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Direct Snap: More misdirection from Nick Saban as rumors of return to NFL swirl?

Jason Cole
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This is how the world turns with Nick Saban.

On Tuesday, a longtime source was insistent that rumors about Saban leaving Alabama to return to the NFL are off-base.

“That’s not happening,” the source said, emphatically.

As I posted on Twitter, take the adamant denial for what it’s worth, particularly when another source I spoke with on Thursday claimed that Saban has already begun interviewing potential assistants he would take to the Cleveland Browns with him. The source laid out the timing of how current Browns coach Pat Shurmur will be fired after the season, one or two candidates will be interviewed (complete with the name of a minority candidate) and that Saban will be hired on Jan. 8, the day after Alabama’s BCS title game tilt vs. Notre Dame.

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Nick Saban celebrates after Alabama's 32-28 win in the Southeastern Conference championship. (AP)

That bit of information advances an earlier report by Boston Globe ace NFL writer Greg Bedard about Saban wanting to return to the NFL and that Saban would work with current NFL Network analyst Michael Lombardi. Lombardi is a former personnel man with several teams, including Cleveland, Oakland and Denver.

So exactly what should anyone believe about Saban?

Sadly, everything and nothing.

Anyone who knows the 61-year-old Saban understands his anxious side. He is not a man who puts down roots. He’s a man who pulls them up and then heads for the next job. He has told his own players (as he did at Michigan State) that he was staying one day, then left for LSU the next.

Until he got to Alabama, he had not been at a place longer than five years. He’s in his sixth season with Alabama, and as much as you’d think he could coach the Crimson Tide for the remainder of his career, that’s not his style.

Saban likes challenges. He has succeeded in turning around programs, winning national titles at LSU and Alabama.

Another telling trait is that Saban likes to live in denial just as he’s about to go from one place to another. There was the move from Michigan State to LSU. When he left the Miami Dolphins for Alabama, he lied time after time about how he wouldn’t be the Crimson Tide’s next coach.

Then there was Saban’s interview with Miami radio host Dan Le Batard on Monday in which Saban talked about leaving the Dolphins. Saban, not surprisingly, downplayed the idea of leaving Alabama.

“I really enjoy what I'm doing here right now,” said Saban, who went 15-17 in two seasons with the Dolphins. “I'm getting old now. I don't think we've got too many moves left in us. You develop a lot of relationships and loyalties to the players you recruit and the players you have on the team and the people you have in the organization. I don't think it's really fair to leave. I regretted when I left LSU, because I left a lot of relationships there. Hopefully I'll be able to stay here for a long, long time."

OK. But when Saban was asked later on about the regrettable decision to trade for Daunte Culpepper rather than sign Drew Brees in 2006, Saban was misleading.

[More: The 10 most ridiculous college football bowl game names]

“We think Drew Brees was an outstanding player. That's the guy we made the first offer to,” said Saban, who’s trying to win his third national title in four seasons. “Quite frankly, he didn't pass the physical with our organization so we had to go in a different direction, and there was really nothing any of us could do about that.”

The Dolphins never made Brees an offer, a source said then and reiterated recently. If they had, he probably would have taken it because he badly wanted to be with the Dolphins.

The question, of course, is why would Saban not be forthcoming about that detail? Was it to deflect criticism from him to the doctors about Brees? Was it to clear his reputation as he prepares to return to the NFL?

With Saban, it’s hard to know because it’s hard to know the truth from fiction.

DEBATING FOURTH DOWNS

In the aftermath of my disagreement with Bill Belichick’s decision to go for it on fourth-and-1 from New England’s own 12-yard with 2:24 remaining in Sunday night’s loss to San Francisco, I was deluged with the usual number of people who study the statistical side of football. In various ways and to varying degrees, people said I was idiot and that I probably was one of those anti-stat Neanderthals who ripped Belichick in 2009 when he went on fourth-and-2 against Indianapolis.

