"Last team with the ball wins" is a cliche, but sometimes cliches are the best way to get across the central narrative of an important game. If you like great quarterback play, you have to watch the NFC Championship Game.
16 Feb 2007
You probably know by now that Michael Vick will be allowed to call audibles next year, a privilege he was never given by former offensive coordinator Greg Knapp. But you may not know exactly what audibles Vick will be allowed to call. A source close to Bobby Petrino gave Football Outsiders a preliminary list of plays that Vick will be permitted to call at the line next season. For convenience, our source (who will remain nameless and fictitious) provided instructions so you can use these audibles in your favorite video game once the 2008 edition is released:
Coach Killer Left: A bootleg run around left end (A Button)
Coach Killer Right: Same play, different side (B Button)
Durty Bird Fan Flip: A deep pass about 10 yards over the head of Roddy White (X-button)
Random Scramble: A play where Vick drops to pass, strikes his "action figure" pose the moment a defender comes within four yards of him, then runs around in circles until tackled (left trigger, right trigger, select button).
Particulate Fake Toss Security Guard Dodge: Pretty much what it sounds like (Y-button)
Snicker if you want, but it's nearly impossible for a quarterback to execute a modern NFL offense without the ability to call audibles. Knapp claimed that he never allowed his quarterbacks to change plays, not even Jeff Garcia in San Francisco, so you have to wonder if his entire scheme was a little backward. Knapp is now in Oakland, where backward is the new forward, so no one will notice if his system is a little antedated.
Of course, there's a chance that Knapp fibbed a little when he said that his quarterbacks were never allowed to audible. Maybe Vick was the only quarterback denied to right to change plays, but Knapp didn't want to single Vick out. But Vick did have some success last season when he undermined Knapp and drew up some playground plays with receiver Michael Jenkins against the Redskins. Vick and Jenkins connected on a 22-yard touchdown pass that sprung not from the playbook but their fertile imaginations. "Sometimes, you have to overcome coaching," Vick joked after the game. The truest things really are said in jest.
There's no way to run an offense like Petrino's, which is loaded with shotgun handoffs and rollout passes, without the occasional audible. And Vick could benefit from the ability to change a play at the line that he doesn't feel will work. Falcons players complained last season that they knew some plays were doomed as soon as they broke the huddle and saw the defensive alignment. No doubt some of those doomed plays turned into the headless-chicken scrambles and throws-to-nowhere that we criticize Vick for. Vick can be very creative after the snap. Petrino may be able to harness some of that creativity and use it before the snap, when it can do more good. It could yield exciting results. Or maybe just amusing ones.
Despite all of the blog fervor, Vick isn't going anywhere. After the water bottle incident, Petrino wants to keep Matt Schaub around as well. Schaub's name turned up in conjunction with every team that needed a starting quarterback during the regular season â€“ the Rochester Democrat seemed ready to pay his plane fare to Buffalo until J.P. Losman showed improvement â€“ but only the Packers appear to have even a tepid interest right now. Schaub is a restricted free agent, so a team would have to be really motivated to nab him.
Patrick Kerney indicated that he wants to stay in Atlanta, and both Arthur Blank and GM Rich McKay want him back. The Jets have shown interest in Kerney, but they run a 3-4 defense, and Kerney flopped as an outside linebacker a few years ago. Early reports indicate that that the Falcons will also try to hold onto RFA linebacker Demorrio Williams, a speedster who would have more opportunities to blitz under new coordinator Mike Zimmer. Defensive tackle Rod Coleman could fetch a hefty salary on the open market and may be too expensive to keep.
Receiver Ashley Lelie voided the second year of his contract in late January and wants out of Atlanta. The Falcons have no interest in retaining him. Brian Finneran is expected back, and the new coaches want to take a long look at tough, speedy special teamer Adam Jennings as a potential deep threat from the slot.
Linebacker Ed Hartwell, who is in the middle of a huge six-year contract but is never healthy, is on the hot seat. If Hartwell doesn't play well in minicamps, he could be a cap casualty. Veteran corners Jason Webster and Allen Rossum could also face the axe as Zimmer rebuilds the defense.
The Falcons need a cornerback but lack the cap space to pursue top targets Nate Clements or Asante Samuel (the cap space estimate above is from askthecommish.com; other sources give the team only $3-4 million in cap room). Many of the lower-cost alternatives on the market, like Nick Harper of the Colts, are Cover-2 corners who don't fit Zimmer's man coverage-oriented scheme. Safety is another area of need, but the Falcons are expected to improve that position through the draft. After covering their bases with Schaub and Kerney and signing their rookies, the Falcons probably won't be major movers on the free agent market.
