us more opportunity to show what we can do and showcase our skills,” he said. “So we’re excited about it and look forward to getting better at it.”

In Houston …

With Rick Dennison taking over for Kyle Shanahan as offensive coordinator and Greg Knapp in place as quarterbacks coach, there is not a major transformation of the Texans’ offense in the works. But there are subtle changes we might notice.

Matt Schaub said his review of the 2009 season was helpful, as he and the two new coaches came to a consensus on how things developed. Dennison has roots with the same Denver system that bred Texans head coach Gary Kubiak and Shanahan (now with Washington), while Knapp worked with Schaub in Atlanta.

One key to Schaub’s great connection with Andre Johnson has been crossing routes. And one small change with the new coaches pertains to those.

Previously Schaub read progressions the same way regardless of the coverage.

“They came in and said, if we get man coverage let’s look at it this way and if we get zone let’s read it a different way,” Schaub said. “I think it’s really going to help us. There are only certain concepts that we do that on.

“But I think that will really help our game get even better to take advantage of some of the throws down the field rather than taking throws underneath when something could have opened up. Those can help us get bigger chunks of yardage.”

[+] EnlargeLavelle Hawkins
Don McPeak/US PresswireLavelle Hawkins could be in line for more playing time out of the slot.
In Tennessee …

I’ve always thought that offensive coordinator Mike Heimerdinger was simply philosophically opposed to going deeper than three receivers on a Sunday if health allowed him to stick with his top three. Depth, though, always has been a Titans issue that fit neatly with the practice.

But in talking to him at the end of OTAs, I learned that reluctance to look to a fourth or even fifth receiver on a game day hasn’t been as much about rhythm as it has been about the fissure between the third and fourth guys.

Behind his top three of Kenny Britt, Nate Washington and Justin Gage, Heimerdinger now has Lavelle Hawkins, for whom the lights apparently have come on, as well as third-round pick Damian Williams, who’s likely to be working as a return man.

“Hawk’s got a good feel, he was actually coaching other guys. That was scary when I saw that,” Heimerdinger said with a laugh. “He’s gotten to the point now where I get on him about little things and he’ll do it right the very next time.”

If Hawkins can stay on course, look for him to get chances working out of the slot.

Denver let Colts coordinator go

February, 1, 2010
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Not long ago, I was chatting with a member of the Mike Shanahan regime in Denver.

The former Denver employee and I were discussing what decision marked the beginning of the end for Shanahan’s 14-season run in Denver.

After tossing around a few ideas, we came to a consensus: Larry Coyer.

Shanahan should never have fired Coyer, now the defensive coordinator with the Indianapolis Colts, as his defensive coordinator. Shanahan’s Broncos never rebounded from his decision to jettison the innovative, successful and popular Coyer after a late-season collapse in 2006.

The Broncos’ defense was in a shambles in 2007 and 2008. After Coyer was fired, Shanahan hired Jim Bates to run the defense. He was fired 12 months later. Then, Bob Slowik was promoted to defensive coordinator for the 2008 season. He was fired along with Shanahan. Thursday, second-year Denver coach Josh McDaniels promoted linebackers coach Don Martindale to be the defensive coordinator, replacing Mike Nolan.

Martindale is Denver’s fifth defensive coordinator in five seasons.

I wonder if Shanahan would still be the coach in Denver if he hadn't fired Coyer?

Coyer’s units were always strong. He was blitz master and he made terrific in-game adjustments.

Coyer, of course, has moved on nicely. He is six days away from leading the Colts’ defense in the Super Bowl against New Orleans.
Peyton Manning and Drew Brees Getty ImagesPeyton Manning and Drew Brees lead two of the most powerful passing attacks into Super Bowl XLIV.
The Colts and Saints arrive in Miami on Monday, when the hype for Super Bowl XLIV will kick into high gear.

