Wherefore art thou, Romeo?
Perhaps back in Kansas City.
The endorsement of linebacker Tamba Hali on Thursday is hardly the lone voice of support in the Chiefs' locker room for retaining interim coach Romeo Crennel as the full-time successor to the deposed Todd Haley.
"He has a ton of respect in here," linebacker Derrick Johnson told The Sports Xchange. "There are a lot of (players) in his corner."
Despite a recent column by The Sports Xchange suggesting that it might be time for general manager Scott Pioli to think outside the box -- perhaps venture beyond the comfort zone of people with whom he has worked in the past and has a shared familiarity -- the Chiefs could probably do worse than to retain Crennel for 2012. Although the Browns were just 24-40 in Crennel's four-year tenure, and finished last in the division three times in that stretch, Crennel was regarded even by veteran players as a solid leader and knowledgeable coach.
John Rieger/US Presswire
"A class act," noted linebacker D'Qwell Jackson, one of the few holdovers from the Crennel regime still on the Browns' roster. "A man who treated you like a man."
There is a sense, especially after the Chiefs' upset of Green Bay, that Crennel has a shot at keeping the job, particularly if Kansas City plays well in its final two games. The players have already begun lobbying publicly for Crennel.
"He doesn't give us a reason not to play hard for him," wide receiver Terrance Copper told Sports Xchange contributor Randy Covitz of the Kansas City Star. Said fullback Le'Ron McClain to Covitz: "More meeting time. More football time. Learning your opponent better, understanding your opponent. I know I watched for film (last) week than I watched all year. Everything was different, man. Good different."
There were times in Cleveland when Crennel probably wasn't particularly smooth with the media or the fans, an increasingly important element of the job anymore, but even the people who covered him conceded he was a solid football coach. And Crennel, despite a lack of flashiness, might possess the button-down style the Chiefs seem to prefer.
There were 18 interim coaches in the league 2000-2010, and seven of them kept their jobs full-time for the following year, including two of the four -- Jason Garrett of Dallas and Leslie Frazier of Minnesota -- from last season. So perhaps the standard has changed a bit, which would be another plus for Crennel.
That said, the same optimism is not prevalent with the league's other two interim coaches, Todd Bowles in Miami and Jacksonville's Mel Tucker. Although outgoing Jags' owner Wayne Weaver and new owner Shahid Khan both have contended that Tucker could be a candidate for a full-time gig, the buzz in league circles is that the team will seek an offensive-minded coach to work with quarterback Blaine Gabbert, who has been terrible at times.
And the reports that Miami owner Stephen Ross will pursue a fairly high-profile head coach appear to have some legitimacy.
AROUND THE LEAGUE
The great debate
It's been a few years since we voted for the AP's All-Pro team and for the group's annual awards, so we don't have a dog in the MVP hunt. Still, there were a lot of inquiries this week, and considerable chatter, about the anticipated battle between quarterbacks Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees for the most valuable player honors. It would be hyperbole to contend the momentum definitely has swung toward the New Orleans star, but there is some mounting sentiment for him, and with good reason.
Brees is not only on pace to smash Dan Marino's single-season passing yards record, but will probably also break his own mark for completion percentage in a season. Plus the Saints likely will break the record for most yards in a season, set by the St. Louis "Greatest Show on Turf" offense in 2000. Brees, who has thrown for 4,400-plus yards for the fifth time in six seasons, hasn't been under 63.2 percent all year, and has completed an amazing 76 percent of his throws the past three weeks.
"You hate to say it, but he's so (darn) accurate, you're almost surprised when he throws an incompletion," Minnesota safety Jamarca Sanford said last week after Brees strafed the Vikings for 412 yards and five TD passes.
Again, we don't have a ballot, but we're always confounded by the rationale in which some people split the close calls, voting one guy for MVP and the other for the offensive player of the year.
The Thursday decision by Southern Cal's Matt Barkley might limit to two, Luck and Heisman Trophy winner Robert Griffin III, the number of quarterbacks chosen in the top 10 in the 2012 draft. But there are still some talent evaluators awaiting the decision of Oklahoma's Landry Jones, and contending he might yet be a top 10 possibility.
