NFL Nation: Warrick Dunn
Dan from Toledo, Ohio, has a problem with the implication running back Steven Jackson would have a better shot at winning a championship by leaving the St. Louis Rams.
"Nobody knows who is going to the Super Bowl, so Steven better make a good choice," Dan writes. "Who says the Rams can't win the Super Bowl this year? Who thought the Rams were going to be that good in 1999?"
Sando: The Rams are improving, but even they would likely acknowledge other teams are closer to championship form at this time. The bottom line is that Jackson would remain in St. Louis if the Rams were willing to pay him $7 million in salary. They weren't willing to pay him that much. That is why they gave him the ability to void his contract.
What Jackson thinks of the Rams is less interesting to me than what the market thinks of Jackson. Players seeking to discover their value sometimes do not like what they find.
Jackson is 29 years old and his production has slipped in recent seasons. He finished last season with numbers nearly identical to the ones he posted in 2008. The difference was that he played only 12 games in 2008 and 16 games last season.
However, some other accomplished backs such as Curtis Martin, Tony Dorsett, Ricky Watters and Warrick Dunn remained productive at that age. Each topped 1,000 yards rushing for the final two times at ages 30 and 31. Jackson might be able to do the same if given the opportunity. He'll need someone to give him that chance.
Back to the original comment from Dan regarding St. Louis possibly contending in 2013. There is every reason to expect continued improvement from St. Louis even though improving from 7-8-1 in the standings, where the Rams stood in 2012, is tougher than improving from 2-14 in the standings, where the Rams stood in 2011.
Would Jackson, uninterested in a reduced role with St. Louis, accept one for a team he perceives to as closer to contending for a title?
"I'm definitely going to have to [have] open ears and be open to all talks, but I don't know what teams want unless I made myself available," Jackson told SportsCenter on Friday. "Doing so, it was a very tough decision to leave St. Louis, but when we started talking about reduced roles and what they see me in the future with the organization, it has to fit and make sure that I could fit in the locker room as well as other players."
Five nuggets of knowledge for the Week 13 games:
Enjoying the road: The Panthers have a chance to win their third consecutive road game, at Kansas City on Sunday. Carolina has won its past two road games after ending a streak of four straight road losses. The Chiefs are 0-6 at home this season. That’s their first 0-6 home start since 1976. Kansas City never has started 0-7 at home.
Next man up: Call it back luck that the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have a league-high $37.89 million in salaries on injured reserve this season. That total is led by the high salaries for guards Carl Nicks and Davin Joseph, defensive end Adrian Clayborn, linebacker Quincy Black and offensive tackle Jeremy Trueblood. But also give credit to the Bucs for having a winning record and being in the playoff hunt, despite missing a bunch of key ingredients.
Strength on strength: Denver’s defense has allowed a league-low eight completions on throws of more than 20 yards downfield. Tampa Bay quarterback Josh Freeman has completed a league-high 22 passes of more than 20 yards, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
Headed for the record book: Tampa Bay rookie running back Doug Martin is second in the NFL with 1,382 yards from scrimmage. No rookie has led the league in yards from scrimmage since Eric Dickerson in 1983. Martin needs 59 yards to break Warrick Dunn’s franchise record for yards from scrimmage by a rookie.
This really has been true for only five weeks, but I don’t think I’m going out on a limb by saying the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have the most exciting offense in franchise history and they have a true franchise quarterback for the first time.
Start thinking about the history of this franchise because that’s a part of why I feel comfortable making those statements. We’ll run through that inglorious history in just a moment, but let’s start with the past five games.
In that stretch, Josh Freeman, who entered the season as a huge question mark, has established himself as a big-time quarterback. Rookie running back Doug Martin has become such a phenomenon that he finally might have shed that nickname he doesn’t like. And wide receiver Vincent Jackson has turned out to be worth every penny of that five-year, $55 million contract he signed back in March.
In each of the past five games, the Bucs have scored at least 28 points. When’s the last time that happened?
What’s happened in the past five games has vaulted the Bucs into the league lead in average yards per play (6.21). They’re averaging 28.9 points per game, which ranks them behind only New England (see Brady, Tom) and Denver (see Manning, Peyton). Speaking of Peyton Manning, he’s second in the league with an average of 8.20 yards per pass attempt. Freeman is No. 1 at 8.27.
Martin had a 251-yard, four-touchdown game at Oakland and has turned out to be the “all-purpose back’’ that coach Greg Schiano and general manager Mark Dominik talked about on the night they drafted him.
Jackson’s leading the league by averaging 21.4 yards per reception. Heck, teammate Mike Williams is second at 18.3.
Heck, if this keeps up, we might be calling Freeman, Martin and Jackson “The Triplets’’, the way Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith and Michael Irvin used to be referred to in their Dallas glory days. At times, some people got carried away and called the Cowboys’ stars “The Quadruplets’’ because they actually thought Alvin Harper was good.
That’s a perfect way to jump back into the history of offensive football and the Buccaneers. Harper was the receiver the Bucs signed in the mid-1990s to be their Irvin. Instead, the thing most Tampa Bay fans remember about him is that he got part of his finger sliced off in a training-room accident.
For their entire existence, including the good years, the Bucs have been anywhere from dismal to mediocre on offense. They won a Super Bowl with Brad Johnson as their quarterback and Monte Kiffin commanding a defense for the ages. They won a lot of games and tasted their first sustained success under coach Tony Dungy ... with Kiffin commanding a defense for the ages.
