- Michael Smith, NFL Senior Writer
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We'd all agree that the NFL, far more than the NBA or Major League Baseball, is a coach's league, where good mentoring can elevate a team from contender to champion. The division that best exemplifies that fact is the AFC East.
Who comes out of arguably the league's toughest division could well come down to which coaching staff does the best job. Three clubs saw significant change on the sideline this offseason.
Start with the Patriots, winners of three of the past four Super Bowls. They have the best coach in the business in Bill Belichick, but his tandem of top-notch coordinators, Romeo Crennel and Charlie Weis, are now running their own programs at Cleveland and Notre Dame, respectively. Belichick promoted secondary coach Eric Mangini to Crennel's post, while no one has officially been hired to fill Weis' position. Overcoming the loss of Crennel and Weis represents the most significant challenge to New England's title defense.
As for the rest of the teams vying for the AFC East title, which the Patriots also have won in three of the past four seasons, the Jets said goodbye to the conservative and often controversial Paul Hackett and replaced him with former Titans offensive coordinator Mike Heimerdinger in hopes of getting more big plays out of the offense. Almost as big but not nearly as heralded was New York's hiring of Markus Paul, formerly of the Patriots, to be its director of physical development. It's like they say in the NFL: If you can't beat them, hire them.
In Buffalo, Mike Mularkey's program is entering Year 2, and the Bills are expecting to improve upon their 9-7 mark from last year. Last but not least (and certainly not the cheapest), Miami put enough in front of Nick Saban to finally pry him from the college ranks. Saban proceeded to land Vikings free agent offensive coordinator Scott Linehan and Chargers offensive line coach Hudson Houck. Those were impact hires.
The division breaks down like the title of a low-budget sit-com: a dynasty, two teams with playoff aspirations playing catch-up while carrying thoughts of what could have been, and a once-proud franchise trying to rebound from Ricky.
Sunday, Dec. 1. Week 17: Miami at New England, Buffalo at the New York Jets. Props to the schedule makers.
Here's a look at where the AFC East teams stand:
New England Patriots
Best move: Moving with Cleveland and Miami into the $2.3-2.5 million (over three years) neighborhood and making it worth Mangini's while to remain in New England. Mangini, 34, a first-time coordinator (though he did call a handful of games in the 2000 season, the year before Crennel's arrival) who has worked wonders in the Patriots' secondary the past several seasons, is one of the rising stars of the coaching ranks. Oakland went hard after him last year. New England's defense would have been in capable hands had Mangini gone to work for Crennel or Saban (second-year linebackers coach Dean Pees probably would have gotten the job) but there's nothing quite like having a guy who's been in the bunker with you. Mangini knows Belichick's system and shares his philosophy, having been on the sideline with him for all but one of his nine NFL seasons. Think of him as The Apprentice to Belichick's Donald Trump. It makes the process of devising a game plan simpler when Belichick can simply go into Mangini's office and refer to a scheme from, I don't know, the second Jets-Colts game in 1999, when they were in New York together working for Bill Parcells. It's hard enough trying to replace two coordinators. Mangini's departure would have made it three major coaching defections and made Belichick's job even more difficult than it is.
Biggest question mark: About that offensive coordinator position: who's gig is it? Coordinators have distinct styles of play calling, as unique as fingerprints. The system may be the same, but with Weis gone, who's calling the shots now? Who's making the fourth-and-short calls? Who has the final say? Will it be Belichick, who called his own plays when he was the Browns' head coach? Will it be Dante Scarnecchia, the veteran offensive line coach? Where does quarterbacks coach Josh McDaniels fit in? Does receivers coach Brian Daboll have a say? What about running backs coach Ivan Fears or Tom Brady? Since it seems like it's going to be a group effort, what the heck, can fans vote online?
Bottom line: Joe Andruzzi, Ty Law, David Patten, and Roman Phifer all are gone. Tedy Bruschi may not be able to play. But the Patriots still have their core group of Brady, Deion Branch, Corey Dillon, Rodney Harrison, Willie McGinest, Richard Seymour, Adam Vinatieri, Mike Vrabel, Eugene Wilson and on and on. New England will feature a lot of new faces, but it's the same old story: The Patriots still are the team to beat.
New York Jets
Best move (tie): Reacquiring Laveranues Coles from Washington in exchange for Santana Moss and dealing their first-round pick to Oakland for tight end Doug Jolley. We've often heard the word "vertical" used this offseason with regard to the Jets' plans for their offense. They want to push the ball downfield and take more shots than they did with Hackett calling the plays. New York would love to follow New England and evolve from a "dink-and-dunk" offense into one capable of hitting home runs off play action. Enter Heimerdinger, who loved the big play when he coached the Titans' offense. In order to integrate a philosophy you must have the players to carry it out, and the Jets feel they improved their pass personnel with the additions of Coles and Jolley. Coles had great chemistry with Chad Pennington in 2002 and adds toughness to a wideout group that includes Justin McCareins (a former Titan Heimerdinger is familiar with) and Jerricho Cotchery. Let's just say Jolley represents the best receiving tight end the Jets have had in a while. He'll be able to attack the middle of the field and create matchup problems for defenses. For example: If, say, the Jets split him wide and the defense goes to its sub (nickel) package, New York still can run out of its regular personnel.
