ATLANTA -- Walking toward the Georgia Dome on Sunday afternoon, I ran into an old acquaintance from Western Pennsylvania who had also been transplanted here, and he inquired about the pending fate of New Orleans Saints coach Jim Haslett, like both of us a Pittsburgh-area native.
I noted that things didn't look good for Haslett, whose team has underachieved for much of his five-year tenure in The Big Uneasy. The acquaintance shook his head and noted that Haslett seemed like a good man, the kind of guy you could sit and have an Iron City beer with. Good call, indeed, but also a stark reminder that most coaches facing the firing squad tend to be good men whose teams, for whatever reasons, go bad on them.
About five hours later, the reminder became even more stark, as I passed Haslett on my way from the Falcons locker room to his team's dressing area. On his way to the bus that would ferry the Saints to the airport, he stopped to shake hands, and his face was pale and drawn. The man was, it seemed, emotionally spent, weary, seemingly out of answers. His team, rallying behind the verbal lambasting he delivered at halftime, had once again managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, losing for the seventh time, and likely bouncing the Saints from the playoff chase, even in the diluted NFC. "Hey, hang in there, Jim," I said feebly, and he nodded weakly.
A few minutes earlier, in perhaps the one lucid moment of his own press conference, Falcons coach Jim Mora had spoken eloquently about his friendship with Haslett, and how proud he was that the New Orleans coach had prepared his team so well for Sunday's contest. The two men worked together years ago on the staff of Jim Mora the Elder, had remained close friends and still spoke frequently by phone. Not only as a friend, but also a member of the coaching fraternity, Mora certainly grasps the situation Haslett is in and took the opportunity to offer an endorsement in his buddy's behalf. That was before Mora opted to chide the media assemblage for daring to suggest that the Falcons offense, which scored on two of its first three possessions and then managed only a field goal on the next eight, suffered a near-fatal mid-game lull.
But at least before he went off half-cocked, Mora did a nice thing for Haslett. It's easy to criticize Haslett, whose team has underachieved and whose roster seems to annually squander talent. Almost to a man, Saints players will tell you Haslett is a solid coach, a man for whom they enjoy working.
Alas, their deeds do not reflect their words. Like most NFL coaches, Haslett works hard, sweats the details, puts his guts on the line on Sunday afternoons. Watching him exit the Georgia Dome on Sunday evening, almost in automaton fashion, you couldn't help but feel for the guy. Unfortunately, in a business where you are hired to eventually be fired, Haslett will soon be pink-slipped by owner Tom Benson. That, of course, doesn't make him any less a good guy.
The good and the ugly
Speaking of good guys, it's nice to see that Buffalo Bills rookie coach Mike Mularkey has his team on the upswing. The Bills blistered Seattle on Sunday, dominating the NFC West leaders by a 38-9 count on the road, and have now won five of seven contests.
It's too bad the surging Bills aren't in the NFC because, at 5-6, they would be in the playoff hunt. Buffalo got off to an 0-4 start, with Drew Bledsoe again struggling in a new offense, and that all but scuttled the Bills' season.
Bledsoe managed to survive three interceptions Sunday but, in general, his play has been much better and he has gotten plenty of help from tailback Willis McGahee, who authored his fifth 100-yard outing in six starts. Amazingly, McGahee needs to average just 54.8 yards now to record his first 1,000-yard season.
Certainly he is a big part of the future in Buffalo but, even with the Bills' late-season uptick, that future remains cloudy and very difficult to predict because of the quarterback situation. Maybe the Mularkey offensive design, and the tutelage of coordinator Tom Clements and quarterbacks coach Sam Wyche will yet salvage Bledsoe's career. But the downside (for lack of a better term) of the Buffalo turnaround is that heir apparent J.P. Losman may not get any starts in the stretch now, after it appeared the once-floundering Bills would get their first-round draft choice on the field at some point in the final month.
Of course, even murkier than the Bills' future, particularly after Sunday, is that of the bipolar Seahawks.
There are three very prominent pending unrestricted free agents on the offensive side -- quarterback Matt Hasselbeck, tailback Shaun Alexander and left tackle Walter Jones -- and you have to wonder how much owner Paul Allen is willing to invest in any of them.
Hasselbeck, who seemed to turn the corner last season, seems to have regressed. He has four games this season in which he completed more than 60 percent of his passes and four outings in which his completion rate was less than 50 percent. After the Sunday mess, in which he completed only 19 of 38 throws, Hasselbeck now has four games in which he amassed more than 15 incomplete passes. There are games of 19, 21, 23 and 27 incompletions. Not good for a player best noted for his accuracy, even worse in a Seattle offense that is clearly quarterback-driven.
The collapse of the Seahawks, a team more severely flawed than anyone would have expected at the outset of the season, could have an effect as well on the future of coach Mike Holmgren. The smart money is that Holmgren is back in '05. But if the Seahawks fail to make the playoffs after a 3-0 start when they looked like one of the best teams in the league, well, you just never know.
Oh, yeah, the NFC West is now a collective 2-10 in games against the AFC East this season.
Wow! I mean, what other "observation" could you have after watching even a slice of the Cincinnati Bengals' zany 58-48 victory over the Cleveland Browns. The second-highest scoring game in NFL history included 49 first downs, 966 yards, big plays almost every time you checked, you name it.
Browns owner Randy Lerner ought to keep coach Butch Davis around just on the off-chance he can stage another entertaining shootout of this ilk. Of course, he won't, and that's because the Browns were on the wrong end of the shootout.
Browns backup quarterback Kelly Holcomb has now authored three 400-yard games in his career. And lost all three of them. Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer, one of the few guys in the league still throwing consistently from a seven-step drop, tossed four touchdown passes but was nearly undone by three interceptions.