At one point in the 1990s, Tampa Bay’s bread-and-butter offensive play was having Errict Rhett run into Mike Alstott’s back and fall as far forward as possible. They later upgraded and had Warrick Dunn run into Alstott’s back and actually make a cut or two.
Even back during the first rise to prominence (1979), Tampa Bay was much more defined by Lee Roy Selmon and the defense than it was by the offense and Doug Williams.
Speaking of Williams, he was the best quarterback in franchise history -- until Freeman’s emergence. Between them, the Bucs have trotted out the likes of Steve Young (before he became Steve Young in San Francisco), Vinny Testaverde, Craig Erickson, Trent Dilfer, Shaun King, Brian Griese and Jeff Garcia.
Freeman’s not going to follow a similar route. He’s under contract through 2013, but, after what he’s shown this season, I think it’s safe to say Freeman’s going to be around a lot longer than that. Sometime in the offseason, the Bucs almost certainly will give Freeman a big contract extension.
Freeman has bounced back from the disastrous final season of the Raheem Morris era. He’s turned out to be everything Schiano and offensive coordinator Mike Sullivan said he would be upon their arrival. Schiano and Sullivan said they wanted to build an offense that ran the ball consistently and they wanted to take some shots downfield in the passing game.
That formula’s working. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Freeman leads the league with 19 completions on throws of 20 yards or more. Jackson leads the NFL with 10 receptions on throws of 20 yards or more.
Williams has revived a career that seemed to stall last year. The Bucs plucked receiver Tiquan Underwood off the scrap heap and he’s turning in big plays. Martin is making things happen in the running game and as a receiver and the offense is clicking, despite the fact the Bucs are without injured Pro Bowl guards Carl Nicks and Davin Joseph.
For the longest time, there was a joke in Tampa Bay that the most exciting offense the region ever saw was the “Fun and Gun’’ orchestrated by Steve Spurrier and the USFL’s Tampa Bay Bandits, who, briefly, were more popular than the Bucs in the 1980s.
Those Bandits were wildly entertaining, but part of the reason they’re so fondly remembered is because the Bucs always were boring -- and usually bad -- on offense.
They’ve got a bunch of marquee players (Matt Ryan, Roddy White, Julio Jones, Tony Gonzalez, Michael Turner, John Abraham and Asante Samuel), but the buzz isn’t about them. Instead, most of the talk is about two new assistant coaches -- offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter and defensive coordinator Mike Nolan. That’s understandable, because a lot of people thought the Falcons needed some major changes after they got thumped by the New York Giants in the first round of last season’s playoffs.
With offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey (now head coach in Jacksonville) and defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder (now defensive coordinator at Auburn) leaving, Koetter and Nolan are big storylines. They might not have star power all by themselves, but watch and listen a little more and you’ll see the two new coaches have plenty of star power behind them.
“Mike Nolan and Dirk Koetter have done a fine job of bringing their respective systems to the table and working with (coach) Mike Smith and the rest of the staff and developing a system that is melding well with all of our coaching opinions,’’ general manager Thomas Dimitroff said. “It’s a collaborative effort. It’s not just one stamp from one coordinator or the other. It’s been really interesting seeing everyone come together on the respective sides of the football to develop this new system.’’
In conversations with Smith and Dimitroff, each repeatedly emphasized that key players (the guys listed above and a few others) have had extensive input into what the Falcons will do on each side of the ball. As soon as league rules allowed coaches and players to get together in the offseason, Ryan and Koetter began meeting regularly and discussing what the playbook should look like.
“There are a lot of things we’ve done well over the last few years, and the first thing Dirk asked me was what I liked and what I felt most comfortable with,’’ Ryan said. “Then, we took the things I said and looked at our production in those situations and some of it was surprising because we didn’t have as much success as I would have thought in some of the things I said I was most comfortable with, and we had some pretty good success with some of the things I didn’t necessarily think I liked.
"We also watched a lot of film of Jacksonville (where Koetter was offensive coordinator last year), and we talked a lot about why they did certain things at certain times. There was a lot of very good give-and-take. He’s extremely open to input, which is great for players, and I know he sat down and did the same thing with some other guys. But he also has his own opinions and is firm on his own opinions, and I like that about him.’’
The Falcons have been very public about some of the ways their offense will change. They said they don’t want Turner having to endure a 300-carry season. They said they want to use the screen pass more, after almost completely ignoring it in recent years. And they’ve made it very clear that they want to improve their downfield passing game.
What the actual playbook looks like is likely to be a combination of what both Koetter and the Falcons have done in the past.
The changes on defense are likely to be similar because Nolan also has consulted extensively with his key players. Nolan has spent 14 years as a defensive coordinator in the NFL, seven of them in the 4-3 defense and seven in the 3-4. The Falcons will continue to use the 4-3 as their base, but there could be some 3-4 looks and principles.
“We just have a lot of different things that we can do,’’ outside linebacker Sean Weatherspoon said. “We’re going to be aggressive. We’re not being passive at all. Our mindset is that we want to go out there and dictate. We don’t want to adjust to what an offense is doing. We want to put it on them to make changes.’’
That would be a change from the VanGorder days, when the Falcons had some individual talent and a fair amount of overall success, but never really had an identity as a defense. The Falcons will be different on both sides of the ball.
“When you have new eyes, so to speak, you get a different view,’’ Smith said. “We may have had a view that this guy’s strengths are A, B and C and his weaknesses are D, E and F, and a new guy comes in and, because he’s coming from a different perspective, he sees it differently. I think that’s interesting in terms of evaluating your roster because you have two new sets of eyes.’’
