Commentary

10 Spot: Postseason reflects successes

Seahawks' controversy can't overshadow strides made by minority coaches, GMs

Originally Published: January 15, 2010
By Adam Schefter | ESPN.com

Rod Graves, Jim Caldwell, Ozzie NewsomeUS Presswire/Getty Images(L-R) Cardinals executive Rod Graves, Colts head coach Jim Caldwell and Ravens GM Ozzie Newsome have their respective teams in the 2009 playoffs.
Thanks to the Seattle Seahawks' controversial hiring of new head coach Pete Carroll, the Rooney Rule gained plenty of attention the past week. But the Rooney Rule, which requires teams to interview at least one minority candidate for head-coaching and front-office jobs, didn't need the Seattle controversy to shine a light on it. Recent postseasons have.

Five of the past six teams that advanced to the Super Bowl, and each of the past three teams that have won it, have had either an African-American head coach or African-American general manager.

Last season the Pittsburgh Steelers' head coach Mike Tomlin led his team to a victory in Super Bowl XLIII in a game against the Arizona Cardinals and their general manager Rod Graves.

One year earlier in Super Bowl XLII, Giants general manager Jerry Reese fielded the roster that pulled off one of the two biggest upsets in NFL history.

And in Super Bowl XLI, the Indianapolis Colts' Tony Dungy became the first African-American NFL head coach to lead his team to a championship, trumping Chicago Bears head coach Lovie Smith for the honor.

If NFL owners didn't learn then, it's fair to wonder when or if they will.

This postseason, three men -- Baltimore Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome, Colts head coach Jim Caldwell and Graves again -- will have the chance to extend the streak. They have a chance to shine more light on the issue that made headlines last week for the wrong reasons.

Ultimately, bottom line, there's no black and white here. Color doesn't matter. Talent and results do.

And now, on to this week's 10 Spot:

Almost as much has been made about whether Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones would keep head coach Wade Phillips as whom Jones would hire for the job back in February 2007. His final two choices were Phillips, the then-San Diego Chargers defensive coordinator, or Norv Turner, the then-San Francisco 49ers offensive coordinator. As Jones announced his decision, he had to stop twice because he became too emotional.

"We needed to get it right," Jones said at the time, pausing as tears welled up in his eyes. "In my mind, we got it right."

He sure did -- on two counts. Since Jones narrowed his field and made his choice, Phillips has gone 33-15 as the Cowboys coach and Turner has gone 32-16 as the Chargers coach. Phillips has gone 1-1 in the postseason while beginning to alter Cowboys fans' opinion of him, while Turner has posted a 3-2 postseason record.

Each coach has proven exactly why he was a finalist for the Cowboys' head-coaching job that now looks as if it will not open again this offseason. Jones is likely to pick up the option in Phillips' contract for next year. Turner is expected to sign a contract extension shortly after this season ends for the Chargers.

And Jones seems smart not only for putting together a team that resembles the 2007 Super Bowl-champion New York Giants, but also for choosing between two coaches who now are performing at the pinnacle of their profession.

Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers and Cardinals quarterback Kurt Warner staged an epic battle Sunday -- and it had to make San Francisco miserable. With the No. 1 overall pick in 2005, San Francisco picked quarterback Alex Smith ahead of Rodgers. And Warner visited San Francisco last year, entertaining the idea of signing with the 49ers as a free agent.

[+] EnlargeAaron Rodgers and Kurt Warner
Jeff Gross/Getty ImagesGreen Bay's Aaron Rodgers (left) and Arizona's Kurt Warner put on an aerial show last weekend.

Had Warner signed with San Francisco, maybe the 49ers would be enjoying some of the success the Cardinals are. On Saturday, Warner will be in New Orleans, trying to lead Arizona into the NFC Championship Game for the second consecutive year. This is the effect Warner has had throughout his career.

He played with tremendous receivers on the St. Louis Rams, but they were not "The Greatest Show on Turf" before or after Warner. Then in Arizona, Cardinals receivers were not as productive before Warner's arrival. And now Warner's recent postseason performances -- which have left him with a postseason quarterback rating of 104.6, second all-time to only Bart Starr's 104.8 -- are as good as any in NFL history.

For the second consecutive postseason, Warner has produced a game in which he's thrown at least four touchdown passes and no interceptions. He did it in last season's NFC Championship Game against Philadelphia, then again in Sunday's victory over Green Bay. The only other quarterback with two such playoff games in his career is former 49ers quarterback Joe Montana, who did it twice in 1990, including his five-touchdown performance against the Broncos in Super Bowl XXIV.

