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Final four organizational structures; four things to watch

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NEW YORK -- What I'd heard at the beginning of the Jeff Fisher sweepstakes three weeks ago is exactly what the new St. Louis Rams coach said made the difference in the end: The presence of a young quarterback was crucial.

But in the wash, there was also the issue of control. No matter who you believe here, it's hard not to conclude there was some disconnect between Fisher and the runner-up Miami Dolphins on how an organizational flow chart should look. My understanding is that while Fisher was not looking to control everything, he also wasn't going to have someone else's structure forced upon him.

In the end, Miami owner Stephen Ross -- for the second time in a year, following up the Jim Harbaugh debacle of last January -- has become a public punching bag in South Florida. A lot of that is warranted.

Here's a good question, though: Was he wrong to try and limit the power of the head coach?

To answer that, let's take a look at the organizational structures of the four teams remaining in the playoffs (in alphabetical order):

Baltimore Ravens: GM Ozzie Newsome is among the most well-respected and powerful personnel men in the business. He is often lauded for his deep farm system of scouts. One of Newsome's strengths is his versatility in his position and his understanding of what his coaches are looking for. They created a mold for what a Raven is and found the coach (John Harbaugh) to lead such a group.

New England Patriots: In this group, New England is the outlier. Coach Bill Belichick's fingerprints are all over every football facet of the club. The buck stops with him on every decision. There is a division of power in personnel, too. Rising young star Nick Caserio is in charge of scouting, while veteran Floyd Reese leads the way on contract negotiations and other business aspects of the football side.

New York Giants: There might not be a cleaner operation than this one, in terms of coaching and personnel sides working in lockstep. The Maras and Tisches -- like the Rooneys in Pittsburgh -- have had a tried-and-true system in place for years. The GM, Jerry Reese, makes the personnel decisions with input from the coach, Tom Coughlin. It also helps that both men worked as lieutenants in the organization first.

San Francisco 49ers: Much as Jim Harbaugh has been the face of the Niner revival, GM Trent Baalke has final say over personnel. The Niners once had a structure with the coach at the top of the flow chart -- Mike Nolan, from 2005-07 -- but Scot McCloughan was promoted to GM in 2008 and given that authority. And owner Jed York decided to keep that structure intact when promoting Baalke last year.

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Count those up, and only one of four coaches carries ultimate authority. Circle back over the past six world champions, and you'll find personnel men like Kevin Colbert (twice with the Steelers), Bill Polian (Colts), Reese (Giants), Mickey Loomis (Saints) and Ted Thompson (Packers) in charge.

Now, it's also worth noting that five of the seven champions before that were coached by Belichick and Mike Shanahan, so it's not as if the coach-driven structure simply doesn't work. Really, though, the overriding element in all this is having everyone on the same philosophical page.

"It is more practical (to have a GM in charge)," said one club executive. "But too much time is spent discussing who has 'final say.' It should be a GM's job to know what kind of players the coach needs, and not force players on a coach. 'Final say' should rarely, if ever, be needed."

Another personnel man put it simpler: "Head coaches should never have that much power."

Still, there remains a fundamental question unanswered in Miami: If Ross was willing to stick his neck out that far on Fisher, and believed so strongly he was the right man, how did this remain such a big issue that late in the game?

As for the idea of wanting to keep a personnel man like Miami's Jeff Ireland empowered ... While it's fair to argue whether or not it's the right move in this particular case, it's clear Ross is not completely crazy to think that's the way a team should be built. This weekend, in fact, is a testament to that.

And speaking of this weekend, here are four things I'll have my eye on as those teams take the field ...

1) Torrey Smith's deployment in Foxboro. If New England's going to win the Super Bowl -- and they're the odds-on favorite now -- the Patriots are going to have to break some statistical truisms about championship clubs. And one regards their defense's work against the big play. The Patriots allowed 89 explosive plays (20-plus yards) in 2011, per one club's data, which was easily the most any defense in the NFL yielded. They allowed none against Denver. The difference here, of course, is that the Patriots built a big lead, and could afford to back off defensively against the Broncos, while challenging Tim Tebow to throw accurately underneath. It'll be more difficult to do that with Anquan Boldin on the field, and Ray Rice there as one of the NFL's best in the screen game. So it'll be interesting to see if Smith becomes a focus for the New England defense, as he was for Houston last week when the Texans put Johnathan Joseph on him. In what should be a close game, even a single home run from Smith could be a big difference-maker.

2) Tom Brady's left foot. Gotta give Ravens play-by-play man Gerry Sandusky credit for reinforcing this one for me: How Brady is able to move in the pocket will be key to how effective he is throwing it. And if Brady can't step into his throws with that left foot, the Ravens have a chance to slow down the Patriots' offensive machine. New England's offensive line has stood up well against edge rushers, most prominently Elvis Dumervil and Von Miller last Saturday. Where problems have stemmed from historically for New England is when the heat is coming from inside, because that keeps Brady from stepping up. Justin Tuck's work at defensive tackle in Super Bowl XLII is a great example of that. And Haloti Ngata certainly has created those types of issues for New England in the past, so the Patriots' handling of the big man bears watching.

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3) The line of scrimmage at Candlestick. Two weeks ago, in a jubilant postgame locker room after a 24-2 win over the Falcons, Giants GM Jerry Reese emphasized to me that during the playoffs, "It's about the bigs -- on both sides of the ball." And that formula played out during the NFC divisional round, with the Giants and 49ers bullying the Packers and Saints, respectively. Admittedly, the Giants need to run the ball like they did against Atlanta, more so than the way they did against Green Bay, but they were able to control the line in both contests. And the 49ers' work up front against the Saints speaks for itself. Appropriately enough, the headline on the back pages of both city tabloids on Thursday referred to this one as "Bloodbath" (Chris Canty's prediction for the game). Yup. For as complicated as professional football has become over the past decade, the key on Sunday in soggy San Francisco could be remarkably simple: Whoever blocks and tackles better wins. Just like they taught you in Pop Warner.

4) The Giants' discipline. Again, this isn't advanced X's-and-O's, but Tom Coughlin has emphasized to his team how tight a game the Niners play, and that it'll be vital for his troops to match San Francisco's focus. Only four teams were even plus-10 in turnover differential this year, yet the Niners were a staggering plus-28 -- four better than the next best team (Green Bay) and 11 better than the team after that (New England). San Francisco also led the league in average drive start and average drive start against. So if you're still trying to understand how Harbaugh and Co. have turned things around so quickly, those elements are a good place to start. The Giants probably didn't need the refresher, remembering how costly Eli Manning's two picks were on the team's first trip to Candlestick. But Coughlin gave them the reinforcement anyway. If the Giants can even get even with the Niners in those areas, they'll have a heck of a chance to win.

Follow Albert Breer on Twitter @AlbertBreer

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