NFL Nation: Mike Singletary

MINNEAPOLIS -- Now that the Minnesota Vikings have finally announced their coaching staff for the 2014 season, we can take a look at the list of assistants and see what trends emerge with the group new coach Mike Zimmer has put together. And as it turns out, it won't take quite as long to peruse the list as it did with predecessor Leslie Frazier's staff.

The Vikings currently have just 17 coordinators and assistants on their staff, down from the 20 they carried last season under Frazier. As ESPN.com Packers reporter Rob Demovsky pointed out this morning, that makes the Vikings' staff the smallest in the division and one of the smallest in the NFL.

That's not to say a leaner staff is good or bad -- it's simply a different way of doing business -- but it does offer some insight into how Zimmer might conduct business. In Cincinnati last season, he had five position coaches under him while he was the Bengals' defensive coordinator (former Vikings defensive coordinator Alan Williams had six).

It could also help Zimmer that he has offensive and defensive coordinators in Norv Turner and George Edwards who have done those jobs before. Frazier, on the other hand, was working with first-time coordinators Bill Musgrave and Alan Williams, who both seemed to struggle at times in Minnesota. Turner also has 13 seasons of NFL head coaching experience on his resume.

"We already talked a little bit about things. Scheduling, how we did things," Turner said. "He’s an extremely experienced coach. He's been with some outstanding people. I’m sure he has strong opinions of how he wants to do things and if there’s something he wants to lean on me, I’ll give him my opinion."

It's always possible the Vikings could add another coach or two, but assuming the staff is set for now, here are some factoids about each group:

The 17 coordinators and assistants on Zimmer's staff have a combined 278 years of coaching experience, for an average of 16.35 years per coach. Five coaches -- Turner, Edwards, special teams coordinator Mike Priefer, defensive backs coach Jerry Gray and offensive line coach Jeff Davidson -- have at least been coordinators for other teams before joining Zimmer's staff.

Frazier's 2013 staff had 336 years of experience across 20 coaches, or an average of 16.8 years per coach. Three coaches -- Priefer, Davidson and assistant linebackers coach Mike Singletary -- had at least been coordinators before coming to the Vikings. A fourth, assistant linebackers coach Fred Pagac, was the Vikings' defensive coordinator in 2010-11 until Frazier demoted him to assistant linebackers coach.

Welcome to Soldier Field

December, 9, 2013
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CHICAGO -- Welcome to Soldier Field where the Dallas Cowboys have a chance to maintain pace with the Philadelphia Eagles in the NFC East with a win against the Chicago Bears.

On Sunday, the Eagles beat the Detroit Lions in a snowstorm, forcing the Cowboys to beat the Bears to maintain first place -- albeit via tiebreaker -- in the NFC East with three games to play.

Attacking on offense: The conditions could play a factor in Monday night's game with the cold, wind and field conditions. Does that mean the Cowboys will run the ball more?

“I think you go in saying you want to do both,” quarterback Tony Romo said. “You always want to run the ball, be balanced and attack when you can. We'll take that approach.”

The Cowboys have run the ball better in the past three games, averaging 5.2 yards per carry. DeMarco Murray has an outside shot at 1,000 yards despite missing two games, but the Cowboys will miss Lance Dunbar. He suffered a season-ending knee injury on Thanksgiving after finally showing the change of pace the Cowboys thought they would have all season.

Now the running game will be Murray's. Can he handle the load?

The return of the quarterback: No, not Romo. We're talking defense and the return of Sean Lee.

The middle linebacker missed two games with a hamstring injury and the Cowboys were able to win both games. But Lee is their best play maker. He is the team leader in tackles and interceptions. He is tied for the team lead in tackles for loss.

Against a team where middle linebackers have dominated for years -- Bill George, Dick Butkus, Mike Singletary, Brian Urlacher -- Lee will get his chance to show his worth to the Cowboys.

He will be a three-down linebacker and he said the hamstring feels fine. The cold weather will force him to do some extra warming up, but he does not expect it to be an issue.

“I thought we did a great job adapting, guys coming in and playing unbelievably,” Lee said. “Hopefully we can build on the success and continue to go forward.”

Former teammate, now enemy: Say hello to Jay Ratliff. Oop. Jeremiah Ratliff.

Released by the Cowboys in October, Ratliff signed a one-year deal with the Bears in November and will play in his second game of the season. This has not gone over well with owner and general manager Jerry Jones.

