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Friday, December 16, 2005
Break from coaching might be best for Haslett
By Len Pasquarelli
There's definitely some smoke to the reports this week, the first by ESPN's Chris Mortensen, that New Orleans Saints coach Jim Haslett will consider resigning at the end of this train wreck of a season.
Haslett has been eroded both physically and emotionally by the disruptions which essentially scuttled the season before it even began. And given the uncertainty of the future, both short- and long-term because of Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath, Haslett might be better served in the long run with a change of address.
The problem for Haslett is that he has one more season remaining on his current contract -- no, he never did get the two-year extension owner Tom Benson and general manager Mickey Loomis claimed he would in February, after their annual evaluation of the organization, and he isn't about to sign an add-on at this point -- and the Saints could force him to honor it.
In that case, some close to Haslett contend, he might consider merely sitting out the 2006 season and recharging his batteries.
On the open market, despite not taking the Saints to the playoffs since 2000, Haslett would be a fairly hot commodity, especially if the pundits are correct in their guess-timates about the number of pending coaching vacancies. As for the reports that Haslett asked Benson to fire him, well, those fall into the category of sketchy, because no one knows how serious he was in making the request.
"He's been telling [Benson] that for more than a year, usually when he's frustrated about something, so it's not like it's something new," said a league source with knowledge of the situation. "It's like telling somebody, 'Go drop dead.' Do you really mean it?"
No matter what transpires -- whether he is coaching the Saints or some other NFL team, or takes a hiatus -- Haslett has to regroup after the season. In the best of times, Haslett can appear wan and beaten and somewhat disjointed, and this year he has taken on a zombie-like look. He also has a habit of not focusing at times and of being somewhat rash, and it's important from both a professional and personal standpoint that he regains direction and starts listening to the counsel of those who have his best interests at heart.
Around the league
• We're not buying in yet to the speculation that Dan Reeves, hired this week as a special consultant to Houston owner Bob McNair, will eventually recommend himself as the Texans' next head coach. But if he did, it wouldn't be a bad move, and McNair probably could do worse. Despite the perception that he is much older, Reeves will turn 62 next month, and recent history has demonstrated that people that age can return to the NFL sideline and succeed.
Make no mistake, Reeves can coach, as evidenced by the 201 wins he rung up with the Denver Broncos, New York Giants and Atlanta Falcons. But if Reeves has a blind spot -- and this is where McNair's decision to bring him in as a kind of independent voice might be flawed -- it is in personnel evaluation. Check out Reeves' drafts, especially those with the Falcons, and his problems judging talent might become a little clearer.
That's why Reeves, if he were to return to the sideline, would certainly need a proven personnel guy, like longtime friend Ron Hill, dismissed by the Falcons this summer and seeking to get back into the league. Hill is a terrific, hands-on scout, by and large the architect of the megadeal that brought quarterback Michael Vick to Atlanta, and a guy in whom Reeves has faith. One other thing McNair needs to know: Reeves has always been a guy who believed in placing football decisions in the hands of the coach and his reluctance to distribute and disseminate influence throughout an organization is part of what ended his Falcons tenure.
• It didn't take long this week, after news broke on a local radio station that Time-Warner was putting the Atlanta Braves on the market, for speculation to begin that Falcons owner Arthur Blank might pursue the city's highest-profile franchise. And given that Blank is anything but a shrinking violet and has never met a minicam he couldn't embrace, it didn't take long, either, for Blank to issue a statement acknowledging that he had already been contacted by the New York brokerage firm attempting to arrange a sale, and to concede that he might have some interest.
The NFL's cross-ownership rules would not be a deterrent to Blank pursing the Braves. League owners are permitted to own franchises in the same city or in non-competing NFL markets. The bigger question in Atlanta this week wasn't whether Blank would be a player in the Braves sweepstakes, but rather how manager Bobby Cox might react if his owner showed up in the dugout during the late innings of a tight game. Blank is, of course, a frequent visitor to and towel-waving cheerleader on the Falcons' sideline.
• The maternal grandmother of Brett Favre, 87-year-old Izella French, suffered a stroke this week in Natchez, Miss., and while she is in stable condition, it is the latest family tragedy the Green Bay Packers star has had to deal with in the last two years. In December 2003, his father, Irvin Favre, died of a heart attack. The following year, Favre's brother-in-law, Casey Tynes, died in an ATV accident, and Farve's wife Deanna was diagnosed with breast cancer. And, of course, much of Favre's childhood home and the property surrounding it was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina this summer.
