The schedule could make or break a couple of teams.
The schedule is boring to some. Not to me. This week, I find the slates of San Francisco and Baltimore interesting.
The 49ers, 6-1, have run away and hid from the NFC West, building a four-game division lead. The Ravens, scrambling to be great again, are 5-2. But both play four games in a 19-day stretch beginning Sunday, and both will be tested because of a hard road. The San Francisco and Baltimore slates between now and Thanksgiving:
The 49ers have the slightly easier go of it, except they've got two East Coast trips in one of the dumbest pieces of scheduling the NFL has put out in years. When the preliminary schedule came out and the Niners saw that they were schedule to fly east to play five Eastern Time Zone games in 61 days, they felt they'd be able to do something about at least one of the trips. With the games at Baltimore and Washington separated by 18 days, they figured they'd be able to gerrymander the schedule so that they wouldn't have to fly coast-to-coast twice in a little more than two weeks. But the league couldn't get the Redskins game switched to the 20th; too many complications. Instead of playing in Maryland twice in five days (in Landover on the 20th and 36 miles north in Baltimore on Thanksgiving), the Niners will make two trips. They won't complain, but they're not happy about it.
The Ravens have a tough road, too, obviously, starting Sunday night in Pittsburgh. "We're going to play Pittsburgh this week, and that's what matters now,'' quarterback Joe Flacco of the Ravens told me. "Then we go to Seattle, and after that, I guess we've got a short week. But the flip side of that is, then we get a long week to prepare after that, and some rest. So I really don't concern myself with it.''
The Bodden Watch
It's rare that a cornerback who's more than a dime-back-quality guy shakes free during the season, and so it could be interesting today to see which team, if any, claims cornerback Leigh Bodden off waivers from New England. In a mystery move, New England dumped Bodden Friday (I'm hearing he was going through the motions, unhappy to not be one the Pats' top three corners) and sent a few teams to the video room to study the 30-year-old Bodden. Teams have until 4 p.m. Eastern today to make a claim for him.
Bodden has two-and-a-half years left on his contract, with a total value of $9.8 million. A team could pick him up this season and pay him $2 million for the last two months of the season, then cut him if he's not playing well; then it would be renting a corner with some ability for the stretch run. Among teams with more than $5 million in cap room this year who could be kicking the tires: Niners, Bengals, Bucs, Chiefs and Bills ... and because you can never eliminate them when it comes to cover guys, the Jets.
War Room: The Legacy of Bill Belichick and the Art of Building the Perfect Team, (itbooks), by Michael Holley.
Anything Holley writes, after his memorable Patriot Reign insider's tome about New England's rise to power, I'll read. This didn't let me down. It's a book about Belichick, chief lieutenant Scott Pioli and wunderkind Thomas Dimitroff growing the Patriots, then Pioli and Dimitroff splitting off to run the show in Kansas City and Atlanta, respectively. The explanatory parts of how a draft is put together (Holley is especially strong analyzing the Chiefs' way of picking players under Pioli) merges well with stories about trades and draft strategy.
I especially liked Holley fleshing out how the three men disagree. Their football backbone is the same, Holley writes. But whereas Belichick, who gives the vibe of a conservative team manager, takes chances on off-field risks like tight end Aaron Hernandez, an outside-the-box thinker like Dimitroff won't touch problem children.
Dimitroff had black dots -- meaning he wouldn't draft them -- on both Florida's Brandon Spikes and Florida's Hernandez in the 2010 draft. Owner Arthur Blank even pressed Dimitroff on why he had so many black-dot guys, many more than other teams in the league. "[Dimitroff] was an extension of a Belichick Tree, not a Belichick monolith,'' Holley writes. "He typed a few notes in his iPad about general-managing in his third year. Be true to yourself, he wrote. Remember your roots: tough, honest, organic.''
Holley captures a dinner at the Senior Bowl in Mobile with Pioli and Dimitroff, in which they discuss the philosophy of building a team, right down to how they want their draft rooms to feel on draft day.
Said Pioli: "I need silence. I need limited activity.''
"We have things you would never allow in your draft room,'' Dimitroff said.
"Like what?'' Pioli said.
Like Falcons board of directors members Hank Aaron and Andrew Young sitting in the draft room if they choose. Presumably, it makes Blank happy.
"That's how I see it differently,'' Pioli said to Dimitroff. "Draft day is not entertainment in that room, okay? Last year, I spent $30 millon guaranteed on one pick. I've gotta have a clear head to make that decision. Do Fortune 500 companies have people coming into their boardrooms? I don't know, maybe I'm taking myself too seriously.''
"Respectfully, Scott, if my mistakes are because we have seven limited partners and a couple business associates in there, then my personal opinion is I'm not the right person for the job.''
There's more talk, and Pioli said: "We've got to be careful about how much of football loses its soul. Because we got to where we are because we kept the football soul.
Fascinating, too, is the discussion of last spring's Julio Jones trade. Blank urged Dimitroff to feel out his friends in the business to see if the trades makes as much sense to them as it does to the Falcons. Dimitroff called Belichick. "As a friend,'' Belichick told him, "I wouldn't do it.'' His advice was to not move up 21 picks in the first round, with all the attendant costs, to get Jones. Stick where you are, and take a good receiver like Pitt's Jonathan Baldwin. He's just as good, Belichick says.
Of course, the Falcons dealt for Jones. And Pioli took Baldwin for the Chiefs at the bottom of the round.
