Change is once again a headline in the NFL. General managers and head coaches have been coming and going for decades, so the year 2012 isn't any different.
The Indianapolis Colts have a new general manager in Ryan Grigson, a former NFL and CFL tight end who rose quickly through the ranks of the Philadelphia Eagles front office the past few years. His hiring now has some wondering if he will fire incumbent head coach Jim Caldwell and which player the Colts will use the first pick of the 2012 NFL Draft on.
With the surprise firing of Bill Polian as general manager, out went the assumption the Colts would select quarterback Andrew Luck. Grigson, who also worked for the Arena Football League and Canadian Football League, will be bringing a new philosophy to Indianapolis.
Some pundits wonder if quarterback Peyton Manning, who has given the franchise a championship and 11 Pro Bowls since he joined the team in 1998, will be back next season. It seems like a ridiculous question to many, considering Manning has led the team to two Super Bowl appearances and has won four NFL MVP awards. Yet his 2011 season was lost due to a lingering neck injury that still has some observers concerned to whether or not it will ever fully heal.
The bottom line of the Colts financial situation is often brought up as a reason the team may part ways with Manning, who had just signed a contract worth $90 million over five years before the 2011 season began. If the Colts were to draft a quarterback with their first pick, they might have to pay over $20 million to sign the player. Cam Newton, the first pick of the 2011 draft, received $22 million for four years.
But there are now no guarantees if the Colts stay with the soon-to-be 36 year old Manning and not even draft a quarterback on a team with many holes that were seen as the team finished this year with a 2-14 record. There is no guarantee now that Luck, who is similar to Manning in many ways, will not be passed up on favor of Robert Griffin III.
Assuming Indianapolis drafts one of these quarterbacks, the remaining player will not wait too long to find a suitor. Many are thinking the Cleveland Browns will look to replace second-year pro Colt McCoy by using the fourth overall pick. The Washington Redskins, who sit sixth in the draft order, desperately need a quarterback and could possibly try to work a trade with either the Minnesota Vikings or Saint Louis Rams to grab Griffin or Luck.
Griffin, the 2011 Heisman Trophy winner, is as hot a commodity as Luck. While Luck is fairly mobile, Griffin has world class speed. Both quarterbacks possess excellent arm strength, but Griffin throws one of the most beautiful deep balls in all of football right now.
Grigson is knowledgeable to a game where the field is wide open to constant scoring opportunities, as his AFL and CFL experience show. Defense has become a thing of the past in the NFL today, so the electric Griffin might light up the scoreboard with the help of rules heavily slanted to that side of the football.
Passing is king now in the NFL, and Newton showed a running quarterback with a big arm can set records while exploiting rules where a quarterback is not allowed to be hit too high, too low or too hard. Rules Griffin can easily excel in as long as he stays healthy.
Indianapolis isn't the only team in flux this year. The Jacksonville Jaguars have already hired their new head coach after tabbing Atlanta Falcons offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey for the job.
Mularkey had played nine seasons with the Minnesota Vikings and Pittsburgh Steelers as a tight end known for his blocking abilities. He got into coaching soon after and worked his way up to becoming head coach of the Buffalo Bills in 2004.
Buffalo went to the playoffs in his first year, the last time the franchise has accomplished that feat since. After is disappointing second season, the Bills brought back Hall of Famer Marv Levy as general manager. Mularkey resigned after he and Levy failed to agree in the direction of the team, so he took a job with the Miami Dolphins for two seasons before being hired by Atlanta in 2008.
His offenses tend to work best when well balanced. This was true in Atlanta, where he helped quarterback Matt Ryan, running back Michael Turner, tight end Tony Gonzales and wide receiver Roddy White get to the Pro Bowl. He had balance in his first year with the Bills, led by quarterback Drew Bledsoe, running back Willis McGahee along with wide receivers Lee Evans and Eric Moulds.
Mularkey is certainly isn't perfect. A big reason for his failure in Buffalo was because he chose to release Bledsoe and go with J.P. Losman at quarterback. His struggles during his first year in Miami saw him demoted to coaching the tight ends the following season. For all of the success Mularkey has attained thus far, his teams are just 2-5 in the playoffs with him serving as head coach or offensive coordinator.
It was a given Jack Del Rio wasn't going into 2012 as head coach of the Jaguars, especially after he cut his starting quarterback to play a rookie who obviously would have been better off learning on the sidelines a year or more. Del Rio went 68-71 in his nine seasons, but his time was tarnished by former owner Wayne Weaver telling reporters he regretted firing Tom Coughlin as head coach in 2002.
