The seven new head coaches hired around the league this past offseason included a Hall of Famer (Joe Gibbs), a two-time AFC championship game participant (Tom Coughlin) and a two-time NFC title-game entrant (Dennis Green).
Few people paid much attention to Jim Mora Jr., the rookie head coach of the Atlanta Falcons. Those who did pay attention did so in part because Mora's father is the former coach of the New Orleans Saints and Indianapolis Colts. If the Washington Redskins' job hadn't opened up with the resignation of Steve Spurrier, it's possible that Gibbs's return to coaching could have come with his prominent NASCAR sponsor, Falcons owner and Home Depot co-founder Arthur Blank, and the younger Mora might have remained the defensive coordinator of the San Francisco 49ers.
Only one new NFL coach is 3-0, however, and it's not Gibbs, Coughlin or Green. It's not Norv Turner, Lovie Smith or Mike Mularkey. Those guys are 6-11.
It hasn't always been elegant: The Falcons beat Green's pitiable Arizona Cardinals by only 6-3 last Sunday. But they have quarterback Michael Vick healthy once more and are winning again after going 5-11 last year with Vick hurt for most of the season. Still, Mora isn't getting carried away.
"It's like playing golf," he said during a news briefing this week. "You go out and you hit a couple of shots, you par a couple of holes and you're like, 'This game is easy.' Then the next thing you know, you're shanking one off the heel of your club over there into the bushes and you've got to go look for it and you're taking a snowman. . . . We're not going to fall into that trap."
Mora, at 42, is the league's third-youngest head coach. But he's been coaching in the NFL for 20 seasons, beginning as an entry-level quality-control assistant for the San Diego Chargers in 1985, and he has surrounded himself with an experienced staff. He snatched up Ed Donatell to be his defensive coordinator after Green Bay's fourth-and-26 playoff failure in Philadelphia cost Donatell his job as the Packers' defensive boss. He hired Alex Gibbs, one of the architects of the Denver Broncos' highly successful running game, to coach the Falcons' offensive line, and retained secondary coach Emmitt Thomas, a former defensive coordinator for the Eagles, Packers and Minnesota Vikings. He brought another highly regarded coaching up-and-comer, former 49ers offensive coordinator Greg Knapp, with him from San Francisco to run the Atlanta offense.
The early returns have been promising. But the Falcons have beaten two of the league's worst teams, the 49ers and Cardinals. Now comes a road matchup Sunday with the Carolina Panthers, the defending NFC champions who had an extra week to rest and prepare because they're coming off a bye.
"Everyone knows that Carolina is a very good team and everyone knows this is a big game for us," Mora said. " . . . For your own psyche, it is good to go in and play a team that everyone recognizes as a very good team, and it's good if you win. If you lose . . . I don't know what you take out of a loss. But if you win, yeah, it gives you a little boost."
This is only the third time in their history that the Falcons have started 3-0. The other two times, they finished with losing records, ending up 7-9 in 1981 after winning their first three games and finishing 7-8-1 in '86 after opening with four straight victories.
"It really hasn't been easy because every week is a new challenge," Mora said. "And, yeah, it's great to be 3-0. But what happens in this profession is unless you get number four this week, you still feel as lousy on Monday after your first loss as you do after your third loss. . . . I enjoy every minute of it. But that doesn't mean it's easy.''
McKenzie Still Hoping for Trade
Those in cornerback Mike McKenzie's camp apparently remain hopeful that he will be traded by the Packers before the Oct. 19 trade deadline. Agent Drew Rosenhaus apparently is pushing for a deal this week. Dallas Cowboys officials say they don't expect to trade for McKenzie despite an obvious need at cornerback, but the Saints and perhaps the Oakland Raiders could be interested.
The Saints reportedly offered the Packers a second-round draft choice for McKenzie recently, but Green Bay wanted at least a first-round pick and perhaps more. Rosenhaus informed the Packers when McKenzie ended his lengthy holdout one game into the season that McKenzie still wanted to be traded. McKenzie was to return to the starting lineup for Sunday's game at Indianapolis but hurt his hamstring in practice and didn't play. Colts quarterback Peyton Manning shredded the Green Bay defense for five touchdown passes, all in the first half, and 393 passing yards, and Packers Coach Mike Sherman refused to say afterward whether that performance made him more wary of accommodating McKenzie's trade request. . . .
Green Bay rookie cornerbacks Ahmad Carroll and Joey Thomas plan to remain roommates on road trips despite getting into a fistfight after a team meeting last week. The two exchanged barbs during a session to review game tapes, then continued their confrontation afterward. Neither played on defense in Indianapolis, with Thomas participating only on special teams and Carroll being placed on the inactive list because of what the club called a groin injury. . . .