Holley also shows much of Belichick's human side -- at his father and mentor Steve's funeral. At the funeral of a man the Browns fired when he was coach, the father of Thomas Dimitroff, longtime scout Tom Dimitroff. ("Would you mind if I put a rose on your husband's casket?'' Belichick said to Tom Dimitroff's widow. She allowed it.) When protégé Josh McDaniels got fired in Denver last year, Belichick told him: "Call your parents. Go see them. Make sure they know you're okay because I know that they're going to go through this and feel terribly about it.''
Other tidbits Patriot fans will enjoy:
Scouts were ticked off in 2006 that Belichick overrode their reports and picked Laurence Maroney in the first round (apparently on the strong advice of Josh McDaniels' brother Ben, one of the Maroney's college coaches) and Chad Jackson in the second round -- even after receivers coach Brian Daboll said he didn't want to coach Jackson.
After the Boston Herald reported (incorrectly, as it turned out) that the Patriots had taped a Rams practice before the 2002 Super Bowl, Belichick went to his captains and asked if he should address the team about it -- just before the Super Bowl they played against the Giants in February 2008. The captains said no, so Belichick didn't talk to the team about it.
Defensive keystone Vince Wilfork didn't like the trade of Mike Vrabel to Kansas City before the 2009 season. "That trade ticks me off. Right now. Still. When I heard about it, I said, 'What the f--- is going on?' If you want to talk about the Patriot Way, you start with Vrabel.' ''
It wasn't just management that came to dislike free agent signee Adalius Thomas. It was the players. Tedy Bruschi on Thomas: "He started to question a lot of things in meeting. 'Why are we doing that?' 'Why don't we just do this?' He stopped buying in on what the coaches thought. He really did think he had all the answers, you know? And that's what he turned into: the answer man. That's when I was on my way out and I was glad to get out at that point.''
Regardless of your rooting interests, War Room is going to take you into the inner game of pro football. I recommend it highly.
Interesting stuff in the magazine this week.
I hope you'll take the time to check out our NFL Midseason Report this week. In it, I assembled a Think Tank of good football minds -- coaches Sean Payton and Jerry Gray, cornerback Champ Bailey, quarterback Andy Dalton, college coaches Mike Leach and Gus Malzahn (Cam Newton's coordinator at Auburn and a spread-offense devotee), and analytical football man Brian Burke of AdvancedNFLStats.com -- to ask about the state of offensive football. Namely: Why's the air so filled with footballs?
I couldn't use everything from our conference call last week, and a couple of things on the cutting-room floor I thought were good. The first: The recent trend of every-down inside and middle linebackers, designed to be able to stay on the field and stay with good backs and tight ends instead of coming out for extra defensive backs.
JERRY GRAY, Tennessee defensive coordinator: "If you just draft a traditional 6-foot-4 linebacker who is 250 pounds and he's only going to play the run on first and second downs, you're doing yourself a disservice now. I watched the Washington Redskins three years ago draft Brian Orakpo, this year they go to Purdue and draft another really good linebacker. And then they have London Fletcher inside -- a three-down linebacker. You have to be able to cover the field in order to stop offenses these days. If you can't do that, you're going to be in trouble. When you see a guy like Wes Welker lined up against a linebacker, I'd say nine times out of 10 he's going to win that matchup. We can't be like dinosaurs on defense and not use athletic guys. You may not see that big linebacker in the middle of your defense anymore. I think about Ray Lewis when he came out. He was running a 4.5 at 6-2. If you can't go sideline to sideline and stop the run, you're in trouble. A lot of teams are shifting to the 3-4 defense to help themselves with that against wide open offenses. You have to be able to move in space to stop guys.''
SEAN PAYTON, New Orleans coach: "This isn't too long ago now, but when we talk about Bill Walsh and Joe Montana, if we were to take the film out and look at their two-minute offense, it was red right, red left, red right. And if once in a while we might say red right slot, but they were under center, split back, the principles and the timing and all those things were outstanding. But formationally, your tight end was in a three-point stance and your fullback was in the game. There was a time when the fullbacks might have been better receivers than the halfbacks in our league, and then you had a flanker and a tight end. I remember in college, when we had an injury and our coach just said, we're going to just take this one back and play with him and we all looked at each other, in 1984, and thought, well, what are we going to do that for? We just didn't know. It's been an evolution."
MIKE LEACH to PAYTON: "When you line up on offense, do you say: 'If we do this shift or this motion, we're going to have an advantage on this team?' Or is it that you're shuffling the deck and seeing what you have after that and reacting to it?''
PAYTON: "There're a couple reasons why we would shift in motion. I think offenses are as good as they've ever been at blitzing the defense. That's with quick counts, dummy cadence, getting a chance to see the defense with no-huddle, big play on offense come right back to the line of scrimmage. How can we blitz the defense? And informationally how can we do it? I think one of the things about playing good defense is play recognition. We sometimes put a little window dressing on things [as a disguise]. We find ourselves in game plan meetings looking constantly at things we do and how we can dress things up a little bit. Without hurting ourselves, there are some plays in our plan ... Sometimes we'll try to get a mike linebacker to second guess maybe and begin to think more about his assignment and alignment than his tendency key.''
LEACH: "So the model is speed up his mind and slow down his legs."
I think you'll like some of the theories advanced in our Think Tank, particularly one that goes all the way down to ninth grade all over America.
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