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League Awaits Leinart

USC Quarterback's Decision on Entering Draft to Come Soon

By Mark Maske
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 14, 2005; 11:19 AM

People around the league would be surprised if Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Matt Leinart decides against leaving the University of Southern California after his junior season to enter this year's NFL draft.

"To me, it's a no-brainer to come out early if you're going to be one of the top 10 guys picked,'' an executive for one NFL team said Thursday, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he did not want to be viewed as influencing Leinart's decision. "He'd probably be number one. Now, would that change in a year? Probably not. But you just never know. Why risk it? There's too much money at stake.''

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Leinart is wrestling with the choice. He was to announce his decision Thursday but postponed the announcement until today. One person familiar with the deliberations said late Thursday it was possible that the verdict might not come until Saturday, the deadline for underclassmen to declare that they're entering the April draft.

Leinart has led USC to the last two national championships and, if he turns pro, would be passing up a chance to try for three in a row and another Heisman. But the financial lure is strong. Last year's top overall selection in the draft, quarterback Eli Manning, signed a six-year, $45 million contract with the New York Giants that included $20 million in bonus money and $9 million in incentives that could push the deal's overall value to $54 million.

The clubs with the top three choices in the draft -- the San Francisco 49ers, Miami Dolphins and Cleveland Browns -- need franchise quarterbacks. Two other highly regarded quarterback prospects, Aaron Rodgers of Cal and Alex Smith of Utah, already have announced that they will leave school early to jump to the NFL.

Leinart's former favorite target, wide receiver Mike Williams, also could be a top selection in April, but his draft prospects are difficult to gauge after he was forced to sit out the just-completed college season. Williams entered last year's draft after the ruling in a federal court in Maurice Clarett's lawsuit against the NFL that temporarily opened the draft to college freshmen and sophomores and high school players. But subsequent court decisions overturned that ruling and kept Clarett and Williams out of last year's draft, and the NCAA denied Williams's application to have his eligibility at USC restored. Williams and Clarett are eligible for this year's draft under the NFL's requirement that a player be at least three years removed from high school.

Two other USC players, linebacker Lofa Tatupu and punter Tom Malone, also are scheduled to announce today whether they'll enter the draft.

Crennel Could Have Offer(s) Soon

The Browns could offer their head-coaching job to New England defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel by early next week if the Patriots lose to the Indianapolis Colts in an AFC semifinal Sunday.

Crennel appears to be the front-runner in Cleveland. The Browns also have interviewed their interim coach, Terry Robiskie, and Philadelphia Eagles offensive coordinator Brad Childress, Pittsburgh Steelers assistant head coach Russ Grimm, Baltimore Ravens defensive coordinator Mike Nolan and former Dolphins interim coach Jim Bates.

Under NFL rules, the Browns cannot offer the job to (or even have a second interview with) Crennel, Childress or Grimm as long as they're coaching in the playoffs. They're free to hire Robiskie, Nolan or Bates at any time. It's unclear if the Browns would want to conduct a second interview with Crennel before making him a job offer.

But Cleveland could have competition for Crennel. He also has interviewed for the 49ers' head-coaching vacancy. The 49ers also have interviewed Nolan, Giants defensive coordinator Tim Lewis and Tennessee offensive coordinator Mike Heimerdinger. They are scheduled to interview Titans defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz today.

The view around the league is that Crennel's time to be a head coach has come. He might have landed one of the seven head-coaching positions that were available league-wide last winter if he hadn't been, in effect, kept off the job market by the Patriots' run to a second Super Bowl title in three years.

Heimerdinger is said to have made a very favorable impression during his interview with the 49ers, and he could become the favorite if the team doesn't offer the job to Crennel or loses him to Cleveland. But there are rumblings around the league that the 49ers still haven't given up on their long-shot hopes of luring a current NFL head coach from another club.

That probably would mean Tennessee's Jeff Fisher or Seattle's Mike Holmgren. There has been speculation about Fisher's status for weeks, but he appears to have patched up any differences he had with Titans owner Bud Adams and General Manager Floyd Reese. Holmgren, a former 49ers assistant, seemed like a top candidate for San Francisco when the Seahawks' turbulent season ended with a first-round playoff loss at home to St. Louis. He has had an uneasy relationship with Seahawks President Bob Whitsitt. But Holmgren has two seasons remaining on his contract in Seattle and said Tuesday, a day after meeting with Whitsitt, that he would remain with the Seahawks.

