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Pressure on Del Rio, Kubiak to step up

FOX Sports LEN PASQUARELLI
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With only about two weeks remaining before the Sept. 11 season opener at Houston, the rehabilitating Peyton Manning is quickly running out of time to get physically ready to begin his 14th consecutive campaign in the Indianapolis starting lineup.

Coincidentally, two coaches in the Colts' division may be running out of time, as well.

And definitely out of excuses.

While various angles of Manning's continuing recovery from offseason neck surgery have been analyzed and scrutinized the past several days, here is one potential ramification that hasn't really garnered much publicity at all: the effect that it may eventually have on the futures of coaches Gary Kubiak of Houston and Jacksonville's Jack Del Rio.

The logic may be a bit convoluted but, rest assured, Manning's pain in the neck could conceivably put the heads of Del Rio and Kubiak on the chopping block. The trickle-down effect of the Manning situation, or at least their teams' abilities to benefit from it, could have dire results for the employment outlooks of the coaches.

Beyond the fact that both men have contracts that run through 2012, and each is widely considered to possess only tenuous job security entering the 2011 season, the veteran coaches have a lot in common in regards to Manning and the Colts. Both have losing records — Del Rio at 5-11 and Kubiak 2-8 — versus Manning and the Colts during their respective AFC South tenures. Neither coach has ever won a division championship.

Indianapolis, on the other hand, has claimed seven of the last eight AFC South titles, and has been to the playoffs nine straight times. Kubiak, who assumed the Houston reins in 2006, has carved out just one winning season in five years and the Texans have never even advanced to the playoffs in his stewardship.

The possible absence of Manning, who might be significantly less than 100 percent, even if he beats the odds and is ready for the start of the season, figures in theory to provide the Texans and Jaguars a huge edge in the division. Even winning an AFC South title with the Colts undermanned by Manning's absence could earn Kubiak or Del Rio an additional year.

Manning has a 96.5 passer rating against the Jaguars in the period Del Rio has been the Jacksonville coach. Versus the Kubiak-led Texans, it is 107.3.

The third other coach in the AFC South, Mike Munchak of Tennessee, is a rookie, having succeeded Jeff Fisher, and that pretty much assures him of not being fired after the 2011 campaign. But for Kubiak and Del Rio, who some have suggested are living on borrowed time anyway, the possible Manning idleness, if even for the first month or so of the season, leaves the door ajar. And if their teams can't get through the generous opening, and take full advantage of the situation, then Jaguars' owner Wayne Weaver and counterpart Bob McNair of Houston may decide it's time to slam the door on their coaches.

"Certainly (the Manning injury) more than levels the playing field in the division," said the general manager of an AFC team outside the division, in discussing the implications with The Sports Xchange. "He is the most dominant force (in the division). Arguably in the entire league. Take him out of the equation and it's another story and a far different division. It's an equalizer. Manning is maybe the biggest the difference-maker in the league, and if the Colts don't have him, they become a lot more vulnerable. No one can (use the excuse), 'Yeah, they've got Peyton.' That kind of rationalization is gone."

And so, too, could be Del Rio and Kubiak if they don't make hay with Manning on the sideline, even for a few weeks.

Jets/Patriots

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The Texans, as noted earlier, get the Colts right out of the chute, and at home. Houston defeated Indianapolis at Reliant Stadium in the season opener a year ago, 34-24, yet still finished four games in arrears in the division. Jacksonville split with the Colts but, after a late-season fade, were two games behind Indianapolis when the year concluded. In Del Rio's eight seasons, the Jaguars have never finished within less than two games of the Colts. Since he took over the Jags in 2003, the average differential between the clubs has been 4.0 games.

Noted the AFC general manager cited previously: "The Manning thing, if he can't play, gives everyone a big break."

Houston's second matchup with the Colts isn't until Dec. 22, the penultimate game on the schedule for both franchises. The Jaguars don't face the Colts until Nov. 13, then in the season finale. Even by the most pessimistic timeframes, Manning figures to have returned for those three games. But in addition to Houston, the Colts face the Browns, Steelers, and Bucs in the first four weeks. They could struggle to be even .500 versus that quartet if Manning is idled.