"Barkley was pretty definite (as a top 10 pick), right there with Griffin, believe me, but don't count out Landry if he is available," one NFC personnel director, whose team has already put a lot of time and effort into assessing possible quarterback prospects, told The Sports Xchange. "He could be a real wild card."
His post-season awards aside, there remain some questions about Griffin, especially concerning his height and stature, and even the scouts who saw him in person this year are a little anxious about how he will measure at the combine. Most scouts, despite the hype, had Griffin and Barkley about even. And while there have been plenty of reports that some teams might favor Griffin over Luck at this fairly early point of the process, that didn't seem to be the sentiment we perceived.
By the way, underclass prospects, like Jones, have until Jan. 15 to apply for draft entry.
A couple more quarterback items: Virtually every scout to whom The Tip Sheet spoke this week had four underclass players -- Luck, Barkley, Griffin, and Jones -- as their top four signal-caller prospects. The consensus top non-underclass quarterback is probably Ryan Tannehill of Texas A&M, and scouts project him to be about a third- or fourth-round choice at this point. Of the 16 quarterbacks chosen in the first round since 2006, half were players who used all their college eligibility.
QB Matt Barkley
But there were zero senior quarterbacks chosen in the first round in 2009 -- when Matthew Stafford, Mark Sanchez and Josh Freeman were the picks -- and it could happen again. As noted here in the past, many scouts seem to be curious about Wisconsin's Russell Wilson, even if he's only 5-feet-11 or so. If Wilson commits full-time to football over baseball, as he has suggested he will do, he could surprise some people with the level of interest in him.
Both players figure to return to their respective campuses for 2012, but some scouts find it interesting that quarterbacks Aaron Murray of Georgia and Denard Robinson of Michigan have petitioned the NFL's underclass advisor committee for assessments of their draft value. Despite his ability to scramble, Murray is regarded more as a pocket passer. Robinson, the theory goes, is a little intrigued by the move by a few teams to incorporate a "spread" package into their offensive repertoires.
Return engagement Aside from owner Jim Irsay's insistence on Thursday night that he "loves continuity," people we trust in the Indianapolis organization -- a team we once covered and where our onetime mid-level management buddies have all grown up and risen to positions of import -- contend to us that embattled coach Jim Caldwell is likely to survive this disastrous season.
"Jim and Bill (Polian) simply aren't knee-jerk guys," one Colts staffer told The Sports Xchange. "I guess that anything can happen, but it would be out of character, no matter how much Jimmy hates to lose."
The comeback victory over Houston on Thursday night certainly won't hurt Caldwell's case. In spite of the embarrassing 62-7 debacle at New Orleans on Oct. 23, the Colts have played hard, even though some NFL observers, many of them former league players, insisted the team had quit. The Colts have lost six games by eight points or fewer, four by seven points or less.
Out of Luck?
So what did the Colts' comeback victory over Houston on Thursday night mean to the 2012 draft order? Nothing yet, but things could get interesting in the final two weeks, with Minnesota and St. Louis each having just two wins. In the tiebreaker for the No. 1 overall pick, and probably the right to select Andrew Luck of Stanford, the Colts still lead, by virtue of a worst opponents' cumulative record.
Indianapolis opponents for the year currently are 120-106. The Vikings' foes are 127-97, and the Rams' are 132-92. So unless the Colts win their finale is at Jacksonville on New Year's Day, it might be difficult for either Minnesota or St. Louis to "catch" them for the top overall choice. Then again, should the Colts win at the Jaguars, and the Vikings and Rams lose each of their final two games -- the Rams finish at Pittsburgh and at home to San Francisco, and Minnesota concludes the season at Washington and hosting Chicago -- then Indianapolis wouldn't have the top selection.
And if either Minnesota or St. Louis ends up with the No. 1 choice, they could face interesting decisions. The Rams are invested in Sam Bradford. The Vikings seem to like Christian Ponder. Either team could consider USC offensive tackle Matt Kalil, or dangle the choice for trade offers. The odds still are that Luck ends up in Indy, where he could apprentice for a couple seasons if Peyton Manning is healthy, but it's not a done deal yet.
On the edge
Heading into the 2011 draft, the lottery was regarded by scouts as a very good year for "edge" players -- ends in both the 4-3 and 3-4 and outside 'backers who could rush the quarterback. And it's proven to be just that.
