- John Clayton, NFL senior writer
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My first reaction upon hearing the news that the Bengals signed wide receiver Matt Jones and worked out troubled cornerback Adam Jones was to ask, "Why hasn't Marvin Lewis signed a contract extension?"
Wade Phillips, Gary Kubiak, Andy Reid and Brad Childress received their extensions. Lewis, John Fox and Mike Tomlin are all up after the 2010 season. I can't blame Bengals ownership because I'm sure they have approached and offered to take care of Lewis long-term.
Regardless, Lewis deserves the chance to have long-term security. The Bengals live on the edge when it comes to player acquisitions. A few years ago, they got in serious trouble in the locker room and with the league for drafting players with major character issues. In the past year, they've got back to taking chances on veterans with troubled pasts, but they have a decent success rate.
Defensive tackle Tank Johnson was a major success last season and deserves a long-term deal. Halfback Larry Johnson contributed to the backfield. Jones may not fill the void left by T.J. Houshmandzadeh and the late Chris Henry, but he is talented, and the cost was only around $700,000.
But a coach is only as good as his players and his ability to motivate them. Lewis did a great job last season. The 2009 Bengals were the most mature team in more than a decade. He was named coach of the year for turning a 4-12 team into a playoff team.
You get the feeling the Bengals will follow the Jones signing by being the leading team for Terrell Owens, as long as Owens signs a one-year deal. For taking on those types of locker-room challenges, Lewis needs to get his job security in writing.
Q: What do you think new coach Mike Shanahan of the Redskins will do with the fourth pick in the draft? Is there a quarterback that fits his scheme, or do they go with much needed help on the O-line?
Gina in Point Pleasant, W.Va.
A: I believe that Shanahan, knowing the importance of the quarterback position, will take Sam Bradford instead of Russell Okung. He can keep Jason Campbell for one season to give Bradford time to recover from his shoulder troubles and learn the offense. Bradford -- as long as he's healthy -- is a good fit. Owner Dan Snyder wanted to trade for Jay Cutler last season because he knows you can't win in this league without a top-level quarterback. Right or wrong, Snyder didn't believe Campbell could take the Redskins to the next level. Campbell was Joe Gibbs' vision of a franchise quarterback, not Snyder's. The Redskins owner hired Shanahan to find that next quarterback and groom him in the right offense. Shanahan can try to fix the offense after he gets the quarterback, but the quarterback is the biggest priority.
Q: John I think how the Bills handled this most recent attempt at rebuilding this organization could be one of the most intriguing story lines of the offseason. The Bills will head into the 2010 season with an all-new coaching staff and new GM looking to break a playoff drought of nearly a decade. The biggest questions are how are they going to fill their three biggest needs at LT, NT and QB? What can we expect from the Bills this offseason, and what do you think about acquiring Tyler Thigpen? When Chan Gailey was his offensive coordinator in Kansas City, that offense was pretty exciting to watch.
Garren in Clifton Park, N.Y.
A: It is an intriguing storyline, but the hiring of Gailey isn't generating a lot of excitement around the league. Sure, he might be successful. But after Ralph Wilson's attempts to hire a big-name coach, it's hard to sell Gailey as a headliner. What I'm puzzled about more than anything is the decision to go to a 3-4 defense. No doubt the Bills have been pulverized when they play 3-4 defenses, and that's a big problem because three AFC East teams play the 3-4. But making the switch only adds to their needs. They don't have a starting outside linebacker to fit the scheme. You're right, they need a nose tackle, but the 3-4 goes against the talent base of this defense. Kyle Williams might have been the team's best defender last year, but he might not translate as a two-gap defensive end or a nose tackle. Marcus Stroud has to be an end, not a dominating tackle in the 3-4. You can argue that five of the seven spots in the front seven are in flux because of this switch. Gailey is a good coach, but he has a lot on his plate to turn this franchise around.
Q: Hi John, As a Niners fan, I'm a little skeptical of management naming Alex Smith as "the guy" for next season. He always seems to win those one or two meaningless games, like a preseason match or an end-of-the-year affair after the team has been eliminated from the playoffs that give the coaches confidence. Yet, he always loses that one critical must-win game to stay in contention, like against Seattle late in the season. I don't see any great, realistic alternatives out there for the QB position, either via free agency, trade or the draft. Fans like Shaun Hill because he wins games. I don't know why he gets a short leash, but Smith gets a six-year cushion. What are your thoughts on Smith's development and the Niners' situation at quarterback?