In the nine seasons since realignment created the AFC South in 2002, Indianapolis has averaged 12.1 victories. It has taken an average of 11.0 wins to capture the division title. Minus Manning for a stretch, the Colts could be hard-pressed to approximate those kinds of numbers.

Jacksonville and Houston also have tough first-month schedules — the Texans must play New Orleans and Pittsburgh, while the Jaguars get the Saints and New York Jets — but the teams need to put some meaningful distance between themselves and the Colts if Manning is not available. If they don't, McNair and Weaver could conclude they may never win the division until perhaps Manning retires for good.

Despite having been a chic playoff-caliber choice of the pundits for the past few years, Houston is only 37-43 with Kubiak at the controls. The Texans are once again chosen by many experts to earn their first-ever postseason berth in '11. Creating a cushion against the potentially Manning-less Colts would be a start. The Jaguars have had some successes against the Colts under Del Rio, but are just 66-65 overall in his eight seasons. There is a suspicion in some quarters that the lockout helped each man to retain his job for 2011.

But if Manning is knocked out of action by his neck problems, Kubiak and Del Rio need to take big advantage of his absence. Failure to do so could mean Manning's surgery might have painful consequences on some other AFC South precincts.

Around the league

Rookies in the lineup

For a fourth straight year, the league will have a rookie quarterback starting on opening day.

Likely, in fact, two of them. Carolina first-year coach Ron Rivera is expected to soon make it official that No. 1 overall pick Cam Newton will be his opening-day starter.

And the Cincinnati Bengals have made it pretty clear that second-round pick Andy Dalton will replace the "retired" Carson Palmer atop the depth chart.

It will mark the first time since 2008, when Matt Ryan of Atlanta and Baltimore's Joe Flacco opened the season for their respective clubs, that the league has had two rookie starters in Week 1.

Oddly, the league had gone four years, 2003-2007, before that without a rookie opening-day quarterback. So what to expect from Newton and Dalton, who have looked like, well, rookies, for much of the preseason?

"You can do everything right in the preseason, and it's still different," Flacco said.

"And you're going to feel it, believe me." Said second-year veteran Sam Bradford, who started every game for St. Louis in his 2010 rookie campaign: "You really can't prepare for it."

Still solid

There seems to be some feeling that the contract impasse between the Tennessee Titans and holdout tailback Chris Johnson will be resolved sometime shortly before the start of the regular season.

But sources adamantly contended to The Sports Xchange that the face-to-face meeting between the two sides this week did not create any momentum in that direction.

The air-clearing may have been good, in the sense that it allowed Johnson and Titans president Mike Reinfeldt to articulate their respective positions, without the potential loss of translation that often occurs when people are speaking to each other through the media, but neither man seemed to be moved by the other's assertions.

In the sack

17th-year veteran Kerry Collins, signed by the Colts as a $4 million insurance policy in the event Peyton Manning isn't ready, isn't quite the pocket "statue" some have characterized.

After all, as recently as 2008, when he started 15 games, Collins, 38, took only eight sacks playing behind a Tennessee offensive line that was among the best in the NFL that year. But Collins isn't Manning, who has been sacked more than 20 times only once in the past eight seasons, and who often saves his blockers with his quick release, and becoming acclimated to a potentially new starter will be a difficult task for a unit that could have as many as three new starters in 2011.

"Pass protection is a (synergistic) thing," allowed one veteran of the Indianapolis line. "And Peyton was the best at feeling pressure and getting rid of the ball."

How well-versed is Manning in the Colts' protection scheme? Rookie Anthony Castonzo, the team's first-round pick and the man projected to start at left tackle, recently sat down with Manning to discuss protections.

What Castonzo expected to be a brief chat turned into a 25-minute tutorial. By the numbers, Manning has been sacked once every 32.2 "dropbacks" in his career, and the quotient for the past two seasons, when he has absorbed just 26 sacks total, is an amazing one sack every 49.1 "dropbacks."

For Collins, it is a sack every 19.5 "dropbacks," which isn't all that terrible. But in the six-year stretch 2000-2005, during which Collins started at least 13 games every season, it was a sack every 11.27 "dropbacks." He averaged 30 sacks per year in that period.

Of all the nerve

One of the components of Manning's recovery from neck surgery that hasn't received much attention, but one with which this columnist has a bit of unfortunate familiarity, is that the nerves affected by the procedure must regenerate before the four-time MVP is whole again. And that requires time and patience.

