Now that the New England Patriots have retained Eric Mangini, and elevated the talented and resourceful secondary coach to the post of defensive coordinator to supplant Romeo Crennel, head coach Bill Belichick must choose someone to run his offense.
As was the case with filling Crennel's vacancy, Belichick figures to stay inside the Pats' organization for an offensive coordinator, too, with the answer to Charlie Weis' successor probably right under his nose. Or, at least, not too far down the hall.
Tight ends coach Jeff Davidson, thought by many to be the favorite when Weis accepted the Notre Dame job, was hired by Crennel as the Cleveland Browns' offensive line coach earlier this week. Longtime assistant Dante Scarnecchia, who has worn a lot of hats in his 21 seasons with the franchise and has been nothing short of masterful cobbling a chicken salad offensive line out of chicken feathers leftovers, is deserving, but he insisted at the Super Bowl he doesn't covet the job. Wide receivers coach Brian Daboll appears to be a young assistant on the rise but has only five seasons of NFL experience.
So who is the coach currently on the New England staff most likely to preside over the Patriots' offense in 2005? Well, don't bet against Belichick handling a healthy share of that task himself.
That isn't to suggest that Belichick would conjure up the game plan from the foundation to the finished product, doodle on the grease board the kind of dizzying array of O's for which Weis was renowned, or call the offensive plays. Almost certainly, someone will be granted the title of coordinator and ceded many of those responsibilities.
But the bet here is that, while Belichick isn't going to be hovering outside the meeting room during every offensive brainstorming session, he will play an expanded role on that side of the ball in 2005. On occasion, he might even be the voice inside quarterback Tom Brady's helmet headset.
Yeah, we know, defense is Belichick's main passion. Or at least that's the public perception. But, with no disrespect intended toward Weis, and not to diminish the excellent work he did in his tenure as coordinator, anyone who believes the NFL's reigning head-coaching genius simply ignored the offensive side is misinformed. They don't understand the breadth and scope of Belichick's personal involvement in every facet of the game.
For part of his head-coaching tenure in Cleveland, Belichick served as his own offensive coordinator. He angered Browns fans by releasing quarterback Bernie Kosar but, as time proved, the veteran was at the end of the line and his judgment was the correct one. As classy as Drew Bledsoe has been in his career, Belichick also made the right call sticking with Brady in 2001, even after the more experienced veteran seemed prepared to return from a serious chest injury.
So there is certainly a body of empirical evidence to suggest Belichick knows a thing or two about quarterbacks and about offense, too.
Make no mistake, his official approval wasn't necessarily on every page of the Pats' weekly offensive game plan. But the blueprint, by the time it was disseminated to players, certainly had Belichick's stamp of approval.
And why not? In his excellent preseason feature last fall, Peter King of Sports Illustrated pointed out that, when Belichick was only 11 years old and hanging around the football practices at the Naval Academy, where his father was a longtime assistant, the youngster got an advance copy of the offensive game plan every week to commit to memory.
His understanding of the offensive side of the ball hasn't waned in the subsequent 43 years, according to people in the know.
"Trust me," said no less an authority than Brady during Super Bowl week, "he knows offense. He understands everything we're doing. He works a lot more with [the offense] than anyone seems to realize."
Remember, it was Belichick who took over the role of quarterbacks coach in 2002 when assistant Dick Rehbein died on the eve of Patriots training camp that summer. Backup quarterback Rohan Davey, a rookie that year, recalled that Belichick took over the job as if he had held it his entire life.
"He was never lost," Davey said. "Never. He knew more about the offense than any of us did and probably still does. Let me tell you, the man is no one-trick pony, OK?"
Belichick still sits in on portions of the quarterback meetings every week. While he has a keen sense of what is transpiring on offense in general, Belichick very often gets hands-on with the quarterbacks. The notion that he is a defensive guru only is hardly true. This is a well-rounded and complete coach who will figure out a way to compensate for the staff defections he suffered. And part of the solution will be the guy he stares at in his bathroom mirror every morning.
In his 10 years as a head coach, Belichick teams statistically ranked in the top half of the NFL in total offense just once, in 2004, when New England was No. 7. Typical of Belichick teams, though, his clubs have been in the top half in points scored five times. In each of the last four seasons, the Pats have rated 12th or better in scoring, including a No. 4 ranking last year.
The Patriots have averaged 362.6 points in Belichick's five campaigns in New England, better than the league-wide average of 335.0 points in the same period.
With three-time Super Bowl champion Brady just 27 years old, a power running game with tailback Corey Dillon, and young and rapidly improving wide receivers, there is reason to believe the New England offense could be even better in the next few years. And reason to believe that Belichick will be calling most of the shots.