Eager to do our part, we locked NFC South blogger Pat Yasinskas, who analyzes the Saints for ESPN.com, and AFC South blogger Paul Kuharsky, who tracks the Colts, in a room and asked them to talk through several of the top issues.

We’re sure to revisit many of them in the week to come, so consider this a tasty platter or appetizers. Tuck a napkin in your collar and dive in.

How much of a factor is it that the Colts have a recent Super Bowl championship on their resume, while this is the first Super Bowl appearance in a not-so-glorious franchise history for the Saints?

Pat Yasinskas: I’m not going to even try to bluff my way through this one or downplay this aspect. This is a huge factor and the Saints are clearly at a disadvantage here. By my count, they’ve only got four players who have even appeared in a Super Bowl (with other teams, of course). That’s safety Darren Sharper, cornerback Randall Gay, fullback Kyle Eckel and long-snapper Jason Kyle. Gay is the only one of those guys with a Super Bowl ring.

If you really want to pad the list, I suppose we could throw in tight ends Jeremy Shockey and David Thomas, who were on the injured-reserve list when their teams went to Super Bowls, and fullback Heath Evans, who went to a Super Bowl with New England. But Evans won’t play in this one because he’s on injured reserve. That’s it. Not a long list of guys who have been there and done that.

The Saints haven’t been here before, but they have to act as if they have. They’ve got strong veteran leadership in players such as Sharper, Drew Brees and Jonathan Vilma. They’ll have to follow their lead. Just as important, the coaching staff has to set the tone that the Saints shouldn’t stroll into Miami with their eyes wide open. They need all eyes focused only on winning the game.

Paul Kuharsky: I’m not expecting the Saints to be overwhelmed or unfocused by the hype or events of Super Bowl week. They were smart to get their game plan drawn up and installed during the week after winning their conference, same as the Colts did.

It’s Super Bowl Sunday itself that can prove to be the big difference. It’s great to have people tell you about the unnatural start time, the long delay between warm-ups and pregame festivities and the extended halftime to make room for The Who. It’s another thing to go through it yourself. Edge: Colts. Not only have they done it, they’ve done it in this very venue.

I also think the adrenaline that shoots through guys when kickoff finally arrives can make it hard for them to settle down. Indianapolis will be better prepared for that, and if the Colts settle down more quickly than the Saints, New Orleans has to hope by the time its feet hit the ground it’s not facing a two-score deficit.

Understandably, the first thing people talk about with these two teams is the passing game. But both the Colts and the Saints can run the ball a little bit. Which team has the better running game?

[+] EnlargeSaints Running backs
Scott Cunningham/Getty Images Mike Bell, left, Reggie Bush and Pierre Thomas are part of a running game that balanced New Orleans' offense.
PY: I’m going with the Saints. People tend to overlook their running game, but it’s a big reason why they’re in the Super Bowl. One of the best things Sean Payton did in the offseason was realize his running game was inconsistent and just plain bad last year. He made a conscious commitment to make the running game better this year and the most impressive thing might be that he and general manager Mickey Loomis were able to avoid the temptation to go out and sign Edgerrin James or draft Beanie Wells.

They realized they already had some good backs in the building with Pierre Thomas, Reggie Bush and Mike Bell and they added Lynell Hamilton for a bit of depth. They had a good offensive line already in place, and Payton altered his play calling to have a more balanced offense that allowed the Saints to protect leads and run out the clock.

New Orleans doesn’t have one dominant back. Thomas can do a bit of everything, Bush provides speed and a receiver out of the backfield and Bell and Hamilton give the Saints some power. This makes for a very solid combination.

PK: I like the Saints' running game better as well, but as we’ve discussed thoroughly in the AFC South blog this season, the Colts aren’t looking for conventional production in this department. They need their runners to pick up blitzes, put together some efficient runs, work well in play-action, and not put the team in bad spots with runs for losses. The home run plays are far more likely to come out of the passing game.

