Down the middle: Keep an eye on the production of the tight ends in the division-round games this weekend, because it could really be a key element in determining the outcomes.
Seven of the eight remaining teams have at least one tight end with 40 or more receptions and 400-plus yards.
The only exception is Green Bay, and that’s basically because Jermichael Finley is out for the year. Six of the eight clubs have a tight end who had five or more touchdown catches during the regular season.
The New England rookie tandem of Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez combined for 87 catches, 1,109 yards, and 16 touchdowns, as Bill Belichick completely remade his passing game around the pair.
One reason why the Baltimore passing game has improved so dramatically is that tight end Todd Heap, who destroyed the Kansas City secondary last week, is healthy.
The Steelers have been working on a variety of coverage looks this week, some but not all involving star strong safety Troy Polamalu, to attempt to thwart Heap, because the Steelers feel he is such a key component for Joe Flacco. "For whatever reason, tight ends become more important (in the playoffs)," said Tony Gonzalez of Atlanta, whose 70 catches in the season lead all the remaining tight ends. "That’s just the way it is."
Vick will wait: For those expecting an expeditious resolution to the matter of how the Philadelphia Eagles will retain quarterback Michael Vick for 2011 – whether with a new contract or via a franchise tag – well, sit back and exhale a bit.
A quick answer isn’t likely to be forthcoming, according to a team source, and agent Joel Segal. "It’s going to be a while," Segal told The Sports Xchange this week. "Maybe a long while."
As noted several times in this space, there have yet to be discussions on even the framework of a deal, despite a report a few weeks ago that club officials had carried on a "continuing dialogue" with the agent about a contract. The club has already decided it wants Vick back, but will wait until it sees if there is a new collective bargaining agreement – and a franchise tag to be used – before moving ahead.
And Segal is in no hurry, either, since the lack of a franchise marker in any new labor deal (not having a franchise designation remains a long shot, most league sources insist to The Sports Xchange), actually provides him with increased leverage in negotiations. A few weeks ago, The Sports Xchange cited a source close to the Vick situation as suggesting a deal with Philadelphia was "a matter of ‘when’ and not ‘if’ it gets done." It looks like the when, though, could be a while.
Bigger is better?: One of the things Vick will do, while he rests his body and bides time awaiting contract negotiations, is ponder how much bigger (if at all) he wants to be in 2011, a source close to the quarterback told The Sports Xchange.
Vick does not want to sacrifice any of his trademark quickness and elusiveness for added size, but took a real beating as the 2010 season wore on, and teams took a lot more body-shots at a frame that is much closer to 205 pounds than the 215 pounds listed on the roster.
The cumulative effect of those body-blows: In his first six starts of the year, Vick had a passer rating of 100.0-plus four times, an overall rating of 115.1, threw 11 touchdown passes and no interceptions, was sacked 2.5 times per outing, and averaged 7.8 yards per rush.
In his last seven starts, including last week’s wild-card round loss to Green Bay, he had a rating of 100.0 or more just one time, an overall rating of 85.7, with nine touchdown passes and seven interceptions, was sacked 3.1 times per game, and averaged 5.7 yards per rush.
One element that needs to be addressed is the Philadelphia offensive line, which was unusually porous in 2010. In his 12 drafts, Andy Reid has chosen 20 offensive linemen — although only three in the first or second round — and has selected at least one blocker in all but three lotteries.
Last year marked only the second time in his last nine drafts that Reid didn’t invest at least one choice in a lineman. Seven times he has chosen at least two blockers, and three times, Reid has taken three or more. Expect Reid and general manager Howie Roseman to return to that trend in April.
It will be worth watching to see if new Cleveland coach Pat Shurmur tries to make overtures to current Eagles’ offensive line coach Juan Castillo. The veteran line mentor has been with the club for 16 years, actually pre-dating Reid, and rarely merits the credit he deserves. At least from outside of Philadelphia.
Reid has an unofficial policy of not permitting guys who once worked for him to raid his staff. But there are indications that Shurmur would love to have Castillo to work with a Cleveland blocking unit considered to be one of the Browns’ strengths.
Veni, vidi, Vince-y: Despite concerns about Vince Young’s maturity, or lack thereof, and rumored temperamental problems, there appears to be a fairly healthy market for the former Tennessee starter and one-time No. 3 overall pick in the draft.
Officials from three of the six quarterback-needy teams surveyed by The Sports Xchange this week acknowledged they have already begun the process of evaluating video of Young, and one pro personnel director allowed he "might" expend a mid- to late-round pick on the quarterback.