So for the scorecard, one former 49ers quarterback did it, and one could-have-been 49ers quarterback did it as well.

Teams square off with spots in the conference championship games on the line. But coveted coordinators do the same with future jobs on the line. A win this weekend would prevent a hot assistant coach from being able to interview for a head-coaching job for at least another week, but more important, it would boost his stock in the long run. Three of the four games have matchups that will intrigue teams that have openings or teams that could have openings.

Cardinals assistant head coach/running game coordinator Russ Grimm is matched against Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams; Cardinals defensive coordinator Billy Davis squares off against Saints offensive line/running game coach Aaron Kromer; Cowboys offensive coordinator Jason Garrett's unit goes up against Vikings defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier's; and Jets offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer faces Chargers defensive coordinator Ron Rivera. Frazier already has interviewed for the Bills' opening; Grimm could do so any time now; Schottenheimer declined the chance; and Garrett could be on the Bills' radar. And as kickoff approaches, it's worth remembering this: Candidates' best résumé tapes often come from the postseason games they coach.

As the divisional playoffs prepare to kick off, there are plenty of nevers at stake. The Saints never have been to a Super Bowl. The Saints, Cardinals, Vikings and Chargers never have won one. New Orleans never has won a major championship in any pro sport. A Super Bowl-winning team never has entered the playoffs on a three-game losing streak like the one the Saints are now on.

Vikings quarterback Brett Favre never has beaten Dallas in the postseason, going 0-3 against the Cowboys. Football never has a better weekend than this one, with the sport's best eight teams playing throughout Saturday and Sunday -- although championship Sunday is the best football day of the year, with back-to-back conference championship games.

And Vikings defensive tackle Pat Williams never has won an NFL playoff game, which is hard to imagine. Williams has played 14 NFL seasons, 184 games, and has yet to win a playoff game. He is not alone on his franchise: Vikings quarterback Sage Rosenfels has played 10 NFL seasons without knowing the joy of January.

No veteran should have to toil through that many training camps, that many two-a-day practices and that many injuries without being rewarded with a playoff win or two. Now Williams and Rosenfels will have the same chance that Cowboys offensive tackle Flozell Adams and Jets fullback Tony Richardson got last weekend. Adams played 12 NFL seasons and 184 games, and Richardson 15 NFL seasons and 218 games, without a postseason victory.

Sometimes players lose sight of how hard it is to win a postseason game, and sometimes players need a reminder. These opportunities don't come along often.

This weekend's games provide a clash of old versus new, ground versus air. It used to be that a rushing attack was a key element in any team's run to a championship. But the numbers this year and last suggest something different.

This season the AFC's No. 2 seed, San Diego, ranked 31st in the NFL in rushing offense; the AFC's No. 1 seed, Indianapolis, ranked 32nd in rushing offense. And just last season, the NFC champion Cardinals ranked 32nd in the league in rushing.

This might be the ultimate evidence that a significant shift has occurred, that the NFL has gone from a running to passing league. However, the stats from wild-card weekend suggest another story. Teams with more rushing attempts on wild-card weekend went 4-0.

The Ravens and the New York Jets probably will not be able to win this weekend if they can't successfully run the ball; the same might be true of Dallas and Minnesota. But Arizona, New Orleans, Indianapolis and San Diego will take to the air in an effort to get to the conference championship game.

New York traded up in the first round in April to draft USC quarterback Mark Sanchez and in the third round to draft Iowa running back Shonn Greene. And now the Jets rookies are leading New York into San Diego to try to beat the Chargers with the type of running game that they used to routinely have.

[+] EnlargeMark Sanchez & Shonn Greene
AP Photo/Reed SaxonMark Sanchez (right) and Shonn Greene form a dynamic duo for the Jets.

It's hard to envision the Jets' winning in San Diego, but then again, the Jets are accomplishing feats no team in recent memory has. During the Jan. 9 wild-card win over the Cincinnati Bengals, when Sanchez threw for a touchdown and Greene ran for one, the Jets accomplished a rare feat.

New York was the first team to have a rookie pass for a touchdown and a rookie run for one in a playoff game since Giants quarterback Harry Newman and running back Max Krause did it against the Chicago Bears in December 1933 in the NFL's inaugural championship game.

