NFL Nation: offseason

Charles TillmanGrant Halverson/Getty ImagesCharles Tillman and the Bears' defense should benefit from some key additions in 2014.
The Chicago Bears' front office grunted through one of the league's busiest offseason of signings to put the team in position to draft the best player available in May while also minimizing the burden of the potential first-round pick to carry the savior label.

So while the workload won't lighten as the Bears prepare for the NFL draft and the April 22 start of the offseason program, they've unwittingly utilized a core motto of former NFL coach Dennis Green: Plan your work and work your plan. That has led to the Bears signing 30 players since the final week of December, a group that includes 17 returners, 10 unrestricted free agents and three street free agents to drastically improve -- at least on paper -- one of the NFL's worst defenses of 2013.

"I think we'll slow down a tad," Bears general manager Phil Emery said on March 31. "But we have a lot of work to do. We have some positions we want to make more competitive. The draft's around the corner."

Not to diminish the work to be done over the next few weeks, but Chicago's activity up to this point should make things easier moving forward. Headed into the offseason, the Bears needed to address a defensive line that played a major role in 2013 in the defense allowing 5.34 yards per rushing attempt (the league average was 4.10), and did so by signing Jared Allen, Lamarr Houston, Willie Young, and Israel Idonije, in addition to bringing back Jeremiah Ratliff and Nate Collins.

The club also re-signed starting corners Tim Jennings and Charles Tillman, while adding to the safety position by acquiring M.D. Jennings, Danny McCray and Ryan Mundy.

So is the defense better now than it was in 2013?

"The obvious answer to that would be we're healthier [than in 2013] because nobody's hurt," Emery said. "Also, I think we've added some guys at key points in their career. Jared adds experience, production, leadership. Somebody like Lamarr and Willie add some youth, speed and [physicality]. Really excited about Jeremiah Ratliff this year. He's excited about playing. He wants to finish here. He added so much the last few weeks [of 2013] in terms of leadership; unbelievably mentally tough player. So yeah, I think the collective group, we've gotten stronger and we're headed in the right direction as far as we want to establish as a defensive football team."

Given the financial commitments to Houston, Allen and Young -- all defensive ends -- it'll be interesting to see how defensive coordinator Mel Tucker finds ways to get them on the field at the same time. Allen is the bona fide starter at right end, and Houston will play on the left side. But it's likely the Bears will take advantage of Houston's versatility and kick him inside to defensive tackle on passing downs while playing Young opposite Allen at end.

Even without the benefit of the upcoming draft, Chicago's defensive line appears to be a more dynamic group than it was in 2013.

"It's up to our coaches to find ways to get them all on the field at the same time or at different times or different personnel groupings or groupings against personnel," Emery said.

Depending on the direction the Bears take in May in the draft, that task could become more difficult for Tucker. Despite the Bears adding Jennings, McCray and Mundy in free agency, the club could stand to acquire another safety in the draft capable of competing for a starting job; especially with the possibility Chris Conte might miss time at camp after undergoing shoulder surgery.

But the club might see more value in using its first-round pick on one of the talented interior defensive line prospects such as Pittsburgh's Aaron Donald or Florida State's Timmy Jernigan, as picking a safety at No. 14 might be a little too high for the team's tastes. Surely, the Bears will address safety in the first three rounds, in addition to adding depth at some point at corner and at linebacker.

Emery declined to say whether the signing of Allen or all the work done to revamp the defensive line will change the club's draft plans -- only that "it's always been about getting the best players possible to continue to build our team towards winning championships. To do that, you have to have high-quality players and players that can make plays. We talked at the end of the season about having more playmakers on our team."

The Bears certainly added some. In the process, they made the possibility of a defensive renaissance similar to what was experienced on the other side of the ball in 2013 a potentially easier undertaking.

They've planned their work and are working their plan.
The NFL released dates Thursday for its teams' offseason programs.

The Cowboys' offseason program starts April 21. The first of several organized team activities begins May 27-29, followed by June 2, June 4-5 and June 9-12.

It will be interesting to see if quarterback Tony Romo is a participant in OTAs. Team officials say Romo should be recovered from back surgery, but if not there could be concern over whether he'll be ready for training camp.

Cowboys owner/general manager Jerry Jones said Romo is ahead of schedule. All indications are Romo will be ready in some fashion for OTAs.

