Shorts and Shells: Week Eight

Posted Oct. 31, 2011 @ 4 a.m.
Posted By Eric Edholm

The Packers might have been on bye this week, but with every game they win (and it has been 315 days, as of Sunday, since they last lost one), the more their staff members become attractive to other teams. Witness the success of teams such as the Patriots, Steelers, Eagles and Ravens over the past decade, and close behind that, you will see other teams vulturing off their success, picking through their coaching staffs and front offices for their own franchises.

And now that the Packers have been the dominant team over the past two seasons, plus winning double-digit games in 2007 and 2009, you can bet that needy clubs already have turned their attention to Green Bay as the first stop for their replenishment tour.

The franchise long has been considered among the best-run in the NFL, from top to bottom, featuring terrific stability and player development.

The Packers might try to keep as much of their impressive staff together, but they really can't stand in the way of their people getting higher-placed — and in some cases, higher-paid — jobs elsewhere.

Here are five Packers coaches and administrators who will be popular candidates for higher positions next season:

Director/football operations Reggie McKenzie: The Raiders are said to be very interested in speaking to McKenzie for their would-be general manager position after the death of Al Davis. McKenzie is respected as a personnel man, despite a lack of experience on the college side of things. He has been with the team for 18 years, serving 10 as pro personnel director, having worked with former Packers GM Ron Wolf, who is one of the key advisors in the Raiders' search committee. McKenzie also played for the team — albeit when it was in Los Angeles — from 1985 to 1988. One interesting note: McKenzie has already interviewed for the Falcons, Texans and Titans, and some in the NFL feel he's a bit comfortable in Green Bay.

QB coach Tom Clements: Clements is an extremely bright and scholarly coach who has been a huge reason for Aaron Rodgers' success, and some have compared their coach-QB, hand-in-glove relationship to that of Tom Moore and Peyton Manning. Notre Dame reportedly was interested in talking to Clements for their head-coaching job before Brian Kelly got it, and the Packers have fended off a few NFL teams (including the rival Bears) that have sought to interview him for a coordinator position. Some say that he might be the most prepared to be a head coach on the Packers' staff.

Vice president of football administration/player finance Russ Ball: He might have been the team's secret MVP during the Super Bowl season, managing the financial situation in a cap-less season in which the Packers managed injuries, spent the money they had to compete and still managed to smartly extend a few players' long-term deals. A former strength coach, Ball is smart, measured and even-keeled and has a comparable track record to Titans GM Mike Reinfeldt. Some feel Ball might be best in a president's role overseeing the big picture rather than as a GM. He's also a candidate to replace GM Ted Thompson whenever he steps down.

Assistant head coach/ILB coach Winston Moss: Not everyone is enamored with Moss, but Mike McCarthy clearly trusts him and he's considered a players' coach. The Eagles were interested in him as a defensive coordinator option this offseason, and he would appeal to several teams because he's young (45), technology-savvy, knowledgeable about different schemes, a former player (11 years in the NFL) and as a minority, he would qualify as a Rooney Rule candidate.

Director of college scouting John Dorsey: The Packers' draft record over the past 11 years, under Dorsey's watch, stacks up with almost any other team. Dorsey's reputation among many of his peers is that he is a top-five college director, a former linebacker and grinder on the scouting circuit who outworks many others with his title. But Dorsey tried to follow Mike Holmgren out to Seattle, and it was a nightmare; Dorsey was back in Green Bay a year later. Many have said his high-strung personality might keep him from getting jobs elsewhere.

Other Packers names of note:

Assistant director of player personnel Eliot Wolf: Some will make Theo Epstein comparisons because of his age (29), and Wolf's name (he's Ron's son) likely will move him up the chain quickly. His confidence is growing, and Wolf likely will ascend within the Packers' ranks as others leave.

DL coach Mike Trgovac: A former defensive coordinator in Carolina who likely is best as a positional coach, per insiders, but could earn some interviews based on his track record.

Secondary/safeties coach Darren Perry: Another candidate for the Eagles' defensive coordinator job, Perry has done a nice job the past few seasons with Nick Collins and Morgan Burnett and has experience working with Dick LeBeau and Dom Capers, which is attractive to prospective employers.

Secondary/CB coach Joe Whitt Jr.: Has been compared to a young Mike Tomlin in that he played wide receiver in college but has become a bright, young defensive coach. Also enjoys the scouting process and has worked wonders with undrafted CBs Tramon Williams and Sam Shields. Could rise quickly.

 

Controversial call of the week

In this case, a non-call followed by an ill-advised call.

Bill Belichick doesn't make questionable coaching decisions too often. And two in a span of five real-time minutes? Blue-moon-type stuff.

Yet he erred by not challenging what would have been a touchdown late in the Patriots' 25-17 loss to the Steelers in Pittsburgh.

Tom Brady hit Rob Gronkowski on a middle spot route for what appeared to be a TD with 4:15 remaining. But Ryan Mundy hit Gronkowski hard and knocked him back to the two-yard line, which made it a tough call for Belichick on the sideline to see if his tight end had cleared the goal line.