But it's not just the rookies Sanchez and Greene who are making a difference. The Jets also are getting a notable contribution from another rookie -- head coach Rex Ryan. When Ryan laid out the Jets' playoff itinerary, telling them about all the practices they would have up to the Super Bowl and the parade two days after it on Feb. 9, the players reveled in it. From the moment they heard it, they bought into it. Others haven't, but with the NFL's No. 1 rushing offense, No. 1 overall defense and No. 1 scoring defense, the Jets have.

The last time New York and San Diego squared off in the wild-card round, in the 2004 season, Nate Kaeding missed a 40-yard field goal in overtime that would have sent the Chargers on to the divisional playoffs. Since then, Kaeding has been almost automatic from the same distance and situation.

According to ESPN Stats & Information, Kaeding is 31-for-32 on field goals from 40 yards or shorter in the fourth quarter or overtime. Since Week 8 of the 2005 season, and including the postseason, Kaeding has made 29 consecutive field goals in a similar situation to the one he missed against the Jets in January 2005. But that might not be the most impressive stat.

Even more impressive, and underplayed, is the fact that Kaeding is the most accurate field goal kicker in NFL history. He has connected on 150 of 172 field goals (87.2 percent), which eclipses the mark that former Indianapolis Colts and Dallas Cowboys kicker Mike Vanderjagt set by making 230 of 266 field goals (86.5 percent). Kaeding might get a chance to wipe away the most memorable miss of his successful career.

Warning to Indianapolis: No team this century has beaten up on home teams like the Baltimore Ravens, the NFL's ultimate road warriors. On wild-card weekend, Baltimore handed the Patriots their first home loss of the season, which is typical of what the Ravens have done in seasons past.

Last year, the Ravens won a wild-card game at Miami, then a divisional playoff at Tennessee against a Titans team that sported the AFC's top record. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, the Ravens have become the first NFL team to win road games in back-to-back postseasons since ... the 2000 and 2001 Baltimore Ravens.

This might be their toughest win yet. Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco has three inches of swelling in his leg from an injury he suffered in the regular-season finale at Oakland. While playing through pain, he has been unable to move the way he is accustomed to. Baltimore didn't need to rely on Flacco against the Patriots, jumping to a 24-0 lead behind the talents of Pro Bowl running back Ray Rice. But the Ravens will need Flacco to pull out another road win in Indianapolis against Peyton Manning and the Colts.

Vikings wide receiver Percy Harvin was a worthy choice for NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year. What Harvin did for the Vikings' offense and special teams was unmatched. Yet it's hard to imagine that Colts wide receiver Austin Collie, whose numbers matched any rookie's, did not get any votes for the award.

Collie had 60 catches, the same as Harvin. He had seven touchdown receptions, one more than Harvin. And Collie's most impressive feat might have been gaining the trust and confidence of Colts quarterback Peyton Manning, who prefers to rely on trustworthy veterans. Steelers wide receiver Mike Wallace -- who had 21 fewer catches and one fewer touchdown catch than the Colts' rookie wideout -- also received a vote.

Four of this weekend's coaching staffs are going to be spending late January and early February in Miami. Of course, the coaching staffs of the two Super Bowl teams will be there for a week. But so will the two coaching staffs that have the best record in each conference that lose this weekend. It is a new change to the NFL rules with its new Pro Bowl itinerary.

With the Pro Bowl being played in the Super Bowl city the Sunday before the big game, the NFL no longer will require the losing conference championship teams' coaching staffs to work the Pro Bowl. Now each conference's Pro Bowl coaching staff will come from the team with the best regular-season record that loses in the divisional round.

If there's a tie on record, it will come down to the higher seed. So if Indianapolis or New Orleans loses this weekend, those coaching staffs would earn a quick ticket out of the postseason but a quick ticket to Miami and the Pro Bowl. It's not what anybody wants this weekend. But two coaching staffs will dejectedly walk away with a nice consolation prize.

The Schef's Specialties

Game of the week: Dallas-Minnesota: America's Team versus America's quarterback in a matchup reminiscent of some great playoff battles from the 1970s.

Player of the week: Saints quarterback Drew Brees can achieve -- with three more wins -- the type of immortality in New Orleans now reserved for Louis Armstrong.

Upset of the week: Dallas over Minnesota: Since 2003, road teams have an impressive 11-13 record in the divisional round. At least one road team could win this weekend, and no one is playing any better than the Cowboys.

Adam Schefter is an ESPN NFL Insider.