Thursday January 17th, 2008

They say that birds of a feather flock together, but I don't think this is the company that the Falcons and Ravens really want to be keeping these days. With the not-so-surprising news that Cowboys offensive coordinator Jason Garrett has told both teams that he's no longer interested in becoming their next head coach, I'm guessing the reality is starting to set in in Atlanta and Baltimore:

Finding the right man for the job is starting to take a backseat to finding someone who will take the job. Now spanning multiple weeks and several swings and misses each, the coaching searches being conducted by the Falcons and Ravens have officially become embarrassing.

Where are we at in Atlanta and Baltimore? Here's how it reads on my scorecard:

• Falcons -- They got used and abused by Bill Parcells in their attempt to land The Tuna as their football czar -- he had Miami on the other line the whole time -- and they've also heard either no-thank-you's or lost out on the likes of Bill Cowher, Colts offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell, Dallas assistant Tony Sparano and now Garrett.

And that's after their last head coach, Bobby Petrino, ran out on them just 13 games into his first season. At the moment, Ravens defensive coordinator Rex Ryan is the only remaining candidate to have received a second interview from Atlanta, although the No. 1 object of the Falcons' interest is now believed to be Giants' first-year defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, who can't interview with the team until next week at the earliest.

• Ravens -- First and foremost, Baltimore went sniffing in Cowher's direction without any luck, and despite owner Steve Bisciotti's claims to the contrary, I do believe it happened long before Brian Billick was shown the door. Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz declined the Ravens' overtures, and a scenario involving a trade of draft picks for the rights to Cincinnati head coach Marvin Lewis has been considered within the Baltimore organization.

This week, Caldwell pulled his name out of running -- the Ravens liked him quite a bit but it's seen as a sign that he'll take over the Colts after Tony Dungy makes his retirement official -- and Baltimore's determined effort to hire Garrett came up empty when Cowboys owner Jerry Jones enticed him to stay put and wait for Wade Phillips' inevitable firing next offseason (if he doesn't win some playoff games).

That leaves the Ravens facing the prospect of hiring either promising Eagles secondary coach John Harbaugh, whose interview was boffo but whose resume doesn't even include any NFL coordinating experience, or going to their ultimate fallback plan and luring Marty Schottenheimer out of retirement. (He's baaack!)

If it's as surprising to you that the Falcons and Ravens can't seem to give their head coaching jobs away, imagine what it must be like from their vantage points, now that the nays are throwing a shutout at the yeas. If the folks in Atlanta and Baltimore are still laboring under the impression that they've got one of the plum coaching jobs in the NFL to offer, they're either practicing self-deception or not paying attention.

After all, the Falcons went 4-12 in their nightmare of a 2007 season, and still haven't posted consecutive winning seasons in the 42-year history of the franchise. The Ravens plummeted to 5-11 this season after last year's heady 13-3 finish, but the fact remains that Baltimore hasn't won a playoff game since 2001, the year after its Super Bowl-winning season.

The picture that multiple league sources recently painted for me of the Falcons dual coaching/general manager search portrays a confusing and overly structured interview process that includes entirely too much input and participation from the corporate branches of team owner Arthur Blank's other business interests.

The search process may be improving now that the Falcons have hired ex-Patriots college scouting director Thomas Dimitroff as their new general manager, but sources told me that head coaching candidates have in some cases been asked to meet with 11 different people during their interviews. Those have even included sessions with the person who oversees Blank's charitable efforts, a step in the interview process that I'm quite sure he didn't make Parcells endure.

It's a classic case of leadership by committee and consensus, and Blank is said to be unable to separate how he runs the Falcons with the corporate management style that worked for him in founding The Home Depot. "There's a reason why someone came up with the saying 'Too many cooks spoil the broth,' '' one league source said. "There are some real issues structural there.''

Another league source said: "It's mind-boggling how they're going about this search. They're not really sure what they want to do, and it's a recipe for disaster.''

Blank, of course, knows disaster. One reason he's involving so many different voices -- and don't forget, ex-Falcons general manager Rich McKay is still the team president and strangely took part in the search for his successor, and is playing a role in the coaching search as well -- is because of how many times in the recent past he feels he has been burned.

Blank felt burned by ex-coach Jim Mora's volatility in the third year of his three-year tenure, burned by Petrino's decision to desert his team for the University of Arkansas after just 13 games, and burned by the specter of being used by Parcells in order to get the Dolphins job that he most coveted. And then there's that whole Michael Vick thing. Major burn job there.

No wonder he's taking input from ex-Giants general manager Ernie Accorsi, and McKay, and his corporate suits, and everyone else except the guy wearing the orange apron in the paint aisle at his local Home Depot. Maybe Blank's trying to spread the responsibility around this time, in case there's another debacle just around the corner. But alas, that's not how to run an NFL franchise.

The fact of the matter is, the Falcons are having a hard time finding a head coach who wants them because it's not a rosy picture in Atlanta these days. This isn't a team that's close to contention and just needs a little direction. This is a team that's headed for a rebuilding phase, and it starts, of course, with figuring out who will play quarterback after the Joey Harrington-Byron Leftwich-Chris Redman tap dance this season.

Which is a nice segue into Baltimore's troubles as well, since the Ravens also are desperate for a long-term answer at the game's most pivotal position. Quarterback Steve McNair is just one of several Baltimore veterans who no longer warrant their hefty price tag under the Ravens salary cap.

Whoever Baltimore hires as its next coach is going to be faced with a roster that could include such over-priced aging players as McNair, Jonathan Ogden, Samari Rolle, Mike Flynn and, yes, even Ray Lewis, whom Bisciotti has apparently christened his new best friend forever. In another category are big-salary guys like Trevor Pryce and Todd Heap, who play well when they're healthy, but consistently struggle to stay on the field.

There's some prevailing belief within the league that the Ravens are already an old team that may get worse before they get better, and the next Baltimore head coach is going to have to walk in there cracking the whip after the rather free rein approach that Billick favored. (That's where the Schottenheimer scenario makes the most sense). Then there's the whole ugly offense versus defense split that has been simmering in the Ravens locker room for years, and was pretty much out in the open in 2007. That needs fixing by the new head coach.

Upon firing Billick, Bisciotti made it clear he thinks he still has the roster of a playoff team, and just needs to find the coach to lead Baltimore back to the postseason. That sounds like unwarranted optimism to me, even if the Ravens are banking on getting all their injured players from this season back on the field and producing in 2008.

When I look a little closer at the Ravens and Falcons, I'm starting to understand why their coaching searches have been so futile to this point. They've got a tougher sell than I realized. By now, it's almost to the point where finding the right guy for the job in Atlanta and Baltimore might be too lofty a goal. Finding anyone who really wants either job seems to be the tricky part.

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