Sunday football notes

Colts begin new era with Grigson as GM

By Greg A. Bedard
Globe Staff / January 22, 2012
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You might have to pinch Patriots fans. Everything seems to be coming up roses for them.

Not only is the team in the AFC Championship game for the sixth time in the last 11 seasons under Bill Belichick, but the longtime rival Colts are undergoing some major renovations.

Franchise quarterback Peyton Manning is still recovering from neck surgery, and even if he does regain his health, it’s not certain that Tom Brady’s chief on-field adversary will ever wear a blue horseshoe on his helmet again.

The Colts hold the first pick in the draft and will likely select Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck. Using approximately $51 million of the salary cap - what Manning is owed plus Luck’s future contract - at one position doesn’t seem plausible.

And after 14 years, the man whose first move was to draft Manning in 1998, Bill Polian, was let go as vice chairman of the Colts following a 2-14 season.

If Manning and Polian go out together, they leave behind 141 regular-season wins, 11 playoff appearances, six division titles, two AFC championships, and one Super Bowl title.

So, yeah, Patriots fans are probably breathing easy. Their de facto fourth division rival - the teams will play for a 13th time since 2003 next season - is in the process of a major changing of the guard.

But Colts owner Jim Irsay thinks he tapped the right man to carry on the winning tradition when he named former Eagles director of pro personnel Ryan Grigson as general manager.

Grigson’s former boss, Eagles general manager Howie Roseman, thinks so as well.

“What I’d say is this guy has the first pick in the draft in which it’s pretty clear that there’s some special talent at the top of this draft,’’ Roseman said, “and I would never underestimate him or the Colts organization.’’

Grigson, who will turn 40 next month when Indianapolis hosts the scouting combine, has definitely worked his way up through the ranks.

A native of Highland, Ind., Grigson played tight end and offensive tackle at Purdue from 1991-94 and was a captain as a senior. A sixth-round draft choice of the Bengals in 1995, Grigson played with the Lions and in the CFL before retiring because of a back injury.

He then started his career in personnel and coaching, before being hired by the Rams (1999-2002) as a scout; one of his areas was the Northeast, and he still lives in Portsmouth, R.I. He moved to the Eagles in 2003 and served as director of college scouting from 2006-09 before moving into his last position with Philadelphia.

“He’s a tireless evaluator and he’s a very talented evaluator,’’ Roseman said. “He’ll have the college draft shaped up and ready to go; he’ll do a great job with that. And he’s got a feel for the league. He had increased his responsibility in pro scouting, and the areas that he’s not going to be the point man on, he’ll try to hire good people.’’

It’s interesting that the Colts hired Grigson considering that most of his career has been spent in college scouting.

“The thing about Ryan that we shouldn’t discount is he puts his time and effort into the other areas,’’ Roseman said. “He’s a really smart guy; he’s going to be able to figure them out. Just because he spends a majority of his time doing college scouting doesn’t mean that he’s incapable of doing those other parts and contributing in a meaningful way.’’

It probably didn’t take Grigson long to make a big impression on Irsay.

“Ryan has unbelievable passion and you feel it when you talk to him - his passion for the game, his passion for building football teams, and it’s palpable,’’ Roseman said. “Unbelievable integrity, loyalty. This guy is somebody you know always has your back, and when he gives constructive criticism, it’s all in the effort to make the team better, make the scouting process better.

“And then he does have a lot of leadership skills. He was a captain at Purdue and he did a great job leading our college scouts, and he’s got a presence about him. I think you see that right from the moment you meet him.’’

Roseman had previously said that Grigson was “one of the unsung talent evaluators’’ in the NFL. And that’s the way Grigson liked it.

“Ryan was never in it to get the next job,’’ Roseman said. “Ryan was never coming to me saying, ‘I need more publicity. I just want to be a GM as quick as possible.’ It was always about the team.

“So when you have someone like that and somebody who’s not putting themselves out there to get all the credit and just doing their job, they become unsung.’’

Grigson was known not only for identifying the talent at the top of the draft - where the Eagles have taken receivers Jeremy Maclin and DeSean Jackson, and running back LeSean McCoy - but also in later rounds, where they found safety Kurt Coleman in the seventh and tight end Brent Celek in the fifth.

Grigson and his wife, Cynthia, have five children, and they make it work despite his very demanding job.

