SEATTLE -- The results of the first round of the NFL playoffs solidified the job security of two head coaches, the St. Louis Rams' Mike Martz and the Minnesota Vikings' Mike Tice, but raised further questions about the status of two others, the Seattle Seahawks' Mike Holmgren and the Denver Broncos' Mike Shanahan.
There have been three coaching changes -- a modest total by recent NFL standards -- but the first-round playoff losses by the Seahawks and Broncos leave open the possibility of further reshuffling.
Holmgren has two seasons remaining on his eight-year, $32-million contract with the Seahawks. But Holmgren, who won a Super Bowl in Green Bay is only 50-49 in six seasons in Seattle, including 0-3 in the playoffs. And suddenly there is a soft landing spot available for him in San Francisco that might not make him so opposed to leaving Seattle. He grew up in the Bay Area, is a former 49ers assistant coach, and probably could convince 49ers co-owner John York to give him the full control over roster decisions that he has been forced to surrender with the Seahawks.
The Seahawks remained winless in the postseason since December 1984 with Saturday's 27-20 loss to the Rams at Qwest Field, their third defeat to St. Louis this season. The Seahawks were regarded by many in and around the league as a Super Bowl contender entering the season, and they looked like one when they began with three straight dominating victories.
But they never quite recovered from an overtime loss to the Rams at home in their fourth game of the season, in which they squandered a 17-point lead in the final six minutes of regulation. They won the NFC West with a 9-7 record, but they never became a team with much toughness or purposefulness, and it didn't really feel like much of an upset when they were bounced from the postseason Saturday by a club coming off an 8-8 regular season.
"It's very difficult, as you might expect,'' Holmgren said after the game. " . . . We took one more step over last year when we won the division. That was a goal. One of these years, believe it or not, we're going to take the next step and win a playoff game.''
Holmgren is said by some in the league to be having trouble co-existing with club president Bob Whitsitt, and owner Paul Allen might have to choose between the two as the Seahawks enter an offseason in which 16 players -- including quarterback Matt Hasselbeck and tailback Shaun Alexander -- will be eligible for unrestricted free agency. The Seahawks spent the week before the Rams game embroiled in controversies surrounding Alexander, who accused Holmgren of costing him the NFL rushing title with a quarterback-sneak call against the Atlanta Falcons in the regular season finale, and wide receiver Koren Robinson, who was on the inactive list for the Atlanta game after missing a practice.
Holmgren and several players spoke late Saturday about the need to keep the team together to take another shot at having some postseason success, but the club's lack of grit leads one to wonder whether it is a roster worth keeping intact. Even Holmgren had a difficult time arguing that this had been a successful season for his team.
"In some respects yes, and in some respects it was disappointing,'' he said. "The fact that we were division champion, I think you could label that a success. Unfortunately, that was not the headline last week, and I thought it should have been. . . . I was disappointed our record wasn't better. I thought there was a chance that if we'd won the games that, in my opinion, we should have won, without stretching the imagination too much, then we may have gotten a first-round bye, which means everything. But we didn't, and that was disappointing. . . . I like the fact we are divisions champions. [Saturday's] game is very difficult to take, however.''
Shanahan is a two-time Super Bowl winner with the Broncos. But since the second of those triumphs on Jan. 31, 1999, the Broncos have gone six seasons without a playoff victory. They're 0-3 in the postseason during that stretch, and the losses have come by a combined margin of 111-37. Shanahan is yet to win a playoff game without John Elway as his quarterback.
Last season, the Broncos trailed the Indianapolis Colts, 31-3, at halftime en route to a 41-10 defeat in a first-round AFC playoff game. Colts quarterback Peyton Manning threw for 377 yards and five touchdowns that day. Shanahan, who has total control over Denver's football operations, made his offseason focus upgrading the team's secondary, trading for cornerback Champ Bailey and signing safety John Lynch as a free agent. The Broncos players talked big during last week's buildup to Sunday's playoff rematch with the Colts, going on and on about remembering the sting of last January's defeat and about how they would rough up the Indianapolis receivers. On Sunday, the Colts led, 35-3, at halftime on their way to a 49-24 win. Manning threw for 457 yards and four touchdowns.