Whoever is up in the booth making those calls into Belichick's ear — probably mystery man Ernie Adams, but who knows? — needed to tell The Hoodie to pull out The Hanky. Video replay showed the ball at least directly over the white endzone line.

Instead, Brady made a rare mistake in letting so much time run off the clock and appeared to want to run a quick play while the Steelers were in a little mayhem. Problem was, Brady wasted a ton of time. A QB sneak, which he typically runs very well, would have been nice. They went with a quick throw to Kevin Faulk, which reminded me a ton of the 4th-and-2 play against the Colts in 2009, and like that play, the Patriots came up short.

It wasn't until another 95 game seconds later, after a pass-interference call, that the Patriots scored with 2:40 left in the game.

That forced Belichick to try an onside kick immediately afterward (despite having three timeouts), which was unsuccessful, a clear sign that Belichick had no faith in his defense. And after its performance Sunday, why would he?

Belichick would have been better-served burning a timeout after the Gronkowski play to have more time to inspect the would-have-been TD. Then one bad decision wouldn't have led to another in the onside kick, which dribbled six yards before coming to a stop.

 

The wow factor

This week's edition features the almost occurrences that nearly led to Upset Sunday:

Starting at about 3:18 p.m. EDT, a strange NFL worm hole was beginning to close.

With legions of fans checking out their TVs and mobile devices to a discovery of shock and awe — the Giants losing to the Dolphins, the Ravens trailing the Cardinals, and the Saints getting thumped by the Rams — order was restored. Mostly.

The Rams might have pulled the stunner, but the Dolphins and Cardinals couldn't hang on. If there was that silver lining, it was that both teams battled until the bitter end.

"Each week we're just going to try and get our win," Dolphins TE Anthony Fasano said without a hint of irony or sarcasm in his voice. After all, he wasn't a part of the Dolphins' last one-win team, back in 2007.

As we have seen time and time again this season, bad teams find ways to lose games. And yet a few bad teams almost threw the week into complete mayhem.

As it is, the top of the AFC heap has been thrown into the blender and set to puree. The Patriots and Ravens are right in the mix with the Steelers, Bengals and Bills. One or two major upsets can completely tilt the field in a bizarre, new direction.

 

Entertainers and icons

In the Year of the Rookie QB (with one of them coining this phrase even), two slightly overlooked ones stood out on Sunday:

Christian Ponder remains the lesser-known QB compared to Cam Newton. Chances are, it always will be that way, no matter how they play. Fame and talent are two different things altogether.

But Ponder edged out his fellow rookie on Sunday — with the help of a questionable holding call and a missed chip-shot field goal, but he played very well and has looked better each time out on the field the past three weeks.

Ponder won over a lot of hardened veterans in the Vikings' locker room last week with his steely comeback effort against the Packers, and he no doubt won over a few more against the Panthers. He wasn't spotless, but the improvement in his first- and second-down accuracy was evident.

The confidence Ponder gives the Vikings is evident, but even he pales in comparison to another rookie, Andy Dalton, in that department.

Dalton led his 5-2 Bengals (early favorites for "Story of the Season") to a sneaky road victory in a tough environment against the Seahawks and again showed the ability to drive the ball down the field, something he didn't show a lot of at TCU.

It has been a joy to watch Dalton grow into the job so quickly. With the news coming out this week that owner Mike Brown wanted Ryan Mallett over Dalton, it was significant in retrospect that Brown was willing to trade his former franchise pillar, Carson Palmer, for two reasons: The price tag was just too good not to, and Dalton has been too good to bench at any point.

 

Ten takeaways of the week

Here are 10 things I took from Week Eight as we come up on the midpoint of a very interesting season:

1. The Ravens' 21-point comeback marked the fifth time this season that a team trailed by at least 20 points and came back to win. That is the most in a season ever. Ever. Interesting, too, as I noted a few weeks ago, that one of the four other seasons that featured four 20-point comebacks — 1987 — also was marred by a work stoppage. Not sure if there is a connection, but it's fascinating that we are about 44 percent of the way through a season, and we already have more of these comebacks in the books.

2. On Tuesday the editors and writers of PFW will sit down for a long meeting to pick our Midseason All-Pro team. I will lobby hard for Giants DE Jason Pierre-Paul. He had another good statistical game (five tackles, sack, two QB hits), but it's abundantly clear that his understanding of playing NFL defense has improved significantly. Last season, it seemed like he was just out there flying around and making plays with his athleticism. But this season, he has taken yet another step and looks like the next in the Strahan-Tuck-Umenyiora-Kiwanuka line of great Giants pass rushers.

3. The Steelers swarmed the Patriots. Absolutely smothered them. It was a little worrisome that they kept New England in the game, but it was a mostly dominant performance. On defense, they pressed the Patriots' receivers at the line and threw them off their routes, and on offense, the Steelers strung together a series of short passes and power runs, which was effective against the two-deep coverage. This was the best defense against Wes Welker that any team has had this season — cut off the head and the body dies, you know what I mean?

