Bowl season begins with the unheralded and unranked, but features several tight pre-Christmas matchups.
20 Feb 2006
by Mike Tanier
Gary Kubiak worked for the Broncos in some capacity (backup quarterback, Elway's golf caddie, offensive coordinator) for over 20 years. He and Mike Shanahan grew to be pretty tight. When one of them belched, the other thought it was Coltrane. So it made sense that when Kubiak finally struck out on his own, Shanahan would hire another good buddy to replace him: Mike Heimerdinger, who roomed with Shanahan in college.
Technically, Rick Dennison is replacing Kubiak as offensive coordinator; Heimerdinger will be the assistant head coach. It's not clear what the exact separation of duties will be, but rest assured that Heimerdinger will be Shanahan's chief advisor and top confidante.
Heimerdinger gets a mulligan for last year's debacle in New York. His Titans offenses usually finished in the top 10 in the NFL in our advanced DVOA metric while he was with Tennessee. (That's Defense-adjusted Value Over Average, explained here.) He favored multi-receiver sets and timing routes to receivers and tight ends. Jake Plummer has the arm and mobility to execute such a system, but look for Heimerdinger to introduce wrinkles, not whole concepts, to the Broncos system. A receivers coach for the Broncos during their mid-1990's Super Bowl run, Heimerdinger was hired to provide stability, not change.
One player who is happy to see Heimerdinger return is WR Rod Smith. Smith got a chance to work with his former position coach at the Pro Bowl. "It's good to have (Heimerdinger) back in the locker room," Smith said. "I know his role was always to stay on me and make sure I kept my level of play up, and I'm glad to have that."
Of course, if the rumors about a certain receiver are true, Smith has another reason to stay on his toes.
To shed almost no light on the Terrell Owens story, Four Downs has enlisted the help of sometime contributors Captain Obvious and his sidekick Blatant Boy.
Captain Obvious: The Broncos and Chiefs are the frontrunners in the T.O. sweepstakes. The team that signs him will get an incredibly talented receiver. But he comes with a lot of baggage.
Blatant Boy: Holy understatements, Captain! That was so painfully obvious that I think my front teeth just abscessed.
CO: That's why I'm the captain, little chum. But Four Downs readers want more information. This isn't like every other column on the internet.
BB: Well, Cap, we can point out that both Herm Edwards and Mike Shanahan have said positive things about T.O., as have several Chiefs and Broncos players, and that both coaches have good records when dealing with problem players. Meanwhile, John Elway and Brian Dawkins have stated that T.O. isn't worth the trouble.
CO: Good observations, little chum, but also obvious. Few coaches will go on record saying bad things about a player, and few players will say something bad about a potential teammate. And every successful coach can point to success stories with cocky athletes; a coach who can't handle egomaniacs wouldn't last long in the NFL.
BB: Holy simple reasoning, Cap, you are right! And while Edwards and Shanahan are relatively established coaches, both will be working with new offensive coordinators this year. T.O. went out of his way to undermine Tobias Funke in Philadelphia and could very well do the same to Heimerdinger or Mike Solari.
CO: I think the former Eagles offensive coordinator is named Brad Childress, but I see your point, little chum. The problem right now is that we know as much about this situation as the average fan. No one knows what T.O. expects to earn in 2006. No one outside of the front offices in Denver and Kansas City knows what the teams are willing to pay.
BB: Well we have to help Tanier somehow, Cap. How about a bold prediction: where will T.O. end up?
CO: Denver. They are closer to the Super Bowl and will be able to clear more cap room. And Chiefs GM Carl Peterson is a cantankerous son of a gun who won't take any crap during negotiations. Of course, word out of both Kansas City and Denver suggests that there is still more smoke than fire in this story. Both front offices have stated that there haven't been any formal discussions with T.O. or agent Drew Rosenhaus. The field is wide open for another team to jump in.
Mike Tanier: Thanks, guys. Stop by anytime.
