NFL Nation: Mike Martz

EARTH CITY, Mo. -- Whether it's Kurt Warner at his home in Arizona or in studio with Marshall Faulk at NFL Network, Isaac Bruce in Florida, Torry Holt in North Carolina, Orlando Pace in St. Louis, Mike Martz in California or really any other St. Louis Ram from the 1999 Super Bowl XXXIV champions, the average Sunday afternoon rarely offers much in the way of surprises.

In the 15 years since the birth of the Greatest Show on Turf, many elements of the dynamic offense that was so unique have become commonplace in stadiums all over the NFL. The Rams will celebrate that legacy on "Monday Night Football" against San Francisco when they remember the 15th anniversary of the championship season in a halftime ceremony. Most of that team is expected to attend, and the Rams will wear their 1999 throwback uniforms in homage.

Throwback uniforms aren't needed to see the lasting impact of that Rams offense. Turn on just about any game and you will see supposedly high-tech passing games with route combinations, protection schemes and athletes the likes of which have never been seen before.

[+] EnlargeKurt Warner
AP Photo/Tom DiPaceKurt Warner on playing QB for the Rams' passing offense and how new NFL rules have made it easier to pass: "I look at it like we were the first ones to do it. We did it just like that in an era where it wasn't popular or wasn't the norm."
But that is not really the case.

"All around the league you can see the innovation, the things that sprang from what we did as a group," Bruce said. "I see combinations we ran, I think just about every position coach, wide receiver coach, some offensive coordinators, guys that have been position coaches that are now coordinators or head coaches now that I’ve run into, they’ll tell me that they show their players our film, the way I ran routes, the way I came off the football, the way I blocked down the field, certain things like that. That was everything we learned in our meeting room. We really hammered that in every week as a unit to block for each other, be the fastest group, the most explosive group. I think we had the best group with the most creativity. So you see a lot of it just floating around the league. Not only in the NFL, but college as well."

The Rams were doing it in 1999, long before the league made rule changes that encouraged more passing and more scoring. Today, the NFL is viewed as a passing league, the next cycle in the evolution of the game. But , it's a cycle that started in part because of the 1999 Rams and in the years since, the "Greatest Show on Turf" has taken on a life beyond one championship season.

It was after the Rams' Super Bowl loss to New England in 2001 that the league began adjusting the rules to allow receivers more time and space to run free and put an emphasis on getting defenders to keep their hands off receivers. Like the rule outlawing the head slap trademarked by Deacon Jones, those rule changes are perhaps the most tangible way in which the Rams' offense changed the game.

"The thing you look at now is because of all the rule changes, it’s made it easier," Warner said. "What we did at a time where you could still grab and hold guys and you could still hit guys over the middle and all of those different things, now when you look at it, I think there’s a degree of success allowed in the NFL that has become a lot easier. I’m not really surprised by what guys are doing. I look at it like we were the first ones to do it. We did it just like that in an era where it wasn’t popular or wasn’t the norm."

Indeed, there was nothing conventional about how the Rams' offense went about its business. Rooted in the principles first wrought by Sid Gillman and Francis Schmidt, the Rams' vertical passing offense that sprang from the mind of Martz was a direct descendant of Don Coryell. Coryell's coaching tree would eventually include names like Joe Gibbs, Norv Turner, Ernie Zampese, Jim Hanifan and, of course, Martz.

At its core, the "Air Coryell" offense operates under simple ideals intended to create open spaces and favorable matchups. The offense supplied an endless array of motions, formations and personnel groupings that would allow the Rams to spread out defenses and mix deep and intermediate passes with power running. But the passes always came first.

"I think you get exposed when you start moving guys around in matchups and you can take control of the tempo of the game," Martz said. "When you do that, you force defenses into doing something they don’t want to be. Once you find out the rules a defense has and the more complicated a defense, the more you can take advantage."

Having superior talents like Holt, Bruce, Az-Zahir Hakim and Ricky Proehl on the outside combined with Faulk's unique route-running ability at the running back spot nearly guaranteed Martz could get a matchup he liked on every play. Having a talented offensive line capable of allowing time to push the ball down the field and a fearless quarterback in Warner unafraid to stand in the pocket and deliver accurate passes made for the perfect mix of personnel and scheme.

"In terms of the depth of which we ran routes, the speed with which we ran routes, the creativity in how we ran routes, the kind of formations we posed to teams week in and week out, I feel strongly that we were a springboard to a lot of teams now and how coordinators now run the offense," Holt said. "A lot of teams don’t run full pumps and squirrel routes and running an out route then running up and running a comeback route. A lot of teams weren’t doing that, but myself and Isaac and Az and Ricky, our ability to run any route on the route tree gave coach Martz the flexibility to call anything."

And call anything Martz did. After working as quarterbacks coach in Washington in 1998 when the Redskins started 0-7, Martz realized his offense wasn't taking advantage of the best plays it had in its arsenal in a given game plan. Plays that were working well on third and long would go unused because there simply weren't enough opportunities to use them in a game.

"We’ve got these great third downs we don’t use, we started using them on first down, too," Martz said. "If we like them that much, why don’t we throw a 20-yard pass on first down, too? When we got going, the more success we had, the more fun we had, it was like throwing logs on the fire then."

The fire turned into a towering inferno as the Rams actually put up numbers more commonly seen in video games set to 'rookie' level.

That team finished first in the NFL in total yards per game (400.8), passing yards per game (272.1), scoring (32.9 points per game), and its 526 points was then the third-highest output in league history. Warner earned Most Valuable Player with Faulk finishing second in the voting and taking home the Offensive Player of the Year award.

