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Jaguars announce GM Gene Smith fired

Jaguars Practice Football AP

The Jaguars have made it official, announcing the firing of general manager Gene Smith Monday morning.

“Now it is time for the Jacksonville Jaguars to begin a new chapter,” Jaguars owner Shad Khan said in a statement. “We’re not looking back. I’ve made it clear from Day One that we pledge nothing less than to deliver the first Super Bowl championship to Jacksonville.”

“Our fans have been remarkably loyal over the years, n they were truly outstanding this past season.We simply must do better for [ou]r fans

There’s been no word yet on a timetable, or the future of coach Mike Mularkey, though any GM candidate might reasonably want to hire his own guy.

Of course, there might also be pressure on those candidates to bring in a certain quarterback, something those candidates will have to weigh whether they want their name attached to.

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No deal yet between Michigan and Harbaugh

Harbaugh Getty Images

What will happen, will happen. What will not happen, won’t happen.

It’s one of 49ers (for now) coach Jim Harbaugh’s current catch phrases. And it’s an accurate summary of the current status of his flirtation with his alma mater.

Amid multiple reports that Harbaugh will return to the college ranks and become the next Michigan coach, Michigan alum Adam Schefter of ESPN reports that there’s no deal yet between Michigan and Harbaugh.

It could be a formality, given that Harbaugh still has a job — at least until 7:30 p.m. ET or so tonight. Or it could be that Harbaugh is still waiting for the Raiders or some other NFL team to come to the table with a competitive offer, the kind of offer that finally moves the top of the NFL coaching market upward, after a decade of stagnation.

Regardless, what will happen, will happen. According to Schefter, nothing has happened yet.

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Report: Falcons retain search firm to help with possible coaching change

Atlanta Falcons v New Orleans Saints Getty Images

The Falcons can make the playoffs if they beat the Panthers on Sunday afternoon.

If they don’t win that game, however, the team could be making a change at head coach. Mike Smith doesn’t believe he’s coaching for his job against Carolina, but owner Arthur Blank may be feeling differently.

Adam Schefter and Chris Mortensen of ESPN report that the Falcons have retained search firm Korn Ferry to help identify coaching candidates in the event that the team does part ways with Smith. Korn Ferry has been involved with several job searches around the league and in college football, including the University of Michigan’s search for a new head coach that appears to have settled on Jim Harbaugh.

The report doesn’t indicate that a coaching change will be made if the Falcons lose on Sunday, but it’s hard not to see that when reading between the lines.

There’s also no word on General Manager Thomas Dimitroff’s standing. The Falcons are also working with former Eagles and Browns exec Joe Banner as a consultant basis on stadium and business issues, although that role could take on a new shape in the event Banner decides that wholesale changes are needed.

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Ted Phillips, Chris Ballard team could be future of Bears

Phillips Getty Images

Major changes could be coming for the Bears; it’s still unclear how high up the organization chart the pinks slips will fly.

At a time when even long-time team president Ted Phillips couldn’t escape the scuttlebutt of a potential termination, the current thinking is that Phillips won’t be fired — and that his Hail Mary pass will consist of bringing back Chiefs director of player personnel Chris Ballard as the team’s new General Manager.

Last year, the Chiefs denied Tampa Bay’s request for permission to interview Ballard for the G.M. job, at Ballard’s request. Ballard, as of a year ago, wanted to stay in Kansas City.

This time around, Ballard could choose to return to Chicago, where he spent 12 years under former G.M. Jerry Angelo and (for one year) current and apparently-soon-to-be-former G.M. Phil Emery.

The biggest question — and the greatest current unknown — will be the new coach in Chicago. If the team is determined to keep quarterback Jay Cutler, the guy that makes the most sense is former Raiders, Broncos, and Washington coach Mike Shanahan, who traded up in the 2006 draft to get Cutler.

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Report: Manziel’s Friday night party led to players’ Saturday tardies

Johnny Manziel AP

Browns quarterback Johnny Manziel’s tardiness on Saturday morning was precipitated by a late night of partying on Friday.

