NFL Nation: Ray Perkins

NFC South wrap: Year of the Falcons

December, 27, 2012
12/27/12
12:30
PM ET
NFC Season Wraps: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Five things to know and my all-division team.

Division MVP: Matt Ryan, Falcons. You could make a case for him as the MVP of the entire league. With one game remaining in his fifth season, Ryan already has career highs in completions (394), passing yards (4,481) and touchdown passes (31). His 69.0 completion percentage also is way over his career average.

[+] EnlargeMatt Ryan
Josh D. Weiss/US PresswireFalcons QB Matt Ryan has made a case to be the league's MVP.
But the most impressive thing about Ryan’s season might be the 13 wins he already has led the Falcons to. It all has come in a season in which the Falcons have overhauled their offense to make the passing game a priority. With the running game posing almost no threat, Ryan has carried this offense.

Biggest disappointment: The Carolina Panthers. Back in the preseason, the Panthers were a trendy pick as a team on the rise. The media, myself included, thought quarterback Cam Newton would only build on a fantastic rookie season and that Carolina had fixed its defense. Fans got giddy and even center Ryan Kalil joined the fray, taking out a full-page ad in The Charlotte Observer that promised a Super Bowl victory.

Instead, the Panthers didn’t even come close to making the playoffs. They started so poorly that general manager Marty Hurney was fired in October and coach Ron Rivera clearly is on the hot seat. The current three-game winning streak might get Rivera another year. But you have to wonder why a team with this much talent didn’t open the season playing the way it is now.

The story that never stopped: The New Orleans Saints dominated the offseason headlines for the entire league (maybe the entire sports world) when the NFL exposed their three-year bounty program. Coach Sean Payton drew a season-long suspension, general manager Mickey Loomis got eight games and assistant head coach Joe Vitt was suspended for the first six games. Linebacker Jonathan Vilma was given a season-long suspension and defensive end Will Smith was hit with a four-game suspension.

While all that was going on, fans also started sweating as negotiations between quarterback Drew Brees and the team dragged on far too long. Brees finally signed and Vilma and Smith tied things up in the appeals process before eventually having their suspensions vacated. All the drama took a toll as the Saints started 0-4 before getting on a bit of a roll and briefly entering the playoff picture. But the soap opera isn’t over. During the season, it was revealed that the NFL had voided the contract Payton signed last year. He could end up being a free agent when he is reinstated.

Has the window closed? Even if Payton does return to the Saints, they might not automatically be the winning team they were the previous three seasons. This team will face major salary-cap issues in the offseason, and veterans like Vilma, Smith and Roman Harper could be gone.

The defense needs lots of work up front and some more help in the secondary. Left tackle Jermon Bushrod is eligible to be a free agent and the wide receivers are getting older. No matter who is coaching the Saints, they’re going to need some major work in the offseason.

The turnaround that wasn’t: Right from the start of the season, it appeared new coach Greg Schiano was having a huge positive impact on the Buccaneers. At first, the Bucs were piling up moral victories by playing close against good teams. Then, they started winning and got to 6-4, the playoffs looked like a possibility and Josh Freeman was looking like a franchise quarterback.

But something has gone horribly wrong the past five games. Freeman suddenly reverted to his 2011 form, the pass defense has been ridiculously bad and the Bucs are having a second straight miserable December. That makes you wonder if the team is buying into Schiano’s hardline style. It works for guys like Bill Belichick and Tom Coughlin because they win. But when a coach like that is losing, you have to wonder if he’s another Nick Saban or Ray Perkins.

All-Division Team

You will quickly notice that the Falcons dominate the All-NFC South team. That’s largely because they ran away with the division and winning counts for a lot in my eyes. That’s why I took Julio Jones as the second receiver over Vincent Jackson, Steve Smith and Marques Colston. Those three had stats as good or better than Jones, but his play has helped the Falcons win 13 games so far. I also used that logic in choosing both of Atlanta’s starting cornerbacks, although it certainly helped that the other three teams had major problems at cornerback.