Packers quarterback Brett Favre practiced Wednesday despite the bruised left leg that forced him out of the Colts game, and he is slated to make his 193rd consecutive regular season start Sunday against the New York Giants. . . .
Tennessee quarterback Steve McNair sat out Wednesday's practice while backup Billy Volek ran the Titans' offense. McNair spent two nights in a hospital after suffering a bruised sternum late in last weekend's loss to Jacksonville, but Coach Jeff Fisher did not rule him out of Sunday's game at San Diego. . . .
Chargers rookie quarterback Philip Rivers hurt the index finger on his right (throwing) hand when he hit a teammate's helmet while completing his throwing motion during Wednesday's practice, but officials said the injury does not appear to be serious. Rivers was elevated to second on the depth chart this week, behind starter Drew Brees. . . .
Center Kevin Mawae participated in the New York Jets' practice Wednesday and probably will make his 158th straight regular-season start when the team plays Sunday at Miami. But it's possible that Mawae, who has a broken right hand, could switch positions with left guard Pete Kendall, the starting center for the Cardinals before being cut by Green, if he has trouble snapping.
Tyrone Williams, Cowboys Reach Deal
Veteran cornerback Tyrone Williams, a former starter for the Falcons and Packers, agreed to a one-year contract with the Cowboys after working out Wednesday. Dallas lost starting cornerback Pete Hunter for the remainder of the season because of a torn left anterior cruciate ligament during Monday night's triumph over the Redskins. The Cowboys plan to elevate Jacques Reeves into the starting lineup and make fellow rookie Nathan Jones their nickel cornerback.
The Cowboys placed Hunter and tight end Dan Campbell, who hurt his right foot Monday, on the injured reserve list. Dallas signed tight end Mikhael Ricks to replace Campbell. . . .
Cowboys Coach Bill Parcells was asked about wide receiver Antonio Bryant's ability to run for additional yards after catches during his news briefing Wednesday and told reporters: "He just can weasel out of trouble, literally and physically [sic]." Bryant remained on the Cowboys' roster despite a heated confrontation with Parcells during an offseason practice in which he threw his jersey into the coach's face. . . .
The New England Patriots placed rookie tight end Ben Watson on the IR list because of a knee injury and signed Jed Weaver, who had 35 catches last season for San Francisco, to back up tight ends Daniel Graham and Christian Fauria. Watson, the final player drafted in the first round in April, finishes his rookie season with two catches for 16 yards. . . .
Boxing champion Bernard Hopkins attended the Eagles' practice Wednesday and, with the approval of Coach Andy Reid, addressed the team. . . .
Cleveland tailback Lee Suggs practiced fully Wednesday. He has been sidelined since the preseason because of a pinched nerve in his neck but likely will play Sunday against the Redskins. . . .
Buffalo rookie quarterback J.P. Losman is ahead of schedule in his recovery from the broken left leg suffered in training camp. He has resumed throwing and could be able to practice in about a month. . . .
Tailback Michael Pittman practiced with Tampa Bay on Wednesday as he returns from a three-game suspension by the NFL for violating the league's conduct policy with a conviction on domestic violence charges. The Buccaneers need Pittman to give their sagging offense a boost after losing tailback Charlie Garner because of a season-ending knee injury. The club placed Garner and tight end Rickey Dudley on IR Wednesday. Dudley has a broken thumb.
League Nixes Plummer's Tillman Tribute
The league told Denver quarterback Jake Plummer to stop wearing the No. 40 decal on his helmet to honor his former Arizona State and Cardinals teammate Pat Tillman, who was killed in combat in Afghanistan in April as a member of the U.S. Army Rangers.
All NFL players wore the decals during Week 2 games but Plummer also wore his last weekend and had planned to continue doing so. But the league said that violated the uniform code. NFL officials say they don't allow individual players to conduct such tributes with alterations to their uniforms because it would be difficult to determine which were appropriate and which weren't. In similar fashion, the league kept Manning from honoring late Baltimore Colts quarterback Johnny Unitas by wearing black cleats following Unitas's death two years ago.
Cardinals players are wearing the helmet decals to honor Tillman all season. Plummer told reporters Wednesday that he would not fight the league's ruling but would look for other ways to honor Tillman. . . .
The Jets' contract talks with defensive end Shaun Ellis are at an impasse. The Jets had hoped to re-sign Ellis, who's eligible for unrestricted free agency in the spring, shortly after signing quarterback Chad Pennington to a contract extension before the season.