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Bill Belichick reacts to an official's call in the second quarter of Sunday night's loss to the 49ers. (Getty  …

Actually, I agreed with Belichick back in 2009. Whole-heartedly. In fact, I wrote a column defending Belichick for his bold decision way back then, even as people like Tony Dungy were ripping him. I still agree with the move he made then.

However, I hate the more recent move.

I’ll resist the urge to fire back at my detractors. Instead, I will simply say that not all fourth-down situations are equal. In the case of what Belichick did on Sunday, failure essentially meant certain doom given all the factors involved (field position, score, timeouts, time remaining and how the 49ers had been playing over the previous five possessions). The fact is that failing from your own 12 when you’re down seven points means giving away at least a field goal for a two-score deficit.

Let me take this a step further. If New England was at its own 40, I would have had zero issue with the decision because the Patriots wouldn’t necessarily have given up a field goal automatically.

In other words, my diatribe wasn’t a criticism of going for it on fourth down. It was a criticism of going for it on fourth down in that situation. There is a very important difference.

TOP FIVE

1. San Francisco 49ers (10-3-1) – From rain of New England to rain of Seattle, QB Colin Kaepernick’s reign gets tested.
2. Green Bay Packers (10-4) – Any slip by the 49ers, and Green Bay can get the No. 2 seed, which could be critical in second round.
3. Atlanta Falcons (12-2) – Impressive win over Big Blue, but I’m still not sure Falcons won’t leave fans feeling blue.
4. New England Patriots (10-4) – Pass defense is better than earlier in season, but still not good enough for playoffs.
5. Denver Broncos (11-3) – Despite losing to Texans early, Broncos have improved. Houston? Not so much.

BOTTOM FIVE

28. Buffalo Bills (5-9) – I’ll say it again: Dave Wannstedt is an awful defensive coordinator. Bills need to make change.
29. Detroit Lions (4-10) – You guys got smoked by Arizona? Seriously, Arizona? Good lord, things are bad in Motown.
30. Oakland Raiders (4-10) – Three of four wins are against Jacksonville and Kansas City. Not exactly a foundation for success.
31. Jacksonville Jaguars (2-12) – Only team with fewer points than the Jaguars? You won’t have to read far for answer.
32. Kansas City Chiefs (2-12) – Rumored demise of Scott Pioli and Romeo Crennel was premature. But not wrong.

THIS AND THAT

The sad reality of Baltimore Raven Joe Flacco is not that he’s a wretched quarterback, it’s that he’s a perfectly mediocre quarterback despite having pretty strong ability. If you look at Flacco’s career numbers, everything he has done this season is completely in line with what he has done over the course of his five-year career. He has a rating of 86.2 this season; it's 86.0 for his career. He has a completion percentage of 59.1 for the season; it's 60.4 for his career. He has 20 touchdown passes to 10 interceptions this season; his career numbers are 100-56. In short, Flacco hasn’t gotten any better this season, and that’s really troubling. The Ravens have done a good job of putting more weapons around him and running back Ray Rice; wide receivers Anquan Boldin and Torrey Smith, and tight end Dennis Pitta have been added over the past three years. While Rice is a star, Flacco is muddling along. What that likely means is that the Ravens will have to franchise Flacco at the end of the season and then wait another year before giving him a contract extension. Either that or Flacco is going to have to take a cap-friendly deal that the Ravens can get out of in a year or two.

[More: Former NFL QB Jon Kitna finds 'gold mine' in class of misfits]

To all those Minnesota Vikings fans who think I somehow slighted running back Adrian Peterson last week by saying Frank Gore and Marshawn Lynch are tougher runners, please get over it. It’s not like I’m saying Peterson isn’t tough. That would be absurd. Frankly, Peterson is a once-in-a-generation talent, a performer who defines his position the way Walter Payton, Eric Dickerson and Barry Sanders did when they played. In fact, Peterson is such a freak of nature that he’s like a cross between Dickerson and Sanders between his ability to cut, change direction and get to top speed. He’s on a path to the Hall of Fame and, depending on how the final two games go, perhaps the playoffs and league MVP honors this season.

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