Mandatory minicamp will take place June 17-19. Not only is Romo's participation in that even important, so is that of newly signed defensive tackle Henry Melton. He's recovering from a torn ACL, suffered in the third game of the 2013 season with the Chicago Bears.

Melton might not be ready for the minicamp, but team officials aren't overly concerned because there's an expectation he should be available for training camp in late July.

The NFL draft is May 8-10.

New York Jets general manager John Idzik had his introductory news conference Thursday morning. It was somewhat odd timing, because news broke Wednesday night of the Jets being willing to trade star cornerback Darrelle Revis.

The Revis situation obviously was an important topic the New York media wanted to address with the Jets' new general manager. But Idzik wanted nothing to do with the topic in his first news conference.

“I think it’s way premature to say anything specific,” Idzik said. “I haven’t even had the chance to sit down and thoroughly vet through our roster with Rex [Ryan] and our personnel staff. So I think it would be presumptuous to say anything.”

Idzik also didn’t say much about quarterback Mark Sanchez, who is guaranteed $8.25 million next season.

“I don’t want to drill down too deep,” Idzik said. “That we’re going to save for our evaluation process in the days and weeks to come.”

Idzik is only several days into his new role, but it’s clear he has a lot of work to do. This should be a busy offseason in New York, as Idzik figures out how to get under the salary cap and reshape the Jets' roster.

Four things we learned from Week 17

December, 30, 2012
1. Patriots improved chances for deep playoff run

The Patriots needed some good fortune and a good performance Sunday to land a first-round bye. Both things happened, and as a result New England will skip the wild-card round.

The Indianapolis Colts beat the Houston Texans (12-4) in the early game and New England subsequently beat the Miami Dolphins to land the No. 2 seed in the AFC. The Patriots, who own the head-to-head tiebreaker over Houston, will have a bye and a home game at Gillette Stadium in the divisional round.

These are much better circumstances than playing next week and going on the road in the second round. New England has aspirations of making another Super Bowl run, and the road got a lot easier. The Patriots can rest their players and await their next opponent. They will not have to leave Gillette Stadium unless it's in the AFC Championship Game against the top-seeded Denver Broncos (13-3).

2. Changes coming in Buffalo and New York

The disappointing New York Jets and Buffalo Bills played a meaningless game Sunday. The Bills won at home, 28-9, and both teams finished 6-10.

There are a lot of questions surrounding the futures of the coaches and front offices in New York and Buffalo. After the game, Bills head coach Chan Gailey didn't want to talk about his future with the team.

"Let's talk about today," Gailey said in his postgame news conference.

ESPN's Adam Schefter reported Sunday that the Jets will fire offensive coordinator Tony Sparano, who failed to lead New York to a touchdown against Buffalo on Sunday. Schefter also reported head coach Rex Ryan is safe and New York hasn't decided what to do with general manager Mike Tannenbaum.

Buffalo’s situation is more up in the air. The Bills have offered no indication if they will make a coaching change, a front office change, or no change at all. That decision will be up to Bills owner Ralph Wilson.

3. Mark Sanchez looks finished

It looks like Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez could be a very expensive clipboard holder in 2013. New York will pay Sanchez a guaranteed salary of $8.25 million in 2013 and most likely keep him on the roster.

But Sanchez's play and confidence looks completely finished after the worse year of his career. His body language and performance just weren't right. That means the Jets cannot enter the offseason assuming Sanchez is the starter.

Sanchez, who was benched twice this year, had one final chance to redeem himself in the regular-season finale against the Bills. Instead, Sanchez threw for 205 yards, one interception and lost a fumble.

Sanchez could use a change of scenery but probably won't get it due to his high salary that makes him virtually impossible to trade. Sanchez has a lot of work to do in the offseason. But New York needs to do everything it can to find a better replacement.

4. Miami has work to do

Miami viewed its regular-season finale as a measuring-stick game to see how close they are to the Patriots. It turns out the Dolphins still have plenty of work to do. New England shut out Miami, 28-0.

Miami finished 7-9 and in second place in the AFC East. I predicted the Dolphins to finish 6-10. So this should be considered a successful season with a rookie head coach and rookie quarterback.