The Cowboys did not believe Ratliff would play this year based on what Ratliff told them. And here he is on the field against the Cowboys in a pivotal December game. Ratliff was a declining player with the Cowboys and was barely a factor last week against the Minnesota Vikings.

But you know he will want to be a difference maker tonight.
Pete Carroll, Jim Harbaugh Ric Tapia/Icon SMIPete Carroll's Seahawks and Jim Harbaugh's 49ers have continued their rivalry into the offseason.
The San Francisco 49ers' and Seattle Seahawks' 2012 battle for NFC West supremacy has turned into a perceived battle this offseason.

"It just feels like the Seahawks make a move, then the Niners make a move," former NFL quarterback Damon Huard said Wednesday during our conversation on 710ESPN Seattle. "The Seahawks sign Percy Harvin, then the Niners go get Anquan Boldin. The Niners just signed Nnamdi Asomugha, they signed Colt McCoy, and now it's the Seahawks' turn to sign a quarterback. It really feels like this competition that was so fun to watch last fall has carried over into the offseason between the Niners and the Seahawks."

That's what it feels like from this angle, too. So, when ESPN's Bill Polian listed 49ers general manager Trent Baalke among his top six executives Insider without a mention for Seattle counterpart John Schneider, I knew some Seahawks fans would take offense.

"Schneider should be on there," SamW9801 wrote in commenting on the Polian piece.

I'm going to ratchet up the discussion with an assist from Tony Villiotti of draftmetrics.com. Tony identified ranges of picks by how frequently teams have found five-year starters within those ranges.

Using those general ranges, displayed at right, I've put together a chart at the bottom of this item comparing the 49ers' and Seahawks' draft choices since 2010.

Baalke took over the 49ers' draft room roughly a month before the 2010 draft. Schneider became the Seahawks' GM that offseason. The 49ers then underwent a coaching change after the 2010 season, at which point Baalke assumed the GM title officially. We might cut Baalke some slack for selecting Taylor Mays, a player then-coach Mike Singletary valued. There were surely other times when both GMs followed their coaches' input, for better or worse.

Seattle has drafted 28 players over this period, three more than San Francisco has drafted. The Seahawks had more to work with from a qualitative point as well. Their median choice was No. 130 overall, compared to No. 165 for the 49ers.

It's pretty clear both teams know what they are doing in the draft.

Aldon Smith, Anthony Davis, Mike Iupati and NaVorro Bowman have earned Pro Bowl and/or All-Pro honors for the 49ers. Russell Okung, Earl Thomas, Russell Wilson, Kam Chancellor and Richard Sherman have done so for the Seahawks.

Both teams have found franchise quarterbacks after the first round. Colin Kaepernick was chosen 36th overall in 2011. Wilson went to Seattle at No. 75 last year.

Neither team has missed in that first category, which includes players taken among the top 13 overall picks. Smith and Okung are elite players at premium positions.

Both teams have unanswered questions in that 14-40 range. The 49ers are waiting on A.J. Jenkins to produce. The Seahawks haven't gotten much from James Carpenter. But in Iupati and Thomas, the 49ers and Seahawks found players among the very best at their positions. Kaepernick's selection puts this group over the top for San Francisco. Seattle got eight sacks from Bruce Irvin as a rookie in 2012, so the Seahawks aren't far behind. It's just impossible to overlook the value a franchise quarterback provides.

Seattle has the edge in the 41-66 range. Mays is long gone from the 49ers. That leaves LaMichael James for the 49ers against Bobby Wagner and Golden Tate for Seattle. Wagner was an instant starter at middle linebacker and a three-down player who commanded consideration for defensive rookie of the year. Tate blossomed with Wilson at quarterback.

The Seahawks also have an edge in that 67-86 range, having selected Wilson.

Seattle holds a 7-3 lead in number of picks used between the 87th and 149th choices, a range producing five-year starters 16 percent of the time, according to Villiotti.

Both teams used picks in that range for players whose injury situations dragged down their draft status: Joe Looney in San Francisco, Walter Thurmond in Seattle. Both teams found starting linebackers in this range: Bowman to the 49ers, K.J. Wright to the Seahawks. Both teams found developmental running backs in that range: Kendall Hunter to the 49ers, Robert Turbin to the Seahawks. Both teams found Pro Bowl players: Bowman in San Francisco, Chancellor in Seattle.

Sherman, arguably the NFL's best cornerback, gives Seattle an edge in the 150 through 189 range of picks. Both teams found backup tight ends there. Anthony Dixon (49ers) and Jeremy Lane (Seahawks) have the potential to expand their roles.