New Panthers offensive coordinator Jeff Davidson brings outstanding credentials with him to his new job:
Henning had to go after he turned the Panthers into the worst third down team in the NFL last season (according to DVOA and any other stat you can find). Henning's critics pegged him as an arch-conservative who ran the ball at all costs, but that isn't really true. Henning struggled to build an adequate running game in Carolina, and the Panthers never finished in the top half of the league in rushing DVOA on Henning's watch. When Henning lost confidence in his ground attack, he started throwing the ball on third-and-short. Opponents caught on, and the Panthers offense unraveled.
Fans hoping for a more wide-open attack from Davidson may be disappointed: he appears to be a run-oriented coach. He can make the Panthers offense more dynamic, though, if he can bring more consistency to the ground game. New offensive line coach Dave Magazu will help. Magazu coached the Boston College offensive line and knows how to instill exceptional fundamentals in young blockers. He should be able to mold youngsters like Evan Mathis and Jordan Gross into better players. The Panthers have most of the pieces in place for a productive offense. It's just up to Davidson and Magazu to assemble them properly.
The Panthers are cap-strapped, so lots of players could walk over the next few months. Keary Colbert, who seemed destined for stardom two years ago, is as good as gone at wide receiver. Linebacker Na'il Diggs, another unrestricted free agent, won't be back. Veterans like quarterback Chris Weinke and cornerback Ken Lucas will be gone by June.
Several big name defenders could be on the chopping block. Linebacker Dan Morgan, safety Mike Minter, and defensive end Mike Rucker are all due a lot of money in 2007. Rucker is an elite player when healthy but is 32 and coming off an ACL tear. Morgan is always hurt. Minter is 33. Together, they account for over $10 million in cap space.
Keyshawn Johnson claimed that he would retire if Henning was fired, but he backed off those comments in mid-January. All is quiet on the Keyshawn front; the receiver was last seen in Westwood, California, picking out the baseboards for one of his condos. Toe-kickers cost money, so Keyshawn will be back.
The Panthers are one of the few teams in the NFL that are currently over the cap, so they cannot afford to do much shopping. The Panthers have major needs at tight end and left tackle, but they will probably have to plug those holes through the draft or promotion from within. Davidson would love to bring New England's Daniel Graham to Carolina as an all-purpose tight end, but Graham is probably too expensive.
Drew Brees is OK. He will need six-to-eight weeks of rest to heal the left elbow he disclocated in the Pro Bowl. But he won't need surgery. He won't miss minicamp. Most importantly, he won't miss Mardi Gras: Brees will be Grand Marshall for the Krewe of Bacchus, one of the largest and most legendary parade companies in New Orleans. Betcha John Fourcade never got to be a Grand Marshall.
(A quick Mardi Gras note: technically, the Grand Marshall is not Bacchus himself; that honor falls to James Gandolfini this year. Other Saints stars will also ride down Rue Bourbon in the days to come. Sean Payton will reign as a king of the Krewe of Orpheus. And much-maligned cornerback Fred Thomas may be honored by the Krewe of Croutonus, a parade company that celebrates the Greek god of toast.)
The hit Brees suffered in the Pro Bowl could have been much worse. Imagine if he hurt his right throwing elbow instead of his left one. Imagine that he needed a few months of rehab. The only other quarterbacks on the Saints roster are Jamie Martin and Jason Fife. Neither is starter material. The Saints would have to climb on the Jeff Garcia-Matt Schaub merry-go-round or else risk losing all the momentum they gained this season. Imagine if Brees returned in September with a bad case of Pennington Arm. The Saints would quickly go from feel-good story to one-year wonder.
But there's nothing to worry about. Brees is fine. Heck, he's tight with the god of wine. Now is not the time for sober analysis of the Saints. Check back on February 21st and see if the good times are still rolling.
Charles Grant is the most important free agent on the Saints roster, and he will command a huge contract on the open market. The Saints used the franchise tag on defensive end Darren Howard for two straight years, so they aren't above slapping the tag on Grant. But Howard, like most players, wasn't happy with the tag, and Grant will likely chafe if he is franchised. Still, the team cannot afford to let him test the open market, so Grant will either be locked up quickly or tagged.