Tony DungyJamie Squire/AllsportTony Dungy's influence on the Buccaneers can still be felt today -- almost nine years after he coached his final game for Tampa Bay.
In the end, I went with my gut. My heart and head, too. In the end, I went with Tony Dungy.

Yes, I’m going to go ahead and declare Dungy the greatest coach in NFC South history. Let me make it clear, I came real close to going with New Orleans’ Sean Payton. I agonized over this one for days and I don’t think going with either one would have been a wrong decision.

But I know going with Dungy is right. I looked at win-loss records, Super Bowl titles and all that stuff. But I’m not really a numbers’ guy. I like to look at the big picture and have some flexibility outside the lines. That’s why, even though I gave some thought to guys like Jon Gruden, John Fox, Dan Reeves, Jim Mora, John McKay and Ray Perkins (well, not really on Perkins), I knew right away they belonged a little further down my list.

This was a two-man race between Dungy and Payton. In a lot of ways, they’re the same guy. Cover your eyes toward times, dates and places and Dungy and Payton did basically the same thing.

They came into franchises that were beyond destitute. They built winning teams, shaped character, pulled communities together and completely changed the way their franchises were viewed from up close and afar.

When it came right down to it, I guess the main reason I’m giving Dungy the slightest of edges over Payton might not even be fair. It’s mainly because Payton is still coaching and Dungy’s legacy in Tampa Bay already has plenty of angle and distance. In fact, there probably is way too much distance and angle between where the Bucs are at right now and where they were under Dungy.

Payton
Doug Benc/Getty ImagesBy the end of his career, Sean Payton will probably top this list.
Payton probably can put himself as the undisputed winner of this argument with another Super Bowl title or even a couple more playoff years. But, for the moment at least, I’m going with Dungy.

Yeah, Dungy never won a Super Bowl until he got to Indianapolis (and that factored into my thought process). Dungy did set the table for Gruden, but he did so much more than that. He came into a franchise that hadn’t had a winning season in a generation, was beyond dysfunctional and was on the verge of moving to Cleveland, Sacramento, Orlando or anywhere that would give the Bucs a new stadium.

The Bucs stayed in Tampa Bay. They started winning games with Dungy. They got a sparkling new stadium built and, for the first time in franchise history, made it fashionable for people to go to games on Sundays.

That trend has lasted and the Bucs have sold out every game since the opening of Raymond James Stadium. That streak probably is going to come to an end this season, unless Raheem Morris suddenly becomes the second coming of Dungy.

The Saints and New Orleans are as high as a franchise can be right now and fans should be grateful they’re watching history in the making. That’s why I’m going with Dungy because I see fans in Tampa who remember how it used to be. They remember how it was when Dungy coached the Bucs. They don’t even remember what it was like before him, even though the team is playing like that again.

Beyond Dungy and Payton, my list of the greatest coaches in the history of the NFC South goes like this:

3. John Fox, Carolina Panthers. Yep, I did it. I picked Fox over a guy who won a Super Bowl (Gruden). If I wanted a guy to come in and draw up one offensive play, it would be Gruden. If I wanted a guy to come in and provide consistent excellence for a franchise, well, let's just say I already have three guys ahead of him. I’ll explain what I view as the downside of Gruden in a minute, but, first, let’s talk about the virtues of Fox.

He’s the only head coach who has been with a single NFC South team for the entire existence of the NFC South. If Fox could have put together back-to-back winning seasons once or twice, he might even be higher on my list. But Fox has kept the Panthers at least respectable for the entire time he’s been in Carolina and that’s a pretty big accomplishment these days. Fox cleaned up George Seifert’s 1-15 mess and had Carolina in a Super Bowl two seasons later. When Fox is at the top of his game, he’s as good as any coach in the league.