A few years ago, I was stricken with Guillaine-Barre Syndrome, a neurological disorder that affects the peripheral nerves. Those nerves in the arms and legs regenerate at the rate of just one-quarter inch per month, and there is little anyone can do to hasten the process.

The nerves affected by Manning's neck surgery may be different, and could react a different way, but having them regenerate and "fire" again is likely a similarly lengthy and, at times frustrating, process.

It's easy to cite the lockout — and the fact Manning wasn't able to work with Colts doctors and trainers during his rehabilitation — as part of the problem from which he is now suffering. But even with the assistance of team medical personnel, there is some question about how much further advanced the regeneration of the nerves involved in the surgery would have been.

Third-down woes

Panthers quarterback Cam Newton finally converted on third down in Thursday night's loss at Cincinnati — he had been 0 for 11 on third-down plays in the first two preseason games — going 4 for 11 versus the Bengals.

He also converted a fourth-and-two situation with a six-yard pass to tight end Jeremy Shockey. But two of the third-down conversions came on Newton scrambles — a touchdown run of 16 yards on third-and-11, and a 26-yard burst on third-and-eight — and the top overall pick can't always count on his legs to help move the chains.

The ability to run out of trouble is part of Newton's game, certainly, but he's going to have to demonstrate that his arm can also get the Panthers out of difficult situations. Through three games, Newton is just 3 for 14 for 15 yards throwing the ball on third down.

Notable is that 15 of the third-down situations Newton has faced have been on third-and-seven or longer, difficult conditions even for a veteran quarterback, but he must get a lot more comfortable in the pocket, and far more accurate, in those instances.

The Panthers are going to have to rely on their running game to keep Newton out of such third-and-long situations. But the youngster is also going to have to learn to cope with those kinds of critical plays. So far, he hasn't.

The other element is that, his running skills aside, Newton has to avoid taking sacks. Through three games, he has been sacked four times, once every 14.0 "dropbacks," which isn't terrible for a young quarterback. But what one Carolina offensive veteran termed as "pocket poise" is going to have to develop as Newton moves forward.

Line dance

The free-agency acquisition this week of offensive tackle Bryant McKinnie, recently released by Minnesota, is a bit of a gamble by Baltimore, Ravens sources have acknowledged.

But the move allows the Ravens to at least have a chance of getting their offensive line, whose performance in preseason has been shoddy to say the least, back in some semblance of order.

Particularly if McKinnie, jettisoned by the Vikings because he was overweight and out of shape, can return to the level of play he demonstrated for much of the first nine seasons of his career. Reportedly 40 pounds overweight when he reported to the Vikings in early August, the former first-round pick might need time to work back to playing shape, but is still expected to open the season as the team's starting left tackle.

That will allow Michael Oher — who took over on the left side last year after Jared Gaither was injured, and whose performance merited mixed reviews, at best — to return to his more natural right tackle slot.

And that means Marshal Yanda, when healthy, can slide back inside to right guard.

One of the NFL's best inside blockers, Yanda was forced to play primarily at right tackle in 2010 because of the line shuffle precipitated by Gaither's back problems. If McKinnie can hold up, and the Ravens can get center Matt Birk (offseason knee surgery) back on the field, the line should be whole and effective again.

Left guard Ben Grubbs is a Pro Bowl-caliber inside blocker, Yanda is a mauler, and Oher is notably more comfortable as a strongside presence. McKinnie is "the big key," according to one Baltimore official this week.

The Ravens are gambling that McKinnie, who clearly let himself go during the lockout, isn't too big to be a factor at left tackle.

Dan the man

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Carolina middle linebacker Jon Beason, a three-time Pro Bowl player, might be the best overall defender in the NFC South. But the four-year veteran underwent surgery this week to address tendinitis in his left Achilles, and while it is possible Beason could end a stint on the non-football injury list and return to practice next week, his status for the regular-season opener is iffy.

Not having Beason available would be a big setback for the Panthers and first-year coach Ron Rivera — who allowed the day after a drubbing at the hands of the Bengals that he's very concerned about his front seven — but the club might have a more-than-adequate replacement in fourth-year veteran Dan Connor.

Despite the myriad problems of the Carolina defense, which has played miserably in the preseason, especially versus the run, Connor has acquitted himself pretty well.

