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Sunday Six: Harbaughs' tough calls and second-year QBs make noise


Looking back at Sunday, the Harbaughs are coming to grips with tough decisions, second-year QBs make some noise and we run down 10 coordinators who can start making job interview plans.

Pressure off one and on other ... for now

The Harbaugh brothers are two of the NFL's finest coaches. Each elected to make a midseason decision which can be perceived as volatile, and only time will tell if they were the right decisions. For one week John's decision is under pressure, Jim's is not.

The Ravens made an unconventional decision, firing offensive coordinator Cam Cameron this past week. The immediate result was not good, a loss at home to Denver. Ray Rice only had 15 touches (12 carries, three receptions) for 41 total yards -- his lowest production day as a starter.

Joe Flacco struggled with two turnovers, and the offense only had 21 minutes of possession.

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Bill Cowher's take on the situation: "Firing the coach sends the wrong message; there are ways to keep the coach and change the structure of the staff." Time will tell if the Ravens' three-game skid ends in Week 16, or if the Ravens' offense continues to struggle like the Eagles' defense has since Juan Castillo was fired as defensive coordinator in Philly.

Jim's decision to bench Alex Smith for inexperienced Colin Kaepernick looked like a great long-term answer. And the chance to win a Super Bowl in 2012 looked debatable until Sunday night. I had waited a month for this game, figuring Bill Belichick would have four game tapes to break Kaepernick down and develop a plan to beat him, especially at home.

That didn't happen and right now, starting Kaepernick looks like the move of the year in the NFL -- at least for this week. All eyes will be on the San Francisco-Seattle game next Sunday night.

By this time next week, understand that the Harbaugh brothers could be on opposite ends of this spectrum. But give the Harbaugh brothers credit for doing what they think is the right for their clubs, even if the moves were less than conventional.

Sophomores answer the freshmen

I have been so impressed with the rookie quarterbacks. Why not, when you realize the rooks threw nine more touchdown passes, won three more games this weekend and now have 92 touchdown passes and 39 wins with two weeks to go?

And second-year signal-callers have been somewhat overshadowed by first-year QBs, but the sophomores showed up this week and reminded all of us they are a solid group. Kaepernick, Cam Newton, Andy Dalton and Christian Ponder all won and three of them are very much in the playoff hunt. If the playoffs started today six of the 12 postseason teams would be led by first- or second-year quarterbacks.

Coaches to keep an eye on

There will be coaching changes at the end of the season, and there are 10 coordinators who should be on the list for an interview (in alphabetical order):

Colts offensive coordinator Bruce Arians: He may be the league coach of the year, given his performance after Chuck Pagano went home to battle cancer.

Seahawks defensive coordinator Gus Bradley: Bradley is running Pete Carroll's aggressive defense, helping turn Seattle into a solid football team. Take a look at the secondary he has constructed.

49ers defensive coordinator Vic Fangio: The 49ers run a very aggressive 3-4 defense, and Fangio has been involved in finding the talent which got to the NFC championship last season, and will make another playoff run this year.

Bengals offensive coordinator Jay Gruden: There were teams interested in Gruden last year, and Jon Gruden's younger brother has been a head coach in the arena league. He is doing an excellent job with second-year QB Andy Dalton.

Cardinals defensive coordinator Ray Horton: Things are not going well in Arizona, but it's clear Horton has done a solid job with an aggressive 3-4 package. He is a student of Steelers defensive guru Dick LeBeau.

Falcons offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter: The Falcons' offense has grown significantly in the year Koetter has been in Atlanta. A club looking to develop a young quarterback and offense will take a look at Koetter.

Falcons defensive coordinator Mike Nolan: He's the only former head coach on this list, and that experience is a positive. Nolan has improved Atlanta's defense in one season with creative schemes and good use of his talent. His group just shut out the world champion Giants.