4. Jim Mora, New Orleans Saints. I’m doing it again. I’m looking at the big picture. Remember what I said about Dungy and Payton about how they changed the climate of their franchises? Well, Mora did the same thing in New Orleans in the 1980s. He came out of the United States Football League and made the Saints respectable -- something they never had been before.

5. Jon Gruden, Tampa Bay Buccaneers. All right, Gruden won a Super Bowl and you can never take that away from him. He put Tampa Bay over the top after Dungy couldn’t. He won a Super Bowl with Brad Johnson as his quarterback and no true superstars on offense. I’m not going to say Dungy or defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin deserve the credit for that Super Bowl. Gruden deserves the credit. But what did Gruden really do beyond that? He was supposed to be an offensive guru, but he never could find a franchise quarterback or anyone to truly build his offense around. General manager Bruce Allen made some questionable personnel moves, but Gruden was heavily involved in each one. In the big picture, Gruden deserves credit for the Bucs winning the Super Bowl. He also deserves credit for them being where they are right now.

6. Dan Reeves, Atlanta Falcons. There was a part of me that wanted to put Reeves ahead of Gruden for this simple fact: He reached a Super Bowl with Chris Chandler as his quarterback. What Reeves and the Falcons did in the 1998 season came before the official birth of the NFC South, but they won 14 games and were spectacular. If Reeves could have followed up that season with something better than the 5-11 and 4-12 years that followed, he might have been much higher on this list.
Tony DungyJamie Squire/AllsportTony Dungy's influence on the Buccaneers can still be felt today -- almost nine years after he coached his final game for Tampa Bay.
In the end, I went with my gut. My heart and head, too. In the end, I went with Tony Dungy.

Yes, I’m going to go ahead and declare Dungy the greatest coach in NFC South history. (For background purposes, here's how all this started and some of the ground rules we laid out. And here are some of your opinions on the topic.)

Let me make it clear, I came real close to going with New Orleans’ Sean Payton. I agonized over this one for days and I don’t think going with either one would have been a wrong decision.

But I know going with Dungy is right. I looked at win-loss records, Super Bowl titles and all that stuff. But I’m not really a numbers’ guy. I like to look at the big picture and have some flexibility outside the lines. That’s why, even though I gave some thought to guys like Jon Gruden, John Fox, Dan Reeves, Jim Mora, John McKay and Ray Perkins (well, not really on Perkins), I knew right away they belonged a little further down my list.

This was a two-man race between Dungy and Payton. In a lot of ways, they’re the same guy. Cover your eyes toward times, dates and places and Dungy and Payton did basically the same thing.

They came into franchises that were beyond destitute. They built winning teams, shaped character, pulled communities together and completely changed the way their franchises were viewed from up close and afar.

When it came right down to it, I guess the main reason I’m giving Dungy the slightest of edges over Payton might not even be fair. It’s mainly because Payton is still coaching and Dungy’s legacy in Tampa Bay already has plenty of angle and distance. In fact, there probably is way too much distance and angle between where the Bucs are at right now and where they were under Dungy.

Payton
Doug Benc/Getty ImagesBy the end of his career, Sean Payton will probably top this list.
Payton probably can put himself as the undisputed winner of this argument with another Super Bowl title or even a couple more playoff years. But, for the moment at least, I’m going with Dungy.

Yeah, Dungy never won a Super Bowl until he got to Indianapolis (and that factored into my thought process). Dungy did set the table for Gruden, but he did so much more than that. He came into a franchise that hadn’t had a winning season in a generation, was beyond dysfunctional and was on the verge of moving to Cleveland, Sacramento, Orlando or anywhere that would give the Bucs a new stadium.

The Bucs stayed in Tampa Bay. They started winning games with Dungy. They got a sparkling new stadium built and, for the first time in franchise history, made it fashionable for people to go to games on Sundays.

That trend has lasted and the Bucs have sold out every game since the opening of Raymond James Stadium. That streak probably is going to come to an end this season, unless Raheem Morris suddenly becomes the second coming of Dungy.

