With four of the seven NFL head-coaching vacancies filled, the Bears' waiting game has proven to be a wise course of action so far. Only one (Jim Mora, Jr.) of the already-filled or about-to-be-filled jobs will go to coaches the Bears had interviewed or were considering.
So general manager Jerry Angelo still has a shot at all of his candidates.
Angelo interviewed the Patriots' Romeo Crennel and the Rams' Lovie Smith last week, the 49ers Mora Jr. on Monday and is scheduled to meet with the Ravens' Mike Nolan on Thursday. All four are defensive coordinators, despite the fact that Angelo appeared to be leaning toward an offensive-minded successor to Dick Jauron.
However, an NFL source, intimately familiar with the Bears' situation, believes that Louisiana State coach Nick Saban is still Angelo's first choice to replace fired head coach Dick Jauron.
"I don't know if Nick will leave," the source said, "but I think he's the guy they want."
Although Saban hinted in the weeks leading up to Sunday night's national championship game victory over Oklahoma that he was not interested in leaving Baton Rouge, there remains speculation that he was just saying the right thing to avoid distractions to his team. Saban's wife has also been quoted as saying her husband won't leave Louisiana State because he has worked so hard recruiting top talent the past couple years and wants to reap the rewards.
Louisiana State is widely regarded as having recruited the best talent in the country over the past two years.
Also, by virtue of winning the BCS version of the national championship, Saban's contract stipulates that he automatically becomes the highest paid college football coach in America. That means he'll get at least $1 more than Oklahoma's Bob Stoops' $2.3 million, so he won't come cheaply to any NFL team, even the Bears. Published reports speculate that Louisiana State and Saban are working out the details of a long-term extension that would pay the coach at least $2.5 million annually for seven years.
But Saban and Bears general manager Jerry Angelo are close friends, and if they haven't already discussed the Bears' head-coaching position, they will soon. The fact that Saban apparently rebuffed overtures from the Giants before they hired Tom Coughlin, doesn't necessarily mean that he won't be receptive to an offer from Angelo.
On the day Angelo fired Jauron, he was asked about Saban and his apparent reluctance to pursue an NFL job. Angelo almost appeared to rule Saban out — almost, but not quite, just like Saban has almost, but not quite, ruled out the NFL.
"If he said that then he's out of the picture," Angelo said when asked about Saban's desire to stay in Baton Rouge. "I don't know anything I'm going to do to unsay what he said. So once again, that will all run its course."
It's still possible, though, that that course could run through Chicago.
NOTES, QUOTES, ANECDOTES
"When I was named CEO about five years ago," Phillips said, "one of my goals — and I believe it is the goal of every successful team who can sustain success over a period of time — was to have a front office that has continuity and is stable."
With Phillips and Angelo in place for the next five years, Phillips said the Bears have achieved that. Phillips is on board with Angelo's philosophy on building and running a team, and it appears they have developed a better working relationship than Angelo and Jauron had. That philosophy centers on building a team primarily through the draft and locking in young players before they hit the free-agent market.
Angelo has hinted strongly that whoever the next Bears head coach is, he will have to but into that philosophy and have the ability to work well and teach young players who will make up the majority of the team's core players.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "History would tell you that the Super Bowl winners usually would have offensive backgrounds (six of the last seven, by the way). But that's not to say that I'm not going to put that as No. 1 on the list. It's certainly important." — Bears G.M. Jerry Angelo, who has interviewed three candidates, Romeo Crennel, Lovie Smith and Jim Mora Jr., all of whom are NFL defensive coordinators, and is scheduled to talk with a fourth candidate on Thursday, Baltimore Ravens defensive coordinator Mike Nolan.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
The Bears' roster is bloated with offensive linemen who can play guard and/or right tackle but devoid of true, NFL-caliber left tackles.
Mike Gandy, a lifetime guard, going all the way back to high school, has spent most of the past two seasons at left tackle, a position which he was noticeably deficient during the past season. Marc Colombo, who suffered a dislocated left kneecap on Nov. 18, 2002, and hasn't played since, is better suited to right tackle. He started five games on the left side as a rookie before his injury, but considering the lengthy rehab and the absence of any assurances that he'll come back at 100 percent, he would be a huge gamble as the blind-side protector for presumed-franchise quarterback Rex Grossman.
