When consensus No. 1 overall draft pick Andrew Luck decided to stay at Stanford, he left an intriguing, but flawed draft class of quarterbacks behind him. There are questions about the on-field polish of Missouri's Blaine Gabbert, the off-field issues surrounding Arkansas' Ryan Mallett and the struggle for consistency from Washington's Jake Locker.
But there's no prospect who will elicit more discussion in the coming months than Heisman Trophy winner Cam Newton of Auburn, who declared his intent to enter the NFL draft on Thursday.
Newton opts for the NFL
Newton, who wrapped up his college career with 265 yards on 20 of 34 passing and 64 yards rushing in the BCS Championship Game victory over Oregon, jumps right into the discussion of being the first quarterback taken in April.
"He's significantly better than JaMarcus Russell and Vince Young were for a lot of reasons," said one veteran personnel executive. "I'd put him somewhere in the (Steve) McNair, (Donovan) McNabb, (Josh) Freeman category. This kid showed more accuracy and better decision-making than Josh Freeman did at (Kansas State), though in the end, Freeman might be more intelligent.
"He's like McNabb, but McNabb's shorter. What you have here is a giant. He's 6-foot-6 and a lean 255 (pounds). He'll be hard to sack like those guys were. I don't know his smarts, he might be really intelligent, but I do think, like those three, even if he can't pick apart a defense, he can buy time with his feet. Coverages are only made to hold up for four seconds or so, so like those guys, he can make time to find the open guy. And this guy has those guys' leadership. I don't think Vince or JaMarcus had it. Teammates follow (Newton)."
Meanwhile, one college scout argued that "the structure of that offense made him look more accurate than he is. It's all play-action based, throwing to wide open receivers, with bubble screens that pad his numbers. He gets so much respect because of his athletic ability."
One thing both agree on is that Newton is athletically superior and a more natural passer than the man he was once supposed to replace at Florida: Tim Tebow.
The NCAA controversy of this fall will likely hurt Newton only in one regard: If it's found to be part of a pattern of poor decision-making. Newton's likely to get some bad reviews from those at Florida, with a cheating scandal and an incident involving a stolen laptop preceding his departure from Gainesville.
As for those at Auburn, scouts have found reviews on Newton as a guy to read as "nothing but unbelievable. Not a prima donna. Not a (jerk) to anyone. He doesn't walk around like he's the Heisman Trophy winner. And I heard his work ethic is very good."
Some of those "Hollywood" temptations have already surfaced, but word is Newton is staying steady. And so while his character as a student-athlete is pocked by the controversy, his marks in that category as a pro prospect could be much different.
I know this truth...
There is, perhaps, no better example of how the Jets' strategy has paid off than in Holmes, who was Mr. Clutch in catching 52 passes for 746 yards and six touchdowns despite serving a four-game suspension to start the year. The key for Holmes, and some of the other offseason acquisitions, is that careers were either at a crossroads (Holmes, Cromartie) or nearing an end (LaDainian Tomlinson, Jason Taylor), and that's kept the players dialed in.
"For the first four games, sometimes you just have to learn to deal with the consequences," Holmes said. "That just makes you stronger as a person, when you can go through the type of adversity that I went through and still become the person you want to be in life. You never let anything get you down. That's been my motivation."
Holmes stopped short of saying his season -- which included huge, game-winning plays against Houston, Denver, Detroit, and Cleveland -- is payback for the Jets taking a chance on him. "I want it for myself," he says. But he did allow that he appreciates the game and this opportunity more.
"Rex (Ryan) didn't have to reach out to me," Holmes said. "(General manager Mike) Tannenbaum didn't have to give me an opportunity to play here. (Owner) Woody Johnson didn't have to accept me. But those guys believe in me as a football player and understand that mistakes happen along the way, and you just gotta trust the person, that he's gonna be in the right place, he's gonna do the right things, and he's gonna allow himself to help the team win ballgames."
Holmes says he hasn't changed all that much as a guy, other than becoming more humble and "more understanding of the situations and positions I put myself in." And he's set himself up, now, at 26, to stabilize his future with a big deal either from the Jets or elsewhere.
Considering that each of these guys have had to navigate their own situations, it shouldn't be much of a surprise that they've handled all the distractions that have come their way. If the Jets are going to be sunk, it doesn't figure to be on account of the implosion many expected.
...I don't know a thing
Now in his third year, Ryan also understands he'll have to be better and expects to be more comfortable in this postseason setting at home.
"From my first playoff experience, I take the fact that you have to remember what's important in getting ready to play," Ryan said. "I think my preparation will be a lot better this time than the last time. It's different from a normal game in that there's more hype and more buzz around the game. But again, at least from my perspective, to be successful you have to separate yourself from that."