A third-round choice in 2008, Connor has been a popular name when other teams have phoned general manager Marty Hurney about potential trades. In fact, it is believed Chicago inquired about Connor's availability when the Bears traded tight end Greg Olsen to the Panthers.

"He's ready to be a player," cornerback Chris Gamble told The Sports Xchange.

Connor, 25, started the first eight games in 2010 when Beason shifted to weak-side linebacker to fill in for the injured Thomas Davis, and notched 47 tackles before a hip injury ended his season. The former Penn State standout is in the final year of his original rookie contract and, assuming he does not sign an extension, can be an unrestricted free agent next spring. Odds are Connor won't break the bank, but he'll have a surprising number of suitors.

Nick of time

A few weeks ago, The Sports Xchange featured a column identifying 10 unrestricted free agent veterans who remained available at the time, and who might interest a few clubs, even halfway through training camp.

Since the column, seven of the 10 players either signed with new franchises or re-signed with their old ones and, while none of the deals were blockbusters, the players were at least able to find homes.

Arguably the most puzzling of the players from the group who remains in the market is former Eagles offensive lineman Nick Cole.

A five-year veteran, Cole has started in 29 of his 77 appearances, and has logged starts at both guard spots and at center. At 335 pounds, the former New Mexico State standout, who has never had a surgery, might not be an optimum fit for the sleeker, quicker model that new line coach Howard Mudd prefers, but one would think he'd be in some team's camp.

Agent Frederick Lyles told The Sports Xchange his client has had offers from four clubs, three of them in the NFC, but that Cole isn't inclined to simply jump at some of the deals other players have signed. "We're hoping to maybe get something done next week," Lyles said, "but the situation has to be right."

Persistence pays

As a Pittsburgh native, it's gratifying to see a man nominated for the Pro Football Hall of Fame who preceded the team's Super Bowl run. As a Hall of Fame selector, the nomination of defensive back Jack Butler as one of the two senior candidates this week means a lot of research, since he predates (1951-59) my too-long history of covering the game.

But kudos to Butler's family, and to former Steelers' personnel ace Art Rooney Jr., for their dogged persistence in championing the cause of a man who collected 52 interceptions, and ranked No. 2 in NFL history in that category at the time of his retirement, for his career.

Butler's children — particularly daughter Maureen and sons John and Mike — weren't overbearing with the materials they annually submitted to selectors in support of his candidacy. But the packages were always complete, well-prepared and reasoned.

Same with the notes forwarded by Rooney, one of the premier talent evaluators perhaps in league history and the man responsible for selecting most of the players who spearheaded the franchise's success of the 1970s. Not only was Butler, now 83, a superb player, but he also headed up the scouting evaluation combine, Blesto, for four decades, and brought some tremendous talent scouts to the league.

Since he was nominated as a player, that latter element won't be permitted to be part of the review of Butler's contribution to the league — much the same way Dick LeBeau's coaching legacy was not allowed two years ago — but it will be difficult to ignore.

The nomination of Butler, whose career was cut short by a leg injury so severe some people wondered if he would ever walk again, is a testimony to his short but productive career. But it is also a nod to those who tirelessly and passionately trumpeted his achievements over the last several years.

Punts

As noted in various reports this week, there has been some progress in contract extension talks between the Philadelphia Eagles and Joel Segal, the agent for quarterback Michael Vick. Both sides seem motivated to try to complete a deal by the first month of the season, and possibly sooner.

—Tailback Tiki Barber, who is attempting to return to the NFL after not playing the past four seasons, isn't abandoning his pursuit of a comeback, but isn't drawing much interest, even from teams that seem to need depth at the position. Barber, 36, has had just one workout, with Miami, and the Dolphins didn't offer a contract. There was never any validity to the rumors that linked Barber to Pittsburgh or Tampa Bay.

Feeling the heat

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—Some people close to Barber have suggested that he might play in the UFL, for former coach Jim Fassel, to demonstrate to skeptics he's got something left in the tank. But to this point, Barber has dismissed such suggestions.