The Broncos began the offseason about $26 million over the salary cap, but they have already taken steps to improve their cap status. Center Tom Nalen and safety Sam Brandon signed new deals in early February, and the team is currently negotiating with left tackle Matt Lepsis and defensive tackle Gerald Warren. Reserve defensive end John Engleberger will have a new deal by the time you read this.
Even if Lepsis and Warren sign cap-friendly deals, the Broncos will still have to do some financial housecleaning. The team faces some tough decisions on the defensive line. Trevor Pryce's cap figure is over $10 million; he will have to negotiate an extension or face the waiver wire. Courtney Brown is due to make over $3 million but is likely to sign an extension.
Shanahan made it clear that re-signing the team's free agents is his top priority, and T.O. talk notwithstanding, it will be difficult for the Broncos to clear enough cap space to go shopping. That didn't stop linebacker Al Wilson from trying to convince Edgerrin James to head for the Rockies come the start of free agency. "I went up to Edge and talked to him for a minute about little things (Wednesday)," Wilson told the Denver Post after a Pro Bowl practice in Hawaii. "I told him the mountains are beautiful, man.... I told him our running system is something else. Little things like that."
Unfortunately for the Broncos, Edge's salary demands will include several million little things.
New coach Herm Edwards is bringing his conservative Cover-2 defensive philosophy to Kansas City. That means the end of Gunther Cunningham's aggressive, blitz-happy system. Right?
Not so fast. Cunningham was retained as defensive coordinator. And he was quick to tell reporters in late January that he was calling two-deep defensive plays back long before "Cover-2" became football's Cliche of the Decade.
There's a big difference between hot buzzwords and actual defensive playbooks. Cunningham's system called for two safeties in deep zones on certain occasions, and Edwards' system includes plenty of blitzes and man coverage. Edwards may keep his safeties deep more often than Cunningham, but the two coaches aren't that far apart philosophically.
An increased emphasis on deep support can only help the Chiefs. After giving up a league-high 72 passing plays of 20 or more yards in 2004, they surrendered just 46 such plays in 2005. It was a vast improvement, but the Chiefs were still tied for the eighth highest total of 20+ yard receptions in the league. Edwards' Jets surrendered just 33 passes of 20 or more yards, including a league-low two passes of 40+ yards.
As is often the case, schemes are less important than personnel. Edwards' defense only works when the defensive front four applies pressure with minimal blitzing. Cunningham emphasized the blitz because the Chiefs only have one pass rush threat on the defensive line (Jared Allen). If Edwards and Cunningham can get more out of their defensive line, they will be able to call whatever coverage schemes they want.
Things to do in Kansas City when football season is over: 1) Perfect that dry rub recipe (cayenne pepper, ground sage, oh yeah!) 2) Learn to spell "Grudzielanek" and "Mientkiewicz" (two words that roughly translate as "fourth place, AL Central") 3) Wait for Willie Roaf and Will Shields to make up their minds about retirement, again.
This year, the wait may not be very long. Roaf sat out the Pro Bowl but plans to be back. Shields told Jason Whitlock that he will make his decision in the next few weeks, but Whitlock indicated that the Pro Bowl guard wants to play another season. With Brian Waters signed to a new deal and former line coach Mike Solari now at offensive coordinator, the Chiefs can once again boast about stability and experience on the offensive line, even if the Willies are a little long in the tooth.
Priest Holmes is another Kansas City All Pro who spends a lot of time mulling over his 401K plan. It's clear that Larry Johnson is now the featured back, but Holmes can end his career the way he began it: as a change-up back.
Will he accept the role? Holmes is one of the NFL's more inscrutable characters, and it is hard to predict how he will react to reduced playing time, especially if he is asked to take a pay cut. One thing is certain: the Chiefs will not waive him. Because of prorated bonuses and other factors, it would be more expensive to cut Holmes than to keep him.
The good news for the Chiefs: all of their key players are under contract for next season. The bad news: they are about $25 million over the salary cap.