And that means making this week as normal as possible, even if that wasn't easy this week in icy Atlanta.
That's the idea, anyway. Ryan is also well aware that legacies are formed for a quarterback this time of year. He's not running from that, of course, but he's also trying not to be overly conscious of it.
"As a fan of the game growing up, you know that all great quarterbacks are judged by what they do in the playoffs," Ryan said. "But really, at this time, legacy doesn't come into your thinking. It's all about getting one win."
Two things really separate this playoff year from the last one. First, he's coming off a bye week. Second, instead of traveling across the country, the only way he'll have to play outside the Georgia Dome again this season is if it's for the Super Bowl.
"That's huge on the offensive side of the ball," Ryan said. "Just your communication on the field is easier, and having the opposing offense having to go through a bunch of things, plus having the comfort of playing throughout the year. Being comfortable at the hotel the night before, being comfortable coming over for pregame warm-ups, all those things allow for you to come out and play your best."
Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff, before drafting Ryan, was watching cutups of B.C. film, saw the No. 12 on his jersey, and Dimitroff had an epiphany: Ryan resembled another No. 12 he had worked with before.
And maybe therein lies the greatest lesson for Ryan: That 12, Tom Brady, is best known for coming through when it counts. Ryan gets his second chance to start doing the same this weekend.
Football Outsiders ran an interesting analysis of injuries league-wide this week on its Web site, and found these five teams as the most nicked (from a lost-starter standpoint): Colts, Packers, Browns, Panthers, and Redskins. The last three on that list combined to go 13-35. The Colts fought through and made the playoffs.
And the Packers are still alive, which is a testament to the depth of the roster general manager Ted Thompson has built, obviously. But it also says plenty about the makeup on the team, particularly on defense where four opening-day starters have landed on injured reserve. The Packers finished the season as the league's second-ranked scoring defense.
That isn't the only place the unit's resiliency has reared its head. Defensive coordinator Dom Capers gave me a statistic a few weeks back that, if you didn't know better, would be pretty difficult to believe. He and the staff have what they identify as "adversity touchdowns allowed," which is when an offense gets a short field from a long return or a sudden change off a turnover.
Capers said that this area, in particular, had been a problem for Green Bay in 2009. So it became a point of emphasis. And now, it's fixed. The first time the Packers allowed such a touchdown this season was in Week 15, when Tom Brady threw a scoring pass following guard Dan Connolly's freak kick return. Green Bay was the last team in the NFL carrying a goose egg in that category.
Maybe the team's handling of injuries and this amazing statistic aren't directly related. But it seems that similar qualities would help a team excel in both circumstances.
"That's when we show how good we are," said Capers of the "adversity situations." "When you have to find a way to keep the team out of the end zone."
1. Past and present draft classes produce for Chiefs
There is no question that Scott Pioli's second Kansas City draft class has given the Chiefs solid ground to work on going forward, even after taking a beating from the Ravens in the first round of the playoffs last week. Safety Eric Berry is already becoming a star; Tony Moeaki gives the club an answer at tight end for years to come; and Javier Arenas, Dexter McCluster and Kendrick Lewis all contributed in their first years. But perhaps more important to the breakthrough year for Pioli and coach Todd Haley was the explosion by the last draft class overseen by Carl Peterson and Herm Edwards. Before this season, the Chiefs knew what they had in cornerback Brandon Flowers, and had a pretty good idea that Jamaal Charles was good, given the way he finished 2009. Well, Flowers became a Pro Bowl-level corner this fall, Charles rushed for 1,467 yards on a 6.4 yards-per-carry clip, and the team finally started to get a return on its first two picks. Glenn Dorsey, the prototype 3-technique tackle, has matured into a dominant 3-4 defensive end, and Branden Albert has become a cornerstone left tackle on the other side of the ball. Take those four guys -- Flowers, Charles, Dorsey, and Albert -- and you have to think Pioli and Haley are grateful for some of what the old guys left behind.
2. No need to worry about Haley's role expanding on offense
Speaking of Haley, here's some advice for those worried that he'll spread himself thin if he becomes more involved with the offense: Don't fret. Seriously. The departure of offensive coordinator Charlie Weis after one year might force Matt Cassel to adjust a little, but it's easy to forget that Haley was no slouch running Arizona's attack over the two years prior to his arrival in Kansas City. Haley did say earlier in the year that Weis' presence helped him focus on being a better head coach, but the idea of a man in that position running one side of the ball or the other isn't novel. Last year's Super Bowl champion, the Saints, had such a setup, as do three of the eight teams left in this year's playoffs(Jets, Patriots, Packers). So if Haley's Chiefs slide in 2011, might want to think before using that one as an excuse.
