SAN DIEGO – There were meetings. Then came a few forums and leadership conferences. They even had some heart-to-heart talks.
About the only thing the San Diego Chargers' defense didn't do after last season's 4-12 disaster was call together a Congressional subcommittee.
"We ran out of time," nose tackle Jamal Williams chuckled earlier this season.
It seems so long ago that these Chargers were trudging through the 2003 schedule with long, empty looks and wondering what failure would come next. It was the kind of season that gets your defensive coordinator fired – which is really where this season's story begins.
It took Marty Schottenheimer only a few milliseconds to fire defensive coordinator Dale Lindsey and replace him with Wade Phillips. And it took Phillips even less time to spell out what he had in mind for San Diego's defense.
Phillips rounded up the players land spelled out his record as a coordinator. As is his custom, when Phillips joins a new team, it goes to the playoffs a few months later.
"I remember he said that," linebacker Donnie Edwards recalled. "He said, OK, no pressure, but I expect to make the playoffs.' He's right. Something on his resume speaks for itself."
That "something" is the 3-4 defense, which should be on the verge of becoming all the rage after this season. Consider the results: Six teams in the NFL primarily use the 3-4 scheme – three defensive linemen, backed by four linebackers. Five of those six put up brick walls against the run, specifically the Steelers (first in the NFL in rush defense), Chargers (third), Jets (fifth), Patriots (sixth) and Ravens (ninth).
Schottenheimer and Phillips decided to junk last season's front and go with something that would give San Diego a certain stiffness it lacked. In turn, the free-agent acquisitions of linebackers Steve Foley and Randall Godfrey added an injection of attitude that had been absent.
"You have to have bite [to play the 3-4]," Foley said earlier this season. "These guys, we bite."
The Chargers are devouring opposing rushing games, which are grinding out less than 82 yards a game. That success has put more pressure on a pass defense that ranks 31st in the NFL at 253.3 yards per game – a number that is a bit overblown due to several passing shootouts the Chargers engaged in this season.
The 3-4 look also emphasized Williams, the 350-pound nose tackle who has become one of the NFL's best at bogging down blockers at the line of scrimmage and keeping them off his linebackers. As a result, Edwards has enjoyed one of the best seasons of his career, leading the Chargers in tackles and tying a career high with five interceptions.
While it took some time for players to get acquainted with the new style – Schottenheimer projected a minimum of eight weeks – equilibrium was reached at the perfect time.
"They are playing more sound," said New York Jets coach Herman Edwards, who is expecting to face a far more seamless unit Saturday than he did in Week 2 when the Jets beat San Diego 34-28.
"They are playing more together, and that's what you have to do on defense. You have to collectively play together, because obviously, to be that good against the run, you have to play very, very well and they have done a good job of that."
- Among owners who have done little to soothe the internal workings of their teams this season, Red McCombs has to rate near the top of the list. There have been constant rumors – punctuated by his feet-dragging on Mike Tice's contract option in 2005 – about McCombs looking to dump the Minnesota Vikings.
But the biggest indictment has to be McCombs' pooh-poohing of Randy Moss's little fit in Minnesota's season finale – when the wide receiver left the field before the game was over. Asked what he thought about the snit, McCombs told the Minneapolis Star Tribune that he wasn't concerned "at all." That's an interesting departure from some of McComb's other players, like center Matt Birk, who cussed Moss out over the incident.
- There shouldn't be any surprise that Jim Bates won't be back next season as defensive coordinator of the Miami Dolphins, despite clearly being a favorite of the players.
While Bates had the admiration of owner Wayne Huizenga for a 3-3 finish in the wake of Dave Wannstedt's mess, new head coach Nick Saban wasn't about to divide the locker room by retaining favorites from the past regime – especially after players pushed for Bates to get the head coaching job prior to Saban taking it.
- Get ready for one of the richest offseasons at the running back position in a long time.
As expected, Travis Henry wants out of Buffalo and has added himself to a lucrative collection of commodities on the trading block. Minnesota is also expected to shop Michael Bennett, and the Kansas City Chiefs will be listening to offers for Larry Johnson. Cleveland's William Green and the Jets' LaMont Jordan will be available, as will the free-agent duo of Cincinnati's Rudi Johnson (who could be tagged as the Bengals' franchise player) and Seattle's Shaun Alexander.
Don't expect Indianapolis' Edgerrin James to hit the market, though. He will be franchised if the Colts can't work out a new deal. Aside from the Dolphins, the Arizona Cardinals would like to dive into this group and come up with a new starter.
- It will be interesting to see how prospective free agents view the New York Giants this offseason, but don't put stock into speculation the team will have trouble getting visits.
No matter what the feeling is about coach Tom Coughlin, the Giants offer good money and great leverage in the free-agent market just like anyone else. And the team isn't wasting any time with damage control, getting the message out that the season collapse had more to do with the 17 players placed on injured reserve than player apathy with Coughlin.
- While we're on the subject of apathy, it sounds like Koren Robinson's future in Seattle may be tied to coach Mike Holmgren.
A league source said Holmgren has lost faith in Robinson's commitment to football and would like to move the wide receiver this offseason – but only if he can get something via trade, rather than releasing the former first-round pick. If Holmgren leaves or is fired after the playoffs, Robinson could earn a reprieve from a new staff.
- So much for the Tennessee Titans being the bounce-back team of 2005. Right now, everybody in Tennessee is waiting to hear from quarterback Steve McNair, and the team has drastically different offseason plans based on whether McNair decides to come back next season.
Though there has been some disagreement on the exact figures, the Titans could be anywhere from $12 million to $19 million over the 2005 salary cap. Also, rumors persist that coach Jeff Fisher is interested in bolting to Cleveland.
If McNair retires, word is there will be wholesale changes. If McNair stays, the Titans will attempt to rework the contracts of a few core pieces and wager everything on 2005. No matter what, this current Titans team isn't going to be together for long.
- A few early whispers on offseason additions: Washington will seriously consider drafting Michigan's Braylon Edwards or USC's Mike Williams if either is available at the No. 9 pick in the draft. … The No. 1 free-agent priority for the Jacksonville Jaguars will be Jets defensive end John Abraham. … With so many running backs in free agency and on the trading block, the Dolphins are focusing on the offensive line in the first round of the draft, hoping to land a running back with a later pick.
UPON FURTHER REVIEW
Someone who cares about Maurice Clarett seriously needs to find out where he is getting his advice. The former Ohio State running back has done nothing but damage himself since parting ways with the school, the latest round coming this week when he petitioned to have the U.S. Supreme Court hear his case against the NFL's age restrictions.
The court has refused once and is expected to do so again. Now that he's eligible for the 2005 draft, Clarett has nothing to gain from the latest challenge, but he continues to butt heads with the league – a decision that led one NFC executive to observe as "spiteful and stupid."
For someone who already offers a dossier rich in scandal and burned bridges, this latest move by Clarett isn't going to help.