Steve Edwards started all season at left guard, but he was always a right tackle before injuries to other players forced him to switch. Terrence Metcalf played left tackle for two of his four years as a starter at Mississippi, but he is no more an NFL left tackle than Gandy. Massive Aaron Gibson started all season at right tackle as a stopgap solution, and he could also move inside, but forget about Gibson handling speed rushers at left tackle.
All that being said, the Bears need a major upgrade at left tackle through free agency, trade or the draft.
COACHING CAROUSEL: Fired head coach Dick Jauron has interviewed with the Bills for their top job but is not considered a serious candidate.
Jauron is a leading contender to join Tom Coughlin's New York Giants staff as defensive coordinator, the same role he filled under Coughlin with the Jaguars from 1995-98 before getting the Bears' job.
Jauron would also be considered for the same job in Seattle under Mike Holmgren, his former boss in Green Bay, but only if Ray Rhodes leaves for a head-coaching position, which is doubtful.
FREE-AGENT UPDATE: OG Chris Villarrial (Solid, steady eight-year vet, but the Bears probably won't pay what he's worth because of an abundance of young players with potential).
FEELING A DRAFT: The Bears draft 14th and they should be looking for an offensive left tackle, which they have lacked for several years. That would be the first step in solidifying a unit that has been in makeshift mode more often than not the past couple years. A defensive tackle might be another consideration because none of the ones they have are dominant players by any means.
MEDICAL WATCH: QB Rex Grossman may be able to avoid surgery on the torn tendon on his right middle finger. Grossman will meet again with team doctors this week before determining a course of action.
The makeover of the Lions is underway and, although it has started rather quietly, it could be a doozy by the time coach Steve Mariucci and president Matt Millen are done.
For one, the coaching staff will have a new look. That much already has been assured with the dismissal of three assistants Mariucci inherited when he took over the top job a year ago.
The firing of wide receivers coach Bobby Williams and defensive line coach George Dyer, along with the team's decision not to re-sign offensive line coach Carl Mauck, guarantees a new look on the sidelines.
Privately, the Lions admit that Williams, the former Michigan State head coach, was put in a bad spot when he was asked to coach the receivers, a position he had coached only briefly as a college assistant many years ago.
Williams had been hired originally by former Lions head coach Marty Mornhinweg to coach the Lions running backs. But Mariucci brought his own running backs coach — Tom Rathman — and Williams was asked to coach receivers.
Williams' presence might have been reassuring to first-round draft pick Charles Rogers from Michigan State, but the Lions' overall receiving corps was thin on talent and there was little he did — in the way of coaching techniques — to make it any better.
Dyer was another Mornhinweg hire just a year ago. Although defensive tackles Dan Wilkinson and Shaun Rogers played relatively well, the Lions' pass rush from their defensive ends was virtually non-existent. They got only 24 sacks as a group and only 12 of them from their defensive ends.
The offensive line did not get a lot of criticism during the season because quarterback Joey Harrington was sacked only eight times in 16 games. The low sack total, however, was probably more attributable to Harrington's quick trigger finger than it was to the pass protection he got, and the Lions were not a good run-blocking team.
Mariucci has not yet hired replacements for Williams, Dyer or Mauck and there is speculation there might yet be more firings before he gets to the hiring phase.
The player personnel phase of the makeover could be even more widespread than the turnover in coaches.
Mariucci exercised great patience in his first season with the Lions but he clearly did not see nearly enough things he liked — most notably speed, athletic ability and the ability to make big plays.
The West Coast offense clearly does not operate at any kind of effective level without those three ingredients. And the lack of those ingredients is the biggest reason the Lions finished with the 32d-ranked offense and the sixth-lowest point production in the NFL.
Mariucci is now fully aware of his team's needs. If he hopes to improve on last season's 5-11 record, he'll have to fill more than just a few of them somehow in the next seven months.
NOTES, QUOTES, ANECDOTES
Team president Matt Millen and coach Steve Mariucci apparently have to decide whether to make a long-term commitment to current coordinator Kurt Schottenheimer, who has one year left on his contract, or to go in another direction entirely.
