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Sunday Football Notes

AFC East undergoing an overhaul already

By Greg A. Bedard
Globe Staff / January 15, 2012
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The offseason is barely two weeks old, and all three of the Patriots’ AFC East rivals have undergone serious changes in their football operations.

A look at what has transpired:

JETS

Nobody quite implodes - guess the correct metaphor would be “crashes and burns’’ - like the Jets, huh?

Under a cloud produced by a New York Daily News rip job on quarterback Mark Sanchez, the Jets proceeded last week as though everything that plagues the team is on offense. Coordinator Brian Schottenheimer voluntarily stepped down, and the departures of line coach Bill Callahan and receivers coach Henry Ellard soon followed.

Sure, the defense has some nice numbers. That’s mostly due to the play of cornerbacks Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie. It ignores the fact that outside of those players and tackles Sione Pouha and Mike DeVito, the Jets are old, weak, and slow on defense.

Rex Ryan’s scheme is predicated on the linebackers and safeties keying the different pressure and coverage packages. Calvin Pace is decent at outside linebacker, but Bart Scott (likely to be cut), David Harris, and Bryan Thomas aren’t good enough. Put it this way: If you’re looking at Aaron Maybin as a savior, your personnel is in trouble.

Don’t even get us started on safety. Jim Leonhard, who is as smart and effective as it comes when he’s in the lineup, is too small (5 feet 8 inches, 188 pounds) at a collision position to be counted on, and he hasn’t been able to finish the past two seasons. Eric Smith is a disaster. Brodney Pool is decent, but not a building block.

Basically, the guts of the defense need to be revamped if Ryan is going to field his type of team. The problem is they have a ton of free agents, mostly on the defensive side, including Pouha, Leonhard, Maybin, Pool, linebacker Jamaal Westerman, and Thomas. At least the Jets finally have a full complement of draft picks for the first time under Ryan.

Fired Dolphins coach Tony Sparano replaces Schottenheimer as offensive coordinator. With this move, the Jets basically admitted they babied Sanchez too much. Sparano, a New Haven native, is hard-nosed and will get in Sanchez’s face if he starts to mope around again. We’ll have to see how Sanchez reacts to that. Southern Cal wasn’t exactly a place where you learn to deal with adversity.

Schottenheimer had his issues - 67 dropbacks against the Giants? hello? - but he was severely limited by Sanchez and poor execution by his players.

It also didn’t help that general manager Mike Tannenbaum decided to replace Damien Woody with the disastrous Wayne Hunter at right tackle, and left the interior of the line without any legitimate backups (the drafting of Vlad Ducasse out of UMass was a huge misstep). Tannenbaum, in concert with Ryan, also whiffed by acquiring receivers who are either unaccountable (Santonio Holmes) or over the hill (Plaxico Burress, Derrick Mason).

Sparano, who only called plays in 2006 for the Cowboys when they were in the bottom half of the league in points and passing yards, wouldn’t have been any more successful with those liabilities.

Of course, the No. 1 charge is getting the maximum out of Sanchez. But this may be all he is.

The Jets also need to build up the character on the team. Letting well-respected veterans such as Shaun Ellis and Jerricho Cotchery go may have made some football sense, but their departures left a leadership vacuum that was replaced by constant bickering.

Ryan learned the hard way that you can’t manufacture leadership; it has to happen on its own or the team has no legs to stand on.

Ryan appointed Sanchez and Holmes captains for this season. That was a huge mistake. It set the tone that it didn’t matter what you did, it matters only what Ryan thinks of you. That’s no way to build anything on a team, and we’ve seen the results. Ryan has to let the players tell him who the leaders are.

Patriots fans will look at all the infighting among the Jets and say, “See, that’s why the Patriots do it right by not saying anything.’’ The problem wasn’t that the Jets were allowed to speak their minds, it’s that they filled the locker room with the wrong type of people. The Jets fell in love with talent and overlooked character issues.

That’s where the Patriots get it right, as do other successful teams such as the Packers, 49ers, and Steelers. Not everything is about talent. When you talk about a locker room and a team, qualities such as leadership, toughness, accountability to the other players and, above all else, a love for playing the game - not the fame or money it brings - can be just as important.

That’s where the Jets have failed. Until they realize that, they’ll be a few bad plays away from imploding again.

DOLPHINS

Welcome to the NFL, Stephen Ross.

One year after bumbling the Jim Harbaugh sweepstakes and having to bring back a shamed Sparano, the Dolphins owner watched Jeff Fisher pick the Rams over his team because Ross wouldn’t give Fisher final say over personnel, according to two league sources.

