NFC South Hot Topic: Dec. 24

Hot Topic is your source for NFC South news at Bucsblitz.com. Today get updated on what's going on with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' division rivals, Atlanta, Carolina and New Orleans as they wrap up their performances from Week 16.

ATLANTA FALCONS

There are four more quarters of football to be played in Atlanta before the rebuilding can actually begin. The process is going to be multi-pronged, especially since there are coaches who want the job, players who want out and an owner who wants rapid results.

The Falcons first have to end their season next Sunday against Seattle, a playoff team that features former Falcons defensive end Patrick Kerney -- the NFL sacks leader -- and secondary coach Jim Mora, who posted the second best winning percentage (52 percent) in Falcons history but was fired New Year's Day.

While players are preparing for that game, and also getting out of Dodge shortly thereafter, team owner Arthur Blank is consulting with people throughout the league about candidates he should talk to about being the team's next general manager. Blank is keeping people under his employ at arm's length, causing tremendous angst about what's next.

No one seems to know the route the Home Depot co-founder will take. He thinks the football team can be rebuilt quickly, although it needs a quarterback, at least three offensive linemen, an every-down tailback, at least one, if not two new safeties and maybe a middle linebacker.

Blank might try to go with an experienced football man or he could call on an upstart, who has been with a successful franchise and learned from the right people. Floyd Reese and Charley Casserly are some of the experienced general managers Blank could speak with.

New England's Scott Pioli is a long-shot, as is Dallas' Jeff Ireland, who is expected to join Bill Parcells in Miami. Green Bay's Reggie McKenzie is another up-and-comer.

Who Blank opts to hire will have the authority to hire the coach, but there apparently are plenty of people who would like the job. Marty Schottenheimer isn't one of them, as a reclamation project is not what he wants at this juncture.

However, Dallas's Jason Garrett, San Francisco's Mike Singletary and Jim Caldwell of Indianapolis could be potential candidates if Blank chooses to give someone a shot. Blank has gone that route with Mora and Bobby Petrino and things have not worked out but he might not have much of an option.

Falcons interim head coach Emmitt Thomas, offensive coordinator Hue Jackson and defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer would love to get an interview, but with Blank seemingly distancing himself from so much of what exists with the team, they might not have a realistic chance.

Two-time Pro Bowl cornerback DeAngelo Hall said players expressed to Blank the desire to at least provide some input on the type of coach they would like to play for. Blank might listen but then again, he might not want to hear much from a unit with no real nucleus or players who could be shipped out.

Hall said he does not want to play for a dictator type like Petrino, but he might not be here to have to worry about that. The cornerback has one year left on his contract and wants an extension, but he might end up being moved in the offseason if he is viewed to be a distraction.

PLAYER NOTES

--WR Roddy White surpassed the 1,000 receiving yards milestone, making him the first Falcon since WR Terance Mathis garnered 1,016 yards in 1999. White's career-high 12 catches for 141 yards vs. Arizona Sunday gives him 1,140 for the season.

--WR Joe Horn, bothered by a foot injury, might not start the season finale, if ever again for Atlanta. Horn did not play against Arizona, making this the fourth game he missed because of injury. Horn, signed as a free agent this summer, has just 24 receptions for 211 yards.

--Rookie WR Laurent Robinson, Joe Horn's replacement, is the future. Robinson scored his first touchdown on a 74-yard skinny post making Arizona's Antrel Rolle look bad in the process. Robinson has 36 receptions for 426 yards on the season.

--LG Justin Blalock is expected to start the season finale after returning to the starting lineup vs. Arizona Sunday. Blalock was inactive for two games after the coaching staff felt he was mentally and physically expired.

--CB DeAngelo Hall returned punts for the first time against Arizona Sunday, a role that many observers felt he should have had much earlier. Hall said that former coach Bobby Petrino asked him to return punts in the preseason but he declined because he thought he could supplant good friend Allen Rossum, who was eventually traded to Pittsburgh. After Rossum was traded, Hall said he approached Petrino about returning punts but was rebuffed.

CAROLINA PANTHERS

It appears coach John Fox and general manager Marty Hurney are safe next year, even though the Carolina Panthers have failed to make the playoffs for a second straight season.

NFL Network announcer Cris Collinsworth said on Saturday night's broadcast that Carolina owner Jerry Richardson told him Fox and Hurney were in no danger of losing their jobs.

When speaking of his conversation with Richardson, Collinsworth said, "(Fox is) not in trouble; he's not going anywhere. Marty Hurney is not going anywhere."

When asked about the report after the game, Hurney told Carolina Growl, "Nothing has changed. I've never gotten the impression that I won't have a job, so nothing has changed. I've always been under the impression I will have a job. I've heard nothing different."

Fox was asked in his post-game interview if he's had any conversations with Richardson regarding his future.

"Again, I won't address any conversations until after the season is over," said Fox, the winningest coach in franchise history. "My focus will be on (next week's game against) Tampa Bay."

Both Fox and Hurney are under contract through 2010.

Richardson, who has not conducted an interview with local reporters in more than a year, has been asked repeatedly for an interview regarding the future of Fox and Hurney over the past several weeks but has turned down all requests.

When asked for an interview with Richardson after Saturday night's game, Panthers public relations director Charlie Dayton said, once again, that Richardson was not available for comment to the media.