—In the wake of the season-ending knee injury to starter Terrell Thomas last week, the New York Giants signed veteran cornerback Brian Williams from the sparse free-agent remnant. But the Giants, who will move former first-rounder Aaron Ross into the starting lineup, after he had been relegated to nickel duty most of 2010, are still actively shopping for at least one more edge defender. There isn't much available on the trade market, however, and team officials weren't particularly impressed with Lito Sheppard or Dre Bly, the other free agents auditioned this week.

—As if the Green Bay offense wasn't imposing enough, the Packers have been experimenting with the no-huddle attack in preseason. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers is said to like the no-huddle a lot.

—The Packers, by the way, continue to add playmaking wide receivers to an already-stocked arsenal. Second-round choice Randall Cobb looks to be a guy who will command playing time. And former practice squad wideout Chastin West is making a play for a roster spot as well.

—Arizona coaches and players have been impressed by the deep-ball abilities of quarterback Kevin Kolb. Not too much by Kolb's arm-strength, although there were some skeptics in that regard, but by his long-ball accuracy.

—Dallas may shop seven-year veteran defensive end Igor Olshansky, who appears to have lost his starting job to Kenyon Coleman, who seems to be stronger and more disciplined versus the run. Olshansky could be attractive to some 3-4 teams seeking to bolster the always difficult to fill end position.

—Cornerback Kelly Jennings, who started 14 games for Seattle in 2010, is trying to ward off a challenge from Brandon Browner for a starting job. Browner actually entered the league way back in 2005 with Denver, then played in the CFL, and has yet to play in an NFL regular-season game.

—Houston coaches contend that Mario Williams is starting to become a lot more accustomed to linebacker in the team's new 3-4 look, after having played end for his entire previous career in the league. The former top overall choice (2006) still gets lost on those few occasions when he is required to drop and cover, but is making strides in pressuring the pocket from a standup position.

—The Washington defense appears to be significantly improved in its second season under coordinator Jim Haslett. One reason, Redskins officials privately note, is the play of former 4-3 defensive tackle Barry Cofield, who has made a solid conversion to 3-4 nose tackle. Albert Haynesworth never accepted the switch last year, but Cofield has been more than comfortable with it. And Stephen Bowen, acquired from Dallas as an unrestricted free agent, has also provided stout play versus the run.

—Speaking of transitions, it appears Cleveland tackles Ahtyba Rubin and first-rounder Phil Taylor have done very well in converting to the Browns' new 4-3 front. Despite a lack of publicity, Rubin was one of the league's best young nose tackles in the 3-4. And most scouts felt first-rounder Taylor was a better 3-4 fit.

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—After signing inside linebacker Lawrence Timmons to a six-year, $50 million contract extension this week, Pittsburgh has all but closed up shop in terms of new deals for 2011. That means safety Troy Polamalu, the NFL's reigning defensive player of the year, will go into the final season of his contract without an extension. The Steelers will use the franchise tag to retain Polamalu next spring and keep him off the unrestricted market.

—Free-agent wide receiver Mark Clayton, who played very well for the Rams before injuring his knee after five contests in 2010, has performed moderately well in workouts for teams, but the belief is that he needs a little more time to rehab his injury. Several franchises are keeping Clayton near the top of their "emergency" lists, even more so than Terrell Owens (who acknowledged this week that he still needs a couple months to recover from knee surgery), in the event of an injury.

The last word

"Listen, I don't want to make it seem like I don't have open arms to anybody that's come into the organization. If they open the doors for Kerry Collins to come in, that's fine. I can't do anything about that anyway. But I'll be damned if we're going to open the door for somebody else (from the outside) and just drop our heads on who we already have. Colts are big on protecting their own, right? So I'm going to help protect our own." — Colts wide receiver Reggie Wayne, per the Indianapolis Star, on the Wednesday addition of Collins
 

Tagged: Raiders, Tiki Barber, Falcons, Bears, Bengals, Browns, Cowboys, Lions, Packers, Titans, Colts, Rams, Vikings, Giants, Eagles, Seahawks, Redskins, Panthers, Jaguars, Ravens, Steelers, Texans, Peyton Manning, Dre' Bly, Kerry Collins, Bryant McKinnie, Chris Gamble, Mark Clayton, Nick Cole, Marshal Yanda, Jon Beason, Ben Grubbs, Joe Flacco, Terrell Thomas, Matt Ryan, Dan Connor, Michael Oher, Sam Bradford, Chris Johnson, Phil Taylor

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