Archive for December, 2010

21
Dec
10

2010 Atlanta Falcons: Not Your Father’s Dirty Birds

The most overlooked team in the NFL this season has to be the currently 12-2 Atlanta Falcons.  In the NFC, everyone’s focus seems to be on former Falcon Michael Vick and the Philadelphia Eagles.  Without a doubt, the Eagles are a good team and Vick is a strong candidate for league MVP.  The struggles of the Dallas Cowboys and the Washington Redskins are getting more press than the leaders of the NFC South division.  And that’s just the way the Falcons want it.

The 2010 Falcons are not a fluke.  Since 2003, this was was a team whose identity and fortunes rested on the shoulders of one player, Michael Vick.  He was a quarterback like no one had every seen before.  His legs helped him excel in the position more than his arm did.  However, it was his extreme error in judgment off the field that would ultimately change the entire Falcons make-up and propel them to being a current Superbowl favorite.  During the 2007, Vick was convicted of running a dog fighting ring.  Their head coach, Bobby Petrino, a college coaching demigod, abruptly quit after only one season.  Falcons owner, Arthur Blank, decided a wholesale change was needed.  He was left with no choice but to release Vick.  The entire episode may have been a public relations nightmare for the Atlanta organization which has struggled for credibility for almost it’s entire existence, but it was Blank’s next decision that would truly set the wheels in motion for their current success.

Blank looked to the league’s most successful franchise and hired the New England Patriots Head of College Scouting, Thomas Dimitroff, to be his next General Manager.  Who?  Exactly!  Dimitroff was charged with cleaning house.  He applied his skill at evaluating player talent and selected Mike Smith to be the team’s next head coach.  Smith, the defensive coordinator for the Jacksonville Jaguars, had not been at the top of very many team’s coaching prospects list, but Dimitroff recognized that the Jags had had a very strong defense since Smith was in charge on that side of the ball.  From his time in New England, Dimitroff also knew that ultimately, defense wins championships.  However, with the exception of the ’85 Bears and the ’00 Ravens, it takes more than defense.

Dimitroff and Smith went into their first draft knowing they needed to find someone to handle the ball under center.  The 2008 NFL was utterly devoid of any recognizable quarterback talent.  With the third pick overall, they selected Matt Ryan out of Boston College.  Who?  Exactly!  Ryan was the first QB picked and only one of two quarterbacks picked in the entire first round (Joe Flacco picked #13 by the Baltimore Ravens).  Ryan had an average career at BC, not known as a college quarterback factory, but he did throw for over 4500 yards with 31 TD’s and 19 picks in his senior year.  Dimitroff and Smith had one more move to make.  Their first crack at free agency, they took a gamble on the seldom used back-up to NFL MVP LaDainian Thomlinson, Michael Turner.  Now all they needed was a little time for the chemistry to develop.

It didn’t take very long.  The on-field triumvirate of Smith, Ryan and Turner meshed immediately and the Falcons finished the 2008 season with an 11-5 record and their first playoff appearance in four years.  The playoff party ended early when they lost a heart-breaker in the first round to the eventual NFC Champion Arizona Cardinals.  Dimitroff was named by Sporting News as the NFL Executive of the Year.  First year head coach Mike Smith won NFL Coach of the Year while Matt Ryan won Offensive Rookie of the Year honors.  Michael Turner proved he was a sleeping giant while in San Diego as he rushed for one yard shy of 1700 in his first chance as a team’s starting running back.  2009 was a bit of a set-back year for the Falcons.  Ryan struggled a bit with the sophomore jinx.  Turner missed 5 games due to a sprained knee.  The entire team had to deal with the 2009 team of destiny, the New Orleans Saints.  The Georgia birds finished with a respectable 9-7 record.  The year wasn’t a total loss.  Dimitroff took another gamble.  This time, pulling the trigger on a trade that got them aging future Hall of Fame tight end Anthony Gonzales.

This year, everyone is healthy.  After an opening day road loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers, the Falcons go 12-1 and after 15 weeks, the team sits atop the NFC Conference and is poised to secure home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.  Matt Ryan has thrown for over 3300 yards and a mind-numbing 25 TD’s with only 9 picks.  Turner has rushed for 1256 yards and is sporting impressive 4.2 yrds/att.  Gonzales has shown that he still has some gas in the tank.  You would think that with a 12-2 record, the Falcons would be in the upper echelon of league offensive and defensive team stats.  However, Atlanta sits at 12th on overall team offense and 15th in overall team defense.  This tells me two things.  They’re a balanced team.  The other thing this tell me is that they haven’t played very many good teams.  Their 12 wins have come against teams with a combined record of 67-87.  They have a huge game at home against the Saints and a home final against the lowly Panthers.  I think the Falcons will finish with a 14-2 record, tying their franchise best, and a first round bye in the playoffs.  I believe Atlanta is the favorite to go to their second Superbowl appearance with only their old friend Michael Vick and the Philadelphia Eagles standing in their way.  If Coach Smith can tighten up his defense and Ryan and Turner can continue to play at a Pro Bowl caliber level, the birds should be flying high.

