TSX: Around the League

Len Pasquarelli, senior NFL writer for The Sports Xchange, brings you the latest NFL news, including James Harrison's suspension, the market for Jim Haslett, Drew Brees' contract and more.

Harrison fallout

The infamous hit delivered by Pittsburgh linebacker James Harrison on Cleveland quarterback Colt McCoy in Week 14, and the aftermath of it, with his appealed suspension upheld Friday morning, has obviously drawn considerable attention.

And much of it has come from NFL players, most of whom have declined to comment publicly because of the potential ramifications from the league and from concussion-conscious fans. One effect from the Harrison incident, though, is a groundswell movement of sorts that could prompt players, particularly defensive players and running backs, to address commissioner Roger Goodell and the competition committee at an annual meeting that is part of the league's combine sessions in February.

The meeting, which has quietly become a part of the combine the past several years, is essentially a forum for players to address issues of health and safety and potential rules changes about which they are concerned. And some players told The Sports Xchange this week they may use the meeting to again raise concerns about rules regarding defensive - as opposed to "defenseless" players - and runners.

The consensus of the players who spoke to The Sports Xchange is an oft-cited reaction: that defensive players aren't granted the same protections as their offensive counterparts when it comes to helmet-to-helmet contact. A few defenders are actually seeking out anecdotal examples, and even some videotape when available, of defensive players who have been impacted by obvious helmet-to-helmet contact.

And some runners feel that there are examples, as well, where they have not been protected by the rules. One veteran referred to a play in the Cleveland-Pittsburgh game, one, in fact, raised by The Sports Xchange in discussing the Harrison-McCoy situation, in which Steelers tailback Rashard Mendenhall was stuffed by Browns linebacker Chris Gocong on a goal-line play, and on an obvious helmet-to-helmet tackle. The play occurred on second down on Cleveland's fourth-quarter goal-line stand, and pretty clearly demonstrated the perils some running backs face when going into a hole and not being able to change direction.

There was no flag and Gocong was not fined for the play. But as two veteran running backs insisted, there was virtually no chance for Mendenhall to change direction on the play and Gocong came from at least a yard or two off the line of scrimmage to deliver the hit. The problem, as described by the running backs: According to the rules, Mendenhall was not deemed as "defenseless" on the play.

Said one back, who saw the play on television: "It's (crap). There's basically no way (Mendenhall) could have protected himself. And there's no doubt he gets hit in the helmet by (Gocong's) helmet. It wasn't as bad as (the Harrison tackle on McCoy), but it was still dangerous."

Expect the issue to be raised in Indianapolis in February.

Steel trap

Aside from a few comments from some Pittsburgh players, notably cornerback Ike Taylor and safety Ryan Clark, there hasn't been much of the Harrison incident emanating from the Steelers' locker room or front office.

And there's a pretty good reason why.

When coach Mike Tomlin defended Clark earlier this season, when the free safety was fined $40,000 for what was perceived as illegal contact, he was quietly reprimanded by the league. And back in March, when a high-ranking team official suggested at the annual NFL meetings to Goodell that the new illegal contact guidelines were taking away from the game, he was delivered a pretty good dressing-down by the commissioner.

The Steelers' collective stance, reflected by Tomlin's comment earlier this week when asked about Harrison, is to publicly at least toe the line. Although not necessarily to the Steelers, league officials pointed out to some club executives this week that increased public consciousness of the concussion issue has been at least a secondary component of the rules changes.

And they point to the television extensions approved this week, which will generate about $1 billion per year, as the latest example of how fans are interested in the game, no matter the rules tweaks.

Combine cash

The league's recent announcement that it will augment the usual February combine with eight regional combines scattered across the country was pretty big news. The concept is a fairly good one and will provide potential draft prospects, separate from the 300-330 players typically invited to Indianapolis, an opportunity to audition for NFL scouts.

But curiously missing (or maybe not so) from the announcement was this qualifier: Unlike the Indianapolis combine, the eight regional workouts aren't free. Position players must register in advance for the regional combines and pay a $190 fee. For kickers and punters, the fee is $250.

The regional combine workouts will be limited to 250 players each. Even at the lower, position-player rate, the eight combines could gross close to $400,000. Much of that will probably go toward expenses for convening the combines, but the league, which is increasingly conscious of creating fresh revenue streams, will still net a few bucks from the events.