But it was further evident Sunday that Miami is still a long way from catching the Patriots in the AFC East. New England swept Miami this season.

The great news is Miami has a ton of cap space and plenty of draft picks to improve. Miami first must decide which in-house free agents to keep, such as left tackle Jake Long, tailback Reggie Bush and No. 1 receiver Brian Hartline.

The trio of Miami, Buffalo and New York all finished with losing records this season. But of the three teams, Miami has the most promise heading into 2013.

Keeping Tannenbaum would be a mistake

December, 30, 2012

ESPN's Adam Schefter provided an intriguing report fewer than 24 hours before "Black Monday." Schefter reports through league sources that New York Jets owner Woody Johnson is still considering keeping general manager Mike Tannenbaum together with head coach Rex Ryan for the sake of continuity.

This would be a huge mistake.

Tannenbaum is highly respected in the organization. But he is the primary reason New York's roster is old, expensive and well over the salary cap next year. This includes the mistake last March to hand quarterback Mark Sanchez a $58.25 million extension, which includes a guaranteed $8.25 million salary next season.

The Jets need to make major alterations to their roster in 2013, and Tannenbaum is not the right person for that job. New York needs a new set of eyes to take a hard and unbiased look at the Jets' talent level. Tannenbaum put this team together and may not be capable of admitting his many mistakes.

Schefter also reports offensive coordinator Tony Sparano will be one-and-done with the Jets. This is not a surprise. Sparano, whose offense is ranked 30th, never called plays until this season with the Jets. His offense looked disorganized, and two young quarterbacks -- Sanchez and Tim Tebow -- significantly regressed on Sparano's watch.

The Jets will make changes on their coaching staff, starting with Sparano. But if the Jets do not make changes to their front office by demoting or letting go of Tannenbaum, they are merely spinning their wheels.

Jets shopping Mark Sanchez is laughable

December, 20, 2012
Just in time for the holiday season, the New York Jets are offering a hot lump of coal for the extremely steep price of $8.25 million.

Any takers?

The Jets are hoping for a miracle by reportedly trying to trade former starting quarterback Mark Sanchez. Not only has Sanchez regressed significantly the past two seasons, but he’s guaranteed to make $8.25 million in salary and most likely will cash in on a $500,000 workout bonus in the offseason. That’s nearly $9 million going to a quarterback who has committed 50 turnovers since 2011 and was benched this week in favor of third-stringer Greg McElroy.

This is yet another laughable move by those zany Jets. When they call other teams this offseason, the conversation will last about two seconds with a response of "Stop wasting my time, Rex."

The Jets made their bed this past March by inexplicably signing Sanchez to a $58.25 million extension. But the Jets cannot simply pass the buck to someone else. It’s not that easy.

New York must live with this mistake and move forward with Sanchez -- either as next year’s starter or a very expensive clipboard holder. The only other option is the Jets cutting Sanchez and taking on a reported $17.1 million cap hit.

Those are the two realistic choices for the Jets. Trading Sanchez is not an option.

How to rebuild the New York Jets

December, 19, 2012
NY JetsUS PresswireMike Tannenbaum and Rex Ryan may have to stick with Mark Sanchez next year, but here are other ways the Jets can improve on an abysmal season.
From top to bottom, the New York Jets are a mess. The Jets have quarterback issues, an old and expensive roster and a circus-like atmosphere in the locker room.

New York has a gigantic cleanup project ahead in 2013. It won't be easy, but the AFC East blog is here to help.

Here are five steps the Jets should take in the offseason to turn things around:

1. Add a quarterback

Adding a quarterback will be the trickiest but most significant thing the Jets do this offseason. For starters, money is a huge issue.

Although I'm in the minority, I expect Mark Sanchez to be with the Jets next year. His $8.25 million salary is guaranteed for 2013, and the prorated cap hit would be much larger if he's cut. The Jets are already significantly over the cap. As much as they may be ready to move on from Sanchez, it's smarter to save the cap hit and just keep him on the roster for another season.

With Sanchez making franchise money next year, the Jets can't pay two quarterbacks the same amount. So forget about names like Alex Smith of the San Francisco 49ers. New York cannot afford to invest $16-$17 million into one position.