There are 11 rookie ends/linebackers with five or more sacks, led by San Francisco situational rush linebacker Aldon Smith (13 sacks) and Denver strong-side linebacker Von Mller (11.5). But there are also very good 3-4 outside guys like Ryan Kerrigan of Washington, Baltimore's Pernell McPhee, Brooks Reed of Houston and Sam Acho of Arizona.
Kerrigan, who many talent evaluators projected as a potential five-technique player, has been a real surprise with his athleticism, complementing Brian Orakpo very nicely for the Redskins. J.J. Watt has been excellent as a five-technique end for the Texans. And defenders like 4-3 end Jabaal Sheard in Cleveland, Tampa Bay's Adrian Clayborn (4-3), Robert Quinn in St. Louis (4-3), and Marcell Dareus in Buffalo (has played both end and tackle in the Bills' varied fronts) have excelled as well. All in all, a very good year for living on the edge. *
See Saints run
Brees and the New Orleans passing game have generated so much attention, and deservedly so, that the New Orleans ground game has typically been overlooked. And that's how the Saints seem to like it.
QB Drew Brees
"The (perception) is that we're just a (finesse) team, and that's OK; let people think that," guard Jahri Evans told The Sports Xchange. "We don't mind surprising teams with how well we can run it."
The Saints don't have a rusher with more than 500 yards -- in fact, Darren Sproles is the team leader, with 496 yards -- but they've got three players with 400 yards or more and four with 200-plus yards in coach Sean Payton's tailback-by-committee design. No other franchise in the league has more than two 400-yard backs (not counting quarterbacks).
Payton always preaches having a physical running game, especially late in the season and in the second halves of games, and that has been the case for a New Orleans ground attack seemingly hitting its stride. The Saints have averaged 136.0 yards during their current six-game winning streak; they averaged 117.3 rushing yards in the first eight games of the year. During the six-game streak, New Orleans has averaged 16.2 rushes in the second halves as opposed to 10.6 in the first halves of games.
Payton is a big advocate of using the running attack to close out wins and the Saints, who have led at halftime in all six wins, have done that. Said Evans: "When we need to bring the hammer down, we feel we can do it."
Symbiosis Denver tailback Willis McGahee actually averaged more yards per game in the four contests he started with Kyle Orton at quarterback (90.3) than he has with Tim Tebow as the starter (75.8). But the nine-year veteran, who needs only 10 yards to get to the 1,000-yard mark for the first time since 2007, feels that Tebow and the reconfigured Broncos' offense has helped to resurrect his career.
"I'm a believer in the (zone-read option) offense," said McGahee, who averaged just 531.7 yards the past three seasons. "I think it can work and it's sure revived me."
McGahee has averaged 5.01 yards per attempt in his eight starts with Tebow. He averaged 4.45 yards per start with Orton.
As first pointed out by Pro Football Weekly, and confirmed by some folks close to Tampa Bay cornerback Ronde Barber, the future of the 15-year vet in Tampa could be somewhat tied to what the Bucs do with coach Raheem Morris. The two men are very close and, if Morris were fired, it's not certain that Barber would return to the only franchise for which he has ever played. That said, the people who know Barber insist he's not ready to retire yet.
So at age 37, which he will be next April, could Barber find a market as a free agent after signing just a one-year deal with the Bucs this season?
Some of the personnel men to whom we posed the question this week were non-committal and others felt Barber might be able to play somewhere as a nickel corner. One of the best slot corners in recent history, Barber is on the verge of starting all 16 games for a 12th straight season. Whether he gets a 16th year might depend on coming back to Tampa Bay or somewhere else in the role of a "sub" cover guy.
Mark(ed) man Even with the loss of end Andre Carter for the rest of the year to a quadriceps injury, indications are that New England will continue to use a 4-3 front. But as they did last week, the Pats will be quick to incorporate some of their old 3-4 look, perhaps even more down the stretch and in the playoffs, as a change of pace.
The obvious beneficiary of Carter's injury figures to be Mark Anderson, who has nine sacks as mostly a situational rusher (just one start), and who played so well in the victory at Denver last week. But a New England coach told The Sports Xchange this week that, while Anderson is one of the reasons the Patriots figure to continue using the 4-3 as its "base," the team will monitor the number of snaps for which the veteran end is on the field.
