Around the AFC East: Offseason Adjustments

The AFC East has been in a constant state of flux during the last month. Marv Levy is running things for the Bills? -- Again? Eric Mangini still has coaching decisions to make. Nick Saban has surrounded himself with fired coaches who may help him leapfrog past the Patriots in 2006. Get inside to find out what is happening in and around the AFC East division.

Jets :: Dolphins :: Patriots

BUFFALO BILLS

Bills general manager/director of football operations Marv Levy wasn't looking for the coach with the best record, the biggest personality or a reputation for being offensive-minded or defensive-minded when he went hunting for the man to replace Mike Mularkey.

He was looking for the coach who he felt was the best teacher, could work the best with others, and who could shoot straight with players and the media. And one other thing: he had to be a good traffic cop.

With those criteria in mind, Levy, in conjunction with owner Ralph Wilson and input from assistant GM Tom Modrak, made his first big decision as the Bills' top football director by tabbing former Chicago Bears coach Dick Jauron as the club's 14th head coach on Jan. 23.

The other finalists were former Green Bay coach Mike Sherman, Carolina and Houston coach Dom Capers, Bills special teams coach Bobby April, Indianapolis assistant head coach Jim Caldwell and San Diego Chargers wide receivers coach James Lofton.

"Mr. Wilson and I interviewed all six candidates together," Levy said. "We talked about them. We'd see this good point, that good point. Towards the end of the process, both of us were saying, 'Everything we've got here is Dick Jauron.' "

Jauron is regarded as a Levy clone. Ivy League educated, a stickler for details and preparation, a history buff who coached five years in Chicago where Levy was living and broadcasting Bears games on radio.

But while the Ivy League/Windy City connection didn't hurt Jauron's chances of landing a second chance to be an NFL head coach (not counting his four-game stint as interim coach of the Detroit Lions last fall), he and Levy's past relationship was professional, not personal.

What ultimately landed him the Bills' job with a losing career record (36-49) over Sherman (57-39), who had a winning one, was convincing Levy and Wilson he was the best delegator.

Relying on his assistant coaches and not meddling was Levy's strength as Bills coach from 1986-97, when he posted a record of 123-78, winning six division titles and four conference championships.

"Actually, we weren't selecting an offensive coach or a defensive coach or a kicking game coach for that matter. We were selecting the best HEAD coach, the man who would direct it and put it all together," Levy said. "I liked very much how Dick talked about the structure and his role in coaching and it wouldn't be defense, primarily. He said it over and over - offense, defense, special teams, they're all as important - and he won't invest himself in one area. He will have outstanding coordinators in those areas."

Jauron, 55, had probably begun to think he wouldn't get another head coaching shot.

While he caught lightning in a bottle in 2001 with the Bears, who went 8-0 in games decided by a touchdown or less catching break after break to finish 13-3, the years before and after were filled with controversy and plenty of losing (6-10, 5-11, 4-12, 7-9).

Offensively, Jauron's Bears never ranked better than 23rd over his final four seasons and the defense only got as high as 14th.

His coordinators, John Shoop and Greg Blache, were always under fire. His quarterbacks, from Shane Matthews to Cade McNown to Jim Miller to Kordell Stewart, rode a merry-go-round from starter to the bench.

Falling from 13-3 to 4-12 in 2002 despite returning 15 starters is a black mark on Jauron's resume, one he's eager to erase by building a winner in Buffalo.

"There are a lot of reasons and there are a lot of different stories you'd hear from different people and I'm not sure this is the time or place to go into them," said Jauron when asked what happened in Chicago after that 2001 season, refusing to bring up the fact the Bears played their home games on the road while Soldier Field was renovated.

"It was the usual suspects -- it was injury, it was personnel, it was coaching mistakes I may have made. It was all of those reasons. I guess I don't see much upside to me going into all of that at this point."

No, what Bills fans and players are eager to know is how he plans to fix a Bills team that crashed from 9-7 to 5-11 last fall and has huge personnel decisions looming. Buffalo ranked 28th in offense and 29th in defense and failed to determine if former No. 1 pick J.P. Losman is their quarterback of the future. Losman played just eight games and twice lost his starting job to journeyman Kelly Holcomb.

Once he settles on coordinators and studies the personnel he inherits, Jauron said only then can he begin to talk intelligently about schemes and what direction he has planned for the Bills. But he will tailor systems to fit the personnel he winds up with and he will do his part to make certain every phase of the Bills' organization is in sync again.

