Teamwork has helped Panthers and Patriots

In a 10-year partnership that essentially produced three Super Bowl titles, Washington Redskins coach Joe Gibbs and general manager Bobby Beathard frequently skirmished over veteran personnel moves, and often adamantly disagreed about draft choices.

Their tandem success in Pittsburgh notwithstanding, Steelers coach Bill Cowher and director of football operations Tom Donahoe finally reached a breaking point where they could no longer co-exist. There were times during their shared stint with the New York Giants that general manager George Young threatened to stash coach Bill Parcells in a closet on draft day. The disdain with which coach Jon Gruden regarded general manager Rich McKay, even after the duet combined to assemble a roster than won last season's Super Bowl, is now well documented.

It is one of the NFL's lingering truisms that most head coaches and general managers are not exactly bosom buddies. Human nature and job security issues regularly combine to make the two positions incompatible. Coaches and general managers pay lip service to being "on the same page," but usually aren't even reading from the same playbook.

Coaches, of course, always want players who can line up for them right now. You know, guys who can help them extend their tenure in a high-pressure job with escalating salaries but a shrinking shelf-life. On the flip side, general managers and personnel directors are more into projecting talent than protecting their pay checks.

Even with the internecine bickering that characteristically takes place between the two positions, history has demonstrated a coach and general manager don't necessarily have to be kissin' cousins to lead a franchise to the Super Bowl. But one of the compelling elements of Super Bowl XXXVIII is the very close relationship that the coaches and top football executives of the two teams enjoy.

In fact, few coach-GM marriages function much better than those of Marty Hurney and John Fox in Carolina and New England's Bill Belichick and Scott Pioli, and the ability of the duets to work together certainly helped the respective teams advance to next Sunday's title game. There are no hidden agendas with the two pairs and no overt concerns about who merits credit for their teams' successes. They seem to operate without the kind of pettiness that marks many coach-general manager pairings. That is, indeed, not only refreshing and rare, but remarkable as well.

Which isn't to say the four men all arrived at their current couplings along the same path.

Hurney essentially is Fox' boss, having hired his longtime friend in 2002 after the failed experiment in Carolina with George Seifert. A longtime cap expert, whose fancy financial finagling bailed out the Panthers several times in the last few years, Hurney was elevated to the general manager post when owner Jerry Richardson reconfigured the operation two years ago.

Choosing Hurney, over candidates with more traditional football backgrounds, has proven to be a masterstroke. Hurney ended the disastrous stretch in which Richardson, seeking quick gratification, signed too many veterans in decline. Poor decisions, like the additions of Reggie White and Chuck Smith and Eric Swann, wreaked havoc on the salary cap. Under Hurney and Fox, the Panthers have more of a commitment to the draft.

That the easygoing Hurney himself has risen to such a lofty status is the stuff of Horatio Alger, given that he is a former scribe, a guy who once documented football deeds instead of directing them. Of course, any hack who is also a frustrated general manager confined to a laptop (which is most of us), can't help but revel in Hurney's successes. Players and coaches take great glee in diminishing the football acumen of writers. But Hurney is the second former sportswriter -- the Giants' Ernie Accorsi is the other -- to shepherd him team to a Super Bowl this millennium.

The roles are a bit reversed in New England, where Belichick is the grand poobah, and has near-absolute sway over all football-related issues. But the under-appreciated Pioli, who has worked for Belichick since 1992 and is just now beginning to command the credit long due him, is carving his own niche. His name is often mention in conjunction with general manager posts at other franchises and, while the Pats have precluded him from moving on, they might not be able to keep him forever.

The son-in-law of Bill Parcells, Pioli was recently awarded executive of the year honors by Pro Football Weekly, and is the overwhelming favorite to capture the league trophy as well, chosen by his peers and announced in March at the annual NFL meetings. Pioli fills a lot of roles for Belichick -- functioning as general manager without really having that title (he is officially listed as the vice president of player personnel) -- but the most notable is that of confidant.

Take a look, for instance, at the recent New England drafts and it is obvious the concert in which Belichick and Pioli exist has exploded into an opus. Theirs may not be the perfect world, and there has to be some disagreement over players, but rarely are the Pats wrong on a draft pick or veteran free agent. It is as if the two men, in a sort of football Vulcan mind meld, are like conjoined twins. When it comes to evaluating talent, and projecting precisely how players will dovetail into the Belichick systems, they rarely err.

Two summers ago, when this site featured a training camp piece on the Belichick-Pioli relationship, neither man could verbalize why it worked so well, but both agreed that they share the same instincts about players. And now, for the second time in three years, they will share the Super Bowl experience.