The Saints and New Orleans are as high as a franchise can be right now and fans should be grateful they’re watching history in the making. That’s why I’m going with Dungy because I see fans in Tampa who remember how it used to be. They remember how it was when Dungy coached the Bucs. They don’t even remember what it was like before him, even though the team is playing like that again.

Beyond Dungy and Payton, my list of the greatest coaches in the history of the NFC South goes like this:

3. John Fox, Carolina Panthers. Yep, I did it. I picked Fox over a guy who won a Super Bowl (Gruden). If I wanted a guy to come in and draw up one offensive play, it would be Gruden. If I wanted a guy to come in and provide consistent excellence for a franchise, well, let's just say I already have three guys ahead of him. I’ll explain what I view as the downside of Gruden in a minute, but, first, let’s talk about the virtues of Fox.

He’s the only head coach who has been with a single NFC South team for the entire existence of the NFC South. If Fox could have put together back-to-back winning seasons once or twice, he might even be higher on my list. But Fox has kept the Panthers at least respectable for the entire time he’s been in Carolina and that’s a pretty big accomplishment these days. Fox cleaned up George Seifert’s 1-15 mess and had Carolina in a Super Bowl two seasons later. When Fox is at the top of his game, he’s as good as any coach in the league.

4. Jim Mora, New Orleans Saints. I’m doing it again. I’m looking at the big picture. Remember what I said about Dungy and Payton about how they changed the climate of their franchises? Well, Mora did the same thing in New Orleans in the 1980s. He came out of the United States Football League and made the Saints respectable -- something they never had been before.

5. Jon Gruden, Tampa Bay Buccaneers. All right, Gruden won a Super Bowl and you can never take that away from him. He put Tampa Bay over the top after Dungy couldn’t. He won a Super Bowl with Brad Johnson as his quarterback and no true superstars on offense. I’m not going to say Dungy or defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin deserve the credit for that Super Bowl. Gruden deserves the credit. But what did Gruden really do beyond that? He was supposed to be an offensive guru, but he never could find a franchise quarterback or anyone to truly build his offense around. General manager Bruce Allen made some questionable personnel moves, but Gruden was heavily involved in each one. In the big picture, Gruden deserves credit for the Bucs winning the Super Bowl. He also deserves credit for them being where they are right now.

6. Dan Reeves, Atlanta Falcons. There was a part of me that wanted to put Reeves ahead of Gruden for this simple fact: He reached a Super Bowl with Chris Chandler as his quarterback. What Reeves and the Falcons did in the 1998 season came before the official birth of the NFC South, but they won 14 games and were spectacular. If Reeves could have followed up that season with something better than the 5-11 and 4-12 years that followed, he might have been much higher on this list.
 
  Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images
  The Buccaneers plan to bring rookie quarterback Josh Freeman along slowly.

Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas

TAMPA, Fla. -- The Tampa Bay Buccaneers rolled out their history Friday morning. Hopefully, they were taking notes and thinking of Josh Freeman.

He's their future and maybe even their present. Keep that in mind as we recap the show the Bucs put on in their auditorium at the sparkling palace that is One Buccaneer Place.

It was short and sweet -- a press conference to announce that the Bucs would wear their orange jerseys from 1976 as part of a throwback promotion for the Nov. 8 game against Green Bay. They had current players Antonio Bryant, Gaines Adams, Barrett Ruud and Earnest Graham walk out on stage as models. They also showed a video of the early years of the Bucs. Understandably, it was very brief.

But there was one shining moment in the video. It came as No. 12 flashed by a couple of times.

That's Doug Williams, the only true franchise quarterback in Bucs history. Let's remember that because it relates directly to Freeman.

A lot of people prefer to forget the early Bucs years, when the team lost its first 26 games and was headquartered at a bunker right off an airport runway. So why bring out the orange and white -- even as a ceremonial gesture -- when the pewter has worked pretty well the last dozen years?