The Kansas City Star recently outlined the Chiefs cap situation in detail. If you don't feel like clicking the link, here are the highlights: Carl Peterson isn't worried, Tony Gonzalez and others will have to restructure their contracts, and underachievers like Kendrell Bell and Eric Warfield are history. Rest assured that if either Holmes or Shields retires, he'll be asked to pull a Rich Gannon, restructuring his contract on the way out the door.
As in Denver, the dire financial situation hasn't kept observers from dreaming of a free agent splurge. Whitlock spent early February in Hawaii wooing former Patriots and Jets CB Ty Law. As Whitlock tells it, he enjoyed a celebratory Grey Goose toast with Law and Otis Smith (Smith and toasts go hand in hand), then outlined the Chiefs' predicament. "I told him the Chiefs need one playmaker to go along with Jared Allen. If Law signs for a reasonable price, the Chiefs could address their other shortcomings."
Unfortunately, Law's reasonable price is in the $10 million range, according to Whitlock. At least the vodka was good.
No owner in the NFL conducts a search for a new head coach the way Al Davis does it.
Most execs round up a list of usual suspects -- college hotshots, successful coordinators, former coaches in broadcast booth exile -- conduct a few interviews, and make a decision by mid-January. It's all too mundane for Davis, who likes to spend a month or two spinning webs of intrigue before announcing his plans.
In the past, Davis has spread misinformation and disinformation to throw other teams off the scent of prize coaching talent. He usually interviews a top coordinator or two from within the AFC West, perhaps to ferret out organizational secrets, perhaps to rankle Lamar Hunt or Pat Bowlen. By the time the white smoke puffs from the chimney at Raiders headquarters, Davis has usually overturned every possible stone and played every conceivable angle.
It's no surprise, then, that a man who loves shell games so much keeps hiring Art Shell.
Davis' Machiavellian schemes have been getting the better of him over the past few hiring cycles, and it looks like he outsmarted himself this year. Shell isn't a terrible hire -- he was relatively successful in his first term with the Raiders -- but better candidates rolled through Oakland on their way to better jobs, and Davis was too busy channeling Ernst Blofeld to make them serious offers.
First came Al Saunders, the obligatory "ruffle Hunt's feathers" candidate. Saunders met with Davis and assistant Michael Lombardi on January 11, but the well-regarded offensive coordinator came away from the interview feeling like he was a token candidate. Davis never followed up on the interview, and Saunders landed in Washington a few weeks later.
While Saunders dangled, Davis and Lombardi flirted with Fresno State head coach Pat Hill. The team never formally interviewed Hill, but his rumored candidacy for the Raiders job began taking a toll on Hill's recruiting class. Hill imposed a 10-day limit on NFL offers as a promise to his college recruits; when that deadline passed without a call from Davis, Hill stayed in beautiful Fresno.
Names like Ron Rivera, Rod Marinelli, and James Lofton surfaced in connection with the Raiders job, but team interest appeared to be lukewarm (Marinelli and Lofton were interviewed). Davis suggested that he could be in the market for a hot young coordinator when he spoke to the media in early January. "I hired a lot of people who a lot of other people wouldn't have hired in a million years,'' the Raiders' owner said. "Didn't know who they were.'' Davis' speech was a marvel of revisionist history that would make Daniel Brown proud; he took credit for "discovering" Mike Shanahan. But while Davis hinted that he wanted to play Pygmalion, the coordinator pool was drying.
When Saunders left the picture, Davis turned to the man he said he would not consider in January: Mike Martz. Martz met with Davis and Lombardi on January 25th in what Lombardi called a "get to know you" meeting. Martz' offensive philosophy seemed like a perfect fit in Oakland, but like Saunders, Martz left without a commitment. Three days later, he withdrew his name from consideration, and he soon joined Marinelli in Detroit. Art Shell then met with Davis in what was described as a "courtesy" interview (notice the spookily polite euphemisms).
