As another branch of the Bill Belichick tree looks as though it will be splintered in Kansas City, where Scott Pioli is enduring a 2-10 season, could another be reviving in Cleveland, where it all started?
There have been a lot of rumors around the Browns that NFL Network analyst Michael Lombardi could be the next general manager should new team president Joe Banner and owner Jimmy Haslam decide to make a switch after the season.
According to two NFL sources, there is indeed fire behind that smoke.
Tom Heckert was hired in 2010 by then-president Mike Holmgren to transform the franchise. While it hasn't exactly shown up in wins and losses yet — the Browns are 4-8 after going 5-11 in 2010 and 4-12 in 2011 — Heckert has done a nice job in the last two drafts to get some much-needed building blocks.
Banner, who was with Heckert with the Eagles from 2001-09, also has a connection to Lombardi, who was in personnel with the Eagles from 1997-98.
Heckert might force his way out after the season if Banner assumes many of the personnel controls, especially financial, that he had for most of his run with the Eagles.
What would be the draw of Lombardi, who last worked in personnel from 1999-2007 as senior personnel executive to Raiders owner Al Davis?
For one thing, Lombardi has been associated with winning teams wherever he's been, from Bill Walsh's 49ers, to the Browns (where he helped build the organization into a Super Bowl contender before Art Modell pulled the plug and moved the team to Baltimore), to the Eagles and the Raiders. Lombardi's past weakness has been the cap, but Banner is an expert in that area.
There's also the person Lombardi could deliver as head coach: Alabama's Nick Saban.
According to the NFL sources, Saban has let it be known that if he returns to the NFL — where he flopped, going 15-17 with the Dolphins from 2005-06 — it would likely be with Lombardi playing Pioli to his Belichick.
One of Saban's many missteps in Miami — the first being that he accepted a job he really didn't want — was hiring a general manager in Randy Mueller who did not know the Belichick personnel system. Mueller, who was a good personnel man when running his own ship with the Saints, had to learn Saban's system on the fly, and it never really clicked.
Saban could well be looking for his next/final NFL opportunity if he wins his fourth national championship next month in the BCS title game against Notre Dame. If the Browns (Saban is from northern West Virginia, played for and coached at Kent State, and was a Browns assistant under Belichick) and Lombardi are dangled, he may indeed take the plunge again.
Despite Saban's personality and his issues in Miami, an NFL owner would be a fool not to make a run at him. He's a phenomenal coach if he can figure out the personnel and get the right quarterback. And if you want Saban, you need Lombardi.
If Saban decides to stay in college and Lombardi is still hired by the Browns, the next two names on the list would be Oregon coach Chip Kelly and Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels.
Belichick thinks the world of Kelly and has consulted with him the past two years. McDaniels is a born-and-bred Ohioan.
Kelly and his imaginative offense would certainly bring excitement to Cleveland, but McDaniels probably wouldn't be a crowd pleaser after his 11-17 stint as head coach in Denver, where he ruffled feathers.
Maybe Browns fans should consult with Patriots fans on that one: Do you want a media-friendly coach, or victories?
"I believe McDaniels will one day be a successful head coach," Lombardi wrote for NFL.com two years ago. "I believe this because I know what it takes to be successful in the league. I've never worked with Josh, nor have I spent much time around him. But I have observed him each week, from his game plans to his teams' performance on the field.
"His teams might not have been the most talented, but they were well-coached, well-designed and well-prepared."
One other plus for Lombardi: Despite technically being out of the NFL for five years, it's one of the worst-kept secrets that he has been consulting for Belichick during that time.
"He still puts the game plans together for Bill Belichick," Brian Baldinger, Lombardi's NFL Network colleague, told 92.3 The Fan in Cleveland Friday.
"I see the stuff being used week in, week out. There's no question that Bill uses the advanced scouting Mike delivers to him."
It's arguable how much Lombardi is actually involved with Belichick, who bounces ideas of assorted people outside the building. It's an effort to stave off the type of groupthink that can sometimes consume and paralyze coaching staffs and personnel departments.
