Wednesday April 2nd, 2008

PALM BEACH, FLA. -- Musings, observations and the occasional insight on bug-out day at the NFL annual meeting, while I watch droves of league folk fleeing the posh surroundings of The Breakers hotel like a second fall of Saigon....

• Maybe it was just coincidence, but I found it entirely fitting that they bunched together the tables of the NFC East coaches Wednesday morning at the NFC head coaches media breakfast. Sitting back-to-back-to-back were Wade Phillips of Dallas, Tom Coughlin of the Giants and the newbie in the group, Washington's somewhat wide-eyed rookie coach Jim Zorn. Slightly off to one side, maybe because he has the only team in the division that didn't make the playoffs last year, was Philly's Andy Reid.

If there's a tighter and tougher division in the NFL, I don't know what it would be. Only the NFC East and the AFC South had three playoff qualifiers last year, and it was the Giants, of course, who shocked the world with that dramatic Super Bowl upset of the supposedly invincible Patriots (I know, because I was one of the ones doing the supposing). Even the last-place Eagles were a handful to play at season's end, winning their final three games to finish a respectable 8-8.

"I think it's great and I love the competition of it,'' Reid said of the rough and tumble NFC East. "I think it is, if not the top division in the league, I think it's pretty close to it. You better bring it every week. Every time you play an NFC East team, you better play your 'A' game. The bull's-eye is on each one of us.''

I spent most of my morning bopping from one NFC East coach's table to another, gleaning updates on the topics of the day in the division. Here's the best of what I heard and learned....

• Speaking of bull's-eye, nobody starts the 2008 season with a bigger one on his back than Phillips, the Cowboys second-year coach. Dallas went 13-3 in the regular season last year, but got upset at home in the divisional round by the Giants, a team it had already beaten twice earlier. For all the Super Bowl buzz surrounding the Cowboys last season, the ugly fact remains that Dallas hasn't won a playoff game since 1996, a postseason drought longer than that of the Arizona Cardinals, who last won in the playoffs in 1998.

Phillips drew a lot of heat late last season and after the playoff loss, and deservedly so. He seemed a bit tone deaf when it came to his team and its less-than-rousing head of momentum heading into the playoffs, and he seemed to make excuses for its underachievement afterward, trying to cling to the ridiculous notion that earning a first-round bye equated to winning their first playoff game.

And after listening to him Wednesday, I'm still not sure Phillips gets it. He was back making the same basic points that won him some derision after the loss to the Giants. Asked about the Cowboys having an NFL-high 13 Pro Bowl players last season, but no playoff wins to show for it, Phillips again sounded more defensive than disappointed about last season.

"Well, we did go to the division round of the playoffs,'' Phillips pointed out. "And the team we lost to, I think did well in the playoffs. I think our players, a lot of them played up to their potential, which ended up with them making the Pro Bowl. And our team was good overall, certainly during the regular season.

"But you've got to be there [in the playoffs]. You've got to be there, and if you're there every year, you have a chance. Hopefully we can continue this process. You know, we lost one game by four points [against the Giants] and we were down there at the end of the game a couple times, to a team that certainly won it all. I'm proud of last year's team, but we think we can do better this year.''

They'd better. I've said this before, but if the Cowboys don't win at least one playoff game, and maybe two, Phillips can just about count on having yet another NFL address in 2009. Dallas owner Jerry Jones has been supportive this offseason, but he wouldn't have any choice but to lower the boom on Phillips and begin the Jason Garrett head coaching era if this season brings another one-and-done playoff showing.

• I happen to think the Cowboys will strike a deal for Titans cornerback Pacman Jones any day now, but Phillips sure doesn't seem to be too deeply involved in the workings of the trade. A reporter asked him what his role has been thus far in the talks?

"Not a whole lot,'' he said. "Jerry and Steven [Jones], that's what they do, talk to people. I have my feelings on players certainly, and we talk about those things. I think my opinion's important. But Jerry and Steven do the talking as far as what we're trying to do.''

At least Phillips is an honest man. Truer words have never been spoken than Jerry and Steven do the talking. And if you've ever been around Jones and his son for any length of time, you know exactly what I mean.

