TSX: Around the League

The Sports Xchange discusses the ramifications within the AFC South if Peyton Manning misses time, Tennessee RB Chris Johnson's ongoing contract negotiations, Cam Newton and more.

With only about two weeks remaining before the Sept. 11 season opener at Houston, the rehabilitating Peyton Manning is quickly running out of time to get physically ready to begin his 14th consecutive campaign in the Indianapolis starting lineup.

Coincidentally, two coaches in the Colts' division may be running out of time, as well.

And definitely out of excuses.

While various angles of Manning's continuing recovery from offseason neck surgery have been analyzed and scrutinized the past several days, here is one potential ramification that hasn't really garnered much publicity at all: the effect that it may eventually have on the futures of coaches Gary Kubiak of Houston and Jacksonville's Jack Del Rio.

The logic may be a bit convoluted but, rest assured, Manning's pain in the neck could conceivably put the heads of Del Rio and Kubiak on the chopping block. The trickle-down effect of the Manning situation, or at least their teams' abilities to benefit from it, could have dire results for the employment outlooks of the coaches.

Beyond the fact that both men have contracts that run through 2012, and each is widely considered to possess only tenuous job security entering the 2011 season, the veteran coaches have a lot in common as regards Manning and the Colts. Both have losing records -- Del Rio at 5-11 and Kubiak 2-8 -- versus Manning and the Colts during their respective AFC South tenures. Neither coach has ever won a division championship.

Indianapolis, on the other hand, has claimed seven of the last eight AFC South titles, and has been to the playoffs nine straight times. Kubiak, who assumed the Houston reins in 2006, has carved out just one winning season in five years and the Texans have never even advanced to the playoffs in his stewardship.

The possible absence of Manning, who might be significantly less than 100 percent, even if he beats the odds and is ready for the start of the season, figures in theory to provide the Texans and Jaguars a huge edge in the division. Even winning an AFC South title with the Colts undermanned by Manning's absence could earn Kubiak or Del Rio an additional year.

QB Peyton Manning
Andy Lyons/Getty

Manning has a 96.5 passer rating against the Jaguars in the period Del Rio has been the Jacksonville coach. Versus the Kubiak-led Texans, it is 107.3.

The third other coach in the AFC South, Mike Munchak of Tennessee, is a rookie, having succeeded Jeff Fisher, and that pretty much assures him of not being fired after the 2011 campaign. But for Kubiak and Del Rio, who some have suggested are living on borrowed time anyway, the possible Manning idleness, if even for the first month or so of the season, leaves the door ajar. And if their teams can't get through the generous opening, and take full advantage of the situation, then Jaguars' owner Wayne Weaver and counterpart Bob McNair of Houston May decide it's time to slam the door on their coaches.

"Certainly (the Manning injury) more than levels the playing field in the division," said the general manager of an AFC team outside the division, in discussing the implications with The Sports Xchange. "He is the most dominant force (in the division). Arguably in the entire league. Take him out of the equation and it's another story and a far different division. It's an equalizer. Manning is maybe the biggest the difference-maker in the league, and if the Colts don't have him, they become a lot more vulnerable. No one can (use the excuse), 'Yeah, they've got Peyton.' That kind of rationalization is gone."

And so, too, could be Del Rio and Kubiak if they don't make hay with Manning on the sideline, even for a few weeks.

The Texans, as noted earlier, get the Colts right out of the chute, and at home. Houston defeated Indianapolis at Reliant Stadium in the season opener a year ago, 34-24, yet still finished four games in arrears in the division. Jacksonville split with the Colts but, after a late-season fade, were two games behind Indianapolis when the year concluded. In Del Rio's eight seasons, the Jaguars have never finished within less than two games of the Colts. Since he took over the Jags in 2003, the average differential between the clubs has been 4.0 games.

Noted the AFC general manager cited previously: "The Manning thing, if he can't play, gives everyone a big break."

Houston's second matchup with the Colts isn't until Dec. 22, the penultimate game on the schedule for both franchises. The Jaguars don't face the Colts until Nov. 13, then in the season finale. Even by the most pessimistic timeframes, Manning figures to have returned for those three games. But in addition to Houston, the Colts face the Browns, Steelers, and Bucs in the first four weeks. They could struggle to be even .500 versus that quartet if Manning is idled.

In the nine seasons since realignment created the AFC South in 2002, Indianapolis has averaged 12.1 victories. It has taken an average of 11.0 wins to capture the division title. Minus Manning for a stretch, the Colts could be hard-pressed to approximate those kinds of numbers.

Jacksonville and Houston also have tough first-month schedules -- the Texans must play New Orleans and Pittsburgh, while the Jaguars get the Saints and New York Jets -- but the teams need to put some meaningful distance between themselves and the Colts if Manning is not available. If they don't, McNair and Weaver could conclude they may never win the division until perhaps Manning retires for good.

