The San Francisco 49ers apparently have picked Baltimore Ravens defensive coordinator Mike Nolan to be their next head coach. An NFL source said late this morning that the 49ers were negotiating a contract with Nolan's agent, Bob LaMonte. The source, speaking on the condition of anonymity because the deliberations were ongoing, said that Nolan would get the job, barring any snag in negotiations.
Nolan would replace Dennis Erickson, who was fired by 49ers co-owner John York after a 2-14 season. York also ousted Terry Donahue as the team's general manager, and said he would find a new front-office chief after hiring a coach.
York's top choice, University of Southern California Coach Pete Carroll, was unwilling to return to the NFL. Mike Holmgren remained with the Seattle Seahawks, and New England Patriots defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel remains unavailable this week because his club remains in the playoffs. So the 49ers, not wanting to wait any longer, were left to choose from among four candidates they interviewed last week -- Nolan, fellow defensive coordinators Tim Lewis of the New York Giants and Jim Schwartz of Tennessee and Titans offensive coordinator Mike Heimerdinger.
Nolan's father Dick formerly coached the 49ers, and he is widely regarded around the league as a top head-coaching prospect in the mold of Atlanta's rookie coach, Jim Mora Jr.
Nolan also interviewed for Cleveland's head-coaching job, but Crennel appears to be the Browns' choice. The Patriots' 20-3 win over the Indianapolis Colts on Sunday in an AFC semifinal keeps the Browns waiting. They are prohibited under NFL rules from hiring Crennel -- or even having a second interview with him -- until the Patriots' season is over.
New England plays at Pittsburgh next weekend in the AFC title game, with a chance to advance to what would be its third Super Bowl appearance in four years on Feb. 6 in Jacksonville, Fla. Crennel probably was cost a head-coaching job a year ago by the Patriots' run to a second Super Bowl title in three seasons. The seven teams with head-coaching vacancies a year ago were unwilling to wait.
But Browns officials have said they would be willing to wait until after the Super Bowl, if necessary, to get the coach they want. And Crennel's credentials were bolstered even further by the Patriots' stunningly dominant defensive performance against the Colts when so many factors seemed to be favoring Indianapolis's usually high-powered offense.
Eagles in Same Situation Again
The Philadelphia Eagles' belief for most of this season was that things would be different for them this time, that they would finally reach a Super Bowl after losses in three straight NFC title games because they were a different team. They had spent the offseason adding wide receiver Terrell Owens to bolster their offense and defensive end Jevon Kearse to rev up their pass rush, and their playoff disappointments were a fading memory when the Eagles were on their way to winning 13 of their first 14 games.
But they're not such a different team any more, now that Owens is sidelined until at least Super Bowl Sunday by a severe ankle sprain. And, as their thoughts turned quickly to next weekend's meeting with the Atlanta Falcons at Lincoln Financial Field in another NFC championship game in the aftermath of Sunday's 27-14 triumph here over the Minnesota Vikings in a conference semifinal to forget, the Eagles actually were citing their title-game defeats -- saying they will provide an edge in experience and motivation this week -- rather than avoiding all discussion of them.
"I don't have any room for any more added pressure on my shoulders," Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb said. "Ever since I started this thing, it seems more pressure has been put on my shoulders. I think as a unit, we've answered a lot of questions. But there will be more questions thrown out there. To be honest, the Atlanta Falcons have more pressure on their shoulders than we do. We won home-field advantage. We won the bye, and this is the fourth time for us being in the NFC championship. . . . The thing we can take into this game is experience."
Wide receiver Greg Lewis said: "It's good to be there and a good opportunity for us, but we want to get further. With this game coming up, some guys have been here four times. I've been here twice. We want to get it done this time. . . . We want to win the next game, and the next game."
Kearse played a major role in a solid defensive effort Sunday against the Vikings, and McNabb had a good outing by throwing for 286 yards and two touchdowns. But the Eagles didn't erase all of the doubts about their Owens-less offense, which had a flawed performance that included three fumbles. Fortunately for the Eagles, one of those fumbles -- by tight end L.J. Smith -- sailed directly to wide receiver Freddie Mitchell in the end zone for a touchdown, and the Vikings failed to take advantage of their many chances to make the game more competitive. Minnesota botched a fake field-goal attempt late in the first half, and three Vikings' drives into Eagles' territory in the third quarter resulted in two interceptions thrown by quarterback Daunte Culpepper and a fourth-and-22 incompletion following a sack.
Still, the Eagles weren't complaining about the lack of artistry in the victory, not with it coming after two straight losses to close the regular season while Coach Andy Reid rested McNabb and other front-line players to avoid another serious injury.
Against the Falcons, the Eagles will be playing to avoid becoming a title-game reincarnation of the Buffalo Bills, who lost four straight Super Bowls in the early 1990s. But they vowed not to be a tight, tense bunch this week.
"You can't play this game and worry about losing," middle linebacker Jeremiah Trotter said. "You have to go out there and have fun. That is the way the game was meant to be played -- go out and have fun, let it hang loose."