Around the league
• The official release of Jeff Garcia next Tuesday, after just one miserable season in Cleveland, almost certainly means that Kelly Holcomb becomes the odds-on favorite to be the Browns' opening-day starter for the second time in three years. The journeyman Holcomb, 31, is scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent on March 2, and could decide to snoop around the market for a week or two to determine what his alternatives might be. But the truth is that Holcomb, whose résumé includes just 13 starts in eight NFL seasons, isn't going to find a better gig than the opportunity that new Browns coach Romeo Crennel will present him. The only other quarterbacks on the roster, Luke McCown and Josh Harris, appear to be career backups and certainly aren't ready to start full time. So Holcomb can re-sign with Cleveland, go to camp and easily win the job, and keep the No. 1 spot warm for a year or two while the Browns develop a young guy for the long term. But, ah, there's the rub. Just who is the Browns' quarterback of the future? Cleveland owns the third overall choice in this year's draft and the Browns could invest it on either Aaron Rodgers of the University of California or Utah's Alex Smith. Problem is, choosing a quarterback that high in the lottery will cost Cleveland a ton of money, and there are scouts to whom we speak on a regular basis who aren't completely sold yet on either of the top two signal-caller prospects. Keep this name in mind: Chris Simms. It will not be surprising if Cleveland officials phone Tampa Bay just to gauge what it might take to pry away the two-year veteran. Of course, the Bucs won't even consider dealing Simms until they get a restructured deal with Brian Griese, and those talks are plodding along. If the Bucs can't get Griese to re-do his deal before he is due a $6 million roster bonus on March 1, he will be released and Simms becomes a lot more important. But Simms, who started two games in 2004 and appeared in five contests after not getting onto the field as a rookie, fits the kind of quarterback profile that Crennel and general manager Phil Savage laid out as their prototype. Crennel wants a drop-back passer, a big guy with pocket presence who can stretch the field vertically off play-action, and Simms certainly fits snugly into that model.
• Buffalo officials don't buy into the notion that by elevating second-year veteran J.P. Losman to the starting quarterback job, the team will take one step backward in 2005 to make perhaps a quantum leap forward in '06. The Bills legitimately believe that, with a strong running game led by Willis McGahee and an outstanding defense featuring Pro Bowl linebacker Takeo Spikes, they definitely can contend for a playoff spot even with an unproven quarterback. They point to the fact Ben Roethlisberger won immediately in Pittsburgh last season and that Carson Palmer, the first overall choice in the '03 draft, won eight games in Cincinnati in 2004 after taking zero snaps as a rookie. The five passes that Losman threw in 2004 were five more than Palmer launched in '03. And make no mistake, had Losman not suffered a broken leg in training camp, he almost certainly would have gotten some starts in place of Drew Bledsoe last season when the Bills struggled out of the gate.
Whether or not the Bills win their gamble in releasing Bledsoe and essentially bestowing the top job on Losman remains to be seen. Losman was impressive at times in camp last summer but the broken leg all but scuttled his rookie campaign. As noted in this space last week, the hard-working Losman already is in Buffalo working out. He certainly is surrounded by a trio of excellent tutors. Head coach Mike Mularkey is a former offensive coordinator who has worked with quarterbacks. Coordinator Tommy Clements is a onetime pro quarterback who coached the position before moving to the Buffalo staff to run the offense last year. And assistant coach Sam Wyche has a celebrated background in developing quarterbacks. The Bills hope to re-sign veteran Shane Matthews, who the coaches like a lot, as the backup. Matthews is thinking, however, about possibly retiring.
As for the man Losman is replacing, well, for once, the folks who take great pleasure in trying to make all the dots connect might be correct in guessing that Dallas is Bledsoe's most likely landing spot. The Bills, as ESPN.com and ESPN's Chris Mortensen reported earlier this week, spoke informally to the Cowboys about a Bledsoe trade before releasing him. Bledsoe is eight years younger than Vinny Testaverde, who can become an unrestricted free agent if the Cowboys don't re-sign him by March 2. Buffalo officials feel that, if used correctly, Bledsoe still has a few good seasons left in the tank. Cowboys coach Bill Parcells, who isn't nearly as enamored with Drew Henson as some folks in the Dallas front office, could opt for another year of veteran quarterback stewardship rather than starting to try to develop a young player for the future.
• If Drew Bledsoe does wind up in Dallas, as many expect, he would be working under his seventh different offensive coordinator in 10 years. Maybe. In an interesting move by Cowboys coach Bill Parcells this week, "The Tuna" put assistant head coach Sean Payton in charge of the passing game and gave new offensive-line coach Tony Sparano guidance over the rushing attack. That means the Cowboys could actually go into the '05 season with no one designated as the offensive coordinator. It also means that Parcells might again call a lot of the plays, as he has the last two years.
