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Football notes

Quoth the former Raven

Scott eager to talk up Jets' 'violent' defense

By Mike Reiss
March 8, 2009
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Baltimore-style bravado has invaded the Big Apple.

When Rex Ryan served as Baltimore Ravens defensive coordinator, he wasn't afraid to talk big. Neither were his players, especially Bart Scott.

Now that both have landed in New York with the Jets - Ryan in his first year as head coach, Scott as the team's prized free agent signing - it comes as little surprise that they're bringing a Raven-like edge with them.

While it is entertaining and makes for great copy in New York's tabloids, the all-important question is whether the big talk will lead to big results in the AFC East.

"We won't back down from anybody, we won't take a step back from anybody," said Scott after signing a six-year, $48 million contract. "You can expect to see a very physical, violent [defense]. I don't know if this division has ever seen a violent defense."

After undergoing a dramatic offseason makeover at this time last year - highlighted by the addition of more beef on the line and later quarterback Brett Favre - the Jets are in the midst of another significant alteration.

Led by the fiery, outspoken Ryan, the Jets identified defense as priority No. 1 this time. Hence the additions of Scott and fellow former Raven Jim Leonhard, a heady safety and return man.

Under Eric Mangini last season, the Jets finished 29th in the NFL in passing yards surrendered per game (234.5), and Ryan is already promising that the defense will play with a renewed edge and attacking style. Scott, who earned the nickname "Mad Backer" in Baltimore, is the centerpiece of their plans.

When free agency began at midnight Feb. 27, Ryan and assistant coaches Mike Pettine and Dennis Thurman were waiting outside Scott's house - and nearly were attacked by Scott's dogs. Ryan told Scott that he wasn't leaving until Scott came back with him to New York with a signed contract.

The 28-year-old Scott was stunned at the door-to-door sales pitch - he felt he was being recruited as if he were in college - and the dollar signs probably didn't hurt, either. Scott compared playing next to Ray Lewis in Baltimore to being in the passenger's seat, noting that he's now in the driver's seat.

Ryan thinks the pairing of Scott and David Harris at linebacker in the 3-4 alignment will cause opponents problems. For example, quarterbacks will have trouble identifying which player is the "Mike," making it more difficult to set their pass-protection schemes.

While Scott will be at the controls of the defense - and the Jets hope Ryan & Co. can light a fire under disappointing linebacker Vernon Gholston, a 2008 first-round draft choice - no question looms larger for the Jets than what they'll do at quarterback.

With Favre gone, 2006 second-round draft choice Kellen Clemens and undrafted free agent Brett Ratliff will battle for the job, and in a moment of refreshing honesty, Ryan acknowledged that the organization is split between the two.

Regardless of who wins the job, Ryan wants more of a run-based attack behind what he feels is a top offensive line, and that means running back Leon Washington's role is likely to expand alongside Thomas Jones.

Ryan has pointed to his time in Baltimore as an example of winning with a run-based offense and aggressive, attack-minded defense. With the addition of Scott, the personality is already starting to take shape.

"I have been a violent, angry player ever since I have been in Little League," Scott said. "Football is a very physical game and you have to go in there with bad intentions."

Time for some free thinking

A touchdown's worth of thoughts on what has unfolded over the last week in free agency:

1. Denver's binge (league-high 12 signings as of Friday) looks similar to what the Patriots did in the second year of the Bill Belichick/Scott Pioli regime in 2001, when they signed more than 20 free agents. As articulated by Mike Lombardi of the National Football Post, it's all about raising the level of competition in practice and creating an environment in which everyone is fighting for jobs.

2. The Texans' signing of safety Eugene Wilson and quarterback Dan Orlovsky to multimillion-dollar deals continues their trend of paying bigger bucks when it doesn't always seem necessary. Orlovsky's reported three-year, $9 million pact ups the ante for backup quarterbacks across the league.

3. The Giants still need a receiver, but the signings of defensive lineman Chris Canty and linebacker Michael Boley make a strong defense that much stronger. Jerry Reese keeps a lower profile, but that shouldn't stop him from being recognized as one of the NFL's shrewdest general managers.

4. Part of the reason tight ends Chris Baker (Patriots) and Robert Royal (Browns) were off the market so quickly is that teams know there are few blocking tight ends available in the draft. The proliferation of spread offenses in college has resulted in more on-the-move tight ends.

5. The Seahawks might have overpaid a bit for soon-to-be-32-year-old T.J. Houshmandzadeh, but he'll give them a red-zone presence at receiver they simply didn't have. Houshmandzadeh also showed that his headiness extends off the field, because when choosing between the Vikings (quarterback questions) and Seahawks (Matt Hasselbeck), he was smart to go for the sure thing.

6. Where was the market for Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis? Once the Jets and first-year coach Rex Ryan made linebacker Bart Scott their top target, Lewis lost his leverage in negotiations, all but ensuring his return to Baltimore. So much for those stories about the Cowboys' interest in Lewis, which is why the word "interest" should generally be viewed with skepticism at this time of year.

Adding a center piece

Playing in a division with powerful nose tackles such as New England's Vince Wilfork (6 feet 2 inches, 325 pounds), Buffalo's Marcus Stroud (6-6, 310), and New York's Kris Jenkins (6-4, 349), the Dolphins went into the offseason seeking an upgrade at center over incumbent Samson Satele.

Thus, their signing of Oakland's Jake Grove just might be their most important move of the offseason.

Brings back memories of when Bill Parcells - the Dolphins' executive vice president of football operations - was running the show in New England and felt the center spot was holding the team hostage prior to the 1995 season. The Patriots rectified it that year by drafting Dave Wohlabaugh of Syracuse.