USC Coach Pete Carroll, the apparent top choice of 49ers co-owner John York, has said he's not interested in leaving the school to return to the NFL . . .

The Dolphins interviewed former Dallas Cowboys head coach Dave Campo on Thursday for their defensive coordinator job. After being fired in Dallas, Campo spent the last two seasons as Cleveland's defensive coordinator. Houston Texans defensive line coach Todd Grantham appeared earlier this week to be close to getting the Miami job, but he didn't get an offer and withdrew from consideration Thursday. Patriots linebackers coach Dean Pees also could be a candidate. Bates told new Dolphins coach Nick Saban that he did not want to remain with the team as defensive coordinator . . .

Dolphins owner Wayne Huizenga hired Joe Bailey as the chief executive officer of Dolphins Enterprises, the company created by Huizenga to oversee the business operations of the team and the just-renamed Dolphins Stadium. Bailey, a former Cowboys executive, takes over for retiring club president Eddie Jones. He had been a headhunter in New York with the executive search firm Russell Reynolds Associates and was assisting the Dolphins in their searches for a CEO and head coach . . .

Campo also interviewed with the Jacksonville Jaguars this week for a spot on Coach Jack Del Rio's defensive staff. Del Rio is looking for a replacement for Steve Shafer, whom he dismissed as his assistant head coach and assistant defensive backs coach. Del Rio also interviewed Auburn defensive coordinator Gene Chizik. The Jaguars already have hired one college defensive coordinator, Georgia's Brian VanGorder, as their linebackers coach.

Thompson Could Become Packers' GM Today

Ted Thompson could become the Green Bay Packers' general manager as soon as today. The former Packers executive, most recently the vice president of football operations for the Seahawks, was the prime candidate targeted by Packers President Bob Harlan when he decided to take the GM duties from Coach Mike Sherman.

Sherman has only one season remaining on his contract, but the addition of Thompson might not be as ominous for the coach's long-term job security in Green Bay as it might appear at first glance. General managers usually like to hire their own coaches. But Thompson and Sherman have worked together before, and Harlan's good working relationship with Sherman makes it unlikely that he would bring in Thompson without believing that his new GM could co-exist with his coach . . .

Don't weep too much for the San Diego Chargers despite their first-round playoff loss to the New York Jets last weekend in overtime. They have two-first round draft choices in April, theirs and the Giants', thanks to the Manning trade. And they'll have about $25 million in space beneath next season's salary cap, projected to be about $85.5 million per club.

Their favorable cap situation will allow the Chargers to keep both Drew Brees, the Pro Bowler who is eligible for unrestricted free agency in March, and fellow quarterback Philip Rivers, the fourth overall choice in last year's draft who was kept on the bench as a rookie by Brees's exploits. San Diego appears primed to retain Brees even if it means using its franchise-player tag on him. And, at least for now, the Chargers also seem intent upon retaining Rivers. The most likely scenario at this point, it seems, is that the club will keep both quarterbacks for one more season and then trade one or the other . . .

How about a Hall of Fame class of Emmitt Smith, Jerry Rice, Tim Brown and Brett Favre? They could be inducted in Canton, Ohio, together if all four choose to retire this offseason.

But that seems unlikely. Favre, in particular, seems likely to return next season. Rice said after the Seahawks' playoff loss to the Rams that he thinks he can play another season but doesn't know for certain, and Smith said as the Arizona Cardinals' season concluded that his football future will depend, in part, on whether any team is interested in him for next season. Brown, who played for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers this season, interviewed with Notre Dame officials Thursday about the possibility of working for his alma mater in some capacity . . .

The Buffalo Bills have given agent Hadley Engelhard permission to seek a trade for tailback Travis Henry. Henry has said he wants out of Buffalo after losing the Bills' starting tailback job to Willis McGahee this season. Trades cannot be made again until March . . .

Jets linebacker Eric Barton plans to appeal the $7,500 fine imposed on him by the league Thursday for his hit on Brees last weekend . . .