Shanahan has four seasons remaining on his contract and has said he intends to be in Denver for the remainder of the deal. Broncos owner Pat Bowlen has said that Shanahan can coach his club as long as Shanahan wishes. But Shanahan even has been criticized recently by former Broncos tight end Shannon Sharpe, who retired from the team last offseason to join the CBS studio show. Sharpe has taken Shanahan to task for the coach's choice of Jake Plummer as the Broncos' quarterback, and has said that Bowlen at least should strip Shanahan of his total authority over personnel decisions.
Yet another coach named Mike with a first-round playoff loss, the Packers' Mike Sherman, is certain to draw some scrutiny, but probably isn't in too much danger of being ousted. Martz and Tice likely have moved out of immediate peril of being dismissed, as well.
Martz's job security seemed tenuous enough in recent weeks that Rams owner Georgia Frontiere wrote a letter to the team's players attempting to reassure them that Martz would be their coach, saying she didn't intend to fire him. But the Rams were two games under .500 with two games to play in the regular season, and might not have even reached the playoffs if Philadelphia Eagles Coach Andy Reid hadn't decided to sit down his key players to avoid injuries in a Monday night game in St. Louis. The Rams beat the Eagles and then edged the New York Jets in overtime to reach the postseason, and got a fortunate draw by being matched up with the Seahawks.
Now they're back to the NFC semifinals, in which they lost at home in double overtime to the Carolina Panthers last season after a 12-4 regular season and a first-round bye. They would have played at Philadelphia next weekend if Green Bay had won Sunday, but the Vikings' upset sends the Rams to Atlanta while Minnesota faces the Eagles.
The Vikings' 31-17 triumph at Lambeau Field makes it far easier for owner Red McCombs to retain Tice after a second straight regular-season folding act. McCombs already had told Tice he was exercising a $1 million option in Tice's contract for next season. But he hasn't extended Tice's deal, and it would cost him only $800,000 of that $1 million to fire Tice -- which still seemed like a plausible scenario entering Sunday's game. The Vikings backed into the playoffs with an 8-8 record after a loss to the Washington Redskins in the regular season finale. They finished the regular season with seven losses in 10 games after a 5-1 beginning, that after missing the playoffs last season with a 3-7 ending following a 6-0 start. Wide receiver Randy Moss walked off the field with two seconds left in the Redskins game, then said publicly last week that, while he supports Tice personally, he can't be certain if Tice is the right coach for the Vikings.
But Tice got the Vikings to play hard and play well Sunday, avenging their two regular-season defeats to the Packers. Moss generated yet another controversy when he feigned lowering his pants toward the Lambeau crowd during a touchdown celebration. But he was there when his team needed him, playing on a sore ankle that left him barely able to run at times and producing two touchdown receptions. Moss likely will be fined $5,000 by the league for his touchdown dance, the standard fine for an obscene gesture toward the crowd that is a player's first such offense.
Fortunes and perceptions change quickly in the NFL, particularly when it comes to coaches. Marty Schottenheimer was named the league's coach of the year for leading the San Diego Chargers to a regular-season record of 12-4, an AFC West title and a first-round playoff bye. But Schottenheimer's career-long playoff heartache continued with Saturday night's overtime loss to the Jets, and he had himself at least partially to blame.
The Chargers got a gift just to reach overtime, with the roughing-the-passer penalty on Jets linebacker Eric Barton at the end of regulation that kept San Diego in the game. The Chargers were driving toward a potential winning score in overtime when Schottenheimer took the game out of the hands of quarterback Drew Brees, one of the league's most valuable players this season, and put it into the hands of his rookie kicker, Nate Kaeding.
After getting a first down at the Jets 22-yard line, Schottenheimer called for three simplistic running plays that totaled zero yards. He eschewed the short passing game that had moved San Diego down the field on that drive, taking an approach as if he had a sure-thing field goal try coming. But it was far from a sure thing, with a rookie kicker under playoff pressure on a wet, sloppy field. Kaeding missed his 40-yard field goal attempt wide right, and the Jets won on their next drive with kicker Doug Brien's 28-yard field goal with five seconds left in overtime.
Schottenheimer's career postseason record dropped to 5-12 with his fifth straight playoff defeat.
The New Orleans Saints have decided to retain Jim Haslett as their coach after their 8-8 season, and are completing negotiations with him on a two-year contract extension through the 2008 season.
Haslett had a series of meetings with Saints General Manager Mickey Loomis and owner Tom Benson last week to resolve his status. Haslett and Loomis met in New Orleans, then traveled to West Palm Beach, Fla., where Benson was vacationing, to meet with the owner late in the week. Haslett was told then that he wouldn't be fired.