During the coming week of Super Bowl run-up, it's likely the spotlight will have to find Hurney and Pioli, because neither goes out of his way to locate even the edge of the stage. But they are two good football men who have played a considerable role in getting two good football teams to the championship game. And they did so, in large part, by working well with their head coaches and within a structured environment.

Around the league

  • Despite the public optimism, New England officials still have no idea whether big-motor linebacker Tedy Bruschi will be sufficiently recovered from the injury he suffered in the AFC championship game to play in Super Bowl XXXVIII. The good news is that the injury is far less severe than originally feared -- the Patriots thought that Bruschi might have at least partially torn his right Achilles tendon -- and is basically a deep calf muscle strain. Bruschi has been able to stand on his right leg without too much discomfort but playing a game on it, with the sudden starts and stops that normally aggravate such a strain, is something altogether different. Even if Bruschi plays, expect to see more of veteran linebacker Ted Johnson, arguably the Pats' best pure run stuffer, and a guy who figures to have an expanded role against the ground-oriented Carolina offense.

  • The San Diego Chargers, who only about three weeks ago were leaning away from using the first overall choice in this year's draft on a quarterback, have apparently reconsidered. Word is now that Chargers management will closely scrutinize the top prospects, which means arduous study of Mississippi's Eli Manning and Ben Roethlisberger of Miami (Ohio). The Chargers will also tightly evaluate semi-incumbent Drew Brees.

    Part of the problem for the Chargers is that some members of the organization still haven't recovered from the Ryan Leaf debacle, a reality that played a part in the decision to trade down from the top overall pick in '01, rather than select Michael Vick. If the team becomes comfortable with Brees, who at one point in 2003 lost his starting job to Doug Flutie, San Diego might again be in trade-down mode. This is a team, after all, which might actually be in worse shape personnel-wise than when it went 1-15 in 2000, and it needs quantity even more than it does quality. If not, a quarterback might well be the answer, both from an on-field and public relations view.

    Remember, though, that head coach Marty Schottenheimer probably has to win in 2004 to keep his job. Coaches on a short leash are not prone to taking quarterback prospects, who need time to develop, and usually prefer players who can step directly into the lineup and offer immediate help.

  • Roethlisberger was squired around the Senior Bowl practices this week by agent Leigh Steinberg, who wanted his prized client to experience the week of work at the all-star game and also wanted him to rub shoulders with NFL personnel types. Word is that, just standing around on the sidelines, Roethlisberger was the best quarterback in Mobile. This is not a particularly strong Senior Bowl crop and it wasn't helped by the fact several top prospects like Manning and Florida tight end Ben Troupe, among others, opted not to play in the game. One scout opined there were fewer than a dozen first-rounders on the two Senior Bowl rosters. Of Roethlisberger, he noted: "You can tell on tape he's got great size but, when you see him up-close on the sideline, man, he is big. And he's got a real maturity and presence about him. Hell, he didn't pick up a football at all and he made a really good impression."

  • Most overblown story of the Senior Bowl week: All the talk of a potential Corey Dillon trade. Last time we checked, the league was under its annual trade moratorium. Even if you rationalize by suggesting that teams could have used the Senior Bowl to lay the groundwork for a Dillion deal, well, Cincinnati Bengals sources insisted to us -- rather convincingly -- that they didn't get any strong nibbles on the malcontent tailback. Those same sources acknowledge that Dillon almost certainly will not return to Cincinnati in 2004, that he has not bought into the Marvin Lewis Way, but that there is nothing brewing right now.

  • You've got to love Tampa Bay head coach Jon Gruden, who first ripped the sources who leaked word of the unsettled situation with quarterback Brad Johnson, and then hinted the rumors might have initiated with former Bucs general manager Rich McKay. Yeah, right. We know who the sources were for reports by ESPN and ESPN.com that Gruden might considering bringing in a veteran like Rich Gannon or Mark Brunell, and who tipped off a Tampa-area newspaper to that possibility. In both cases, and Gruden knows it, the sources were from within his own organization. That's why his feigned outrage at the reports, and his suggestions Johnson will be the starter in 2004, were so bogus.

  • The Bucs' new general manager, Bruce Allen, will probably meet soon with the agent for wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson, to see if there is a way to rework his contract, one that will lessen the salary cap burden for Tampa Bay when it finally releases the erstwhile pass catcher. One likely carrot to be dangled: If Johnson redoes some aspects of his deal, which remains in place despite Keywhawn being inactive for the final six weeks of the season, the Bucs will officially release him sooner rather than later. Such a move would allow Johnson to begin negotiations with other teams well in advance of the beginning of the unrestricted free agent signing period.