Millen and Mariucci were not entirely unhappy with Schottenheimer's job, although the Lions finished 24th overall in total defense. In victories against Green Bay and St. Louis in the final five weeks of the season, the Lions defense held Ahman Green to 57 yards on 13 carries and held Marshall Faulk to 35 yards on 12 carries.
Their decision might rest in part on whether former Chicago Bears coach Dick Jauron will consider a coordinator position or decides to wait on a head coaching position.
"We talked to him, we'd like to have him back," Millen said. "It's just a matter of juggling, getting the numbers right."
Porcher, 34, said before the Lions' final game of 2003 he would wait to make a decision on continuing his career until after meeting with Millen and coach Steve Mariucci.
It appears likely — because the Lions want him back and apparently feel he can be productive for at least another season — that Porcher will be back for 2004.
Under terms of the two-year contract he signed with the Lions last season, it is believed Porcher has a $500,000 roster bonus due in March as well as a $3 million base salary.
Although Porcher is the Lions career quarterback sack leader with 95 1/2 and has been selected to three Pro Bowls, his production has fallen the past two seasons. Since his 11-sack season in 2001, he had 5 1/2 sacks in 2002 and 4 1/2 sacks in 2003.
"When I talked to him last year, he wanted to talk about X's and O's and schemes," Millen said. "That part didn't surprise me.
"The part surprised me was how it got it by his wife," he said, laughing.
Millen, who played under Gibbs with the 1991 Redskins, said he doesn't believe Gibbs will have a problem getting back into the game.
"All he has to do is look in Dallas with Parcells and Carolina with Henning," Millen said. "They're doing the same things. There's a little difference but they're going to run the football, they're going to control the line of scrimmage, they're going to run play-action and play solid defense. That's his game plan.
"In Washington, I personally think it's a great move, a great hire. I think the world of Joe Gibbs; he's the best coach I've been around. Just watching him, he'll be good for the young quarterback, he has the makings of a good line down there and they'll be fundamentally sound.
"They will pass protect, they will adjust. They'll do all the things Joe Gibbs is great at. He has speed outside with Laveranues Coles, he's going to do some things."
QUOTE TO NOTE: "I think the world of him, I'm a huge Joe Gibbs fan. As long as he comes up to Detroit and falls on his face, I'll be happy." — Lions president Matt Millen on Gibbs, who will coach the Redskins in a game against the Lions next season at Ford Field.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
Coach Steve Mariucci and Lions president Matt Millen have begun their off-season talent search. The first stop was the East-West Shrine game practices and — like the rest of the NFL coaches and personnel managers — will continue through the Senior Bowl and the scouting combine.
Millen feels he has a foundation in place but will be looking to get younger and faster again this year, now that Mariucci has had a full season to determine the holes the Lions need to fill to improve on their 5-11 record.
Free agency will be especially important. It's likely Millen will try to fill at least two or three crucial needs by signing unrestricted free agents in early March — at least one starting caliber cornerback and one or two starting caliber guards.
After that it will be a question of determining what the Lions can get out of the draft with an emphasis on a safety, a tight end and a running back.
COACHING CAROUSEL: Three down and it is possible more Lions assistants will follow as Mariucci puts together a staff of his own.
The Lions fired wide receivers coach Bobby Williams and defensive line coach George Dyer, and decided not to renew the contract of offensive line coach Carl Mauck.
There has been speculation that Lions former tight end Charlie Sanders will leave the personnel department to coach the receivers but Mariucci apparently has other candidates in mind also.
Pat Morris, the offensive line coach for Mariucci at San Francisco, is believed to be in line for the same job with the Lions.
There also has been speculation that defensive coordinator Kurt Schottenheimer might be relieved of his duties, but Lions sources say that decision has not yet been made.
FREE AGENT UPDATE: The free agent market has a number of quality cornerbacks coming out but some of them — including Champ Bailey of Washington — might find themselves carrying the franchise tag, which limits their availability. The Lions are hoping to find at least one potential starter among the UFAs.
The Lions also will be watching to see what the Tampa Bay Buccaneers do with WR Keyshawn Johnson, who was inactivated for the final portion of the 2003 season. They like his toughness as a blocker and his willingness to work over the middle.
