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Falcons, Saints and Bears look to fill key roles

As we enter full swing into this season of giving, lets take a look at a few instances where some NFL teams will be "doing without," and see how each situation will affect the franchises involved.

What's next for Falcons?

Bobby Petrino quit! At least he could have stuck around long enough to tell the players he couldn't cut it in the NFL. They would have understood. In fact, they already knew the NFL was too tough for him as the season wore on. Players take great risks when they take the field in an NFL game. What risks did Petrino take? As one head coach said to me Thursday, "It is a dark day for the NFL when guys leave before they should."

In the long run, this is a good thing that has happened to the Falcons organization -- as long as they handle the fallout properly. The overriding factor in Jim Mora's firing last year was the feeling of upper management that he was learning leadership on the fly. As a result, they put head coaching experience at the top of their list of criteria in the search for his replacement. They didn't want another hot-shot coordinator, so they went in search of former NFL head coaches and found very few available. That caused them to over-emphasize head coaching experience at the college level.

The problem is that experience at the college level can be close to irrelevant with pro athletes and doesn't translate to the NFL. Steve Spurrier, Nick Saban, Butch Davis and now Petrino all belong on a nice campus with 18- to 21-year-old athletes. That's not a bad thing -- just a reality.

The other thing the Falcons learned is that the offensive and defensive schemes that can bring success at the college level can be ineffective in the pros. A few years in the NFL as a position coach does not confirm a college head coach has a system that will work in the NFL. Whether it's pass protections, blitz packages, matchups or coverages, it's a different game.

Now, the Falcons must look for leadership in the form of a former NFL coach who has had success in the league and will command immediate respect the moment he walks in the room. This is a team in disarray, and every free agent is looking to leave. Marty Schottenheimer's name has already been bandied about, as has Bill Cowher's. And though it might be awkward, the Falcons should consider going back to Dan Reeves, a man who led this team to the Super Bowl less than 10 years ago. These are established NFL coaches who can put NFL fundamentals back in place and right the ship. These are guys who know the NFL inside out, can stabilize the organization and evaluate personnel the proper way. I think you will see Arthur Blank follow the lead of Jerry Jones in Dallas and Dan Snyder in Washington, owners who turned their teams around with legends Bill Parcells and Joe Gibbs, respectively.

Less is more for Saints

Despite the fact that Reggie Bush is a great player, the Saints ironically may be better without him right now. When Deuce McAllister was still playing, he ran the isolation and zone runs inside. Because of Bush's presence in any number of places -- the slot, on the reverse, in the passing game -- the backside pursuit was slowed because at least one defender had to account for Bush. With Drew Brees running bootleg plays outside the pocket, that held off the front-side rush, which left McAllister running against blocked players.

After McAllister's injury, the Saints struggled to use Bush most effectively in the role of featured back. No one was falling for the reverse runs because they were all focused on Bush and could zone him off with two safeties. Running inside on a full-time basis was the wrong thing to do with him, and he took a physical beating, which caused him to lose his effectiveness over the course of a game, and over the course of several weeks.

With Bush sidelined, Aaron Stecker and Pierre Thomas, who carry more bulk than Bush, will be able to do just enough inside to establish play-action and make the Saints passing game work. Brees throws it 40 times a game and gets the ball out of his hand quickly doing a good job of spreading the ball around. Look for the Saints to lean heavily on Brees and rely on the pass more than they ever have. So in the short term, this is a good thing for the Saints, who are playing as well as they have all season. What Sean Payton and his staff have learned from this is that Bush doesn't have any business running inside. He can't be isolated on a bigger defender because that's a battle he will lose, and he needs to clear the tackles before he can use his speed and be effective. Next season, look for Bush to once again work out of the slot as a receiver or on the reverse run, doing the things that defenses feared last season.

The Rx for Rex

Bears quarterback Rex Grossman will be a free agent at the end of the season, and now that he is sidelined with a season-ending knee injury, the Bears really don't have enough good reason to do a deal with him. All he has shown this year is that he can't win games on his own, and has actually regressed in his development.

Quarterback are lumped into a few different categories. There are guys like Tom Brady and Peyton Manning who are considered "in the driver's seat;" guys teams are excited about; and guys who are good but not great, like Eli Manning. The rest are all about risk, and Grossman fits in that group with two risks: his declining level of play and his medical history that now includes a couple of major injuries. At best, Grossman is a guy who is competing for a job. As a result, he probably won't get more than a minimum wage deal. He has lost all his financial leverage.

What the Bears are hoping for is a strong finish to the season from Kyle Orton. If he plays well in these final three games, then the Bears have an inexpensive answer to their quarterback situation. If not, the team will go back to Grossman with a two- to three-year minimum wage deal loaded with incentives. Grossman will likely refuse and look for a deal elsewhere, but he doesn't have the clout right now to come at any team from a position of strength. No one will sign him and he'll be forced to sign a minimum wage deal somewhere in April before he's competing with drafted players in addition to veteran free agents.

How Orton plays is the key for the Bears. He can be the next Derek Anderson if he wins games. If he does, the Bears could go as low as a third-rounder for another quarterback. If he stumbles, they could be looking at using a first-round pick on the position in April.

The short week

That brings us to the reason Grossman and the Bears are in this predicament. Thursday night football is fun for the fan and a danger for the players. The average NFL veteran is not even practicing on Wednesdays this time of year. Monday is a conditioning and film day, Tuesday is the players' day off and Wednesday is the installation of the game plan. Then you are playing a game on Thursday. By December, most NFL veterans are just getting back on their feet then, barely walking. For that reason, teams are now sitting a guy because he's not ready to play, or in the vague medical area, a team may play a guy at risk who isn't ready.

Last week, both starting quarterbacks went down because they had linemen who weren't ready to play, receivers who weren't yet running at full speed, and backs who can't make all their cuts. The moving parts were not moving well. There will be a lot of pressure from the coaches to eliminate Thursday night football in the near future.

On a positive note, the coaches would consider a Saturday night game. If the league doesn't want to conflict with college games, Tuesday night is another option. If your team doesn't play until Sunday, the players will get five days rest instead of three, which is much more manageable. The extra two days will have guys ready to go.

Expect this to be a big issue for the competition committee this winter.

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