Maybe the eyes will have it. Maybe the new coordinators and new playbooks will be enough to help the Falcons win a playoff game for the first time since Smith, Dimitroff and Ryan arrived in 2008.
THREE HOT ISSUES
I’m almost certain they have big plans for second-year pro Jacquizz Rodgers, and I think those plans might be a lot bigger than people realize. That’s largely because Rodgers is bigger than the Falcons realized when they drafted him last year.
“Jacquizz is not little,’’ Smith said. “He’s short, but he’s thick. People projected him to be a third-down back, a change-of-pace back. I think the guy has the skill set to play on all three downs. One of the things that stood out to me more than anything is his ability to pass protect. A lot of times, your change-of-pace back, you’ve got to get him the ball and not ask him to be a part of the protection. I don’t think that’s the case with Jacquizz. I think Jacquizz is an all-around back that can play on all three downs.’’
Translation: The Falcons aren’t looking for Rodgers to be what Jerious Norwood once was. They want him to be more like what Warrick Dunn once was.
2. Positive reinforcement. I don’t know if they were veiled shots at Mularkey, VanGorder and former middle linebacker and defensive leader Curtis Lofton, but I think it was significant that Smith and Dimitroff repeatedly used the word “positive’’ when they talked about the coaching styles of Koetter and Nolan, and as they talked about the leadership qualities Samuel brings, and what kind of leader they expect Weatherspoon to become.
“Sean is such a positive guy,’’ Smith said. “He is vocal, but he’s never negative in the way he speaks. He’s always very positive.’’
Samuel was described in the same way. So were Nolan and Koetter.
I never sensed a lot of negativity from Mularkey, VanGorder or Lofton, but I also never sensed any of them were rah-rah guys. It sure seems like Smith and Dimitroff feel their team needed more positive reinforcement.
3. The pass rush. For far too long, Atlanta’s pass rush has consisted of Abraham and almost nothing else. Maybe fellow defensive end Ray Edwards steps up after an injury-filled season that limited him to 3.5 sacks. Or maybe reserves Lawrence Sidbury and Kroy Biermann produce more. But I get the sense Nolan isn’t looking to have only defensive ends rush the passer.
“The way practice is going right now, we’re really excited about getting the linebackers more involved in rushing the passer,’’ Weatherspoon said. “Even in seven-on-seven, we’re going. That will help those guys out there on the edge because now offenses are going to have to account for us all day. It’ll be better because we’ll be able to keep them on their heels.’’
And it won’t be just the linebackers. Look for the cornerbacks and safeties to also get plenty of opportunities to blitz.
REASON FOR OPTIMISM
The guy has done some very good things in his first four seasons and he’s worked very hard to bulk up this offseason, so that he’s not worn down when the playoffs roll around. Ryan has a good arm, excellent mental skills and a strong work ethic. But, for some reason, he just hasn’t been able to take the next step. Last year, the Falcons brought in Jones to give him another weapon to go with White and Gonzalez. This year, they brought in Koetter, who has obvious instructions to get the most out of Ryan’s skills.
When you keep doing things the right way, sooner or later it’s all bound to click.
REASON FOR PESSIMISM
The offensive line. This was a big problem spot last year. Ryan frequently didn’t have enough time to throw the deep ball. The Falcons got rid of offensive line coach Paul Boudreau and replaced him with Pat Hill, who has a nice history with offensive lines. They also used their second-round pick on guard Peter Konz.
But were those two moves enough to bring dramatic improvement up front? Should the Falcons really be sticking with Sam Baker at left tackle? And even if they want to give Baker another shot, shouldn’t they at least have brought in a viable alternative in case he struggles?
I know a lot of fans think the Falcons should have done more up front. But the Falcons think they’ve done enough. We’ll find out who is right soon enough.
- The Falcons lost a steady return man when Eric Weems left as a free agent. They’ve thrown out a lot of names, including some undrafted rookies, as candidates to take Weems’ spot as the punt and kickoff returner. But this is a team with a lot at stake this season, and I don’t see the Falcons handing either job to an untested rookie. I think they play it safe and go with third receiver Harry Douglas as their punt returner. He could also be an option on kickoff returns. If not, reserve cornerbacks Dominique Franks and Christopher Owens, as well as Rodgers, could be possibilities.
- Ever since he was drafted in 2010, I’ve been expecting to see some flash from wide receiver Kerry Meier. Part of that is because the Atlanta coaches still talk about the former college quarterback as a guy that can play just about any position. Meier missed his rookie season with an injury and didn’t get a lot of playing time last year. But I did see him make a couple of nice catches in camp and also saw him getting work as the backup holder on field goals and extra points. Meier may have a tough time getting much playing time at wide receiver because the Falcons are so deep. But Koetter might be able to throw off some defenses by lining up Meier at H-back, fullback and tight end at various times.
- I don’t want to raise hopes artificially, but I saw defensive tackle Peria Jerry working with the first-team defense while I was at camp. He seemed to show a little of the burst that made him a first-round pick in 2009. But Jerry tore up his knee early in his rookie season and has been reduced to a role player. He’s getting the first-team work because Corey Peters is temporarily sidelined with an injury. Peters’ starting job will be there when he gets back. But the Falcons would get a tremendous boost if Jerry can give them some production as a backup.
- Veteran center Todd McClure has been getting all the first-team work early in camp. But I think the Falcons would be wise to take a long look at Joe Hawley and maybe even start him in a preseason game or two. McClure is 35, and there is no question he’s slowing down. I can see a scenario in which McClure wears out or gets hurt as the season goes on, and Hawley gets thrown into the starting lineup. The better long-term approach might be to go with Hawley as the starter and have McClure as a fallback option.
