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Insider

Plenty of change in the air -- just not at head-coaching level

1/5/2008 - NFL

Even with a fairly impressive contingent of candidates available to NFL teams, this might not be the best firing-and-hiring cycle for assistant coaches who are perceived to be hot commodities.

Job prospects in any walk of life, particularly those involving significant vertical mobility, generally revolve around the basic principle of supply and demand. At this early juncture of the league's annual turnover period, the supply of qualified candidates for head-coaching vacancies far outdistances what appears to be very basic demand.

And there is a pretty good chance that status isn't going to change dramatically.

There are currently three openings -- in Atlanta, Baltimore and Miami -- and there wouldn't even be that many if nomadic Bobby Petrino, a man who never unpacks his playbook from the traveling case, hadn't again gotten the itch to pick up his tent stakes and abandoned the Falcons after only 13 games. Or if Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti hadn't done an about-face in the final month of the season on the status of Brian Billick. Gauging the job security of the rest of the coaches in the NFL, the paucity of vacancies doesn't figure to expand appreciably.

The silence from Carolina owner Jerry Richardson indicates Panthers coach John Fox will return in 2008. Mike Nolan saved his job in San Francisco this week by ceding control of personnel decisions to vice president Scot McCloughan (who was promoted to general manager), firing offensive coordinator Jim Hostler, and promising to improve his relationship with quarterback Alex Smith, the top overall selection in the 2005 draft. Scott Linehan of St. Louis looks safe despite a dismal season in which his roster was ravaged by injuries. Cleveland's Romeo Crennel, Minnesota's Brad Childress and Tampa Bay's Jon Gruden all wiggled off the hot seat, the first two with solid seasons that resulted in playoff near misses, the third by winning a second division championship in three years.

There is, to be sure, a surprise coaching move or two after every season. But outside of the possibility that Seattle coach Mike Holmgren might decide to voluntarily step aside (whenever the Seahawks' season concludes) to finally take on some of the non-football pursuits he has talked about for years, it would take a very surprising move for another job to open up beyond the current three vacancies.

If, indeed, there are only three openings, it's going to dent the chances this year of some talented young assistants who aspire to be head coaches. Suffice it to say there are a lot more viable candidates for head-coaching jobs than there figure to be openings. And unless the number of vacancies grows in the next few weeks, this will represent one of the smallest head-coaching turnovers in recent years.

There were only three new coaches for the 2005 season -- Crennel, Nolan and Nick Saban in Miami -- but other than that, the numbers have held more at the average of 6.2 changes per year since the 1970 merger. In the two seasons after 2005, there were a total of 17 new head coaches. In the three years preceding it, there were 19 changes. The average for the past decade, 6.8, is slightly higher than the mean over the past 38 years. All of which sets up this season as a happy aberration.

Such unusual stability this offseason, at least the kind exhibited to this point, is a good sign for the league. As suggested in this space before, the NFL has become the ultimate "coaches' league," and the franchises that most often sustain success in a roller-coaster league are those that promote continuity.

But the lack of change in the head-coaching ranks this year doesn't mean there won't be key shakeups in other areas of some teams' football operations.

Notable is that the NFL could have more makeover in its general managers' suites than at the top of the coaching chain. The Dolphins this week hired Dallas vice president of college and pro scouting Jeff Ireland to oversee their football operations. McCloughan was promoted in San Francisco. Atlanta continues to seek a replacement for Rich McKay and Buffalo will need a successor to Marv Levy, who stepped aside after two seasons. If Tom Heckert lands the Atlanta opening, as some feel he will, Philadelphia will have a vacancy in its general manager office.

In discussions with longtime league observers, no one could readily recall a firing-and-hiring cycle in which the number of new general managers eclipsed that of new head coaches. But it could definitely happen in 2008.