  • So let's see: About a zillion media outlets, including ESPN.com, reported this week that Dallas assistant head coach Sean Payton had reached agreement in principle to become the Oakland Raiders' next head coach. And then, after taking some time to reflect and to consider the team's offer, Payton backed away from the deal. Oakland owner Al Davis, the league's leading paragon of straightforwardness, then parried by insisting he never made Payton an offer.

    So, even given the degree of disdain with which the media often is regarded, uh, who should you believe, folks? Payton balked for many reasons, not the least of which is Davis' adamant stance on staffing, on personnel decisions and, our personal favorite, disciplining of players. In the convoluted Davis mind, deposed head coach Bill Callahan, the guy who sent home two players when they were tardy for some mandatory team functions preceding the season finale, was misguided.

    Unless veteran coach Norv Turner, who met with Davis on Friday, is so desperate to be a head coach in the league again that he sells his soul, the Raiders owner will wait until after the Super Bowl and interview the two New England coordinators. Indications are that Davis, who has always favored coaches with offensive backgrounds, likes Charlie Weis over Pats defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel. That said, Davis is said to be intrigued by the way Crennel has handled himself and by his game-planning prowess. League sources said that Davis has already "arranged" (their word) to get coaching-quality videotapes from Super Bowl XXXVIII, to better peruse the work of Crennel and Weis in the title game.

  • On the longshot chance that Al Davis and Norv Turner do strike a deal, the Dolphins could be in a pickle, trying to locate an accomplished offensive coordinator at a time when the cupboard is nearly bare. The Miami-area papers have floated several names as potential coordinator candidates, and here is one to add to the list: New York Jets senior offensive assistant Jimmy Raye. The veteran coach, ESPN.com has learned, was recently sought by Miami to fill the newly-created position of quarterbacks coach. Raye was the top candidate, recommended by Turner and coveted by coach Dave Wannstedt to work with what figures to be a revamped Miami quarterback corps. So why isn't Raye now on the Miami staff? Jets general manager Terry Bradway denied him permission to meet with Dolphins officials about the post. If the Dolphins' coordinator position suddenly became open, Bradway would be under no compunction to allow Raye to interview for that job, either. But in this era of diversity, and with Raye one of the senior-most minority assistants in the league, a guy who has often been passed over on head coaching jobs, the league might try to influence Jets management a bit.

  • Speaking of the Dolphins, it looks like the team dodged a bullet, and will be able to keep defensive coordinator Jim Bates around. Although it was reported at least twice in recent weeks by ESPN.com that Bates' contract with the Dolphins had quietly expired, no one seemed to pick up on it. A very talented coordinator, Bates had only one nibble, that from the Cowboys, when it appeared Dallas coordinator Mike Zimmer might accept the head coaching job at Nebraska. Two teams to whom we spoke, both of which were looking for new defensive coordinators, conceded they did not know Bates was a free agent. Too bad, since Bates is better than either of the coordinators the teams hired.

  • The news this week that quarterback Jeff Garcia allegedly tested three times over the legal limit when he was arrested for suspicion of DUI likely won't help him in his contract talks with the San Francisco 49ers. The two sides have begun preliminary discussions about reworking Garcia's current contract, almost a must if he is to remain in the Bay Area, and the poor public relations of the latest announcement by police gives the club even more leverage. Garcia is due to have a 2004 base salary that is essentially commensurate to the "franchise" qualifying offer for a quarterback. And he can void the contract after 2004. That's a combination the 49ers won't accept. Indications are that the 49ers have floated some low-ball figures in the early talks. The DUI might serve to harden their stance.

  • One of the true puzzlements in the league, at a time when so many teams have changed defensive coordinators, is that former Arizona head coach Dave McGinnis has generated so little interest. McGinnis is a terrific defensive mind and, even though he has a year left on his Cardinals contract, definitely wants to work in 2004 as opposed to sitting home and merely collecting paychecks. "He's better than nearly every other guy who was hired this month as a (defensive) coordinator," said one personnel director from a team that did not change coordinators. "He's got no ego, so a head coach who might be threatened by having Dave around is crazy, because he's not after somebody else's job."

    It appears now that Green Bay head coach Mike Sherman, who still could promote from within (either linebackers coach Mark Duffner or secondary coach Bob Slowik) to fill the void created by the firing of coordinator Ed Dontell, is seriously considering McGinnis. The New York Jets, who continue to strike out in trying to fill the spot previously held down by Ted Cottrell, have also made contact with McGinnis. Word is that Eagles linebackers coach Ron Rivera, who interviewed with Jets coach Herm Edwards on Thursday and was set to meet with Chicago rookie coach Lovie Smith on Friday, is headed to the Bears, where he played nine seasons as a linebacker. If that is the case, Edwards ought to hustle to land McGinnis, before someone else gets smart and hires him. The Jets could also wait until after the Super Bowl and then try to pry secondary coach Eric Mangini, a rising star, away from New England. Then again, given the Jets' poor luck so far in trying to fill the job, waiting around might not be prudent. New York has had five candidates either take jobs with other teams or be denied permission to speak to them. Heck, even Nebraska interim head coach Bo Pelini rebuffed the Jets advances to take a job at Oklahoma as the assistant defensive coordinator.