"The answer is simple,'' Bucs co-chairman Ed Glazer said. "This is our history. This is where it all started.''

Truly, it started in 1978 when the Bucs drafted Williams out of Grambling in the first round. Former owner Hugh Culverhouse told Williams he'd have to start off as a backup and earn his job as he handed the quarterback a contract that was below standards even at the time.

Then, coach John McKay turned around and handed Williams the starting job. Throwing Williams to the wolves worked. The Bucs came darn close to getting to the Super Bowl the next season.

 
  Takashi Makita/NFL/Getty Images
  Quarterback Doug Williams started immediately for the Buccaneers. The franchise might do well to follow the same blueprint with Josh Freeman.

That's the lesson. You don't have to coddle a franchise quarterback.

Even though the Bucs have talked a lot about bringing Freeman along slowly, maybe that's not a formula for success. Stick with the history here. Coddling didn't work the other two times the Bucs thought they were getting a franchise quarterback.

Say what you want about Vinny Testaverde and Trent Dilfer. They both did some good things later in their careers. But neither turned out to be the savior the Bucs thought they were getting when the quarterbacks were drafted.

In 1987, Ray Perkins drafted Testaverde with the top overall pick and elected to sit him behind Steve DeBerg. In 1994, Sam Wyche selected Dilfer and followed a plan to play him behind Craig Erickson. What did the Bucs get from going with DeBerg and Erickson when it was common knowledge that they were only there for the short term?

Only a bunch of losses. It's nice to think long term and believe that a quarterback can gain more by sitting safely on the bench. But I'm not sure Testaverde and Dilfer benefitted from that and I know the Bucs didn't.

That's all part of what Tampa Bay coach Raheem Morris and general manager Mark Dominik need to decide as they ponder the plan for Freeman over the next few weeks. They've got Luke McCown and Byron Leftwich as alternatives.

Both have some experience. Both have some skills. But is McCown any different from Erickson? Is Leftwich any different than DeBerg?

No, they all are -- and were -- just "guys."

Morris and Dominik just invested $26 million (maybe as much as $36 million) in Freeman because they believe he's more than a "guy." Freeman was looking awfully good by the end of June workouts and he stuck around One Buc Place for much of the time his teammates were off.

"I'm going to try to give them every reason I can to start me," Freeman said as he checked into camp Friday morning.

That is going to be up to Freeman as the Bucs begin practice Saturday morning. Although the decision to draft Freeman was booed by Bucs' fans in April, there are some reasons to believe he can succeed -- and do so quickly.

He has the arm and the size and he seems to have the charisma of a franchise quarterback. He may be a little unpolished after coming out of Kansas State a year early. But there are general managers and coaches around the league who will tell you they thought more highly of Freeman than they did of Matthew Stafford and Mark Sanchez, the first two quarterbacks taken in this year's draft.

Morris, who spent a year coaching at Kansas State, and Dominik fall firmly into that category. They traded up a few spots to grab Freeman at No. 18 because they believed someone else would beat them to the punch.

So why turn around and sit him?

Especially when you've got a good offensive line, solid running backs in Derrick Ward and Graham, and targets like Bryant and Kellen Winslow. Perkins and Wyche didn't have luxuries like that when they sat Testaverde and Dilfer. Heck, McKay didn't have an offense like that (although the Bucs were pretty good on defense) when he tossed Williams out there and it worked.

If Freeman shows much of anything in camp and the preseason, just start him.

There's a school of thought among some fans that the Bucs will open with McCown or Leftwich. Maybe they go about halfway through the season and then hand it off to Freeman. It makes plenty of sense because they play an Oct. 25 game in London against the Patriots. After that, they have a bye week followed by the unfreezing of the Creamsicles against Green Bay.

You just might see Freeman making his starting debut in orange and white. Then again, why not Week 1 against Dallas in pewter and red?

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