The lack of head-coach moves should not overshadow the fact that there has already been major turnover at the coordinator level. Offensive coordinators Rick Neuheisel of Baltimore (UCLA), Mike Sherman of Houston (Texas A&M) and Steve Fairchild of Buffalo (Colorado State) all departed the league to take college head coach positions.

Seven other coordinators, including some prominent names like Mike Martz (Detroit), Dom Capers (Miami), Mike Mularkey (Dolphins) and Rex Ryan (Baltimore), have been fired since the end of the season. It should be noted that, while he was terminated with the rest of the staff, Ryan will get the chance to interview for the Ravens' head coach job, and he is also a candidate in Atlanta. The two coordinators in Atlanta, Mike Zimmer on defense and Hue Jackson on offense, still have their jobs for now but might not be retained by whomever becomes the Falcons' new head coach. Defensive coordinators Jim Bates (Denver), Rob Ryan (Oakland) and the Bob Sutton (New York Jets) all are rumored to be in jeopardy.

So there could still be plenty of "help wanted" ads placed by franchises seeking to fill holes on their staffs.

There just won't be much need, it seems, for new head coaches.

Around the League

• Crennel's contract:
Cleveland head coach Romeo Crennel isn't one to make either waves or demands, but in the wake of his team's notable reversal of fortune and near-wild-card berth this season with a 10-6 record, it's likely the Browns' sideline boss will seek to upgrade his contract during the offseason. In fact, ESPN.com has learned that there was brief dialogue this week between Crennel's representative and Cleveland owner Randy Lerner that will probably prompt more substantial discussions about a contract extension. Crennel has two seasons remaining on the five-year contract he signed as a first-time head coach in 2005. In an era of rising salaries, Crennel is one of the NFL's more modestly compensated head coaches. It's believed that Crennel would like a three-year extension and, given Cleveland's remarkable turnaround and seemingly promising future, such a request might not be out of line.

Last offseason, there were hints of a strain in the relationship between Crennel and general manager Phil Savage. The perception was that Savage was attempting to run off the "Crennel guys" from the locker room, and the staffing changes the coach made were said to be influenced largely by the general manager. But the results of this season quashed any such talk of discord, and Savage and Crennel now seem poised to cash in on good drafts and good coaching. For Crennel, it would probably be all the better if he could cash in at the pay window, as well.

• Anderson done in Cincy? Within the next couple of weeks, the Cincinnati Bengals likely face a difficult decision on the future of 12-year veteran right offensive tackle Willie Anderson, a fixture on the blocking unit since the franchise chose him in the first round of the 1996 draft and a four-time Pro Bowl performer who has always exemplified class and leadership. The once-durable Anderson is coming off a season in which he was plagued by heel and knee injuries that limited him to career lows in appearances (seven) and starts (five); at one point, he was sidelined for nine straight games. Before this season, Anderson, 32, had missed only two games and eight starts in 11 years. But age and infirmity may have caught up to Anderson this year, and the Bengals' brass will have to weigh just how much solid football they think the former Auburn star has left in the tank versus the money remaining on the $32 million extension he signed in 2006.

In terms of base salaries, Anderson is owed $3.15 million (for 2008), $2.7 million (2009), $3.2 million (2010) and $3.45 million (2011). But he is also due a $2 million roster bonus on Jan. 15, and the clock is ticking loudly on that money. If Cincinnati opts not to pay the bonus, Anderson becomes an unrestricted free agent and probably will sign elsewhere. If the Bengals pay the bonus, the club is essentially gambling that Anderson will be healthy in '08 and return to his previous form. Anderson does not want to retire and prefers to continue, and mostly likely finish, his career with the only team for which he's ever played.

The man who replaced Anderson for much of this season, four-year veteran Stacy Andrews, is eligible for unrestricted free agency. The younger brother of Philadelphia standout right guard Shawn Andrews, Stacy Andrews' value is tough to gauge because he has started only 13 games in four seasons. But there are a considerable number of teams who view the 26-year-old Andrews, despite his lack of starting experience, as a star-in-the-making with possible Pro Bowl potential. The former University of Mississippi standout, a fourth-round pick in the 2004 draft, is big and quick-footed and has played both guard and tackle. It may take more than just a modest investment in the free-agent market to land him. Or for the Bengals to re-sign him. And those factors may enter into Cincinnati management's decision on Anderson's future with the team.