Said one of the GMs: "There are a ton of red flags … and they all scare you. But the guy has a solid record as a winner. He’s not the conventional quarterback, and you have to live with some (stuff) on the field, but you’re going to be tempted. As a rookie, (Tennessee) won games despite him … and he made some spectacular play he pulled out of his butt to overcome some of the (bad) things he’d done earlier. He’s never going to fit the mold, but if you need (a quarterback), you’re going to do your due diligence."
That conflicts with a report last week from former Washington and Houston general manager Charley Casserly, who does an excellent job as an "insider" for CBS, that he had spoken to several clubs and discerned no market for Young, who will not be back with the Titans in 2011. In the past two seasons, Young has a 12-6 record as a starter.
Watch your tongue: It hasn’t gotten any kind of formal hearing, but there was more than just a smattering of discussion in some corners of the NFL offices this week about the level of vitriol some players have used to inflame emotions leading up to playoff games.
Said one middle-level league official: "It’s slippery stuff, trying to stifle players, but a lot of people feel the talk has to be toned down a bit. We don’t need some of that (stuff). The rivalries are what they are, without it. Nobody’s talking, you know, about ‘playing nice.’ But there has to be more (civility)."
The talks come in a week when Jets cornerback Antonio Cromartie used foul language to describe Patriots quarterback Tom Brady and Baltimore linebacker Terrell Suggs wore a T-shirt with a picture of a Raven shooting the finger at the City of Pittsburgh.
Coach Rex Ryan, who clearly helps to nurture his team’s trash-talking, suggested Cromartie’s assessment of Brady was "no big deal." Some league officials don’t entirely agree.
Experienced need not apply: As noted in a column for The Sports Xchange earlier this week, league owners have lately disdained the once-entrenched "good ol’ boy" network that all but assured fired coaches future lateral employment, and reached out to fresher faces.
The only coach jettisoned by a team so far in 2010 to rebound into another head coach gig is John Fox, and he figures to be the lone one.
Of the 24 head coaches hired since 2004, 18 of them have been guys in their first NFL head coach positions.
The successes of first-timers like Mike Smith (Atlanta), Mike Tomlin (Pittsburgh), John Harbaugh (Baltimore), Rex Ryan (New York Jets), Jim Caldwell (Indianapolis), Ken Whisenhunt (Arizona), Todd Haley (Kansas City), Sean Payton (New Orleans), Raheem Morris (Tampa Bay), Mike McCarthy (Green Bay), and others has prompted the philosophical turnaround.
Clearly, the memo hasn’t reached Seattle, where the last two hires were Jim Mora and Pete Carroll, but it’s definitely gotten around the rest of the league. The successes of the men cited above, and the reality a team can win without paying its head coach $5 million — unless your name is Jim Harbaugh and you’ve created plenty of leverage — is now fueling the mindset.
The guys fired don’t necessarily have to re-invent themselves, but might have to take a step back into coordinator spots (Wade Phillips or perhaps Brad Childress) or even position-coach vacancies (Mike Singletary), and wait for their turn to come around again.
The trend is clearly away from the retread or the recycled head coach. There is room for men who have taken a few years to expunge their former perceptions, like Falcons offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey, but there aren’t many cases anymore, save for Fox in Denver, where head-coaching experience was a need for VP John Elway’s first hire, of guys being bounced from one head coach spot and immediately into another.
The uncertainty of the 2011 season — with revenues perhaps diminished and the possibility that there will be no players to coach anyway until late summer, is one element of the reversal. But hardly the only one. "Teams have just decided they can get good people for $3 million a year, as opposed to $5 million (a year)," one agent who represents several current past and present head coaches (and probably a few future ones, too), told The Sports Xchange this week.
Example: The Panthers will pay Ron Rivera about $2.8 million a year. Fox’s salary was in the $6 million range. Meanwhile, men like Bill Cowher, Jon Gruden, Brian Billick, and to a lesser extent (because he has been adamant about his coaching career being over) Tony Dungy have gotten few sniffs of late.
Hue tube: Seems Oakland offensive coordinator Hue Jackson, who is bucking to succeed Tom Cable as head coach, has borrowed a page from Raiders’ owner Al Davis in his quest to be a head coach. Davis typically interviews a lot of would-be candidates – picking the brains of men in whom he has only fleeting interest for a job – when he is seeking head coach possibilities.
Jackson, who probably will get an interview for the Raiders’ position, but who is no sure thing, has enlisted the aid of at least three different agents – Joby Branion, Kennard McGuire, and Terry Bolar – in the past month or so to work with him.
And outsiders think Davis talks to too many people and can’t make up his mind.