- I don’t know what the Falcons are going to do about a No. 3 tight end after Gonzalez and Michael Palmer. They have six tight ends in camp. At least while I was there, the one that seemed to stand out was Tommy Gallarda. He looks like he can catch the ball a bit. More importantly, he’s 6-foot-5 and 259 pounds and looks like he can block.
- A lot of fans are excited about third-round pick Lamar Holmes. They believe he could end up beating out Baker for the starting left tackle job in training camp. That’s not going to happen. The Falcons are going to give Baker every benefit of the doubt. If he’s injured or really struggles, they’ll turn to Will Svitek. Holmes is viewed as a project, and it could be a couple of years before he gets on the field.
- Since the arrival of Samuel, the common assumption among many fans is that Dunta Robinson will be the nickelback and Samuel will start opposite Brent Grimes. That’s not as automatic as most think. Yes, Robinson will play the nickel position, lining up inside against slot receivers on passing downs. But that doesn’t mean Robinson won’t be starting and playing the outside on running downs. Samuel’s age, 31, is a concern, and the Falcons may not want to overuse him. They may start Robinson and, when they go to the nickel package, insert Samuel on the outside and slide Robinson inside.
Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 16:
Monday Night Fever: The New Orleans Saints have all sorts of streaks going. They’ve clinched a playoff berth for the third straight season. They’ve won at least 11 games in each of the past three seasons. They’re on a six-game winning streak. That ties them with the Patriots for the longest active winning streak in the NFL. Finally, the Saints have the NFL’s longest active winning streak in “Monday Night Football’’ games. They’ve won six straight and haven’t lost since a 2008 game against Minnesota.
The “other’’ record: Understandably, most of the talk surrounding the Saints has to do with Drew Brees’ pursuit of Dan Marino’s record for passing yards in a season. But another member of the Saints is chasing history. That’s second-year tight end Jimmy Graham. He’s on pace for 99 catches and 1,338 receiving yards. The NFL record for receiving yards by a tight end is 1,290, set by San Diego’s Kellen Winslow in 1980. Graham also has had at least five catches in six straight games.
Making history: Even in a season that hasn’t been filled with wins, the Carolina Panthers have a chance to make some very positive history. Running back Jonathan Stewart needs to gain just 6 rushing yards to reach 600 for the season. Fellow running back DeAngelo Williams already has 717 yards and quarterback Cam Newton has 609 yards. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, the last two teams to have three 600-yard rushers in a season were the 2006 Falcons (Michael Vick, Warrick Dunn and Jerious Norwood) and the 1978 Patriots (Sam Cunningham, Horace Ivory and Andy Johnson).
Losing at historic rate: Some unflattering notes on Tampa Bay’s eight-game losing streak. It’s the longest active streak in the NFL and the first time the Bucs have lost eight straight in a season since 1987. If the Bucs lose to the Panthers and make it nine straight, it will set off some more statistical bells. The Bucs haven’t lost nine straight in a single season since starting 0-9 in 1985.
Voted on by players around the league, the award is designed to honor a player who exhibits outstanding character and leadership in the home, on the field and in the community.
We all know that Brees has made a huge impact on the New Orleans area since arriving as a free agent in 2006, and his accomplishments on the field speak for themselves. Some past winners of this award are Warrick Dunn, Reggie White, Anthony Munoz and Kurt Warner.
Brees will be given the award Feb. 5 at an event leading up to the Super Bowl.
In the final five regular-season games, Blount led the NFL in rushing yards with 511 on 87 carries (a 5.9-yard average). Blount had a career-high 164 yards in Week 16 victory against Seattle. Blount was an undrafted free agent who initially signed with Tennessee. After he was released by the Titans at the end of the preseason, the Buccanners signed him and he emerged as their feature back.
Blount is the fourth player in franchise history to win an NFL Offensive Rookie of the Month award. Cadillac Williams did it twice in 2005. The only other Buccaneers to win the award were Mike Alstott (1996), Warrick Dunn (1997) and Shaun King (1999).
And that's saying something.
The Buffalo Bills aren't delusional enough to promote themselves as Super Bowl contenders and had an abysmal offensive performance in Sunday's 15-10 loss to the Miami Dolphins.
Sanchez somehow played limbo with those numbers.
In Monday night's 10-9 loss to the Baltimore Ravens, the Jets gained 176 yards. They converted one third down. Sanchez was 10-of-21 for 74 yards and no touchdowns, a 56.4 passer rating.
"I thought he'd do a little better than that last night," resident debater Skip Bayless said on ESPN's "First Take" on Tuesday morning. "I was astonished at how lost and scared he looked from start to finish.
"This guy, 'Sanchise,' as Rex [Ryan] was calling him, only got worse as the game went on. He played not to lose. We saw happy feet. We saw checkdown after checkdown because he's afraid to throw it upfield."
Might Sanchez be gunning for Edwards' title of Captain Checkdown?
Although a 33-yard pass play to tight end Dustin Keller was wiped out by a Braylon Edwards illegal motion penalty, Sanchez officially threw beyond 10 yards four times all night, completing one for 13 yards. On high-percentage throws inside 10 yards, he completed just nine of 18 for 61 yards.
Edwards at least dared to hit Roscoe Parrish for a 31-yard touchdown -- on fourth-and-11, no less.
"Sanchez is a guy who wants to dink and dunk," former Tampa Bay Buccaneers running back Warrick Dunn said on "First Take" on Tuesday morning. "They're not really aggressive offensively or attack downfield. I don't think they put him in position to be successful, but at the same time they play a conservative style of football.