"He's at his best when we maximize the snaps, and he can go all-out every play," said the coach. "He's not a one-trick pony, like some people think, but he can really rush the quarterback ... and he does that best when he isn't having to go 40 or 50 (snaps) a game."
Anderson, 28, is a typical Bill Belichick reclamation project. Signed as a free agent when Belichick decided in the offseason to convert to the 4-3, he had just 13 1/2 sacks in the four seasons since he posted 12 sacks as a rookie with Chicago in 2006. But he was told when he signed in New England that he would have a role, the coaches stuck to their promises, and he's revived his career.
DE Mark Anderson
Geoff Burke/US Presswire
Meanwhile, whether they're playing a 4-3 or a 3-4, the Pats, the coach said, probably will continue to alternate defensive lineman Vince Wilfork between end and tackle.
Once regarded as the NFL's best and most competitive division, the NFC East has fallen on relatively hard times in 2011. Entering the final two weeks of the season, the four NFC East franchises have combined for just 26 victories. That's the second-fewest for any division in the NFL, behind only the AFC South (23 wins), a quartet that includes the one-win Indianapolis Colts.
Because of the schedule, and a final two weeks that includes three intra-conference matchups -- Philadelphia-Dallas on Saturday and the New Year's Day pairings of Dallas-New York Giants and Washington-Philadelphia -- the division can win only five more games at most. That would be 31 victories, which would tie for the NFC East's fewest (in both 2003 and 2004) since the league realigned to four-team divisions in 2002.
So unless both the Giants (versus the Jets) and Redskins (against Minnesota) win Saturday, it assures that the NFC East will have its fewest cumulative victories since the realignment.
Also worth mentioning: This could be the first time since the 1970 merger that the NFC East champion has fewer than 10 wins. In fact, in the previous 41 seasons since the merger, the NFC East champion has had fewer than 11 wins just 11 times. The division claimed seven of 10 Super Bowl titles from Super Bowl XXI through Super Bowl XXX, but has produced only one of the 15 champions since then. So it's been a while since the division could boast of its preeminence.
Still, players and coaches continue to insist the NFC East is the league's toughest grouping.
"Every game (in the division) is still a brawl," Washington wide receiver Santana Moss said. "There is still nothing like it."
Maybe, but this season's tumble has been alarming, and goes far beyond the claim of some division apologists that the poor record is a by-product of the balance among the NFC East's foursome.
Burress a red zone beast
Jets officials have toyed with the notion of broaching a contract extension to Plaxico Burress, who signed only a one-year deal with the team, but it's been strongly suggested to them that the wide receiver really wants to gauge the free agent market.
And why not?
Some club with a crying need for a "red zone" receiver would almost have to think hard about Burress, even though he'll be 35 when the 2012 season starts. Seven of Burress' eight touchdowns this season have come inside the 20-yard line, continuing a career-long trend. Entering the season, 28 of his 55 career scores had been of the "red zone" variety.
"He's a beast down there," said cornerback Corey Webster, a teammate of Burress' with the Giants as a rookie in 2005, and part of a secondary unit that will attempt to keep him out of the end zone on Saturday.
With two weeks remaining in the season, teams have used 52 different starting quarterbacks (Orton has started for two teams, Denver and Kansas City, so he only counts for just one of the 52). There will be at least one new starter this week, with Josh McCown replacing Caleb Hanie in Chicago, and there remains the possibility that Charlie Batch, who has logged only six starts since 2001, could get the nod over the gimpy Ben Roethlisberger in Pittsburgh.
There is no way, though, that the league can come close to the 62 different starters used in 2010. So, while the perception is that the NFL has had a run of quarterback roulette of late, the numbers actually indicate pretty good stability at the position.
There had been just 29 quarterback "switches" through Week 15. Last year, there were 51 at the same point of the season, and 61 overall. The league used 50 starters in 2006, but an average of 58.75 in the ensuing four seasons. It's doubtful the teams will reach that average this season.