It’s important to note that the Colts, the NFL’s lowest-rated running team in the regular season, just out-rushed the Jets, the league’s top ground game, in the AFC title game. Indy has survived a lot of quality running backs too, including the Titans' explosive 2,000-yard runner Chris Johnson. While he torched the rest of the league, averaging 5.8 yards a carry, he managed 4.1 and 147 total rushing yards against the Colts in two Tennessee losses.

The Colts may give up some yards, but overall they are more than capable of containing Thomas, Bush, Bell and Hamilton well enough to win.

The quarterbacks are obviously the marquee names in this game and they will be dissected all week.

PK: I have a great deal of appreciation for Drew Brees, but even if he wins this game, we’re not going to be calling him Peyton Manning’s equal. Both quarterbacks are excellent leaders. Both are supremely accurate. Both have a quality stable of weapons.

But things begin to stray from there. Manning has four MVPs, including this season’s, and he won it over Brees, who finished second. Manning has a lot more big-game experience and a title on his resume. And while he wasn’t always at his best on the playoff stage, he’s playing at a level right now where a lot of people feel, reasonably it seems, that he may just be unstoppable.

In the AFC Championship Game, against the Jets and the NFL’s top-rated defense, he needed some time to figure out what New York was trying to do. Once he did, he shredded the Jets with 377 yards and three touchdowns. His in-game adjustments, with help from coordinator Tom Moore, are unparalleled. And like a lot of defensive coaches before him, Gregg Williams is talking about sending people at Manning and hitting him. These days, it very rarely works out the way against Manning and the Colts, as it did against Brett Favre and the Vikings.

PY: Paul, let me start by saying I respect the heck out of Manning and all he has achieved. He is a first-ballot Hall of Famer and, quite possibly, the best quarterback ever. And I’ll gladly agree that he probably is playing at his highest level ever right now.

That said, why can’t we call Brees his equal if the Saints win this game? Seriously, I believe the only thing really separating Brees and Manning right now is a Super Bowl ring. Look at Brees’ numbers the past few years. He’s right there with Manning. I honestly remember watching him in training camp last year and thinking, “This guy is the closest thing to Peyton Manning I’ve ever seen’’ and Brees has only continued to improve since then. He has carried a franchise on his shoulders and that franchise is the New Orleans Saints -- enough said about that.

As for the MVPs, that’s a wonderful thing. But I think some of that is overrated and the Manning name carries a lot of weight in elections. I’m not trying to tear down Manning at all. But I think you have to at least let Brees in the same sentence if he can win this game. I’ll offer a compromise here. If the Saints win this game, can we at least say the two best quarterbacks in the league are from teams in the South?

PK: Well, beyond four MVPs to none, if the Colts win Manning will be up two Super Bowls to none, and while he’s only three NFL seasons ahead of Brees he has led his team to the postseason 10 times to Brees’ three. Lots of cushion there in my eyes. But I’ll go with you on the South divisions ranking one and two if Brees gets his hands on that Lombardi Trophy.

We talked quarterbacks, of course we have to talk pass rushes. How much will the guys chasing Manning and Brees influence this game?

PK: For a long time the Colts' defense was at its best when the offense got a lead and made the opponent one-dimensional. That did a lot to get the run game out of the mix against a defense keyed around speed, not size, and put Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis in those maximal pass-rushing situations.

It doesn’t have to be that way now. This version of the Colts is still fast, but the defense is a bit bigger with Antonio Johnson and Daniel Muir manning the middle of the line. It has a second big-hitting linebacker in Clint Session to go with Gary Brackett and boasts defensive backs who can come up and hit as well as run and cover.

Jon Stinchcomb (against Mathis) and Jermon Bushrod (against Freeney) will be dealing with some serious speed. If Freeney's ankle injury holds him out or limits him, that will hurt. Raheem Brock is a quality third end, but he won't necessarily prompt the Saints to help Bushrod with a tight end or back, so the vaunted Saints' passing attack may not have to sacrifice a weapon in protection. If the Colts bring a fifth rusher to help, as they have much more often in Larry Coyer’s first season as their defensive coordinator, the timing up front can get all out of whack no matter who's at end.