Veteran receiver Joe Horn missed the playoffs with injuries and has a contract worth about $4.5 million. He's a likely cap casualty. Of the Saints' other free agents, only tackle Jon Stinchcomb is a high-priority player. The team took care of some business early in the month by re-signing Scott Shanle, the linebacker who went from the Cowboys bench to the Saints starting lineup in late August and wound up recording 97 tackles and four sacks.
The Saints need to improve their secondary and linebacker corps, and they have the money to make a splash. Even if they sign or franchise Grant, they should be able to make a run at a top cornerback like Asante Samuel or Nate Clements. The Saints linebackers played well all season long but need an infusion of speed and talent. If they can't land a top cornerback, the Saints could make a run at Adalius Thomas, whose blitzing capability would give coordinator Gary Gibbs more options. The Saints could go in a different direction by pursuing Cato June, whose speed in coverage would be an asset.
The free agent market is filled with offensive linemen, and the Saints need depth along the line, particularly if they lose Stinchcomb or Montrae Holland. If the price is right, they could pursue a veteran tackle like Roman Oben to provide some insurance.
Not-so-fresh from under the rumor heat lamp: it seems that the Buccaneers are interested in trading down in the draft. The Bucs reportedly believe that there's a major drop-off after the top seven prospects in the draft, but with multiple needs, they'd entertain offers to slide down a few spots to obtain an extra player or pick.
This rumor started as an article by Roy Cummings of the Tampa Tribune; it was quickly picked up by The Sporting News and soon made the rounds of message boards and blogs across the Internet. With all due respect to Cummings and his sources, the story sounds like February Fodder designed to generate a few column inches of copy. All the ingredients are there. The "seven player draft" hypothesis has been advanced by many sources: the prospects in question are usually defensive end Jamaal Anderson, defensive tackle Alan Branch, receiver Calvin Johnson, running back Adrian Peterson, quarterbacks Brady Quinn and JaMarcus Russell, and tackle Joe Thomas. The Bucs certainly have many needs. And of course they might be willing to slide down to the #7 slot. Heck, if Peyton Manning were on the table, they would probably slide down to the #32 slot.
The Bucs no doubt discussed the possibility of trading down during a Senior Bowl debriefing, just as they probably discussed trading up or staying put while doing a hundred different things in free agency. Keep in mind that the Bucs don't even know if they are picking third or fourth yet; they are awaiting the results of a coin flip with the Browns. If they select third, they may have their choice of any non-quarterback on the draft board, which would be too good to pass up. If they pick fourth, the teams below them may not be hot to trade. The Vikings (the #7 team and the Bucs' biggest trade suitor according to one flavor of the rumor) are probably shopping for a quarterback or receiver. Quinn, Russell, and Johnson could well be off the board by #4.
So we'll take the Buccaneers rumor under advisement. Maybe after the coin flip and the Combine, we'll revisit it. By then, the seven-player draft may have grown into a 10-player draft (defenders Gaines Adams and Amobi Okoye are already climbing the charts), and the Buccaneers may have found that they just can't live without Anderson or Johnson.
Defensive end Dewayne White is the team's highest-profile free agent. White is a solid run defender with a little bit of pass rush ability, and he fits the system well. He'll get some offers but should be re-signable. Wide receiver David Boston will disappear, only to bubble up elsewhere as a fourth wideout or reality show star. Mike Alstott hammered the nail into the wall, but apparently he didn't hang up his cleats just yet. Alstott will be back in 2007 if he and the team can work out a deal. ESPN's John Clayton reported earlier in the month that the Bucs want to restructure the contracts of defensive linemen Greg Spires and Ellis Wyms, and either player could be a cap casualty in the off-season.
The Bucs need a veteran quarterback to back up Chris Simms; USA Today floated Jeff Garcia and Jake Plummer (who should be available via trade) as possibilities. But the Bucs won't pay through the nose for a clipboard jockey. Instead, they'll focus on their defense, which is getting old and needs an influx of talent. The Bucs have the cap space to make a run at Adalius Thomas or Lance Briggs, big-play linebackers who could make up for Derrick Brooks' declining skills. For less money, they could upgrade their defensive line by obtaining a huge run plugger like Ian Scott or Terdell Sands.
Don't look for the Bucs to pursue an offensive lineman in free agency; the team expects youngsters like Jeremy Trueblood and Davin Joseph to take a big step forward in 2007, and of course they could be in line to take Thomas in the draft.
Next week: NFC North by Ned Macey
92 comments, Last at 16 Nov 2010, 10:21pm by hero