Of the organization's stance, Dayton said, "Nothing has changed."

The players seemed pleased with the news that Fox and Hurney will be back.

"I really never thought it was an issue," said offensive tackle Jordan Gross. "The season has not gone the way we thought it would but losing Jake Delhomme early was tough on us.

"The guys who came in and played did a nice job but when you are with your leader all off-season and in camp, it makes it tough. Fox has done a nice job of never making it an issue. We have questions about it, but nobody has thought about it too much."

Said defensive end Mike Rucker: "They are good dudes. They are good people and they know football. A lot of the good times that have happened around here they've been involved with. I think that speaks volumes."

Cornerback Ken Lucas said regardless of what happens in the front office or with the coaching staff, he expects the same can't be said for a lot of players.

"It's been wonderful for those guys, but for the rest of the 53 players on the roster nobody knows their future right now," Lucas said. "We still have another game to play in. Even if we're not here next year, you're still playing for the other 31 teams in the league.

"I'm sure most would like to be back next year, but if not you have to move on with your life and use it as a learning experience. That's good for (Fox and Hurney), but nobody's future in this locker room is guaranteed."

PLAYER NOTES

--QB Matt Moore continued to gain experience on Saturday night, throwing his first NFL touchdown pass. The kid has a savvy about him and it's pretty clear he has earned a roster spot next year. He needs some grooming -- and a lot of practice time -- but he is a talented young player.

--DE Julius Peppers did not play Saturday night vs. Dallas. It was the first time in his career Peppers has missed a game due to injury. He injured his knee vs. Seattle.

--WR Steve Smith had nine catches for 137 yards and a touchdown and became the team's all-time leader in touchdowns with 45.

--RB DeAngelo Williams once again outperformed starter DeShaun Foster. He ran 10 times for 60 yards. Foster had four carries for 9 yards.

--C Justin Hartwig injured his knee on Sunday. It's not known how serious the injury is.

--WR Steve Smith injured his shoulder on Saturday night but did return. Don't be surprised to see Smith take the next week off with nothing left to play for.

--DE Charles Johnson, a rookie, started for Julius Peppers.

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS

When the NFL schedule was released this spring, many Saints fans looked at the final game of the season and relished a chance to play the Chicago Bears in Soldier Field.

After losing to the Bears in the NFC Championship Game last January, the Saints themselves probably looked forward to playing a really meaningful game before heading into the postseason.

Well, it could be meaningful for a much different reason. The Saints might need it to merely get into the postseason, thanks to a 38-23 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles in the Superdome on Sunday.

The Saints (7-8) will not only be trying to salvage a .500 season, they'll also be trying to sneak into the playoffs against the Bears (6-9) under a scenario no one envisioned when the season started nearly four months ago.

Of course, the Saints will need some help from the Washington Redskins and Minnesota Vikings, but that was the least of their concerns after falling to the Eagles in a game they had to have.

The Saints marched into a crucial game with the Eagles in search of a third consecutive win that would keep their NFC wild-card playoff hopes alive for another week. They left the Superdome on the brink of elimination, but were saved from that fate later in the evening when the Redskins beat the Vikings.

But that wasn't on the Saints' minds Sunday afternoon as they thought they were done when they walked out of the locker room.

Still, Sunday's game was another bitter pill to swallow for the Saints, who are still trying to become only the second team in NFL history to start a season 0-4 and reach the playoffs.

"I thought we battled back after a poor start, we started off slow and then won seven of 10 games," coach Sean Payton said when asked if the game was symbolic of their season. "Guys fought back to keep us in this position, but we came up short down the stretch. Obviously, we are disappointed."

"We had worked so hard all season to get back on track," said defensive end Will Smith, "and every time we got back on track, we hit another speed bump."

The latest speed bump for the Saints was caused by defense's inability to stop Donovan McNabb, who was 24-of-35 for 263 yards and three scores, and the inability of the Saints' offense to score a game-tying touchdown on their first drive of the second half.

That was the one that did the Saints in. After Martin Gramatica booted a 55-yard field goal to trim a 10-point deficit to seven points on the final play of the first half, the Saints rolled to the Eagles' 1 on their first series of the second half.

But the Eagles stopped them on three straight running plays, turning the ball over on downs. Their offense then drove 98 yards in 15 plays to a backbreaking 9-yard touchdown pass from McNabb to Greg Lewis.

And with it, the Saints thought their chances of staying in the playoff hunt had gone out the window. Until, that is, the Redskins beat the Vikings to make the game with the Bears meaningful again.

PLAYER NOTES

--LCB Mike McKenzie strained his right knee on the third play of Sunday's game with the Philadelphia Eagles and did not return.

--WR Marques Colston suffered a chest contusion late in the first half and was taken to the locker room after he spit up some blood. He did not return in the second half.

--RB Aaron Stecker sprained his left big toe in the second quarter, but was able to play in the second half.

--RB Jamaal Branch, who plays primarily on special teams, broke his leg while covering the opening kickoff.

--RB Reggie Bush missed his third straight game with a torn posterior cruciate ligament in his left knee.

--TE Eric Johnson was inactive for Sunday's game with the Eagles because of a groin injury.

--DE Josh Savage was signed from the practice squad because the Saints were thin along the defensive line for the game with the Eagles.

--S Jay Bellamy was released to make room for Savage on the 53-man roster.


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