The 49ers found starting fullback Bruce Miller in the final pick range, which runs from 190 to the end of the draft. Seattle found a projected starting guard there in J.R. Sweezy. Malcolm Smith is a candidate to start at linebacker for Seattle. Miller and Sweezy both played defense in college. Miller has already successfully transitioned to offense. Seattle thinks Sweezy will do the same.

Summing it up: Both teams can feel good about their draft performance over the past three seasons. I doubt either team would trade its picks for the other team's picks. That makes sense. Teams draft the players they like best. The 49ers have six projected 2013 starters to show for their choices. The number is eight for the Seahawks, not counting Irvin or Tate. Seattle has had more choices and higher quality choices, and more openings in the lineup to accommodate those players. I think that shows in the results.

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.
By the end of Sunday, it's possible the Chicago Bears will have concluded their first round of interviews in what has already been an epic coaching search. Indianapolis Colts offensive coordinator Bruce Arians was scheduled to be the 13th known candidate to speak with general manager Phil Emery. If there are more first-round interviews scheduled, they haven't been reported.

My educated guess is that some interviews have been completed in secrecy, so I wouldn't be surprised if Emery has spoken with 15 or more candidates. We've discussed the possibility that Emery is using this opportunity to pick the brains of as many smart assistant coaches as he can, but I think we have also seen an undeniable quality emerge as well.

Here's how Tennessee Titans general manger Ruston Webster put it last week during an interview with my AFC South colleague Paul Kuharsky on 104.5-FM in Nashville: "I know Phil Emery, and Phil Emery is about as thorough of a human being as I've ever known."

Meanwhile, according to ESPN's Adam Schefter, two of the coaches Emery has spoken with said "they never have interviewed with anyone as prepared and detailed" as him.

So before we try to ascribe some kind of ulterior motive to Emery's approach, and rather than conclude he is flailing blindly in the night, perhaps this search is best viewed as a physical extension of Emery's meticulous personality. Where and when it ends remains anyone's guess. Former NFL coach Jimmy Johnson tweeted that Emery favored his former assistant, current Montreal Alouettes coach Marc Trestman, but nothing more has come of what appears to be Johnson's personal view.

For the record, here are the Bears' Lucky 13 to this point:
  1. Arians
  2. Atlanta Falcons special teams coordinator Keith Armstrong
  3. Seattle Seahawks offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell
  4. New Orleans Saints offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael Jr.
  5. Green Bay Packers offensive coordinator Tom Clements
  6. Dallas Cowboys special teams coordinator Joe DeCamillis
  7. Houston Texans offensive coordinator Rick Dennison
  8. Denver Broncos offensive coordinator Mike McCoy
  9. Minnesota Vikings special teams coordinator Mike Priefer
  10. Vikings special assistant to the head coach Mike Singletary.
  11. Tampa Bay Buccaneers offensive coordinator Mike Sullivan
  12. Trestman
  13. Bears special teams coordinator Dave Toub

Final Word: NFC West

September, 21, 2012
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NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 3:

Playing to their strengths: The Arizona Cardinals went into this season feeling as though their defense, special teams and rushing attack could carry them as long as the team reduced turnovers at quarterback. The ground game has yet to get going for Arizona, but the rest of the formula has helped the Cardinals reach 2-0. Quarterback Kevin Kolb has yet to throw an interception, and he is taking fewer chances down the field. His passes have traveled 5.9 yards past the line of scrimmage on average, the lowest figure in the league this season. That number is well below the NFL average (8.2) and the 7.9-yard average for Kolb last season. Getting more aggressive carries risks. Philadelphia has held opposing quarterbacks to a 6.7 out of 100 Total QBR, the second-lowest figure in the NFL.

[+] EnlargeLarry Fitzgerald
AP Photo/Paul ConnorsLarry Fitzgerald has eight TDs in four games against the Eagles.
Something has to give: The Cardinals have won nine of their past 11 games, tied with New England, San Francisco and Green Bay for the best regular-season record during that span. That includes a 7-1 record for the Cardinals in their past eight games, tied with the Patriots for best in the league. Arizona's Week 3 opponent, Philadelphia, has won its past six regular-season games, the longest active streak. But with the Eagles suffering nine turnovers this season and Arizona failing to exceed 20 points in either game, these 2-0 teams are sliding under the radar a bit. A breakout game from Larry Fitzgerald (five receptions this season) could restore some offensive identity to Arizona. Fitzgerald has averaged 114 yards per game against the Eagles, the most for any player with at least four games against Philadelphia. He has 26 catches for 456 yards and eight touchdowns in four matchups.

