<
>

Jets need Mangini to clean up mess

Talk about your rags-to-riches tales.

It was just a dozen years ago, in the summer of 1994, that Eric Mangini was putting his Wesleyan education (political science) to use collecting athletic supporters and folding laundry as a 23-year-old ball boy for the original Cleveland Browns, who later that year hired him as a PR intern.

This Sunday, four days shy of his 35th birthday, in a hotel near Foxborough, Mass., Mangini, the New England Patriots' defensive coordinator, will interview with the New York Jets for their vacant head coaching position and explain to them how he plans to clean up the mess Herman Edwards left behind.

During conversations with Jets executive vice president/general manager Terry Bradway, assistant GM and senior VP for football operations Mike Tannenbaum and, perhaps, chairman and CEO Woody Johnson, Mangini will undoubtedly bring up the fact that in his first season as a coordinator, the Patriots won the AFC East and advanced in the playoffs despite starting, in essence, four cornerbacks. And certainly Mangini will mention that a year ago, as New England's defensive backs coach, he converted a linebacker and a wide receiver into defensive backs and started nine different players in the secondary -- yet the Patriots claimed their third Super Bowl title in four seasons. Mangini can point to many miracles he has performed in six years with the Patriots, but really, all he has to do is name-drop to reassure the Jets that he is, indeed, the young coach who can lead the long-term building of a consistent winner.

Calling him the leading candidate might be a bit of a stretch at this point, but according to sources involved in the search process, Mangini certainly has as good a shot at landing the Jets job as any of the other eight coaches they are considering. Among them are former head coaches Jim Fassel, Jim Haslett, Mike Sherman and Mike Tice. This is, as noted earlier, Mangini's first season as a coordinator, his 11th in the NFL. And although his résumé does not include extensive experience, it lists some impressive references:

• At the top, of course, is Bill Belichick, who gave Mangini his first coaching job, as a coaching assistant/offense with the Browns in 1995. Mangini counted among his colleagues that year Kirk Ferentz and Pat Hill, now head coaches at Iowa and Fresno State, respectively, and regulars in the NFL coaching rumor mill, and Mike Sheppard, the New Orleans Saints offensive coordinator. That was just on the offensive staff. Nick Saban was Cleveland's defensive coordinator, current Green Bay Packers defensive coordinator Jim Bates coached the defensive line, and Saints defensive coordinator Rick Venturi headed the linebackers. Jim Schwartz, the Tennessee Titans' defensive coordinator, for whom it is merely a matter of time before a team taps him to be its head coach, was a defensive assistant/scout with the Browns. Chuck Bresnahan, Cincinnati's D-coordinator, was a quality control coach on that Cleveland staff, as was the current Browns general manager, Phil Savage.

The Browns' personnel department was crowded with future executives. In addition to Savage, Scott Pioli (Patriots vice president of player personnel), Ozzie Newsome (Baltimore Ravens general manager), George Kokinis (Ravens director of pro personnel), as well as an intern with the surname Tannenbaum worked under Mike Lombardi, now the Raiders' top personnel man.

• Mangini moved with the Browns to Baltimore in 1996 and worked for Ted Marchibroda as a defensive assistant. Mangini got to work closely with Marvin Lewis, then the Ravens' defensive coordinator.

• From 1997 to '99, Mangini was a defensive assistant/quality control coach for the Jets on Bill Parcells' loaded defensive staff. Belichick. Romeo Crennel. Al Groh, who would coach the Jets for a year following Parcells and now is the head guy at Virginia. Among the offensive coaches were Maurice Carthon, Crennel's offensive coordinator in Cleveland, who will be a head coach soon; Dan Henning, who had been a head coach; and Charlie Weis, Notre Dame's head coach after serving as New England's offensive coordinator for four years under Belichick.

If that isn't a "who's who?" of pro and college football staffs, then what is? If it's all about who you know, Mangini knows plenty. That's no fewer than a dozen current or former head caches he's worked with (including two interim). He's a bright guy, having learned from some of the best teachers and communicators around.

True, Mangini hasn't overseen an organization, but he's seen how it's done watching Belichick and Parcells. He's different in his approach, but he has no choice but to value the same characteristics in a football team that they do -- intelligence, toughness and desire. Neither Parcells nor Belichick is coming back to New York and Saban is taken, so the Jets would be wise to snatch up Belichick's longtime protégé early, not to mention steal a piece of the Patriots' dynasty. There's a reason Al Davis wanted to make Mangini the Raiders' defensive coordinator and Edwards had interest after the '03 season and why Belichick, Crennel and Saban were in a bidding war over his services last offseason. He's that good.