15
Dec
10

Cliff Lee: The Real Story?

Most of you know I’m not a big baseball fan, but I’m a sports fan, and when the story broke that the most sought after free agent signed with the Philadelphia Phillies, most experts and fans were surprised.  It seemed to be a two-way race between the Evil Empire (Yankees) and Lee’s incumbent team, the Texas Rangers.  Suddenly, the Yankees announced they were out of the running and the winning team was a foregone conclusion.  But then, it wasn’t.  This isn’t the case of Lee strictly wanting to return to a team he once played for.

On Monday, when the news broke, I happened to be listening to Colin Cowherd on the radio and a caller from the Philadelphia area mentioned the fact that Lee has a son who is in cancer remission.  As a father myself, this breaks my heart!  The caller also mentioned that Philadelphia has one of the best pediatric cancer centers in the country.  Granted, Lee is familiar with the city and the team.  He becomes part of an all-star starting rotation, and he scored a boat-load of money.  Perhaps, Lee had a more important priority in selecting his next place of employment.

13
Dec
10

Coaching Hot Seat

As the 2010 NFL season winds down, I want to take a look at which NFL coaches may be looking for a new job when the season ends.  Right now, we have 3 “interim” Head Coaches getting an early audition for a 2011 job; Eric Studesville in Denver, Jason Garrett in Dallas and Leslie Frazier in Minnesota.  It seems like 3 in-season firings is above average, but I think you can count on at least 4 more being asked to turn in their whistles and play sheets.

There will be a race to see who’s the first one out the door when the season ends.  John Fox, in Carolina, already has one foot out the door.  He’s a lame-duck coach, a rarity on it’s own, and will probably finish with a 1-15 record for this season.  It’s clear a change needs to be made, but not all the blame for the Panther’s current state of affairs should fall on Fox’s shoulders.  The quality of the roster has been on a steady decline and putting all your eggs in the Jake Delhomme basket set the team back for at least 3 years.  I’m not sure if you’ll see Fox jump into another coaching job right away.  I think he takes a year off and maybe take a studio job.  The Panthers need to clean out the litter box and start fresh.

Following Fox out the door will be Marvin Lewis, another lame-duck coach.  After finally guiding his team to a division title and a playoff birth last season, his team pulled a Minnesota Metrodome and collapsed under the weight of it’s own ego.  Frankly, I’m surprised he lasted this long.  Dysfunction has been this team’s M.O. under his tutelage.  The acquisition of Terrell Owens was supposed to push this team over the top.  Instead, we found out that a healthy Carson Palmer can’t lead his team with the weapons at his disposal and Lewis can’t coach his way out of a paper bag.  I can’t believe I’m going to write this, but the Bengal fans deserve better.  A new head coach and maybe some guy named Cam Newton will be the tonic this team needs to finally be a consistent contender.

When an owner says publicly that EVERY aspect of the organization will be examined at the end of the season, that pretty much is the kiss of death for the guy wearing the head coach’s hat (pssst!  2 owners have said the recently!).  The freak show in Tennessee known as Vince Young will cost Jeff Fisher his job at the end of the season. Yes, the longest tenured coach in the NFL will be looking for a new job, but there is no one who thinks he’ll be looking for very long.  Fisher is a well-liked and well-respected coach.  He has had a good record in Houston/Tennessee, but no Superbowls and only one appearance in the big game.  This is strictly an instance where a change will be good for everyone involved.  Fisher will have his pick of job openings and like Tony Dungy when he was let go in Tampa, Fisher will want a good opportunity for quick success.  I wouldn’t be surprised to see him on the Denver sideline when the 2011 season begins.

Speaking of Denver, Studesville is just a place-holder.  Broncos owner, Pat Bowlen panicked when he realized he made a mistake hiring a very young and inexperienced Josh McDaniels.  Bowlen has big expectations for his team and an ego to match.  He’s Ofer 2 on recent coaching decisions (firing Shanahan and hiring McDaniels) and does NOT want to strike out with the next move.  Bowlen will be looking for a big name and (see above) there may be a one available.

Guess what?  Jason Garrett will NOT be the head coach of the Dallas Cowboys after this season.  Jerry Jones recently made the comment the he wants to take his time in deciding who his next coach will be.  Sorry Jason.  Let me see if I can read between the lines here.  Jerry plans on throwing a boat-load of money at Bill Cowher until he can convince him to come to Dallas.  Cowher was wooed by a number of teams prior to the 2010 season, including the Buffalo Bills.  Rumors were rampant that Bill was interested in coming out of retirement, but only for the right opportunity.  Everyone thought the right opportunity was going to be in Dallas (I wasn’t the only person who thought Wade Phillips wouldn’t last as Cowboys head coach) so Cowher stayed off the sidelines and in front of the camera.  My guess is that there have been little birds chirping in Jerry Jones’ ear telling him Cowher may be interested.

