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NFL Indsider - Mark Maske

McNabb's Protection Takes a Hit

By Mark Maske
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 18, 2005; 11:20 AM

Andy Reid is a former offensive line coach, and throughout his tenure as head coach of the Philadelphia Eagles, he has stressed solid line play on both sides of the ball. One of the keys to Sunday's NFC title game will be the ability of the Eagles' offensive line to keep the Atlanta Falcons' top pass rushers, defensive tackle Rod Coleman and end Patrick Kerney, out of the face of quarterback Donovan McNabb.

So it was not a promising development for the Eagles when right tackle Jon Runyan hurt his right knee with just over a minute to play in Sunday's 27-14 triumph over Minnesota when he got pushed into a pile at the end of a play by Vikings linebacker E.J. Henderson. Reid said during his news conference Monday that Runyan, the Eagles' most durable offensive lineman, sprained his medial collateral ligament but should be in the lineup against the Falcons.

_____Rankings & Picks_____
Who's up, who's down among who's left in the NFL playoffs.
Mark's picks for Sunday

_____More NFL Insider_____
Barring Snag, Nolan to Coach 49ers (washingtonpost.com, Jan 17, 2005)
League Awaits Leinart (washingtonpost.com, Jan 14, 2005)
Manning Matches Wits With Belichick Again (washingtonpost.com, Jan 13, 2005)

"I don't want to make too much of it," Reid said. "I think he's going to be fine."

But a sprained MCL sometimes can take as long as six weeks to heal fully. It is apparently the injury that kept the New England Patriots' top defensive lineman, Richard Seymour, out of last Sunday's win over the Indianapolis Colts. Runyan has made 142 consecutive starts, including 14 in the postseason, so it is likely that he will be able to tough it out and play Sunday. But if his mobility and effectiveness are limited against Kerney, the Falcons' left end who ranked fourth in the NFL with his 13 sacks during the regular season, the Philadelphia offense could have a problem.

Runyan's injury came in the late stages of a game that the Eagles had in hand, and Reid took an ultra-cautious approach at the end of the regular season by resting his front-line players in Philadelphia's final two games to avoid another serious injury like the severe ankle sprain that will sideline wide receiver Terrell Owens until at least Super Bowl Sunday. But there aren't enough offensive linemen available on a club's active game-day roster to sit down too many starters in the blocking unit at the end of a game that's been decided. And even if there were, Reid said he had no thoughts last weekend of getting any of his key players -- not even McNabb or tailback Brian Westbrook -- out of the game early.

"You're playing a very explosive offense, and I wanted to make sure we kept everybody out there," Reid said. "It's that time of the year to take care of business and finish the game."

Henderson's hit on Runyan was not penalized, but it's clear that the Eagles think it was unnecessary.

"I'm not here to question the officials," Reid said Monday. "The guys, they were playing hard and he got pushed over backwards where I don't think he necessarily needed to be pushed over backwards. But it was kind of a bang-bang deal, and I'm not sure the official even saw it. I'm not saying the officials did a bad job on it. I just think that it wasn't necessary.'' . . . Reid said the Eagles will see if linebacker Mark Simoneau, who missed the Minnesota game because of an ankle injury, is able to practice Wednesday before determining his status late in the week. . . .

Patriots Coach Bill Belichick, naturally, is offering no early clues about whether Seymour will be available for Sunday's AFC championship game at Pittsburgh.

Titans Facing Another Cap Squeeze

It has become an annual ritual for the Tennessee Titans -- scrambling to get beneath the salary cap and doing their best to keep the team's core intact while losing a few players here and there.

The Titans are about $25 million over the NFL's projected salary cap for next season of approximately $85.5 million per club. Owner Bud Adams, General Manager Floyd Reese and Coach Jeff Fisher must make decisions about how to proceed by the time the team is required to be in cap compliance in March.

The Titans face tough choices about whether to release key players -- like wide receiver Derrick Mason, offensive tackles Brad Hopkins and Fred Miller, cornerback Samari Rolle, safety Lance Schulters, defensive end Kevin Carter and kicker Joe Nedney -- who are under contract for next season but have hefty salary-cap numbers. They will have a difficult time keeping cornerback Andre Dyson, an unrestricted free agent, and defensive end Carlos Hall, a restricted free agent.