To most members of the 'Greatest Show,' the circus ended too early, and that one championship wasn't enough to really cement the legacy that could have been built. But nobody can ever take away the title the 1999 Rams won, and if they need a reminder of their place in history, they need only to turn on the television on Sunday afternoons.

"I see a lot of plays, routes, schemes and protections offensively being run now that we ran then," Holt said. "That in itself shows you how people respected and admired what we were doing on the football field. I think our legacy is that. I think we were a springboard to this new era of offense that is now being played. The Greatest Show on Turf was the kickstarter for that."
JERSEY CITY, N.J. -- The Super Bowl is a long way from the crossroads that led to it.

A long way from the moment when Adam Gase felt doubt creeping in, the moment when he had started to feel he could be many things in his life but a football coach was not one of them.

“I remember sitting in an Applebee's, interviewing for an insurance salesman job," said Gase, the Broncos' offensive coordinator. “And him basically telling me I would have to move back to Mount Pleasant [in Michigan] and me thinking that was what I was going to do."

Yes, the guy who will be on the headset to Peyton Manning in Super Bowl XLVIII, the guy who called plays for the highest-scoring offense in NFL history, the guy Manning has called “a superstar" in conversations with some around the team was sitting in a restaurant just minutes from his parents' house, about to call for the check on his coaching career.

[+] EnlargeAdam Gase
AP Photo/Paul SpinelliDenver offensive coordinator Adam Gase almost gave up coaching in his early 20s to sell insurance.
It was just after the LSU Tigers had won the 2001 SEC championship, and Gase, as an “eight grand a year" graduate assistant with student loans staring him in the face to go with the fact he “may or may not have been kicked out of grad school," was contemplating a future that was quickly becoming cloaked in uncertainty.

“It was just kind of that stage," Gase said. “… [LSU] was trying to find a role for me; that's not an easy thing to do at that level. I was back home to see my parents, and there was a part of me that was saying I might not go back [to LSU]."

At least until three friends -- Scott Angove, Nate Lambertson and Jeff Sablack -- who were, as Gase puts it, “beside themselves," got him to reconsider the notion of walking away. So Gase went back to LSU in 2002 and started stepping up the rungs from there. He went to the Detroit Lions, the San Francisco 49ers and the Broncos in the years and nameplates that followed.

He was a scouting assistant, an offensive assistant, a quality control coach, quarterbacks coach, wide receivers coach and quarterbacks coach. And then, when Mike McCoy left the Broncos to become the San Diego Chargers coach, Gase, at 34, was named the Broncos' offensive coordinator.

A short, a long and a winding road, all at the same time.

“He's bright -- very, very bright," Broncos coach John Fox said. “We knew his work. We knew how he handled himself. To me, when Mike left, it was a clear choice."

“I know there was a point when I thought it might not work," Gase said. "… I don't really think about sitting there in that interview anymore, but I'm glad I kept going."

Gase is not the product of a playing career that evolved into coaching once the on-field work was done. He is a product of from-the-ground-up work, of rolled-up sleeves to learn a profession. A process that started when he met current Baltimore Ravens defensive coordinator Dean Pees. Gase was in high school, and Pees was at Michigan State.

Pees visited Gase's high school, handed him a business card and said when he arrived at Michigan State the following fall, as a student, he should come to the school's football offices.

“When I was in high school, I enjoyed the sport a lot; I was just terrible at it," Gase said. "… And I think [Pees] was thinking more like equipment manager and that. What ended up happening was Dean said here's my card and come see me when you get on campus.

“… And I showed up, gave the secretary the card. She goes OK, and I sat in [Pees'] office for like an hour and he gave me a self-scout [personnel evaluation] from when he was with the Cleveland Browns. I had just gotten a computer for my graduation, and he said, 'You know how to use a computer?' And I was like, 'I've got a computer' and I hadn't touched it yet. I kind of figured out how to put that together and set it up in my dorm room. I went through a lot of ink cartridges."

That's where it started, the get-it-done side it took to help McCoy dismantle the Broncos' playbook in roughly a week in 2011 and reconfigure it as a read-option attack with Tim Tebow at quarterback. The same guy who helped to then dismantle that when Manning arrived in 2012 and retooled it again when he was promoted to be the team's primary playcaller.

His go-for-it aggressiveness is rooted in Mike Martz's "Greatest Show on Turf" offense that powered the Rams to two Super Bowl appearances. Gase calls Martz “a mentor, a guy who taught me so much." The attention to detail and the respect for the need to play some power football come from his time with former LSU coach Nick Saban to go with some things from Josh McDaniels' Patriots playbook as well as his time with Fox and McCoy that helped him see the bigger picture, the one where he had to understand what defenses were doing and why.

“Adam is just a guy that was ready," McCoy said. “He's smart, creative, works very, very hard, a guy I leaned on a lot in my time in Denver. And you can see he's had a big impact in what they're doing."

What the Broncos did in the regular season was make history. From Manning's statistics to Denver's push-the-pace philosophy to the pile of touchdowns, the Broncos pushed the envelope on offense to a spot that had not been seen before.

None other than John Elway, still considered the final word on most things football for legions of fans across the Front Range, has said “I wish I could have played for him" and characterized Gase's decision not to interview with the Minnesota Vikings and Browns for their head-coaching jobs while the Broncos were still playing as “studly."