Jacksonville has a new owner now, but it remains to see if he is loyal as Weaver was to Del Rio. The Jaguars need improvement in many areas, so rebuilding may take time.
Gene Smith remains general manager of the team, taking over for NFL legend James Harris in 2009. Harris, the first black player to start a NFL season at quarterback and the first black quarterback to go to the Pro Bowl or be named Pro Bowl MVP, joined the Detroit Lions.
With Maurice Jones-Drew, Mularkey has a All-Pro halfback in the prime of his career. The defense is underrated and still young. It may not take as long as expected, given a few fortunate breaks, but the Jaguars fans are hoping more from a franchise that has had seven winning seasons since it joined the league in 1995.
While the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are looking for a head coach and the Saint Louis Rams need both a head coach and general manager, the Oakland Raiders have recently filled one of their open positions by hiring Reggie McKenzie as general manager.
With gridiron icon Al Davis having died back in October of last year, the team had to suddenly replace a man who had been running the team since 1962. Davis has more than a legacy that won three Super Bowls, he had a wealth of knowledge, insight and experience that is irreplaceable. His son, who now owns the team, knew he had a lot work cut out for him the day he took the reins of the Silver and Black.
This is not the Reggie McKenzie who was a Pro Bowl guard that blocked for Hall of Famer O.J. Simpson and was a part of the "Electric Company". This McKenzie played linebacker for four seasons with the Raiders in the late 1980's. After sitting out of the league for four seasons, he suited up for two games with the San Francisco 49ers in 1992.
He spent the last 18 seasons as the Director of Football Operations for the Green Bay Packers. His twin brother, Raleigh, was a guard on the famous offensive line of the Washington Redskins called the "Hogs". He won two Super Bowls and is one of the 70 Greatest Redskins.
McKenzie's first move was to rebuild a team that lost four of their final five games in 2011 and hasn't been to the playoffs since 2002. Hue Jackson, the head coach who was recently fired despite just one season on the job, told reporters that McKenzie “basically wants to gut the place.”
The Raiders are not only now looking for a head coach, they may leave Oakland again for Los Angeles. They did this back in 1982 and stayed there until 1994 before returning to Oakland.
The person many are starting to think will be head coach of the Raiders next year is Winston Moss. Moss is a former linebacker who played for the Raiders in the early 1990's. He has been a linebackers coach of the Packers since 2006, so McKenzie is very familiar with him.
It will be strange and interesting to see how the Raiders do without Al Davis, just as it was when he was there. Whether or not they will achieve any semblance of the excellence Davis did remains to be seen.
OK, 7thStoneFromTheSun is still missing. I got another blank postcard, this time from Kazakhstan, so I guess he is still on the run from owing markers to people you don't want to know. I went 2-2 in his place last week, acing Saturday's games and failing the next day.
New Orleans Saints @ San Francisco 49ers
Two teams that are the polar opposites of each other. While the Saints are a dome team who lights up a scoreboard like a video game, the 49ers resemble an old school team who grinds opponents into submission with a sound running game and suffocating defense.
If this game were in New Orleans, I'd pick the Saints all the way. While the weather is expected to be mild in San Francisco on Sunday, it will be played outdoors and possibly benefit the Niners with more than just the home field advantage of having nearly 70,000 screaming fans cheering for them.
The Saints rolled up 626 yards last week, led by quarterback Drew Brees throwing for 466 yards and three touchdowns. While the Detroit Lions got repeatedly gashed in the air, New Orleans kept them off balance by averaging almost five yards on 36 carries.
San Francisco's defense was the second best in points allowed this year, as well as fourth best in total yards given up. Five players from this unit were named to either a Pro Bowl or selected First Team All-Pro. Middle linebacker Patrick Willis is possibly the best in the NFL at his position.
Pro Bowl running back Frank Gore is the 49ers best offensive weapon, but they have also gotten a solid season from quarterback Alex Smith. Much maligned since being the first overall selection of the 2005 draft, Smith has had the best season of his career in 2011.
Tight end Vernon Davis and wide receiver Michael Crabtree are his main targets, but Smith has been so efficient that he threw just five interceptions all year. The 49ers ranked first in the NFL this season in the all important giveaway/ takeaway ratio.