Manziel was fined for being late for treatment on his injured hamstring on Saturday, and Jason La Canfora of CBS reports that Manziel’s tardiness came after he threw a big party on Friday night, attended by many members of the team. La Canfora reports that other players were tardy on Saturday as well, although those players’ names have not been revealed.

It’s not clear whether Josh Gordon, who was suspended by the Browns for missing Saturday’s walk-through practice, was one of the players who attended Manziel’s party. But La Canfora reports that the Browns had to send their security staff to Manziel’s house to track him down on Saturday.

Manziel is on injured reserve, so he wasn’t going to play today anyway, but the fact that he’s showing up late for work — and that his party is leading other players to be late to work — is extremely alarming behavior for a franchise quarterback. Have you ever heard of Peyton Manning or Tom Brady or Aaron Rodgers or Drew Brees or Andrew Luck or Russell Wilson hosting a late-night party that resulted in themselves and teammates showing up late to work the next morning?

Manziel claims he’s taking his work seriously, but talk is cheap. Manziel’s actions suggest that he just doesn’t get it.

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Brian Ayrault emerges as possible addition to Bills’ front office

Pegula Getty Images

In Buffalo, as the calm prepares to yield to a potential storm, a name to watch whenever the dust finally settles is Brian Ayrault.

It’s currently believed in some league circles that the Bills will hire Ayrault for a key front-office position. Ayrault, NFL agent and long-time friend of new Bills owner Terry Pegula (pictured), could be placed in charge of contract negotiations or, potentially, the entire football operations.

Meanwhile, a belief lingers that former Bills G.M. Bill Polian will be returning to the franchise in some capacity, even though he apparently has denied it.

Front-office employees currently believed to be in danger include CEO Russ Brandon, G.M. Doug Whaley, and Senior V.P. of Football Administration Jim Overdorf.

Ayrault worked for the sports agency that Pegula purchased in 2011. Ayrault’s clients include Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald.

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Video on Jets website questions whether Idzik should stay

Johnson Getty Images

It’s getting more and more clear that the Jets won’t keep G.M. John Idzik after only two years. And the latest piece of evidence comes from a video on the team’s official website that openly questions whether Idzik should return.

Think about that for a second. The website owned and operated by the team that employs John Idzik as General Manager has created and published a video that openly questions whether John Idzik should keep his job.

Apart from making it clear that Idzik won’t be back, the video could make qualified candidates think twice about becoming the next guy to take the G.M. job with the Jets — unless the offer comes with assurances that stuff like this won’t happen.

And if the new G.M. is really smart, he’ll want to go even deeper into the rabbit hole, figuring out how something like that even came to be, and root out of the organization whoever in the power structure allowed it to happen and/or failed to stop it.

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Sunday morning one-liners

Buffalo Bills v Oakland Raiders Getty Images

The Bills will try to avoid a 13th straight loss in New England.

Several Dolphin players will be trying to leave a strong final impression on Sunday as the team considers their future.

Shoring up the offensive line remains a Patriots need.

Looking back at some of the highs and lows of Rex Ryan’s time as Jets coach.

Said Ravens DE Chris Canty of the possibility that the team will make the playoffs, “It’s tough to think about the opportunities that we let go, and that’s not on anybody’s doorstep but our own.”

RB Jeremy Hill’s timing was perfect for the Bengals Offense.

What would a good performance by Browns QB Connor Shaw mean for offseason plans?

Steelers S Troy Polamalu isn’t ready to think about whether Sunday could be his final home game.

Texans DE J.J. Watt needs 2.5 sacks to reach 20 in a season for the second time in his career.

Football’s a family game for Colts C Khaled Holmes.

Jaguars T Luke Joeckel will be looking for a breakout year in 2015

Former Titans Lemanski Hall and Eddie George helped Giants RB Orleans Darkwa on his way to the NFL.

A look at some happy memories from past Broncos meetings with the Raiders.

Terez Paylor of the Kansas City Star thinks the Chiefs will play spoiler on Sunday.

Raiders S Charles Woodson gets to renew acquaintances with Peyton Manning, who Woodson beat out for the Heisman Trophy in 1998.