“Being somebody that did not play in college or at the professional level, I had to learn as fast as possible," Gase said. “It was an adapt-or-die situation for me. I said that a lot, especially with Peyton. You go from running an option offense to all of a sudden the protections are ‘you've got to be on it.' You have no choice but to figure out a way to speed up that learning curve.”

The curve now has a Super Bowl on it. The one where Gase will call the plays Sunday against the No. 1 defense in the NFL.

A game, an opportunity, that was almost left on the table. At Applebee's.

“I'm grateful for the chance, grateful to everyone who helped me, grateful to be a part of this organization," Gase said. “And I'm excited to be in this position, in this job. It's what I want to do, and you know, it really has worked out OK."
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Talk to offensive playcallers in the NFL about the endless pursuit of points in the now pass-happy world and the number 500 will eventually come up.

Or at least it will come up after a short lecture about how statistics do not really tell the whole story after they have waded through a mountain of data to make a call sheet.

[+] EnlargeKnowshon Moreno
AP Photo/Jack DempseyThe Broncos will have to get Knowshon Moreno and the rest of their running backs more involved.
But 500 points in a season has routinely been the Holy Grail for those who draw up plays. Former Denver Broncos head coach Mike Shananan often spoke wistfully of his only 500-point team in Denver -- in 1998 -- which is still the only 500-point team in the franchise’s history.

Which brings us to the current Broncos, who are on the staggering, albeit unrealistic, pace to be the league’s first 600-point team. The Broncos, at 42.3 points per game, are averaging 10.3 more points per game than any other team in the league.

While it's only been three games and it is a small sample size, they are the only team that has already crossed the 100-point barrier. Quarterback Peyton Manning has thrown more touchdown passes (12) than 29 teams have scored overall.

As tight end Julius Thomas put it earlier this season, "That's Madden right there.''

Yet history shows the highest of the offensive high rollers have rarely found Super Bowl gold at the end of the rainbow.

It is a question I’ve put to more than a few offensive coordinators through the years: Why is the 500-point barrier considered to be the benchmark for an offense that isn’t just good, but special, yet those offenses rarely power a champion?

The late Mike Heimerdinger, who was part of a 500-point offense in Denver as a wide receivers coach in 1998, one that did win the Super Bowl, simply put it “because at some point, no matter how good you are at throwing it, how good your [quarterback] is at spinning it, you’re going to have to run the ball on somebody late in the year and if you lean too far one way, it’s not going to be there when you need it.’’

And there just might be something to that.

Of the 16 teams that have scored at least 500 points in a season since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger, only four went on to win the Super Bowl -- the 1999 Rams (526 points), the 2009 Saints (510 points), the 1994 49ers (505 points) and those ’98 Broncos (501 points). Included in those impressive, sling-it-around teams that didn’t get it done are the 16-0 Patriots of 2007 (589 points) and the 15-1 Vikings (556 points) in 1998.

But the ’99 Rams scored 32.9 points per game as the Greatest Show on Turf, and they were fifth in the league in rushing (128.7 yards per game). The ’09 Saints were sixth in the league in rushing (131.6 yards per game). The 1994 49ers were sixth in the league in rushing (118.6 yards per game). And the 1998 Broncos, with Hall of Famer John Elway at quarterback, were second in the league in rushing at 154.3 yards per game.

There are also two members of the 500-point club who went to a Super Bowl, but lost in the title game to a top five rushing attack. The ’83 Redskins (541 points) were third in the league in rushing and the 2001 Rams (503 points) were fifth in the league in rushing.

The ’07 Patriots were 13th in rushing; the ’98 Vikings were 11th.

The only member of the 500-point club with a top-six rushing attack that didn’t at least play in the Super Bowl were the 2011 Saints -- 510 points, sixth in the league in rushing and lost in the NFC divisional round. The 1999-2001 Rams teams, with Mike Martz calling plays, are worth a look, especially since Martz was a coaching mentor for current Broncos offensive coordinator Adam Gase; some of Martz's influence can be seen in the current Broncos' attack.

The 2000 Rams scored more they did in 1999 (540 points compared to 526), but were 17th in rushing and lost in the wild-card round. The '01 Rams crossed the 500-point barrier and got the rushing attack back in the top five, and that team played in the Super Bowl.

Now, the argument that there is still a place for running the ball smacks a little of remember-when grumpiness, even for the most elite of offenses.

If memory serves, last season’s Super Bowl between the two teams that ran the ball the most in the postseason was decided on a goal-line stand because one of those teams elected not to pound the ball a distance of roughly six feet to go get the trophy. So, run to set up the pass, pass to set up the run. Whichever you choose, the run component is going to have to be there.

What does it mean? It means the Broncos will need a little more from the three-man rotation at running back than they’re getting. Not much more -- they’re 14th in rushing at the moment -- especially when things get squeaky tight down the stretch.

For his part, Manning has played in one 500-point offense previously in his career. The 2004 Colts, with three 1,000-yard receivers, rolled up 522 points on the way to a 12-4 finish. And with the league's 15th-ranked rushing attack, they lost in the divisional round a week after throttling the Broncos in the AFC wild-card game.

So, points are great, points are exciting and throwing the ball to do it all is what most people say they want. But even the most elite of offenses have had to get their hands dirty from time to time, at least if they want to wrap them around the trophy.

And so will the Broncos before 2013 is said and done.
Kurt WarnerAl Pereira/Getty ImagesKurt Warner won two league MVPs and a Super Bowl title during the Rams' memorable run from 1999-2001.
Editor’s note: ESPN.com revisits the NFL’s most compelling teams since Y2K with a five-part “Most Dynamic Teams of the Century” series. We begin with the Greatest Show on Turf -- the 2001 St. Louis Rams.