Said left tackle Tra Thomas: "We just have to come out and play and not let the past hurt us."
McNabb said that, even with Owens on the shelf, the Eagles are a better offensive team now than they were in any of the previous three seasons. He is a better and more confident quarterback, he said, and the group has matured together. Tailback Brian Westbrook is healthy after being injured during last season's playoffs. Westbrook was the Eagles' offensive centerpiece Sunday, running and catching the ball coming out of the backfield and sometimes lining up at wide receiver. Mitchell provided Owens-like production (with a touchdown reception in addition to his fumble-recovery touchdown) and flair (celebrating his touchdown catch by pretending to pull up his pants and latch up a belt, a response to the fake mooning of the Lambeau Field crowd by Vikings wideout Randy Moss the previous weekend).
"I think as a unit, we are better," McNabb said. "Guys have learned from the experience of last year. We brought some new guys in here to help us get to where we want to go. Mentally, we're in a different situation now because we've been looking forward to it. . . . I'm looking forward to it. I'm excited. I'm ready to play right now."
The Falcons are looking like a formidable opponent right now, playing the role of the ever-more-imposing upstart in the mold of last season's Carolina Panthers, who won the NFC title game in Philadelphia. The Falcons' 47-17 win Saturday night over the St. Louis Rams was so lopsided that it failed to hold Trotter's television-viewing attention.
"I watched some of it," the linebacker said. "But after they got too far ahead, there really wasn't anything left to see."
Reid had little time to savor Sunday's victory before he and his coaching staff had to begin fretting about Falcons quarterback Michael Vick.
"Michael Vick is a great football player," Reid said. "I want to enjoy this one before I think too much about Michael. He's a heck of a player, and we'll have to come up with something to contain him. . . . The thing with Michael is that Michael is as fast as your fastest guy, so you've got to handle that a certain way." . . .
Outside linebacker Mark Simoneau was on the Eagles' inactive list Sunday because of an ankle injury suffered in the regular-season finale. Nate Wayne and Keith Adams split the playing time in his absence. . . .
Philadelphia right tackle Jon Runyan suffered a knee injury late in the game. Reid said he didn't think the injury was serious, calling it a strain.
Steelers Count Their Blessings
There was no gloating in the Pittsburgh Steelers' locker room after Saturday's 20-17 overtime triumph over the New York Jets that put the AFC's top seed into next weekend's conference title game. The Steelers knew how lucky they had been after Jets kicker Doug Brien missed two field-goal attempts in the final two minutes of regulation.
"God was on our side," wide receiver Hines Ward said.
The Steelers freely admitted -- volunteered, actually -- that they will have to play far better next weekend if they're going to make the second Super Bowl appearance of Coach Bill Cowher's 13-year tenure.
"Everybody in the locker room knows that we have to step it up big-time," quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said. " . . . The game that we played out there [Saturday] is not going to cut it."
The Pittsburgh defense was solid, as usual. Tailbacks Jerome Bettis and Duce Staley were able to grind out yards. But the special teams yielded a 75-yard punt return for a touchdown by Santana Moss. Roethlisberger threw two interceptions, one of which was returned 86 yards for a touchdown by safety Reggie Tongue and the other of which set up Brien's second misfire as time expired in regulation. Bettis lost a fourth-quarter fumble deep in Jets territory.
"We are going to have to play a lot better," Cowher said. "There is no question about it . . . We were fortunate. We recognize that. [But] let me say this about our football team: We are resilient. . . . We won the game, and that is what is most important."
Roethlisberger remained unbeaten in his 14 NFL starts but had a shaky performance. The interception to Tongue came when he threw on the run and had his pass fall far short of open wideout Antwaan Randle El.
"I just said, 'If you are going to run, then run. You are not a bad runner,' " Cowher said. "Sometimes he just holds on [to the ball] trying to make a big play . . . . That kid is a pretty good athlete. You don't want to take a lot of that stuff away from him. He is a special quarterback. He is going to get better. He is going to grow. You don't want to harness him. Sometimes, he is looking to make the big play. Sometimes, he just needs to be patient and just try to move the chains."
On his second interception, Roethlisberger sailed a throw high over the head of wide receiver Plaxico Burress and into the arms of cornerback David Barrett. It gave Brien a chance at redemption, and it should have ended the Steelers' season. But Brien gave the NFL's best team during the regular season a second reprieve, and Roethlisberger regrouped in overtime to direct a drive toward kicker Jeff Reed's winning field goal. "He is unflappable," Cowher said.
But Roethlisberger said that he perhaps had been too unflappable while readying for his first career playoff game. "I came out pretty calm and relaxed," he said. "I approached it like just another game. We couldn't afford to lose -- just like during the whole season. We always felt that way. Maybe I need to feel a little more stressed and nervous [this] week."
Roethlisberger was playing his first game in three weeks, having sat out the regular-season finale because of bruised rib cartilage, and then jammed his thumb during pregame warmups. Asked after the game about the thumb injury, Roethlisberger said: "I am not going to use any excuses. I am fine."