UNRESTRICTED FREE AGENTS: LG Eric Beverly (A dependable player who is probably better suited to a backup role than starting); OG Ray Brown (After 18 years it's finally over); RB Shawn Bryson (Not a lead RB but has quality as a backup and catches the ball well, Lions want him back); CB Doug Evans (Signed when the Lions CBs were all hurt and gave them some good playing time, probably won't be re-signed, however); OLB Jeff Gooch (A good nickel LB and special teams player, might get more money elsewhere); OLB Barrett Green (Has enough speed to make him valuable but sometimes over-thinks situations and assignments); DE James Hall (Was the steadiest of the Lions DEs in 2003 and will be retained as a starter); WR Shawn Jefferson (Almost 35 years old, coming off a torn meniscus, a great guy and good player but probably won't be re-signed); P John Jett (Very steady punter whose torn calf muscle ended his season prematurely); DT Kelvin Pritchett (Good player in the d-line rotation and good in the locker room); CB Otis Smith (Played surprisingly well after being signed late in camp but he'll be 39 years old before the 2004 season starts, probably won't be re-signed); RB Paul Smith (Signed late in the season and impressed with his toughness on special teams and ability as a backup RB, the Lions want him back); S Bracy Walker (Good special teams player and backup at SS, Lions would like to re-sign him).
RESTRICTED FREE AGENTS: WR Scotty Anderson (Averaged 19.1 yards on 17 catches before an ankle injury ended his season but Lions still question his toughness); S Julius Curry (Spent most of the season on the practice squad, will probably be re-signed); P Nick Harris (Was not consistent as the replacement for injured John Jett but might go to camp in 2004); QB Mike McMahon (Completed only 29 percent of his passes in limited playing time in 2003 but he'll be tendered because the Lions like his athleticism); WR Reggie Swinton (Filled in adequately on returns when Eddie Drummond was hurt and has speed, which makes him a keeper); FB Stephen Trejo (Almost exclusively a special teams player, is expendable).
FEELING A DRAFT: The Lions have so many needs they could go in just about any direction, depending on who and what is available at No. 6 in the first round.
All things being equal, it would not be surprising if Mariucci looks for another high-impact big-playmaker to go with the Lions' first-round picks of the past two years — QB Joey Harrington in 2002 and WR Charles Rogers in 2003.
They could use help at RB, WR, TE and OG on the offensive side; defensively they need a pass rusher, a CB and S.
MEDICAL WATCH: Tackles Jeff Backus and Matt Joyce both have undergone elbow surgery since the end of the season and are expected to be ready for offseason workouts on schedule. Center Dominic Raiola underwent a surgical procedure to correct an irregular heartbeat and defensive end Kalimba Edwards has undergone his second surgery for a sports hernia in less than a year.
GREEN BAY PACKERS
Can the Eagles stop the run?
That's essentially what the NFC divisional playoff game between the Packers and Eagles could boil down to Sunday in Philly.
Ahman Green was the first running back to expose the soft underbelly of the Eagles' once-vaunted defense but it did no good.
The Packers fumbled six times and lost to the Eagles, 17-14, when the two teams met November 10 at Lambeau Field.
"It's going to be a real challenge for them to stop the run," said an assistant coach for the San Francisco 49ers, who went to Philadelphia on Dec. 21 and won in overtime, 31-28. "I really feel if Green Bay's going to win the game that's where they're going to win it."
When the Eagles went to Green Bay their defense ranked ninth in rushing yards allowed (97.1) and was fifth in yards allowed per carry (3.48). Then Green became the first of six running backs to surpass 100 yards against the Eagles in the second half of the season with a then club-record 192 yards in 29 carries.
The New York Giants' Tiki Barber (19-111), New Orleans' Deuce McAllister (19-184), Carolina's Stephen Davis (23-115), Miami's Ricky Williams (18-107) and San Francisco's Kevan Barlow (30-154) also gashed the Eagles in the last two months.
In their final eight games the Eagles yielded 162.1 yards rushing and 5.47 yards per rush. Thus, they finished the season ranked 22nd against the run (129.4) and 23rd in yards allowed per rush (4.49).