49ers offensive coordinator Greg Roman: There are many interesting things going on with the Niners' offense and Roman could bring those concepts to a new team. He knows the Jim Harbaugh system better than any coach available and has made it work with different quarterbacks.

Redskins offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan: Mike Shanahan's son is doing lots of creative things with Robert Griffin III, and has caught the eye of a lot of GMs because they also see what he's done with rookie backup QB Kirk Cousins.

Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer: Zimmer is a very good motivator and a no-nonsense coach. Can you even name three of his starters on defense that leads the NFL in sacks with 43?

I will not be surprised to see at least half these men get a shot to run a club in 2013.

Thought they might attack the triangle more

The Steelers lost a tough game to the Cowboys in overtime, but I thought there was one matchup they might exploit early and often.

The Cowboys were missing All-Pro nose tackle Jay Ratliff, his backup and two starting inside linebackers. The Steelers are solid inside on the offensive line with Maurkice Pouncey, Doug Legursky and David DeCastro. However, as the game unfolded, the inside run game wasn't used as much as I thought it might be.

In the first quarter the Steelers ran four times for 12 yards and completed 3 of 8 passes for 33 yards. In the second quarter, down 10-0, the Steelers threw the ball 16 times and ran it once. At halftime the Steelers had used eight running plays for 67 yards (8.3 per rush) and 25 pass plays (6.5 per pass). At that rate, it made more sense to give the running game more use.

Good year for expanded playoffs

With two weeks left and the way the conferences are shaping up, it drives home the point to me that expanding the playoffs in a reasonable way is worthy of discussion. I'm in favor of adding one more team to each conference's playoff structure, dropping the bye for the second-best team record in each conference -- giving a bye to only the best team in each conference. I also support the idea of restacking the playoff qualifiers by record so a 10-6 wild card team wouldn't have to play at an 8-8 division winner. That would mean teams seeded No. 2 through No. 7 would play in the first week. A week later the three winners from those games would play as well as the No. 1 seed, coming off a bye. There would be no added weekends and wild card weekend would consist of six games instead of four. If this plan were in place today, NFC teams battling for two spots would be Seattle, Minnesota, Chicago, Dallas and the Giants. In the AFC, it would be Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Indianapolis and the Jets. The idea is that nine teams in the fight for four spots would make for more suspense.

The big argument against this plan -- or any expansion plan -- is a 7-9 team could make the playoffs. Last year the 9-7 Titans didn't make the playoffs. In 2010 the 10-6 Giants, 10-6 Bucs and 9-7 Chargers missed the postseason. In 2009 the Steelers, Texans and Falcons all were 9-7 and stayed home. It's time to add a seventh team.

Making a case

For months it seemed like a foregone conclusion that either Andrew Luck or RG3 would be rookie of the year. Some mention of Alfred Morris would creep into the conversation, but in the end it, either the first or second quarterback drafted would win the award.

All three men are deserving of the award but so is another guy who is lighting up scoreboards and winning games. Russell Wilson of the Seahawks has led Seattle to 108 points in the past two games. No rookie QB has more wins than him (nine), more touchdown passes (21) and he's been sacked less than Luck or RG3. Take a look at fourth-quarter passing for further evidence:

 Wilson -- 6 TD passes, 1 INT, 7 sacks
 Luck -- 5 TD passes, 6 INTs, 11 sacks
 RG3 -- 4 TD passes, 1 INT, 12

Next Sunday night Wilson leads the Seahawks against the 49ers while the Colts play the Chiefs and the Redskins play the Eagles. Clearly Wilson has the biggest challenge. Let's see how he responds before any decision is made about rookie of the year.

Pat Kirwan has been around the league since 1972, serving in a variety of roles. He was a scout for the Cardinals and Buccaneers, a coach for the Jets as well as the team's Director of Player Administration where he negotiated contracts and managed the team's salary cap. He is the author of Take Your Eye Off the Ball: How to Watch Football by Knowing Where to Look, and the host of Sirius NFL Radio's Moving the Chains.

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