  • The decision by Bo Pelini to coach at Oklahoma further illustrates that, for some college coaches, the NFL is no longer the level to which everyone aspires. Nick Saban (LSU), Kirk Ferentz (Iowa), Jeff Tedford (California), Pat Hill (Fresno State) and Ralph Friedgen (Maryland) are among the college head coaches who declined interview opportunities or job offers from NFL teams in the past month. Then again, there were some teams that totally eschewed college coaches in their searches, because of the recent and disappointing efforts turned in by Steve Spurrier and Butch Davis. The continuing reports that Spurrier received a $4 million-$5 million settlement when he "resigned" from the Redskins are only about half right. Literally. The real figure is approximately $2 million. Washington is getting away with not calling it a "settlement" because it is playing a clever game of semantics. Truth is, the settlement is tied, in part, to living expenses, like the cost of the house Spurrier bought when he took the job. It allows the Redskins to insist there was no payoff of any of the $15 million remaining on Spurrier's contract. But, wink-wink, that's only because of the slick language, including a confidentiality clause, in Spurrier's exit agreement.

  • In a move that stayed below the radar, until reported by Pro Football Weekly in the agate type of its "transactions" section, the Pittsburgh Steelers made an interesting move last week by signing free agent cornerback Terry Fair. A former Detroit Lions' first-round pick who hasn't played in a game since September of 2003, Fair was once a solid coverage defender, and an excellent kickoff return man. He had seven interceptions in four seasons and averaged a healthy 24.9 yards on kickoff runbacks.

    But he has been beset the past two years by injuries, remains an unknown commodity even though his workouts have been OK lately, but is a player worthy of a look. Especially given that the Steelers figure to revamp their secondary, through free agency and the draft, and that Fair was signed on the cheap. His contract, dated Jan. 16, calls for zero signing bonus and a minimum base salary of $535,000. That makes his cap charge, because of the rule that provides a break to franchises that sign veterans to minimum-salary deals, just $455,000. Translation: If he can't play anymore, and his recent 40-yard times certainly demonstrate Fair has lost some quickness because of the injuries, Pittsburgh can set him free and won't have invested so much as a nickel in him.

    A first-round pick in 1998, Fair started 48 games for the Lions over four seasons, then suffered a "Lis Franc" right foot injury in 2001. He was released by Detroit and, after rehabilitating the foot, signed a one-year, $800,000 contract with Carolina that year. After playing just three games, however, Fair broke his right ankle and hasn't played in a game since. Agent Reggie Smith kept telling us during the '03 season that Fair was progressing physically but the veteran cornerback still missed the entire season. Now he's getting another (perhaps final) chance with a team desperate for cornerback help. Just 27 years old, there is still time for Fair to make it back, but the sands are, indeed, trickling through the hourglass. The thread that connected Fair to Pittsburgh is that Steelers director of football operations Kevin Colbert was the pro scouting chief for the Lions when Fair was chosen in 1998.

  • Punts: Enough baloney about how the officials don't call the playoffs any differently than they do regular-season contests. In the AFC title game, there wasn't a single penalty flagged during a play, with all seven flags preceding the snap. ... Sources tell ESPN.com that Chiefs linebackers coach Joe Vitt moving to the Rams is a "done deal." Kansas City denied Vitt permission to speak to the Rams, but his contract expires at the end of his month and he has no intention of re-upping with the Chiefs. ... Here's hoping Giants backup quarterback Jesse Palmer, the three-year veteran who will star in yet the latest incarnation of "The Bachelor," earns some bucks from the show. Most personnel guys feel the former University of Florida star will never be an NFL starter and might be lucky to hang on as a backup in '04. ... First-year Falcons coach Jim Mora and offensive coordinator Greg Knapp will travel to Virginia next week to meet with quarterback Michael Vick and go over some preliminary plans for 2004. ... Look for the Saints to be in the market, either through free agency or more likely the draft, for a big-time corner. There is a good chance New Orleans will seek contract concessions from veteran corner Dale Carter, who could be released if he doesn't accept some kind of reworked deal.

  • Stat of the week: In the three consecutive NFC championship game defeats, the Philadelphia starting wide receivers totaled 12 catches, 141 yards and one touchdown.

    Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.