"Mark Sanchez, I don't think he can really handle the hype of being of a New York Jets quarterback."
Since arriving at Colts camp, I’ve been asking questions about Clyde Christensen, who’s in his ninth season with the team but his first as offensive coordinator.
It’s a job he’s held once before in the NFL, and his offense in 2001 with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers was not very good. (Here’s an interview he did leading into that season.) On Wednesday I asked head coach Jim Caldwell about Christensen in his new position and about that Tampa Bay experience. His answer prompted me to look back at those Bucs and to write now even though I expect to talk to Christensen on Friday.
The Bucs were 30th in rushing with an injured Warrick Dunn, 15th in passing, 26th in total offense and 15th in scoring.
"If I was giving myself a grade, I'd say about a C. Dead average. That's disappointing, because being average is not satisfactory."
Then after Philadelphia routed the Bucs 31-9 in the wild-card round, Tampa Bay receiver Keyshawn Johnson said: "A lot of guys on this team have a lot of bark, but no bite. Guys have to just shut up and play."
Per Caldwell’s request, I checked the stats, and here’s what I think he was driving at: A year after Tony Dungy and his staff were fired and Jon Gruden took over, the Bucs won the Super Bowl.
But that championship offense, in a league with one more franchise, was 27th in rushing (three spots better than Christensen’s), 15th in passing (same), 24th in total offense (two spots better) and 18th in scoring (three spots worse.)
Gruden was regarded as an offensive genius at that point, but his offense had a lot of the same weak spots as Christensen’s did.
While Caldwell indicated he thinks Christensen got a bad rap in Tampa Bay, the Colts coach also mentioned how a lot of coaches who were perceived to be not great in their first go-around rebounded to fare much better in a second chance.
He pointed to his own poor win-loss record as coach at Wake Forest, mentioned the difference in Dennis Green from college to the NFL and nodded in agreement when I mentioned Bill Belichick as another example.
“You ought to check the stats and see what exactly we were trying to get done and what we got done,” he said of Christensen’s year as coordinator with the Bucs, when Caldwell was quarterbacks coach on the same Dungy staff. “A lot of people make assumptions and have preconceived notions about things.
“But he’s a very good football coach, he’s a very capable guy, he’s an excellent leader and I think you’ll see he’ll do a great job.”
In Indy, Tom Moore is still around as senior offensive assistant and Peyton Manning is still determining what exactly to do on a play as he assesses things after breaking the huddle. We aren’t going to see a discernable difference because Christensen is now officially at the helm. He’s put in good years with the team, earned Caldwell’s trust and loyalty as well as this promotion. He’s obviously inheriting a great offense.
Still, it’s reasonable to look at that stint in Tampa Bay and wonder how it will go.
“He’s in his position because he’s capable,” Caldwell said. “He’s a very good, very strong offensive mind. He knows our system extremely well. He’s been working in it for a number of years now, had played a major role in it, oftentimes behind the scenes. ... [He’s worked on] our red zone, we’ve been very effective in that particular area, and our third-down packages as well.”
Stay tuned for more on him, and hopefully from him, later this week.
He's out there on the sideline, mostly observing, but sometimes chatting with his players. It all looks very casual, but it was out there on the practice field a few years back that the seeds were planted for a very big business deal.
"I used to make little comments to Mr. Blank and [team president and former general manager] Rich McKay about how I wanted to someday be an owner," former Atlanta running back Warrick Dunn said.
What might have seemed like a joke at the time wasn't. Dunn was very serious about his desire to own an NFL team and Blank was listening. Now, it has all happened.
Dunn recently completed a deal to become a limited partner with Blank. He'll join six other limited partners and Blank and help run the Falcons. He'll also serve on the Atlanta Falcons Board of Advisors, which includes heavy hitters like Hank Aaron and Ambassador Andrew Young.
It might sound like a nice token gesture for one of the best players in franchise history and a guy who has been known for his charitable and community work throughout his career. But it's much more than that.
Dunn is taking his new role very seriously. If you know anything about Dunn, that's no surprise. He's very serious about anything he does.
"The deal really just became official, but I've already been studying up," Dunn said. "We've got a meeting of the partners later this month and that will be my first real test and I'm trying to get ready for it. But I really feel like I'm blind in a sense because I don't really know the business end."
That may be true, but it's going to change quickly. Keep in mind, Dunn spent his entire playing career with the Falcons and Tampa Bay Buccaneers constantly followed by the question, "Can he do it every down?" because he was 5-foot-9 and about 185 pounds.
Three Pro Bowls and almost 11,000 rushing yards later, Dunn had emphatically answered that question by the time he stopped playing after the 2008 season. Now comes the next question: Can he succeed as an owner?
Don't be against it. The terms of Dunn's investment in the Falcons haven't been revealed, and Blank controls 90 percent of the team. But Dunn made a lot of money as a player and was known by teammates for being a bit frugal.
Koncz had a very good question.
“Hey, has a running back ever not led his team in rushing yardage and gone to the Pro Bowl?’’ Koncz asked.
It fits because that’s the situation the Panthers are in. Starting running back DeAngelo Williams is going to the Pro Bowl. But backup Jonathan Stewart, partly because of injuries, finished the season with more rushing yards. Stewart isn’t going to the Pro Bowl. Stewart finished with 1,133 yards and Williams with 1,117. They are the first pair of teammates to rush for 1,100 yards in the same season.
I didn’t know the answer to Koncz’s question, but I’ve got the resources to get it. I called our research people and they consulted with the Elias Sports Bureau and came up with the answer.