I think of the three current “interim” head coaches, Leslie Frazier will be the only one to stick with his team.  Frazier has been a head coaching bridesmaid for a few years now.  He finally got his chance to sit in the big chair.  He’s familiar with the organization and the players like him.  The Vikings have greatly under-achieved this year mainly due to injuries but they’re a good team with lots of talent.  Vikings owner, Zygi Wilf, does not want, or need, to rock the boat too much, especially with Favre FINALLY going permanently into retirement!

The surprise coaching move, or maybe not such a surprise, will be the firing of Gary Kubiak in Houston.  Yes, he signed an extension that takes him through the 2012 season, but he got that for the slight glimmer of hope his team showed last season, and despite the team’s early season success this year, the Texans collapse will lead to Kubiak being shown the door.  Look for a jilted Jason Garrett moving down the Texas highway and settling down in Houston.  That team is loaded with talent on both sides of the ball and Garrett’s coaching acumen will suite him well there.

Let the coaching roulette game begin!

13
Dec
10

Bills’ Draft Option

So the Buffalo Bills finished week 13 of their 2010 NFL schedule with their 3rd win of the season.  This rockets the team up to 28th place in the league and if the season ended today, they would be drafting 5th.  Ever since the Bills went Ofer the first half of the season, the locals have been salivating over the chance of maybe drafting Andrew Luck.  With every meaningless win, the dream of getting our next Jim Kelly fades just a little bit more.  But does it have to?

I think the Bills have two viable options here.  If not Luck, how about Cam Newton?  Yes, I know there is baggage there.  Ok.  A lot of baggage.  Does that preclude him from being an outstanding quarterback?  It didn’t prevent him from winning the Heisman Trophy.  To the best of my knowledge, they don’t give that out to just anyone.  Now, I’m not saying he’s better than Luck.  What I’m saying is that he may be a pretty good consolation prize.  Or, perhaps one of those teams drafting ahead of us may think he’s better than Luck.  Let’s take a look at what teams are drafting ahead of the Bills as of today.

The Carolina Panthers are drafting first.  I don’t think that changes anytime before April ’11.  First off, they’ll have a new coach in place by then (that will be the subject of another post).  They drafted Jimmy Clausen last year, but I don’t think he’s really impressed a lot people so far.  The Panthers, like many bad teams drafting high, have a lot of needs on both sides of the ball.  Do they draft the best player available (Luck), their biggest need, or trade out for more pics?  I think with the new coach, they move out for more pics.

The Cincinnati Bengals draft second.  I don’t see them moving from this position.  That team was on the bus weeks ago.  I also see them being a prime candidate of drafting a QB.  The Carson Palmer experiment is over in Cincy.  I think the Marvin Lewis era is also over.  Despite who’s making the calls on draft day, if he’s available at #2, I see them picking up Newton.  He seems to be a better fit.  They have enough offensive weapons that they don’t need a quarterback to “manage” games for them.  They need a slinger to get the ball down field with some accuracy.

Number 3 on the draft board is the Detroit Lions.  At this point, I don’t think Luck or Newton is available and the Lions already have their quarterback of the future, if he can just stay out of the training room.  The Lions need help on the offensive line and a running back.  I’m not sure who the name is, but he won’t have QB after his name.

Now for a surprise at the number 4 spot, the Denver Broncos.  I don’t even know where to begin with this trainwreck.  They certainly don’t need a quarterback.  I think you’ll see Tim Tebow give Kyle Orton a run at the starting position next season.  I think Denver is on board to take one of the prime defensive line studs.  That, and a new coach, should turn that team around real quick.

What should the Bills do?  They have MANY needs.  They need a quarterback.  Or do they?  Fitzpatrick has been playing pretty well since he took over for Trent Edwards.  However, like many Bills followers, I don’t think he’s our future.  The Bills need a star at the QB position and I’m convinced there are 2 available this year.  If the Bills stay put at #5, I’m certain they will not get Luck or Newton.  I don’t think the Bills should mess around this year.  They should be aggressive and creative and trade first round picks with Carolina and select Luck, and if Luck decides to stay at Stanford for another year, grab Newton.  Oh, I’m not done yet!  I believe it’s very possible, by trading and swapping 2011 and 2012 lower round picks, to get 2 first round picks this year.  Crazy you say?  Let’s see, the Bills cobbled double first round picks in 2009 and still managed to get 8 guys that year.  They did it again in 2006 and got 9 players total that draft!  In 2004, the got themselves 2 first round picks, Evans and Lossman.

This is not an impossible task.  All you need is a GM with the balls and brains to get it done!