The Jets have basically given up on having defensive end John Abraham available for Saturday's AFC semifinal at Pittsburgh. It would be the sixth straight game missed by Abraham because of a sprained knee ligament. Abraham cut short an interview session with reporters Thursday, upset at the portrayal that his pending free-agent status has been a factor in his decision-making about whether to return to the lineup . . .

Backup quarterback Quincy Carter probably won't accompany the Jets to Pittsburgh. He has spent this week in Georgia with his ailing mother. The Jets are planning for Brooks Bollinger to be Chad Pennington's primary backup Saturday. Pennington practiced Thursday after missing Wednesday's practice because of a bout with what the team called a stomach virus . . .

The league sent a representative to inspect the field at Gillette Stadium and was satisfied with the condition of the playing surface. The Patriots left the field uncovered during one rainy day this week, and sloppy conditions Sunday probably would favor them in their matchup with the pass-happy Colts. But the field was covered Thursday night. The NFL requires the home team to put a tarp over the field, if there is the possibility of precipitation, only on the day and night immediately prior to the game . . .

The Patriots signed defensive back Antwan Harris on Thursday after also working out Terry Fair, Ike Charlton and Tod McBride. New England placed linebacker Eric Alexander on the injured reserve list because of an ankle injury. Harris is the second defensive back signed by the Patriots this week. They added Hank Poteat on Tuesday . . .

Rams wide receiver Isaac Bruce was limited during Thursday's practice by a groin injury suffered during last weekend's win at Seattle. Kevin Curtis would fill in Saturday night in Atlanta if Bruce is sidelined or has his playing time curtailed by the injury. Curtis and fellow reserve wideout Shaun McDonald made major strides in their development this season and contributed a series of key plays against the Seahawks.

Rams rookie tailback Steven Jackson likely will wear a flak jacket during Saturday's game to protect the bruised ribs he suffered in Seattle . . .

Minnesota wide receiver Randy Moss participated in a morning walk-through Thursday but sat out practice for a second day in a row to rest his sprained ankle. He is scheduled to start Sunday at Philadelphia. The Vikings also expect running back Moe Williams to play despite a sprained ankle . . .

Pittsburgh linebacker Kendrell Bell missed practice for a second straight day because of flu-like symptoms. Linebacker Joey Porter practiced Thursday after sitting out Wednesday's practice because he also was sick . . . Steelers Coach Bill Cowher still won't say which of his tailbacks, Duce Staley or Jerome Bettis, will start Saturday, but there are growing indications that it will be Bettis. If that happens, it will mark the first time this season that Cowher will have started Bettis over a healthy Staley.

Labor Talks Moving Slowly

People familiar with the labor negotiations between the league and the players' union said that, as of midweek, the two sides still were not close to completing an extension of their collective bargaining agreement . . .

Colts owner Jim Irsay is in favor of the owners ratifying a revised revenue-sharing arrangement that would transfer more money from big-market teams to small-market clubs, like the Colts. But Irsay says he is sensitive to the needs of the high-revenue franchises that already have made plans based on their current revenue levels, and suggests that any new system should be phased in gradually so that those teams have time to adjust.

"I know owners that are in the top-grossing markets, and they have the wisdom to understand they're investing in the National Football League'' by agreeing to a bolstered revenue-sharing plan, Irsay said during a recent telephone interview. "Some will fight it . . . [but] I'm hopeful we can come to some sort of compromise in the next six months or so.'' . . .

Holmgren isn't saying yet whether he's willing to bring back Koren Robinson next season after the Seahawks wide receiver missed six games in a seven-game span for disciplinary reasons, sitting out twice for violating team rules and serving a four-game suspension for a violation of the league's substance-abuse policy. Holmgren played Robinson against the Rams and Robinson fumbled twice, although Seattle didn't lose possession either time.

"He's a talented guy, but he's got to show me I can count on him,'' Holmgren said during his season-ending news conference this week. "That gets into our offseason strategy on what we have to do, either in the draft or free agency. Is he a good enough player to play in this league? Yes, he is. We all know that. Has he been a little inconsistent on other things? Yeah, he has.'' . . .

Not counting the expansion Texans, who began play in 2002, seven NFL teams have failed to reach the playoffs in any of the past four seasons -- the Jaguars, Bills, Cardinals, Detroit Lions, Washington Redskins, New Orleans Saints and Cincinnati Bengals.

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