• Dolphins' coaching candidates: As first reported Thursday by ESPN's Chris Mortensen, the Miami Dolphins are working off a short list of a half-dozen candidates to replace coach Cam Cameron, who was fired after only one season. The list includes Arizona running backs coach Maurice Carthon, Cardinals offensive coordinator Todd Haley, Minnesota defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier, former Baltimore defensive coordinator Rex Ryan, Dallas assistant head coach Tony Sparano and Jacksonville assistant head coach Mike Tice. Sparano, who called the offensive plays for Bill Parcells in Dallas last season, has become a hot commodity, in large part because he carries The Tuna's seal of approval. Honestly, do you think Atlanta owner Arthur Blank knew about Sparano (he probably thought it was Tony Soprano) until Parcells raised his name during the pair's negotiations over a deal in Atlanta?

Even though he felt jilted by Parcells, Blank was smart enough to commit Sparano's name to memory, or scribble it on a legal pad, as a guy The Tuna would have probably brought to the Falcons if he had taken the Atlanta job instead of accepting the task of rebuilding the equally woeful Miami organization. Because of Sparano's background with Parcells and new Dolphins general manager Jeff Ireland, with whom Sparano also worked in Dallas, there is little doubt he is the presumed front-runner to fill the Miami coaching vacancy. Parcells, after all, prefers to surround himself with his people. But the other candidates shouldn't just be summarily dismissed. Frazier, Ryan and Tice haven't worked with Parcells in the past, but all are respected football men. If you're looking for a dark horse, put Tice, the former Vikings' head coach, in that position. He's a Long Island guy by birth, which means that he speaks the Parcells language -- one of the reasons why Parcells liked Blank, a New York native -- and the two got fairly chummy a few years ago.

In the end, the job probably will be filled by Sparano, who Parcells thinks hasn't gotten nearly enough credit for Dallas' offensive resurgence this year. But Miami will have to wait until the Cowboys are eliminated from the playoffs. And that might not happen until Super Bowl XLII. Sparano probably isn't the lone Dallas assistant that Parcells and Ireland are eyeing. There is strong speculation they would like to bring in Dallas secondary coach Todd Bowles as defensive coordinator. And there are whispers, too, that Cowboys owner Jerry Jones has some sort of tacit agreement with Parcells that he will let some aides go to Miami, as long as the Dolphins don't interfere with Dallas' pursuit of a Super Bowl title by causing a distraction among the staff.

• Falcons' GM search: The Atlanta Falcons have interviewed two known candidates, Green Bay director of pro personnel Reggie McKenzie and Green Bay personnel analyst John Schneider, for their general manager position. A third presumed candidate, Colts vice president of football operations Chris Polian, who ESPN.com reported would interview on Thursday with Blank, opted not to pursue the job. But it's the candidate who is next in line for an interview, Philadelphia general manager Tom Heckert, who many believe is the favorite to replace Rich McKay in overseeing Atlanta's football operation. Heckert is set to arrive in Atlanta on Sunday for Monday's interview, and a league source says he has been highly recommended to Blank by Eagles owner Jeff Lurie. Heckert has an excellent track record as a talent evaluator, and there aren't a lot of franchises that can match Philadelphia's draft record during his tenure.