New York's best option would be to look for a cheaper veteran alternative. Personally, I like Matt Moore of the Miami Dolphins. He has starting experience and would take a cap-friendly contract for the opportunity to play. Moore is currently Ryan Tannehill's backup in Miami. Other veteran quaretrbacks like Jason Campbell, Brady Quinn and Drew Stanton are affordable options who can compete with Sanchez to be the starter.

The Jets can take also draft a quarterback early and hope the rookie can play right away. The quarterback class is not strong next year and head coach Rex Ryan will enter 2013 on the hot seat. He cannot afford to wait another year or two for a rookie to develop. He needs to win now.

2. Fire or demote Mike Tannenbaum

The person most responsible for putting together New York's old and expensive roster should be reprimanded.

Jets general manager Mike Tannenbaum tried to keep this group veteran together too long. New York thought it could get to the Super Bowl after back-to-back AFC title games in the 2009 and 2010 seasons. Tannenbaum locked himself into some bad free-agent contracts with older players that are crushing the team's cap.

In addition, Tannenbaum's drafts have been below average. You can start with back-to-back first-round picks of Vernon Gholston and Sanchez in 2008 and 2009, respectively. Both players were taken in the top six overall and the Jets whiffed. That held the franchise back. Other draft busts like Vladimir Ducasse also stand out.

Finally, Tannenbaum's giving Sanchez a five-year, $58.25 million contract extension in March was inexcusable. Sanchez had done nothing the year before to warrant a large extension, yet the Jets believed he was the long-term solution. It didn’t take long for Tannenbaum to regret that decision.

Tannenbaum has his strengths and is a good presence within the Jets. He doesn't need to be fired, but he should no longer have final say on roster moves. The Jets need a new general manager to reshape this roster.

[+] EnlargeTim Tebow
AP Photo/Scott A. MillerThe Tim Tebow experiment has failed and it's time for the Jets to move on from the quarterback.
3. Trade or release Tim Tebow

It's clear the Jets' coaching staff doesn’t think much of Tebow as a quarterback. After benching Sanchez, New York passed over Tebow for third-stringer Greg McElroy. Why did Tannenbaum and the Jets ever think the Tebow experiment was a good idea?

Very few people outside of the organization thought this would work. Tebow, for starters, is not a legitimate NFL quarterback. He's a gimmick player who can help by using his rushing ability.

But Tebow brought the large following and media hype of a franchise quarterback. I remember attending training camp in August when Tebow got the loudest cheers. It immediately added unnecessary pressure to Sanchez and the team. The last thing the Jets needed was another circus, but that's exactly what they got with adding Tebow. It was a train wreck waiting to happen.

The good news is Tebow is much easier to move than Sanchez. The New York Daily News reports the Jets can release Tebow and take only a $1 million cap hit.

It's best that Tebow and the Jets go their separate ways after just one year.

4. Get a new offensive coordinator

Tony Sparano is very likeable and a high-energy coach, but he's a mediocre offensive coordinator.

The Jets are ranked 30th in total offense, and the play calling has been mind-numbing. New York is a team without an offensive identity. After 14 games, the Jets still haven't figured out what they do best.

Hiring Sparano in this role was a risky move from the start. He was a head coach in Miami and offensive line coach in Dallas. But the Jets hired him to call plays on offense. Sparano's Miami teams were never offensive powerhouses. There was no indication Sparano could turn the Jets' offense around. His quarterback development has been even worse, as both Sanchez and Tebow regressed on Sparano's watch.

The Jets need to hire a top-level offensive coordinator. Soon-to-be former head coaches like Norv Turner of the San Diego Chargers and Pat Shurmur of the Cleveland Browns should be available. The Jets need someone with a proven track record of developing quarterbacks and successfully calling plays next season.

5. Make cuts, rebuild through the draft

The Jets need to get younger and build through the draft. It starts by making some veteran cuts.

New York can begin by releasing expensive veteran linebackers Calvin Pace and Bart Scott. Both are 32-years-old and making big salaries. Other players like offensive tackle Jason Smith and safety Eric Smith should come off the books, as well. That should provide sizable cap relief.

The Jets won't have a lot of money to spend in free agency, which is why the draft is so important.

Using the draft to build up the offense should be the top priority. The Jets need better players at receiver, running back and tight end to help whoever becomes the starting quarterback. New York also could lose starting tight end Dustin Keller and tailback Shonn Greene, who are pending free agents, and need to fill those positions.