“This goes back to the loyalty part,’’ Roseman said. “This is a family man. Before I say anything about Ryan in terms of his skill set in football, I tell you this is a good man. Raising children is an important thing, giving them values is an important thing. He’s got a first pick in the draft, as do I, in terms of his wife.’’

With that base, Grigson hit the ground running as Colts general manager, right after he called Roseman to tell him the good news.

“Oh man, he was excited,’’ Roseman said. “All the passion, all the excitement about the opportunity and working for Mr. Irsay and a franchise like the Colts . . . I mean, he couldn’t wait to get going.

“And that’s really where his mind went to. It wasn’t celebrating the job, it was, ‘We have a lot of work to do. I’m ready to get going and I’m excited about it.’ ’’

Jackson back in a big way

D’Qwell Jackson didn’t get a lot of national attention thanks to the Browns’ 4-12 record, but there may not have been a more inspiring story this season than the return of the Cleveland middle linebacker.

After missing 26 games with torn pectoral muscles the past two seasons, Jackson hardly missed a snap, let alone a game, and finished second in the NFL with 158 total tackles, led the league with 115 solo, and added 3.5 sacks and an interception.

Jackson is the favorite to be named NFL Comeback Player of the Year.

“I’m not big on personal accolades, but that definitely would make a statement,’’ Jackson said. “Not only myself, but to other guys that are going through injuries. No matter what you go through, if you keep pushing, keep striving . . . and you know, it would mean a lot. It would definitely mean a lot.’’

Jackson, a second-round pick out of Maryland in 2006, was nearly an immediate starter, and averaged 116 tackles his first three seasons before tearing a pectoral muscle six games into the 2009 season. He tore the other one in training camp the next year.

“It was a tough road, man,’’ he said. “I’ve had a tough three years where you’re a kid, you come into the league, you have success early, and then you go through a lot of adversity from your personal life - me being divorced - to the back-to-back season-ending injuries.

“I had a lot to grow up from and a lot to mature from. I just made up my mind that I had two ways to look at it. Either make the best out of it, or sit back and let it affect me. That wasn’t a possibility in my mind.

“So it was basically just taking it one day at a time and being very patient. That’s one thing I learned from being out is to be very patient. It made you realize what’s important and what wasn’t as far as my dedication to my craft.’’

Unsure whether anyone would sign him because of his injuries, Jackson was re-signed to a one-year contract prior to the 2011 season.

Now he would be one of the top unrestricted free agents if the Browns don’t offer him a longterm contract or place the franchise tag on him.

“I want to be in Cleveland,’’ he said. “Yeah, I want to be in a new deal. I feel like I’ve proven to myself and the rest of my teammates that I can still play. If it’s the franchise tag, it’s the franchise tag. As long as I still have my health, that’s what is most important.’’

Jackson thinks the Browns will make some moves to shore up the team’s weaknesses on offense.

“I thought our defense played extremely well this year,’’ he said. “Offense, it’s no secret we’re missing some pieces here and there that we’re going to address either in the draft or free agency.

“But I thought for the most part we were in a lot of our games that we lost. That’s the upside that keeps you hungry and keeps you wanting to come back. You look at the amazing season the 49ers are having. There’s no reason why we can’t be that team next year.’’

This rival picks . . . the Ravens

As a divisional rival of the Patriots’ opponent today, the Ravens, Browns linebacker D’Qwell Jackson has insight on defending Baltimore:

“First off, you have to be able to identify their weapons on the field. With the acquisition of Torrey Smith this year, they acquired a deep threat, which he gives them.

“You’ve got Anquan Boldin as a possession-type receiver, typically your third-down guy, and their offensive line is above-average, and along with Ray Rice - he’s as good as anybody, handing the ball off to him or throwing it to him out of the backfield - I mean, you’ve got your hands full.

“But basically you have to be able to stop the run - stop what they do best, and that’s running the ball. I think Ray is the centerpiece of that offense. I’ve watched a lot of film and a lot of teams tried to stop Ray, but if he gets his touches, he makes that offense go.’’

On quarterback Joe Flacco: “Flacco throws probably, in my opinion, the best deep ball in the game. He will never underthrow a guy that’s going deep. As a defense, wherever your safety is, you always have to play extremely deep because he can throw it over your head.

“Rice poses another threat. The last game we played them, he got out on me. It was a play out of the backfield where Flacco, perfectly thrown ball, he scores like a 70-yard touchdown from the backfield, so as a linebacker, he has more speed than you, so you always have to either chip him or know where he is on the field.’’