Biggest question mark: Knowing Herman Edwards, the Jets coach isn't too worried about the state of Pennington's surgically repaired right shoulder. Pennington has begun throwing short distances, and based on his progress, the Jets expect him to be ready to let it rip by training camp. Edwards probably isn't sweating the John Abraham soap opera, either. Edwards' greater concern likely is who's in front of his quarterback. Kareem McKenzie still plays right tackle in New York, only with the Giants. Adrian Jones is the favorite to replace him. Tight end Chris Baker hasn't started in three seasons, but will be counted on for more, as the Jets will employ plenty of two-tight end formations, with Jolley playing more like a wide receiver.
Bottom line: Had Doug Brien handled his business in the divisional playoff game at Pittsburgh, the Jets would have been in Foxboro, Mass., playing for the AFC title. They surprised some with the selection of Ohio State kicker Mike Nugent in the second round of April's draft, but in him they see someone good enough to score nine points a game. They believe he'll make the long-range tries Brien missed late last year. The defense has had a full year now of playing in Donnie Henderson's system. New York's return game should be better, too, with the addition of second-round pick Justin Miller, who at least wants to return punts, unlike Moss late last season. Curtis Martin will run for his usual 1,300-1,500 yards. So it all comes down to how well Pennington recovers. New York has a solid backup in ex-Dolphin Jay Fiedler. And if Law comes back to earth and down off what is said to be a $7 million asking price and plays for his man Edwards, this team could pose a serious threat to Law's old one, the Patriots.
Best move: Moving on from Drew Bledsoe (23-25 in three years as the Bills' starter) and handing the reigns to last year's first-round pick, J.P. Losman. Don't mistake this for a "step back to take a step forward" type deal. No. The Bills' brass sees Losman, despite only five pass attempts as a rookie, as an improvement over the more-proven Bledsoe. Had Losman not gotten hurt, in fact, and the Bills not gone on a late-season run, Buffalo would have started the transition last year. Losman moves much better than Bledsoe (remember, he timed 4.6 in the 40 coming out of Tulane). Expect Mularkey to utilize his QB's athleticism on rollouts, bootlegs, and designed runs, similar to what he did with Kordell Stewart in Pittsburgh. Buffalo signed veteran Kelly Holcomb from Cleveland just in case.
Biggest question mark: You mean besides the young quarterback and whether he can effectively lead a veteran team while shedding the "punk" perception some teammates had of him last year? Probably left tackle, then. Starter Jonas Jennings left via free agency for San Francisco, leaving the Bills with Mike Gandy to protect Losman's back side. If Gandy can't cut it, the Bills will be left scrambling, Losman especially, except more in the literal sense. Another unanswered question is: What Buffalo will get in return for unloading disgruntled running back Travis Henry, who is said to have loaded up and moved home to Florida until he's dealt? Team president Tom Donahoe may be forced to come down from his asking price of a first-day pick.
Bottom line: The Bills played well enough in the final three-quarters of last season to make the playoffs, only they just stunk it up against the Steelers' scrubs in the regular-season finale. Ten of 11 starters, the exception being defensive tackle Pat Williams (Minnesota), return from the league's second-ranked defense. Stud running back Willis McGahee is another year removed from the devastating knee injury he suffered at the University of Miami. Wideout Lee Evans had a strong rookie year on which to build, and Buffalo added UM speedster Roscoe Parrish in the draft. Buffalo had a quiet spring, but if Losman is what the Bills believe he is, they'll make plenty of noise come fall and winter.
Best move: Luring college football's most coveted coach from LSU and giving him the personnel power he demanded, and more recently, adding Randy Mueller as general manager. Saban has won everywhere he's coached (Toledo, Michigan State, LSU), though, obviously, he's never been the head man for a pro team playing in the league's toughest division. His knowledge and creativity are on par with Belichick's, and, like his former Cleveland colleague, he'll make the difference in several Dolphins games. Saban differs from Belichick in that he is, "a lot smoother," as one coach who knows both men put it. Just look at the way Saban has been using his recruiting ability to talk Ricky Williams out of retirement. Regardless of how small he is, having Williams for 15 plays a game or so to team with top pick Ronnie Brown is huge. With or without Ricky, Miami will play smarter situational football and win more close games than they did under Dave Wannstedt.
Biggest question mark: Quarterback. Definitely. A.J. Feeley started eight games last season, but that film shouldn't be held against him. It should be dropped like a lowest test score. Still, thus far he hasn't shown himself to be worth the second-round pick Miami gave the Eagles in exchange for his services. Gus Frerotte is serviceable, at best, but he hasn't been the guy since his last year with the Redskins (1997). He owns the advantage of having played a year under Linehan in Minnesota. All the wear and tear Brown saved splitting time with "Cadillac" Williams at Auburn figures to come in handy his rookie year.
Bottom line: The Dolphins will be better. Bank on it. But it's going to take time for Saban to transform the Dolphins' defense from a finesse unit into a bigger, more physical group that can win in the winter months. Miami's style, while successful, doesn't suit Saban. As one of his peers put it, "Nick would take Shaq over Kobe." And without a long-term answer at QB, it'll probably be a few years before the Dolphins are competing for championships, especially in this division. In the meantime, those Dolphins-Patriots matchups should be fun.
Michael Smith is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
New England will feature a lot of new faces, but it's the same old story: The Patriots still are the team to beat.