But a few teammates said this week that Favre remains resolute in his preparation for games and suggested he will return for 2006. A source close to the Packers star told ESPN.com this week that any talk of retirement, and there were rampant rumors last weekend that Favre had decided this season would be his last, is nothing more than idle speculation. "Everyone wants to be first with the 'Brett Favre retires' story, but you know what? He hasn't even sat down long enough yet to start weighing all the pros and cons," the source said. Favre has gone two straight games without a touchdown pass for only the third time since his iron man streak of 238 consecutive starts began. The only other such droughts for the Green Bay star came during the 1993 regular season and in the '94 playoffs.
• December is indeed "Money Month" in the NFL, the stretch in which teams vie for playoff cash and players going into a contract year try to create favorable impressions to trot out at the negotiating table. Well, the New York Jets aren't making any kind of stretch run for a playoff berth this season, but defensive end John Abraham certainly is trying hard, it seems, to improve his bargaining position.
The veteran end, who had just one sack in November, has been a terror in December, with three sacks, two forced fumbles (giving him six sack-strips for the season) and a fumble recovery. Abraham sat out all of camp this summer and then signed the one-year qualifying offer, roughly $6.7 million, for a franchise-designated defensive end. He's pushing for a long-term deal (either from the Jets or some other team) in the coming offseason and noted this week that he understands New York may dangle him in trade talks to help upgrade an offense that is badly in need of a dramatic overhaul. Abraham pointed out that by playing in every game this season he has answered the long-standing questions about his durability. It's probably no better than 50-50 that Abraham is back with the Jets in 2006 and the odds that he strikes a big-money, long-term deal are probably better if he is traded.
Abraham's defensive end partner, fellow 2000 first-rounder Shaun Ellis, probably will not play the rest of this year because of a hamstring injury. Ellis, who had 23½ sacks over the past two seasons, notched just 2½ sacks in 2005.
• He may not earn a Pro Bowl berth, but New Orleans defensive end Will Smith is getting plenty of consideration, and is viewed around the league now as a real riser among young front-seven veterans. A first-round choice in the 2004 draft, the former Ohio State star has 51 tackles and 7½ sacks despite starting just six games. He has at least one sack in six of his last eight appearances and has played the run about as well and as any end in the league over that stretch.
With the Saints deciding to shut down Darren Howard for the rest of the season -- in part because of injury and also because the team feels the veteran is not exactly overexerting himself of late -- Smith should start the rest of the way and is a player around whom the New Orleans defense can build for the future.
As for Howard, well, the Saints, in retrospect, probably would have been better served had they traded him this spring, when there were ample suitors. Howard signed the one-year qualifying offer for a franchise end two seasons in a row, and pocketed more than $14 million by doing so, but now he's going to be an unrestricted free agent and New Orleans will get nothing for him. The bet here is that some team signs Howard to a good, but not a blockbuster deal in the offseason, and that they get a guy who will provide them 8-10 sacks in 2006. Howard can still play, and after a disappointing 2005 campaign, he'll be motivated to prove himself again next season.
• There's a lot of credit being spread around for the turnaround of the Minnesota defense over the last two months. Not much of it, though, has gone to the man most deserving: coordinator Ted Cottrell. The decision to bring in retired coordinator Foge Fazio as a consultant, even the move of secondary coach Chuck Knox Jr. from the coaching box to the sideline, have been lauded. But for the most part, the work of Cottrell, a solid veteran coach who has suffered before through tough breaking-in periods with defenses that had a lot of new starters, has been pretty much ignored.
Except by those who watch tape on a regular basis. Thankfully, there are some personnel men and advance scouts who realize that Cottrell has done a nice job of melding new players and of replacing injured starters, and creating a ton of takeaways in recent weeks. Cottrell's name isn't often raised when pundits begin listing head coach candidates. And truth be told, maybe, at age 58, and without some of the flashiness of many of his peers, the chance to be a head coach has passed him by. But Cottrell finished as the runner-up to Dennis Erickson at San Francisco in 2003. And any teams looking to make a change in the offseason might do well to at least grant him an interview.
• If the fumbling problems that Alex Smith has experienced as a rookie are a function of small hands, as some San Francisco coaches and officials have hinted, then Mike Nolan might have to get a better grip on his scouting department. One of the first things scouts do at the annual February combine sessions in Indianapolis, or even in private workouts, is to measure the span of a player's hand. In the case of the combine, the measurements are part of the report disseminated to all the teams. And in the past, the size of a player's hands have definitely been a red flag in some cases in the early stages of evaluation.