Mike in South Bend, Ind.
A: It is clear that Smith has more talent than Hill, but what probably happened is that opponents had enough tape on Hill to find ways to stop him. It's long been said in this league that a good backup can come off the bench and win three games for a team, but if you play him three more games, he might lose you three. Hill doesn't have the arm strength to threaten defenses but is a good manager of the game and is a smart, efficient quarterback. When the 49ers played Hill, they knew their chances of coming back from 10- to 14-point deficits weren't good. Smith gives them more mobility and arm strength. The problem with Smith, though, is that he's establishing himself just as a middle-of-the-pack starter. He has to work in a shotgun offense to be effective, and that doesn't give Frank Gore the best chance to run the ball. As a Niners fan, you just have to accept that the team is going to have to get by with Smith and Hill until they find the next quarterback.
Q: Hey John, I'm sure you're tired of the Brady-Manning debate by now, but there's one bit of info that always seems to get ignored in the debate: Offensive talent. Manning supporters will always say the Pats had better teams, and that may very well be true -- on defense. But Manning has had offensive Pro Bowlers around him his whole career (Marvin Harrison, Reggie Wayne, Edgerrin James, Dallas Clark, etc.). Brady won championships with journeymen like Troy Brown, David Givens and Deion Branch to throw to and Antowain Smith in the backfield. Brady even made the AFC Championship with Reche Caldwell as his No. 1 receiver. And as soon as the Pats gave him some real talent at receiver (Randy Moss and Wes Welker), he explodes for 50 TDs. Manning supporters always point to his stat edge as the reason he is better, but it seems to me that if Brady had that kind of talent his whole career, he'd have numbers that were just as good, if not better. Thoughts?
Kyle in Los Angeles
A: I think the argument about the talent level of the Colts and the Patriots has more to do with defense. The Patriots had better defenses during their Super Bowl runs. The Colts have had to get by with defenses ranging from average to above-average. My eye says Manning is the better quarterback, but I can't say that confidently when Brady has three Super Bowl rings to Manning's one. Both are going to be first-ballot Hall of Famers, but quarterbacks are held to different standards than any of the other players on the field. Wins and losses are attached to them, and it's the quarterback who gets the biggest contracts and the biggest responsibility. Some have written in the past few weeks to this mailbag that quarterbacks shouldn't be judged by Super Bowls. I disagree. Until Manning wins another Super Bowl or two, I can't put him ahead of Brady on the list of all-time quarterbacks.
Q: I believe the Jets should drop Kellen Clemens so it appeases the final eight rule of the free-agency policy for the uncapped year. That way the Jets could go for Chad Pennington if the Dolphins get rid of him. Only a few other quarterbacks are better mentors to a young quarterback than Pennington so he would be perfect for mentoring Mark Sanchez and, even with the shoulder problems, he is a much smarter and accurate quarterback than Clemens is. What's your opinion on this?
Mike in Wantagh, N.Y.
A: The strategy doesn't work. In an uncapped year, Clemens is a restricted free agent. Dropping him doesn't open a door for the Jets to sign another unrestricted free agent. Plus, is there a guarantee a team would rush to sign Clemens? If he's not good enough for the Jets, he's only going to be a backup quarterback, at best, on another team. Pennington would be a good backup to the Jets, but that's more for his talent than his coaching ability. A lot of times, the veteran backup quarterback isn't going to go out of his way to help the young quarterback. But if the Jets can get Pennington back just to be a backup, it's not a bad move.
Q: John, can you explain to me why most "experts" don't feel that Tarvaris Jackson can be a solid quarterback in this league. He has started all of 20 games, that isn't even two full seasons, and one playoff game. He has a 10-9 regular season record, 59 percent completion percentage and 20 TDs to 18 INTs. I think if any other QB with as many starts had those numbers, he would not be looked at as negatively. Now I am not saying it wasn't wise to get Favre, but how many other QBs that are on the market can really help the Vikings?
CC in Laurel, Md.