It became clear that Davis' ultimate prize was Steelers coordinator Ken Whisenhunt. Or maybe it was just that Whisenhunt was the last big-name coordinator left. Whisenhunt flew from Pittsburgh to Oakland just after the Steelers' Super Bowl parade and met with Davis for several hours on February 8th. Just one day after the interview, Whisenhunt removed his name from consideration. At some point in early February, Davis also offered a job to Louisville coach Bobby Petrino, although it is not clear if Petrino even formally interviewed. Petrino turned the Raiders down. Jim Fassell was briefly touted as the top candidate, but by February 10th, Shell was back as the Raiders head coach.
Shell and Davis have made the most of the hiring, playing the whole "Commitment to Excellence" card for all it's worth, but it's obvious that Shell was the fourth or fifth option, and several of the other options spurned Davis before he had a chance to spurn them. Davis wanted to throw deep with a splashy hire, then had to check down to his secondary targets. In desperation, he dumped the ball in the flat to the tackle eligible.
But wait, Shell brings something very important to the Raiders. You guessed it: swagger.
"We spent a lot of time on ... getting that Raiders' swagger, that Raider toughness, back," Davis told the Oakland Tribune. "Art will help bring some of the swagger back. It will be like old times," added former Raiders safety Jack Tatum.
All of the old Raiders agreed that Shell would bring back the toughness and intensity that made the team notorious in the 1970s. Only a pessimist would suggest that the Raiders have already spent too much time, money, and energy trying to bring back halcyon days that ended over 20 years ago. After all, swagger and a "bad boy image" are great, but wasn't Warren Sapp supposed to provide swagger? Randy Moss? Haven't we been down this road a few dozen times?
In fairness to Shell, every new coach must be allowed to give a tough-guy speech at the beginning of his tenure: players, reporters, and fans all want to hear that the new skipper will "instill a winning attitude" and get guys to "play physical." And yes, effort and discipline are important, especially in the wake of the paycheck atmosphere that reigned during Norv Turner's tenure.
But a wise man once said that seeking intangible qualities usually yields intangible results. The Raiders need a good player development program, good offensive and defensive schemes, and a sound fiscal plan. If they can take care of these problems, then "swagger" will take care of itself.
Shell's first duty will be to negotiate a salary cap landmine: the Raiders are about $30 million over the cap, and there are few easy cuts on the roster.
Ronald Curry, a talented receiver who hurts his Achilles tendon every year and has a cap figure near $5 million, is as good as gone. Ditto veteran guard Ron Stone, who costs the team about $3 million but plays a position where talent is abundant.
But what about Sapp? He was playing well before he got hurt in mid-November. The team would take a cap hit of about $6 million if it released him. Kerry Collins, Bobby Hamilton, Barry Sims, Derrick Gibson and Denard Walker all have cap figures that are far greater than their actual value. The Raiders will strike new deals with some (probably Sapp, Collins and Hamilton) while axing others (see ya', Gibson and Walker), and they'll still have to cut corners to sign their draft picks.
So while rumors abound that the Raiders covet Daunte Culpepper, it's hard to imagine how they could fit him into their current cap situation. Veteran cornerback Charles Woodson is almost certain to move on. Shell has inherited a lot of headaches, and some coaches would take their cap medicine in their first year by cutting players like Sapp and Sims, suffering through a dead money year, and then starting over. Davis won't allow that to happen in Oakland.
There is a good chance that Drew Brees will be on the free agent market at the beginning of March.
Chargers GM A.J. Smith made an initial contract offer to Brees on February 6th. Two weeks of media silence followed. At the beginning of the month, Smith imposed a February 23rd limit on negotiations: if no deal was struck by then, Smith was expected to use the franchise or transition tag on his quarterback.
But what seemed like a cut-'n'-dry situation became murky. First, the status of Brees' surgically repaired shoulder came into question. A report in the San Diego Union Tribune in late January stated that Brees was three weeks ahead of schedule in rehabbing his torn labrum. But Smith clearly doesn't want to be caught in a Chad Pennington situation with a quarterback who won't be ready to throw a football until after the draft. Smith hedged his bets by signing third stringer A.J. Feeley to a new deal, and he planned to use the transition tag to offer Brees a non-guaranteed one-year deal.
