Wednesday, January 25, 2006

USA TODAY Sports Weekly's All-Pro Team

By Howard Balzer, USA TODAY Sports Weekly

January 25, 2006

Picking an All-Pro team and honoring the game's best producers is a thankless task. Because when these teams are published, just as when the Pro Bowl teams are selected each year, the emphasis always seems to go to the players not picked.

Here at USA TODAY Sports Weekly, we don't pick eight wide receivers or six quarterbacks like the Pro Bowl does. What you see here is the best of the best.
We also pick a team based on the way the game is played. For example, there is a left and right tackle; a right and left defensive end. Also recognized are those non-starters who contribute in significant ways, such as nickel backs and third receivers.

Clearly, there are many superb players in a great league who won't be mentioned. But this is the NFL's cream of the crop for the 2005 season.

•Free safety: Bob Sanders, Indianapolis. After getting off to a slow start as a rookie in 2004 because of an offseason foot injury, Sanders' performance against the run and pass helped the Colts improve from 29th to 11th in overall defense. Indianapolis allowed 370.6 yards a game in 2004 but just 307.1 this season. The Colts' points allowed dropped from 351 to 247.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Little Coaching Turnover This Year, but Hold On


January 18, 2006

DALLAS - Dressed in a sharp suit, with his hair perfectly coiffed, Jim Hofher worked the massive lobby of the Wyndham Anatole hotel.

Hofher shook hands and made small talk Jan. 8-11 at the American Football Coaches Association's annual convention, which doubles as a job fair and a networking hot spot. After being dismissed as the University of Buffalo's coach in November, Hofher has faced a stark reality - he and his staff were fired in a bad year.

Only nine Division I-A coaches who started the 2005 season were no longer with their teams. The season before, the number was 24. The changes tied a record low - the N.C.A.A. started keeping track of the statistic in 1947 - and that meant things moved a lot slower in the lobby.

"There really aren't a lot of jobs," Hofher said. "You'll never find a trade magazine that says what's open. A lot of the jobs are filled the moment they become vacant."

The number of changes was the lowest since 1996, when there were also nine. The N.F.L. has had 10 coaching changes so far, and the league has only 32 teams, compared with 119 programs in Division I-A football. The nature of the changes was also noteworthy. Only three colleges from Bowl Championship Series conferences have new coaches this year: Kansas State, Wisconsin and Colorado. Of the three, only Colorado fired its coach.

Last season, eight programs from B.C.S. conferences fired their coaches, including the heavyweights Notre Dame, Florida and Washington.

Though the dip in turnover is significant, it may simply reflect the cyclical nature of hiring and firings; a few coaches saved their jobs with strong seasons, and that slowed the tumble of coaching dominoes.

In recent interviews with coaches, athletics directors, commissioners and agents, the only uniform conclusion was that 2006 was shaping up as a big year for coaching turnover.

"I think we operate in a time that makes it almost impossible for there to be another Joe Paterno," Big East Commissioner Mike Tranghese said. "You can have three great seasons and then lose, and it's, 'What have you done for me lately?'"

Even with annual salaries for elite coaches recently breaking the $3 million mark, athletic directors dismissed the idea that it was too expensive to fire a coach.

At Colorado, the perception during the 2004 season was that the university could not afford to fire Gary Barnett because of the financial obligations of his contract.

But Colorado fired him after this past season, giving him a $3 million buyout. Athletic Director Mike Bohn said in a telephone interview that the net cost to the university for buying out Barnett would end up being about $1 million to $1.2 million. The university owed Barnett $4.2 million through July 2007.

So by "saving" the $1.2 million, the university can use that money toward paying the salary of its new coach, Dan Hawkins.

Bohn acknowledged that $1 million or so was a significant sum, but he said that Colorado football generated $5 million to $6 million in profit every year. He also said that the N.C.A.A.'s addition of a 12th game to the schedule, beginning this year, would help defer costs.

"The need to provide a competitive and a well-respected program is certainly important to everyone at the Division I-A level," Bohn said of the reasons behind firing Barnett.

Even at a smaller-profile university like East Carolina, the cost of a coach's salary is minuscule compared with football revenue. East Carolina paid three head coaches last year, with $300,000 going for the salaries of the former coaches Steve Logan and John Thompson.

The East Carolina athletic director, Terry Holland, fired Thompson, who had a 3-20 record in two years, after the 2004 season. Holland said there was no quandary about not being able to afford firing Thompson; he said he could not afford not to. Holland said the East Carolina athletic budget was around $19 million, much of it fueled by football revenue.

He said that "once the people start to lose faith in your coach," the ripple effects extend to the rest of a university's programs.

"There's 20 sports whose sole lifeline depends on football here," Holland said. "They can't exist without successful football. There's such a huge burden on football revenue, schools don't have a choice."