The Greatest Show on Turf won one Super Bowl, lost another and unraveled so furiously that its epitaph requires some reassembly.

Dramatic narratives have sought to explain why the St. Louis Rams fell so hard after a 1999-2001 run featuring three consecutive MVP awards, a 37-11 record and an average of 32.7 points per game.

Coach Mike Martz’s ego swallowed the team, some say. Front-office infighting poisoned the culture. Quarterback Kurt Warner’s deteriorating health precipitated a controversial and regrettable departure. Draft failures wrecked the roster. The team lost its soul when key role players departed in free agency.

Whatever the reasons, the Rams were never the same after Adam Vinatieri delivered an 48-yard field goal to put the underdog New England Patriots past St. Louis 20-17 in Super Bowl XXXVI, launching one NFL dynasty at the expense of another.

Throw in spying allegations against New England as a Super Bowl subplot -- more on that in a bit -- and those 2001 Rams easily qualify on ESPN.com’s short list for "Most Dynamic Teams of the Century." They're relevant for what they accomplished and for what happened next: a 7-9 record in 2002 and just one additional winning season for the Rams to this day.

About that epitaph ...

"It's one that escapes me as to how, one, we didn't stay together and, two, how things from that point forward did not continue to roll on," Hall of Fame running back Marshall Faulk said recently.

If only the Rams could have known then what has become apparent now.

"Success is something that you have to know how you are going to deal with it before it hits you," Faulk said. "We ran into that in a sense of people wanted credit for putting the team together. Guys on the team who had roles, they wanted to move on and become the actual guy."

So, while some of the Patriots’ core players stuck around instead of chasing more prominent roles elsewhere -- Mike Vrabel and Tedy Bruschi come to mind -- the Rams watched Grant Wistrom, Kevin Carter, London Fletcher and others cash in elsewhere. And who could blame them? Certainly not Faulk, who had escaped Indianapolis via trade and became an MVP in St. Louis. Teams look out for their own interests, and players often must do the same. But free agency has proven over time that money doesn’t always buy the right fit.

"That core group of guys that might not be the highest paid, might not be the most visible guys, their roles and them understanding the roles is kind of what keeps it together," Faulk said. "They might not be the guys who make it into the Hall of Fame, but they are for more or less a lot of the reasons why a lot of games are won, multiple championships are won."

Defensive back Aeneas Williams, himself a Hall of Fame finalist in recent years, was new to the Rams in 2001. The team expected Williams to do for the defense what Faulk had done for the offense. That wasn't far from what happened.

Williams famously picked off Brett Favre twice in the playoffs that postseason, returning both for touchdowns. He clinched the Rams' Super Bowl berth by picking off Donovan McNabb late in the NFC Championship Game.

With Williams and first-year coordinator Lovie Smith, that Rams defense ranked among the NFL's statistical leaders almost across the board, a reversal from 2000. They were third in yards, fifth in yards per play, third in rushing yards, sixth in net yards per pass attempt, second in first downs, sixth in third-down conversion rate and seventh in scoring.

"It was one of the best seasons I had, not just the winning but the amount of talent and the amount of humility that was on the team," Williams said. "That team was special."

The Rams knew it, too. They were 3-0 and coming off a 42-10 victory over the Miami Dolphins when Smith, recently hired away from Tony Dungy's staff in Tampa Bay, delivered just the right message. Players were reveling in the victory and newfound elite status of the defense when Smith stood up to address the team. He listed off the team's accomplishments and exulted in how good it all felt. Players exulted along with him.

Smith then delivered a message that resonates with Williams to this day.

"There are some of you who are still making the same mistakes, and I'm telling you that we are looking to replace you," Smith told the team.

Silence.

There was nothing condescending or demeaning about Smith's delivery or his message. He did not name names. But the message was clear.

"To have that sobering thought from your leader in such a respectful and honoring way, which was intentional as it relates to accountability, I'll never forget it," Williams said. "The teams that have coaches who hold the players accountable no matter how good they are will be the ones that consistently win."

And yet the way that 2001 Rams season ended, and what happened next, might always publicly define that team more than the 14-2 record or revitalized defense.

"That team was loaded," Faulk said. "But this is why we play the greatest sport. There is no Game 5. No Game 7. There is one game, and you have to get it right or it doesn't matter how great you were the rest of the year."

Williams, now a pastor in St. Louis, pointed to the Rams' relatively narrow 24-17 victory over the Patriots during the regular season in suggesting the fat Super Bowl point spread was more about perception than reality. He downplayed the Spygate angle while acknowledging that some teammates are more passionate about whatever advantages the Patriots might have gleaned through taping opponents' hand signals or worse.

"Without knowing, we can only speculate," Williams said. "I relish the moment and the other thing, once we played 16 games and two or three playoff games, rarely are you fooled by what a team does. In that game, it boils down to turnovers."

Faulk carries a different perspective as someone familiar with every aspect of the Rams' offensive plan. He questions whether the Patriots could have anticipated previously unused wrinkles without spying. He has alluded in the past to red zone and third-down plays. The Rams scored on their lone red zone possession. Pressed for specifics, Faulk cited the way New England adjusted to tweaks in the way Faulk went into motion, including on Warner's quarterback sneak for a touchdown in the fourth quarter.

"It's extremely hard to tell you what it was, or what we did, but I will say this," Faulk explained. "The play that Kurt Warner scored on, Mike [Martz] drew that up in the dirt. The motion that I used on that play, I would love to show it to you and love to show you other plays how I went in motion and what I did so you could see it. It's just talk when you talk, but here is what we normally do and this is what we put into this game."