He wore gloves on both hands during Saturday's game because of the frigid weather, but said he perhaps should have worn gloves during last week's practices to get accustomed to gripping the ball and throwing with them on.
"This is about the fifth game I've used it," he said. "It is one of those things that takes some getting used to. We had 70-degree weather [last] week and there were a couple days when I didn't wear it, but maybe I should have."
There are two ways to look at the Steelers' performance Saturday: Either it was an ominous sign because the Steelers aren't playing particularly well heading into the AFC championship, or it was the strongest evidence yet that even when this team does plenty wrong, everything comes out right. That was the interpretation preferred by the Steelers.
"We feel like it's our time," linebacker Joey Porter said.
Said another linebacker, James Farrior: "I really don't like it, but I'll take it. That's a game that could give you a heart attack. But we just kept fighting, hung in there and came out with a win.'' . . . Cowher said he watched only one of Brien's two misses live.
"The first kick, I didn't look at it," Cowher said. "I looked at the monitor and saw that it hit the crossbar. The second one, I looked at it. And when he pulled it, it was like you live to play again. I grabbed my headphones, and we were still alive."
Brien's first miss, from 43 yards, clanked off the intersection of the crossbar and left upright with 1 minute 58 seconds remaining in regulation. He pulled a 47-yarder wide left as time expired in regulation.
Brien had missed a 33-yard field goal attempt in the Jets' first-round playoff triumph in San Diego but had rebounded to connect on two kicks later in the game, including the game-winner -- from 28 yards away -- in overtime.
Before his two misses Saturday, Brien had connected on 54 of 65 field goal tries in his two seasons with the Jets, including this postseason. He was 53 for 59 on attempts inside 50 yards.
"I had confidence in him," Jets Coach Herman Edwards said. "He made the one last week, and I thought he could make it. . . . He has been a good kicker for us. It was just a tough day."
Edwards was questioned for taking a conservative offensive approach down the stretch Saturday, playing to try to win via a 40-yard-plus field goal only a week after the Jets prevailed in San Diego after Chargers rookie kicker Nate Kaeding missed a 40-yard field goal attempt in overtime following some less-than-dynamic play-calling.
Chargers Coach Marty Schottenheimer played for a 40-yard field goal by a rookie kicker in overtime under playoff pressure on a wet, sloppy field. Edwards played for a 43-yard field goal by a veteran kicker under playoff pressure on a dry but cold day.
The results were the same, and Brien immediately goes down as one of the Jets' all-time goats. His misadventures made the opening skit of "Saturday Night Live" only hours later.
"It's going to be hard," Brien said after the game. "It's going to take a while to get over.'' . . . Reed's game-winner Saturday was his 18th consecutive successful field goal attempt. . . . Bettis's 101-yard rushing performance was his seventh 100-yard game in seven starts this season.
Leinart Surprises NFL Execs
Talent evaluators for NFL teams were surprised when Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Matt Leinart announced Friday that he would stay at USC for his senior season. Most NFL executives, it seems, had expected Leinart to enter the draft and create a debate about whether he or Cal's Aaron Rodgers, who previously had announced he would forgo his senior season, would be the first quarterback selected in April. Rodgers widely is regarded as having the stronger arm, but Leinart is considered the more polished quarterback.
Now the 49ers will have to decide if Rodgers (or fellow quarterback Alex Smith, who opted to leave Utah after his junior season) is worthy of the top overall pick. "I think most people were counting on him [Leinart] being available," one NFL general manager said over the weekend.
There are indications that Leinart has some nagging injuries that he felt might have affected his performance in workouts for NFL teams and hurt his draft stock. . . .
Holmgren's postseason record as Seahawks coach dropped to 0-3 with the club's loss to St. Louis in the first round of this season's NFC playoffs, but he emerged as the winner in the team's power struggle. With Holmgren and club president Bob Whitsitt having great trouble coexisting, owner Paul Allen was left with little choice but to pick one or the other, and he fired Whitsitt on Friday. On the same day, Ted Thompson left his job as the Seahawks' vice president of football operations to become the Green Bay Packers' general manager. . . .
Packers President Bob Harlan said when announcing Thompson's hiring Friday that Thompson would decide Coach Mike Sherman's future with the organization. It's virtually certain that Sherman, who had the GM title until Harlan decided last week to divide the duties between two men, will be the coach next season. Thompson has opened his tenure as general manager by praising Sherman and saying that the two should have no problems working together. But next season is the final year on Sherman's contract, and Harlan has decided to leave discussions about an extension to Thompson. . . .
Schottenheimer's questionable moves during the Chargers' first-round playoff loss to the Jets didn't tarnish his coach-of-the-year accomplishments in the eyes of his bosses. The Chargers and Schottenheimer agreed Friday to a two-year contract extension that runs through the 2007 season. . . .
Broadcaster Pat Summerall told KDFW-TV in Dallas that his friend, Bill Parcells, seriously considered retiring as the Cowboys' coach after their 6-10 season, but decided against it.