There is no easy way for the Jets to escape this mess. But if they follow these five steps this offseason, the Jets will be heading in the right direction.
On Monday, the AFC East blog reported the Buffalo Bills and guard Kraig Urbik were in the process of hammering out a four-year extension.

It turns out that both sides worked into the night and finalized an agreement. A source tells's AFC East blog that Urbik and the Bills agreed to a four-year, $15 million extension.

Urbik is a two-year starter for Buffalo who has the versatility to play both guard spots and center. He is one of the anchors of an offensive line behind which Bills tailback C.J. Spiller recorded his first 1,000-yard season.

The Bills are getting an early start on their 2013 free-agent class. Other Buffalo players who are set to become free agents include starting safety Jairus Byrd and guard Andy Levitre.
Jorvorskie Lane AP Photo/John BazemoreJorvorskie Lane and the Dolphins have a lot of ground to cover to catch the Patriots.
MIAMI -- The "2012 AFC East Champion" T-shirts were handed out by the dozens Sunday evening. There was a celebratory feel inside Sun Life Stadium, but it wasn't for the home team.

The visiting New England Patriots clinched the AFC East title with a 23-16 victory over the Miami Dolphins. New England improved to 9-3 and has bigger things in mind -- such as the playoffs and a Super Bowl run.

Miami (5-7), on the other hand, was sullen in the home locker room after having its playoff hopes dashed. It's time for the Dolphins to start thinking about 2013 and beyond.

"Very frustrating," Dolphins center Mike Pouncey said in a quiet locker room. "I think all you guys know that you can’t make any mistakes against this football team. We missed on a lot of opportunities to make plays."

But if the Dolphins showed anything, it’s that they are not that far away from contending. This isn’t the bottom-feeder team most expected from Miami this year. The Dolphins have some pieces in place.

Sunday’s loss against New England -- the longtime kings of the AFC East -- provided the perfect blueprint of what the Dolphins need. For starters, Miami lacked the offensive firepower to keep pace with New England.

Miami’s defense played one of its best games of the season. The Patriots entered this game hot as the league’s No. 1 offense. New England scored 40 points or more four times this season but was held in check by the Dolphins. Miami stuffed New England’s running game and rattled quarterback Tom Brady with four sacks. The Patriots’ 23 points were their lowest since Week 6.

But Miami’s offense mostly settled for field goals and punts. Dolphins rookie quarterback Ryan Tannehill was not at his best, completing just 13 of 29 passes for 186 yards. That certainly wasn’t good enough to beat Brady, even on an off day.

The Dolphins lacked the dynamic skill players to make big plays. Two perfect examples were Tannehill’s missed connections deep with receiver Brian Hartline that could have resulted in touchdowns.

“You’ve got to hit those,” Tannehill admitted after the game. “You don’t get too many shots like that.”

Miami’s defense was stout. But the Patriots were able to exploit its biggest weakness: cornerback.

The Dolphins traded former starter Vontae Davis this summer, and current starter Richard Marshall is on injured reserve with a back injury. Miami is down to Sean Smith and its fourth or fifth corners, and that’s where Wes Welker dominated.

Welker, a former Dolphin, had a successful return to Miami and caught 12 passes for 103 yards and a touchdown. Welker was the only player Miami couldn’t contain and the biggest reason the Patriots were able to move down the field in this game.

“He’s very crafty,” said Dolphins safety Reshad Jones, who had an interception in the game. “He has one of the best quarterbacks in the game to get him the ball. [Welker] does a great job on options routes, and he does a great job of getting loose."

In addition to offensive skill players and cornerbacks, the Dolphins also need to figure out their left tackle situation. Jake Long's future with the team became more murky after he suffered a triceps injury in the first quarter. Dolphins coach Joe Philbin did not provide specifics about the injury after the game, but the fact that Long was in street clothes in the second half is a sign he could miss extended time.

Long was easily the team’s best player two years ago. But he has fallen on hard times due to recent injuries and inconsistency. Long is not the elite left tackle he once was and is an injury risk. But he will command a hefty paycheck when he becomes a free agent in March. Miami’s offense certainly didn't look great without him against New England.