Early bird special: Western teams have long complained about too many road games kicking off at 10 a.m. PT. The San Francisco 49ers have done their share of the complaining, but with a victory at Minnesota in an early kickoff Sunday, the 49ers can run their record to 6-0 under coach Jim Harbaugh when kicking off at 10 a.m. PT. None of the other Western teams -- Arizona, San Diego, Oakland or Seattle -- has approached such a run in recent years. The 49ers had gone 2-9 in their previous 11 games kicking off that early. They were 7-27 in early kickoffs under Mike Nolan and Mike Singletary. The best teams can win just about any time and anywhere. The 49ers, 15-3 under Harbaugh, have become one of those teams.

Turning a corner: The St. Louis Rams need a victory at Chicago to exceed a .500 winning percentage for the first time since the 2006 team stood 4-3 after Week 7. Quarterback Sam Bradford has been a key to St. Louis' increased competitiveness. He has arguably outplayed Matthew Stafford and Robert Griffin III in the Rams' first two games. Can he outplay the Bears' Jay Cutler? That seems like a reasonable expectation after Cutler threw four picks and took seven sacks against Green Bay. Both teams' top running backs have injury concerns, putting even more of the focus on the quarterbacks. Bradford completed all nine of his third-down passes against Washington last week. He'll face a Bears defense that held Andrew Luck and Aaron Rodgers to a combined 5 of 14 passing with one pick and four sacks on third down. Luck went 1-for-7 and threw the interception.

Roughing up receivers: Seattle cornerback Brandon Browner led the NFL in penalties last season with 19. That included six for pass interference, four for defensive holding, four personal fouls and three for illegal contact. Browner continues to play an aggressive brand of cornerback. At 6-foot-4, he must put his size to use. Through two games this season, Browner has drawn only one penalty -- defensive holding in the season opener at Arizona. Being able to play aggressively against the Packers' smaller receivers could be a key for Seattle against Green Bay on Monday night.

ESPN Stats & Information contributed to this piece.
The question was when, not if, the St. Louis Rams would reach a long-term agreement with middle linebacker James Laurinaitis.

It happened Saturday, one day before the Rams visit Detroit for their first regular-season game under coach Jeff Fisher.

[+] EnlargeJames Laurinaitis
Matthew Emmons/US PresswireAfter extending the contract of James Laurinaitis, the Rams have locked up cornerstone players at every level of the defense.
The deal comes two days after division-rival Arizona re-signed Daryl Washington, another young and rising inside linebacker. We'll now have to see whether the San Francisco 49ers can work out something with NaVorro Bowman, an All-Pro at inside linebacker in 2011, before his deal expires following the 2013 season.

The Rams' deal with Laurinaitis locks into place building blocks at every level of their defense. They re-signed defensive end Chris Long following his 13-sack showing in 2011. They also used a 2012 first-round pick for defensive tackle Michael Brockers and a 2011 first-rounder for defensive end Robert Quinn.

Veteran Cortland Finnegan and rookie Janoris Jenkins are the building blocks in the secondary, where safety Quintin Mikell also remains signed for the long term. Trumaine Johnson is another rookie corner in the rotation.

Laurinaitis, a second-round choice in 2009, is signed through 2017, according to ESPN's Adam Schefter. Long, a first-rounder from the 2008 class, is signed through 2016.

The Rams have the NFL's youngest roster by average age. They also have leaders at every position on defense. Long will mentor Brockers and Quinn. Laurinaitis is the leader at linebacker (the team still needs young talent at that position, in my view). Finnegan will mentor Jenkins and Johnson.

"We have guys that are veterans and you are pairing them with young guys and I think that is important," Laurinaitis said from training camp last month. "You don't want just a young guy to be the biggest guy in a room. You want him paired with people so that he gets it: 'OK, this is how I show up, this is how I'm accountable, this is how I'm a pro, this is what’s expected of me. I think it’s important. They’ve done a great job of really filling this roster out."

Middle linebackers have flourished in the system Fisher and assistant head coach Dave McGinnis have installed. London Fletcher, Antonio Pierce, Mike Singletary and Jonathan Vilma are a few of them. Laurinaitis wants to be next.

