NFL notes for championship weekend
Around the league
Cover up: There’s no doubt the Chicago Bears are throwbacks. The Bears are the only one of the four franchises still playing that relies on a 4-3 defensive front.
And Chicago still makes liberal use of the Cover-2 defense, a look that is beginning to fade some from the league landscape. Two general managers to whom The Sports Xchange spoke this week about the NFC Championship Game suggested, without any statistics to support the claim, that Chicago likely played a much higher percentage of Cover-2 than any of the teams left in the Super Bowl tournament.
That makes sense, given coach Lovie Smith’s background with Tony Dungy, who used so much Cover-2 at Tampa Bay.
But Smith took some umbrage during the week with what he perceived as criticism of the Cover-2, even though the coverage has been good to the Bears, who haven’t been as susceptible to the deep ball in 2010.
And ESPN analyst Ron Jaworski, who watches more film than a Hollywood critic, told ol’ friend Dan Pompei of The Chicago Tribune/National Football Post that the Bears played a single-safety high look against the Packers in the first meeting of the teams this year.
Back in 2006, when the Chicago-Indianapolis matchup in Super Bowl XLI was touted as a game pitting two Cover-2 defenses, tape study revealed that the Colts actually played more Cover-3 down the stretch and the Bears more single coverage than advertised.
The Bears certainly will deploy in the Cover-2 on third-and-long, and they won’t blitz very much, but they will vary some the manner in which they try to counter red-hot Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers on Sunday. "You can’t just sit back there in the same (stuff) all day long, not the way he’s playing," Bears cornerback Charles Tillman said.
MO’ MONEY MATTERS: Maybe the worst kept secret in the league is that the Atlanta Falcons plan to reward coach Mike Smith with a contract extension, after he resurrected the team, made it relevant again in its own city and led the Falcons to the best record in the NFC this year.
But let’s add one more nugget: The franchise also is working on an extension for general manager Thomas Dimitroff, who has done a terrific job melding with Smith and providing the coaching staff with a solid personnel nucleus.
"We’re working on both right now," owner Arthur Blank told The Sports Xchange this week. "We want to keep them together. The (goal) for us is sustainability, and we think stability is the way to do that."
Smith has one season remaining on the original four-year deal he signed in 2008, and he is believed to be earning about $2.5 million per year. That figure might double in a new contract. The details of Dimitroff’s contract aren’t known, but it’s believed to run concurrent to Smith’s deal. If not, it most likely will when the two extensions are completed.
"They work best together," Blank said. "I’m not saying that they agree on everything or everyone, and it probably wouldn’t be good if they did, but they know how to see each other’s views — and to honor them."
We could be wrong about this, but the perception was that the Falcons and their two football people had all of the parameters in place, and extensions were just a formality. The perception we got from Blank is that the deals will get consummated, but that there is still some work to be done on both of them.
NO SILVER LINING: At the league meeting in Atlanta on Tuesday, there wasn’t a lot of happy-talk rhetoric about getting the new collective bargaining agreement with the players association anytime soon. Sure, commissioner Roger Goodell and lead negotiator Jeff Pash insisted that it’s still possible to hammer out an accord by the March 4 deadline at which the old one expires, but only with around-the-clock bargaining, which doesn’t appear likely to occur.
And in the hallways and corners of the airport area hotel at which the NFL owners huddled, the private mood pretty much mirrored the gray rain clouds that scudded overhead.
"If you follow the thing blow by blow, you can get nauseated," Colts owner Jim Irsay said.
Dallas owner Jerry Jones agreed that clubs are beginning to "reassess" their financial models, to account for the possibility of a strike. Three of the five owners surveyed by The Sports Xchange for non-attribution acknowledged that the preseason could be lost to a work stoppage.
One said he felt the league could miss "some early regular-season games" because of the labor situation. It certainly wasn’t pretty stuff.