With Vrabel, playing keepaway may have been a chief concern

Based on what Bill Belichick said on the Patriots website, it doesn't sound as if his feet were held to the fire to include linebacker Mike Vrabel in last weekend's headline-grabbing trade with the Chiefs, as some (including this writer) had speculated.

"Football is a changing game, and this is a move we felt we needed to make in the best interests of our football team," Belichick said in an interview on the "Patriots Today" webcast.

While conspiracy theorists have panned the Patriots for the trade and accused them of insider trading with Scott Pioli - one national columnist even laughably suggested that the NFL investigate - Belichick's reference to a "changing game" provides some insight into what the team might have been thinking.

Vrabel turns 34 in August and was set to count $4.3 million against the salary cap. He had one year left on his contract and was unlikely to return when the deal expired.

While Vrabel is still effective, Belichick's remarks seem to indicate his inclusion in the deal made it a passing-of-the-torch type of trade, one that also helped clear important salary cap space.

What Belichick didn't say, but is also worthy of consideration, is that the Patriots might have placed a value on being able to dictate Vrabel's destination.

Vrabel is one of the NFL's smartest players and effectively a coach on the field with intricate knowledge of the team's system, so keeping him away from Eric Mangini (Browns) and Josh McDaniels (Broncos) - both of whom are running 3-4 defenses like the Patriots and are more likely to initially contend with New England - could have been part of their thinking.

Etc.

He'd give Taylor the shirt off his back
New Patriots running back Fred Taylor won't be met with resistance if he asks for jersey No. 28 upon his arrival at Gillette Stadium. That number is currently worn by fourth-year safety Antwain Spann. "If he approached me, I'd do the right thing and respect him," said Spann. "He's been in the league a long time, that's a future Hall of Famer. For me, I'm not established yet. It's not about a number for me. It's about trying to earn a roster spot."

Drew knew
This time Drew Rosenhaus got it right. The agent claimed he had been in discussions with several clubs regarding Terrell Owens and that he expected a deal to be finalized by the end of the week. It turns out the Bills were the suitors (Owens reportedly agreed to a one-year deal last night). But anyone doubting Rosenhaus would have had good reason. After all, it was Rosenhaus who previously declared that Owens's potential release by the Cowboys was a "non-story" and that Owens was "not going anywhere."

Extra-large package
Lions coach Jim Schwartz inherited one of the NFL's most undersized defenses, so it made sense that 6-foot-2-inch, 345-pound defensive tackle Grady Jackson was a free agent target. What was surprising was the payday Jackson landed in Detroit - a reported three-year, $8 million contract - which offered another reminder that big run-stoppers in the middle, even at the age of 36, retain their value.

Quarterback sneak?
It sure looks as though the 49ers allowed themselves to be used in Kurt Warner's negotiations with the Cardinals. Warner's free agent visit to the 49ers ended up being the catalyst for the Cardinals to increase their offer, so why did San Francisco do it? It's possible the 49ers wanted to create some financial headaches for their NFC West rivals, but that might be giving them too much credit.

To Kansas City, via new jersey
Matt Cassel wore No. 16 in New England, but that won't be available to him in Kansas City; the number has been retired in honor of Len Dawson. Cassel is pondering his options (he wore 10 at Southern Cal), and Chiefs fans are familiar with this drill. When Joe Montana arrived in Kansas City in 1993, he too was a former No. 16 in search of new digits. Montana ended up with No. 19.

New work for Birk
So much for the Ravens turning to 2006 second-round draft choice Chris Chester at center after Jason Brown signed with the Rams; instead, they signed 11-year veteran Matt Birk. The Ravens decided Birk's experience in the pivot was crucial with Joe Flacco, entering his second season, still growing at quarterback. Birk appeared primed to finish his career as a Viking, but he never seemed to hit it off with head coach Brad Childress after Childress was hired in 2006.

Clash act
Chalk it up to a rookie mistake by first-year Broncos coach Josh McDaniels, who should have realized that too many people were involved in the late-starting trade discussions regarding quarterback Jay Cutler for the news not to leak. Cutler was clearly perturbed, and now the McDaniels-Cutler dynamic figures to be a top story line in Denver for weeks. McDaniels worked mostly with cerebral, cool-headed quarterbacks in New England. Questions remain, in the long term, whether Cutler is the right fit for him.

Paper cut stings
Bills fans whose confidence in team management was already shaky had more reason to doubt the direction of the franchise last week. The Bills had reached an agreement to trade guard Derrick Dockery to the Lions, but the deal never went through because the paperwork wasn't filed by a 4 p.m. deadline. So instead of receiving compensation for Dockery - even if it was just a late-round draft choice - the Bills released him.

You'll get a big kick out of him
When a draft prospect is 6-5 and 258 pounds, it usually means he's a tight end, outside linebacker, or maybe even a defensive lineman. But a punter? Brandon Lane, of Elon University, fits the bill, and NFL teams clearly have him on their scouting radar. According to Lane's representatives, the Patriots and Colts had workouts with Lane last Thursday on the Elon campus in North Carolina.

Interior redecorating
Eric Mangini has already put his stamp on the Browns, revamping the team's facility. Mangini is having the video department moved from the first floor to the second floor, so it is closer to the coaching offices, and he also plans to have the locker room expanded, which will cut into the players' lounge. Moving the video department reportedly cost more than $500,000, which is a significant price tag considering the Browns laid off nearly 20 employees this year.

Did you know?
Prior to releasing fullback Mike Karney, the Saints were set to return all 22 starters from last season.

Mike Reiss can be reached at mreiss@globe.com; material from personal interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.

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