Related comments from Faulk made waves during Super Bowl week. Then as now, Faulk wearies of charges he's pushing conspiracy theories.

"I didn’t make the news, I didn’t make up the news about what happened, but it is what it is," he said. "You accept the loss. They beat us. It happens. You are going to lose games. Is Bill Belichick a great mind? Yes.

"But when a guy like Aeneas Williams sits at home and has to wonder whether he lost the Super Bowl or was cheated out of it, that is who I feel bad for."

Faulk, Warner, Fletcher, Wistrom, Carter, Isaac Bruce, Torry Holt, Orlando Pace, Leonard Little and others from that 2001 team can reflect knowing they won it all two years earlier. For some, that Super Bowl against New England would be as close as they came to football immortality. At least they can know the 2001 team will not be forgotten anytime soon.
During a Twitter conversation Monday, I noted that injuries were an issue for defensive tackle Cullen Jenkins when he played for the Green Bay Packers but that he started 32 consecutive games after signing with the Philadelphia Eagles in 2011. The statement prompted this response from @Mr_JoshEarly:
Jenkins
"[T]hat's because GB constantly has players getting injured, but never seem to address the underlying issue."

For the record, I have no idea yet if the Packers would consider bringing back Jenkins, who turned 32 last month. They have spent the past two years looking for his replacement, and the likeliest candidate -- 2012 second-round draft pick Jerel Worthy -- might not be ready for training camp because of a late-season knee injury. So I suppose we shouldn't rule it out.

From a larger perspective, though, @Mr_JoshEarly's response provides an avenue to pass along that the Packers are in fact attempting to address their rash of injuries over the past few seasons. Coach Mike McCarthy said at the NFL scouting combine that "we have spent a lot of time talking about it" and that more conversations are forthcoming.

"I can just tell you this," McCarthy said. "We're looking at everything. It involves every facet of our program, as far as how they're being treated, how they're being trained, who they are, the categories of injuries, how many injuries in each category. Every injury that we have, the video tape is looked at, the history of the individual. We're definitely looking at it."

I know many of you want more action than internal discussions and studies. Perhaps we'll see that in the coming months. But for now, it seems clear the Packers aren't willing to write off their injury trends as a fluke.

Finding next home for 49ers' Alex Smith

February, 19, 2013
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In eight seasons with the San Francisco 49ers, Alex Smith has played for three head coaches, seven offensive coordinators and six quarterbacks coaches (seven if you count Pep Hamilton, who helped Jim Hostler coach the position in 2006).

These many associations would seem to increase exponentially the number of likely landing spots for Smith as a free agent or trade candidate this offseason.

A closer look suggests that might not be the case.

Smith's connections with former head coaches Mike Nolan and Mike Singletary would actually deter reunions. Neither would be in position to push for landing Smith, anyway. Nolan's Atlanta Falcons don't need a quarterback.

Former 49ers offensive coordinator Norv Turner could potentially need a quarterback in Cleveland. The team's other former Smith-era coordinators wouldn't be in position to help. Mike McCarthy's Green Bay Packers are obviously set at the position. Mike Martz is a color commentator for Fox. Hostler coaches wide receivers for the Joe Flacco-led Baltimore Ravens. Jimmy Raye worked last season as a senior offensive assistant with Tampa Bay. Michael Johnson was out of the NFL.

Hostler and Johnson were also among the Smith-era quarterbacks coaches in San Francisco. Another, Frank Cignetti, coaches the position for the Sam Bradford-led St. Louis Rams. Another, Ted Tollner, is no longer coaching. Another, Jason Michael, coaches tight ends for the Philip Rivers-led San Diego Chargers. Hamilton, meanwhile, is offensive coordinator for the Andrew Luck-led Indianapolis Colts.

Even a run through former position coaches for the 49ers' receivers, tight ends and offensive line turns up more dead ends than fresh leads. Former tight ends coach Pete Hoener coaches the position for the Cam Newton-led Carolina Panthers. Former line coach Chris Foerster coaches the position for the Robert Griffin III-led Washington Redskins. Another former line coach, George Warhop, is with Turner in Cleveland.

The 49ers' longtime former receivers coach, Jerry Sullivan, coaches the same position for Jacksonville. New Jaguars coach Gus Bradley would be familiar with Smith from his days coordinating the Seattle Seahawks' defense. But Jacksonville would make much greater sense as a landing spot for Smith if the 49ers' current offensive coordinator, Greg Roman, had become the Jaguars' head coach. That had been the expectation until the 49ers' deep playoff run complicated efforts to hire Roman.

There still could be a market for Smith, of course. But in a league built on connections and relationships, it's tough to find many likely to influence where Smith winds up next season. That is partly because the 49ers have kept together their current staff under head coach Jim Harbaugh. The coaches most closely associated with Smith's recent revival remain under contract to the team. That was great for Smith when he was starting, but it won't help him find his next job.

AFC West hirings: What's left?

January, 16, 2013
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It’s been a busy 17 days in the AFC West since the end of the 2012 regular season.

The Kansas City Chiefs and the San Diego Chargers both fired their general managers and head coaches and they each found replacements for both spots.

Thus, the heavy lifting of the AFC West firing/hiring season is over, but there still is some work to do for each team. Let’s take a look at what is left for all four teams in the division.