The Cleveland-based lawyer Neil Cornrich, who is an agent for Iowa Coach Kirk Ferentz and Oklahoma Coach Bob Stoops, said the value of a successful coach was enormous - from exposure to apparel, ticket sales to television revenue. Because of a program's earning potential, Cornrich said, a university could always afford to fire a coach.

"They're all making money from football," Cornrich said. "The TV deals keep going up and up. College football is an absolute gold mine for universities."

Chuck Neinas, the former Big Eight commissioner, who assists universities in coaching searches, agreed with the popular view that the lack of change this past season would probably mean more in 2006. Neinas said the typical number of openings was 14 or 15 a year, not far from the average of the last two seasons.

Neinas said he expected more firings next year because universities were so reliant on revenue from football.

"The No. 1 contribution to an athletic program is ticket sales," he said. "No. 2 is gifts and donation. It could be considered an indictment of college athletics, but it's a fact of life."

That means the coaching turnover will continue, and coaches like Hofher will probably find themselves in a much more active lobby at the A.F.C.A. convention in San Antonio next year.

Friday, January 13, 2006

He's a Real Smart Guy

Vrabel's sharp mind (and wit) serves him well

By Jackie MacMullan, Globe Staff | January 13, 2006

FOXBOROUGH -- He is the only one who can get away with it.

Patriots linebacker Mike Vrabel will not only perform hilarious impressions of Bill Belichick right in front of him -- he'll actually do it in the middle of a practice that is going extremely poorly, and still elicit a chuckle from his normally deadpan coach.

"Bill has granted Mike immunity," said former teammate Ted Johnson. "He has written him a free pass. And you know what? Vrabel deserves it. He's a great football player. He's so versatile, and no one is tougher. There are only three guys on defense that never need to come out of the game in Bill's scheme, and Mike is one of them. That's because his skill sets are so far more advanced than anybody else."

We take it for granted that Vrabel is an indispensable piece of a New England defense that has won three Super Bowls in four years, and will continue its quest for a fourth tomorrow night in Denver. Vrabel has proven to be a big-play defender, and an opportunistic goal-line receiver (8 career receptions, 8 touchdowns). Yet it was only six years ago that Vrabel was a largely unnoticed Steelers free agent defender with a thin NFL résumé and only a couple of viable options.

One was to play for New England and Bill Belichick. His decision to follow that course cemented a relationship of mutual respect and admiration between a coach and a player, who, on the surface, appear to be nothing alike. Belichick is as guarded as Vrabel is boisterous. The coach is introverted; the player wouldn't even begin to know how to be.

Yet their common traits are striking. Both grew up as the only child of a coach, and reveled in the time they spent watching their fathers at work. Both were reared by educators who insisted on intellectual as well as athletic stimulation. Each developed a keen interest in the nuances of the game. Neither spares feelings when they see football played poorly.

Some players just want to know their assignment; Vrabel prefers to break down that assignment, analyze its benefits and its deficiencies, then tweak it so he can maximize his abilities. No wonder the coach and the player have developed such an unusual relationship, which includes the kind of competitive banter that has managed to keep the team loose during pressure moments.

"We heard a story about Mike up there in New England that didn't surprise us," said Gerry Rardin, Vrabel's high school football coach. "I guess one of Bill Belichick's favorite expressions when something goes wrong is, 'I've been in football 40 years and I've never seen anything like this!' Well, apparently one day in practice, somebody screwed up pretty good. The whole team knew they were in trouble, and there was this uncomfortable silence while the players all waited for Coach Belichick to explode.

"At that point, Mike took off his helmet and shouted, 'I've been in football 40 years and I've never seen anything like this!' From what they tell me, even Coach Belichick had to laugh."

Vrabel likes his fun, but there are some matters he does not find amusing. You better be fit, attentive, and prepared if you plan on being his teammate. If you aren't, he won't tolerate it.

"He was the first true enforcer I had," said Dave Kennedy, Vrabel's strength and conditioning coach at Ohio State. "In Andy Katzenmoyer's first year with us, he was having trouble keeping up. We went out running, and Mike clipped Andy from behind as he passed him.

"He talks so much, but he gets away with it because he outruns and outworks everyone. The offensive guys hated his guts. If they didn't do things right, he had no problem telling them.

"Our offensive coordinator, Joe Hollis, couldn't stand Mike. He'd say, 'That Vrabel, he has all the answers.' Of course, the frustrating part for Joe was Mike really did have all the answers."

Personality, versatility

One of the indelible qualities of Belichick's New England teams has been their unflagging devotion to preparation. Vrabel, along with fellow linebackers Tedy Bruschi and Willie McGinest, quickly made that a prerequisite for all newcomers on defense. Pop quizzes in the locker room were not uncommon. The linebackers were mainstays in the weight room, and chastised those who didn't follow suit.