The Saints won their final four games, including a triumph at Carolina in the finale that they hoped would secure a playoff spot. They were nudged out in a three-way tie-breaker by the Rams and Vikings for the two NFC wild-card spots. Saints players watched on a television in the visitors' locker room at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte as Rams kicker Jeff Wilkins connected on the overtime field goal that beat the Jets and knocked New Orleans out of the playoffs.
The Saints have not reached the playoffs since the 2000 season, Haslett's first season as coach. He becomes only the fourth NFL coach since 1990 to keep his job after four straight non-playoff seasons, joining the Tennessee Titans' Jeff Fisher, the Cincinnati Bengals' David Shula and the Redskins' Norv Turner. The Saints have a regular season record of 42-38 under Haslett.
The Saints' strong finish this season after they had unraveled down the stretch in previous seasons probably saved Haslett's job. Some people around the league had doubted all along that Benson would be willing to dismiss Haslett and pay him the approximately $6 million due to him the next two seasons under the terms of his contract. But Benson would have had little choice if the team hadn't pulled things together in the season's late stages; after one pre-revival game, the owner had said that his club had played like a high school team. Circumstances also changed in Haslett's favor when LSU Coach Nick Saban, who would have been an overwhelmingly popular choice in New Orleans to replace Haslett, accepted the Miami Dolphins' coaching job before the NFL's regular season even ended. . . .
Terry Robiskie, who served as Cleveland's interim coach after the late-November departure of Butch Davis, is scheduled to interview today for the Browns' coaching job. The Browns already have interviewed Eagles offensive coordinator Brad Childress, New England Patriots defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel and Pittsburgh Steelers assistant head coach Russ Grimm. Crennel may have become the Browns' front-runner with his strong interview Friday.
The team has received permission to interview Falcons defensive coordinator Ed Donatell and likely will meet soon with Baltimore Ravens defensive coordinator Mike Nolan. Jim Bates, who went 3-4 as the Dolphins' interim coach after Dave Wannstedt's resignation in November, also could be a candidate for the Browns. New general manager Phil Savage indicated last week that he is taking University of Iowa Coach Kirk Ferentz at his word that he is not willing to be a candidate in Cleveland. Savage has been noncommittal about the possible candidacy of former New York Giants coach Jim Fassel. . . .
Nolan, Fassel and Titans offensive coordinator Mike Heimerdinger could be among the candidates for the 49ers if they're unable to lure Pete Carroll from USC or get Holmgren. The 49ers interviewed Crennel over the weekend and are scheduled to interview Heimerdinger on Tuesday. . . .
The Dallas Cowboys' dismissal of offensive line coach George Warhop on Friday further signaled that Coach Bill Parcells intends to stay with the club and take firmer control of the team's rebuilding in the offseason. Larry Lacewell, a close ally of owner Jerry Jones, retired as the Cowboys' scouting director last week, and there could be more changes in the coming days and weeks. . . .
Chicago hired Ron Turner to replace Terry Shea as its offensive coordinator. The former University of Illinois coach chose the Bears' offer over one from the Baltimore Ravens.
Law's Patriots Career Likely Over
The Patriots' decision Friday to place Ty Law on the injured reserve list not only changed the complexion of the AFC playoffs, it also might have marked the end of the four-time Pro Bowl cornerback's tenure with the club.
Law has one season remaining on a contract that is to pay him $9.75 million next season, including a $1 million reporting bonus. He is to count about $12.5 million against next season's salary cap, which is projected to be about $85.5 million per team. It's likely that the Patriots would release Law before paying that kind of money to a soon-to-be 31-year-old cornerback coming off a serious injury -- a broken bone in his foot -- that caused him to miss the final nine games of the regular season and the playoffs.
The club likely will attempt to negotiate a new deal with Law and agent Carl Poston. But the team tried that last offseason, and the results were ugly. Law lashed out publicly, calling Coach Bill Belichick dishonest and terming the Patriots' contract offer of $26 million over four seasons insulting. Law's camp asked for a seven-year, $63 million deal that included $20 million in bonus money. The Patriots balked and negotiations stalled, but the club was willing to keep Law this season even with his hefty impact against the salary cap.