Denver: It has been a light offseason for the division champions. The Broncos must now replace offensive coordinator Mike McCoy, who took over as the Chargers’ head coach Tuesday. Among the potential replacements are former Arizona coach Ken Whisenhunt (if he doesn’t get a head coaching job), former Colts offensive coordinator Tom Moore, Colts quarterbacks coach Clyde Christensen and Denver quarterback coach Adam Gase.

Kansas City: The Chiefs have moved fast. Coach Andy Reid and GM John Dorsey are in place and much of the staff is in place. Among the potential coaches who could join the staff are Brad Childress (senior offensive assistant) and Tony Sparano (offensive line).

Oakland: The Raiders have four assistant openings -- offensive coordinator, special teams, offensive line and linebackers coach. The only coaches reportedly interviewed in a very quiet process have been Mike Martz (OC) and Juan Castillo (OL), while there has been rumbling that Marc Trestman and Greg Olson could be offensive coordinator candidates. I think one name to keep an eye on for that job could be Stanford offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton.

San Diego: McCoy will likely keep the defensive staff together while hiring several other assistant coaches, including a new offensive coordinator.

 

Raiders talk to Mike Martz

January, 13, 2013
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After a quiet couple of weeks, there is some movement on the Oakland Raiders coaching front.

The Contra Costa Times is reporting that the Raiders have interviewed former St. Louis head coach Mike Martz for their open offensive-coordinator position. The paper also reported that Eagles assistant Juan Castillo interviewed for the open offensive-line job.

The Raiders fired four coaches, including offensive coordinator Greg Knapp, a day after their 4-12 season ended.

Martz believes in a wide-open offense that could fit the Raiders’ fast receivers. Yet, he has not coached in the NFL since he was the Bears’ offensive coordinator in 2011. There will likely be more candidates.
In Week 2, the Detroit Lions' running game wasn't good enough to exploit a San Francisco 49ers that was aligned dramatically to stop the pass. Things got only incrementally better upon Mikel Leshoure's debut in Week 3, and as a result, it's worth noting the Lions are once again the NFL's pass-happiest team.

The Lions' 547 passing attempts are 42 more than the league's next-most prolific team. Those attempts have put quarterback Matthew Stafford on pace to approach a 5,000-yard season for the second consecutive year, and at the very least indicates one thing: The Lions largely stopped trying to force the run after that Week 2 loss to the 49ers.

As we discussed at the time, the Lions would be better off with a more productive running game. But with Jahvid Best sidelined and Leshoure running hard but with little explosiveness, the Lions haven't been able to achieve a better balance.

In fact, based on research from ESPN Stats & Information, the 2012 Lions have joined last year's edition among the most imbalanced offenses in NFL history. The chart shows they are in the company of two classic "Run and Shoot" schemes -- the Houston Oilers of the early 1990's and the Atlanta Falcons of 1994 -- along with Mike Martz's pass-happy Lions offense in 2006.

What does this mean? On the positive side, the Lions smartly recognized that the strength of their offensive personnel is Stafford and a skilled receiving corps led by Calvin Johnson. On the other hand, we have gotten a better glimpse of the perils of imbalance even in a passing era.

The Lions' 4-8 record can be attributed to numerous factors, and an imbalanced offense is only one of them. But there have been at least a few games this season when the Lions would have had a better chance to win if they could have imposed their running game better. The 49ers matchup was one, and last Sunday's loss to the Indianapolis Colts was another. One of many opportunities the Lions missed to seal that game was Leshoure's inability to convert a first down on third-and-five in the fourth quarter.

Leshoure has grinded out 591 yards on 157 carries, but his longest run is 16 yards -- the most yardage and carries by any NFL running back this season without a single run of at least 20 yards. Perhaps Leshoure will re-gain some explosiveness as he gets further away from his August 2011 Achilles injury, but his 10-game window is probably enough to suggest the Lions will have to take yet another look at their running game this offseason.
Matt Forte's contract agreement last week with the Chicago Bears changed the dynamic of our discussions about their backfield. No longer is newcomer Michael Bush a contingency plan for a possible Forte holdout. Now, Forte and Bush are part of a two-headed backfield that offers plenty of new possibilities.

Our friends over at ESPNChicago.com started the conversation with a "Four Downs" feature that asked, among other questions, whether Forte or Bush would finish the season with more touchdowns. You never know what might happen in the passing game, but in terms of the run, past performance and schematic history suggest Bush could out-score Forte even if he gets a fraction of the carries.

We've discussed Forte's poor production in goal-to-goal situations in previous years. Last season, as the chart shows, he didn't score on any of his 12 carries under those circumstances. Bush, on the other hand, scored on seven of his 20 goal-to-go carries. For perspective, the NFL's most productive goal-to-go runner was probably the Philadelphia Eagles' LeSean McCoy, who scored 11 times on 28 carries.

Forte is among the NFL's most versatile backs, but he has never demonstrated consistent power running near the goal line -- even when playing in two very different offensive schemes under Ron Turner and then Mike Martz. The Bears' current offensive coordinator, Mike Tice, is a long-time proponent of power running, and set up an interesting and at least mildly relevant arrangement during his first year as the Minnesota Vikings' head coach in 2002.

That season, the Vikings started speedy Michael Bennett as their primary tailback and used veteran Moe Williams in short-yardage situations. Bennett finished with 1,296 yards and Williams scored 11 rushing touchdowns on 106 total carries, mostly close to the goal-line.

It would be convenient to conclude that Tice will reprise that situation 10 years later, with Forte as his lead back and Bush playing in short-yardage, but it makes sense and has precedent. That's a pretty good start as we sit here prior to the first whistle of training camp.

