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Football notes

Where executive action is needed, these should be among the top candidates

By Albert R. Breer
November 1, 2009

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Then-Patriots college scouting director Thomas Dimitroff expected the call to come at some point.

He was with the decade’s preeminent winner, and guys like that tend to get shots.

So where did he stand when the Falcons reached out to interview him in early 2008 - by his own admission, a few years earlier than he expected?

Prepared, that’s where.

“In my off time, I’d been putting together my own plan so I’d be ready to interview for this job,’’ Dimitroff said from his Atlanta office. “In my mind, it’s like I was on the bench. When they call your number, you’d better be prepared for it. And if you get the job, you have to be prepared to run the ball.

“I had been thinking about it for a number of years, and I got some rather sagacious advice from a GM. He told me not to plan for the next job, but plan for the big job, or the interview for the big job - i.e., the GM job. And if you wind up taking the job before the GM job, that’s great as well.’’

Atlanta’s model seems old-fashioned in today’s NFL. The GM runs the personnel side, the coach runs the on-field operation, and the two cross over where needed.

That way of doing business still exists in the league, but no longer is dominant. There’s the coach-as-leader model that exists here in New England, and also in Philadelphia and Cleveland. There’s the everything-through-ownership model in Dallas, Oakland, and Washington. And there’s the football-god model in Miami.

But the Atlanta model continues to thrive. Pittsburgh, Indianapolis, and the Giants combined for the last four Super Bowl championships using that approach, which splits responsibility.

“I truly believe the key is, no matter who has [final say on] the 53 [men on the roster], whether it’s the coach or GM, there should be an agreement at the top that those are dual decisions,’’ Dimitroff said. “Having that kind of relationship is paramount to setting policy and building a team correctly.’’

So while most of the focus among franchises in turmoil now is on who will be the next coach, some owners looking for change will look to shake up the front office first.

Here, in alphabetical order, are some names that have come up in talking with league executives this past week:

■Nick Caserio, director of player personnel, Patriots: Would it be early for the 33-year-old to run his own ship? Maybe. But he has a reputation as a tireless worker, is a tough, no-nonsense type, and is as well-rounded a guy as an owner could hope for.

He’s worked extensively in both coaching and scouting (college and pro) in the New England operation. In fact, this year, he’s done work for each side almost simultaneously. The question is whether he’d leave just as his ascent is quickening here.

■Dave Gettleman, director of pro personnel, Giants: He was in the running for both the Chiefs and Browns openings last year, and has been a trusted aide to Ernie Accorsi and Jerry Reese in New York. He also worked under Bill Polian in Buffalo, and has been part of Super Bowl teams with the Bills (1990, ’91), Broncos (’97), and Giants (’00, ’07).

Gettleman’s reputation is as a top-notch talent evaluator, both at the college and pro levels. At 58, he’s a lifer with a reputation around the Giants as the ultimate “football guy.’’

■Chris Polian, vice president of football operations, Colts: He interviewed last year in Kansas City, and is his wildly successful dad’s right-hand man. That club has drafted exceptionally well, made keen decisions on signing and letting players go, and the younger Polian has been part of the evaluations dictating those decisions.

The last few years, he’s become more involved in the cap and overall structure of the roster. The only question is whether the 38-year-old would rather stay in Indianapolis and succeed his father.

■Jimmy Raye, director of player personnel, Chargers: He oversees the entire scouting operation now, but Raye built his reputation as college scouting director over a time in which San Diego drafted superstars like LaDainian Tomlinson, Drew Brees, Philip Rivers, and Shawne Merriman, and found diamonds-in-the-rough like Antonio Gates.

He has a great pedigree; his dad is offensive coordinator in San Francisco, he played briefly in the league, and he’s methodically worked his way up the ladder since joining San Diego in 1996.

■Les Snead, director of player personnel, Falcons: He runs the scouting department, and has bought into Dimitroff’s New England-like system. The 37-year-old cut his teeth in Tom Coughlin’s grassroots Jacksonville program, and has been in Atlanta the last 12 years, having worked with the respected Dan Reeves and Rich McKay.

The cerebral Snead, who once planned to go to medical school, played in the SEC, at Auburn, and could be the “surprise’’ name to come out of left field in the hiring cycle.

■Doug Whaley, pro scouting coordinator, Steelers: For some reason, Steelers front-office types rarely get plucked away (save for a Tom Donahoe here and there). Whaley could be one that has the opportunity to make the tough decision to leave.

He’s been there for 10 years and two titles, and the young Pittsburgh native is said to carry himself with the confidence Steeler guys often have.