• I'm here to tell you that the transformation of Tom Coughlin is nothing short of remarkable. To see the Giants head coach these days is to see a man who now wears the look and sheen of a winner. Last year at this same owners meeting, Coughlin was an embattled presence, seemingly hanging on to his job by his fingernails, but with a large ticking clock hanging over his head at all times.

One Super Bowl miracle season later, even Coughlin's body language and comportment are markedly different. He appears relaxed but energetic, intense but nowhere near overbearing. His very stature has somehow been enlarged by the accomplishment that he and his team achieved, and it's almost as if the weight of world got lifted off his shoulders that night in Arizona. At the very least, his career-long body of solid coaching was validated with the upset of New England.

It's funny, but that's how important winning or losing is to the perception that surrounds someone in this league. All day long, Coughlin still must be receiving congratulations everywhere he goes, and the self-esteem that comes with bathing in that kind of steady adulation must be a powerful elixir that only few ever sample.

• That said, Coughlin and his Giants still have issues to grapple with this offseason, from Osi Umenyiora's potential contract holdout, to Michael Strahan's renewed flirtation with retirement. Coughlin said Wednesday that Strahan has not been given any deadline for making a decision on returning to the team, but he couldn't ward off a little laugh and a wary head shake when asked if he could live with Strahan missing training camp for a second consecutive summer.

"I'll take the fifth on that one,'' Coughlin said, to peals of laughter from us media types.

Addressing both Strahan and Umenyiora's situations in one swoop, Coughlin was philosophical about the potential for trouble that every team faces every offseason.

"As a coach I'm hoping nothing keeps our players [away],'' he said. "We all understand the time of the year. There's a time for these types of things and then there's a time to play. I just hope there's no interference with the preparation and the opportunity to go and be the best player you can be.''

• Could you blame Zorn if he thought somebody in the league office didn't want him to succeed as a rookie head coach? His Redskins drew both the first preseason game of the year -- against the Colts in the Hall of Fame game on Aug. 3 -- and the first regular-season game of the year, at the Giants in the Thursday night opener Sept. 4. Oh, and did we mention that Washington's opponents in those games are the past two Super Bowl champions?

"It wasn't that I thought someone was out to get me, but I was going, 'Oh, my gosh,' " Zorn said of when he first heard his team's scheduling fate. "But then in the next breath I had to say, 'OK. That's the way it is.' You sort of set yourself and go.''

• One longtime NFL head coach who happens to have a background in the West Coast Offense expressed some doubts recently about Washington quarterback Jason Campbell's transition to the version of that offense that Zorn brings to the Redskins. In the longtime coach's words, things could "be ugly'' with Campbell trying to play that style of offense.

Zorn, however, does not share in that trepidation. I asked him about Campbell's suitability to that offense, which prioritizes short- and intermediate-range passes, precision timing between a quarterback and his receivers, and getting rid of the ball quickly in three- and five-step drops.

"Let's say a guy can't move very well,'' Zorn said. "You can manage [in the West Coast], but it's not very dynamic. You'd rather have a guy who can actually move. He's got to be able to move in the pocket. He's got to have feet that can get him out of trouble.

"Jason's got excellent feet. I'm getting him to play -- what is he, like 6-5? -- from just a little bit lower position. So he's in a better position to make a sudden move, and not standing so straight up. It's such a process, but I'm absolutely very confident he can play it.''

• Zorn is 55 and still looks like he could play in this league. He's got a little bit of gee-whiz quality to him, but it's endearing and somewhat refreshing. I asked him about his rather unorthodox route to the Redskins job -- from never having been a coordinator in the NFL, to being named Washington's offensive coordinator, and unexpectedly getting promoted to head coach a few weeks later.

"I didn't look at it like it was [fellow candidate Jim Fassel's] job,'' Zorn said. "I didn't really know whose job it was. I didn't have time to think, 'Boy, I'd sure like that job.' I was off and running being the coordinator. I was having at it. It was news to me that all this was going to happen the way it did.''

Someone then noted that Zorn must have been a great offensive coordinator to get promoted before he had even coached a game. "I was great on my first few days,'' he said, laughing. "I was awesome.''

• Trivia question, NFL fans: When expansion twins Seattle and Tampa Bay faced off about six weeks into their first season in 1976 at Tampa Stadium, who were the two starting quarterbacks in that game, which was billed the Expansion Bowl?

