Saban still influencing the pro game

What do Oakland Raiders quarterback JaMarcus Russell(notes), Cincinnati Bengals left tackle Andre Smith(notes), Tampa Bay Buccaneers wide receiver Michael Clayton(notes) and Kansas City Chiefs wide receiver Dwayne Bowe(notes) have in common?

Beyond the simple answer that they're all former first-round picks who played college ball in the Southeastern Conference, all of them owe their riches in part to Alabama coach Nick Saban. Saban, who returned to the college game after a quick stint with the Miami Dolphins from 2005-06, coached all of them at either LSU or with the Crimson Tide and helped keep them on track during their college careers. At least that's the opinion of people around the NFL who have watched all four of those players struggle in the NFL in some way.

Russell is the poster child for this group as he limps along through a brutal season with the Raiders, calling into question whether he'll ever realize the vast potential that made him the No. 1 overall pick in the 2007 NFL draft.

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Smith broke his foot two days after joining the Bengals.

(Frank Victores/US Presswire)

Smith has yet to play because of a broken left foot. He was out of shape – reported to the team weighing in at 356 pounds, according to a source within the organization – when he joined the Bengals after holding out during training camp. That was after a bad showing at the scouting combine in Indianapolis helped cause him to drop from potentially the No. 2 pick to sixth overall.

As for Clayton and Bowe, each has butted heads with management during their time in the league, although Bowe seems to still be on track for very good career.

"All of those guys owe what they have to Saban," a league source said. "Nobody in the college game is better at keeping his thumb on the neck of … guys than Saban. He's amazing at it. He gets those guys to play hard, buy in and for long enough that the league doesn't see the problems."

Atlanta Falcons quarterback John Parker Wilson(notes) played two seasons under Saban at Alabama, where he watched Smith become recognized as one of the best offensive linemen in the country before Smith was suspended for the Sugar Bowl and subsequently hurt himself in the draft.

"You have the peer review committee on the team," Wilson said, referring to a group of players who help determine punishments for players who break team or school rules. "A big key in it is that he has guys from every class, seniors all the way down to freshmen, on the committee, so it's really a situation where everybody is connected and it's not just the older guys against the younger guys. It really is a situation where you have to answer to your peers, regardless of what class you're in."

The other useful part about the committee is that Saban gets a constant feed of information about what players are doing away from the field, Wilson said.

"It's not a tattle-tale thing. It's more of him keeping up with what everybody is doing. … Everybody. He knows everything that's going on with every player on the team. He's completely on top of it."

To Wilson, that was a big reason why Smith didn't stray off course before the end of his career at Alabama.

"Coach Saban is on top of everybody and everything," Wilson said. "Nobody steps out of line."

QUICK SLANTS
QUICK SLANTS

More on Saban: Falcons wide receiver Marty Booker(notes), who had one of his better seasons under Saban in Miami, still marvels at his former coach's ability to develop relationships on the field without any attachment off it.

"He was great to play for, you wanted to play for him," Booker said, alternately smiling, chuckling and throwing his hands up in mild dismay. "But it was really strange. On the practice field, he was fiery and fun, you could relate to him. But off the field, nothing. You'd walk by him in the hall and he'd barely even say anything.

"He's a smart coach and you knew he was going to put you in the best position out there, but it was never personal. Absolutely nothing personal. You'd laugh with him at practice, but you couldn't even think about like going out for dinner or a beer with him."

Atlanta offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey, who has overseen the development of Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan(notes) and worked for a year under Saban in Miami, said Saban has an ability to quickly pick out the leaders of any team and get those guys on his side.

"He recognizes who those guys are and manipulates them very well," said Mularkey, who had a very negative experience with Saban. "He's very good at it. If he hadn't been, I think that team would have turned on him really fast."

Stupid play of the week: OK, San Francisco 49ers cornerback Dre' Bly(notes) is the runaway winner and everybody knows that by now. However, the fact that the 49ers burned all their timeouts in the first half (including one on a complete bungled situation) and weren't allowed to challenge a critical fumble on a kickoff return by Delanie Walker(notes) was silly as well.