Pro Bowl cornerback Carlos Rogers and defensive end Ray McDonald gave San Francisco the best seasons of their career this season. While Rogers had a career high six interceptions this year, McDonald set career best marks with 5.5 sacks and 38 tackles.
Rookie Aldon Smith led the team with 14 sacks, but Pro Bowl defensive end Justin Smith and linebacker Ahmad Brooks pitched in with a combined 14.5 sacks as well. Pro Bowl free safety Dashon Golden also gave the Niners the best year of his career this season.
Golden and strong safety Donte` Whitner may hold the key to a 49ers victory. Both were very important to the team this year, finishing third and fourth in tackles respectively. Brees loves to throw to Pro Bowl tight end Jimmy Graham, so the duo will be tested often.
Willis and Navarro Bowman are tackling machines who piled up 234 tackles this year, so New Orleans may find it difficult to run the ball effectively. Brees will have to be sharp this weekend and find an extra target to help win the game.
With Rogers most likely shadowing Marques Colston, Brees will have to pick on cornerback Tarell Brown by going to Devery Henderson or Robert Meachum. Lance Moore is expecting to play despite a tender hamstring, so San Francisco defensive backs like Tramaine Brock, Chris Culliver, Madieu Williams and Shawntae Spencer will need to be sharp.
It will be a challenge to stop the Saints electric offense, especially since inclement weather will not be there to help. Gore needs to be special against a run defense than ranked 12th in yards allowed this season.
But Smith also needs to play excellent. The Saints pass defense ranked 30th in yards allowed, but try to cover up this area by frequent blitzes. Roman Harper, an excellent strong safety, will need to shut Davis down so Smith gets uncomfortable by having less options.
I am not convinced yet that there is a team in the NFL who can keep the Saints from scoring. The rules of the game today totally help this unit blow up the gridiron with insane statistics weekly. They have lit up defenses all year, which includes stout units like the Houston Texans, Green Bay Packers, Jacksonville Jaguars, Chicago Bears and Tennessee Titans.
San Francisco has the superior special teams unit, thanks to Pro Bowl kicker David Akers and Pro Bowl punter Andy Lee. If they can control field position, this area could make the difference in the end.
San Francisco has not given up more than 27 points this season and 11 or less points seven times. The Saints have scored over 40 points seven times in 2011, an area the 49ers have reached just once.
This is Roger Goodell's NFL, so offense is king and the quarterback is the golden child. The old adage that defense wins championships will be put to the test, but the cards are stacked against it.
Saints 27 49ers 20
Denver Broncos @ New England Patriots
The NFL is clearly now on board with Tim Tebow. The Broncos quarterback silenced a ton of critics by recently winning his eighth of 12 starts this year, which included an upset overtime win over the Pittsburgh Steelers last week.
He isn't going to complete even half of his passes, but his legs and savvy seem to be enough to get the job done. The Denver defense has been the overlooked hero of this magical run, producing the only three Pro Bowl players on the team this year, as they seem to always stop the opponent at the most crucial moments.
Denver shouldn't be here. They went 8-8 and were minus 12 in the giveaway/ takeaway ratio this season, while giving up 81 more points than they scored.
The Patriots are the opposite. Even though their defense is somehow sending two members to the Pro Bowl, it is one of the worst units in the league in yards allowed.
These two teams met a month ago, where Tebow ran for 93 yards and two scores while actually completing half of his passing attempts. New England won 41-23, but the 393 Denver gained that week was just 19 yards short of their season high mark.
Tom Brady is the difference in this game. The Patriots quarterback, who will finish his career inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, just had possibly the best season of his illustrious career by throwing for a career best 5,235 yards.
He is one of four Pro Bowlers on offense, which includes tight end Ron Gronkowski and wide receiver Wes Welker. Brady also throws the ball to a plethora of weapons, which also includes tight end Aaron Hernandez and wide receiver Deion Branch.
The Patriots use five different players to run the football, but the passing game is what got them a 13-3 record this season. Denver ranked 18th in passing yards allowed this season, as well as 24th in points given up.
While Tebow has showed magic this year, Brady has done so most of his 12 seasons. Denver should be very proud of their team because no one expected anything that happened this year to transpire, but all dreams must end eventually.
Patriots 45 Denver 16
Houston Texans @ Baltimore Ravens
If you like defense, then watch every play of this battle. Baltimore finished the 2011 season with the third best defense in both points and yards allowed. Houston was second in yards allowed and fourth in points given up.