So Banner and Haslam have a tough decision to make. They can continue on, with subtle progress being made, or they can go for broke and try to pick up where they left off and the Ravens began.
GIVING IT THE BOOT?
Kickoffs may simply be too dangerous to keep
All signs point to the kickoff being phased out of the NFL sooner rather than later because of health concerns, and commissioner Roger Goodell brought up an interesting possibility during an interview with Time magazine.
Instead of kicking off after a score, the scoring team would get the ball on its own 30-yard line and be given fourth and 15. The element of an onside kick is still present — by going for it or faking it — or the team could simply punt.
The idea came from Buccaneers coach Greg Schiano when he was still at Rutgers, where he watched one of his players, Eric LeGrand, become partially paralyzed while attempting a tackle on a kickoff.
"This is just something that I dreamed up and, as I said to him, I'm not sure all the details are there," said Schiano. "You can find a percentage — I think the percentage of onside kicks are about 15 percent so you want to make sure that whatever that fourth and blank is about 15 percent — that would be the ideal amount of yardage needed so at least you have an onside kick equivalent, percentage-wise.
"But I think you could have a lot of exciting stuff. Open the game with a blocked punt, who knows what could happen? A fake punt?
"I understand traditionalists who don't agree, but there used to not be the forward pass, and the game would be pretty boring without it."
It's true that third or fourth and 15 are converted at roughly the same rate (19 percent, according to Brian Burke of Advanced NFL Stats). But a few things must be addressed. There's about a 10-yard disparity in field position between kickoffs and punts, and the surprise onside equivalent (fake punt) is far less successful.
It seems like a strange idea, but the more you think about it, the proposal makes sense. Kickoffs are by far the most dangerous play in the game; Schiano said 17 percent of catastrophic injuries occur on a play that makes up 6 percent of the game.
OFF AND RUNNING
Eagles rookie Brown explodes onto scene
Once Eagles coach Andy Reid is almost assuredly fired after this season, the new coach is going to have a couple of nice pieces to work with at running back (are you listening, Chip Kelly?).
LeSean McCoy, who will be 25 next season, rushed for 1,309 yards and scored 20 touchdowns on his way to being named All-Pro in 2011. He has been dealing with a concussion this year, and his absence has allowed rookie Bryce Brown the chance to explode for 347 rushing yards and four touchdowns in the last two games for the downtrodden Eagles.
Brown's emergence from 229th overall pick in April (seventh round) has an Arian Foster-like feel to it. The Texans' star running back went undrafted in 2009 out of Tennessee before becoming a two-time All-Pro.
After starring against the Panthers and Cowboys (both in the lower half of the league in rush defense), Brown gets to measure himself against the top-ranked Bucs (82.3 yards per game).
"Very explosive runner," said Tampa Bay coach Greg Schiano. "He's big, he gets it and goes zero to 60 like that. Has good vision, but he can bounce things and has the speed that's unusual for a guy his size."
Brown was the nation's top back coming out of Wichita East High School and, like Foster, ended up at Tennessee, where he was recruited by then-coach Lane Kiffin, who left for USC after Brown's first season. Brown transferred to Kansas State, sat out 2010, then played in just one more college game before entering the draft.
As with Foster, who showed an attitude problem his final year in college, most scouts thought Brown was trouble and stayed away. Not the Eagles.
''I had a chance to talk to Lane Kiffin, who coached him, and he was positive about him,'' said Reid. "[GM] Howie Roseman had done a ton of work on him, just background work, and then worked him out and so on and felt very comfortable."
There could be a slot for Harvin with N.E.
An interesting name to keep an eye on this offseason — perhaps for the Patriots — will be Vikings receiver Percy Harvin, who curiously was placed on injured reserve last week with a sprained ankle. While coach Leslie Frazier said the move was based purely on injury, Harvin's diva act has been consistent in Minnesota. The latest incident was a sideline screaming match with Frazier in his final game this season, Nov. 4. Now the Vikings have a big decision to make. Harvin will be entering the final year of his contract in 2013. Do they extend a player who has had constant injury and attitude issues before the season? Do they make him play out his deal and then franchise him in 2014? Or do they try to get something for Harvin now? What is known is that Harvin, 24, was in the MVP discussion in the early part of the season. He had 62 catches for 677 yards in nine game and is second in the league in yards after the catch to, you guessed it, Wes Welker, who at 31 is playing under the franchise tag for the Patriots. Bill Belichick hasn't been shy about diva receivers in the past, and could be in the market for a younger slot receiver to replace Welker. Maybe the Vikings might be a player for Welker. General manager Rick Spielman plucked him from the Chargers as Dolphins general manager in 2004.
