Around the NFL for Wild Card weekend

Around the league

Marvin gardens: In agreeing to a two-year contract extension to remain with the Cincinnati Bengals, coach Marvin Lewis put a new spin on an age-old bromide. The adage is that, at any level of the game, you don’t fire a coach unless you’re certain you’ve got someone better as a replacement.

Lewis didn’t walk away from the Bengals, his disagreements with owner Mike Brown notwithstanding, because sources have told The Sports Xchange he had nothing better going. Very quietly the representatives for Lewis had put out feelers about his possible future employment, and the feedback wasn’t encouraging.

While it’s difficult to believe that Lewis would not have been attractive as a defensive coordinator somewhere in the league, the odds he would have landed another head coach gig weren’t great. Forget the rumors that he was on the "short list" at the University of Pittsburgh.

Lewis’ ego wasn’t going to allow him to go back to the college ranks. And influential people at the school have told this Pitt grad that Lewis was never seriously considered, even with the incredible turmoil existing in the program after the ham-handed dismissal of Dave Wannstedt and the firing of replacement Michael Haywood. And so Lewis returned to the Bengals, where he has only two winning seasons in eight years (and an overall record of 60-69-1), and where the expectations are such that he received raises after going 8-8 in each of his first two seasons.

Lewis got some concessions on staffing and personnel — surprisingly, vice presidents Katie Blackburn (Brown’s daughter) and Troy Blackburn (his son-in-law) sided with the coach on several of his key points — but it could be a while before he gets the indoor practice facility he wants.

Meanwhile, as has been widely reported, the returns of wide receivers Chad Ochocinco and Terrell Owens won’t happen with Lewis’ return, even though Lewis suggested Thursday that Ochocinco is under contract for 2011.

And, apparently, tailback Cedric Benson, an unrestricted free agent, won’t consider re-signing with the Bengals if Bob Bratkowski is retained as offensive coordinator.

Payton’s place: With the official announcement by Jerry Jones on Thursday that Jason Garrett will have the "interim" prefix expunged from his coaching title in Dallas, one of the NFL’s hottest rumors of the past two weeks is now, thankfully, a moot point. This space normally doesn’t much engage in unsubstantiated rumors, but there may have been a little too much smoke accompanying this fire to completely ignore it.

The talk in some league circles was that New Orleans coach Sean Payton might have had some interest in the Cowboys’ vacancy if he could figure a way out of his Saints’ contract. Payton was an assistant in Dallas for three years before he got the New Orleans job in 2006, and he is highly regarded by the Cowboys’ owner — even if Payton essentially pirated away a bottle of expensive wine that Jones had reserved at St. Elmo Steak House in Indianapolis during last year’s NFL combine there.

Payton is under contract to the Saints through 2012. As with the contract extension slated for quarterback Drew Brees in the coming offseason, the Saints’ front office will work hard on an enhancement for their coach.

The crazy rumors connecting Payton to Dallas won’t hurt him in that regard.

Under the microscope: The most coveted prospect for the 2011 draft, Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck, announced Thursday that he will return to school for another year of eligibility. That decision will turn the ’11 lottery on its head, create some uncertainty about the overall No. 1 selection — it has been a quarterback in eight of the past 10 years — and enhance the profile and viability of a few other quarterbacks in the draft pool.

What it likely won’t do, however, is alter the identity of the passer who figures to be the most scrutinized quarterback, and arguably the most studied player overall, in the April draft.

In the 16 weeks between now and the draft, expect Jake Locker of Washington to be that most pored-over guy, and a lot of NFL personnel experts concur with that assessment. Said one general manager of a team that might seek to draft a quarterback, certainly in the first two rounds: "Given his ups and downs, and the current (disparity) of opinion about whether he is a first- or a second-rounder, there are a lot of teams who figure that they might legitimately have a shot at (Locker). He doesn’t figure to drop in the way (Carolina second-round choice Jimmy) Clausen did this year. But you can’t assume, either, that he won’t still be on the board in the second round. So you’re going to have to do your homework on the guy."

The week of practice before the Senior Bowl, the much-studied all-star game in which Locker has already agreed to play, could be critical to the evaluation of the Huskies star. Locker began the 2010 season generally regarded as the premier senior quarterback prospect available, after eschewing the draft in ’09, in part to spend another season with Washington head coach and noted quarterback tutor Steve Sarkisian.

His senior season probably didn’t go as planned, and Locker didn’t play especially well in the Holiday Bowl last week despite leading Washington to a victory over Nebraska, but that doesn’t really diminish the fact the Huskies star has a skills set that one college personnel director termed "freaky" in a discussion with The Sports Xchange.

Or that Seattle coach and former USC head man Pete Carroll said Locker is a "stud."

Locker has the size (6-foot-3, 230 pounds), arm, active feet, speed (once timed at an incredible 4.39 seconds in the 40), and character the NFL scouts love. His accuracy and decision-making/judgment are somewhat suspect, but it is difficult to ignore his overall physical tools.

One person familiar with Locker termed him "a Boy Scout" when it comes to his character and citizenship. Example: A few years ago, when he was being scouted for his baseball abilities, Locker phoned the staff for the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, who were rumored to be interested in him, and advised them not to draft him, because he planned on a football future. The Angels chose him anyway in 2009 and awarded Locker a $300,000 signing bonus.