No "Has"-been

Beyond his interim term in St. Louis in 2008, when he compiled a 2-10 record after replacing the dismissed Scott Linehan, Washington defensive coordinator Jim Haslett hasn't been a head coach in the NFL since 2005. But there could be a few teams in the league that are looking for a new head coach at the end of the season who at least have Haslett on their "long lists" of candidates.

In fact, some officials with franchises who already have vacancies, and a few with clubs that might, this week mentioned Haslett to The Sports Xchange as a guy who could merit some consideration. Haslett had a 46-52 record in six seasons with the Saints (2000-2005), and he led New Orleans to the playoffs just once in that stretch, but he is still regarded as a viable potential candidate.

Despite ranking 31st statistically in the NFL last year, the Washington defense always played hard, and the unit, which currently is No. 11, continues that trait in 2011.

Plus, Haslett, even with his experience, won't be able to command a $5 million-a-year salary, as some candidates might. Some of the franchises who will be seeking new coaches are said to prefer someone with expertise on the offensive side of the ball, which could bode well for a guy like former Baltimore coach Brian Billick, and perhaps raise questions about Haslett and his background.

But it should be noted that, his defensive pedigree aside, Haslett is very conscious of the offensive skew in the league, and knows the importance of a strong and tested coordinator on that side of the ball. His offensive coordinator for five of his six seasons in New Orleans, after all, was current Green Bay head coach Mike McCarthy.

Sundown state

With only eight games remaining among them, following the Jacksonville debacle at the Georgia Dome on Thursday night, the league's three Florida-based franchises have combined for only a dozen victories in 2011, four wins each. Not since the NFL re-aligned in 2002 has the trio of Florida teams combined for fewer than 17 wins (in 2009), but that could be the case this year.

Two of the clubs, Jacksonville and Miami, have already fired their head coaches and there seems little doubt that Raheem Morris of Tampa Bay is on thin ice as well. The '96 season, when the Bucs hired Tony Dungy and the Dolphins brought in Jimmy Johnson, is the only previous year in which more than one of the Florida franchises had a new coach. This could be a trifecta offseason, although the feeling among league sources is that the Jags and Dolphins, and possibly the Bucs, likely won't be in competition for the same head coach candidates.

As has been reported by various media outlets, and agreed by folks in the coaching community, Miami owner Stephen Ross will attempt to make a big-splash coaching hire. The Jags, and the Bucs, if Morris is dismissed, not so much.

Hue da man

In some quarters of the coaching circle, there were a few rumbles this week that Hue Jackson of Oakland could be in some trouble, given the Raiders' back-to-back lopsided defeats at Miami and Green Bay, and the shoddy overall play of the club in the two defeats. But reliable sources in the organization insisted to The Sports Xchange that isn't the case.

There has been some question about whether Mark Davis, who is more involved in the Raiders' daily operations than many might have believed, inherited the quick trigger on coaches that seemed to run in the DNA of his father, the late Al Davis. The younger Davis is not happy, insiders report, about the manner in which the team has performed recently, but has not suggested that Jackson is the problem.

Jackson, of course, had never been a head coach at any level before Al Davis elevated him to the top spot. Jackson doesn't have quite as much sway over personnel matters as has been perceived by the public, but has concentrated more on on-field matters (even with poor results in the win-loss column of late) in recent months, and appears safe.

At least, contend the sources, there has been no discernable reduction of support from Davis.

More Raiders

The struggles of Palmer have prompted some outsiders to question the Raiders' decision to acquire the veteran quarterback from Cincinnati at the trade deadline. But there seems to be no such concern about Palmer within the organization.

People inside the Raiders point to some dubious play by the team's mostly-young wide receiver corps - particularly a lack of aggressiveness in attacking the football and working back toward the ball on some of Palmer's 13 interceptions (including 10 in his six starts) - as a factor in the pickoffs.

Also, while former first-round pick Darrius Heyward-Bey has been better, the third-year receiver has reverted to some drops lately to go along with some lapses of attention.

The feeling among people advising the Raiders on personnel matters, and consulting with Davis, sometimes on-site, has been that Oakland need to upgrade its defense in the offseason.

Dahl house

Hard to believe that the exit of underrated guard Harvey Dahl could make so much difference, but some Atlanta players are noting that the defection of the five-year veteran guard to St. Louis in free agency in the summer has had more effect than expected on the Atlanta offensive line unit.