Vrabel proved to be a quick study, whether it was when he was 7 years old and his father was teaching him how to bunt, or when he was 28 years old and Belichick was teaching him a new scheme.

"When you tell Mike something, that's pretty much it," Belichick said earlier this week. "He has it and processes it and can recall it and put it into application, whereas [with some other guys] you are repaving those roads all the time."

Vrabel's ability to grasp new concepts has made him a favorite, from Little League all the way to the NFL. At one point or another, every coach interviewed for this story (with the exception of Belichick) described Vrabel as someone "who knew as much about what we were doing as the coaches did."

Naturally that kind of cachet provides you with some latitude.

"I remember coming into school one morning and the light was on in my office," said Rardin, who still coaches football at Walsh Jesuit High School in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio. "I opened up my door and there was Mike, sitting in my chair, with his feet up on my desk and a big smile on his face.

"A couple of years after he left us, I went to visit him at Ohio State. He was in [coach] John Cooper's office, with his feet up on his desk.

"But you didn't mind. There was no disrespect involved. In fact, many times when he put his feet up on that desk, he would make some football suggestions that made an awful lot of sense."

On game days, Vrabel's playful demeanor often evaporated once his cleats were knotted. Rardin recalls a tight game late in Vrabel's senior season that was slipping away.

"Mike was doing his best to get our team fired up on the sidelines," Rardin said.

"Then he strapped his helmet, ran on the field, rushed the quarterback, and ran over the blocking back to get to him. Then he ran over the quarterback and knocked the ball out of his hands. He fell on the ball and recovered it. I had never seen anything like it. It was the turning point of the game."

Vrabel developed a reputation at Ohio State as a hard-nosed throwback player who held each and every one of his teammates accountable.

"He was relentless," said Kennedy. "And if you were the right kind of person, you really appreciated that."

Bill Belichick was the right kind of person. He loved Vrabel's competitiveness, inquisitiveness, and combativeness. In 2000, Vrabel was a free agent who had difficulty finding his niche in a powerful and talented Steelers defense. He was viewed as a "tweener" who neither fit the Steelers' bill as a defensive end nor linebacker, and was relegated mostly to situational series and special teams play.

"My final season there, I got one series per half," Vrabel said. "I'd always hope the series would be 10 or more plays, so I could be on the field longer. When it was three plays and out, you'd sort of said to yourself, 'Oh well, get ready for kickoff duty.'"

Steelers coach Bill Cowher cited Vrabel for his work ethic and his attitude, and was willing to offer him a new contract to return. But Vrabel went looking for a more promising future. Only one other team came calling: New England. The first meeting between Belichick and Vrabel was brief, but memorable.

"I knew right away it was a good fit," Vrabel said. "Bill [Belichick] knew a lot about me. He asked me about Pittsburgh, and why I didn't play more. Then he said, 'Well, if you play like you did in that second series against Miami in the preseason, you'll be fine.'

"I walked out of there thinking, 'OK, here's a guy who really knows what he's talking about.'"

As one Patriots season folded into another, and the careers of the coach and the player blossomed, Vrabel discovered Belichick was willing to listen to a contrary view. Belichick, meanwhile, discovered he had a player with an uncommonly high football IQ.

Over time, as the two grew more comfortable with each other, their give-and-take became highlights of an often long and grueling season.

"Mike's comedic timing is impeccable," said Johnson. "He also judges Bill very well. We'd be in a team meeting, and he'd have a good sense of whether Bill was really ticked off, or just kind of ticked off.

"Next thing you know, he'd yell something from the back of the room that will just crack everyone up -- including Bill, who had no problem giving it right back to him."

"When you are the smartest kid in the class, and you already know all the answers on the test, you can afford to be a little sarcastic with the teacher," offered long snapper Lonie Paxton. "The position I'm in, I just keep my mouth shut."

Unselfish transition

When Mike Vrabel was a senior at Walsh Jesuit High School, he narrowed his choices to Ohio State and Michigan before choosing the Buckeyes. He had been a three-sport star at Walsh, but once he committed to a big-time college football program, a number of people informed basketball coach Frank Lupica that he would likely have to do without Vrabel.

"The so-called 'experts' told me Mike would be too busy getting ready for Ohio State football to play basketball with us," Lupica said. "They didn't know Mike. He came out for the team, like I knew he would. At our school, there is no out of bounds on the court during practice. We play wall to wall. Mike dove just as hard into the bleachers to get those balls after his football scholarship as he did before."

In his senior year, Vrabel led the basketball team to a 16-4 record. He kept his teammates loose by doing a dead-on impression of Lupica, sitting with his legs crossed, his hand resting on his chin a certain way, and leaning forward before expertly mimicking his coach's instructions.

"He had me down," Lupica said, "including my short cadence and the way I said, 'Nice pass.' He would have me laughing so hard, the tears were coming down my face."