If either defense can prompt some happy feet, it could be an edge.

PY: Absolutely. The pass rush is going to be a deciding factor in this game for both teams. No doubt Indianapolis has a great pass rush and that’s a challenge for the entire New Orleans offense, particularly Bushrod. He is a backup who has been forced to play all season because of an injury to Jammal Brown.

Bushrod has his limitations. But he has held up all right against players such as Julius Peppers and John Abraham. DeMarcus Ware has been the only guy to really tear him apart. Admittedly, a lot of that has to do with the rest of this offense more than it does with Bushrod’s skills. The Saints account for him on every play and they’ve been able to cover him because the rest of their offensive line is so good. They’ve given him help from tight ends, fullbacks and running backs and the offense is designed so that Brees rarely takes deep drops and he gets rid of the ball very quickly. Plus, it’s tough to fluster Brees.

Sure, it’s tough to fluster Manning too, but that’s not going to stop the Saints from trying, and their pass rush is better than a lot of people think. Defensive end Will Smith is one of the most underrated players in this game and Bobby McCray’s a pretty good pass-rusher too. With Sedrick Ellis and Anthony Hargrove, the Saints are capable of getting a push in the middle and Gregg Williams is not afraid to bring the blitz -- although I don’t see him doing it a lot in this game. The Saints beat up Favre and Kurt Warner in their two playoff games. I know Manning is seen as sacred by a lot of people, but I don’t think Williams and the New Orleans defense view him that way.

PK: However it unfolds, I root for a classic. We should have good seats, I want the good storylines too.

PY: I’m with you my friend. Nothing better than the Super Bowl -- good football, good weather and good entertainment. Remember how great Bruce Springsteen’s show was at halftime last year? Oh, that’s right, you didn’t make it. Hope The Who helps make up for that.

PK: Could be another tricky day for you and the team you’re following. But it’ll be fun to join together to see how it unfolds.

No generation gap for Colts' Coyer

January, 28, 2010
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Larry CoyerAP Photo/Michael Conroy Despite the age difference, Colts defensive coordinator Larry Coyer relates well to his players, and they've responded to the changes Coyer has made on defense.
INDIANAPOLIS -- Making a point in a conversation with his defense, Larry Coyer planted an idea and image with lasting power.

“During training camp he was talking about how balance is the key to everything and he said that he could stand on one leg and hold a TV over his head,” rookie cornerback Jacob Lacey said, chuckling at the memory. “I don’t know if he could do it. I’d like to see him try. It’d be a small TV. A hand-held TV.”

The picture of the white-haired, 66-yard old veteran coach in a Karate Kid pose pressing a Sony overhead says a lot about Coyer's first year as the Colts' defensive coordinator.

In preaching balance, Coyer reflected on a theme that has keyed a Super Bowl year and remains important as the Colts prepare for New Orleans. A once-predictable defense now mixes things up. Like new players, he plugged in and didn’t rock Indianapolis’ boat. Like his boss, Jim Caldwell, and the rest of the staff, Coyer’s been an effective teacher.

In a league where young players can sometimes experience a disconnect with old coaches, Coyer’s methods have worked quite well.

“The guy’s got a lot of life lessons and stuff that he instills in us. He’s got some pretty funny stories that he tells,” Lacey said. “He’s a great teacher, a hands-on guy. He’s been around for a while so he knows a lot of inside things."

Said veteran cornerback Kelvin Hayden: “He’s an old guy, but he brings energy. He tries to do things to get us going, especially the night before a game. He sometimes puts music on and he gets to dancing. Everybody’s watching him, laughing at him. Just to loosen guys up and let them know we’re going to take care of business but we want to have fun as well.”

And how’s the dancing?