"When you think of those players, you think very intelligent, very good leaders, guys who are durable and accountable," Laurinaitis said. "When the quarterback makes a check, the mike backer has to be able to make a countercheck and just have a feel for a football game.

"I relish that role, I relish that responsibility. I love the fact that the coach is going to say to me, 'If you see something on the field, you make the call. You’re not going to be wrong, you’re the one playing, you make the call.'

"And then maybe I make a bad check in practice, but it’s not, 'Hey, you did the wrong thing.' It's, 'Hey, why did you make that call?' Well, I made it because I thought it was this. They say, 'Oh, well, why don’t you look at this guy, he’ll tell you it’s pass, he’ll tell you it’s run.'

"It's an interaction. It’s not just a 'we’re right, you’re wrong.' That is an inspiration to me. It’s a big responsibility and I love it."
Romeo Crennel John Rieger-US PresswireRomeo Crennel looks to prove he is the long-term solution for the Chiefs.
Romeo Crennel has proved he can lead the Kansas City Chiefs in the short-term.

Now, as he begins his second tour of duty as a permanent head coach, Crennel must prove he is the answer in Kansas City for the long haul.

Although the Chiefs’ brass looked at other candidates, it really was no contest. Crennel was the choice for the job once he led the Chiefs to a 2-1 record as the interim replacement for Todd Haley, who was fired in December. Promoted from defensive coordinator, Crennel led the Chiefs to a win over the Green Bay Packers (then 13-0) in his first game.

There is no doubt Crennel, who went 24-40 as the head coach in Cleveland from 2005-2008, had the support of his players. He had won before as a defensive coordinator, he is well respected by his peers, and he is respected by his players for his above-board and his calm demeanor. He was the perfect elixir after the uneven, high-volume days of Haley.

“Romeo was the right guy for the job,” Gary Horton of Scouts Inc. said. “The players love him and they played for him. But the key is, can that continue with him being the guy? Playing over your head for a coach you like can work for a few games. It can’t work over 16 games. So, now that the interim tag is off of Romeo, the question is can he prove he is the right choice for the long term?”

If recent history is any indication, Crennel’s task is not an easy one. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, the last coach to lead his team to a winning record in his first year as the permanent coach after being the interim coach was Art Shell in 1990. He led the Raiders to a 12-4 record.

That’s a long 22 years.

Since 2000, according to Elias, seven coaches were promoted after being an interim coach, including Oakland’s Tom Cable in 2009. The best records in the first year as the permanent coach were registered by San Francisco’s Mike Singletary in 2009 and Dallas’ Jason Garrett last season. Both teams went 8-8. In total, the coaches had a combined 43-69 record.

In addition to the waning support of players, there are other reasons that interim coaches haven’t had much success on a permanent basis. Many league observers think an organization may settle to keep their interim coaches rather than paying for a new coach and his staff. As a result, the same bad habits of the previous regime can creep in.

Horton thinks Crennel's personality and the team's upward trajectory will work in their favor.

“I like Romeo’s team,” Horton said. “I think he can win. I don’t see this as a case of [Kansas City general manager] Scott Pioli settling. I think he got his top choice for the job … I just like the way this team is set up and think it has a real shot to be good right away.”

In a telephone interview this week, Shell said Crennel is entering an exciting time. He said the interim period is chaotic for a coach, but now Crennel is able to construct his own program.

Crennel added new offensive coordinator Brian Daboll and several other coaches while keeping some assistants from Haley’s staff. Crennel remains the Chiefs’ defensive coordinator.

“This is his time,” Shell said. “As the interim guy, you are just holding on. Now, it’s time to set the foundation and let everyone know the way it is going to be on a permanent basis. It’s an important time.”

I think Crennel, who at 65 is the second-oldest current head coach in the NFL behind Super Bowl champion Tom Coughlin, is comforted by his experience in Cleveland. He has often said this offseason that he will learn from that experience as he begins his next chapter as a head coach.

“A lot of times you don't get second chances in this business” Crennel said earlier this offseason. “You just go along and try to do the best job that you can at the job that you have. If you do that and people take notice, then they give you chances. So, I've got a second chance and I'm going to try to do it better than I did the first time around.”

The good feeling Crennel has built within the locker room remains as the Chiefs transition from the offseason program to training camp, which begins in four weeks.