Dahl was the only one of three line starters - right tackle Tyson Clabo and left guard Justin Blalock were the others - the Falcons were unable to retain as free agents. Dahl, who has started all 13 games for the Rams, has been arguably the most consistent performer on the St. Louis injury-depleted line.

The Falcons, conversely, have struggled mightily to fill his right guard spot. Atlanta has used two starters, Garrett Reynolds and Joe Hawley, at right guard, and neither has played well. The Falcons recently worked in former first-round tackle Sam Baker, who has lost his starting job to journeyman Will Svitek, at right guard, and he was abysmal.

Former teammates have privately noted that the toughness and feistiness that were Dahl trademarks might not be as big a factor on the blocking unit this season.


--Although some in the organization still feel that Carolina needs another wide receiver to complement Steve Smith, and augment the arsenal surrounding Cam Newton, the Panthers' coaches have become increasingly satisfied with the work of wideouts Legedu Naanee and Brandon LaFell.

--Several Seattle coaches feel that eight-year veteran defensive end Chris Clemons may be the most underrated pass rusher in the league. Clemons has 20 sacks in his two seasons with the Seahawks. On the flipside, Darryl Tapp, the man traded by the Seahawks for Clemons, has registered only 5 1/2 sacks in two seasons in Philadelphia.

--We normally avoid college issues, even when they impact our alma mater, the University of Pittsburgh, so we'll pass on the opportunity to comment on the lack-of-ethics manner in which Panthers coach Todd Graham departed the program this week. We will, though, note this: There were many people in the Steelers' front office - and, remember, the Steelers and Pitt share a practice complex - who weren't exactly unhappy over Graham's departure. The man was hardly beloved by Steelers' staffers, both of the football and front office variety. And none of that has to do with the fact that Steelers officials had strongly recommended Penn State defensive coordinator Tom Bradley, the brother of team physician Dr. James Bradley, for the opening at Pitt last year.

--Most agents concede that USC offensive tackle Matt Kalil, projected by many as the top lineman prospect in college football and who will bypass his final year of eligibility with the Trojans to enter the 2012 draft, will be represented by Creative Artists Agency. Kalil's older brother, Carolina Pro Bowl center Ryan Kalil, is represented by CAA.

--Another standout college player who could enter the 2012 draft as an underclass prospect, Oregon tailback LaMichael James, is regarded by many teams as a possibility at wide receiver, particularly as a slot receiver. It was reported this week that the Ducks' star would bypass his final season of college eligibility, but he denied a decision has been made. Even though NFL rules preclude scouts from discussing James until he declares for the draft, a lot of evaluators have their eyes on him.

--Buffalo coach Chan Gailey noted this week that, despite the recent struggles of starter Ryan Fitzpatrick, he doesn't expect the Bills to make quarterback a high-round priority in the '12 draft. That jibes with what some Bills scouts have been saying privately. The emphasis in Buffalo might be on upgrading the offensive line, and the Bills feel the three-year extension awarded this week to tackle Erik Pears is a step in the right direction.

--After being fallow for a few weeks because of inspections in several areas that preoccupied some agents, a few FBI offices have resumed their investigations of illegal recruiting allegations against some agents.

--Philadelphia wide receiver Steve Smith, placed on injured reserve by Philadelphia last week after catching only 11 passes in nine games (one start), has mentioned to friends that he might consider re-joining the Giants in '12 if they are interested in him in free agency. Smith, of course, signed only a one-year deal in Philly this year, after tearing up his knee in 2010. But sources say the Giants, with whom Smith posted 107 receptions in 2009, have moved on with their younger receivers and aren't expected to court the veteran receiver.

--According to one personnel director of a rival NFC franchise, nearly 60 percent of Drew Brees' passing yards this season have come on balls thrown in the middle of the field, between the field numbers. "You let him get (tight end Jimmy) Graham or (wide receiver Marques) Colston running free between the hashes," said the official, "and he's that much more dangerous." Notable is that the Saints are second in the league in yards after catch. Brees, by the way, has told his representatives to delay all contract extension discussions until after the season.

--Tampa Bay officials seem adamant that the problems of quarterback Josh Freeman this season are an aberration.

The last word:

"Versatile would mean you can throw the ball very accurately, the ball, create things. And the only thing he's creating is running. He isn't very accurate. You watch him, and I don't think (completing) 3-for-10 after three quarters is a versatile quarterback." - Carolina wide receiver Steve Smith, via The Charlotte Observer, on the differences between Denver's Tim Tebow and Carolina's Cam Newton.

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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