The Mike Nolan era in San Francisco produced more heartache than the 49ers would care to revisit, but the long-term legacy isn't so bad.

Eleven draft choices, including eight current starters and five Pro Bowl selections, remain on the 49ers' roster from the Nolan era.

The other NFC West teams have a combined eight of their own draft choices from the same 2005-2008 window. That includes six starters and no Pro Bowl selections for the Seattle Seahawks, Arizona Cardinals and St. Louis Rams.

Improved coaching and ownership have helped San Francisco get more from its talent. The current personnel department has also fared well in continuing to build, adding high-impact draft choices such as Aldon Smith and NaVorro Bowman.

Overall, the 49ers have a division-high 38 of their own draft choices. The Seahawks are closest behind with 34, including 26 drafted since Pete Carroll became head coach in 2010.

In St. Louis, new coach Jeff Fisher inherits a young franchise quarterback in Sam Bradford, but he has only one Rams draft choice from 2005-2008: defensive end Chris Long. Consider this one more way to define first-year expectations for St. Louis relative to the expectations when Jim Harbaugh took over in San Francisco. Fisher inherits so much less.

Alex Smith, Frank Gore, Tarell Brown, Delanie Walker, Patrick Willis, Larry Grant, Joe Staley, Vernon Davis, Ray McDonald, Parys Haralson and Dashon Goldson remain with the 49ers from their 2005-2008 drafts. Gore, Willis, Staley, Davis and Goldson have achieved Pro Bowl status. Those five and Alex Smith, Brown, McDonald, Haralson and (sometimes) Walker started for the 49ers last season.

Leroy Hill, Red Bryant, Brandon Mebane and Ben Obomanu remain with Seattle from that era. The Cardinals still have Calais Campbell, Early Doucet and Levi Brown.

The chart breaks down NFC West draft choices by how many remain with their original teams and by the head coaches who welcomed those players into the league.

The 49ers have two players from the Dennis Erickson era (punter Andy Lee, defensive lineman Isaac Sopoaga) and one from the Steve Mariucci era (snapper Brian Jennings). They are the only team in the division with a draft choice remaining from five head coaches ago (Jennings). The Rams have one player, Steven Jackson, remaining from the Mike Martz era (four coaches ago).

Update: I reduced by one the total for the Rams under Fisher to reflect the fact that Cortland Finnegan was a Fisher draft choice in Tennessee, not St. Louis.

Bears: One big question

May, 3, 2012
5/03/12
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Are the Chicago Bears really set at offensive line?

After two consecutive seasons of patchwork along their offensive line, the Bears have declined to address their personnel in a meaningful way this offseason. They have signed one veteran free agent, little-known guard Chilo Rachal, and did not select a lineman among their six picks in last week's NFL draft.

That suggests the Bears truly do plan to begin training camp with some combination of the players they used last season, a group that will be bolstered by the return of 2011 first-round pick Gabe Carimi. Coach Lovie Smith consistently expressed confidence in the group and after the draft said: Believe me, we want to do everything we can to open up holes for our running backs and of course to protect Jay Cutler and we feel like we'll be able to do that."

No team allowed more sacks per dropback than the Bears over the past two seasons. (One for every 10.5 dropbacks.) The Bears believe their scheme under Mike Martz over that span was more to blame than the skill level of their talent. The success of the Bears' 2012 season might well ride on whether the Bears accurately attributed those problems.
On the surface, Joe Vitt’s tenure as an interim head coach in St. Louis doesn’t look very pretty.

But dig beneath the surface a little bit and you’ll find a different story. I spoke with several people who observed Vitt’s time as the Rams’ head coach in 2005, and they said he did a nice job of weathering the storm.

Vitt will be taking over as the interim head coach of the New Orleans Saints on Monday when Sean Payton begins his season-long suspension. Vitt, who has been Payton’s assistant head coach since 2006, will run the team through the offseason program, training camp and the regular season. But Vitt will have to step away at the start of the regular season and serve a six-game suspension for his role in the Saints’ bounty program. After that, Vitt will return as head coach.

[+] EnlargeJoe Vitt, Sean Payton
Kirby Lee/Image of Sport/US PresswireJoe Vitt, left, who will lead the Saints while head coach Sean Payton serves a suspension, dealt with similar circumstances while with the Rams in 2005.
General manager Mickey Loomis will serve an eight-game suspension to start the season. The Saints also could have players suspended.

There are turbulent times ahead for the Saints, but Vitt has experience in handling situations like this.

Back in 2005, he was the assistant head coach and linebackers coach in St. Louis. The Rams already were ending “The Greatest Show on Turf’’ era. With Mike Martz as the head coach, the Rams got off to a 2-3 start and there was a well-publicized feud brewing between Martz and the front office. Martz came down with a bacterial infection in his heart after five games, and Vitt was elevated to interim head coach.

By that point, injuries already were piling up. With quarterback Marc Bulger injured, the Rams had to go through a lot of that season with Jamie Martin and Ryan Fitzpatrick at quarterback. Wide receiver Isaac Bruce was dealing with injuries and near the end of his career, and nothing was easy. The Rams went 4-7 under Vitt, but several people that were associated with the team or observed the Rams closely in those days said Vitt made the most out of a difficult situation.

They said Vitt kept his players playing hard. He’s known as a motivator in New Orleans, and it was the same way in St. Louis. Vitt used to show the Rams a movie the night before a game, and it always was tied to a motivational message. One movie was “Gladiator,’’ which emphasized the importance of sticking together. Under Vitt, the Rams started off 3-3, highlighted by Fitzpatrick coming off the bench to rally them to a 33-27 victory against Houston.