Fisher would have retained general manager Jeff Ireland, who has done a nice job putting a foundation in place in Miami (he does need work finding a quarterback), but Fisher wanted final say on specific players. In Tennessee, he got stuck with Vince Young, among others. Fisher wasn’t going to let that happen again.

Remember, Ross himself shut down trade talks for quarterback Kyle Orton, and he also got involved in talks for Carson Palmer. Obviously, that can’t go on any longer with any coach.

Where this leaves the Dolphins, no one is quite sure. Expect more interviews to come. Don’t be surprised if they delve more into the college ranks and look for another Harbaugh.

The Dolphins really only have one option at this point: Let Ireland pick the next coach.

Ross had decided he wants a strong general manager over a strong coach. That’s fine. I think that’s the best route.

But for the partnership to truly work - like Ted Thompson and Mike McCarthy in Green Bay - then Ireland needs to be completely at peace with the decision. That only comes with him tapping his own guy, then sinking or swimming. You can’t force those kinds of partnerships; they have to happen and both sides need to realize it clicks.

BILLS

Buffalo moved quickly to replace defensive coordinator George Edwards with inside linebackers coach Dave Wannstedt.

Everyone knew this move was going to happen at some point after Wannstedt, the former Bears and Dolphins coach (he hired Bills coach Chan Gailey as offensive coordinator in Miami), was brought in before this season.

It will be interesting to see what scheme Wannstedt implements, and how that goes.

Wannstedt was Jimmy Johnson’s defensive coordinator with the Cowboys from 1989-92 and won a Super Bowl the final season. But that was before the salary cap was implemented in 1994.

What we have learned since then in Wannstedt’s head coaching stops - and the lack of success by some of his former defensive assistants (Jim Bates and Bob Sanders) as coordinators - is that Wannstedt’s scheme has a hard time winning championships in the salary cap era because of the superb talent it needs to work correctly. You must strike the correct blend of high-priced veterans, and you have to hit in the draft at the same time.

Think of the Dolphins’ defense circa 2002, which finished third in points allowed and fourth in yards but went 9-7 after quarterback Jay Fiedler missed six games because of injury.

It starts with two immovable defensive tackles, which the Dolphins had in Darryl Gardener and Tim Bowens. Their job was to take up as many blockers as possible so middle linebacker Zach Thomas could run free.

The Bills have one in Marcell Dareus, but Kyle Williams is more of a penetrator.

You also need at least two bona fide ends who can rush the passer because Wannstedt hardly ever blitzes. The Dolphins had Jason Taylor (18.5 sacks) and rising second-year player Adewale Ogunleye (9.5 sacks in ’02, 15 in ’03).

Chris Kelsay could be one edge rusher, but the Bills need more to get good pressure.

Middle linebacker Nick Barnett has filled the Thomas role well before - under both Bates and Sanders with the Packers. You can get by with cheaper outside linebackers because one sets the edge on the strong side, and the other often drops into coverage.

The Bills will need to identify cornerbacks who can play press man-to-man. That’s all the Dolphins did with two of the best to ever do it: Sam Madison and Patrick Surtain. Those types of players are expensive. Wannstedt also uses dedicated free and strong safeties (Brock Marion and Arturo Freeman in ’02).

The Bills have a good secondary, especially at safety with Jairus Byrd and George Wilson, but will need to make sure the cornerbacks are deft at man coverage.

Offensively, the Bills added former Dolphins quarterbacks coach David Lee - the man who brought the Wildcat to the NFL - to help Ryan Fitzpatrick cut back on the 38 interceptions he’s thrown in his past 29 starts and earn his $59 million contract.

CROEL WORLD

Old Bronco is still kicking

With Broncos outside linebacker Von Miller the odds-on favorite to win Defensive Rookie of the Year, Mile High fans are taking a trip back in history.

Twenty years ago, another Broncos linebacker won the award: former Lincoln-Sudbury standout Mike Croel, who was the fourth overall pick out of Nebraska in 1991.

After starter Tim Lucas went down with a season-ending injury, Croel racked up 10 sacks and 84 tackles in 13 games (10 starts) for the AFC West champions, who went 12-4 and lost in the AFC Championship to the Bills, 10-7.

“He got me by 1.5 sacks,’’ Croel said of Miller. “He’s a great athlete. All-round, physically, he’s built really well. He handles himself well on the field and has a good game. He’s quick and has the hunger and desire to play, from what I can see.’’

Croel posted 14 sacks his final six seasons in the NFL - three more in Denver, one each with the Giants, Ravens, and Seahawks - which has led more than a few Broncos fans to wonder whether Miller, the second overall pick, is headed for the same fate.

Not as long as the Broncos continue to utilize Miller’s vast strengths, Croel said.

