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Friday, November 9, 2012
More to the story with Saints, Eagles

By Ashley Fox
ESPN.com

Drew Brees said he isn't worried. New Orleans Saints general manager Mickey Loomis, back after serving an eight-game suspension, said he isn't worried either. Head coach Sean Payton doesn't have a contract beyond this season because the NFL voided the extension he signed more than a year ago.

Big deal? Absolutely.

And here's why: In the National Football League, news like that of Payton's unsettled contract doesn't trickle out unless someone wants it out. There has to be a reason. Usually someone is looking for leverage. Someone wants control. Someone wants to send a message.

We saw two examples of that just this week. The first was in regard to Payton and his contract. According to ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter, Payton has known since at least March that the NFL wasn't going to approve the contract extension he signed in September 2011. The league didn't like the language in the contract that gave Payton an out if Loomis, for whatever reason, were to leave the Saints.

Sean Payton
Is Sean Payton seeking more money? Power? Freedom? Time will tell.

What followed was a report on NFL.com that Payton had "serious reservations" on the succession plan once owner Tom Benson steps aside. Pro Football Talk reported Payton wanted a "buffer" between himself and Rita Benson LeBlanc, the team's owner/executive vice president and presumed successor to her grandfather.

So why does the story come out now, at the midpoint of a season that Payton has missed because of his role in the New Orleans bounty scandal? Either Payton wants something more from Benson -- money, power, or some sort of guarantee -- or he wants out of New Orleans. Payton is a smart, shrewd man. Even the possibility he could become a free agent once his suspension ends after the Super Bowl in February creates options for him, be it in New Orleans or Dallas or somewhere else. Without the news about his voided contract, those options don't necessarily exist.

Payton now has all of the leverage, and this season as Payton has served his suspension and the Saints have started 3-5, New Orleans has been reminded just how valuable its head coach is.

The other example of interesting timing in the release of news this week came in Philadelphia. The day after the Philadelphia Eagles lost to New Orleans 28-13 on "Monday Night Football," Jeff McLane of the Philadelphia Inquirer reported that Eagles general manager Howie Roseman signed a contract extension last June after team president Joe Banner stepped down.

The news was substantial in part because, contrary to the way the team has operated for more than a decade, it was not announced at the time the deal was done. Also, during the Eagles' four-game losing streak that has dropped them to 3-5 and led to speculation that this could be head coach Andy Reid's last season in Philadelphia, the 37-year-old Roseman, a Banner disciple, has come under increasing scrutiny.

During Roseman's two-plus seasons as general manager, the Eagles have gone 21-19 with one playoff loss. Although Reid has final say on personnel decisions, the Eagles under Roseman have not drafted particularly well. Of the Eagles' free-agent acquisitions, wide receiver Steve Smith, running back Ronnie Brown and quarterback Vince Young are no longer with the team. Cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha has not lived up to the five-year, $60 million contract the Eagles gave him prior to the 2011 season, and tackle Demetress Bell has been mediocre at best.

Roseman was starting to feel the heat from Eagles fans. The news about his extension likely will quell the talk of his possibly following Reid out the door. From a public perception standpoint, it gives Roseman breathing room.

Like the news of Payton's contract status, the news of Roseman's contract extension was not released by accident. News in the NFL never is.


INSIDE SLANT

It's that time. With half the season as the sample size, here are my midseason awards:

Most valuable player: Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan, edging out the Denver Broncos' Peyton Manning. The 27-year-old Ryan's statistics aren't quite as dazzling as Manning's -- 17 touchdowns, 6 interceptions and a 103.0 passer rating, slightly behind Manning's 20 touchdowns, 6 interceptions and 108.6 passer rating. But Ryan has the Falcons 8-0. He has led opening drives that have resulted in 27 points, the most in the NFL. And he has led game-winning drives against Carolina, Washington and Oakland. Atlanta coach Mike Smith's mantra is to start fast and finish strong, and Ryan has done just that.

Offensive player of the year: The aforementioned Manning. With a new team, a new head coach and a surgically repaired neck, Manning has been sensational, and he's getting stronger as the season has gone on. After throwing three interceptions in Week 2 at Atlanta, Manning has thrown 17 touchdowns and just three interceptions. And he is the Manning of old, the master of the pre-snap adjustment, shredding defenses for an average of 300.5 passing yards per game. The Broncos are in first place in the AFC West.