“I love [Crennel], his coaching style,” cornerback Javier Arenas said. “You want to play for him. I felt great about coach Haley. I loved coach Haley as a head coach, but now with [Crennel], I absolutely love the way he goes about things and want to execute what he lays on the table -- him and the rest of the coaches -- and that’s just part of the game, wanting to play for a coach and wanting to help the team be successful. “

If it works in Kansas City in 2012, Crennel will enjoy rare immediate success for a promoted interim coach.
Sometimes it's difficult to know for sure how a new coaching staff feels about the players it inherits.

We're left to differentiate between the various types of praise offered in public: faint, obligatory, unsolicited, etc.

Laurinaitis
Laurinaitis
Kendricks
Kendricks
St. Louis Rams assistants Dave McGinnis and Brian Schottenheimer spared us from reading between the lines on a couple potentially key players. Their praise for middle linebacker James Laurinaitis (from McGinnis) and tight end Lance Kendricks (from Schottenheimer) suggests both players figure prominently into the team's plans. That almost had to be the case with Laurinaitis, a rising young player. But after Kendricks struggled some as a rookie, his future under a new staff seemed less certain.

Schottenheimer, formerly of the New York Jets and now the Rams' new offensive coordinator, brought up Kendricks first when a reporter asked about the tight ends in general. This was during the team's recent mandatory minicamp:
“I know one thing, starting with Lance, we really liked Lance back in New York when we looked at him. He's got a chance to be a terrific all-around player."

Schottenheimer also mentioned DeAngelo Peterson, Jamie Childers and Mike Hoomanawanui as young players with potential.

Kendricks finished the season with 28 receptions for 352 yards. Those figures led all rookie tight ends (Minnesota's Kyle Rudolph was close behind and did have more receiving touchdowns, 3-0). Kendricks also had five dropped passes on 54 targets, the ninth-highest rate among players with at least 50 targets, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

McGinnis' praise for Laurinaitis comes as no surprise. Laurinaitis was well established as a rising young player. But how would he fit in coach Jeff Fisher's specific defense? McGinnis, the assistant head coach and a long-time Fisher associate, answered the question emphatically:
He's perfect. He’s the perfect middle linebacker for this defense. The ultimate linebacker for this defense when it started evolving was Mike Singletary. I was with Mike Singletary for seven years. The quarterback of the defense is the middle linebacker and in this system, he has to be so in tune -- I mean, he has to be right in the defensive coaches' skin. He has to understand it and know it from a lot of different angles.

"We could not have asked for a more perfect middle linebacker to install this system than James Laurinaitis. I remember watching him come out. I interviewed him at the combine when he came out and I loved him then and I love him even more now because he’s exactly what you need."

These sorts of compliments go beyond the obligatory type. They affirm what we thought of Laurinaitis while easing concerns about how well Kendricks might fit one year after the Rams drafted him with former coordinator Josh McDaniels in mind.

These obviously aren't the only players the Rams' new staff likes. They've spoken very highly of Sam Bradford, Chris Long and others. The comments from Schottenheimer and McGinnis did stand out most recently, however.
The AFC North blog doesn't give birthday shout-outs, but this one has special significance.

Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis turns 37 today, which could be the magic number for him. In April 2011, Lewis hinted at a target date for his retirement when he told the NFL Network, "I can’t see myself playing football past 37.”

Lewis
Lewis
Lewis made it clear after Baltimore's AFC Championship Game loss that he was returning in 2012, but there has to be questions about whether he will play beyond this year. At some point, Lewis is going to have to say goodbye to football, although there haven't been any recent indicators he will be calling it quits anytime soon. His contract runs through 2015, and the Ravens showed confidence in Lewis when they once again didn't draft his eventual replacement in April.

Lewis started off strong last season and was among the NFL's top inside linebackers in the first half of the 2011. Then, after missing four games with a toe injury, he seemed to wear down toward the end of the year.

Still, he has been one of the league's top Iron Men. His 222 games played is second-most among active players, ranking only behind a kicker (Jason Hanson). He is the longest-tenured Raven on the roster by six seasons (safety Ed Reed is second).

No other great middle linebacker has played as along as Lewis. Mike Singletary retired after 12 seasons with the Chicago Bears before his play declined. The Pittsburgh Steelers' Jack Lambert walked away after 11 years because of a severe toe injury. And the Bears' Dick Butkus stopped after nine seasons because of knee injuries.

Lewis is now entering his 17th season in the NFL. And, after turning 37 today, you have to wonder whether this will be his last.