4. What is going on in Seattle? Tarvaris Jackson (pectoral) is deemed too injured to start, so Charlie Whitehurst gets the ball ... and then Jackson comes in on the third series? "I was going to see if Charlie could pull it together and get something going and help us out, but it just didn't feel like we were moving anywhere," head coach Pete Carroll said. "What I said to the fellas was, 'Look, let's put Tarvaris in, let's see what happens and if he's struggling, we'll take him back out and go with Charlie.' Once he (Jackson) got going, he looked OK and he could make some things happen." Strange, just strange. Also, this: Whitehurst is not a starting-caliber quarterback. Jackson battled gamely, but the jury is out on whether he is, either. Wouldn't shock me if we saw undrafted rookie Josh Portis at some point if Jackson is injured again.

5. The 49ers were toying with the Browns by game's end. The score was 17-3 for most of the half, and before the Browns scored to make it a one-possession game with about six minutes left, it looked like a boxer just toying with his opponent. San Francisco might not be a sexy team, but it is very solid, the narrow win aside. The only question will come with whether they can stay focused in the second half of the season.

6. A team that has to play better — or at least more consistently — is the Giants. Is there a club that plays more up and down to its competition right now? Sunday's narrow win is scary when you think they remain a contender in the NFC East, but if their trend continues, it stands to reason that the Giants will be strong with this six-pack staring them in the face through Week 14: at New England and San Francisco, vs. Philadelphia, at New Orleans, vs. Green Bay and at Dallas. Phew. If they play the way they did against the Dolphins, the Giants will lose all six.

7. The run defense might not be 100 percent fixed, as the Lions had claimed, but they came up with a big, big win right when everyone was counting them out. The Broncos might be bad, but the stage was set up in Tim Tebow's first home start of the season for a Detroit letdown. Instead, the Lions gained a little of their edge back in this one. All during the week, the competition turned inward in practice — Lions offense vs. Lions defense, both banged up, both harried — and it continued on Sunday in the 45-10 whipping in Denver. "It's kind of a competition to see who's going to have a better day," Stafford said. "They're scoring points on defense; we're trying to light up the scoreboard. That's when we're at our best."

8. What is up with Dez Bryant? He seemed totally out of Sunday night's game until the final minutes when the Eagles had put it in cruise control and he caught a few garbage passes. Bryant is an emotional kid, and the Eagles aggravated him with a lot of additional coverage, pressing him, annoying him early, knowing it would frustrate him and stick with him. Late in the game, when Bryant was mugged on a meaningless red-zone possession, he threw a fit to the refs for not getting the pass-interference call. Before that, Bryant was seen openly campaigning to his coaches and teammates, presumably to get the ball more after pulling a 0-0-0 line to that point. It's this kind of immaturity that scared off a lot of teams in the draft process two years ago despite his incredible talent.

9. Many people seemed ready to write off Rams DE Robert Quinn's rookie season. After a big game (sack, three hits of Drew Brees, blocked punt), those folks might as well eat their words. Like Pierre-Paul a year ago, Quinn has massive upside with minimal polish. That will come in time, if Sunday is any indication.

10. Punting might be the time when many fans go get a refill, but it's amazing how many important plays Sunday happened on punts. Patrick Peterson's five-tackle-breaking TD return to scare the early daylights out of the Ravens. Brandon Tate's return as the Bengals closed out the Seahawks. The Titans driving an early spike in Indy as Patrick Bailey blocked Pat McAfee's punt, which Jason McCourty recovered in the endzone. Donnie Jones' seven punts, each one bigger than the next, burying the Saints way deep in their territory. Punts might seem like throwaway (or walk-away) plays, but Sunday they were huge factors in several games.

 

Top five, bottom five

My top five and bottom five NFL power-ranking votes this week:

1. Packers: With every win that bad teams such as the Rams earn, there's less chance one of the Packers' coaches or administrators leaves. Of course, with every announcement that Jon Gruden or Bill Cowher is staying at his TV gig, the more the Packers should worry.

2. 49ers: Crazy? Not really. Their wear-you-down style might not hold up long term, but how many teams are equipped to handle this kind of approach?

3. Steelers: Sunday was great. Really great. But I need to see even more positive trending to move them up a spot.

4. Patriots: Really worried about the defense, but Tom Brady won't be that limited most weeks. What was most shocking was the bad special-teams performance.

5. Ravens: I had an internal debate here with four other teams, including the Saints, Eagles, Giants and Lions ... which is my way of saying there are a lot of flawed teams now.

28. Jaguars: Mel Tucker's defense has made some strides, but no NFL quarterback in this day and age should be 10-for-30 passing, not even a rookie.

29. Cardinals: Six straight losses, and four of them by four or fewer points. Close, horseshoes, hand grenades, you know the saying ...

30. Rams: What a gutsy effort. Sign No. 1 that these players have not given up on their coach. Either that, or the Cardinals really did bring their good vibes to the Edward Jones Dome.

31. Dolphins: Tony Sparano talked about his team's courage several times afterward, and he had the right. The question is whether he'll have the right to talk about them as their head coach again.

32. Colts: Jim Irsay promises that, all together now, they are not tanking any games, either. Isn't it nice to get that assurance on Twitter from the owner?