The positive side of that, according to one agent who is attempting to recruit Locker, is that NFL money is not going to be a sticking point for him. And he definitely wants to play in the NFL and isn’t likely to use his baseball prowess as leverage.

"When he looks in the mirror," said one personnel evaluator who has done an initial workup on Locker, "he sees an NFL quarterback."

Locker has thrown 53 touchdown passes and 35 interceptions, so his ability to read defenses might need some fine-tuning, but there are no questions about his ability to throw every pass. He has also rushed for 1,939 yards and 29 touchdowns in four years — though he hasn’t come close to the 986-yard and 13-touchdown season he posted in 2007. But he has exceptional running skills, most scouts agree.

Draft analyst Rob Rang of NFL Draft Scout/The Sports Xchange still rates Locker as a first-rounder, but he is going to be poked and prodded, and most of all probed, extensively in coming weeks.

Hue and cry: League sources told The Sports Xchange this week that it is "90 percent certain" that Oakland offensive coordinator Hue Jackson will get a chance to interview for the Raiders’ head coach job that became vacant when owner Al Davis decided not to exercise Tom Cable’s option.

Jackson is seen as thick-skinned enough to tolerate Davis’ meddling and is of the low-key ilk that the Raiders seem to favor. Jackson definitely had his sights set on the Cincinnati job if Lewis didn’t survive. He could be a long shot to return to the Bengals, where he was an assistant from 2004 to 2006, if Bratkowski departs, and he was free to leave the Raiders, provided he doesn’t get the head coach position.

Charles in charge: With Charlie Weis headed to the University of Florida at the conclusion of Kansas City’s playoff run, the Chiefs will have a new offensive coordinator in 2011. What the Chiefs might not have, no matter who replaces Weis as the primary offensive tactician, is a new way of approaching the tailback tandem of Thomas Jones and Jamaal Charles.

The latter finished second in the NFL in rushingand was awarded a new, six-year, $27.97 million contract, despite starting only six games in 2010. There are plenty of people in Kansas City who feel that, even though his rushing yardage was roughly one-third better on average in his starts (108.3 yards-81.7 yards), Charles is still best when he isn’t burdened too much by an extensive workload.

For now, the Chiefs plan to retain the two-back division of labor, and to keep Jones, who team officials feel hasn’t slowed down considerably, despite being 32 years old. Jones started 10 games this season and, while his 3.7-yard average was about 2.7 yards less than Charles’ mark, he provided some inside power and veteran savvy.

Kansas City may look for a younger back to develop as an eventual partner for Charles, but the Chiefs seem to like the shared-workload setup. Charles, by the way, rushed for 1,467 yards on just 230 attempts. That’s the fewest attempts for a 1,400-yard rusher in at least 12 years. There have been, though, six other backs this decade who ran for 1,400 yards despite logging fewer than 300 carries. The best and most recent was DeAngelo Williams of Carolina, who had only 273 carries in ’08, but totaled 1,515 yards.

Charles averaged 6.38 yards per rush this season. That’s believed to be the second-highest in history by a back with more than 225 carries and 1,000 yards, and the best average of the Super Bowl era. Hall-of-Famer Jim Brown averaged 6.402 yards in 1963.

Tryon hard: It’s never been divulged exactly what the Indianapolis Colts traded to Washington for cornerback Justin Tryon just before the start of the season — although most assume that the compensation was a conditional, low-round draft choice — but the deal might be one of the best bargain-basement trades president Bill Polian has ever made.

Earlier in the season The Tip Sheet touted Tryon and noted how essential he might be in Indianapolis, and now that is the case. With Jerraud Powers on injured reserve (further depleting a Colts secondary wracked by injuries at safety), and Kelvin Hayden nursing a neck injury and limited to 11 starts because of various hurts, Tryon has been key.

The third-year veteran doesn’t have an interception, but the onetime Arizona State star has seven passes defensed, and has started six games. Polian deserves kudos for patching together a safety spot that has six players on injured reserve, including former defensive player of the year Bob Sanders and onetime starter Melvin Bullitt, but he gets a tip of the hat, too, for the Tryon deal.

Tryon, who will start again with former undrafted college free agent Jacob Lacey on Saturday, will have his hands full with New York Jets wideouts Santonio Holmes and Braylon Edwards. But for a guy acquired to play on special teams and to serve as the No. 4 cornerback, he’s paid big dividends.

Polian saw something a lot of people missed in Tryon.

What he might have noted was this little-known nugget: Tryon ranked second in the league in 2009 in fewest average yards surrendered, behind only Jets’ star Darrelle Revis, per pass thrown at him.

Final quarterback count: Nearly every week, The Tip Sheet updates the league quarterback count in terms of starters used and changes made. The final count on starters for 2010 was 62, just a couple shy of the single-season high (64 in 2007) in the past 25 years. Only a dozen franchises made it through the season with the same starting quarterback for every outing. And 11 teams used three starters each; none reached four.

Trent Edwards started for two different teams, Buffalo and Jacksonville.

There were, by unofficial count, 61 QB "switches" since the first week of the campaign, an average of 3.8 per week. In just one week, Week 4, were there no changes. There were at least three changes in every other week, with highs of six in Week 15 and Week 17.