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Five difference-making team moves that paid off

by | Senior Writer

A wise man once told us to "dare to be great," and there were plenty of daring people this season willing to step out on the ledge. They made bold, decisive and sometimes courageous moves, strong in their beliefs that they -- and their ballclubs -- would be better off for them.

Some succeeded. Some did not.

And some, like Philadelphia's Andy Reid and New England's Bill Belichick, reminded us why they're two of the best and brightest head coaches in the business. Reid did the unthinkable and dealt away his franchise quarterback, while Belichick gave away his most dangerous receiver before the season was over a month old.

Romeo Crennel has resurrected Cleveland's D from one of the league's worst two years ago to 13th overall in 2010. (Getty Images)  
Romeo Crennel has resurrected Cleveland's D from one of the league's worst two years ago to 13th overall in 2010. (Getty Images)  
People said they gambled, but you know better than that: These guys don't take unnecessary risks. They're too smart. They knew what they wanted, they knew what they had to do to get there, they acted on their convictions and they reaped their rewards.

Sounds simple, right? It's not. Reid and Belichick made decisions that not only affected the futures of their teams; they made decisions that altered the NFL landscape. And that's the idea. Only it's one thing to take a bold step; it's another to take a bold step that makes your season -- and there were several this year who did just that.

What follows are five of my favorites:

The trade of Donovan McNabb/The return of Michael Vick

It took guts to make this move. It also took a lot of smarts. Reid and Donovan McNabb were joined at the hip, with Reid using his first pick of the 1999 draft to choose his franchise quarterback. Over the next decade, he and McNabb would be remarkably successful -- reaching the playoffs eight times in 10 years, the NFC Championship Game five times in eight seasons and the Super Bowl once.

But all good things must end, and with McNabb approaching his 34th birthday and the last year on his contract, he became expendable. The Eagles knew what they were up against: They could either roll the dice one more season, hoping McNabb could lead them to the top in his lame-duck year, or they could peddle him -- gaining draft picks before he became a free agent.

They already had determined they wouldn't grant him an extension, so putting him on the market made sense -- especially with a young and promising quarterback named Kevin Kolb sitting behind him. When the club found an interested suitor in Washington it made the trade, and the Eagles never looked back.

The deal was big when it happened, but it was big because of what McNabb meant to the Eagles franchise. It is bigger now, but not because of McNabb; because of what his departure provoked -- namely, the return of Michael Vick. Yeah, I know, it was Kolb who inherited McNabb's job, but that lasted all of one half against Green Bay -- or until linebacker Clay Mathews buried the scrambling quarterback, causing him to leave the game with a concussion. In came Vick, and the rest you know.

But Vick might not be the MVP candidate he is today without Reid again coming to the rescue, this time keeping him in the lineup after Kolb was cleared to return. Initially, he named Kolb the starter, but after weighing his decision through the night he realized he couldn't make the move. Lucky for Philadelphia. I can't imagine where the Eagles would be without Vick.

The trade of Randy Moss/The return of the Pats' horizontal passing game

When the Patriots traded away Moss -- their most dangerous receiver and one of the most feared playmakers in the game -- people wondered how they would replace him and what his loss meant for Tom Brady specifically and the New England passing game in general. Well, look at the standings. There is no better team out there, and the Patriots didn't get there with Moss. They got there without him.

Soon after the trade, they replaced him with Deion Branch, and let the record show they're 10-1 without Moss. That is not to trash Moss. The guy is a difference maker -- or can be when he feels up to the job. When Moss was with New England he was perfect for the Pats and good to have around. But he committed an unpardonable error when he complained about a future contract following the season-opening defeat of Cincinnati -- in essence, putting himself above the club and signaling the end of his career in New England.

When the Patriots brought back Branch, the former Super Bowl MVP, they redesigned their offense -- returning to the horizontal passing game that brought them so much success prior to Moss' arrival. It wasn't supposed to be as effective as the bombs-away blitzkrieg that featured Moss, but it has been. In fact, it's been so precise, so surgical, so downright magical that New England averages an NFL-best 32 points a game, with Brady failing to throw an interception in his last 319 attempts, an NFL record.

Giving up on Moss was supposed to be a gamble, but the Patriots knew what they were doing. They usually do. That's why they're the best team in the league and the most successful franchise of the past decade.

The Bears' hiring of Mike Martz

I remember sitting with an NFL head coach this summer and asking him what he thought the combination of the Bears' new offensive coordinator and quarterback Jay Cutler would mean for Chicago. "Disaster," he said. "He'll get that quarterback killed." OK, so he didn't like it. But he wasn't alone. Martz had a reputation for high-risk, high-reward offenses, and pairing him with the NFL leader in interceptions -- a guy who hadn't won since high school -- was supposed to destroy the Bears, their head coach and their star quarterback.