A return to Arrowhead Stadium has Chargers CB Brandon Flowers excited.

Cowboys WR Dez Bryant will do battle with Redskins CB Bashaud Breeland for the second time this season.

Giants RB Rashad Jennings would like to avoid a bad taste in his mouth when the season comes to an end.

The Eagles’ flaws were hard to miss even when they were 9-3 this season.

DE Jason Hatcher won’t play in the Redskins’ season finale.

The only question for the Bears is how many changes will be made after this season ends.

OL Darren Keyton will take C Dominic Raiola’s roster spot with the Lions on Sunday.

Julius Peppers has been a productive part of Packers nickel packages this year.

Five reasons for optimism about the Vikings.

Falcons CB Desmond Trufant will be tasked with stopping Panthers WR Kelvin Benjamin.

Win or lose on Sunday, the Panthers should have less turnover this offseason.

The Saints promoted QB Ryan Griffin from the practice squad for Sunday’s game.

Mike Evans and Vincent Jackson have a good chance of becoming the first Buccaneers teammates with 1,000 receiving yards in the same season.

The storylines for the second Cardinals-49ers game of the year are much different than the first one.

The Rams say they aren’t having a hard time finding motivation for Sunday.

49ers T Anthony Davis has already said goodbye to coach Jim Harbaugh.

TE Luke Willson’s play has pleased Seahawks offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell.

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How long will Harbaugh last in Michigan?

Harbaugh Getty Images

Now that Jim Harbaugh is reportedly doing the unexpected and uprooting from California and heading to Michigan, the question becomes how long he’ll be the Michigan coach?

Harbaugh hasn’t stayed in any one place for very long as a head coach. He spent two years with the Raiders, three at the University of San Diego, and four at Stanford. Now, it will be four and out at San Francisco.

Harbaugh has a reputation for wearing out his welcome and/or burning out within four years. So will it happen in Michigan, where he’ll have to deal with plenty of non-football considerations again, like recruiting and dealing with boosters and administration?

That’ll be the biggest question over the next four years. It’s widely believed that Harbaugh will do extremely well at Michigan; he’s done extremely well everywhere he has been. Maybe he’ll find a way to stay longer at his alma mater than he has elsewhere.

Or maybe the attraction of chasing a Lombardi Trophy eventually will bring him back to the NFL, where his brother (John) and his nemesis (Pete Carroll) have won the last two of them.

Either way, few believe Harbaugh will come close to spending the 20 years in Ann Arbor that Bo Schembechler did. Michigan fans who suffered though the Rich Rodriguez and Brady Hoke experiments probably won’t mind if it’s only a handful of great seasons.

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No Marcell Dareus or Stephon Gilmore for Bills finale

Green Bay Packers v Buffalo Bills Getty Images

With word that the Patriots were going to limit the playing time of their top players, Sunday’s game against the Bills was looking like an exhibition game in regular season clothing.

That feeling is even harder to resist with the Bills ruling out two of their top defensive players. Neither defensive tackle Marcell Dareus nor cornerback Stephon Gilmore will be in the lineup for Buffalo after the team downgraded them to out on Saturday. Both players were doubtful, so it isn’t a great surprise that Buffalo’s gone ahead and sat them down for a game that mostly matters to Browns draft watchers since they own Buffalo’s first pick.

Dareus hurt his knee in last weekend’s loss to the Raiders, an unhappy end to what’s been a standout season for the four-year veteran. Dareus had 10 sacks and provided strong play against the run all year in an effort that earned him a deserved spot in the Pro Bowl alongside teammates Kyle Williams and Mario Williams.

We’ll see if the injury keeps him out of that game and then start watching for a possible contract extension for Dareus, whose 2015 option was exercised by the Bills, during the offseason.

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Rob Ryan on Saints: We drank the Kool-Aid too much

New Orleans Saints v Chicago Bears Getty Images

The Saints wrap up their 2014 season on Sunday afternoon with a game against the Buccaneers that will help decide who gets the first overall pick of the draft while affecting the playoffs not at all.