"In order to win in our business, the whole building has to be on the same page," Jauron said. "As we all know it's difficult to win in this league, it's difficult to win a game. If you want to be a championship team, you have to have it all. You have to have the personnel, you have to have the coaching, you have to have management in place and everybody has to work together. Everybody here is vital to this organization to winning and moving forward. Hopefully we all fit together, and if we don't, it will hurt our chances to win."

As for working with Levy, a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame as a coach, Jauron is embracing the opportunity. Mularkey got cold feet after first agreeing to work within the new power structure in Buffalo, and quit.

"I expect the relationship to work extremely well, it's got to," Jauron said of himself and Levy.

"In terms of knowing each other, it's safe to say we were aware of each other, we met each other on many occasions, but I never had the opportunity that I had in the interview session or since then to spend the time that I've gotten to spend with Marv and it's been terrific."

NOTES

--Long snapper Mike Schneck was added to the AFC Pro Bowl roster.

--The Bills completed their front office restructuring by promoting chief business executive Russ Brandon and salary cap manager Jim Overdorf, handing each new titles and responsibilities.

Brandon, who was vice president/business development and marketing, is now executive vice president/business operations. Since 1997, the 38-year-old boy wonder has managed to significantly upgrade the Bills' sponsorship deals, improving the team's financial bottom line. Unlike the past when he answered to the club's general manager, Brandon will call the shots on the business side. Marv Levy's role is strictly on the football end.

"I have no interest in fixing pot holes in the parking lot," Levy said.

Overdorf, who has been with the Bills in many capacities since 1986, was vice president/business administration and assisted former GM Tom Donahoe in contract talks. As the new vice president/football administration, Overdorf will oversee all business matters relating to the football side with an increased role in contract and salary cap management. He will also serve as the team's liaison on the NFL's management council. Levy will rely heavily on Overdorf's advice as free agency approaches.

"I have a tremendous amount of respect for Jim Overdorf and the job he

has done as a vital member of the Bills organization over the years," Levy said. "I am more able to devote my full attention and energies to helping coordinate all aspects of player personnel matters and look forward to working with Jim in his new role."

--New coach Dick Jauron is known for his ultra-low key personality. Rarely does he crack a smile; at his news conference, he did not smile until posing for a picture with GM Marv Levy and owner Ralph Wilson. Jauron's temperament has become a topic of debate on call-in shows, but Levy said winning coaches come in all forms. "There are different personalities," Levy said. "There's Lombardi and Landry. There's Cowher and Dungy. There's tough Mike Ditka and crying Dick Vermeil. They're all great coaches."

--What did Jauron learn his first go-around as an NFL head coach?

"What I learned is that you better win," he said. "When you win, you're pretty smart. When you don't, you're not."

Indeed. In Chicago, Jauron was criticized for being passive his first two seasons. Then in 2001, when the ball was bouncing the Bears' way every Sunday on way to a 13-win campaign, he was perceived as a calming influence, a "throwback" to Tom Landry and Bud Grant. Jauron did win over some of his early Buffalo critics with a very honest answer about handling criticism, something his predecessor, Mike Mularkey, was not good with.

"Unfair is not a word I would use about opinions," Jauron said. "I think our game, our sport, our society is about opinions and everyone has a right to express them. Most of the time, positive things come out of that; people talk it out. And in our business, it comes out in wins and losses and if you win, it was a great decision and if you don't, it was not. That's it. We know our backs are against the wall to win. So the opinions of people are all part of it. It's part of what makes us who we are."

--Jauron will be reunited with four ex-players from Chicago in Buffalo: guard Chris Villarrial, quarterback Shane Matthews (if he doesn't retire), fullback Daimon Shelton and offensive tackle Mike Gandy.

"I'm really excited, I'm fired up and I've talked to some of my teammates already and they're excited," said Villarrial, who played all five seasons for Jauron in Chicago. "Dick's a guy who treats men like men, he really loves the game, he's always straightforward with you, and you always know where you stand with him. Dick is a low-key guy, but there were times when he raised his voice and guys responded. I think you guys will see and Buffalo fans will see that he's a true football coach and a down-to-earth guy and he's a winner. The faster we get this thing turned around, it's going to be better for us and for him."

NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS

Before kicking off the defense of their back-to-back Super Bowl titles, the Patriots (or more accurately coach Bill Belichick) decided that for team-motto purposes, 2005 would be the "season of truth."

By the time the clock ran out on them in Denver, the Patriots' slogan seemed to have morphed into "rarely on the same page."

They were nearly ruined by bad defense at the start of the season. They finally corrected that problem, only to be undone by a malfunctioning offense and mistake-prone special teams in the playoffs. Ultimately, it was hard to figure out these Patriots, whose spotty start (4-4 at the halfway mark) and rotten ending (five turnovers in a divisional playoff loss to the Broncos) bookended an all-systems-go stretch in which they won seven of nine and played some of the best defense of the Belichick Era.