That the Eagles' brass feels compelled to allow Heckert to audition for a job that, at least nominally, appears to be a lateral move, is somewhat telling. First, it suggests that, while Heckert has the GM title in Philadelphia, head coach Andy Reid still possesses the final authority on personnel matters. Second, it's not likely that Lurie and team president Joe Banner would be championing Heckert to Blank if they felt Reid, as some have suggested in the wake of his two sons' recent legal problems, is ready to step aside. No matter the titles involved, Reid still calls the shots for the Eagles, and that's pretty obvious. Heckert might not have as high a profile as some general managers in the league, and he's never sought out the spotlight, but he is the kind of solid, experienced and hardworking football man the reeling Falcons need. And the same can be said of McKenzie, who has worked hard, earned his stripes, and has come close to landing other GM positions in recent years. Blank typically likes to make the headline-type acquisition -- thus, his failed pursuit of Parcells, who came within a day or so of running the Atlanta operation -- but what the Falcons need more than a big splash is some stability.

• Parcells myths: When he agreed to his four-year deal with the Dolphins, it was speculated that part of Parcells' deal with Miami owner Wayne Huizenga includes a very small stake in the franchise. Not true. Such transactions involving minority ownership must be approved by the other league owners, and there is no such vote pending, confirmed NFL officials with knowledge of such matters.

Nor is it true, as folks in Atlanta like to spin it, that Parcells used the Falcons as leverage to squeeze more money from Huizenga's coffers. The contract Parcells signed in Miami is remarkably similar to the one he was negotiating with the Falcons, before Huizenga phoned to tell him he was no longer actively involved in discussions to sell the franchise, which swung the talks back in the Dolphins' direction. Even the dollar value of the two deals, about $3 million per year, is essentially the same.

Tarvaris Jackson

Jackson

Quarterback
Minnesota Vikings

Profile

• Jackson on shaky ground? That was hardly a ringing endorsement of two-year veteran quarterback Tarvaris Jackson by Minnesota coach Brad Childress this week.

In his first season as the starter, Jackson threw nine touchdown passes and 12 interceptions and missed four games because of injuries. Jackson struggled despite being insulated by the league's best running attack. While the former second-round pick appears to have pretty solid support in the Vikings' locker room, with several players saying this week they want him to return as the starter in 2008, Childress wasn't so quick to anoint him.

The coach indicated that Jackson likely will be the starter but said the evaluation is ongoing, and the quarterback situation for the Vikings is going to be thoroughly reviewed in the offseason. The Vikings never got involved in trade negotiations for then-Atlanta backup Matt Schaub last spring before he was dealt to Houston.

They never pursued David Carr when he was released by the Texans, which actually might be a good thing given the 2007 performance of 2002's No. 1 overall pick out of Fresno State; Carr spent five seasons with the Texans before joining the Panthers for the '07 campaign. And the Vikings bypassed Notre Dame quarterback Brady Quinn in the '07 draft.

So it isn't as if Childress and general manager Rick Spielman haven't had opportunities to create more competition at the position and possibly upgrade it. They counted, though, on Jackson making strides when they handed him the ball and the No. 1 job. There were times this season that Jackson showed flashes, particularly in the key area of game management, but some of his progress was overshadowed by turnovers. And now the Vikings' football hierarchy will have to closely scrutinize their young quarterback and try to project where he might be in 2008 as they examine the position.

• Walker on his way out? In terms of patching holes, especially on the defensive side of the ball, there is plenty of work awaiting Denver coach Mike Shanahan in the offseason, and one vehicle for adding to the Broncos' roster might be to subtract wide receiver Javon Walker.

The six-year veteran stopped short this week of demanding a trade but indicated he no longer believes he is a good fit in Denver's offense. Walker endured an injury-plagued season in which he missed considerable playing time and finished with only 26 receptions for 246 yards and two touchdowns.

With Walker absent from the lineup so often, Brandon Marshall emerged as the go-to receiver for quarterback Jay Cutler, and free agent Brandon Stokley did a nice job re-establishing himself as a viable player in the league before injuries slowed him toward the end of the year.

Shanahan might be inclined to agree with Walker that it's time to move on. The offseason trade market has picked up over the past four years, and the commodity most often bartered is veteran wide receivers. So look for Walker to be shopped by Denver management in coming months.