J.J Watt
The Defensive Player of the Year so far? J.J Watt is a no-brainer.

Defensive player of the year: Houston Texans defensive end J.J. Watt. The second-year defender out of Wisconsin has earned the nickname J.J. Swatt, even if he doesn't want it. He bats down passes at the line. He sacks the quarterback. He has had at least a half sack in every game this season except for the Texans' big win over Baltimore. And he leads the NFL with 10½ sacks, 1½ more than the three players locked in second place. Said Texans defensive coordinator Wade Phillips: "You've got to be a little surprised. He's a first-round pick certainly, but not all first-round picks are all-star players."

Offensive rookie of the year: Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck. It probably doesn't mean anything, but entering this week, Luck had the same number of passing yards -- 2,404 -- as Manning. Weird. Luck also set the rookie passing record with 433 yards in Week 9 against Miami.

Defensive rookie of the year: Carolina Panthers outside linebacker Luke Kuechly. There is a lot of competition here, with no real front-runner, which is a testament to the rookie talent pool on defense. A starter all season, Kuechly has 77 tackles, three passes defensed and one interception. He always seems to be around the ball.

Coach of the year: Chuck Pagano and Bruce Arians. Sure, this is the feel-good story of the NFL. Atlanta's Smith, who became the Falcons' all-time winningest coach two weeks ago, has the Falcons at 8-0 for the first time in franchise history.

But first-year head coach Pagano had the Colts, who many thought would be so thin at so many positions that they would have the first pick in the 2013 draft, well prepared. When Pagano was diagnosed with leukemia on Sept. 26, Arians stepped in and had the team rally around its popular head coach. With Pagano out receiving chemotherapy treatments, the team has gone 5-1, and the Colts are in position for a wild-card berth.

The players have been moved so much by Pagano's resilience and strength that many shaved their head in support for him. It was a lovely, telling gesture.


• • •

Atlanta might hang half a hundred on New Orleans on Sunday. Chicago had the eye-popping final score last week, beating Tennessee 51-20. This week, given the state of the Saints' defense, the Falcons might be the third team this season to hit the 50-point mark (New England beat Buffalo 52-28 in Week 4).

Atlanta ranks seventh in scoring (averaging 27.5 points per game) and eighth in total yards (376.6 yards per game). The Falcons are tied for third with a 47.1 third-down conversion percentage, and they're fifth in first downs a game (22.6). They keep the chains moving and score in the red zone.

The Saints' defense is performing at a historically bad level, having given up at least 400 yards in every game this season. Although they scored only 19 points in a win over Dallas in Week 9, the Falcons had a 300-yard passer in Ryan, a 100-yard rusher in Michael Turner and two 100-yard receivers in Julio Jones and Roddy White. It was the only game in which Atlanta has been held to fewer than 23 points this season, but it was the third time this season the Falcons eclipsed the 400-yard mark in total offense.

New Orleans is going to have a difficult time matching up.


• • •

Andy Reid is a former offensive lineman who has always believed that you build a team on both sides of the ball through the draft and from the inside out. It has been his philosophy since becoming Philadelphia's head coach in 1998.

So it is ironic that a rash of injuries to the Eagles' offensive line since March very well could lead to Reid's undoing after 14 seasons.

TBD
Andy Reid's Eagles are lacking up front, and Michael Vick is struggling as a result.

The Eagles this week lost their fourth starter on the offensive line to a serious injury when right tackle Todd Herremans tore tendons and fractured bones in his right ankle at New Orleans on Monday night. Herremans joined center Jason Kelce (torn ACL) on the season-ending injured reserve list. All-Pro left tackle Jason Peters has missed the season with a torn Achilles suffered in the offseason (he is eligible to return), and right guard Danny Watkins has missed the Eagles' past two games, both losses, with an injured ankle.