It added up to a 10-6 finish and a 1-1 mark in the postseason - a far cry from the lofty perch the Patriots had settled into for the 2003 and 2004 campaigns. A third straight Super Bowl crown would have been unprecedented. It turned out to be unattainable because the Patriots took too long to find themselves and then lost their way in the clutch.

Presumably, quarterback Tom Brady could throw another 300 playoff passes and never commit a gaffe like the one he committed in Denver, when Champ Bailey picked him off in the end zone with the Patriots down by four points in the third quarter and threatening to take control of the game.

Troy Brown, should he return for a 14th NFL season, likely won't spill another crucial punt return to the ground, as he did in the fourth quarter against the Broncos.

And the Patriots have to believe that kicker Adam Vinatieri (provided he re-signs with the team or gets slapped with the franchise tag again) won't miss too many more big fourth-quarter field goals, as he did at Invesco Field.

The Patriots have to like their chances should they return to the postseason next year. In fact, with a franchise quarterback in place, a top-notch coach on the sideline, state-of-the-art facilities and an owner who will spend money without prying into football matters, they seem well positioned to remain a viable Super Bowl contender for at least a few more seasons.

However, that doesn't diminish the importance of this off-season.

The Patriots must adjust to their third defensive coordinator in as many years now that Eric Mangini has left to become head coach of the Jets. Linebackers coach Dean Pees has been promoted to succeed Mangini.

They must also do a better job of talent acquisition this spring.

Last year's draft was another good one, netting three starters. First-rounder Logan Mankins was the left guard from Day 1, and left tackle Nick Kaczur and cornerback Ellis Hobbs, both taken in the third round, subbed in during the season and stabilized their respective spots. Targets for this year's draft should include running back (because of Corey Dillon's age and injury woes this season) and receiver, where No. 2 man David Givens is an unrestricted free agent who figures to draw numerous suitors.

The Patriots swung and missed on most of their veteran pickups, however.

There were no Mike Vrabels or Rosevelt Colvins or Ted Washingtons plugged into the defense this time. Cornerback Duane Starks, obtained in a trade with Arizona, was a disaster before being stashed on injured reserve, and free agent linebackers Monty Beisel and Chad Brown were unable to replace Tedy Bruschi (stroke) and Ted Johnson (retirement) inside at the start of the year. On offense, receivers Tim Dwight (free agent) and Andre' Davis (trade with Cleveland) were no more than No. 4 wideouts, and backup quarterback Doug Flutie thankfully wasn't needed.

Had the Patriots not unearthed some valuable street free agents during the season - running back Heath Evans, cornerback Hank Poteat, and safeties Artrell Hawkins and Michael Stone - they would not have gotten as far as they did.

With the Bills and Jets in transition and the Dolphins coming hard but still in search of a franchise quarterback, the Patriots, at least for now, still look like the team to beat in the AFC East in 2006. If their personnel department, headed by Scott Pioli, can regain its magic touch, the Patriots' chances of winning a fourth straight division crown will be bolstered.

 


MIAMI DOLPHINS

In a three-day span, Nick Saban bolstered his already impressive coaching staff with two of the NFL's most respected assistants who hit the market after being fired as head coaches.

The hiring of Mike Mularkey (Buffalo) as offensive coordinator was finalized just three days after Scott Linehan was hired away as St. Louis' new head coach. And the addition of Dom Capers as a special assistant to the head coach gives Miami access to one of the league's sharpest defensive minds, especially when it comes to running the 3-4 scheme that Saban installed last season.

"We were a 3-4 team last year and showed some 4-3 alignments to highlight the personnel we had," Saban said. "I don't see that changing significantly. I'm sure there's going to be a lot of new ideas that will complement that and help us improve in a lot of areas we have identified that we need to improve in during the offseason. That's what quality control is all about."

Saban was hoping to hire a coordinator of Capers' caliber in the 2005 offseason. Saban ultimately used Richard Smith and Will Muschamp as his co-coordinators. Smith is a long-time NFL assistant and Muschamp ran Saban's defense while both were at Louisiana State University. But Smith and Muschamp had never served as coordinators on the NFL level.

With the hiring of Capers, Smith is expected to leave to become co-defensive coordinator of the Houston Texans, according to a Houston Chronicle report. Saban said he was undecided whether Muschamp would retain his play-calling duties, but it's hard not to envision a coach as capable as Capers in that role.