• It looks as if Walter Jones of Seattle won't be the only pending unrestricted free-agent offensive tackle to hit the mother lode before making it onto the open market. Two league sources told ESPN.com on Thursday evening that the Indianapolis Colts have a new deal all but in place for Ryan Diem, a four-year veteran who has emerged as one of the NFL's best young right tackles. The extension, which is said to be for six or seven years, would pay Diem bonus money in the $12 million-$14 million range, the sources said. If the deal is completed it would remove from the market a guy who, at age 25, is really coming into his own, and who would have garnered a ton of attention in the free-agent pool. At least two teams, one in each conference, had Diem very high on their free-agency wish lists. It's also key for the Colts to retain Diem. The team could lose both the guards who opened the 2004 season as starters, Rick DeMulling and Tupe Peko (who lost his No. 1 job late in the year), as unrestricted free agents. Some personnel people feel that DeMulling, a former seventh-round pick, actually progressed quicker than Diem, who also entered the league in 2001. But loyal readers to this site know, by now, the NFL rule of thumb on the offensive line: Always keep the tackle over the guard. Thanks to Colts offensive line coach Howard Mudd, who never seems to get enough credit for the job he does, Indianapolis won last year playing young guards like Jake Scott and Ryan Lilja. Their play certainly makes Peko expendable. Although the Colts would probably love to conjure up a way to keep DeMulling around, they might have to sacrifice him and just play with the youngsters in '05.
• The breakdown on Walter Jones' monster contract, worth $52.5 million over seven years and believed to be the second richest ever signed by an offensive lineman, behind only that of Baltimore's Jonathan Ogden: A signing bonus of $16 million and roster bonuses of $2 million in the spring of 2006 and $3 million in the spring of 2007. Base salaries of $1.7 million (2005), $2 million (2006), $2 million (2007), $5 million (2008), $6.2 million (2009), $7.3 million (2010) and $7.3 million (2011).
• The megadeal paid out for Walter Jones, and the one coming for Ryan Diem, have to be good news for Washington left offensive tackle Chris Samuels. The team wants Samuels to rework his contract and provide some needed cap relief and, so far, he has balked. Such reluctance could be dicey, since Washington might respond by releasing Samuels, but that is much less likely now. For starters, there aren't many viable tackle prospects in free agency, so the potential replacements are few. And if the Redskins do cut Samuels, the dearth of tackles and the prices paid by their incumbent teams to Jones and Diem certainly have set the market high already.
• The reshaping of a St. Louis defense that statistically ranked 17th in the league in 2004, but which lacked speed and didn't create many big plays, has already commenced. The Rams will move strong safety Adam Archuleta, who suffered through a tough year with two balky disks in his back, to free safety. That seems a bit out of character, since many scouts feel the four-year veteran is most effective playing close to the line of scrimmage, but St. Louis coaches seem convinced that Archuleta can help force some much-needed turnovers if provided more freedom to fly around the field. Who's taking over the strong safety spot that Archuleta will vacate? Third-year linebacker Pisa Tinoisamoa, who played at about 220 pounds in 2004, and who the coaching staff feels is plenty quick enough to move into the secondary. A second-round pick in the '03 draft, Tinoisamoa recently underwent surgery to correct a problem that resulted in him suffering eight shoulder separations last season.
• The Miami Dolphins already have informed two defensive starters from 2004, end Jay Williams and free safety Arturo Freeman, that they will be released once teams are able to make roster moves on Feb. 22. Both players, essentially, will be salary-cap casualties. Freeman is scheduled to earn a base salary of $3 million for 2005 and is due a roster bonus of $300,000 in early March. Williams was to make $1.3 million next season, a roster bonus of $400,000 and base salary of $900,000, but the cap-strapped Dolphins can't even afford that. Miami has offered to sign Williams to a one-year deal for the minimum base salary of $765,000, but he will consider all his options before making such a decision. Next on the Nick Saban chopping block could be linebacker Junior Seau, who finished the season on injured reserve. Seau has been told he can return but only if he accepts a pay cut. Even that is surprising, since most observers felt he wouldn't be back even for the NFL minimum base salary. Now that Houston defensive line coach Todd Grantham has turned down the Dolphins' offer to become the coordinator and taken the same job in Cleveland, Saban will have to find someone else to preside over the unit. The most likely candidate for the coordinator position is Will Muschamp, who was on Saban's staff at LSU and who accompanied him to Miami.