“I think the 'Pants on the Ground' guy is better than Coach Coyer,” Hayden said.

Coyer passed on a chance to defend his moves. He politely declined interview requests last week and the Colts didn’t act on league rules that say coordinators must be available to talk weekly.

When Caldwell took over for Tony Dungy, his biggest change was at defensive coordinator. He let Ron Meeks go and brought in Coyer. The talk was of being a bit bigger and more aggressive defense.

During training camp, a coach with another team told me he expected it would take a much longer work week to prepare for a Colts defense moving forward. Dungy’s Cover 2 system was a straightforward deal, and the variations of coverages and rush packages were minimal. The Colts relied on their basics and played them well.

Under Coyer, there has been more blitzing, and more man-to-man coverage change-ups from the bedrock zone principals.

(Read full post)

Session breaking through

January, 7, 2010
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Clint SessionStephen Dunn/Getty ImagesClint Session emerged this season as one of the Colts' steadiest defenders, racking up 104 tackles, two interceptions and a forced fumble.
It’s easy to be anonymous on the Colts' defense.

You’ve got pass-rushers extraordinaire Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis. You’ve got oft-injured spark-plug strong safety Bob Sanders, who played in only two games this year and is on IR.

And to many folks, you’ve got everyone else.

It’s a star-studded team with Peyton Manning, Reggie Wayne, Dallas Clark, Freeney, Mathis, Jeff Saturday and the clutch Adam Vinatieri, the kicker who’s been injured much of the season.

Perhaps that’s about the saturation point. And perhaps that’s a good thing when it comes to a player such as Clint Session, the third-year linebacker in his first season on the weak side.

In many ways, he’s a textbook Colt.

Indianapolis drafted him in the fourth round in 2007 out of Pitt and he was a guy that fit their linebacking mold: not especially big, but with the kind of speed to cover ground and run with a top tight end and with the physicality to deliver big pops.

Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. was assistant recruiting coordinator at Pitt while Session played for the Panthers.

“And I watched him in Miami as a high school player,” Williamson said. “Very intense, fast and extremely explosive. He is a perfect fit for Indy's run and hit defense. This year, I think he just adjusted to the speed of the NFL game and with reading his assignment.”

Sessions was so productive in the team’s road win at Houston and home win over Tennessee that the Colts brought him to the postgame interview podium.

He’s hardly a media darling. I wouldn’t call him shy. Although he's willing, he strikes me as more interested in doing his work than talking about it.

He ranks third on the Colts with 104 tackles and had two picks, a forced fumble and half a sack this season.

And he’s worked well with middle linebacker Gary Brackett and strongside 'backers Tyjuan Hagler and Philip Wheeler, a group that blitzed much more often this season under new defensive coordinator Larry Coyer.

His production was peaking as the regular season slowed for Indianapolis. In the five games before the Colts shut things down in the third quarter of the Week 16 game against the Jets, he had four games with double digit tackles and 57 tackles total.

An AFC personnel man I spoke to this week praised Session as a pass-rusher and coverage defender.

“I thought he really came on. He’s a heck of a young player,” the personnel man said. “He’s got good instincts. He’s physical. He’s a good blitzer, he times his blitzes out. He’s a short, compact guy.

“He and Brackett, you can barely see the guys they are so short and compact and quick and explosive. I think that tandem has really solidified their linebacking corps. He’s done a really good job for them.”

The Colts don’t play again until a week from Saturday night. If Session does in the playoffs what he did during the regular season, more recognition will come. The Colts’ roll call of stars could have no choice but to grow by one.

Worthy of consideration

December, 24, 2009
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Award season is almost upon us.

I thought I’d give you a run through of where I believe AFC South candidates should fit in the voting. Please note I don’t have a ballot, and could be missing good candidates here from outside the division. I'm also two games early.

As always, I invite a conversation in the comments.