That’s not where the Saints planned to be at this point unless they had already locked in a playoff position that couldn’t change regardless of the outcome. New Orleans won’t be going to the playoffs at all, though, and their defense’s drop from the top of the league to the bottom of the barrel has a lot to do with that.

Defensive coordinator Rob Ryan believes that preseason chatter that the Saints would have one of the best defenses in the league contributed to their dismal results this season.

“We’re dealing with human beings,” Ryan said, via the Baton Rouge Advocate. “Obviously we drank the Kool-Aid too much, I think. If they don’t think so, well, then I think that’s wrong. I think that’s an honest opinion.”

Some Saints players have shared similar opinions and we should find out soon whether or not Ryan will be back for another year running the unit after this year’s group lost touch with what worked for them in 2013.

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Julio Jones in, Steven Jackson out for Falcons vs. Panthers

Atlanta Falcons v Tampa Bay Buccaneers Getty Images

With the NFC South on the line, the Falcons will be at full strength at wide receiver today against the Panthers. But the Falcons’ running game will be at less than full strength.

Falcons receiver Julio Jones will play today, but running back Steven Jackson will not, Albert Breer of NFL Network reports. both players were listed as questionable, with Jones dealing with a hip injury and Jackson a quadriceps injury.

Jones is doing so well that the Falcons don’t even need to see him test his hip in pregame warmups to be sure he can play, Breer reports. That’s very good news, as Jones is having a phenomenal season and may end the day as the NFL’s receiving yardage leader for the 2014 season. Jones is currently at 1,535 yards on the year, just 35 yards behind leader Antonio Brown, even though Jones has missed one full game and parts of others because of the hip injury.

Jackson’s injury will mean more work for running backs Jacquizz Rodgers and Devonta Freeman.

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All indications are Jim Harbaugh is heading to Michigan

Philadelphia Eagles v San Francisco 49ers Getty Images

Jim Harbaugh appears poised to take the head coaching job at the University of Michigan after coaching the 49ers for the last time today.

Although an official announcement has not been made by Harbaugh, by Michigan or by the 49ers, several reports indicate that Harbaugh has already made up his mind to accept the offer from his alma mater, which will reportedly pay him $8 million a year. Joe Pequeno of CBS reports that a verbal agreement is in place between Harbaugh and Michigan. College football author and longtime Michigan insider John U. Bacon reports that the deal is done. And Dave Feldman of CSN Bay Area, a high school friend of Harbaugh’s, reports that it will be officially announced on Tuesday.

Harbaugh and the 49ers have been heading for a divorce all year, with Harbaugh and G.M. Trent Baalke simply unable to get along and 49ers owner Jed York siding with Baalke over Harbaugh. There was never any question about whether Harbaugh would return to the 49ers next year, the only question was where Harbaugh would be in 2015.

If Harbaugh wanted to stay in the NFL, he would have options. The Raiders are thought to be very interested in Harbaugh’s services, and the Bears would likely be interested as well. And if a coach with Harbaugh’s track record became available, some surprising NFL suitor might come out of the woodwork.

But Harbaugh has apparently decided that he’d rather take a great offer to coach his alma mater than wait to see which NFL jobs will be open to him, and whether any of those NFL teams will be able to work out a deal with the 49ers that allows him to coach elsewhere. Instead, Harbaugh — who was a very successful coach at Stanford before the 49ers hired him — will return to college, and head home.

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Oddsmaker: Betting public backing Steelers in AFC North championship

Martavis Bryant AP

According to one of Nevada’s major sports book operators, the betting public is siding with the favorite in the AFC North title game.

As of late Saturday afternoon, 71 percent of the betting tickets written on Sunday’s Bengals-Steelers matchup at the William Hill U.S. books had been on host Pittsburgh, the company said. The Steelers are 3.5-point favorites at the William Hill books.

The Steelers will capture the AFC North with a victory. Cincinnati will repeat as division champs with a win or a tie on Sunday night (8:30 p.m. ET, NBC).

The loser of Steelers-Bengals will grab one of the AFC’s two wild-card spots. The Chargers, Ravens, Chiefs and Texans are competing for the other wild-card berth.