After that, the Rams endured a four-game losing streak, but most of those games were close. The last two were a one-point loss to Philadelphia and a four-point loss to San Francisco. Vitt wrapped up his tenure with a season-ending victory against Dallas, a team that included Payton on its staff. After that, Payton got hired by the Saints, and one of the first moves he made was hiring Vitt.

On Monday, Payton will hand over his team to Vitt. It’s not an ideal situation by any means. But Vitt has made the most out of a tough situation before, and the Saints are counting on him to do it again.
Jay CutlerNick Laham/Getty ImagesChicago's Jay Cutler will lead an offense with more weapons, and a more conservative philosophy.
NFL executives and coaches descended on their annual meetings last week, just three months removed from the most prolific passing season in NFL history. Quarterback play has never had a more direct link to team success, and Chicago Bears coach Lovie Smith could stride confidently through the halls of the Breakers Hotel knowing he has a high performer who should be entering the prime of his career.

Which brings up an interesting dichotomy. Smith, of course, is the coach who for years described his team as one that "gets off the bus running." He appeared to change course in 2010 by hiring pass-happy offensive coordinator Mike Martz, but for two years he and Martz played tug-of-war over the Bears' schematic focus. Martz is now retired, replaced by former offensive line coach Mike Tice -- who once famously referred to Chicago as a "tough guy town" that required a power running game to succeed -- and the Bears appear headed for another offensive re-set.

So here's the question: How much will the Bears pull back on their passing attack to satisfy Smith's philosophical requirements in the running game? The Bears' offseason moves to this point don't give us a clear idea, so the owners meetings seemed like a good time to ask Smith directly.

Yes, the Bears acquired Pro Bowl receiver Brandon Marshall, giving quarterback Jay Cutler the first true downfield threat of his Bears tenure. But they also guaranteed $7 million to their new backup tailback. New general manager Phil Emery would not have allocated the resources it took to sign Michael Bush if he weren't confident that Smith needed two high-quality running backs (along with starter Matt Forte) for his offense.

He didn't say it in so many words last week, but it seems clear that Smith wants to open the 2012 season with the compromise he eventually worked out with Martz in each of the past two seasons. In 2011, in fact, it led to almost a 50-50 pass-run ratio that corresponded with a five-game winning streak.

"During the course of the season," Smith said, "our offense had a different look from time to time. When we leaned on the run, we could move the ball as well as anyone. … As far as how much different it will look, I think we'll just see consistently what we want to be, a little more than occasionally. More that as much as anything."

You might remember that the Bears threw on a higher percentage of their plays last September than any team in the NFL. Smith and Tice eventually persuaded Martz to balance his play-calling, and as the chart shows, the Bears didn't throw more than 32 passes in any game during that winning streak. But they also didn't tilt too far toward the run, with the exception of a windy Week 10 blowout of the Detroit Lions.

If I had to guess what the Bears will try to accomplish this season, that five-game window is the snapshot. If anything, Smith wants to maintain the course correction that Martz accepted only in fits and starts over the past two years. Tice has a professed love for the power running game, and Smith said simply: "Our philosophies mesh."

[+] EnlargeMatt Forte
AP Photo/Rick OsentoskiBears coach Lovie Smith seems determined to lean on Matt Forte and a physical running game.
Smith added: "[Martz] and I had a long background together. So I knew what I was getting at the time. So, when I say 'philosophies mesh,' I'm talking about the direction I want to go now as we go forward. I knew what we were getting into. I wanted Mike, and I knew exactly what he would bring to the table. No more than that. Going forward, I felt like that was the direction we wanted to go with personnel and our running back position, and what I felt we needed to do to get back to where we belong. So, no more than that."

That's about as close as you're going to get to hearing Smith say he plans to do something differently. I don't mind saying I was in favor of Smith's initial decision to hire Martz, mostly because the Bears weren't in a position to make a gradual shift to an untested offensive coordinator or scheme. I just thought Smith would achieve better and more consistent oversight than he did.

That shouldn't be a problem with Tice, who is as strong-willed as Martz but more likely to push in Smith's direction.

The Bears are competing in a division that features two of the most explosive passing offenses in the NFL, the Green Bay Packers and Detroit Lions. I'm not sure whether the Bears will be able to compete throw for throw with either team, but I'm positive they don't want to. What the Bears hope to achieve is the NFC North's most balanced offense. They are well on their way.
Jay Cutler’s former backup is going to Cutler’s former team.

ESPNChicago.com is reporting that the Denver Broncos have signed former Chicago quarterback Caleb Hanie — who played collegiately at Colorado State — to a two-year deal.

Hanie
Hanie, 26, played well in relief of Cutler in the NFC title game in the 2010 season. However, he was dreadful as Cutler’s injury replacement in 2011, going 0-4 as a starter. The Broncos like the mobile, athletic Hanie because they think he is a better fit for their offense than he was for Mike Martz’s in Chicago.

I thought the Broncos would try to sign a more experienced veteran like recent San Diego cut Billy Volek. The Broncos talked to Volek, but were more interested in Hanie.

Hanie will be the man in Denver if Peyton Manning – who missed the entire 2011 season with a neck injury – can’t play. The Broncos are convinced Manning will be fine.

Let’s face it: The Broncos will be dire straits if Manning, 36, misses a huge chunk of time, regardless of who is the backup. In Hanie, Denver gets a player it thinks can adjust to its system. Watch for Denver to perhaps add a quarterback in some point in the draft.

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