1. Kevin Acee of the San Diego Union-Tribune reports that Chargers GM A.J. Smith will be replaced by personnel director Jimmy Raye III after the season, and coach Norv Turner will also be gone. Tough to gauge who might be the next coach — Raye has only been with the Chargers — though there are a lot of rumblings about Andy Reid. Would think Stanford coach and San Diego native David Shaw would be in the mix.
2. Dolphins defensive tackle Tony McDaniel told the Palm Beach Post it was "disrespectful" of the Patriots to run similar running plays over and over on the 16-play drive that finished off Miami last Sunday. Well, A. they weren't the same play, and B. how bad can you be to not stop them if they were?
3. "Monday Night Football" analyst Jon Gruden won't be part of the pregame production meetings with players and coaches — he'll be in Tampa for the reunion of the Super Bowl XXXVII championship team. So it will be interesting to see if Gruden's in-game analysis lacks a little punch. Will this increase or decrease the "that guy" count?
4. One of the amazing things about the Patriots the past few seasons — since Welker's knee injury in the 2009 regular-season finale — is how most of the injuries to key players happen with enough time to get them right for the postseason. Aaron Hernandez, Jerod Mayo, and Brandon Spikes all were humming in December after MCL injuries last year. Now Hernandez, Chandler Jones, Logan Mankins, Patrick Chung, and Rob Gronkowski (who was beat up before his broken forearm) figure to be good for the playoffs, especially if the Patriots get a bye. It would seem to be dumb luck, but the Patriots do a nice job bringing their guys back later in the season.
5. There are 8.25 million reasons the Jets kept Mark Sanchez as the starter, i.e. his guaranteed 2013 salary. Imagine if Seahawks coach Pete Carroll allowed Matt Flynn's big contract to dictate the competition with Russell Wilson.
View from the outside
Aaron Schatz, the creator of Boston-based FootballOutsiders.com, passed along some interesting stats heading into Texans-Patriots. FO has a stat called defeats (turnovers, tackles for loss, and any play that prevents a conversion on third or fourth down), and Texans defensive end J.J. Watt leads the league with 41 defeats, which is eight more than Broncos outside linebacker Von Miller through Week 13. With four games left, Watt has the third-highest defeats total going back to 1997, the first year they have data. The only guys higher were Ray Lewis (45) and Derrick Brooks (42) in 1999. Watt has already broken FO's record for most defeats by a defensive lineman, set by Robert Porcher with 37 in 1997. Mayo and Spikes are tied for the Patriots' lead with 18 defeats. Rob Ninkovich has 17, Devin McCourty 15. No one else on the Texans has more than 14, which reinforces the game-plan point of containing Watt.
The injuries continue to pile up on the Bills. Now center Eric Wood and tackle Chris Hairston will miss the Rams game, meaning Sam Young and David Snow will have to make their first career starts against a team that is fourth in the league with 34 sacks . . . Patriots defensive tackle Kyle Love will host a casino night/date auction Dec. 17 at District in Boston to benefit the Home for Little Wanderers, which provides programs and services for child and family development in the Boston area. For more information: allin4love-bcc.eventbrite.com . . . Boston Freedom Fighters, a local entry in the new National Spring Football League that aims to serve as a professional minor league, will hold a combine at 8:30 a.m. Dec. 15 at MacDonald Stadium in Malden. Former Patriots running back Patrick Pass will be the head coach, and the coaching staff includes former Patriots Jermaine Wiggins, Vernon Crawford, and Max Lane. For more information, visit bostonfreedomfighters.com.
Greg A. Bedard can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @gregabedard. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.