In the end, as goofy as this seems, it was a couple cornerbacks who made a difference. The Bengals tandem of Tory James and Deltha O'Neal made enough plays to stem the tide. James, who has been resurrected in Cincinnati, now has a career-best seven interceptions for the season. And O'Neal, essentially plucked off the scrap heap after Broncos coach Mike Shanahan tried to convert the former first-rounder into a wide receiver, secured the victory with a "pick" and 31-yard interception return for a touchdown.
This one, ESPN viewers, should be deemed one of those "instant classics" and aired every night this week.
One personal note: Congrats to Steve Heiden, the Browns tight end who had three touchdown grabs among his career-best seven catches. We've known Heiden for years and he's one of the class acts, although no one knows it, in the league.
Take a bow Wade
Coming off a 34-31 nail-biter in which not a lot of defense was played, the timing might be a bit incongruous, but kudos to San Diego defensive coordinator Wade Phillips are long overdue, so we're taking this opportunity to offer them.
Much has been written, and justifiably so, about the high-octane Chargers offense, an attack in which quarterback Drew Brees has now thrown 18 touchdown passes and just one interception over the last eight games. Hardly coincidence, right, that the first-place Chargers, who can pretty much bury rival Denver with a win at home next Sunday, have won seven of the eight outings. But the San Diego defense, which statistically ranked No. 27 in 2003 and was 11th going into Sunday's victory at Kansas City, needs to take a bow as well.
And at center stage should be Phillips, whose 3-4 front has been much better than anticipated. There were a few skeptics, yours truly included, who felt that installing the 3-4 in San Diego would be a mistake. The rationale: The defense would take the Chargers two best front seven players, tackle Jamal Williams and linebacker Donnie Edwards, and badly diminish their playmaking skills. Making the active Williams a nose tackle meant he would just be drawing double-teams all the time. And moving Edwards to an inside position, after he had been so good at both the weak-side and strong-side spots in the past, figured to negate his ability to play in space and run to the ball.
So much for punditry. Williams has been able to absorb punishment and still dish it out and, while stuffing things inside, still gets some push on the pocket. As for Edwards, well, he made the interception Sunday that led to Nate Kaeding's game-winning field goal and had 10 tackles. Edwards doesn't make quite as many big plays as he did, but he has become comfortable in the 3-4, and is having a strong season.
Bill Parcells and Steve Mariucci have to be asking themselves how their teams' fortunes might have been different if rookie running backs Julius Jones (Cowboys) and Kevin Jones (Lions), respectively, hadn't been banged up much of the season.
Over the past two weeks, with both finally healthy, the two youngsters rushed for a combined 430 yards (231 for Julius and 199 for Kevin). The four other tailbacks chosen in the first two rounds of the '04 draft -- Steven Jackson (St. Louis), Chris Perry (Cincinnati), Tatum Bell (Denver) and Greg Jones (Jacksonville) -- have a combined 466 yards for the entire season. The later three combined for zero yards this weekend, while Kevin Jones and Julius Jones totaled 249 yards in their Thanksgiving Day appearances.
Kevin Jones has run much harder than most of his critics felt he would. He was pretty much known at Virginia Tech as a bit of a long strider, a guy who would run past people when he got into the secondary, but who had problems creating his own hole.
Parcells took a lot of heat for trading out of the first round when he could have had Jackson, but Julius Jones has demonstrated that Parcells might have been correct to grab the former Notre Dame standout in the second stanza. There are still questions of whether he can hold up physically, at his size, over the course of a 16-game schedule. But Parcells fed him the ball plenty in his two starts and he looked strong.
Most erroneous item on some of the Sunday pregame shows was that the loser of the San Francisco-Miami matchup would essentially have a two-game lead in the dubious race for the worst record in the league and, thus, the first overall pick in the 2005 draft. Uh-uh. The 49ers, by virtue of their loss, own a one-game edge over the Dolphins. But losing to Miami means nothing in any potential tiebreaker. What people overlooked is that, in breaking ties for draft position, head-to-head competition isn't a factor. Draft order ties are broken by a strength-of-schedule formula. ... It didn't get much attention on Thanksgiving and, frankly, didn't merit it. But Dallas defensive end Marcellus Wiley, the Cowboys' biggest free agent signing on that side of the ball, finally got his first sack of the season. Wiley now has just 10 sacks in his last 41 games. He had 23½ sacks in the 30 previous games. ... Perhaps more notable was that Cowboys end Eric Ogbogu had three sacks. Ogbogu, as noted here in the past, is the guy in the much-aired commercial, who exhorts: "We must protect this house!" ... The Kansas City wide receivers had just six catches in Sunday's loss to San Diego. ... Chargers quarterback Drew Brees has thrown interceptions in only two of 11 games this season. ... In the past four games, Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has just 45 completions and has been sacked 15 times. ... The Pittsburgh defense has surrendered just 209 rushing yards in the last four outings. And in the aggressive scheme of coordinator Dick LeBeau, the Steelers now have 36 sacks, one more than they registered for the entire 2003 season. ... For the second time in three weeks, New Orleans defensive tackle Johnathan Sullivan, a first-round pick in 2003, was a healthy inactive. Sullivan was seen in the media food line in the press box at the Georgia Dome, grazing before Sunday's game. ... .Another former first-round defensive tackle who was a so-called "healthy scratch" on Sunday was Chris Hovan of Minnesota. It marked the first game Hovan has missed a game in his career, and there is no way the Vikings will try to re-sign the pending free agent. ... After missing three field goals on Sunday, including the potential game-winner, Martin Gramatica could be in big trouble with Bucs coach Jon Gruden. The veteran kicker is just 11 for 19 this year. ... The Jets won their last two games, both on the road, despite just two touchdowns.
Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com.