One potential sticking point to a deal: The Broncos will suffer some cap consequences if they trade Walker to another club. His cap figure for 2008 is slightly in excess of $7 million. But even taking a cap hit might be worth it to avoid the $5.4 million in bonuses that Walker is due in the offseason and to jettison a guy who no longer wants to be around anyway.

• 49ers' front office soap opera: With the promotion of Scot McCloughan from vice president of personnel to general manager in San Francisco this week, the front office dynamic for the 49ers in 2008 is going to be interesting to watch.

When Mike Nolan was hired as head coach in 2005 and handed surprisingly far-reaching powers for a first-time head coach by San Francisco ownership, he brought in McCloughan to run his personnel department. It was Nolan, however, who had authority over virtually all the 49ers' football decisions, and McCloughan was answerable to the head coach. Under the new structure, it seems the roles are reversed, with McCloughan's name inched closer to the top of the team letterhead. When owner Denise DeBartolo York suggested, in an interview with the San Francisco Chronicle several weeks ago, that the 49ers would likely add a general manager, the perception was that the franchise would hire a more veteran front office presence.

That's not to suggest McCloughan isn't a solid talent evaluator, because the perception around the NFL is that he is a very good scout. But overseeing the personnel department and serving as general manager are not the same jobs. Basically, it seems all the 49ers did was shuffle the deck a little. The lines of authority certainly have changed, and it would be unfair to say the alterations are purely cosmetic, but they are hardly what many Bay Area observers expected. And with Nolan now technically working for the man he brought into the organization, things could be pretty interesting.

• Gailey in 49ers' future? Nolan, who fired offensive coordinator Jim Hostler after only one year on the job -- and what was statistically the most dismal season in franchise history -- is considering possible replacements. At or near the top of the list is Chan Gailey, who was recently fired after six seasons as head coach at Georgia Tech. Gailey has a long NFL history, including stints as a coordinator and head coach. Although it was rumored last week that Mike Martz would be a leading candidate for the job, that is not the case. One other possibility is Cam Cameron, fired by the Dolphins this week, but Gailey appears the front-runner. Georgia Tech owes Gailey slightly more than $4 million in salary and other compensation, but he wants to continue coaching and has let it be known that he would like to return to the league.

• Mueller Buffalo-bound? One name to keep in mind as a possible candidate for the Buffalo general manager position is Rick Mueller.

Currently the New Orleans vice president of player personnel, and a guy who has been instrumental in upgrading the talent level on the Saints' roster the last several years, Mueller previously worked with Bills coach Dick Jauron in Jacksonville, and that might serve him well. There is a feeling in some quarters that, with the retirement of Marv Levy from the general manager's chair this week, Jauron will be granted more control over all football matters, most notably personnel.

If that's the case, Jauron likely will want a strong talent evaluator and proven commodity, and Mueller, who has been with the Saints for eight years, more than qualifies on both fronts. Mueller, who basically runs the New Orleans draft room every year, was a candidate for the general manager opening with the Houston Texans in 2006, when the job went to Rick Smith. It might be time some of the franchises currently seeking general managers take a look at his body of work. If the Bills decide to define the GM role as more of a business model, then current Bills vice president of administration Jim Overdorf, who does the bulk of the contract negotiation for the club and oversees the salary cap, could have a shot at the job. It is believed that assistant general manager Tom Modrak is not interesting in moving up the chain of command.

• QBs choosing agents: Several of the top-rated quarterback prospects for the 2008 draft have begun to choose their representation. Brian Brohm of Louisville has signed with the Athletes First agency. It's believed that Boston College's Matt Ryan has retained Tom Condon and CAA. And this week, Andre Woodson of Kentucky hired Joel Segal to negotiate his first NFL contract.