“Jake’s a great player, and it’s tough losing a guy like that,” Dolphins tailback Reggie Bush said. “His presence was definitely missed. But football must go on, and the next guy must step in and do the job.”

Miami rookie second-round pick Jonathan Martin was moved from right to left tackle. He is the best option on the roster and could be auditioning for the left tackle job if Long is out for an extended period.

Martin played left tackle at Stanford, where he was the personal protector for Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck. Martin didn’t embarrass himself in his first action at left tackle in the NFL and showed some good things.

“I think I did alright,” Martin said after the game. “I’m a little rusty [at left tackle]. It’s like a mirror image [from right tackle]. You just have to remember how your muscles feel and how your balance feels.”

The Patriots exposed Miami in these areas Sunday to win their 10th AFC East title in 12 years. But the good news is the Dolphins have plenty of cap space in 2013 and five draft picks in the first three rounds to patch these holes.

All Miami's front office has to do is use this film against New England as its guide for the offseason.

Dolphins Camp Watch

July, 25, 2012
NFC Camp Watch: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South Dates

Three thoughts as training camps open around the NFL:

One thing I'm certain of: “Hard Knocks” will be a good thing for the Dolphins. This is a team in need of exposure and a better national perception after another poor, 6-10 season. The Dolphins started 2011 0-7 and the rest of the league pretty much forgot about them.

The storylines in Miami are not sexy, but they are plentiful. There is a quarterback competition, a new coaching staff and colorful receiver Chad Johnson. HBO does a tremendous job on these shows, and it will be up to the Dolphins to put their best foot forward.

One thing that might happen: We might see a resurgence from the 34-year-old Johnson in training camp. But he cannot be as bad as the player we saw last year with the New England Patriots. Johnson, who recently changed back to his birth name, never fit the system in New England and recorded just 15 catches. He still might be Miami’s most dynamic receiver entering his 12th season. Perhaps that’s more of an indictment of Miami’s receivers.

Johnson looked pretty good in minicamp. He still has a quick first step and made several big plays against Miami’s secondary in practices. The Dolphins need the old Johnson to return -- or least a player close to it. Johnson first needs a solid camp and preseason to earn a starting job.

One thing we won't see: Ryan Tannehill will not be a factor in Miami’s quarterback competition. It’s being billed as a three-way race for the starting job, but Tannehill is a long shot. David Garrard and Matt Moore are the two legitimate quarterbacks battling for Miami’s starting job in Week 1. Both veterans have looked far ahead of the rookie Tannehill in offseason workouts.

Tannehill has just 19 career starts at quarterback in college. It is hard to make that jump to the NFL with limited experience, and Tannehill is already showing that with his uneven offseason performance. It would be shocking if Tannehill can make up so much ground on Moore and Garrard in a few weeks.
We have yet another wrinkle in the Tim Tebow saga.

The New York Jets, who traded for Tebow this offseason, plan to use him as many ways as possible this season. In addition to working Tebow as a punt protector in minicamp, Jets assistant special teams coach Ben Kotwica told the New York Daily News the team also is considering using Tebow on the kickoff team.

"I think there might be some value there on kickoff returns,” Kotwica told the Daily News. "It’s something that we’ve talked about. I don’t think there’s any option with Tim that we’ve taken off the table."

Is this a good idea?

I'm all for the Jets getting the most out of Tebow. Despite criticism of his throwing ability, Tebow is a solid football player who is strong and athletic. But using Tebow on the kickoff team might be going too far.

Many of the NFL's biggest collisions and subsequent concussions take place on kickoff returns. That number decreased last year with the new kickoff rules, but subjecting a backup quarterback to that is risky. Tebow will take enough big hits this year running the ball in the Wildcat offseason. The Jets need to protect him to some degree.

Physically, Tebow probably could get the job done on the kickoff team. But there are plenty of players on the Jets' 53-man roster who can run 60 yards down the field and make a tackle. The Jets should leave that to players who are fighting for roster spots. Tebow has more important roles to worry about.
Tom BradyJim Davis/The Boston Globe/Getty ImagesHistory is against Tom Brady and the New England Patriots returning to the Super Bowl this season.
The reigning AFC champion New England Patriots have the talent, experience and depth to get back to the Super Bowl in February. Many football pundits agree the Patriots -- led by quarterback Tom Brady and coach Bill Belichick -- are one of the safest picks to represent the AFC in New Orleans.