It has been done before, but there are some qualifiers involved. Since 1975, it’s happened a handful of times and the most recent involves a guy who really wasn’t a running back.
Tampa Bay’s Mike Alstott, who wasn’t truly a fullback either, made the Pro Bowl in 2002, 2000 and 1998. Alstott made it as a fullback and Warrick Dunn led the Bucs in rushing in 1998 and 2000 and joined Alstott in the Pro Bowl in 2000. In 2002, Michael Pittman led the Bucs in rushing.
The other instances came in 1993 when Pittsburgh’s Barry Foster was selected over Leroy Thompson, in 1988 when James Brooks made it over Ickey Woods for the Bengals and in 1980 when Kenny King went over Mark Van Eeghen for Oakland.
You can also throw in St. Louis in 1975 -- sort of. Terry Metcalf first was selected to the Pro Bowl and Jim Otis was not. But Otis later was added to the Pro Bowl roster.
Just build on that, hope the Saints could get knocked off once or twice and there were lots of indications that, when the teams met again in Atlanta in December, the Falcons could win and take the division race right down to the wire.
Well, it’s December now and the Saints come to the Georgia Dome on Sunday and both teams will be carrying flags. The undefeated Saints already have earned an NFC South banner. The Falcons have thrown up a white flag.
“We’re not in the NFC South anymore,’’ Atlanta coach Mike Smith said in a conference call with the New Orleans media. “We’re in the Wild-Card Division.’’
Yes, the Falcons have pulled out of a union that traditionally had all four teams on the map until late in the season. But this season’s dramatically different.
Tampa Bay really never was in the picture. Carolina was pretty much out after an 0-3 start and any hope the Panthers had after winning their next two games disappeared forever with that pathetic home loss to Buffalo.
So what’s happened to a division that fans were calling the “NFC Stout’’ at the start of the season?
Well, let’s first give the Saints a ton of credit for putting so much distance between themselves and everyone else. But let’s also remember the Saints finished last in the division last season. They got dramatically better.
But let’s not forget the Falcons, Panthers and Buccaneers did a pretty fine job of pulling themselves out of a division that now should be called the NFC New Orleans and Nothing Else.
Let’s take a look, team-by-team, at how it came to this:
FALCONS: The Falcons still were in it after that loss in New Orleans. They were 4-3 and they went to 5-3 a week later with a blowout win against Washington. Then, the Falcons self destructed. Ryan struggled and Turner got hurt. Then, Ryan got hurt, Turner got hurt and almost the entire offensive line got hurt. And the defense, which already was shaky at best, got really shaky.
“We haven’t made plays when they’ve been presented to us and you have to make those big plays and those game-changing plays in this league if you’re going to get the outcome you want,’’ Smith said.
The outcome the Falcons wanted for this year was to get back-to-back winning seasons for the first time in franchise history, make the playoffs again and maybe even win the NFC South championship.
None of that’s going to happen. The Falcons are 6-6 and mathematically still in the playoff hunt. But let’s be realistic. With that defense and with Ryan and Turner looking like they each will miss one more game, there’s no reason why the Saints should lose this one to the Falcons. If Ryan and Turner stay out longer than this game, there’s no reason to believe the Falcons win anything until they’re back and, even then, the defense is capable of keeping any opponent in the game.
I still like Atlanta’s nucleus, but I like it for next year when it’s healthy again and there’s been time to fix that defense. For right now, though, seeing backup quarterback Chris Redman starting is like watching the Falcons wave a surrender flag.
PANTHERS: Call it overconfidence, complacency or a comedy of errors. Whatever you want to call it the Panthers have gone from 12-4 to one of the league’s most disappointing teams, and that’s probably going to cost coach John Fox his job.
He has no one to blame but himself and possibly general manager Marty Hurney, although I think Hurney still could have a job when Fox is gone. Yeah, Hurney’s the one who does the deals, but Fox is the one who told him what deals he wanted done. And the decision to bring back Jake Delhomme, as well as sign him to a contract extension, ranks as one of the biggest gaffes of the past offseason. A lot of coaches would have handed Delhomme his release after his five-interception game against Arizona in last season’s playoffs and a couple of horrible games late last season.
At the very least, it might have been wise to bring in an alternative to Delhomme. As much as the Panthers were proud of the fact that they were returning 21 of 22 starters, the downside to that was they paid a fortune to offensive tackle Jordan Gross and moody defensive end Julius Peppers. That left them with no salary-cap room to sign any depth and it has cost them dearly when injuries happened, and when some of those 21 starters turned out to be less than the coaching staff thought.
Fox brought stability to this franchise, but he might have brought too much for too long. His message no longer carries the same weight in some corners of the locker room, and there’s a feeling among some players that rules aren’t the same for everybody and some guys get, or have demanded and received, star treatment. It might be the quarterback, it might be the coach or it might be both of them plus a whole bunch of others, but someone’s going to have to take the fall for this mess.
BUCCANEERS: Let’s be real honest here. The Bucs took themselves out of this year’s NFC South race in February. That’s when they cut ties with Derrick Brooks, Jeff Garcia, Warrick Dunn, Ike Hilliard, Joey Galloway, Kevin Carter and several other older players who had just enough left to keep them close to making the playoffs last year. There was some logic in all that because the Bucs weren’t going to get any better if they kept the same crew around.
Instead, they got worse. Much of that was to be expected. But if this rebuilding plan had been carried out better, the Bucs would have been respectable early on and should be showing substantial progress by now. They’re not. Rookie quarterback Josh Freeman has brought some hope since taking over at midseason, but free-agent pickups Derrick Ward and Angelo Crowell haven’t brought anything to the table.