MVP: Peyton Manning should win it and I believe he will. I’m not big on the “without-him” criteria, where you say how bad the Colts would be without him. I’m not big on the “so dependent” criteria, where you say the team’s run game is poor and they are so dependent on Manning it increases his value.

Here’s what I am big on: I believe he’s the best football player in the league right now. Seven fourth-quarter comebacks, a 14-0 record and early clinching of the big trifecta -- the division, a bye and homefield advantage. What else could you ask him to lead his team to?


Don McPeak-US PRESSWIRETennessee running back Chris Johnson's stats are worthy of heavy consideration for offensive POY.
Offensive Player of the Year: Chris Johnson should win it. I understand that some voters will feel compelled to put Drew Brees here if they go with Peyton Manning for MVP or vice versa, but that would be a mistake and here is why:

Johnson is miles ahead of the next most-productive running back, while Manning and Andre Johnson, the NFL’s leading receiver in yardage, have no such distance between them and their competitors.

Chris Johnson has run for 1,730 yards. Steven Jackson is second with 1,353. That 377 yard difference amounts to 22 percent more for CJ. Johnson is 17 percent ahead of Ray Rice on scrimmage yards.

Manning is one of six quarterbacks with a passer rating over 100. He leads a group of eight signal-callers who’ve already eclipsed 4,000 yards or are all but certain to.

Andre Johnson has 1,433 receiving yards. How many guys are within 22 percent of that total? Six.

Are running backs down? Sure. Is it more and more a passing league? Absolutely. Are people still handing the ball off? Yup.

Chris Johnson’s rushing performance this season is the single best offensive performance of the season. He should win this award by as large a voting margin as any postseason award is won.

Defensive Player of the Year: A case can be made for Dwight Freeney, who’s got 11.5 sacks in a very consistent rushing season. But the Colts defense has been good at all three levels and his push doesn’t stand out. Charles Woodson and Darrelle Revis are the buzz guys now and I think Woodson is a worthy winner. I’d lean to Darren Sharper.

Offensive Rookie of the Year: Percy Harvin looks to be in line to win it, and he’s been an explosive addition to the Vikings. But just be sure you’re not putting him here as a receiver alone, because it’s his additional work as a kickoff return man (his 28.3-yard average is third in the NFL) that puts him over the top. Austin Collie's receiving numbers (53 catches for 567 yards and seven touchdowns) aren’t too far off Harvin’s (49, 691, six).


Brett Davis/US PresswireTexans rookie linebacker Brian Cushing has received praise from coaches around the league.
Defensive Rookie of the Year: Brian Cushing's been a huge addition to the Texans and I’ve listened to opposing coaches, on and off the record, rave about him all season. He’s played like a veteran despite missing camp with a knee injury and sitting out a lot of practices during the season with a foot injury. He should win this because of how much impact he’s had for the Houston defense. I’ve been asked about Jerraud Powers, who’s been quite good for what the Colts ask of a corner, but he’s not on par with Cushing. Buffalo’s Jairus Byrd will get votes for an excellent season with an NFL-high nine interceptions and Brian Orakpo is a strong candidate.

Coach of the Year: Jim Caldwell deserves serious consideration. Broad national thinking is he inherited a great situation and didn’t screw it up. But he made two significant staff changes. The defense, under coordinator Larry Coyer, has been excellent, and the special teams’ coverage, under Ray Rychleski has been better. The Colts didn’t plan on life without Bob Sanders or Anthony Gonzalez, yet they’ve not missed a beat with those guys missing.

But voters traditionally lean heavily on turnarounds or surprises. I figure that means Sean Payton and maybe Marvin Lewis get the most attention here. If the Jaguars find a way into the playoffs, so should Jack Del Rio.

Comeback Player of the Year: I’ve heard some Vince Young talk. I think this requires coming back from more than a self-inflicted benching, and more than a 10-game season. I don’t think he’s in the same class here as Cedric Benson, who had been dismissed as a bust. And I know a lot of folks will look to Tom Brady.

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