So Reid was right all along. Without a good line, an offense can't function. The quarterback can't have time to let receivers run their routes and have plays develop. The Eagles now will become less multiple. Michael Vick, who has been sacked a dizzying 28 times this season (just four fewer than in all of 2011), will take more three-step drops. Maybe Reid will lean on running back LeSean McCoy, who had 101 rushing yards in the first half against New Orleans on Monday night but just 18 in the second.

The Dallas Cowboys, who play the Eagles on Sunday, rank 20th in the NFL with 16 sacks through the first half of the season, but that total very well might go up. The Saints entered last week with just 13 sacks but had seven against the Eagles and now are tied for No. 13 in the NFL.

• • •

Percy Harvin has been invaluable for the Minnesota Vikings this season, and news that he might not play this weekend against the Detroit Lions because of a sprained ankle is a big blow. By moving Harvin all over the field, the Vikings have made it so that opposing defenses must account for him on every snap.

Harvin has rewarded his coaches' faith in him by not dropping a pass this season. No receiver with more than 40 catches has failed to drop a pass besides Harvin, who leads the NFL with 62 catches and ranks fifth with 82 targets, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

Contrast that with Pittsburgh's Mike Wallace, Arizona's Early Doucet and Dallas's Dez Bryant, who are the league's leading receivers in drops with six each.

.

• • •

Chicago Bears cornerback Charles Tillman is the latest player to say he might skip a game to see the birth of his child. Eagles defensive lineman Darryl Tapp missed Philadelphia's game against New Orleans to be with his wife, and earlier this season Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kevin Kolb told me he would skip the Cardinals game that Sunday if his wife went into labor.

Some scoff at the notion of a player choosing to skip a game rather than fulfilling his obligation to play. It is ridiculous. Football is a game. It is a profession. But life goes on, and there are just a few things that are, or at least should be, more important. One is the birth of your child.

Tillman is having a monster season, with a remarkable seven forced fumbles. He is in the running for NFL Defensive Player of the Year, and on Sunday against Houston he has a great opportunity to show that he deserves the award more than the Texans' Watt. Tillman apparently is willing to forego that opportunity to experience the birth of his daughter, if his wife goes into labor over the weekend. He should be applauded for his choice, not ridiculed. The Bears will have another game next weekend.


ALL-22


Being in Chicago reunited with Bears quarterback Jay Cutler certainly has agreed with Brandon Marshall. He is second in the league behind Indianapolis wide receiver Reggie Wayne with 99.6 receiving yards per game. Heading into Week 10, he ranked fourth in the league with 59 receptions, behind Minnesota's Harvin (62), Wayne (61) and New England's Wes Welker (60). He is tied for second with seven touchdowns and tied for fifth with 11 catches of at least 20 yards.

"Cutler will throw the ball to a covered receiver," said Greg Cosell, executive producer of ESPN's "NFL Matchup." "That's why Marshall is so important. He can make contested catches. Jay throws it into a one-on-one matchup, whether the receiver is open or not. He believes 'my guy has to win and make the catch.' Marshall, with his size, wingspan and catching radius, he can make those catches."

The Bears' first eight opponents this season have a combined 27-39 record. Their next eight have a combined 42-27 record, starting Sunday with the 7-1 Houston Texans. Cosell said he thinks the Bears would be better off against the Texans using their base personnel, with either a fullback or two tight ends to help protect Cutler, who has been sacked 28 times this season, second most in the NFL. The Texans almost exclusively use a dime sub package with pressure, and "I don't think the Bears can handle that," Cosell said.

"What the blitz does is it dictates one-on-one matchups with their offensive line," Cosell added. "The Texans create pressure with J.J. Watt against the guard. The Bears' guards aren't going to block him one-on-one. I think they've got to be careful and keep the Texans in their base package as much as possible. And, Chicago got Brandon Marshall for a reason. I'm sure the Texans will put Johnathan Joseph on him, but Marshall's got to win those matchups. That's why you've got him."


STATS & INFO


Here is more fodder for the MVP debate, courtesy of ESPN Stats & Information: Since ESPN started tracking Total QBR in 2008, each of the quarterbacks who have finished the season as the Total QBR leader has won the MVP award. Manning won in 2008 with a 79.8 and in 2009 with an 82.9; Tom Brady won in 2010 with a 76.8; and Aaron Rodgers won in 2011 with an 86.2.