Challenges ahead for Rivera
3. Rivera's adaptability makes him good fit for Panthers
It wasn't hard to figure the feelings around the NFL about Ron Rivera, knocking on the door of head-coaching jobs for a half-decade, finally getting a shot to run his own show. Just about everyone was happy for a solid coach, and a better guy. And what makes him good for Carolina is what made him good for San Diego: his adaptability. With a franchise in flux that just came off a salary purge, he'll need to find talent every which way and adjust to put the puzzle together. Good thing that's something he has aptitude for. From 2004-06, he ran Lovie Smith's Tampa-2 defense and helped build a dominant unit that the Bears rode to the Super Bowl. Smith and Rivera had a falling out, and Rivera bolted for San Diego -- where Ted Cottrell was running Wade Phillips' 3-4 defense -- in 2007. The Chargers pulled the plug on Cottrell in mid-2008 and left Rivera to run someone else's scheme. But by then, it had become his own. In the first eight games that season, under Cottrell, the Chargers allowed 371.6 yards per game and 24.9 points. In the final eight, under Rivera, those numbers dropped to 328.3 and 18.5. And this year, with stars of the past (Shawne Merriman, Jamal Williams, Antonio Cromartie) long gone, the Chargers ranked first in total defense. So while Rivera might not be the hot name he was in 2006, there's evidence he'll be the right one in a difficult situation in Carolina.
4. No reason Texans' defense won't benefit from Phillips
Personnel improvement is the biggest thing that Houston needs on defense. But having Wade Phillips aboard as coordinator will help. If you can put aside some of his issues as a head coach, you see a man who's had an appreciable impact on that side of the ball in every locale he's run a defense. The Saints ranked dead last in total defense in 1980 and 11th the next year after Phillips arrived for his first coordinator gig. The Broncos ranked 22nd in 1988, hired Phillips, and rose to third in 1989 and went to the Super Bowl that season. The Bills went from 17th to 13th in Phillips' first year there, 1995, and the Falcons went from 30th to 19th in 2002. Two years later, the Chargers went from 27th to 18th after Phillips' arrival. Improbably, the only place he didn't get such a bump was in Philadelphia in the late 1980s, under Buddy Ryan with the Eagles. That aside, this kind of turnaround isn't implausible in Houston. Pieces are in place there with Mario Williams (who projects to a Bruce Smith-style role), Brian Cushing and DeMeco Ryans. The key will be developing young players like Kareem Jackson and complementary parts around the stars. And history says Phillips will do it. So why doesn't he get credit? Look to his press conference in Houston for insight. He continually raised his record in Buffalo ("I think they would take it right now) and Dallas ("a lot of people would take it as head coach"). If you're constantly looking for validation, it's harder to get it.
5. Fitzpatrick's emergence gives the Bills options
The emergence of Ryan Fitzpatrick in Buffalo this season was met with a collective yawn in the NFL's other 31 markets, but it could give the Bills a dose of flexibility come draft day. Without a quarterback on the board, at least at this point, who's considered a slam-dunk top five-type, and with a steady hand aboard, the Bills can address one of a number of other needs or even pursue a trade out of the third overall pick. Ideally, Buffalo comes out of the first three rounds of the draft with a building block at offensive tackle, and a quarterback to develop. That's where most folks saw the club going last year, but the board fell in a manner that made Anthony Davis and Jimmy Clausen, players general manager Buddy Nix wasn't crazy about, the options at those spots. This year, there's a deep group of tackles to pick from, giving Buffalo some options on when to pluck one, and a diverse group of quarterbacks. Of course, Newton does fit into the Chan Gailey mold, so there's a chance he rolls the dice on the Auburn junior, but the coach seems content with the guy he has. "Fitz is a really good quarterback, and I think he can take our team to the playoffs," Gailey told WEDG radio. "But you've got a chance to get a guy that you think for 10 years, 12 years, is going to be the guy, Fitz is moving up in years, too. How many years do you expect us to draft No. 3 and be able to get a guy like that?" See? Options open.
6. Funny that Carroll now mimics the Tuna's philosophy
At one point in his career, Seahawks coach Pete Carroll couldn't do enough to get away from the considerable shadow of Bill Parcells. Interesting that now he's employing one of the Tuna's old methods as a piece central to his philosophy. Carroll might smile when Parcells would scowl, but Seattle's first-year head man is doing all he can to create the kind of discomfort that Big Bill has in every place he's been, through a method best described as "roster churning." The team has conducted an incredible 283 player transactions since Carroll and general manager John Schneider took over last January, and 29 of the 53 men on the active roster have expiring contracts, a list that includes quarterback Matt Hasselbeck. It all falls in line with the coach's philosophy of creating competition, and is similar to how, while at USC, he was fond of saying there was "no such thing as a returning starter." The idea behind both practices to make people feel like they have to earn their keep every day, Parcells was legendary for it, and it's something you see Bill Belichick employ in New England to this day. The Tuna would go to the length of working out street free agents during practice in plain sight of his players, so they'd catch a glimpse and wonder, "Does that guy play my position?" For now, the players seem to be responding to Carroll, something evident in the Seahawks' swarming, attacking demeanor.