MISSING FINLEY: As good as Rodgers has been, one player he could miss Sunday is tight end Jermichael Finley, who has been on injured reserve since after the fifth game of the regular season.
The athletic Finley has the skills set — size, speed, ability to split the safeties deep — that makes for a tough matchup for Cover-2 looks.
In five career games against Chicago, Finley has 17 receptions and has averaged 13.5 yards per catch. In the Sept. 27 game between the teams, he had nine catches for 115 yards. The Green Bay tight ends are adequate, but Finley might have been a nightmare for the Bears secondary.
LIGHTS, CAMERON, ACTION: So what’s Brett Favre up to these days, given he has opted to retire, and that this time his departure from the game seems official? Well, one of the things occupying his time, The Sports Exchange has learned, besides riding the tractor around the farm in Hattiesburg, Miss., is the recruitment of Auburn quarterback and Heisman Trophy winner Cam Newton.
Word is that Newton’s choice of agent representation is imminent — possibly as early as Friday — and that one of the finalists is Bus Cook, who represented Favre during his entire 20-year NFL career. Favre was part of the interview process when Newton met with Cook, and he reportedly spent about 20 minutes talking with the Auburn star.
It’s a pretty good bet the two weren’t swapping fishing tips. The other agents believed still to be in the hunt for Newton, as least as this was being written: Joel Segal, Peter Schaffer, and the newly formed Pat Dye-Jimmy Sexton alliance.
The representation for some of the other top quarterbacks in the 2011 draft: Both Blaine Gabbert of Missouri and Ryan Mallett of Arkansas are said to have hired Tom Condon.
And word is that David Dunn has landed Washington’s Jake Locker.
Condon, by the way, has represented five of the past seven No. 1 overall choices and five of the seven top quarterbacks chosen in the 2004-10 drafts.
WHITE-OUT: When the Miami Dolphins invested a second-round choice (44th overall) on Pat White in 2009, everyone figured the former West Virginia quarterback was a natural fit for the club’s wildcat formation as a player who would add a passing dimension to the formation.
That didn’t happen, and White, who rushed for a quarterback-record 4,000-plus yards in college, was released last summer.
After a flirtation with baseball, White is ready to give the NFL another shot, but is the league ready to afford him an opportunity? People close to White have been phoning personnel directors to gauge interest in bringing White to camp, The Sports Xchange has learned, but they are getting a mixed message in response.
The consensus is that White, who told us in summer 2009 that he was "committed" to playing the quarterback spot in the NFL, might have to switch positions to get a second chance.
White is "still pigeonholed" as a wildcat-type quarterback, an AFC personnel man told The Sports Xchange, and hasn’t "demonstrated he can pick up the nuances" of playing quarterback at the NFL level.
White does have decent quickness, and there is a growing belief that, at 6 feet, 197 pounds, he might have to try a switch to wide receiver if there is to be an NFL reincarnation.
One other note about banished quarterbacks, this one a little bigger (both name-wise and physically) than White: The representatives for former Raiders starter JaMarcus Russell, the top overall pick in the 2007 draft, are calling around to teams as well, trying to sell their client.
There has been zero positive feedback to date for Russell’s official agents or for the friends and acquaintances he also has making inquiries.
GENERALLY SPEAKING: There will be seven new head coaches in 2011, including two who assumed control of their respective teams as interim head coaches during the 2010 season (Jason Garrett of Dallas and Leslie Frazier of Minnesota). That’s about the average over the past decade and a half.
What’s notable is that there will be no new general managers, or management officials who wield GM-type sway.
There is the promotion of Trent Baalke in San Francisco, but the onetime personnel director for the 49ers essentially has functioned as a general manager since Scot McCloughan was dismissed in March.
The 49ers’ brass, of course, went through the motions of interviewing candidates for the position, but the understanding around the league was that it was Baalke’s job to lose. And he didn’t. Unless there are any surprise front-office moves yet to be made, the coming season will make the first since 2004 that there were no GM changes.