"The hardest decision Mike Sherman will make in running the Power-O will be who he wants to go at," an executive in personnel for a recent Eagles' opponent said. "Do we want to run right or left?"
Every defense has a couple key players whose forte is stopping the run. In the Eagles' case those players were nose tackle Hollis Thomas and strong-side linebacker Carlos Emmons.
Thomas, the team's No. 3 defensive tackle, went on injured reserve (biceps tear) after the seventh game. Emmons, voted by his teammates as most valuable player on defense, suffered a broken leg in the 49er game and also went on injured reserve.
The Eagles haven't been able to replace Thomas or run-stopping defensive tackle Paul Grasmanis, who was lost in Week 2 with a blown Achilles' tendon. Emmons, who had an exceptional game against the Packers at the point of attack, was replaced by dime linebacker Ike Reese, who at 222 is 28 pounds lighter than Emmons.
Philadelphia was undersized at linebacker to begin with. Neither Nate Wayne on the weak side nor Mark Simoneau in the middle is equipped to take on blocks.
"That's the weakest part of their football team," the scout said. "The problem with their run defense isn't their front. It's their linebackers. You can run right at those guys and win."
The Eagles' answer to stopping the run is to blitz, but when the gap responsibility wasn't disciplined some long runs were the result.
Two assistants and one scout for recent Eagles' foes all like the Packers' chances despite their status as a 5 1/2-point underdog.
"I just don't think that if Green Bay stays the course that Philadelphia can hold up to the run game that Green Bay will present them with," the scout said. "With the way that Brett (Favre) is playing right now, you put play-action in there and let him do his veteran savvy thing and adjust to the right play, I just think Green Bay has a great shot."
The Eagles haven't wowed many opponents this season.
"Philly's a hell of a team," center Mike Flanagan said. "Are we good enough to win the game? Yes. Does that mean we will? I think we're a pretty good team home and away. It's going to be whoever is playing harder."
The Eagles beat the Packers without Brian Dawkins, regarded by some as the game's premier safety, and cornerback Bobby Taylor, both of whom were out with foot injuries. They've been back since Week 12 and are playing well.
"We owe those guys," wide receiver Donald Driver said. "It's a payback."
Donovan McNabb bounced back from a poor start and was selected to his first Pro Bowl. His receiving corps is intact and his offensive line will be missing just one of its preferred starters (right guard Jermane Mayberry)
"He's a (Daunte) Culpepper type, a guy that will make you be concerned with his ability to make plays on his feet," defensive end Aaron Kampman said. "I look at that as his biggest asset.
"We seem to do well in big road games with 70,000 against us. "Our team relishes that a little bit. We like playing with a chip on our shoulder."
SERIES HISTORY: Just the second postseason game between the two teams. The one other was the NFL Championship Game in 1960, won by the Eagles, 17-13, at Franklin Field. Green Bay leads the regular-season series, 23-9.
NOTES, QUOTES, ANECDOTES
"I love it here," Smith said. "I'd love to be back."
Smith, 29, has averaged 26 snaps in 11 games since arriving as a free agent Oct. 9. He has 12 tackles and 1 1/2 sacks playing primarily at tackle in the No. 1 dime defense but also as a backup at three positions in the base defense.
"Certainly, he's been a good addition for us," coach Mike Sherman said. "It's something we'll talk about at the end of the season.
"He's done everything we've asked. Very compliant. Appears to be well-liked."
Smith's one-year, $530,000 contract expires March 2 when he will become an unrestricted free agent. Jackson also would have become unrestricted but signed a two-year, $2.31 million deal 10 days ago.
"I feel like I've played well here," Smith said. "I feel like this is the best I've ever played. But I still feel like there's things I need to do to show some people before I can even get the big contract. Until then, I'll take whatever."
Jacksonville came to regret using a high second-round selection to draft Smith out of Florida State in 1999. In four seasons he started just seven of 51 games, constantly battling injuries and being in and out of coach Tom Coughlin's doghouse for problems on and off the field.
"I'd say I've been a better person all around the board," Smith said. "Just a better player. Just a better man. Just everything.