On the Ravens’ passing game: “It’s not a complicated scheme at all. They just depend on their guys just outmanning you, going up and making a play. If you say you were able to take away Ray Rice and the ball falls into Flacco’s hand, he’s been consistent at times, and very inconsistent at times. So you don’t know which Flacco you’re going to get.

“I feel like if the game has to come down to him, I think he’s going to be able to make those throws. But they don’t run a complicated offense at all. It’s a lot of vertical routes, but at the same time they’re in the AFC Championship game, so a lot of teams haven’t defended it the right way. So they’re obviously doing something well.’’

On his pick for the game: “I like Baltimore. I face them twice a year, and if you’re able to get pressure on any of the top quarterbacks in this league and specifically [Tom] Brady, it affects them. Whether or not you stop them is another story, but it affects them if you’re able to get pressure.

“It’s a simple way of looking at it, but any top quarterback, if you give them time, they’ve seen every look. Tom Brady knows what type of defense the Ravens are going to attack him with and he’s going to be prepared for it.

“But the X-factor is whether or not you can get your hands on him and get him down to the ground. When that happens, with the Baltimore run offense and Ray getting his touches, another way to defend Brady is to keep him on the sideline.

“I like Baltimore’s chances.’’

Local talent in Shrine Game

If you checked out yesterday’s East-West Shrine Game, you might have noticed two locals in Merrimack linebacker Shawn Loiseau (Shrewsbury) and UMass tight end Emil Igwenagu (Boylston/Holy Name). Loiseau showed up on the radar of NFL scouts during his senior season; he was the first two-time Northeast-10 Defensive Player of the Year in the Division 2 school’s history. Loiseau (6-1, 245) totaled 254 tackles his final two seasons. He’s a prototypical special teams player at the NFL level and runs well. He also has been writing an online journal for the school’s website. “This is nothing like I see at the Division 2 level,’’ he wrote of the Shrine Game. “I think I have turned some heads down here and have shown that I can hold my own against the best competition in the country. I have had multiple meetings with NFL scouts from a variety of teams, and I continue to work hard and soak in this experience as much as possible.’’ Igwenagu (6-2, 245) entered UMass as a linebacker and halfback, then moved to fullback before landing at tight end in 2009. He caught 38 passes for 375 yards and three touchdowns as a senior. Igwenagu, who projects as an H-back or a “move’’ tight end in a scheme like the Patriots’, showed a little Aaron Hernandez versatility with four rushes, including a touchdown, this season.

Nickel package

1. Congratulations to Longmeadow native and former Packers offensive coordinator Joe Philbin for being named Dolphins coach. Philbin, who is mourning the loss of his 21-year-old son Michael, was loved and respected by everyone with the Packers, especially the players. Aside from dealing with his personal loss during this transition period, the biggest question mark about Philbin is the fact that he has never been fully in charge with any phase of the game during his coaching career. In Green Bay, the buck stopped with head coach/play caller Mike McCarthy.

2. The Dolphins are certainly talented on defense, and should be formidable there with the right defensive coordinator (Mike Nolan left for the Falcons). Philbin certainly knows how to run an offense, and you couldn’t study under a better quarterback tutor than McCarthy. The Dolphins should be in on the bidding for Packers backup quarterback Matt Flynn.

3. Like the 49ers in the late game. The Giants haven’t been good against the run all season, and the track will be sloppy. In the 49ers’ win in the regular season, Frank Gore barely played with a knee injury. The 49ers’ defense is going to make it very tough on Eli Manning all day.

4. His unsurprising decision to pick the Ravens over the Patriots aside, Jets coach Rex Ryan sounded very self-aware during his Friday interview with WFAN’s Mike Francesa. Ryan said he now realizes that instead of aiming pressure at himself with his boastful statements, he may have put it on his team, especially his offense. Hall of Fame quarterback Steve Young told Ryan during a private conversation that his comments may inspire his defense, but they also fire up the opposing defense. “I have to take a good, hard look at it, because I don’t want to fuel the fire,’’ Ryan said.

5. Patriots fans might want to put on hold any jersey orders for Rams free agent receiver Brandon Lloyd. After saying he was “tied’’ to soon-to-be Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, Lloyd told ESPN 101 St. Louis that he’d be “very interested’’ in playing for new Rams coach Jeff Fisher and staying with quarterback Sam Bradford. But Lloyd did say he wants to fit into a scheme. The Patriots already have one that’s tailor-made.

Greg A. Bedard can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @gregabedard. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.

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