7. Even without results, Lions are a different team
Ultimately, the fate of Jim Schwartz's program in Detroit may be tied to the club's ability to keep quarterback Matthew Stafford healthy. And there's certainly room for improvement there. But Schwartz has reason to be encouraged about a roster that now has two enormous building blocks on defense, in tackle Ndamukong Suh and safety Louis Delmas, and a young, improving offense. The nasty streak that marked Schwartz's Tennessee defenses seems to be carrying over, as well. But all that doesn't mean much without results. And those are coming. Not only did Detroit finish the season with four straight wins, the Lions also were within a possession of the opponent in seven of their 10 losses. That was only the case in three of their 14 losses in 2009, and it's something Schwartz raised with the Detroit media this week. "We didn't have that game where we lost 45-3," he said. "Even our worst loss of the year, (to) the Patriots, we were within seven with 10 minutes left, whatever that was, and driving the football before we had the offensive pass-interference penalty. We didn't finish that game as well as we finished other ones, but we were in every single game." Expect to hear a lot about these guys as a dark horse next summer in what should be a very difficult NFC North.
8. Despite boost in attendance, Jaguars remain shaky
Jacksonville mayor John Peyton wrote a letter to thank the people in northern Florida for putting a halt to a string of blackouts prior to this season. And maybe it took covering some nose-bleed seats and some last-ditch efforts, but the fact is the Jaguars did wind up with all eight of their games on local TV. Peyton wrote of the "national media's debate" that "Jacksonville could not support an NFL franchise," and cited a rise in season-ticket sales that trumped all other teams (part of which, no doubt, was a result of sagging results in that area in 2009). The debate's not over, of course. The league's vision when it put a team in Jacksonville in the mid-1990s was that the city would become another Atlanta, and it's pretty clear now that won't ever happen. And the sporting culture in the area has always been more centered on college and high school sports -- Gainesville is just down the road -- so the long-term viability of the club is certainly up for question. But for now, it seems, the NFL will wait and see on this team, and part of that is out of the hands of the NFL, and the Weaver family, for that matter. The lease in Jacksonville, running through 2030, won't be easy to get out of, so it'll likely take another wrong turn by the fan base to even make a move possible.
9. Sparano equipped to handle fallout in Miami
The Dolphins mess is clean for now, but those in the building are aware of what has happened in Dallas the last few years, since so many of them were there previously. Phillips was on the hot seat, it seemed, perpetually, and his case this year was the perfect example of the problem with that. The end of the 2008 season in Big D was, as well. That problem? Once things go wrong, it's very difficult for a man fighting for his job to maintain control of the team, and turn the ship in the right direction. Tony Sparano is more equipped, in demeanor and style, than Phillips was for such a situation, but it still won't be easy. The fact is, Stephen Ross was looking for a splash-name coach and wasn't going to splurge financially otherwise, using Sparano as his fallback option. Had Ross been willing to blow up the entire football side of the operation, Bill Cowher would likely be there. Jim Harbaugh was never going there. Yet, Ross let this thing play out in public. The shame is that Sparano, a football man if there ever was one, will have to cash the check the owner wrote for him.
10. A case for Sabol into the Pro Football Hall of Fame
Finally, allow me to be another in the legions to put in a good word for Ed Sabol, as he pursues, again, election to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Can't think of any football fan who didn't grow up on NFL Films, and it's very difficult for me to see how anyone could fit the "contributor" category better. But rather than go on about that stuff, I'd like to pass along a piece of the conversation I had with Steve Sabol, back when I was with the Boston Globe. Sabol was passionate about his dad getting in, saying, "I think when we started NFL Films, this was strictly a dream of dad's. No one thought it would grow into what it is today. People think we own it. The only thing dad and I got back then was a handshake from Pete Rozelle. … We don't have a contract. We've always been salaried employees of the league. I can't tell you what it would mean to him. He's 94, so hopefully it happens while he's still alive. What's tricky about it for the selection committee is the role of `contributor.'" I'm not one to tell folks who have HOF votes who they should pick, because I have to believe it's an enormously difficult task. But I really don't think this one should be that "tricky" at all. Hopefully, that void in Canton is filled this summer.