But history suggests New England is better off not showing up this season. The Patriots were runners-up in Super Bowl XLVI -- and historically that is an awful position to be in.

According to ESPN Stats & Information, it's been 39 years since a team bounced back from a Super Bowl loss to win a championship. The Miami Dolphins won Super Bowl VII in January 1973 after losing Super Bowl VI the previous year. In fact, it's only happened twice in the Super Bowl's 46-year history.

New England is trying to become just the third team to accomplish the feat -- and the first in nearly four decades. Thirty-eight consecutive teams have tried and failed. That is a ton of history against the Patriots as they chase their fourth Super Bowl title in the Belichick-Brady era.

Mathematically, only 4.3 percent of NFL teams have been able to accomplish what New England is trying to do this year. Those are long odds, indeed.

"The Patriots played more games than any other team but one last year and I think that takes a toll," Scouts Inc.'s Matt Williamson said of difficulty of getting back to the Super Bowl. "Those playoff games are really intense and you have to do more physical damage to your roster than teams that didn’t make it deep into the playoffs. So I think it’s a little more difficult to be fresh when your season comes around. Your offseasons aren't as long and you're more beat up."

To Williamson's point, the Patriots are still ailing from last year's playoff run.

Pro Bowl guard Logan Mankins tore his ACL in the postseason and had surgery in February. He is questionable for Week 1 and could begin the year on the physically unable to perform list. Patriots Pro Bowl tight end Rob Gronkowski needed ankle surgery this offseason after getting injured in the AFC Championship Game against the Baltimore Ravens. He continues to rehab and hopes to be back by training camp. Neither star was able to participate in offseason workouts.

The numbers are a little more in New England's favor in terms of getting back to the big game. Seven Super Bowl runners-up have repeated as conference champions in 46 years, which is 15.2 percent. Most recently, the Buffalo Bills bounced back from three Super Bowl losses to return to the title game in the 1990-93 seasons. The Denver Broncos also lost Super Bowl XXI in the 1986 season and made it back to Super Bowl XXII the following year. But 17 consecutive Super Bowl runners-up have not returned to the big game. The Patriots will try to end the drought this season.

History is not on New England's side, but there are reasons to believe the Patriots can shake the runners-up curse.

For starters, New England is stacked this year. There is depth at nearly every position, and the defense should be much improved from the 31st-ranked unit we saw a year ago. Second, New England has the easiest strength of schedule in the NFL. The Patriots play just four teams with winning records in 2011. A 12- or 13-win season appears very attainable for the Patriots.

Finally, New England's offense is a juggernaut. Brady is playing some of the best football of his career and he has a supremely talented supporting cast that includes Gronkowski, Brandon Lloyd, Pro Bowl receiver Wes Welker, dynamic tight end Aaron Hernandez, veteran receiver Jabar Gaffney and a young, exciting group of running backs.

"They would be No. 1 on my power rankings. I'm not saying they will win the Super Bowl, but if I had to pick one team, they would be my pick," Williamson said. "The key to me is you can't outscore them. The Patriots were one of the two or three best offenses last year and they had some flaws. They had nothing outside the numbers and no deep-ball capabilities, and they went out and changed that with Brandon Lloyd. That's a big step forward on offense, and now you're going to have to score 40 to beat them."

The AFC appears to be the weaker conference, which also plays into New England's favor. There are only a handful of serious contenders. Besides New England, the list includes the Ravens, Houston Texans, Pittsburgh Steelers and maybe the Broncos if future Hall of Fame quarterback Peyton Manning can return to full strength.

But the first step for the Patriots is conquering the AFC East. New England has won the division nine of the past 11 years under Brady and Belichick. Williamson does not see any reason the Patriots cannot win their 10th AFC East title in 12 years.

"I think the Jets are declining and the Bills are rising, but I don't think either one is close to the Patriots’ level," Williamson said. "I don't think the rest of the division is that good. The Bills have come a long way -- for the Bills. But I still think they're an 8-8 or 9-7 team if everything goes well. No one in the division has a quarterback close to Brady. No one has the big-game experience, and none of them have a coach on Belichick’s level."