Coach Raheem Morris fired offensive coordinator Jeff Jagodzinski before the season started and took the reins away from defensive coordinator Jim Bates after 10 games. Morris may get another year because ownership knew from the start this was going to be a project. But Morris and general manager Mark Dominik have a lot of work to do in the coming months.
So do Smith and Atlanta general manager Thomas Dimitroff. Same for Fox and Hurney, if they’re still there, or for a new regime.
Long story short and we’ll borrow from Smith’s first quote: The Falcons, Buccaneers and Panthers have a lot of ground to make up just to get back into the NFC South.
Power Rankings: Preseason: 26. This week: 31.
|Fernando Medina/US Presswire|
|Tampa Bay quarterback Josh Freeman gives the Bucs hope for the future.|
Disappointments: I’m supposed to limit this to 100 words, which won’t be easy. Start with the team releasing offensive coordinator Jeff Jagodzinski right before the start of the season. Imagine where the Bucs would be right now if Jagodzinski had stayed and his playbook was as bad as the Bucs described it. Byron Leftwich was supposed to be a bridge to Freeman. He turned out to be a statue. Defensive backs Tanard Jackson and Aqib Talib let the team down with off-field actions. Defensive end Gaines Adams wasn’t having anything close to the breakout year the Bucs wanted and that got him traded to Chicago. Receivers Antonio Bryant and Michael Clayton simply haven’t produced. Running back Derrick Ward has been a complete bust and the kicking situation has been an utter mess. I could go on and on, but I’ve hit my word count.
Surprises: You have to look long and hard to find any positives for the Bucs. But wide receiver Sammie Stroughter has been one. He was a seventh-round draft pick, but he’s probably been the most productive rookie in the NFC South to the midway point. Defensive tackle Roy Miller also has shown some promise. Other than that …well, let’s just move to the next category.
Outlook: If you’re a Tampa Bay fan, do yourself a favor and just erase your memory of the first seven games. That actually makes sense because Freeman started the eighth game and that started a whole new era for the Bucs. Don’t get carried away with Freeman’s 1-0 record because there are likely to be a lot of rookie mistakes. But Freeman also has the physical talent to make some highlight plays. The rest of the season isn’t about climbing back into the playoff picture because that’s impossible. The rest of the season is about next season. It’s about seeing steady improvement from Freeman and finding some guys worthy of staying on this roster.
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando
Not as impressive.
Jones, Gore and Jackson ranked among the seven worst in the league for fumbles per rushing attempt (among players with more than 150 carries).
Something to keep in mind this season.
The Cardinals' Tim Hightower fumbled once in 143 attempts last season. Among runners with at least 100 carries, the Bengals' Chris Perry had the worst rate by far, fumbling five times in 104 attempts, or .4.8 percent of the time.
|J. Meric/Getty Images|
|One of the largest questions Tampa Bay needs to answer is who will be their starting QB from among Luke McCown (12), Byron Leftwich (7) and Josh Freeman (5).|
Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas
TAMPA, Fla. -- Take a look at any preseason magazine or watch any television show. The verdict is unanimous.
Everybody's got the Tampa Bay Buccaneers picked to finish fourth in the NFC South. If you want to know where they're projected in the whole league, look somewhere between No. 25 and No. 32.
When you've got a new coach, a new general manager, uncertainty at quarterback and part ways with some of the biggest names in franchise history, you're going to be anointed as one of the NFL's worst teams.
"That's not a bad thing," middle linebacker Barrett Ruud said with a laugh. "That's the mindset we have going into this year. There may be no expectations for us from the outside. But, as a group, we think we can be pretty good.''
To understand what Tampa Bay has, you have to understand what the Bucs don't have. They don't have coach Jon Gruden, linebacker Derrick Brooks, receiver Joey Galloway, running back Warrick Dunn and quarterback Jeff Garcia back from the only NFC South team that's had a winning record each of the last two years.
That's been enough to drop expectations from prognosticators and fans to the lowest level since Sam Wyche and company were piling up double-digit losses in the mid 1990s. But maybe -- just maybe -- it doesn't have to be this way.
Maybe the Bucs aren't as bad as everyone thinks. They do have some positives.
|Cliff Welch/Icon SMI|
|Barrett Ruud (right) is one of the Bucs' building blocks on defense.|
"We've got a nice core group of players,'' Ruud said. "We've got a really good offensive line. We've got four or five really good running backs. We've got two quarterbacks that are really hungry and they're battling to be the starter. And we've got a defense that kind of had our pride taken away at the end of last year and we're trying to get back to where a Tampa Bay defense is supposed to be.''
Ruud has some valid points. Forget the quarterback situation for a second. The rest of the offense looks pretty good. The offensive line is solid, Derrick Ward and Earnest Graham are quality running backs and receivers Antonio Bryant and Michael Clayton and tight end Kellen Winslow might be able to make whoever is the quarterback look good.
But, more than anything, the Bucs have new coach Raheem Morris. Yes, he's the youngest coach in the league and that's one reason for the low expectations outside the organization. But Morris is the reason the expectations are high within the organization.
"We were 9-3 last year and had a rocky ending because the atmosphere wasn't right,'' Clayton said." But the team we've put together this year is a whole lot better than last year. You know the energy is going to be in the right place because of the atmosphere. Raheem maximizes you. Raheem does a good job of maximizing everybody's effort and we didn't have that last year.''