FLYING ELVIS
Diminutive Dumervil fits in nicely
Some thought Elvis Dumervil (left) would be one of the casualties in Denver during the transition from Mike Shanahan to Josh McDaniels. At a generously listed 5 feet 11 inches and 248 pounds, he seemed ill-fitted for Mike Nolan’s 3-4 defense.

But McDaniels said, “If they were tough, physical, smart players, they’re still here with us.’’

And that’s what Dumervil is, and why he’s come far enough within the scheme to be considered a front-runner for Defensive Player of the Year honors and is a key reason for the Broncos’ 6-0 start.

Former Broncos GM Ted Sundquist, who drafted Dumervil, believes Nolan’s scheme is another factor in Dumervil’s 10-sack explosion.

“Standing up has helped him, and he may not have known it would,’’ Sundquist said. “He had his hand down at Louisville, and we drafted him as a situational rusher. We saw that build like [Dwight] Freeney. He’s got that low center of gravity, the lower body strength, a similar ability to dip-turn the corner and keep his base.

“He’s taken to the 3-4 in how they move him around, let him attack off the edge, and he understands from all angles how to get there. He’s got that powerful body, freakishly long arms - in the range of guys who are 6-3, 6-4 - that tremendous ability, and it’s meshed.

“He seems comfortable with what Mike’s doing. I’m happy for him. He’s a great kid. You won’t find a harder worker, and he won’t say boo, and he’s got leadership ability.’’

Dumervil is on pace for 27 sacks, which would be more than he had in the first three years of his career combined. But what might surprise some is his versatility, a priority for McDaniels as he evaluated those on the roster, and those he’d add to it.

“The only question I ever had there was his ability to drop [into coverage], and only because I’d never seen him do it before,’’ Sundquist said. “But as far as playing the edge, to be honest with you, I always thought he was very underrated versus the run in the 4-3. He’s a very good run defender, because he’s so strong, and he can keep that outside leverage with his length.’’

As Sundquist said, Freeney is the player he saw when scouting Dumervil. But in the 3-4, Sundquist said, Dumervil looks like the diminutive James Harrison or the hyper-motored Joey Porter.

The bad news for Denver: Dumervil is just one of a number of big-time Broncos with expiring contracts, along with quarterback Kyle Orton, receiver Brandon Marshall, guard Chris Kuper, center Ben Hamilton, and tight end Tony Scheffler. Better news: If they go into the new league year under the current CBA, only Hamilton will be unrestricted, since the rest would fail to meet the new standard of six years service.

SECONDARY STATUS
Safeties don’t seem to get due respect
With the rising profile of safeties in the NFL, you’d think that the position would shake the stigma that it’s not a premium position.

The truth is, there’s still a ways to go. The last true safety to be inducted into the Hall of Fame was Ken Houston, who’s been retired for 29 years. (Ronnie Lott came into the league as a cornerback.)

The four safeties from the 1980s all-decade team - Joey Browner, Deron Cherry, Nolan Cromwell, and Kenny Easley - haven’t gotten a sniff. Lott was selected to the 1990s all-decade team as a safety, after making it as a cornerback in the ’80s, but the other safeties on that list (Steve Atwater, LeRoy Butler, Carnell Lake) have also been left in the cold.

“It’s something I can’t understand,’’ former Patriots safety Rodney Harrison said. “A football player’s a football player. As far as impact, let the numbers speak for themselves. Look at the numbers, the impact these players made, how they played in big games, what they’ve done in Super Bowls.

“It’s up to the voters. Safeties are getting more publicity now - like Troy Polamalu does - as opposed to what Blaine Bishop, Steve Atwater, Darren Sharper, and myself have gotten. That’s OK. What we did in the past laid the foundation. That’s how it’s supposed to be.’’

Harrison’s hope is that voters realize the position has evolved and taken on more importance. The 2007 draft, in which four safeties went in the top 24 picks, provides proof.

“Look at the most dominant guys on the best defenses - Bob Sanders in Indy, Adrian Wilson in Arizona, Troy Polamalu, Brian Dawkins,’’ Harrison said. “Before it was a run-fill guy. Now you’re asked to play outside linebacker, nickel back, play the deep half. It’s definitely evolved, and it’s not our fault if people don’t recognize it.

“GMs and owners know, those guys are getting paid. Take Darren Sharper away from Green Bay, Minnesota, those are different defenses. Take Bob Sanders away, Indy’s a different team. Look at what happened when Troy was out in Pittsburgh. That tells you what you need to know.’’