Barring significant injuries, the Patriots are a safe bet to make the postseason for the fourth consecutive year. But when it comes to getting to the very top of the NFL mountain, history suggests New England's 2012 journey will fall short.

Rex Ryan, Jets relish fresh start

April, 16, 2012
With the stench of last year's late-season implosion still fresh, the New York Jets got together as a team for the first time in 2012 for the start of the offseason workout program.

The workouts Monday were voluntary and not open to the media. But three members of the Jets were available for a conference call. The key theme was last year, and this is the start of something new.

"We made some mistakes in 2011, but we are focused on 2012," Jets head coach Rex Ryan said of the team's fresh start. "We are excited. ... When you don't meet expectations it kills you."

Ryan went on to address the chemistry issues and eventual implosion that took place during the final month of last season. The Jets were 8-5 and on the cusp of another playoff bid before losing three straight games.

At the center of the internal issues were Jets No. 1 receiver Santonio Holmes and quarterback Mark Sanchez. The pair were not on the same page on or off the field, and things blew up in the season finale. The pair have since talked things over and recently worked out together in Florida to make amends.

Holmes also praised Sanchez on Monday for coming out to Florida and helping get key members of the offense together.

"[Sanchez] is portraying those leadership qualities," Holmes said on the conference call. "We are both looking forward to bigger and better days."

Holmes, in his first public comments since the end of last season, didn't care to address all that went wrong down the stretch.

"That was too long ago," Holmes said, while also repeating the team-wide sentiment that last season was last season.

With a talented and veteran team, it's hard to know which way the arrow is pointing for the Jets. Was last season simply a one-year misstep or the beginning of a downward spiral? The Jets are not far removed from back-to-back AFC title games in 2009 and 2010. But last year New York looked like an aging team that lost its edge.

Jets Pro Bowl center Nick Mangold says the "future is bright" for New York. The Jets will have a lot of detractors this season that think otherwise, especially if this group cannot stay together in the locker room. The important team-building process for New York starts now.
Although not everything can be read accurately from Twitter, New England Patriots receiver Wes Welker seemed genuine in his response to receiving the franchise tag.

On Monday evening, just hours after Welker was tagged, he tweeted, "Glad that I will be a Patriot in 2012 and hopefully '13,'14,'15,'16,'17,'18........"

This is a good sign. Many wonder if Welker will hold out and skip offseason activities if a contract extension isn't reached. It is clear that Welker, 31, would prefer long-term security.

Welker's tag is slated for $9.4 million in 2012. The Patriots and Welker will continue to negotiate, but there is no guarantee an extension will be reached.

Still, these are good, early vibes from Welker. He says he's happy to be in New England this year and remains hopeful that it will be for longer. The next step is to see if Welker signs the tag and eventually shows up to New England's offseason workout program.
One of the biggest offseason storylines in Buffalo this year is how the Bills will better share the football between starting running back Fred Jackson and 2010 first-round pick C.J. Spiller. Buffalo coach Chan Gailey addressed that dynamic at the NFL combine.

Both tailbacks are talented. But Jackson has been the primary ball carrier in Buffalo's offense, leaving Spiller mostly in a limited role until late in the season.

Spiller filled in well during the final six games after Jackson suffered a season-ending leg injury. Spiller rushed for 446 yards and five total touchdowns in that span to take momentum into the offseason.

"He could be an every down back. I don't see any reason he couldn't carry 20- 25 if he needed to," Gailey said of Spiller. "But he’s a valuable, versatile player. He can play wideout. We’re fortunate to have two very good backs. I’m going to try to make sure we keep them fresh and wear ‘em out at the same time. Does that make sense? But you want them to be on the field doing something, running routes, creating a threat for the defense."

Gailey added that Jackson is fully healed from his injury, which is good news for Buffalo. But the coaching staff has to figure out a way to use a healthy Jackson and Spiller next season to their full capabilities.

A report surfaced that Spiller is ready to turn up his game in Year 3 and compete for a starting role. That probably won't happen next season with Jackson still on the roster and about to get a contract extension. But Gailey said it's a good problem to have.

"If every guy I have on the team doesn't want to be a starter, I've got the wrong guys," Gailey said. "I want everybody to want to be a starter. But everybody's not. There's 11 of 'em. You have to learn to handle that. Whoever it is. You have to learn to handle it."




Sunday, 2/2