Not only is Mangini right for the Jets, New York is an ideal spot for him. If Edwards' return to Kansas City was a homecoming, then Mangini to the Jets would be a family reunion. Assistant GM Mike Tannenbaum, director of pro personnel JoJo Wooden and defensive backs coach Corwin Brown (who played for Mangini with the Jets) are regulars at the Carmine and Frank Mangini Foundation's annual Football Fundamentals Camp, which draws more than 30 NFL coaches and players to Mangini's alma mater, Bulkeley High in Hartford, Conn., where they tutor hundreds of boys, mostly from the inner city, for a day. Tannenbaum, one of the best cap guys in the business, would have little trouble reducing the Jets' $30 million deficit for next season, $18 million of which supposedly is tied to phony incentives, anyway. The bet here is that Mangini would bring Raiders defensive coordinator Rob Ryan, whose contract has expired, aboard as defensive coordinator (Ryan was a Patriots linebackers coach before Davis hired him away, after Mangini turned down the gig). Markus Paul, New York's director of physical development, was New England's assistant strength and conditioning coach for five years.

The Jets have no reason to hesitate about hiring a first-year coordinator who's only slightly older than his star outside linebacker, Willie McGinest. Andy Reid hadn't been an NFL coordinator when the Eagles hired him. Nor had Edwards. Jack Del Rio was Carolina's coordinator for one year before he got the Jacksonville job. They've all worked out all right. Plenty of experienced coaches have failed. And more than likely, the Jets can get Mangini for half the asking price of the "retreads."

New York looked bad in losing Edwards and getting a mere fourth-round pick in return from the Chiefs. And although I love Edwards as much as the next guy, the Jets will make out better in the long-run should they land Mangini as his replacement, not to mention weaken their division rival in the process. And, just as important, they'd be getting a coach who wouldn't be looking to bail on them anytime soon. It's really a no-brainer, provided the interview goes as expected despite Mangini's spending most, if not all, of his time this week preparing for the Patriots' divisional round game against the Broncos Saturday.

Should the Jets go ahead and hire Mangini (even if it means waiting a few more weeks for the Patriots' season to end), what we'll have is Belichick coaching the Patriots, Saban the Dolphins and Mangini the Jets, adding more intrigue to the AFC's East division.

Hold those whistles!
Nothing drives a fan (not to mention a coach) crazier than for a play to be blown dead or a runner to be ruled "down by contact" and replays show that there clearly was a fumble. We saw three such plays during the wild-card weekend, and the officials blew it every time.

LaVar Arrington fumbled and Tampa Bay recovered on the interception return that set up Washington's first touchdown in a seven-point win over the Bucs. The officials even admitted to Jon Gruden on Monday that they messed up ruling Arrington down, thereby eliminating the opportunity for the Bucs to challenge the call ("down by contact" is not reviewable under instant replay rules). In the Giants-Panthers game, New York's Jeremy Shockey and Carolina's Nick Goings both lost fumbles but their teams retained possession because the whistle had been blown and the defense, by rule, couldn't challenge the call. Stuff like that happens all of the time.

Thankfully, the league agrees that this is a major problem and plans to fix it in the offseason. A league official told me that in the competition committee is going to push for a change to replay rules that would allow teams to challenge down by contact and award possession to the defense, so long as there is an immediate recovery and not a scramble. The defense would get the ball at the spot of the recovery, so it loses out on advancing the fumble, but at least it has possession.

The committee has looked at this issue for the past two years and for the first time brought it before the owners, who (by a slim margin) voted it down for fear that action continuing beyond the whistle would endanger players. I'm told it has a good shot of getting approved this time, though. That way, next year, we won't have to wonder "what if."

Haslett deserves second chance
Haslett met with the Jets' brass Monday and, according to a source involved in the search, was "dynamic" in his interview. New York isn't cuckoo about considering a coach who had two winning seasons and one playoff appearance in six years. Haslett actually is a good coach who just wasn't in the right situation in New Orleans. And we're not even talking about dealing with the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina last season. After Randy Mueller was fired following the 2001 season, Haslett was pretty much left to make the call on personnel decisions, and he and general manger Mickey Loomis cost the Saints with poor ones over the years. Haslett just needs to get with a team that has a GM in place who picks the players (with input, of course) so he can focus on coaching them. The Saints' annual second-half collapses might belie this, but Haslett knows how to reach players. "He's got a knack for kicking players in the [butt] and them coming back and hugging him five minutes later," said one league executive. "They like him and they know he cares." … League and Lions sources tell me that the Detroit job is Pittsburgh assistant head coach/offensive line coach Russ Grimm's when the Steelers' season concludes. Good. I've been saying since Steve Mariucci was fired after Thanksgiving that Matt Millen should target Grimm and Carthon. Millen and Grimm are two of a kind -- hard-nosed, blue-collar, Pennsylvania guys -- who were teammates with the Redskins in 1991. Grimm has been around winning organizations in Washington and Pittsburgh. He'll stress the discipline and physical style of football, especially on offense, that Millen wants. It's not sexy, but that's not what the Lions need right now. The sexy hire got Millen into trouble the last time. Detroit needs substance.

Right move, Herm
Back to Edwards for a moment. I've got no problems with his bailing on the Jets. None whatsoever. The "L" in NFL certainly does not stand for "loyalty." Mike Sherman gets a new contract extension in the summer and the pink slip the following winter.

The Jets had no obligation to give Edwards the extension/raise he desired, nor did he have any obligation to pass up an opportunity to gain said security/raise while working for a friend and mentor as the successor to his former coach. The Jets would have fired him when they got good and ready.