"You have no choice but to work hard in Green Bay. The type of defense we run here is another edge that's giving me the want to play. All the guys here, they hang together. There's no individualism or nothing."
"And I love having Frank," Sherman said. "We just haven't talked about it."
"Can I do better? Probably," Gbaja-Biamila said. "But I'm content in what I did. I wasn't always in the best condition physically but I found a way to make it happen."
Gbaja-Biamila led the defensive linemen in the regular season by playing 86% of the snaps, or 57.4 per game. Last year, he played 78.9% of the snaps (52.1 per game) after becoming a starter in Week 6.
"That he got double-digit sacks for the third year in a row is significant," Sherman said. "I know he has had some frustrations over the course of the year. I thought he had a good year."
"KGB" registered five of his 10 sacks on up-field moves against left tackles and another against a guard fanning back. Three others could be labeled as "garbage" sacks. He was unblocked on another.
"I mean, that's something I wanted," Jackson said. "It gives you momentum to push yourself even more. I've got to do that. I've never been higher than 350 since I've been here. I'm losing weight every week. That's my goal."
Jackson is eager to spend a full season in Green Bay.
"I feel like next year my game will be even better," he said. "Right now I'm feeling my way trying to get everything right. Next year I've got bigger goals for myself. I know a lot more than I did in Oakland."
After a second-down incompletion in overtime, the Packers called time out when Seattle coach Mike Holmgren sent out a fifth wide receiver, Taco Wallace.
"We had a zone on at first," safety Darren Sharper said. "Then we called time out and he (defensive coordinator Ed Donatell) said, ‘(Expletive) it. Go all out and go get ‘em.' By doing that it eventually won the game."
This time, Holmgren pulled Wallace off and replaced him with a running back. As the Packers started to crowd the line with seven defenders, Hasselbeck stepped back from center, instructed Alexander to block right and audibled to a three-step drop and hitch routes.
"That check Hasselbeck made, Al remembered him doing that earlier," Jue said.
The Packers came with seven against six blockers while covering the four wide receivers man-to-man. Harris and Jue were stationed on the left, Michael Hawthorne and Mike McKenzie on the right.
Playing off at about 10 yards, the cornerbacks held their ground as they had been coached and waited for Hasselbeck's quick throw. His pass was released in 1.31 seconds to Alex Bannister on the far left just before the unblocked man, Marques Anderson, leaped into the throwing lane.
Bannister stopped nine yards downfield and looked back for the ball. Harris planted his right foot, drove forward and knifed in front for the interception. Prematurely raising his left hand in a No. 1 salute just nine yards downfield, Harris outsprinted Bannister and Hasselbeck to the end zone.
"I would have had an interception, too," Jue said. "To tell you the truth, I think all across the board it would have been intercepted."
It had been Brian Westbrook, without question. Now it's got to be Donovan McNabb.
Ah, Veterans Stadium. A 1970s style cookie-cutter complex where Santa Claus was booed, injured players (Michael Irvin, for one) were jeered, the rock-hard artificial turf had seams sticking out all over and players had been known to shoo away the rats in their dilapidated weight room.
The Linc, which opened across the street from "The Vet" in September, has state-of-the-art this and state-of-the-art that, but personnel from three teams that played there this season said it was nothing to warrant undue concern. Maybe that's why the Eagles went just 5-3 at home.
"It wasn't real noisy," one assistant coach said. "It's big. It's open. I didn't think it was particularly an ominous place."
But just because the new stadium doesn't reek with the smell of beer and urine like the old one doesn't mean the fans are any more well-behaved.
"When we pulled in to that new stadium we must have seen 2,000 people giving us the finger," a scout for another team said. "There's just a harshness about those fans. Nobody's like Philadelphia fans."
BY THE NUMBERS: 339 — Consecutive plays in which the Packers have run without losing a fumble.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "Teams want to try to let Brett beat them now. Why would you want to let a Hall of Famer beat you?" — RB Tony Fisher.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
The Packers are using all three of their tight ends.
Bubba Franks starts and plays on first down and some second downs.
When the Packers intend to pass, Wesley Walls often times will replace Franks.
David Martin is used almost like an H-Back. He is the best lead blocker of the three and works a lot from motion.