Answer: Zorn for the Seahawks, and a guy named Steve Spurrier for the Bucs. Those are the Redskins two most recent head coaches, skipping over Joe Gibbs' four-year return to the sidelines. By the way, visiting Seattle won that game, its first win in franchise history. The Bucs, of course, went 0-14 that season and were 0-26 before finally ending their historic losing streak.

• Packers head coach Mike McCarthy brought up a great point when I asked him when during the week he was going to miss Brett Favre the most?

"I'd say more on Sundays, because he was a pain in the ass Wednesday through Friday,'' McCarthy quipped. "It's going to be definitely different for a lot of people. You go into the locker room and you have this locker standing there, and we kind of laugh about it like, 'What are you going to do with this thing?' You can't put anybody in it. I don't think so. I mean, would you want that locker? You've got to be kidding me.''

McCarthy said he chatted with Favre on the phone just the other day, and the fact that Favre still hasn't filed his retirement papers with the league came up.

"He made a joke like, 'You guys need that cap room?' '' said McCarthy, whose Packers are flush with cap room, about $32 million worth once Favre retires. "I said, 'I think we're okay.' He said he's got to file those papers, and I said 'Yeah, it's not really for retirement. I don't know what the severance pay is, but hell, after 17 years, I think you'd have a pretty good nugget coming.' ''

• The Saints struggled mightily with the raised bar of expectations last season, starting their schedule 0-4 after being the chic NFC Super Bowl pick in the preseason. New Orleans rallied to 4-4, but its 2007 season was a rollercoaster ride that ended in disappointment at 7-9.

Saints head coach Sean Payton said he's determined to drive home the point that last season was ruined by that stumbling start, sending his players home for the offseason this year with a reminder of where things got away from them in 2007.

"I think the one lesson learned is it's hard to get behind the eight ball or start slow,'' Payton said. "And I don't mean just two losses. When you start 0-4, then you really change the odds for your team. So even though we got to 4-4 and won four games in a row, you feel like you expended so much energy to get to that point. We never could quite get past that .500 mark.''

I probably shouldn't go back out on this particular limb, but I think the Saints have had a quietly strong offseason and are again one of the teams to watch in the NFC. I'm not saying I'm picking them to represent the conference in the Super Bowl, but I might. With Jonathan Vilma, Randall Gay and Dan Morgan added to New Orleans defense, the Saints should be better.

• If there's one underlying theme that was prevalent just beneath the surface here this week regarding the league's coming labor showdown, it's that no one on the owners side of things seems the least bit afraid of the possibility of an uncapped year in 2010. That was not the case two years ago, when the NFL and the players extended their CBA rather than face a season without a salary cap in 2007.

The league's thinking seems to be that uncapped year might be just the tonic needed to rectify a financial picture that is now tilted too heavily toward the players union.

"We've got to get it right for both sides, and it's not right now,'' Patriots owner Robert Kraft told me Wednesday. "We've got miles to go. Miles and miles.''

• Even though the competition committee's proposal to re-seed part of the playoff field was withdrawn Wednesday due to lack of widespread support, don't expect the issue of how to make more late-season games meaningful for both teams to go away. That's because that effort has one very important backer: NFL commissioner Roger Goodell.

The competition committee is going to go back to the drawing board on the matter, and whatever proposal it produces in the future may not involve tinkering with the playoff seeding format. But Goodell wants to see fewer teams tanking fewer games in the years to come, and that means the committee won't rest until they have some idea of how to accomplish that.

• I think we're all tired of waiting on Matt Walsh to clear his throat and speak up, so it was good to hear Goodell on Wednesday say "At some point I will run out of patience,'' in regards to the league and the ex-Patriots video assistant coming to terms on some sort of agreement.

But don't hold your breath that the NFL might eventually find reason to sue Walsh in an effort to get him to share his information. Sue him over what? Seven-year old videotapes purloined from the Patriots? I don't think so.

The more I hear about Walsh's "conditions'' that he keeps trying to build into any potential deal, the more I'm starting to think he really doesn't want to talk after all. His foot-dragging might be the biggest indication that he either doesn't have anything resembling the goods on the Patriots (which is my hunch), or no longer really wants to be the one who spills the beans.

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