Capers' work as a defensive coordinator in Pittsburgh (1991-94) and Jacksonville (1999-2000) landed him head coaching positions with Carolina and Houston respectively. With a career head coaching record of 49-81, Capers is seemingly better suited for a coordinator's role. But Capers, who led Carolina to the 1996 NFC Championship Game, still has enough respect around the league that he interviewed last week for the Buffalo Bills head coaching position that ultimately went to fellow defensive guru Dick Jauron.

When it comes to Mularkey, the jury is still out on his head coaching prowess. Mularkey was 14-18 in two seasons with Buffalo before resigning earlier this month following a shake-up in the team's front office and coaching staff.

Mularkey is regarded as having one of the NFL's most innovative offensive minds, but the system he will be running in Miami won't be exactly the same as the one he used in Buffalo. Saban said the Dolphins aren't going to change the foundation of the offense that was installed under Linehan in 2005.

"This offense we have is really the Miami Dolphins offense and I don't think anybody should lose sight of that," said Saban, whose unit finished ranked 14th in the NFL during the regular season. "Everybody that sits in the room on our staff has made a contribution to building that offense from the ground up in terms of the language we use. That's not something we want to change for the players.

"If we're not smart enough as coaches to learn the terminology we need to let the players have success, then we're not the kind of teachers we need to be. I'm totally confident that we will be able to do that."

NOTES

Dolphins middle linebacker Zach Thomas and defensive end Jason Taylor were forced to say aloha to their scheduled appearance in the Pro Bowl.

Both players will miss the all-star game February 12 because of injuries.

Thomas is recovering from shoulder surgery that he recently underwent. A six-time Pro Bowl selection, Thomas missed two games and played the final four with a harness after separating his left shoulder in a November loss to Cleveland.

Exactly what injury forced Taylor from playing in his fourth career Pro Bowl is unknown. But Taylor was nagged by foot and shoulder problems for much of the season.

Tennessee defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch and New York Jets linebacker Jonathan Vilma were chosen as the respective replacements for Taylor and Thomas on the AFC's Pro Bowl roster.

--Philadelphia wide receiver Terrell Owens may be able to find a new home in South Florida.

During a Tuesday ESPN radio interview, Dolphins coach Nick Saban left open the possibility of the Dolphins pursuing Owens, whose agent has been allowed to seek a trade.

"You certainly have to look at what the issues are and certainly have to have a relationship with that particular player, which can only be brought about by a lot of conversation and getting to know someone," Saban said. "I don't know this particular player well enough to make that determination right now, but it's something we might be interested in (in) the future."

Despite his status as one of the NFL's top wide receivers, Owens was suspended for Philadelphia's final nine regular-season games for conduct detrimental to the team. Philadelphia is expected to release Owens before the start of the free agent signing period March 3 if a trade can't be finalized.

"T.O. is a very good player, there's no doubt about that," Saban said. "I think there are two things that you want to evaluate - competency of the people in your organization, whether they are players or coaches, and how they would fit with the players you have. The competency and chemistry you can create certainly helps make for a good team. Those are the situations we would consider relative to Terrell Owens.

"I think we're interested in anybody that would make our team better. Guys that have been proven playmakers in this league are all people we would be interested in."

Still, not all Dolphins players are excited about the possibility of the controversial Owens joining the Dolphins.

"I don't need a guy like T.O. in the locker room," tight end Randy McMichael recently said on South Florida sports radio station 790 The Ticket. "I don't need that virus like that. The guy destroyed two locker rooms already and it's only a matter of time before it happens again.

"The guy's a great football player and I'm sure he's a great person, but I just don't want him to mess up everything we built down here."


NEW YORK JETS

Eric Mangini knows what it's like to be the youngest person in the room. He's quite used to it, in fact.

"I think that age has always been a question," said Mangini, who was named the Jets head coach on Jan. 17, two days before his 35th birthday. "I have always been the young guy. I was the young guy on offensive staffs and defensive staffs. The only time I was the old guy was when I was a ball boy."

That was when Mangini was 23 and an intern with the Cleveland Browns under then-coach Bill Belichick, who has been a mentor to him ever since. Mangini's work on Belichick's staff in New England brought him onto the Jets' radar screen, and they hired him after one year as the Patriots' defensive coordinator. Before that, he was a defensive assistant with the Pats.

The Jets are taking a calculated risk here. While Mangini certainly has soaked up knowledge working for arguably the greatest mind currently in the NFL, he spent only year as a coordinator and apparently was not pursued by any other NFL team with a coaching vacancy before he signed what is believed to be a five-year deal with the Jets, for somewhere in the neighborhood of $2 million to $2.5 million per year.