Heading into Week 10, Manning leads the league in QBR with an 85.4. Brady has a 79.2, Ryan a 78.1, Luck a 76.1 and Aaron Rodgers a 73.1.

Manning is on pace to finish with the most passing yards (4,808) and the highest completion percentage (69.5) of his career. If he were to win his fifth MVP award, Manning would become the fourth-oldest player in NFL history to capture the honor.


#theytweetedit



Lang, a Green Bay Packers guard, has more than 124,000 followers. President Barack Obama has more than 22 million, and his tweet from late Tuesday night of "four more years" was retweeted more than 660,000 times in the 10 hours after he won the election.



The commander in chief likes college hoops.



The Redskins Rule, and a subsequent amendment, had accurately picked the winner of the presidential election since 1940. The rule is if the Redskins win their final home game before an election, the incumbent wins the electoral vote. This year the Redskins lost their final home game before the election, meaning Mitt Romney should have won the election.



The Vikings' punter has been an outspoken proponent of same-sex marriage. He tweeted about voters turning down a proposed Minnesota constitutional amendment that would have defined marriage as being between a man and a woman. Gay marriage is still illegal in the state.


PICK 'EM


All games Sunday unless otherwise noted. All times ET.

San Diego (4-4) at Tampa Bay (4-4), 1 p.m. The Chargers have lost their past two road games, against the Browns and Saints, and are 0-2 against the NFC this season. Buccaneers 28, Chargers 24.


Tennessee (3-6) at Miami (4-4), 1 p.m. Are the Dolphins for real? Four of their remaining eight opponents have losing records, starting with the Titans. Can they take advantage? Dolphins 21, Titans 17.


Buffalo (3-5) at New England (5-3), 1 p.m. Tom Brady owns the Bills. He is 19-2 lifetime against them, and New England has won the past 11 meetings at home. Make it 12. Patriots 42, Bills 21.


Oakland (3-5) at Baltimore (6-2), 1 p.m. The Raiders just gave up a season-high 278 rushing yards to Tampa Bay. Ray Rice should get plenty of carries. Ravens 27, Raiders 21.


Denver (5-3) at Carolina (2-6), 1 p.m. You can go home again. John Fox is. He is the winningest coach in Carolina history and will bring a far superior Broncos team -- and far superior quarterback -- into Charlotte. Broncos 34, Panthers 20.


New York Giants (6-3) at Cincinnati (3-5), 1 p.m. The Bengals are on the back end of a Manning doubleheader. The front end did not go well. Giants 34, Bengals 12.


Detroit (4-4) at Minnesota (5-4), 1 p.m. What will the amazing Adrian Peterson, who leads the league in rushing less than a year after blowing out his knee, do this week? Vikings 20, Lions 14.


Atlanta (8-0) at New Orleans (3-5), 1 p.m. The Saints have won 12 straight games in November and have won the last three against Atlanta. But Matt Ryan will pick apart that defense. Falcons 35, Saints 27.


New York Jets (3-5) at Seattle (5-4), 4:05 p.m. A player poll with a small sample size said Rex Ryan is the most overrated coach. So what? It should have said Ryan overrated his team coming into this season. Seahawks 20, Jets 12.


Dallas (3-5) at Philadelphia (3-5), 4:25 p.m. An underachieving team with an apathetic, angry fan base and the hated Cowboys coming to town could get real ugly real fast. Cowboys 20, Eagles 17.


St. Louis (3-5) at San Francisco (6-2), 4:25 p.m. San Francisco has been dominating on defense, holding opponents to a league-best 12.9 points per game. The Rams' offense is 28th in scoring average. Not a good combination. 49ers 24, Rams 14.


Houston (7-1) at Chicago (7-1), 8:20 p.m. Two top offenses. Two top defenses. This is the matchup of the week. Who makes a mistake first? Bears 24, Texans 23.


Kansas City (1-7) at Pittsburgh (5-3), 8:30 p.m. Monday. Is this the week Kansas City takes its first lead during a game this season? Playing at Heinz Field, it is not likely. Steelers 24, Chiefs 9.


Idle: Arizona, Cleveland, Green Bay, Washington.


Last week: 10-3. Season: 79-45.