A: I don't know many experts who are in Jackson's corner. Brad Childress is perhaps the only person who believes in him. The Vikings, despite losing to the Saints in the NFC Championship Game, have the most talented roster in the NFC. Jackson lost out in the starting competition to Gus Frerotte in 2008. In 2008 and 2009, the roster was good enough for Jackson or any quarterback to get the Vikings to 10 wins. Now, the roster is older. If the Vikings go back to Jackson, they might be just an eight- or nine-win team. They need Favre back. If Favre isn't back, they need to trade for Donovan McNabb.
Q: I know Bill Polian has been pointing fingers at the O-line and special teams but I felt that the Colts' defense also let them down. After all, giving up 24 points (the extra interception points don't really count) and allowing Pierre Thomas and Reggie Bush to basically run for first down after first down isn't really great defense. The only reason I can think of for the Saints not scoring more is because of time of possession. Personally, I think the defense really needed the guys who were out such as Marlin Jackson and Bob Sanders. So why is the O-line getting the criticisms? I'm confused as to what Polian found wrong with the O-line.
J. in North Shore City
A: The Colts enter each season knowing they are going to be only respectable on defense. Like the Patriots of the past couple of years, the Colts use their offense to be their best defense by trying to stay on the field longer. That's where the offensive line let them down. They can't run the ball. Halfbacks Joseph Addai and Donald Brown are talented, but you never see them get to the second level of a defense because the holes aren't there. One of the reasons the Colts lost the Super Bowl was that they couldn't convert that third-and-1 running play before the half, giving the Saints field position and the chance to kick a field goal that cut the lead to 10-6. Polian and Manning know the value of a balanced attack. When James lost a step and couldn't convert short-yardage runs, the Colts went for a new running back, Addai. Now they have two running backs who can do the job, but they don't have the blocking upfront. That has to be fixed.
Q: With offenses moving toward the pass, and the 3-4 being called a "run-first" defense, why are so many teams moving to the 3-4? Wouldn't a 4-3 make more sense to counter the offenses?
Andrew in Richardson, Texas
A: Great question. The reason is that coaches believe the 3-4 creates more confusion for quarterbacks with some of the blitz packages. I honestly think that too many teams are making the switch to the 3-4 and that there aren't enough good nose tackles or five-technique defensive ends to make the 3-4 work well. But you saw some of the confusion in the Super Bowl when the Saints went to a three-man line. Manning had some problems figuring out where the pressure is coming from. By replacing a defensive lineman with a linebacker, defenses feel as though they add some speed. What I thought was interesting this season is that most of the teams that play against 3-4 defenses passed against them more than ran against them, figuring it's worthless to run against a run-stopping defense.
Q: Hey John, just wondering about the current rule that allows an "injured" player to only miss one play and return to action. Wouldn't it be better, or more fair for that injured player to miss the rest of that particular series, be it one play or 12? Giving a defense a chance to rest so that the next play can result in a stop or an interception is ridiculous.
Rick in Indianapolis
A: Why should a player be penalized if he suffers a minor injury? Football is a physical sport, so players are going to get hurt. The one-play rule is only to protect the team with the injured player from getting a timeout. Why fix what isn't broken? As long as the injured player isn't faking the injury to give his team a rest, there is no problem here.
Q: John, yes Peyton Manning has taken a lot of heat but isn't it fair when the Colts have had seven straight years of 12-plus wins, won more games in a decade than any other team in NFL history and won only one Super Bowl? Especially when other top-winning teams of previous decade, Packers in the 60s, Steelers in the 70s, Niners in the 80s and Cowboys in 90s won multiple titles?
Doug in Cleveland
A: There is no doubt that the Colts' inability to win Super Bowl rings puts Manning in a negative light. But his résumé is still building. John Elway was under the same heat until he won two Super Bowl rings at the end of his career. Like Manning, Elway elevated the Broncos into a Super Bowl contender, but the team wasn't good enough early in his career to win Super Bowls. Jim Kelly fell under the same light with the Bills' four failed trips to the Super Bowl. Manning is going to be a first-ballot Hall of Famer, but he still needs to get more rings to be considered among the five best quarterbacks of all time. Quarterbacks are ultimately judged by their championships.
John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
With everything he's had to deal with on and off the field in Cincinnati, it's time for Marvin Lewis to get an extension, John Clayton writes in his latest mailbag.