ETC.
Miami is cool with having Henne at helm
AFC East play heats up this week with the Dolphins visiting the Jets at the Meadowlands, and Miami quarterback Chad Henne (above) gets another shot at the team he broke out against three weeks ago. After a bye and an ugly loss to the Saints, that win over New York might seem like three years ago to Miami, but handling adversity was a big part of what the Dolphins liked in Henne when they drafted him in the second round in 2008. “Chad played in front of 110,000 every week in college, he won that job as a true freshman, and again as a sophomore,’’ one Dolphin official said. “We loved his demeanor. He’s always been a cool customer.’’ And that’s why when Chad Pennington went down, there was a similar calm in the organization. Henne had been tossed into the fire before, as a college freshman, and reacted well. All of this is part of the reason Miami felt comfortable passing on Matt Ryan, selecting Henne’s Wolverine teammate Jake Long atop that draft, and waiting until Round 2 to address the QB question.

All eyes on Lambeau
Brett Favre’s return to Lambeau Field has been circled on the NFL calendar since the quarterback arrived in Minneapolis in late August. So how will the Vikings quarterback handle the hoopla? There are plenty of open wounds from the legendary ex-Packer’s divorce from Green Bay. And make no mistake, there’s an ax to grind between Favre and Packers GM Ted Thompson. “He’s gonna want to do something to show a spark, maybe get a strike for a touchdown,’’ said Sharper, a former Viking and Packer, and former teammate of Favre’s. “That’s the competitor in him, and he wants to help the team. I think his nerves will be there, but he’ll be fine.’’ Fox will implement the “Favre cam,’’ giving viewers a chance to stalk the legend all day.

Sharper’s edge
Sharper has said since he arrived in New Orleans that Gregg Williams’s attacking style of defense provides him a perfect fit - and the proof is in the plays. Sharper has six interceptions, with 317 return yards and three touchdowns, and he had a 70-yard touchdown return against the Giants nullified by a roughing-the-passer penalty. “All the guys that were really great at that position can slow their heartbeat down and slow the pace of the decision in a game down,’’ Williams said. “Darren can do that, too. Your body has to move fast, but you have to be able to play like you’re in slow motion because you see it happen before it happens. He can do those types of things. He can anticipate. It’s not guessing. I tell guys all the time, I bench guessers.’’ Sharper, 33, has 11 career touchdowns off interception returns, one shy of Rod Woodson’s NFL record.

Showing their stripes
Cadillac Williams’s admirable comeback from a career-threatening torn patellar tendon brought into focus once more what might’ve been the most talented assemblage of college tailbacks ever. For one year, 2003, Williams, Ronnie Brown, and Brandon Jacobs fought for carries at Auburn. “That was an exciting time,’’ Williams said. “A lot of competing.’’ Amazing fact: Jacobs, the Giants’ bell cow, transferred after that year because coaches wanted to move him to linebacker. After that, Williams and Brown led Auburn to a 13-0 season in 2004, and each went top five in the draft. But they knew the immense Jacobs might’ve had the most potential. “I can remember one spring game where - oh my God - he trucked two guys at the same time,’’ Williams said. “They just fell off of him like little kids. He was a man among boys.’’

Back in the game?
Eddie DeBartolo, owner of the 49ers in an era in which they won five Super Bowl titles and 16 NFC West titles in 18 years, told the Los Angeles Times that if the Buccaneers came up for sale, he would be interested. “If [the Glazers] are interested in selling, and they’re very serious about it, of course we have a small syndicate that would be interested in it,’’ he said. “I would be a moron not to at least look into it.’’ DeBartolo’s sports academy and agency are based in Tampa, where he lives. He lost control of the 49ers to his sister chiefly because of a federal case in 1998 in which he pleaded guilty to failing to report that a former Louisiana governor had extorted money from him for a casino license. Malcolm Glazer has said he’s not selling the Bucs, but his ownership of the Manchester United soccer team is said to have his family awash in debt.

Boost for Bengals
Cincinnati rests today, with a pivotal two-week stretch looming: home against Baltimore, then at Pittsburgh. And the Bengals have a rather large reason to be thankful for the bye. Offensive tackle Andre Smith, the sixth pick in April’s draft who fractured his foot after a lengthy holdout, returned to practice prior to Cincinnati’s win over the Bears last Sunday, and coach Marvin Lewis said he expects Smith to play against the Ravens. Smith has battled questions about his work ethic and the kind of shape he is in, but he says he spent the rehab time changing the way he trains. He was expected, before the holdout and injury, to start at right tackle. Now, given the way the Bengals are playing, all bets are off.

Albert R. Breer can be reached at abreer@globe.com.

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