Smith's plans may be thwarted by vague language in the collective bargaining agreement. Here's the phrase in question, as quoted in the Union-Tribune: "the Required Tenders of a one year Player Contract for at least 120% of the Franchise Player's or Transition Player's Prior Year Salaries shall in addition to the 120% Salary also include all other terms of the player's Prior Year contract, including any guarantees." The "any guarantees" would appear to include Brees' guaranteed money as a 2004 franchise player. Smith doesn't want to challenge the language of the CBA (he would lose; vague language is always interpreted in favor of labor), and he doesn't want to guarantee nearly $10 million to a quarterback who may have a bum wing.
As of Sunday, Smith was still talking to Brees' agent. It's not clear how far apart they are at this point. But it's very possible that Philip Rivers will be under center for the Chargers in 2006, with Brees helming the Dolphins, Saints, or some other quarterback-hungry team.
Carl Mauck only coached the offensive line for one year in his recent stint with the team. The Chargers finished ninth in the league in Adjusted Line Yards under Mauck after finishing 16th in 2004. (ALY breaks down runs depending on length to separate blocking from longer runs dependent only on the RB's performance.) Injuries to Roman Oben, Nick Hardwick and others forced Mauck to keep shuffling his starting lineup, but the team avoided a blocking meltdown. Mauck, who also coached the line during the team's 1994 Super Bowl run, was rewarded for an apparent job well done with a pink slip. Jack Henry will replace him as offensive line coach.
Mauck was angry at the dismissal, and felt that he was stabbed in the back by Marty Schottenheimer, who gave his line coach a good grade in a postseason press conference. "He stood up before you guys and said I did a good job,'' Mauck told the North County Times. "Then two weeks later all of a sudden I didn't do a good job and he just fired me. All of a sudden I went from being all right to not being all right.''
There are two related theories about Mauck's dismissal. The first, posited by the Times, is that offensive coordinator Cam Cameron wanted to get rid of Mauck. The second theory suggests that Mauck's confrontational coaching style didn't sit well with Schottenheimer's businesslike approach. Chargers players were accustomed to the paternal style of former coach Hudson Houck and may not have responded well to periodic cuss-outs.
According to Mauck, Schottenheimer said he dismissed him because "some of the linemen had digressed." Mauck is clearly quite a communicator. Henry, a 36-year coaching vet who also replaced Mauck in 1996, is known as a developer of young talent. "First and foremost, Jack is an excellent teacher," Schottenheimer said of Henry at a press conference. As the Saints line coach, Henry coached units that finished 21st, 18th, and 27th in Adjusted Line Yards and were generally near the middle of the pack in sacks allowed per pass play.
Unlike their competitors in the AFC West, the Chargers are in great cap shape, and they are likely to do a little spending in March.
GM A.J. Smith was busy re-signing role players in February. In addition to Feeley, defensive end Jacque Cesaire, safety Clinton Hart, and special teams ace Kassim Osgood all signed long-term deals. Prudent re-signings like these keep the Chargers on sound financial footing, but backup safeties and kick gunners don't win Super Bowls. Smith will hit the market in search of help at wide receiver, in the secondary, and possibly on the offensive line.
Smith has kept the team fiscally healthy by avoiding spending sprees, so don't look for the Chargers to chase big names like Charles Woodson. But the team is likely to let Keenan McCardell test the free agent market while shopping for a younger alternative like Nate Burleson or Kevin Curtis. In the secondary, Nate Clements will command top dollar, but he would allow Quentin Jammer to move into a more natural role as a #2 cornerback. An offensive lineman like Steve Hutchinson might be too good for the Chargers to pass up, but Smith may wait to see if Henry and better health can improve the line that's in place.
And if Brees does walk, Smith may seek a cheap veteran insurance policy to play behind Rivers and Feeley.
Friday: AFC South by Ned Macey
58 comments, Last at 29 Mar 2006, 4:24am by Ryan