By the time Vrabel left Ohio State, he had garnered almost every honor imaginable: career records for sacks (36) and tackles for losses (66), first-team All-America honors, Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year. And, yet, because of questions about his size and his "true position" in the pros, Day 1 of the 1997 NFL Draft came and went without anyone calling Vrabel's name. Pittsburgh finally took him with the 91st pick, in the third round. He hoped his dreams would come true there, but it would be four more years before he would become one of the most beloved and trusted players of a growing football dynasty in Foxborough.

"People say Mike is lucky to end up in New England," said his father, Chuck Vrabel. "He's worked too hard to be lucky.

"Mike wants to be a coach someday. What his experience in New England has given him is an opportunity to be mentored by a terrific football mind. Mike and Bill's relationship has really solidified because of that. They both watch film. They are both sticklers for detail. And they both have the same work ethic."

After Johnson suddenly announced his retirement and Bruschi missed the first chunk of the season while he recovered from a stroke, Belichick asked Vrabel to switch from outside linebacker to the inside. He did it without blinking, although he acknowledges it has been a struggle.

"I feel better about it now," Vrabel said. "My first few games in there, we saw Denver, then Buffalo and the two-back power game, and then Indy, and I felt like I hadn't seen the same play twice. But, as the season has gone along, I can say, 'Oh, that's like what we saw a couple of weeks ago.' It's getting easier."

"I don't know if people realize how unselfish Mike has been," said linebacker Rosevelt Colvin. "For him to step inside and accept it, without question, did not go unnoticed in here.

"It was huge for us. He'd love to be out there sacking the quarterback, but he'll never say it."

There is the possibility Vrabel could pop up in all sorts of places tomorrow: outside, inside, near the goal line. Or maybe there's something new the coach has dreamed up for the player.

"You can't possibly appreciate this man's preparation," Vrabel said of Belichick.

"This is a guy who, after we win the Super Bowl, says, 'Well, that's nice, but we're six weeks behind.'"

Vrabel, the man with all the answers, would love to be six weeks behind. Just think how much fun he can have busting his teammates and his coaches while they try to catch up.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Four Colts Make NFL All-Pro Team


January 10, 2006

INDIANAPOLIS — Bob Sanders helped change the image of the Indianapolis Colts' defense with a few big hits. The sports writers and broadcasters rewarded him Monday by making him among the Colts' league-high four players on this year's Associated Press All-Pro team.

"Knowing the way I play and the attitude I have for this game, I felt like I was the guy who should take it to another level," Sanders said. "It has to do with being physical and being aggressive."

Joining Sanders, a safety, on the first team were quarterback Peyton Manning, center Jeff Saturday and defensive end Dwight Freeney. Seattle also had four players named to the first team.

Receiver Marvin Harrison and linebacker Cato June were both second-team selections.

For the high-scoring Colts, it was an unusually balanced mix, and Sanders was the biggest surprise. The second-year player from Iowa, whose rookie season was limited by injuries, made the kind of impact coach Tony Dungy expected when the Colts took him in the second round of the 2004 draft.

He finished with 118 tackles _ second on the team _ had one interception, forced one fumble and recovered a fumble. It was enough to earn 22 of 50 votes, second to Pittsburgh safety Troy Polamalu who had 37.

"We had the strength and the speed on this defense, but we needed to become more physical," Sanders said. "And this scheme puts me in position to make plays."

Manning, a two-time MVP who finished second in this year's MVP and offensive player of the year balloting, was named the top quarterback for the third straight year. Only four Colts -- Jim Parker (eight), Gino Marchetti (six) and Lenny Moore and Art Donovan (four each) -- were chosen to more consecutive All-Pro teams.

Manning also is the first Colts quarterback to be honored in three successive seasons. John Unitas made the team five times but never more than twice in a row.
"There's no question the last three years have been the three best of my career," Manning said. "To do it three years in a row, I take a lot of pride in that and I've had some good coaching and some good help."

Freeney, who was second in defensive player of the year voting, earned his second straight selection to the All-Pro team. He was the top vote-getter among all defensive ends.

Saturday was honored for the first time in his seven-year career. He received 28 votes, nearly three times as many as Chicago's Olin Kreutz who had 10. And like Manning, Sanders and Freeney, he will start in the Pro Bowl.

"I'm extremely excited about it. It really is a great achievement," Saturday said. "It's been good, and hopefully things will come together for us as a team."

During the offseason, Dungy said he wanted the Colts to be more physical on defense this year, and Sanders seemed to take the plea personally. With Sanders healthy, the addition of run-stuffing defensive tackle Corey Simon and the emergence of linebackers June and Gary Brackett, jumped from the No. 29 defense to No. 11.

"We've been healthier this year, which allowed us to practice more and the guys carried it out," Dungy said. "Bob Sanders has certainly been the ring leader, but it's not just him."

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