In Chargers-Chiefs, 79 percent of the tickets written have been on San Diego (+1). Bettors have also preferred the Ravens (59 percent) and Texans (58 percent) in their games. Baltimore (-9) hosts Cleveland, while Houston (-9.5) plays visiting Jacksonville.

Five NFC games have playoff ramifications: Lions-Packers (-7.5), Panthers-Falcons (-3.5), Cowboys-Washington (+6.5), Rams-Seahawks (-12.5) and 49ers-Cardinals (+4). William Hill bettors have fancied the Packers (74 percent), Falcons (65 percent), Cowboys (79 percent), Seahawks (66 percent) and 49ers (54 percent).

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Legal fights looming over Gordon suspension

Gordon Getty Images

With the Browns suspending receiver Josh Gordon for the final game of the 2014 regular season, a fight is now looming over whether Gordon will be an unrestricted free agent or a restricted free agent following the 2015 season.

Acquired by the Browns via the 2012 supplemental draft, Gordon currently is completing his third NFL season.  But because (per a league source) the Browns have decided to suspend Gordon without pay for Sunday’s game against the Ravens, the NFL is now expected to take the position that Gordon has not gained a third “accrued season” for the purposes of becoming a free agent.

The league will contend that Gordon did not acquire a third accrued season (he needs four to become an unrestricted free agent) because the league believes that a player obtains an accrued season for each season in which he spends six games on the Active List or Inactive List or on Reserve/Injured or Reserve/Physically Unable to Perform.

Article 8(1)(a) of the Collective Bargaining Agreement, however, provides a different definition: “For the purposes of calculating Accrued Seasons under this Agreement, a player shall receive one Accrued Season for each season during which he was on, or should have been on, full pay status for a total of six or more regular season games, but which, irrespective of the player’s pay status, shall not include games for which the player was on: (i) the Exempt Commissioner Permission List, (ii) the Reserve PUP List as a result of a nonfootball injury, or (iii) a Club’s Practice Squad.”

The first legal fight will focus on whether a suspension without pay was justified. If the player wins round one, round two becomes irrelevant; if it’s determined he should have been paid for Week 17, Gordon will have been on full pay status for six games.

The second round, if there is one, will center on the meaning of the phrase “during which he was on, or should have been on, full pay status for a total of six or more regular season games.” When combined with three specific types of categories that do not count toward the six-game minimum, the phrase “should have been on . . . full pay status” seems to include, based on its common-sense meaning, players who aren’t on full-pay status for reasons such as a team-imposed suspension or a league-imposed suspension for violating the substance-abuse policy.

The phrase “should have been on” has meaning, or it wouldn’t have been included. Without the phrase “should have been on,” it would be an easy decision; Gordon wasn’t on “full pay status” for six or more regular-season games.

The NFL will offer, at the appropriate time, an interpretation of the phrase that excludes players who are suspended by the team or the league. The NFLPA will tender an interpretation rooted in the common-sense application of the phrase and the listing of three types of exempt categories other than a player on suspension by the team or suspension by the league for violating the substance-abuse policy.

If the suspension without pay is upheld, at some point an interpretation of Article 8(1)(a) will be needed. The plain language suggests that the NFLPA and Gordon should prevail.

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Polian could return to Buffalo and still get to Canton in 2015

Bill Polian AP

The New Year could end up being a very good one for Bill Polian.

He could end up rejoining the Buffalo Bills as soon as Monday, and he could end up being elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame despite his return to the NFL.

Unlike coaches and players, who must endure a five-year waiting period before consideration for the Hall of Fame, contributors have no such requirement, according to Pro Football Hall of Fame Executive V.P. of Museums, Selection Process & Chief Communications Officer Joe Horrigan.  Examples cited by Horrigan include Ralph Wilson, Pete Rozelle, Al Davis, and Lamar Hunt.

The impact of a return by Polian on his candidacy is unknown, primarily because the creation of a new contributor category for 2015 entails layers or unknowns.Plenty of unknowns regarding the 2015 football season will begin to be known as of Monday (if not sooner), when some of the 20 teams that fail to qualify for the postseason begin to make changes.

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