“I hear some people say my stats went down, but the way they used the linebacker at that point in time, after my first year I was in a lot of pass coverage,’’ he said. “So if you want someone to be in the mix, half the time I’m over in pass coverage, not actually rushing or participating on the run.

“So of course you could look at it as Michael’s stats have gone down, but why? Because he’s always in pass coverage. If you look at it that way, then you could say it was not the case [that his play declined].

“I thought I did a good job and considering what they had me do and my responsibilities, I did that to the fullest of my capabilities.’’

Croel also got caught in a couple of coaching changes. Dan Reeves drafted him but was fired after the ’92 season and replaced by Wade Phillips. Mike Shanahan was hired after the ’94 season.

“I would have liked to have stayed with Denver, but that was the transition when Mike Shanahan came as head coach,’’ said Croel. “The reason why I didn’t stay, I have no idea. Maybe he and I should have had more of a conversation about it, but we didn’t.’’

Croel’s family moved from California to Sudbury when he was 15. He and teammate Joe Sims, who also went to Nebraska and was an 11th-round pick of the Falcons in ’91, helped lead Lincoln-Sudbury to 27 straight wins and two state titles. Croel also won two New England 100-meter championships to rank among the best athletes to ever come out of Massachusetts.

While Croel and his high school sweetheart, Cassaundra, are raising their daughters, Carson (12) and Chase (8) in Los Angeles, he has stayed connected to the game. After coaching at Harvard-Westlake School, Croel is set to debut three football camps - all positions (12-and-under), linebacker/defensive backs (13 and older), and a speed camp - next month in the Los Angeles area under his new Sports Academy 51 company.

ETC.

Tragedy strikes Packers family

Our condolences go out to Packers offensive coordinator Joe Philbin, his wife Diane, and their family after the death of their 21-year-old son, Michael, who drowned in Oshkosh, Wis., last Sunday. The Philbins have deep roots in Massachusetts. Joe is from Longmeadow, where he still visits several times a year to see his parents and brother. He played for future Packers coach Mike Sherman at Worcester Academy before assistant coaching stints at Northeastern and Harvard. Philbin has a taken a leave of absence from the Packers to deal with the loss of the second-oldest of their five children. Michael’s love of the Red Sox was mentioned in his obituary. Having covered Joe Philbin for four years with the Packers, I know how important family is to him, and this has to be an incredibly difficult time. Philbin is one of the best people I’ve come across in this business - kind, patient, and has a terrific sense of humor - and our thoughts and prayers are with him and his family.

View from the Outside

FootballOutsiders.com founder and Sharon native Aaron Schatz said the site tracks a statistic called “defeats,’’ which is defined as plays by defenders that either lose yardage, cause a turnover, or prevent conversion on third or fourth down. The league leaders: 33 - DE Jared Allen (Vikings); 31 - LB Derrick Johnson (Chiefs), LB Terrell Suggs (Ravens), DE Jason Pierre-Paul (Giants); 30 - LB James Laurinaitis (Rams); 29 - LB Daryl Washington (Cardinals), LB Von Miller (Broncos). Jerod Mayo led the Patriots with 23, followed by Andre Carter (18) and Mark Anderson (16).

Short yardage

Word is Alabama coach Nick Saban has reached out to deposed Jets offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer to take over the Crimson Tide’s offense. Being Saban’s offensive coordinator is not something I would wish on my worst enemies. Ask Mike Mularkey, who had to deal with it with the Dolphins in 2006. Saban constantly second-guessed and belittled Mularkey in staff meetings. Yeah, as if it were Mularkey’s fault that Saban picked Daunte Culpepper instead of Drew Brees . . . In a series of interviews since his firing by the Raiders, Hue Jackson has embarrassed himself and likely cost himself any chance at a head coaching job. It’s too bad, because he’s an excellent coach . . . If I’m a team looking for a head coach, I’m waiting to talk to Broncos offensive coordinator Mike McCoy. What a job he did this season . . . No surprise that Patriots director of pro personnel Jason Licht interviewed for the Bears general manager position. Unlike others with the Patriots, Licht has a varied résumé, with the Dolphins, Eagles, and Cardinals. There is an unanswered question with Licht, however. He ascended all the way to vice president of player personnel with the Eagles (2006-07) and was thought to be next in line to be GM once Tom Heckert, who hired him, got to run his own department elsewhere (he’s now the Browns GM). But suddenly Licht was fired in March ’08. The Trenton Times reported that Licht had a falling out with Heckert, soon fell out of favor with others in the organization, and was told by coach Andy Reid to find another job. Why that happened to this day is unclear. Greg A. Bedard can be reached at gbedard@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @gregabedard. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.

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