Nolan acknowledged last week that the San Francisco front office will require some overhaul in the offseason, with the addition of more experienced football people. Nolan might want to put a hand specialist near the top of his shopping list.
• Smith is the 15th quarterback to be selected with the top overall pick since the NFL and the AFL agreed to a common draft in 1967. And right now, through the first four starts of his career, Smith shares a rather dubious distinction with Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer, because he has yet to throw a touchdown pass. The disclaimer for Palmer is that he never played a single snap as a rookie in 2003.
All the other quarterbacks taken with the first overall selection, even those who played sparingly, registered a touchdown pass as a rookie. The high-water mark among the elite group is the 26 touchdown passes that Peyton Manning tossed in 1998. The low? Michael Vick had two touchdown passes in sparse playing time in 2001.
• It's still very early in the evaluation process but the New York Jets, or at least some members of the coaching staff, are anything but head-over-heels on Southern Cal star quarterback Matt Leinart. Like some other staffs, the Jets have concerns over Leinart's perceived lack of arm strength and limited movement. It would be interesting to see, if Leinart dropped to the Jets' slot in the first round, what New York officials would do. The Jets certainly need to cover themselves in the event Chad Pennington is not ready for the start of the season, following two rotator cuff surgeries in a 10-month span, but the coaches feel Leinart would be a high-priced gamble. New York will likely fill its need at quarterback in free agency.
• Trying to predict, with three weeks left in the season, who might capture the league's rushing title? Don't bet against Tiki Barber. The New York Giants star, who some have suggested (and correctly so) deserves strong consideration as a most valuable player candidate, currently ranks third with 1,357 yards. But the two players ahead of him, Shaun Alexander of Seattle (1,496 yards) and Indianapolis' Edgerrin James (1,440), figure to see their playing time reduced in the next few weeks.
Alexander didn't play much at all in the second halves of the Seahawks' last two outings (routs of Philadelphia and San Francisco), and if Seattle secures home-field advantage, he won't get many carries. James is on pace to set a new NFL record for rushing attempts, but following Sunday's game against San Diego, is going to be rested a lot. Barber, on the other hand, is with a team that will likely have to play hard through the final game of the season. And he has increasingly been the centerpiece of the Giants' offense, especially during a stretch in which Eli Manning is throwing a lot of interceptions.
It will be interesting over the next few weeks to watch Alexander and how he reacts if coach Mike Holmgren reduces his playing time. Remember last season, when Alexander missed the rushing title by 1 yard, and then suggested he was "stabbed in the back" by Holmgren when the coach called for a quarterback sneak from the 1-yard line? Holmgren has said several times this year that Alexander is a much more mature player. We may find out in the coming weeks.
• No matter the size of the deal (the contract figures haven't been filed yet), the Cleveland Browns made a terrific move Thursday by signing inside linebacker Andra Davis to a five-year extension that keeps him off the free-agent market. Davis has flourished in the 3-4 scheme installed by first-year coach Romeo Crennel. He leads the Browns with 169 tackles (based on team stats), has led the team or tied for the lead in tackles in 12 of 13 outings, and has 10 games with double-digit stops.
For the most part, 3-4 linebackers don't break the bank in free agency, and Davis almost certainly wouldn't have gotten a blockbuster deal, either. But he was on the free-agent radar screen of several teams to whom we speak regularly, and he would have had some options. General manager Phil Savage a few weeks ago cited retaining Davis, a former fifth-round draft choice, as a priority. Mission accomplished. The next target is defensive end Orpheus Roye, who had played before in a 3-4 front, and was a superb fit. It's important for any rebuilding team to retain its own best players as a foundation, and with Davis' future now secured, Cleveland officials will work hard to keep Roye from becoming an unrestricted free agent.
• With the increase of 3-4 fronts around the NFL, versatile edge defenders have become more valuable, of course, and one lesser-known prospect for the 2006 draft whose stock figures to rise because he fits the hybrid specifications is Chris Gocong of Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo. Named this week as the winner of the Buck Buchanan Award, which is presented to the top defensive player at the I-AA level, Gocong posted a national-best 23½ sacks and 31 tackles for loss this season. Gocong had 17½ sacks in 2003, when he was the runner-up for the Buchanan Award. At 6-foot-3 and 265 pounds, with tremendous upfield burst, Gocong will definitely benefit from the expanding use of 3-4 fronts.