Except it hasn't. A check of today's standings finds the Chicago Bears locked in first place of the NFC North, one victory short of clinching a first-round bye for the playoffs. Surprising? Yep. Remarkable? Absolutely. So let's hear it for head coach Lovie Smith. He worked for Martz in St. Louis and knew what Martz could do for a quarterback, a slumbering offense and a team in need of something, anything, to get to the top. He also knew he had to win to keep his job and that he wouldn't make it without Cutler delivering something more than 26 interceptions, a 7-9 record and a diva-like attitude. So he took the plunge and hired Martz, bringing him back after the former Rams head coach had been out of football for a season.

The move was billed as an act of desperation, with critics insistent that Martz's spread offense would ultimately ruin the club because ... well, because the Bears weren't "The Greatest Show on Turf." Cutler would get hurt, the club would lose and Smith would get fired.

At least that's how it appeared in July. Only now Martz is one of the feel-good stories of the season, changing his approach to the passing game after the Bears' October bye and changing Cutler with it. Look at the quarterback's last five games. He has four performances with passer ratings of 104.2 or better and he won six of his last seven starts. He also has nearly twice as many TDs (15) as interceptions (8) since the bye and achieved his first winning season in the NFL.

People tell me that it's all about maturity, but I don't buy it. I think it's all about having the right guy in the quarterback's ear, and Mike Martz is that man.

The Rams drafting Sam Bradford

With the retirement of Kurt Warner, the NFC West was wide open -- with San Francisco the logical team to step into the breach and return to the playoffs for the first time since 2002. Only it didn't happen, and it didn't happen because San Francisco never settled on a quarterback and St. Louis did.

Introducing Sam Bradford, a dead-bolt cinch for NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year and the best quarterback in the NFC West.

Bradford is the quarterback the 49ers thought they were getting when they made Alex Smith the first pick of the 2005 draft. Only they were wrong. Smith was shuttled from one offensive coordinator to another, and seldom with anything more than ordinary results. Granted, he showed promise in his one season with Norv Turner, but then Turner left, another coordinator was introduced and Smith returned to mediocrity.

That hasn't happened with Bradford, and credit the Rams for having the smarts to do what was right -- which was choose him with their first pick and stick with the guy. While skeptics wondered aloud about a shoulder injury that shortened Bradford's 2009 season, the Rams never blinked. They had the injury checked out, consulted experts, talked to people in and around the University of Oklahoma, then made their pick. I don't know how daring it was, but I do know it changed the face of this division -- because Bradford is here to stay.

If ever there were a slam dunk as a franchise quarterback, this is it. Bradford is accurate. He is poised. He is confident. He is unflappable. And he wins. Heck, the Rams' seven victories this season are more than their total the last three years combined. In one season Bradford has done for St. Louis what Drew Brees did in one year in New Orleans -- which is return the franchise to respectability. And wouldn't you know it -- the Saints took on Brees when others were scared off by his shoulder injury.

Congratulations, St. Louis. And welcome back to the NFL.

The Chiefs' hiring of Charlie Weis and Romeo Crennel

People ask me what's different about this year's Kansas City Chiefs -- correction, this year's AFC West champion Kansas City Chiefs -- and all that I can come up with is these two guys. I mean, the head coach is the same. The quarterback is the same. The offense and defense basically remained unchanged. And the message is the same. But coach Todd Haley had the wisdom and foresight after last year's 4-12 finish to realize that he needed help and that he wasn't going to find it anywhere on the premises.

So he reached out to Crennel and Weis, hired them as coordinators and look what's happened. The Chiefs return to the playoffs for the first time since 2006, break a four-year hold by San Diego on the AFC West and establish themselves as a force for the future. The reason? They have coaches who are getting results from the young talent that populates this roster from top to bottom.

The most obvious example is what's going on with quarterback Matt Cassel. A year ago angry fans charged that he wasn't the quarterback GM Scott Pioli envisioned and that the Chiefs goofed when they signed him to a long-term contract. Yeah, sure, some mistake. Cassel is 10-4, has 23 touchdown passes and two interceptions over his last 10 starts and should gain MVP consideration for what he's done for a previously moribund offense.

I mean, look what the Chiefs were without him -- nothing. They were drilled by San Diego, 31-0, in a game where they managed a season-low 67 yards and five first downs. Now look where they are with him. I credit Weis and Haley for a lot of that, with the two preaching a message that resonates with the young quarterback.

But I credit Crennel, too, for resurrecting a defense that had been among the league's worst for years. Two years ago the Chiefs ranked 31st, surrendering an average of 27.5 points per game. Today they rank 13th, surrendering an average of 19.7 points per contest -- or more than one touchdown less per game.

Kansas City hasn't lost at home and buckled down when they had to, winning five of its last six. Make Haley a Coach of the Year candidate, not just for resurrecting this franchise but for making two of the best offseason hires anywhere.


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