When Law got hurt during a Halloween game at Pittsburgh, the original prognosis was that he'd return in six to eight weeks. He seemed intent on returning by the playoffs at the latest, and was in uniform and on the field for pregame warmups before a late-season game against the Jets in Giants Stadium. It's not clear whether he suffered a setback, but doctors reportedly determined last week that Law was not ready to play.
Tyrone Poole, the would-be starter at the cornerback spot opposite Law, is on the IR list because of a knee injury. The Patriots won eight of the nine regular-season games that Law missed, using veteran wide receiver Troy Brown to bolster a cornerbacks corps that includes Asante Samuel, Randall Gay and Earthwind Moreland. But now the Patriots, after their first-round playoff bye, must face the revved-up passing game of the Colts next weekend in Foxboro, Mass. Law had three interceptions when the Patriots beat the Colts in last season's AFC title game.
With defensive lineman Richard Seymour's status unclear because of a knee injury, the Patriots are looking at the possibility of playing Manning and the Colts without two of the best -- if not the two best -- defensive players on their roster. The absence of Law is particularly troublesome, since opponents need three solid cornerbacks to face Indianapolis's wide-receiver trio of Marvin Harrison, Reggie Wayne and Brandon Stokley. New England perhaps could use Eugene Wilson, usually the starter at the safety spot alongside Rodney Harrison, at cornerback.
This entire NFL season has been, in some ways, about the Colts-Patriots rematch. The Colts' griping over the apparent defensive-holding penalties that went uncalled in the final minutes of last season's AFC championship game led to this season's crackdown on defensive clutching-and-grabbing tactics -- which, in turn, led to the record-setting offensive exploits of Manning and others. Conditions seem to favor the Colts this time around, with the new rules and the injuries to Law and Seymour. But the Patriots are at home, with the possibility of weather that's unfavorable to the Colts' offensive approach, and this is the time of the year that usually has been far kinder to Belichick and Patriots quarterback Tom Brady than to Manning. . . . To no one's surprise, Manning won his second straight Associated Press MVP award today. After sharing the award with Tennessee's Steve McNair a year ago, Manning earned all but one of 48 votes from a national panel of sports writers and broadcasters who cover pro football. Only Atlanta quarterback Michael Vick drew a vote. . . .
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are attempting to negotiate a new contract with Brian Griese to retain the quarterback, who became the team's starter during the season and finished as the third-rated passer in the NFC. He led the NFL in completion percentage, at 69.3.
Griese has two seasons remaining on his contract, but the deal includes a $6 million roster bonus in March and a $2 million salary for next season. The Buccaneers are about $14 million over the projected salary cap, and could clear $4.25 million in cap space by releasing Griese. But that would leave the untested Chris Simms as the starter at quarterback, with Brad Johnson on his way out, and the Buccaneers would prefer to enter training camp with Griese as the starter and Simms waiting for his chance. General Manager Bruce Allen has opened discussions with agent Ralph Cindrich about a reworked deal.
Favre To Ponder Future
Sherman met after Sunday's loss with Brett Favre to urge the quarterback not to make any decisions about his football future in the immediate, disappointing aftermath of the game, in which Favre threw four interceptions. Favre plans to return home to Mississippi in a few days and consult with his family before deciding whether to return for a 15th NFL season. . . .
The Seahawks' list of free agents includes Hasselbeck, Alexander, left tackle Walter Jones, defensive end Chike Okeafor and cornerback Ken Lucas. Nine of the 16 prospective free agents are starters. Seattle, at least, will have approximately $30 million in salary cap space with which to work.
"I hope that they're back, and I hope I'm back,'' Hasselbeck said after the game Saturday. "I think that everyone feels that we've got something good going here. The road to the Super Bowl -- you have to take steps. I feel like we took a step last year. I feel like we took a step this year, even though we didn't get this win. . . . I'd like to be back. I'd like the guys that I'm friends with to be back. I would like our great players to be back. But there is really not much that I can control about that.''
Alexander said he spoke to Allen and Whitsitt after the game and told them "that I was probably going to cry for three days. And then I am going to sit down and pray for answers." . . .
The Dolphins announced today that they're changing the name of Pro Player Stadium to Dolphins Stadium. The team had kept the name on the stadium even though the naming rights reverted back to the Dolphins five years ago when Pro Player, a sports-apparel subsidiary of Fruit of the Loom, was dissolved in a bankruptcy proceeding. The club said the stadium will undergo a $100-million-plus renovation project that will include expansion and possibly the addition of a permanent or retractable roof.