Who will be the quarterback? Even the Bucs don't know the short-term answer to this one yet. They'll pick a starter after Saturday night's preseason game in Jacksonville. It will be either Luke McCown or Byron Leftwich; they have been basically even through camp and one preseason game.
The Bucs will go with the quarterback they think can be more efficient because they believe the rest of their offense is solid. But it's no secret that the quarterback who opens the season is merely a stopgap. It's blatantly clear that Josh Freeman is the quarterback of the future.
Since drafting Freeman, Morris has gushed about the quarterback he coa
ched at Kansas State. The selection went against the wishes of many fans, who believed the Bucs should have focused on a defensive player. But that's history now because Morris and general manager Mark Dominik are committed to building this team around Freeman.
They want to bring Freeman along slowly and that's why they'll open the season with one of the veterans. But Freeman isn't going to sit forever. If McCown and/or Leftwich struggle, the same fans who booed Freeman's selection will be calling for him to start.
What's the defense going to look like without Brooks? It's going to be completely different and that's not just because the best player in franchise history is gone. Coordinator Monte Kiffin, the man who made the "Tampa Two'' scheme famous also is gone. The Bucs have a new coordinator in Jim Bates and a whole new defense.
There will be more bump coverage, but the emphasis still will be on speed. This isn't a very big defense. Former safety Jermaine Phillips has moved into Brooks' old spot on the weak side. Ruud's the only proven star in his prime and the veteran Barber will try to ease the transition.
What will the offense look like without Gruden? Again, things will be totally different. Coordinator Jeff Jagodzinski brings in an offense that's focused on ball control and the Bucs have the parts in place to be a run-first team. Led by center Jeff Faine and guard Davin Joseph, the offensive line might be the team's biggest strength.
One of the first moves Morris and Dominik made was to bring in Ward. He's going to be used in tandem with Earnest Graham. Jagodzinski's first goal is to establish the running game, but he's also got big plans for the passing game.
Gruden relied mostly on a horizontal passing game, but those days are gone. Although the Bucs may not have a true speed receiver, they'll use play action to try to create opportunities for Bryant, Winslow and Clayton down the field.
|Cliff Welch/Icon SMI|
|The Bucs took a risk in trading for Kellen Winslow and signing him to a new, long-term contract.|
Without much depth at wide receiver, camp was a golden opportunity for Dexter Jackson to redeem himself after a horrible rookie season. Jackson's been given a lot of chances, but hasn't been able to take advantage of him. A second-round pick from a year ago, there's a very real chance Jackson won't even make the roster. ...The move of Phillips to weakside linebacker is working out nicely and it comes with another component. Part of the reason the Bucs decided to move Phillips was because they wanted to get Sabby Piscitelli into the starting lineup at strong safety. He's embraced that chance and showed he can make big plays in the preseason opener.
The Bucs have known for months that they might have to go without starting guard Arron Sears, who hasn't reported to camp because of a "private matter." Sears was a very solid player the past two years, but there shouldn't be much drop off. The Bucs already were high on Jeremy Zuttah, who showed some promise as a rookie last year. He's had the entire offseason to work with the first unit. The Bucs would welcome Sears back, but they're not counting on that happening any time soon.
The Bucs knew what they were getting into when they traded for Winslow and turned around and gave him a huge contract. The tight end comes with enormous talent and baggage. Winslow had injury problems and often was the center of controversy in Cleveland. Morris is trying to light a fire under Winslow and already has criticized him. But that's all part of a plan to try to get the most out of Winslow's talents.
The Bucs also took a gamble by drafting wide receiver Sammie Stroughter in the seventh round. Stroughter has had some personal problems in the past. But all indications are he's put those behind him. Stroughter has been one of the stars in camp. At the moment, he's probably the leading candidate to be the No. 3 receiver. He's shown the ability to go across the middle and he also has return skills.
The Bucs had pictured Angelo Crowell as their starting strongside linebacker when they signed him as a free agent. But injuries have held Crowell back and Quincy Black appears to have locked up the starting job. Backup Adam Hayward also has had a strong preseason and can do a lot on special teams. Crowell no longer is a lock to make the roster. ... Defensive tackle was a big concern in the offseason because Chris Hovan is aging and Ryan Sims never has been dominant against the run. The Bucs will use those two as the starters, but they feel a lot better about this position as they prepare to break training camp. Third-round pick Roy Miller has had a strong preseason. So has Dre Moore, who did little as a rookie last year. Moore has kept himself in shape after struggling with weight issues last year. The Bucs plan to use a four-man rotation and play Miller and Moore a lot. Miller could emerge as a starter before long. ... Defensive end Jimmy Wilkerson has been a backup throughout his career. But the new coaching staff penciled him in
as a starter from the very beginning and he hasn't disappointed. The coaches believe Wilkerson can play the run and rush the passer. They'll also rotate Stylez White into the lineup, but Wilkerson will get the majority of the snaps.
6:00 PM ET Atlanta Jacksonville 7:00 PM ET Detroit Buffalo 7:00 PM ET Indianapolis Cincinnati 7:00 PM ET New York Philadelphia 7:00 PM ET St. Louis Miami 7:00 PM ET Kansas City Green Bay 7:30 PM ET Carolina Pittsburgh 7:30 PM ET New England New York 7:30 PM ET Washington Tampa Bay 8:00 PM ET Baltimore New Orleans 8:00 PM ET Chicago Cleveland 8:00 PM ET San Francisco Houston 8:00 PM ET Minnesota Tennessee 8:00 PM ET Denver Dallas 10:00 PM ET Arizona San Diego 10:00 PM ET Seattle Oakland