These two teams met earlier in the season in Baltimore, where the Ravens walked away with a 29-14 win behind five field goals and solid games by quarterback Joe Flacco and halfback Ray Rice. Despite having two turnovers to none by Houston, the Ravens gained 109 more yards that contest.
It is well documented how the Texans continued to win this year despite several key injuries. But the replacements fill in well and the defense has been special all season.
Houston beat a Cincinnati Bengals team last week, another team with a good defense, 31-10 despite gaining just 40 more yards and garnering two less first downs. Rookie quarterback T.J. Yates did not hurt the team and played decently, which was helped greatly by the return of wide receiver Andre Johnson.
Halfback Arian Foster gashed the Bengals for 153 yards and two touchdowns, but the Pro Bowler has been accomplishing feats like this all season. Foster and backup Ben Tate piled up a combined 2,166 yards and 14 touchdowns on the ground this year.
When Baltimore beat Houston earlier this season, the duo was limited to 90 on 24 carries because quarterback Matt Schaub hoisted the football 37 times that game. Yates won't be asked to do this, so the Texans running backs will get a lot more work this weekend.
The Ravens ranked second in run defense this season. Three of the four Pro Bowlers on this until play along the front seven of a smothering defense that gave up 14 or less points eight times in 2011. Houston has accomplished that feat 10 times so far this year.
While Houston's defense unbelievably produced just one Pro Bowlers this year in cornerback Johnathan Joseph, it is a young team with just one starter 30 years old. They have somehow gone this year without the press they deserve, but the turnaround from their miserable 2010 season is nothing short of spectacular.
Baltimore will need all of their offensive weapons clicking against this unit, yet tight ends Dennis Pitta and Ed Dickson could be the key as they go up against Texans safeties Danieal Manning and Glover Quinn. The young tight ends combined for 94 receptions this season.
Rice is the backbone of the offense, having led the team in both rushing and receiving this year. His reserve, Ricky Williams, needs to be effective when called upon because Baltimore relies so heavily on Rice's abilities.
Baltimore obviously has the advantage in postseason experience here, since it will be just the second playoff game ever in Texans history. I picked the Ravens to go to the Super Bowl before the season began, so there is no reason to recant now.
Ravens 21 Texans 13
New York Giants @ Green Bay Packers
Few expected the Giants to get this far after their roster was destroyed by injuries before the season got started, but they have won the big games when called upon. Some are trying to compare this team to the 2007 squad that won a Super Bowl, but they couldn't be more wrong in this comparison.
Not only is quarterback Eli Manning a lot better now, the defense and running game carried the team to a title in 2007 and are nowhere near as good this year. New York finished ninth in scoring and eighth in yards gained this season, something they ranked 14th and 16th respectively in 2007.
The running game ranked fourth best in 2007, but it is now the worst in the league. The defense, which ranked eighth in rushing yards allowed and 11th in passing yards given up in 2007, now ranks 19th and 29th respectively. There is no comparison between the two squads
Green Bay, the defending champions, dominated the NFL with a 15-1 record this year. They had the top scoring offense and ranked third in yards gained. The defense ranked last in both passing and total yards given away, but that stems from opponents chucking the ball all game while desperately trying to attempt a comeback.
Pro Bowl quarterback Aaron Rodgers had 10 teammates end the season with receptions in double figures. Rogers also found 10 different players in the end zone. Halfbacks Ryan Grant and James Starks followed Pro Bowl fullback John Kuhn to gain 1,137 combined yards, but the Packers leaned on the 4,643 yards and 45 touchdowns via Rodgers arm.
Seven Packers are going to the Pro Bowl this year and their plus 28 in the giveaway/ takeaway ratio was the second best in the NFL this year. Not are they a veteran team that knows how to win it all, Green Bay is a lot healthier this season compared to 2010.
It will be a high scoring affair Sunday, a game where a lot of yards are rolled up. Green Bay has the better defense, running game and quarterback, but their huge advantage at tight end and special teams could make the difference.
These two teams met just over a month ago in New York, where the Packers won 38-35 on a late field goal. Both offenses rolled up 896 total yards, as Green Bay totaled just two yards than the Giants. Rodgers and Manning had similar games, but the Packers defense made the difference thanks to a touchdown off an interception by Pro Bowl linebacker Clay Matthews.
This game could very well follow that pattern, but the home field advantage for Green Bay could provide the difference. The tundra of Lambeau Field will be frozen, as temperatures are expected to go higher than 27 degrees Sunday.
Packers 38 Giants 28