It's nothing new for the Titans, who scrambled to get under the cap last offseason and didn't have room to maneuver to use their franchise-player tag to retain defensive end Jevon Kearse. He signed with the Eagles via unrestricted free agency, and Tennessee lost free-agent defensive tackle Robaire Smith to the Houston Texans. The Titans traded wide receiver Justin McCareins, a restricted free agent, to the New York Jets and released veteran tailback Eddie George in the summer after failing to agree to a reworked contract with him. He signed with the Dallas Cowboys but looked old and slow and lost his starting job to Julius Jones once the rookie got healthy.

The Titans have been among the league's most consistent winners under Fisher. Entering this season, they were coming off a string of four seasons with at least 11 wins in a five-year span. But they slumped to 5-11 this season, with quarterback Steve McNair playing in only eight games because of a sternum injury.

A team facing a salary-cap crunch can take one of two approaches. It can restructure as many contracts as possible, limit the number of players it must release and try to patch up its cap situation as best it can to remain as competitive as possible and then face the ever-worsening cap problems in the future. Or it can simply cut the players with cumbersome contracts, absorb the resulting cap hits in the next season or two, live with the undermanned roster and the losses that are likely to result in the short-term and clear up all the salary cap problems once and, hopefully, for all.

But even if the Titans are tempted to perform such a housecleaning this offseason, they probably won't have the option of doing so if McNair decides to play next season. McNair, who underwent surgery for his sternum injury after having his season ended early, said late in the season that he would contemplate retirement in the offseason because of his inability to stay healthy. He probably wouldn't want to return to a team that's starting a rebuilding project. So the Titans probably can't take a starting-over approach if McNair continues playing, and it seems likely that he will opt to return next season. If he retires, though, it probably would be the perfect time for the Titans to attempt to fix their salary cap situation all at once.

The other NFL teams with major salary-cap overages are the Falcons, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Miami Dolphins, each about $15 million over next season's projected cap.

On the other end of the spectrum, the Seattle Seahawks are approximately $30 million under the projected cap but have a list of 16 players eligible for unrestricted free agency that includes quarterback Matt Hasselbeck, tailback Shaun Alexander and left tackle Walter Jones. The San Diego Chargers are about $25 million under the cap but must deal with the free-agent status of Pro Bowl quarterback Drew Brees. The Jacksonville Jaguars and Arizona Cardinals each are more than $20 million under the cap.

Agents Face Suspensions, Other Penalties

The NFL Players Association's agent disciplinary committee recently imposed one-year suspensions on two agents, Jerome Stanley and Neil Cornrich. Stanley was sanctioned for failing to file the necessary paperwork by the required deadline to make Cleveland Browns wide receiver Dennis Northcutt a free agent last offseason, and Cornrich was punished for reportedly being paid to testify for General Motors against the estate of late Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Derrick Thomas in a lawsuit.

According to a union official, the committee also fined Cornrich an amount equal to the fees that he received for his testimony in the Thomas case, and ruled that Stanley could not collect a fee for negotiating the most recent contract that Northcutt signed with the Browns. The disciplinary measures are pending appeals by the agents.

People familiar with the Cornrich case have said that he maintains the actions taken against him by the union, which controls the certification and discipline of agents, have been based on erroneous information that the NFLPA received about the Thomas lawsuit. Stanley previously has said that he made a mistake in his representation of Northcutt but did not deserve to be punished for it.

Nolan Deal Should Be Done Soon

The San Francisco 49ers launched contract negotiations with Mike Nolan after offering their head-coaching job Monday to the Baltimore Ravens defensive coordinator and having him accept it. Neither side seems to expect any major complications in the contract deliberations. The deal probably will be completed today and Nolan likely will be formally introduced Wednesday.

Nolan traveled to the home of 49ers owner John York in Youngstown, Ohio, on Monday, and York informed 49ers players and the team's other head-coaching candidates that he had picked Nolan.

Nolan replaces Dennis Erickson and likely will be given input into the club's search for a front-office chief to replace ousted general manager Terry Donahue. Nolan inherits a team that had a league-worst 2-14 record this season, matching the worst mark in franchise history, and was beset with salary cap troubles. There is no franchise quarterback or centerpiece runner in the fold.