NFL Any Era: Jared Allen

January, 24, 2012
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Jared AllenESPN.com IllustrationJust imagine: Jared Allen relishes a sack of Hall of Famer Sonny Jurgensen.
Jared Allen's eyes lit up last month upon learning that 20 Hall of Fame players had named him to ESPN.com's Any Era team, comprised of current players whose skills and mentality would have made them a success at any point in football history.

"Wow, that's great," Allen said. "That's why I play, to earn the respect of the guys before me."

Here's a sampling of what some of our panel said about Allen, whose 22 sacks in 2011 fell one shy of setting a league record:
MIKE SINGLETARY

"Jared Allen is going to will himself to get to the quarterback. I don't know how he does it. I can't even really explain it, but he lines up and the next thing you know, he's got the quarterback. The mentality and relentlessness that he approaches the game with is second to none."

WARREN MOON

"Jared Allen is just a tough, hard-nosed player. He's a defensive end who can get to the quarterback, but if he has to play in the trenches, he can. When he played at Kansas City, he played the run well. And in Minnesota, he is more of a pass-rusher. He is a throwback type of guy if you know him. He's like a big cowboy. He wears cowboy boots and tight jeans and he's a real throwback."

MIKE DITKA

"Jared Allen plays every down, hard and physical. He could've played in the '40s, '50s, '60s, '70s. He brings it on every play and gives all he's got."

In the video below, Hall of Fame receiver James Lofton applauds Allen for his performance as an emergency long-snapper during a Week 12 game against the Atlanta Falcons. "And he's covering punts, and he's running 100 miles an hour. That tells me right there: football player."

A few thoughts after listening in on conference calls with Minnesota Vikings coach Leslie Frazier and his new defensive coordinator, Alan Williams:
  • Frazier said Williams will bring some "new energy" and "fresh ideas" to the defense, but it's clear the Vikings aren't changing the fundamental approach they have taken for the past six seasons. Williams and Frazier are both former assistants to Tony Dungy, who popularized the Tampa-2 scheme the Vikings now use. "We are going to keep a lot of the same principles in place," Frazier said. "… I did think a little bit about some other options that were available, but after evaluating our season and looking at our history on defense, we didn't want to get too far away from the things that have let us be successful here in the past." At this point, it would be a stunner if the Vikings shift to a 3-4, as they reportedly were contemplating.
  • Williams has never been a defensive coordinator, and Frazier will take more of a hands-on approach to the defense -- at least initially -- while Williams grows into the role. Frazier stopped short of saying who would call the defensive signals in Week 1, but he made clear he doesn't want to be a head coach/defensive coordinator. "Some guys can do that," Frazier said. "I don't think I can. But I do want to be involved early."
  • In a situation that is unusual, to say the least, Frazier said that former defensive coordinator Fred Pagac has agreed to return to coach linebackers along with current linebackers coach Mike Singletary. Frazier was not specific about roles or titles, but said that both Pagac and Singletary would be a part of daily linebacker meetings. I couldn't begin to explain how that will work. The Vikings are a 4-3 defense, but in nickel they play only two linebackers. Do they need two full-time veteran coaches? Asked how they would split duties, Frazier cited the need for someone to focus on sub packages.
  • Frazier used the Chicago Bears' 2010 defensive shuffle two years ago as a reference point, when coordinator Bob Babich was returned to his role as linebackers coach and defensive line coach Rod Marinelli took over for Babich as coordinator. "I've seen it work before in Chicago," Frazier said. "Between Babich, Rod and [coach Lovie Smith], they made it work. As long as you have the right people, it can work. … After sitting down and talking with the guys about what I was thinking and hearing their feedback, that assured me it could work."
  • The Bears analogy doesn't totally work. If Pagac is in the Babich role, moving from coordinator back to linebackers coach, then how does that account for Singletary? I have to assume Pagac is the primary linebackers coach, with Singletary serving in some kind of less-defined role that allows him to remain on staff as a trusted adviser to Frazier, a longtime friend.
  • As presumed, defensive backs coach Joe Woods will remain in his current role. Except for a few quality control assignments, the Vikings' defensive staff is now set.
Just to keep you updated, the Minnesota Vikings have made it official: Former Indianapolis Colts defensive backs coach Alan Williams is their new defensive coordinator and Brendan Daly will take over as their defensive line coach.

A news release made no mention of former coordinator Fred Pagac, who reportedly will share duties as linebackers coach with Mike Singletary, who will also be a special assistant to the head coach. I'll withhold most comments until later Thursday, when we should hear from coach Leslie Frazier.