• Todd Bouman of New Orleans will become the 56th different quarterback to start a game this season when he replaces Aaron Brooks Sunday against Carolina. That seems like a lot, but it's actually in line with the recent numbers. The league averaged 57.2 different starters in the nine-season stretch from 1996-2004, with a high of 62 in both 1998 and '99. There have been 58 different starters in each of the last three seasons.
Perhaps what is more remarkable this season than the number of different starters is the number of quarterback switches that have been made. There will be at least three changes this weekend -- Bouman for Brooks, Oakland's Kerry Collins regaining his starting job from Marques Tuiasosopo after just one week, and Kelly Holcomb replacing an injured J.P. Losman in Buffalo -- and that raises to 42 the number of changes in the 14 weeks since the opener.
The average of three changes per week might be unparalleled in recent league history. Not since Week 3 has every team started the same quarterback that it did in its previous outing. There have been three different weekends on which there were five changes of starting quarterbacks. That's not exactly the degree of stability that teams are supposed to be seeking at the position.
• Stat of the week: The Oakland Raiders have only three interceptions in 13 games -- one each by cornerback Charles Woodson, safety Stuart Schweigert and defensive tackle Warren Sapp -- and need at least three pickoffs in the final three contests to avoid having the lowest total by a team in a 16-game schedule. The 2004 St. Louis Rams and the 1996 Atlanta Falcons, with six interceptions each, recorded the lowest number of interceptions in a season since the NFL enacted the 16-game schedule in 1978. Not since 1997, and just once since 1978, have the Raiders -- a team whose rich history includes legendary ballhawks like Willie Brown, Lester Hayes, Michael Haynes, Vann McElroy, Terry McDaniel and others -- played a season in which they didn't have an individual defender with at least three interceptions.
• Punts: Near the top of the to-do list for Philadelphia defensive coordinator Jim Johnson in the offseason is rectifying the Eagles' shoddy performance in third-and-long situations. The Eagles have permitted opponents to convert 26.2 percent of their plays on third-and-10 or longer, the worst such mark in the league. … While one Packers staffer (director of player development Turner Gill) has already secured a college coaching job (Buffalo), another could be right behind him. Wide receivers coach James Franklin is being pursued by new Kansas State head coach Ron Prince for the offensive coordinator post. … Don't be surprised if James "Bus" Cook, the low-key Hattiesburg, Miss.-based agent who already represents a pair of high-profile quarterbacks in Favre and Steve McNair, is a factor in the Vince Young sweepstakes. Provided, of course, the University of Texas star makes himself available in the 2006 draft. McNair is very close to Young and is said to have told him good things about his agent. Cook has already landed a terrific quarterback prospect for the '06 draft in Jay Cutler. It's expected that the Vanderbilt standout will be the second senior quarterback prospect chosen next April. … Under coach Dick Vermeil, the Kansas City Chiefs are just 3-8 in December road games. … There is some concern that the high ankle sprain which will sideline Antonio Pierce for Saturday's game against Kansas City could keep the New York Giants' middle linebacker out for the balance of the season. … The Green Bay Packers have begun negotiations in hopes of securing a contract extension with defensive left end Aaron Kampman, one of the league's best unheralded players, and a guy often cited in this space. Kampman is eligible to become an unrestricted free agent if he doesn't sign an extension. … The Vikings are thrilled with the play of cornerback Brian Williams, who has filled in admirably for the injured Fred Smoot. In five starts, Williams has four interceptions and seven passes defensed. … Seattle left guard Steve Hutchinson, arguably the NFL's premier player at his position and a pending unrestricted free agent, has not been flagged for a single penalty in '05. … Green Bay wide receiver Javon Walker, who continues to rehabilitate from knee surgery, is said to be close to retaining Kennard McGuire of Houston as his new agent. … Yeah, this is more like dog-bites-man stuff, and certainly an annual lament, but the tales being told of indiscretions in recruiting of draft prospects this year are more hair-raising than ever. And that's saying something. The NFL Players Association seems hell-bent on eliminating the role of agents. It'd be more well-served if it policed them better. … Before they release him, the Saints are likely to see if there's any trade interest next spring in demoted quarterback Aaron Brooks. They aren't likely to find many takers.
• The last word: "Our players aren't really acclimated to the cold weather. Let's be honest, some of them have never seen snow. [Tailback] Carnell Williams has never even seen snowflakes. So it will be a great trip for some of our guys. A highly educational one." -- Tampa Bay coach Jon Gruden on his team's Saturday game in Foxboro, Mass., where the conditions are expected to be less than ideal.
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click here.