There are no guarantees in this game, thus I have never and will never take issue with a player or coach getting his. Whether the Chiefs tampered with Edwards or the coach lied publicly about his intentions to remain with the Jets are beside the point. However, if Edwards and the Chiefs did it, then they got away with it. More power to them. Edwards and the Jets both did what they had to do. End of story. Get over it, people. Anyway, like I said, the Jets might make out better in the long run with Mangini, or maybe with Giants defensive coordinator Tim Lewis or one of the "retreads."

Road warriors
Three road teams survived wild-card weekend and even though home teams are 16-4 in divisional play since 2000, it wouldn't surprise me to see another trifecta by the road teams this weekend. Thoughts:

• If the Panthers can somehow get a lead on Chicago, the Bears are in trouble because they aren't built to rally. The Panthers looked really good Sunday, and they've got the more balanced offense. Carolina has to stop Chicago's running game and force Rex Grossman to win it, and none of us have seen enough of him to know whether he's up to the challenge. That's a big theme so far in the playoffs, stopping the run and forcing quarterbacks to win through the air. Most can't do it.


• With cornerback Shawn Springs back from injury, Washington matches up well with Seattle on the outside, meaning Redskins defensive coordinator Gregg Williams can send the dogs after Matt Hasselbeck, which he did in Washington's regular-season win over the Seahawks. The Redskins are going to try to pound it with Clinton Portis and keep Shaun Alexander and Co. off the field. Stopping the run will be priority No. 1 for the Skins, and if they succeed, it'll be up to Hasselbeck. The Seahawks went undefeated at home this season and I still like them to come out of the NFC, but when you can play defense like Washington did Saturday, you're always in the game, wherever it is.

• Denver's basically playing a different Patriots team than the one the Broncos beat in the regular season. The defense is settled. Oct. 16 was Mike Vrabel's first (of now 12) starts at inside linebacker, Tedy Bruschi was still two weeks from debuting at the other inside 'backer, Rosevelt Colvin wasn't the monster he is now, Richard Seymour missed that game and Duane Starks is in a lot of those Denver highlights from the first meeting. He's now on IR. Kevin Faulk is the key guy for New England on offense; he really hurt Jacksonville with his quickness Saturday. Belichick is going to have the defense do everything it can to stop Denver's running game and make Jake Plummer try to beat the Patriots from the pocket. The Patriots have to lose in the playoffs sooner or later. Until they do, how do you pick against them?

• I think the Colts present a bad matchup for the Steelers. Indianapolis can score and does so in bunches, and that takes Pittsburgh out of its ball-control, power-running mode. The home team wins this one.

Leinart over Palmer?
One story making its way through NFL scout circles: A scout asked Pete Carroll which quarterback he'd rather have, Carson Palmer or Matt Leinart. Carroll responds by asking something to the effect of, "Well, do I want a quarterback or do I want to win championships? If I want a quarterback, I'd take Palmer. If I want to win championships, I'd take Leinart."

That's what everybody you talk to loves about Leinart, his leadership. Not that Palmer isn't a leader and won't win championships, it's just that it's so evident with Leinart. The way, during timeouts in the national title game, he would bob to the band's music or pretend to play the drums on teammates' helmets in the huddle. He's so cool, so relaxed, always having fun. And considering all of the pressure he's been under as The Guy for USC for the last three years and for him to have lost just two games, you have to love that about him. His arm is average to above-average, he's accurate, and he moves OK for a big fella, but those intangibles are off the charts.

It's the same with Vince Young, who announced Sunday that he is foregoing his senior year at Texas and entering the NFL draft. He's capable of carrying a club on his back, he's willing to accept the pressure, and he can win in spite of it. More than anything, that's what being a pro quarterback is all about. As an athlete, Young compares favorably to the Saints' Aaron Brooks (ironically, Young is projected to go as high as No. 2 overall, to New Orleans) in that he's long (6-foot-5-ish) and covers ground so effortlessly. Brooks is the better passer, but he isn't half the leader that Young is.

In the coming months, personnel evaluators are going to pick at Leinart's arm strength and Young's delivery but in the end, what's inside is what makes both quarterbacks special.

I think (actually, I hope) that the epic Rose Bowl showdown was just the beginning for this rivalry. They'll always be linked, especially if they both go in the top five as projected. People love to debate them already; it was interesting Monday to track ESPN.com's SportsNation poll (52 percent of more than 160,000 voters said Leinart is the better pro prospect) and observe how, naturally, Leinart dominated the voting out west, while Young was more popular in the southern states. They've already divided the country.

Leinart and Young, if they pan out at the next level, could be the NFL's version of Magic and Larry, who, like these guys, faced off in the national title game and went on to compete for NBA championships. There are more similarities. Young is flashy, like Magic, whereas Leinart, like Bird, isn't as physically gifted but gets by on guts and guile. And there's the obvious: Leinart and Bird are white, Young and Magic are black.

Though it would mean they wouldn't be able to play each other in the Super Bowl, I'd love for Leinart and Young to end up in the same conference and so they could meet more often.

Michael Smith is a senior writer for ESPN.com.