But the situation is not completely bleak. The 49ers will have a greatly improved salary cap situation this offseason and possess the top overall selection in the NFL draft in April, and Nolan won't face any immediate expectations that the five-time Super Bowl champions are on the verge of recapturing their past glory within the next season or two. . . .

It's clear from the comments made by Green Bay Packers Coach Mike Sherman during his season-ending news conference Monday that he didn't surrender the team's general manager job willingly. Packers President Bob Harlan decided that one man shouldn't have both jobs and stripped Sherman of his GM duties, hiring Ted Thompson as the club's general manager on Friday.

Sherman said Monday that he was "proud of what I've accomplished, both as a head coach and as a general manager." He said: "It doesn't matter whether I agree or disagree. My boss made a decision. . . . As a competitor, you hate to let go of anything."

But Sherman said that, after meeting with Thompson on Saturday, he believes that the two can co-exist. Sherman called the conversation "very positive" and said he's committed to working with Thompson, a former Packers executive who most recently was the vice president of football operations for the Seahawks, to attempt to get the team back to a Super Bowl.

"I came away from my meeting with Ted convinced that we share a mutual goal," Sherman said.

Sherman has only one season remaining on his contract, and Harlan has left the decision about the coach's future with the organization to Thompson. Thompson was complimentary of Sherman during his introductory news conference, and Sherman said he hopes to remain with the club beyond next season.

"The changes that have been made are not about what Mike Sherman thinks or feels," Sherman said. "It's about what's best for the Green Bay Packers. Bob Harlan made the decision that he believes is in the best interests of both the Green Bay Packers and Mike Sherman. I trust in Bob's decision, and we move forward.

"I've poured my heart and soul into this job since I've been here. . . . I look at this not as an obstacle but as an opportunity for me to shift my focus to the football side of the business -- less on the personnel side, although I will continue to be involved in that process. This will in no way diminish my passion to do the very best job I can do in whatever capacity I'm called upon. The bottom line is that I want what Bob Harlan wants, and that is for the Green Bay Packers to continue to be successful and for the franchise to achieve ultimate success.'' . . . Sherman said he hadn't spoken to quarterback Brett Favre since the immediate aftermath of the Packers' season-ending, first-round playoff loss to the Vikings, when he urged Favre not to make a hasty decision about whether to play next season or retire. Sherman told Favre that the Packers need a decision by the opening of free agency in March, in case they need to find a replacement for him. . . .

Cowboys Coach Bill Parcells continued his organizational overhaul Monday by dismissing kicking coach Steve Hoffman and reassigning Tony Sparano, formerly his tight ends coach, to be his offensive line coach to replace George Warhop, whose previously reported firing was made official with an announcement by the team. Parcells is shaking things up after the Cowboys' 6-10 season. The club's longtime scouting director, Larry Lacewell, retired 12 days ago. . . .

Now that the Vikings' season is over, offensive coordinator Scott Linehan likely will begin receiving offers from other teams with offensive-coordinator vacancies, possibly including Jacksonville and Miami. Linehan's contract with Minnesota expires at the end of this month. The Vikings apparently would like to retain him, and Coach Mike Tice likely will make a pitch for Linehan during a meeting with owner Red McCombs scheduled for Thursday. . . .

San Diego appears close to completing a contract extension with coveted offensive coordinator Cam Cameron. . . . The two-year extension that the Chargers completed last week with Coach Marty Schottenheimer apparently is worth more than $4 million per season, up from Schottenheimer's $2.5 million annual salary under the terms of his original contract with the team. Schottenheimer's extension runs through the 2007 season. . . .

Jets Coach Herman Edwards must make a decision soon about whether to fire beleaguered offensive coordinator Paul Hackett. The club's front office, meantime, will begin dealing with a list of potential unrestricted free agents that includes defensive end John Abraham, who had 9 1/2 sacks this season but missed the final four games of the regular season and the team's two playoff contests because of a sprained knee ligament. The Jets seem prepared to use their franchise-player tag to retain Abraham if they can't agree to a contract extension with him in the next month. . . .

The Cincinnati Bengals appear prepared to promote defensive assistant Chuck Bresnahan, formerly Oakland's defensive coordinator, to succeed ousted defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier.

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