There's some truth -- but not quite "nothing but the truth" -- to the reports that Oakland hasn't yet begun to consider possible general manager candidates for 2012. But make no mistake, the position has been discussed internally, and some names have been mentioned among club officials. Of course, the Raiders can't make a move until after the season.
One name to keep in mind is that of current Green Bay director of football operations Reggie McKenzie. It's not a slam-dunk that McKenzie would even listen if the Raiders pursued him. But this much we know: McKenzie has a big supporter in retired NFL executive and former Raiders' official Ken Herock, who has the ear of Oakland management and has been counseling new owner Mark Davis on some football-related matters.
-In one of the amazingly underplayed subplots of 2011, the San Francisco defense still hasn't allowed a rushing touchdown this season, and the 14 straight games without one is a league record. But the unit faces a tough challenge on Saturday against Seattle's Marshawn Lynch. The five-year veteran tailback, whom Seahawks' officials continue to hope will at least consider a contract extension -- even though we recently reported in this space that it will take considerably more than the team's projection of $5 million per year -- has run for at least one score in nine of his last 10 games. And Lynch has rushed for 100 or more yards in five of his last seven games, which will also be a test for a Niners' defense that hasn't allowed a 100-yard runner in 36 straight games.
-Chicago rookie quarterback Nathan Enderle is said to have a solid backer in offensive coordinator Mike Martz, who fell in love with the kid after just one visit with him and lobbied Chicago scouts hard to draft the former Idaho standout. It will be interesting to see what happens with Enderle -- whether he actually challenges for the No. 2 job with the Bears in 2012 or remains a scout-team guy -- if Martz leaves the team as expected. It's hard to envision Hanie staying at No. 2 on the depth chart, much less re-signing with the team, after posting an 0-4 record in replacing the injured Jay Cutler and tossing three interceptions in three of his four starts.
QB Nathan Enderle
Dennis Wierzbicki/US Presswire
-Kansas City rookie linebacker Justin Houston didn't have a sack in last week's upset of Green Bay, after collecting four in the previous two games, but Chiefs coaches feel the light is on to stay for the third-round draft pick, and feel he can be an excellent complement to Hali in 2012. Part of the problem, coaches say, is that the former Georgia star had never really lined up as much as a stand-up linebacker and that, frankly, he sulked a bit at falling into the third round after being tabbed as a possible first-rounder early in the draft evaluation process.
-There was absolutely no truth to the report that San Francisco defensive line coach Jim Tomsula, who was the 49ers' interim coach for the 2010 season finale, was a candidate for the University of Pittsburgh vacancy filled Thursday by Paul Chryst, and interviewed for the position. However, Chryst might pursue Tomsula as an assistant, and could attempt to hire his brother, 49ers quarterbacks coach Geep Chryst for an offensive coaching position. At least for now, that position would not be as the coordinator, a spot that has already been offered to a current Badgers assistant, likely Bob Bostad, the Badgers' outstanding offensive line coach and running-game coordinator.
-For much of the season, it appeared that Michael Strahan's sack record, 22 1/2 in 2001, might be threatened. But there are only two weeks remaining, and Jason Babin (18), Jared Allen (17 1/2) or DeMarcus Ware (16) would need a big game to challenge the mark.
-Word is that New England wide receivers Julian Edelman and Matthew Slater, both of whom have spent some time at safety in recent weeks, have spoken to former Pats' standout Troy Brown about the challenges of playing in the secondary. Brown, of course, was the original Patriots' wide receiver pressed into duty in the secondary because of injuries.
-Brees has thrown at least five touchdown passes to five different receivers. The only other team in the league with at least five receivers having five scoring catches is Green Bay. Conversely, 10 franchises don't have a single player with as many as five touchdown receptions.
-We mentioned it last week, but it's worth repeating, especially since Atlanta plays so much "cover-2" and leaves a lot of voids in the middle of the field: About 60 percent of Brees' passing yards come between the numbers on the field, close to 50 percent between the hashes, according to one NFC defensive coordinator.
-New England still has a long way to go to catch the San Francisco record for consecutive 10-win seasons, 16 (1983-98). But the Pats have now won 10 or more games nine straight years.
-The Packers host Chicago on Christmas night and then Detroit on New Year's Day, and when they complete that task they will become the first franchise in league history to have played on Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year's Day.