The jury remains very much out on how the quarterbacks will stack up in the 2008 lottery. There are some scouts who maintain that none of the signal-callers is worthy of top-10 draft status. Others point to the dearth of solid young quarterback talent in the league and insist that two or three of the seniors will go off the board quickly. Meanwhile, a quarterback from a smaller program, Joe Flacco of Delaware, continues to gain admirers among NFL talent evaluators who have now gotten a better look at him on tape.

• No fear on fourth down: If it's fourth-and-short for Jacksonville in the Saturday night wild-card game at Pittsburgh, expect Jaguars coach Jack Del Rio to keep his offense on the field. Jacksonville was three-for-three in converting on fourth down in its 29-22 regular-season win at Heinz Field on Dec. 16, with tailback Maurice Jones-Drew twice moving the chains and quarterback David Garrard sneaking once for a first down. After averaging 17 fourth-down attempts in his first four seasons, Del Rio went for it on fourth down a league-high 33 times during the 2007 regular season. That was more than double the NFL average of 16.1 fourth-down tries. Jacksonville converted 19 of the 33 fourth-down tries.

• Game of life: Sometimes the convergence of the playoff stretch run and the holidays unfortunately conspires to get in the way of more important life issues, and the Tip Sheet often loses track of taking care of personal business. So oblige us, please, in catching up on a few items: Condolences to former Steelers director of football operations and Buffalo general manager Tom Donahoe on the recent passing of his father. One of the NFL's truly class acts, Donahoe is doing some consulting for a few teams, and clubs in need of a general manager could so far worse than to consider him. The thing is, Donahoe, who always puts family first, isn't apt to leave Buffalo until his two children, both of whom are excelling academically and athletically, are finished with high school. … Belated condolences as well to Mike Chappell, the longtime Colts beat reporter for the Indianapolis Star, on the passing of his daughter, Angie, after a long battle with leukemia. … And, finally, on a much brighter note, congratulations to coach Terry Totten and my beloved alma mater, Pittsburgh Central Catholic High School, on capturing the Pennsylvania state Quad-A football title. The Vikings actually got to 16-0 three weeks before the New England Patriots did.

• The List: When he was fired by the Miami Dolphins on Thursday morning, following a dismal 1-15 debut year, Cam Cameron became the 21st NFL coach since the 1970 merger to be dismissed or resign either directly after or during his first season on the job. The others in that dubious fraternity: Bill Austin, Washington (1970); Joe Bugel, Oakland (1997); Pete Carroll, New York Jets (1994); Monte Clark, San Francisco (1976); Sid Gillman, San Diego (1971); Bud Grant, Minnesota (1985); Al Groh, Jets (2000); Lou Holtz, Jets (1976); Ed Hughes, Houston Oilers (1971); Harvey Johnson, Buffalo (1971); Don McCafferty, Detroit (1973); Pete McCulley, San Francisco (1978); Ken Meyer, San Francisco (1977); Richie Petitbon, Washington (1993); Bobby Petrino, Atlanta (2007); Ray Rhodes, Green Bay (1999); Rod Rust, New England (1990); Marty Schottenheimer, Washington (2001); Art Shell, Oakland (2006); and Les Steckel, Minnesota (1984).

• Stat of the week: If red-hot Washington upsets Seattle in Qwest Field on Saturday afternoon, the Redskins' Joe Gibbs will become the first coach in NFL history to win playoff games with six different starting quarterbacks. In his two incarnations with the franchise, Gibbs has claimed postseason victories with Mark Brunell, Mark Rypien, Jay Schroeder, Joe Theismann and Doug Williams as his starters. Todd Collins would become the sixth. The only other two coaches in league history to win playoff contests with five different starting quarterbacks are Bill Cowher (with Tommy Maddox, Neil O'Donnell, Ben Roethlisberger, Kordell Stewart and Mike Tomczak) and Chuck Knox (with Joe Ferguson, Pat Haden, James Harris, Ron Jaworski and Dave Krieg).