Despite having been a chic playoff-caliber choice of the pundits for the past few years, Houston is only 37-43 with Kubiak at the controls. The Texans are once again chosen by many experts to earn their first-ever postseason berth in '11. Creating a cushion against the potentially Manning-less Colts would be a start. The Jaguars have had some successes against the Colts under Del Rio, but are just 66-65 overall in his eight seasons. There is a suspicion in some quarters that the lockout helped each man to retain his job for 2011.

But if Manning is knocked out of action by his neck problems, Kubiak and Del Rio need to take big advantage of his absence. Failure to do so could mean Manning's surgery might have painful consequences on some other AFC South precincts.

Rookies in the lineup

For a fourth straight year, the league will have a rookie quarterback starting on opening day. Likely, in fact, two of them. Carolina first-year coach Ron Rivera is expected to soon make it official that No. 1 overall pick Cam Newton will be his opening-day starter. And the Cincinnati Bengals have made it pretty clear that second-round pick Andy Dalton will replace the "retired" Carson Palmer atop the depth chart.

It will mark the first time since 2008, when Matt Ryan of Atlanta and Baltimore's Joe Flacco opened the season for their respective clubs, that the league has had two rookie starters in Week 1. Oddly, the league had gone four years, 2003-2007, before that without a rookie opening-day quarterback. So what to expect from Newton and Dalton, who have looked like, well, rookies, for much of the preseason?

"You can do everything right in the preseason, and it's still different," Flacco said. "And you're going to feel it, believe me."

Said second-year veteran Sam Bradford, who started every game for St. Louis in his 2010 rookie campaign: "You really can't prepare for it."

RB Chris Johnson
Grant Halverson/Getty

Still solid

There seems to be some feeling that the contract impasse between the Tennessee Titans and holdout tailback Chris Johnson will be resolved sometime shortly before the start of the regular season. But sources adamantly contended to The Sports Xchange that the face-to-face meeting between the two sides this week did not create any momentum in that direction.

The air-clearing may have been good, in the sense that it allowed Johnson and Titans president Mike Reinfeldt to articulate their respective positions, without the potential loss of translation that often occurs when people are speaking to each other through the media, but neither man seemed to be moved by the other's assertions.

In the sack

Seventeenth-year veteran Kerry Collins, signed by the Colts as a $4 million insurance policy in the event Peyton Manning isn't ready, isn't quite the pocket "statue" some have characterized. After all, as recently as 2008, when he started 15 games, Collins, 38, took only eight sacks playing behind a Tennessee offensive line that was among the best in the NFL that year.

But Collins isn't Manning, who has been sacked more than 20 times only once in the past eight seasons, and who often saves his blockers with his quick release, and becoming acclimated to a potentially new starter will be a difficult task for a unit that could have as many as three new starters in 2011.

"Pass protection is a (synergistic) thing," allowed one veteran of the Indianapolis line. "And Peyton was the best at feeling pressure and getting rid of the ball."

How well-versed is Manning in the Colts' protection scheme? Rookie Anthony Castonzo, the team's first-round pick and the man projected to start at left tackle, recently sat down with Manning to discuss protections. What Castonzo expected to be a brief chat turned into a 25-minute tutorial.

By the numbers, Manning has been sacked once every 32.2 "dropbacks" in his career, and the quotient for the past two seasons, when he has absorbed just 26 sacks total, is an amazing one sack every 49.1 "dropbacks."

For Collins, it is a sack every 19.5 "dropbacks," which isn't all that terrible. But in the six-year stretch 2000-2005, during which Collins started at least 13 games every season, it was a sack every 11.27 "dropbacks." He averaged 30 sacks per year in that period.

Third-down woes

Panthers' quarterback Cam Newton finally converted on third down in Thursday night's loss at Cincinnati -- he had been 0-for-11 on third-down plays in the first two preseason games -- going four-for-11 versus the Bengals. He also converted a fourth-and-two situation with a six-yard pass to tight end Jeremy Shockey. But two of the third-down conversions came on Newton scrambles -- a touchdown run of 16 yards on third-and-11, and a 26-yard burst on third-and-eight -- and the top overall pick can't always count on his legs to help move the chains.

The ability to run out of trouble is part of Newton's game, certainly, but he's going to have to demonstrate that his arm can also get the Panthers out of difficult situations. Through three games, Newton is just three for 14 for 15 yards throwing the ball on third down. Notable is that 15 of the third-down situations Newton has faced have been for third-and-seven or longer, difficult conditions even for a veteran quarterback, but he must get a lot more comfortable in the pocket, and far more accurate, in those instances.

The Panthers are going to have to rely on their running game to keep Newton out of such third-and-long situations. But the youngster is also going to have to learn to cope with those kinds of critical plays. So far, he hasn't.

The other element is that, his running skills aside, Newton has to avoid taking sacks. Through three games, he has been sacked four times, once every 14.0 "dropbacks," which isn't terrible for a young quarterback. But what one Carolina offensive veteran termed as "pocket poise" is going to have to develop as Newton moves forward.

Len Pasquarelli is a Senior NFL Writer for The Sports Xchange. He has covered the NFL for 33 years and is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee. His NFL coverage earned recognition as the winner of the McCann Award for distinguished reporting in 2008.

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