In general, however, I would view these moves as more of a re-shuffling than a shakeup considering the familiarity of all involved. Frazier and Williams worked together on the Colts' staff in 2005 and 2006, and both are devoted to former Colts coach Tony Dungy's Tampa-2 defense. Williams was once part of a Tampa Bay Buccaneers staff that included Dungy as the head coach and former Vikings defensive coordinator Mike Tomlin as the defensive backs coach.

Daly was the Vikings' assistant defensive line coach from 2006-08, the final two years under Frazier. He replaced Karl Dunbar, who was fired. It is presumed that defensive backs coach Joe Woods will return in his current role. More to come.

Mike Singletary: Fired or promoted?

January, 16, 2012
1/16/12
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At some point, presumably soon, the Minnesota Vikings will wrap up what has already been a two-week review of their defensive coaching staff and determine a direction for 2012. To this point, however, we have a better idea of who won't be a part of it than who will.

The latest domino to drop is coordinator Fred Pagac, whom the St. Paul Pioneer Press reported was fired Friday. The Vikings offered Pagac a job as their linebackers coach, however, a demotion that calls into question the status of current assistant head coach/linebackers Mike Singletary.

NFL teams occasionally make courtesy offers to fired coordinators, fully expecting them to be turned down. But even if that was the case with Pagac, the Vikings couldn't have done it without already having made a decision on Singletary. As we discussed Monday, it wouldn't be surprising to hear that Singletary has been fired or that he has been promoted to defensive coordinator. The fact that both possibilities are legitimately on the table provides powerful commentary on the state of the coaching staff at the moment.

At least two outside candidates who interviewed for the coordinator job have signed on elsewhere. Raheem Morris joined the Washington Redskins as their defensive backs coach, and Mel Tucker remained in his job as the Jacksonville Jaguars' defensive coordinator. Tom Pelissero of 1500ESPN.com has reported that current Philadelphia Eagles defensive coordinator Juan Castillo could emerge as a candidate as well.

The Vikings will coach the North team at the Senior Bowl, where the festivities begin a week from Monday. Stay tuned.
Ronnie Lott witnessed one of the greatest coaching jobs in NFL history during the Bill Walsh years in San Francisco three decades ago.

The Hall of Famer thinks the 49ers' current coach, Jim Harbaugh, might be doing something more spectacular in leading the team to an 8-1 record against all expectations.

"This might be the greatest coaching that I've ever seen in the history of the game of professional football," Lott told Sirius NFL Radio recently. "It's his first [season as an NFL head coach] and not only is he hitting it out of the park but, man, he's hitting all the notes. Everything that you can think of, he's done."

Lott pointed to the 49ers' ability to play well and win under a first-time NFL head coach following a lockout-shortened offseason. The turnaround from eight consecutive non-winning seasons has been striking. Kenton Wong of ESPN Stats & Information put together a Harbaugh-related packet with the following key points:
  • Stanford went from 1-11 the year before Harbaugh arrived as head coach to 4-8, 5-7, 8-5 and 12-1 over his four seasons at the university.
  • The 49ers brought back most key players, notably Alex Smith, from a team that went 6-10 last season. Their eight victories this season match the rest of the NFC West combined. The 49ers have a .889 winning percentage, compared to .296 for the rest of the division. They are plus-95 in points. The rest of the NFC West is minus-198. The 49ers have one more road win (four) than the rest of the division combined.
  • Smith is on pace for career bests in yards per attempt (7.2) and touchdown-to-interception ratio (3.7).
  • Harbaugh's seven-game winning streak is tied for second longest by a rookie head coach since the 1970 NFL-AFL merger, according to Elias Sports Bureau. Ted Marchibroda's Colts won nine in a row in 1975. Bobby Ross' Chargers won seven straight in 1992. Chuck Knox's Rams (1972) and Nick Saban's Dolphins (2005) each enjoyed six-game streaks. Update: Steve Mariucci won 11 in a row during the 1997 season, his first with the 49ers. We'll notify Elias on that one.

This is the best start for a rookie NFC West coach since Mariucci's 49ers opened the 1997 season with an 11-1 record. They finished 13-3.

Mike Martz's St. Louis Rams went 8-2 to open the 2000 season. Mike Holmgren's Seahawks opened the 1999 season with an 8-2 record.

I've put together a chart showing NFC West head coaches' first-year records since 1997, excluding interim coaches.
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