Plus, his age could work against him, although some Jets didn't seem to be worried about that.

"I don't think that should be a problem at all," linebacker Mark Brown said. "If you know football, you know football. It doesn't matter how old you are."

"It doesn't matter if he's 25, 35 or 45," tight end Chris Baker said, "as long as he does a good job and knows what he's doing."

Given his pedigree, Mangini should. His introductory news conference at the Jets' training complex was Belichickian in that he was very short on quips and oratory, obviously a far cry from the previous regime of Herm Edwards. Heck, even Al Groh had a humorous anecdote or two when he was introduced in 2000 for what turned out to be a one-year stay at the helm.

But while Mangini was short on personality, he did provide a glimpse into what he's learned from Belichick. He was reluctant to say what he planned to use as the base defense.

"We're going to play whatever gives us the best chance to win," he said. "So if it's 3-4, 4-3, 2-6, whatever it is, if it's going to help us beat our opponent, that's what we're going to play."

While that statement may seem evasive on the surface, it echoes one of Belichick's basic tenets, which is that a team must game plan differently for each opponent in order to exploit specific weaknesses.

"That's why we need smart players," Mangini said. "That's why we need players that are disciplined."

This is a major shift in philosophy, as the Jets in the past few years have had problems caused by obtaining players that don't quite fit their system, and then either attempting to change the player or tweak the system to fit him. Belichick believes in getting players that fit his systems, even if a prospective acquisition might be less talented than another player on the market who perhaps doesn't fit the New England way quite as well.

Edwards certainly had input in personnel decisions, and it sounds as if Mangini will, too.

"Terry (Bradway) has the final say on the roster composition and on the draft and personnel matters," Mangini said, but he added, "We're working together. This is a collective effort. So I don't anticipate any problems in that area."

NOTES

--Linebacker Jonathan Vilma was added to the AFC Pro Bowl roster with Miami's Zach Thomas pulling out of the game.

--Slowly but surely, Eric Mangini's first staff as a head coach is taking shape.

The defensive coordinator will be linebackers coach Bob Sutton. He now has spanned three Jets head coaches (Al Groh, Herm Edwards, Mangini), but hasn't been a coordinator at the pro level. He served as a defensive coordinator for three college teams, Western Michigan, Illinois and Army before becoming Army's head coach for nine years. His appointment would seem to suggest that Mangini will be hands-on with the defensive calls.

Special teams coordinator Mike Westhoff is staying put, but the offensive coordinator post still is open now that Mike Heimerdinger has been let out of his contract. With Denver offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak becoming the Houston head coach, it makes sense that Heimerdinger will join close friend Mike Shanahan with the Broncos.

Former St. Louis offensive coordinator Steve Fairchild is considered one of the leading candidates for the job, along with former Cleveland coach Chris Palmer, and former New Orleans offensive coordinator Mike Sheppard, who coached with Mangini on the Browns and Ravens in the 1990s.

Tony Wise, a veteran NFL offensive line coach, could get that slot as the Jets seem not to be interested in retaining Doug Marrone. The team already has dismissed wide receivers coach Pep Hamilton, tight ends coach John Zernhelt and defensive coordinator Donnie Henderson, who took the defensive coordinator job with the Lions.

--While Mangini was purposely vague on some things during his news conference, he did make one fact very clear.

"I called every single (defensive) play last year," Mangini said, trying to refute speculation that Belichick, the defensive genius, is still the Svengali pulling all the strings for his coordinators.

"I can promise you I was doing everything I could possibly do to help that team win," Mangini said of the 2005 Patriots, who finished 26th in the NFL in defense, thanks partly to a spate of injuries. "I don't think I could have worked any more hours. We worked together. Bill has a lot of great input and who wouldn't want to hear his input?"

--Mangini had an impact on the 2005 Jets from afar, as he was the one who first discovered Australian punter Ben Graham. Mangini once lived in Melbourne, Australia.

"I worked out Ben Graham in a cow paddock in Australia," he recalled. "He had never kicked a football and I just remembered the look on his face when he was trying to. He just couldn't get what we were doing with it and why he didn't have to run down and tackle anybody. But that was a life-altering experience for me. I was headed down a different path (than football) and I just fell in love with the game. I knew that his is what I was meant to do."

THEY SAID IT: "I think being compared to Bill Belichick is one of the highest compliments you can be paid. I am not Bill Belichick and I am not Bill Parcells. I am Eric Mangini. I am going to approach it my way. I am going to take the experiences and all the lessons that I learned from those guys and I am going to apply that to my team." - Jets coach Eric Mangini.


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