While Denver coach Josh McDaniels deserves a lot of credit for sticking to his principles this offseason, he had some questionable calls vs. the New England Patriots on Sunday. First, he used his second challenge in the first half to overrule a 3-yard gain, putting the Patriots in third-and-10 rather than third-and-7. Wasting a challenge for something that minute isn't wise. Then, on the play before the game-winning field goal in overtime, McDaniels called for a deep throw to wide receiver Brandon Marshall(notes) against veteran cornerback Shawn Springs(notes). Springs had great position for an interception before Marshall knocked the ball away to allow for the field goal attempt. However, it was way too risky a play.

Top five
1. New York Giants:
Playing Oakland is like having a second bye.
2. New Orleans Saints: Showdown with the Giants will be sweet.
3. Indianapolis Colts: Is there a WR on Tennessee who could make the Colts roster?
4. Minnesota Vikings: Jared Allen(notes) is in the early leader for defensive player of the year.
5. Denver Broncos: Great start, but if they lose a DB, they could be in trouble.

Bottom five
28. Buffalo Bills:
How Dick Jauron still has a job is beyond me.
29. Oakland Raiders: It's said when the coach allegedly hits harder than the players.
30. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: The Bucs are playing hard, just not playing well.
31. St. Louis Rams: Sadly, Missouri is the state of football shame right now.
32. Kansas City Chiefs: They should have gone for two on the last TD of regulation.

This and that

Last word on the Michael Crabtree(notes) contract: Those who say that Crabtree didn't get a penny more for holding out are dead wrong, particularly if Crabtree is as good as advertised. First, Crabtree got an $8 million increase in the five-year value of the contract (the 49ers offered $20 million originally and Crabtree got $28 million). Second, if Crabtree can void the final year of the deal (which won't be easy), he'll be a free agent and will make a truckload. That said, giving up the sixth year of the deal for only $4 million could potentially hurt a lot.

Oh the irony. Only five games after giving up a first-round pick to New England for defensive tackle Richard Seymour(notes), the Raiders are toying with the idea of trading Seymour again, even if they don't get as much in return, according to a source with the organization. All of this begs the now-eternal question: When will Al Davis realize he can't do it anymore and give up control of the football operations? I know, I know, never. But I have to ask.

Give Detroit Lions quarterback Daunte Culpepper(notes) a lot of credit for shedding almost 40 pounds this offseason in an effort to compete for the starting job. Sadly, Culpepper still hasn't regained much of the quickness that once made him a great running threat. The knee injury he suffered in 2005 robbed him of that explosiveness.

New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees(notes) is not only off to a strong start on the field, he helped the Saints off the field by renegotiating his contract recently to free $4 million in salary-cap space, according to figures from the NFL Players Association. The move was more of a paper-pushing exercise, but still was of immediate aid to the Saints in dealing with the cap. Brees reduced his base salary to $4.8 million from $9.8 million. The $5 million was paid to him in a signing bonus and Brees added two years to the contract for the sake of salary-cap proration. The two years void easily in the deal, meaning that Brees can still be a free agent after the 2010 season.

The best line of the past Sunday came from the one and only Mrs. Cole. After Oakland scored its lone touchdown in a 44-7 beatdown it suffered against the New York Giants, she asked rhetorically, "They can do that?"

Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Miles Austin(notes) had the game of his career Sunday with 250 yards and two touchdowns. However, the dazzling scores and overall numbers overshadowed a potential short touchdown pass he dropped from quarterback Tony Romo(notes) in the first half.

Speaking of Romo, he had a legitimate complaint Sunday when a Kansas City defender hit him with a helmet-to-helmet shot. The hit wasn't overwhelmingly hard, but it came in front of referee Ron Winter, the same guy who called the phantom roughing call the week before in the New England-Baltimore game.

Speaking of bad calls, the NFL has some explaining to do on the taunting call against New England safety Brandon Meriweather(notes) that helped set up the game-tying touchdown for Denver in the fourth quarter. The flag came out before any hint of taunting and Meriweather's actions were borderline, at best.