• Stat of the week: Although coaches and players place great emphasis on securing home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, the top seed hardly ensures a Super Bowl berth. Not since the 1993 season, when Dallas and Buffalo played in Super Bowl XXVIII, have both the top-seeded teams advanced to the title game. In the 13 seasons since then, the No. 1 seed in the NFC moved on to the Super Bowl nine times, but the AFC's top seed advanced only three times. In 1997, both the top-seeded franchises, San Francisco in the NFC and Kansas City in the AFC, were eliminated short of the Super Bowl.

• Punts: It isn't likely that former Ravens coach Brian Billick will return to the sidelines this year. But if he does want to coach, one potential landing spot is Philadelphia, as a senior assistant or consultant on Andy Reid's staff. … This was the first season since the 2002 realignment that three teams in the same division notched 10 or more victories. Indianapolis, Jacksonville and Tennessee, all from the AFC South, each had double-digit wins. … Vikings tailback Adrian Peterson pocketed a $250,000 bonus for being named as the Associated Press offensive rookie of the year. … Pittsburgh isn't certain that Pro Bowl strong safety Troy Polamalu, who missed four of the last six games of the regular season with sprained medial collateral and posterior cruciate ligaments in his right knee, will be available for Saturday night's playoff game against the Jaguars. The Steelers couldn't stop the Jacksonville ground game with Polamalu in their Dec. 16 loss, and the task will be much more difficult if he can't play.

Denver 13-year veteran wide receiver Rod Smith will undergo surgery on his problematic left hip next Tuesday, and it could end his celebrated career. One of the most productive undrafted college free agents in NFL history, it appears Smith won't require a total hip replacement, but he will need extensive work to the ball and socket joint. … Green Bay will be without guard Junius Coston, who was placed on injured reserve Thursday because of a severely strained calf. In the Packers' ever-changing guard rotation, Coston started seven games in 2007. … Washington officials have assured quarterback Jason Campbell, who is rehabilitating a dislocated kneecap, that he will be the team's starter for 2008. Todd Collins, who has led the Redskins' surge into the playoffs, is scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent, but retaining him as the backup to Campbell clearly is a priority for the club. … The retirements this week of defensive tackles Bryant Young of San Francisco and Warren Sapp of Oakland means both standout interior lineman will be eligible for Hall of Fame consideration in five years. Given their respective bodies of work, both belong in the HOF debate.

It was first noted in this space a month ago that legendary Tampa Bay defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin, whose contract with the Bucs expires at the end of the season, could wind up on the staff of his son, Oakland coach Lane Kiffin, in 2008. Since then, the story has gained some legs, but a union of the Kiffin family in the Bay Area really isn't likely to happen. Monte Kiffin's contract with the Bucs has paid him about $1.7 million annually the past few years. That's more than Al Davis is paying Lane Kiffin to be his head coach, and the Raiders' owner isn't apt to ante up that much, even for a coordinator of Monte Kiffin's status. … Whoever Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis chooses as his next coordinator should at least have a good young secondary around which to build. The Bengals started three rookies in the last two games of the year -- first-round cornerback Leon Hall and safeties Marvin White, a fourth-rounder, and seventh-round pick Chinedum Ndukwe -- and all played well. The performances of the young safeties was particularly encouraging. Plus, the Bengals have cornerback Johnathan Joseph, their first-round selection in 2006, on hand as well.

The NFC led in the interconference competition for much of the year, but the AFC rallied to win three of the four matchups on the final weekend of the season to forge a 32-32 tie. The NFC North (12-4) and NFC East (11-5) enjoyed strong showings, but the NFC South and NFC West were a dreadful 9-23 combined in the competition. The NFC hasn't won the interconference series since 1994.

• The last word: "We need a lot of changes. When you look at the most successful teams in this league, they're very disciplined. And we're obviously not one of the most successful teams. I don't think we're the most disciplined team, and that's definitely an area we need to improve on." -- Cincinnati quarterback Carson Palmer on improvements that the Bengals need to make for 2008

Senior writer Len Pasquarelli covers the NFL for ESPN.com.