-People close to Hines Ward told The Sports Xchange this week that the veteran would strongly consider restructuring his contract to remain with the Steelers in 2012, but wonder if Pittsburgh officials will even make the offer. Ward, who needs just nine catches to reach 1,000 for his career, is due base salaries of $4 million in both 2012 and 2013.
-It's hard to imagine Ward in anything but a black and gold uniform, but he told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on Thursday that he has no plans to retire and wants to play again in 2012. Somewhere. "If they cut me, that's on them," Ward said.
-Chalk up tight end Rob Gronkowski as the latest example of how the Patriots often benefit by digging a little deeper on potential draft prospects. A lot of franchises backed off Gronkowski in the 2010 draft because of the back problems he experienced in his final season at Arizona. But the Patriots' medical staff did its homework and told scouts the back shouldn't be a major problem.
-On the topic of examples, it seems Detroit cornerback Eric Wright is perhaps "Exhibit A" as to how some guys can benefit from a change of scenery. Always a physically talented guy, Wright, for whatever reasons, struggled for much of his four-year stint in Cleveland, especially in 2010. But the five-year veteran has played well in Detroit this season after signing as a free agent, and has four interceptions and 15 passes defensed. Wright is playing with far better technique in his first season with the Lions.
-In the wake of The Sports Xchange column earlier this week on potential head coach candidates from teams currently with non-winning records, we got pretty good feedback from some owners and team decision-makers around the league. Two points a lot of them made: The job that Carolina offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski has done with Cam Newton probably will earn him at least some interviews. And a guy to watch for the future is Arizona defensive coordinator Ray Horton.
-Pittsburgh released kicker Jeff Reed after nine games last season when he had missed seven field goals (15 for 22). Replacement Shaun Suisham has missed seven kicks this season (19 for 26), and his only marginally better from a percentage standpoint.
-The reduction ballots for cutting the list of 26 Hall of Fame semifinalists to 15 finalists were due in Canton on Wednesday, and the candidate who by far merited the most recommendation letters to the 44 selectors was former San Francisco owner Ed DeBartolo Jr.
-Pretty much considered a one-dimensional guy most of his career, a terrific deep threat but not necessarily a well-rounded receiver, Nate Washington has really refined his game for Tennessee this year. Washington has already established career bests in receptions (66) and yards (860), and emphasized some of the finer points of the position. Washington averaged only 38.6 catches the previous five years. His 13.0-yard average is below the 15.3-yard mark with which he entered the season, but he is a far better player.
-Look for Atlanta officials to make a strong run at a contract extension for corner Brent Grimes before he becomes an unrestricted free agent.
TE Tony Gonzalez
Otto Greule Jr./Getty
-Falcons officials are also convinced that tight end Tony Gonzalez, another potential unrestricted free agent, wants to play again in 2012. Preferably with the Falcons.
-In filling in for both James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley at various times this season, Pittsburgh second-year veteran Jason Worilds has demonstrated some flashes that he could be the kind of athletic, undersized college defensive end who has thrived after a move to linebacker in the Steelers' 3-4 front. If Woodley is physically well this week, don't be surprised if ever-creative defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau conjures up a way to get Harrison, Woodley, and Worilds all on the field together.
-Ever wonder how much some agents make in selling their firms to big conglomerates? Rumor in the agent community is that one player rep recently pocketed $18 million for cutting such a merger deal.
-As suggested by some analysts, the Dallas staff already has discussed internally the possibility of switching left tackle Doug Free and rookie right tackle Tyron Smith for 2012. That despite the fact the Cowboys are paying Free left tackle-level money.
The last word: "I think it's baloney. They have a blueprint for winning any game. If you control the football, you don't turn the ball over, and you can shut down the other team on third down and hold them to 14 points, you should win (any) game. Other teams have played similar styles of coverages, and ideas of rushing four and dropping seven or rushing three and dropping (eight), or playing 'man' with two high safeties, and we beat those teams. We just didn't execute well, (and) they did. They controlled the football, they didn't turn it over to our defense, and I don't care who's playing who, that's a recipe for success." -- Rodgers, debunking the notion that the Kansas City Chiefs, in handing Green Bay its first loss last Sunday, provided a template for everyone else in the league for defeating the Packers.
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.