• Jerry Porter, expected to be one of the more coveted players in the unrestricted free-agent pool, still could get slapped with the franchise tag by the Oakland Raiders. The conventional wisdom is that the Raiders will use the marker on cornerback Charles Woodson for a second consecutive season. But Woodson is coming off a subpar 2004 campaign, one in which he had just one interception, and some observers no longer assess him as one of the NFL's premier cover defenders. The Raiders don't want to allow Porter to escape, at least not without getting something in return for him, and could use the tag. They would then either attempt to negotiate a long-term deal with Porter or perhaps trade the fleet five-year veteran. One reason the Raiders might have to use the franchise tag on Woodson is because Oakland would love to find a trade partner to take three-year veteran cornerback Phillip Buchanon off its hands. The 2002 first-rounder is coming off a rough '04 season and the Raiders have soured on him.
• At age 28 and with seven mostly-terrific seasons on his résumé, Patrick Surtain remains one of the league's top cornerbacks. But the Miami Dolphins could have a difficult time trading him, which they would like to do for salary-cap reasons. The reason: So many clubs now play the "Cover 2" zone, or a derivation of it, and Surtain is far better in "press" and "off-man" schemes. Plus there is the issue of Surtain's contract. Even with a restructured deal, Surtain won't be cheap. Forget all the silly speculation about a deal that would send Surtain to Indianapolis for tailback Edgerrin James. That was just a figment of someone's imagination. Ain't happenin', folks.
• Also under the "ain't happenin'" category: The Atlanta Falcons make a big pitch to try to acquire Minnesota wide receiver Randy Moss. Nothing could be further from the truth. The rumor about the Falcons' alleged interest in Moss started because it is believed that Moss has told friends that, if he was traded, Atlanta is one of two teams for which he would prefer to play. But if Moss truly is interested in hooking up with Michael Vick, well, someone needs to tell him his ardor for Atlanta is definitely unrequited.
• Former Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Akili Smith, the third player chosen overall in the 1999 draft, signed with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and will play for the Frankfurt Galaxy of the NFL Europe League. Smith had actually already agreed to play in NFL Europe before signing with the Bucs. The former Oregon star will turn 30 in August, hasn't thrown a pass in a regular-season game since 2002, and was released by the Green Bay Packers in the summer of 2003. The Bengals invested nearly $12 million in bonuses and salaries on Smith, a one-year wonder in college, and here's what they got as a dividend: Just 215 completions in 461 attempts, 2,212 yards, five touchdown passes, 13 interceptions and a quarterback rating of 52.8 in 17 career starts.
• Punts: Last week in this space, we suggested that some of the Minnesota executives who were dismissing the likelihood of a Randy Moss deal had been the media's best sources in detailing plans to perhaps trade the wide receiver in the offseason. A poor choice of words, executives, on our part, and we apologize for it. So let's just employ the term "Vikings people" and leave it at that. ... It's a long shot, but the Ravens still might use the franchise marker on cornerback Gary Baxter if they can't reach a long-term extension with him by next week. Baxter didn't exactly have a strong season in 2004 but the Ravens still would like to have him around. Baxter is believed to have rejected a contract extension that would have paid him a $10 million signing bonus. ... Denver is very close to a new, reworked contract with quarterback Jake Plummer, who is due a $6 million option bonus in early March. Under the proposed deal, which would trigger the last part of Plummer's contract, through the 2009 season, the Broncos would realize an overall cap savings for the '05 campaign. ... Miami has some interest in veteran quarterback Gus Frerotte, the backup to the Vikings' Daunte Culpepper the past two years, who's slated to become an unrestricted free agent. ... Middle linebacker Sam Cowart, who lost his starting job to first-round draft pick Jonathan Vilma last season, has quietly requested that the New York Jets trade or release him. ... The New Orleans Saints, who plan to address their secondary in the draft, are considering releasing safety Tebucky Jones. ... Broncos defensive tackle Ellis Johnson, still an effective interior pass rusher, will void the final season of his contract and become an unrestricted free agent. ... If the Bills trade former starter Travis Henry, as anticipated, they will need a backup tailback to play behind McGahee. One possibility is Correll Buckhalter of Philadelphia, who has suffered season-ending knee injuries in two of his four league seasons. When healthy, the star-crossed Buckhalter is a very solid back. ... It appears that a pair of key Tennessee veterans, defensive lineman Kevin Carter and right offensive tackle Fred Miller, will restructure their contracts to remain with the cap-strapped Titans. ... From what a few teams are telling us, look for Jets defensive tackle Jason Ferguson, who had a career season in 2004, to be one of the hot players in the early free-agency period. ... The Rams are looking hard at the list of unrestricted offensive linemen and, with that unit expected to change dramatically in '05, figure to sign at least one and quite possibly more than that. ... The final count of players chosen for the Pro Bowl who did not play in the game because of injuries was 15.
• The last word: "Backing up anybody is not something I foresee for me. I don't see myself ever being a backup in this league, and particularly for J.P. [Losman]. If it comes to [being a backup], you'll probably see me just tip my hat and head back to the [Pacific] Northwest." -- quarterback Drew Bledsoe on his plans for the future
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click here.