Dan Reeves, a former NFL head coach for the Broncos, Giants and Falcons, has been around the game of football for a long time.
In his 23-year coaching career, Reeves has a career mark of 190-165, and is 11-9 in the postseason. Despite never winning a Super Bowl as a coach, he won four conference titles with the Broncos and Falcons, and made it to the playoffs nine times.
He was a quarterback and wide receiver for the Cowboys in his playing days back in the late 60’s and early 70’s, throwing a touchdown pass in the “Ice Bowl” of 1967 against the Packers, missing a ball that the Colts intercepted in Super Bowl V, and finally winning a championship as a player in 1971 in Super Bowl VI.
And since leaving the coaching ranks after 2003 and experimenting with some job opportunities, Reeves has had an opportunity to watch the NFL as a fan, and most recently, as a commentator for Westwood One Radio on Sunday NFL games.
As training camp starts for the majority of the NFL teams next week, Reeves was able to spend a few minutes with WNST’s own Rex Snider to talk about the AFC North, a division he knows all too well.
In the 80’s when Reeves was the coach of the Broncos, Reeves was involved in several big games against the Cleveland Browns in the playoffs. With John Elway as his quarterback after getting him in a trade with the Baltimore Colts, Reeves coached in the games that featured “The Drive” in the 1987 AFC Championship Game against the Browns, and the following year, the Browns handed the Broncos the AFC Title on a play ultimately known as “The Fumble“, as future Raven Earnest Byner, on his way to score the game-tying touchdown, fumbled the ball and the Broncos won the game.
And Reeves’ owning of the Browns continued in 1989, when the Broncos beat the Browns for their third AFC Championship in four years, but remember; Elway and the Broncos never won the Super Bowl until 1997-1998. And they then beat Reeves for Elway’s second and final championship the following year when Reeves was coaching the 14-2 Atlanta Falcons.
Reeves told Snider that the AFC North may be the toughest division in all of football.
“It always is an interesting league and every year you get surprises,” Reeves said. “Teams go from last place to first place, and you’re talking about one of the better divisions in the National Football League without question.”
Snider asked Reeves to go through the AFC North’s coaches and give an opinion on each of their situations. He started with the lowly Browns, who are no where close to being the franchise he remembers from back in the 80’s.
But Reeves did say that owner Randy Lerner did take some steps in the right direction this year by bringing in Mike Holmgren to rebuild the team from a personnel perspective, as well as retaining coach Eric Mangini who made some good decisions in the team’s four-game winning streak at the end of the season.
“Mike Holmgren has been successful everywhere he’s been, so there’s no reason to think that given time, that he’s not going to be able to turn that franchise around and make them one of those teams that you have to contend with every year in that division.”
Next, Reeves addressed some concerns about the Pittsburgh Steelers, who will be without quarterback Ben Roethlisberger for at least the first four games of the season, and could be lost for up to six.
“Its unfortunate that their quarterback is going to be out the first four games. You could make a little bit of a cushion there, but the Pittsburgh Steelers are always tough.”
But Reeves did say that if there was any coach in the league to get his team out of a jam like that, it’s Mike Tomlin. Reeves has personally seen him at work.
“I went into some of their meetings, and was able to observe Mike Tomlin. The one thing that you pick up on very quickly is that the players really enjoy playing for him. That’s one thing the coach has to earn is respect, especially when you take over for someone like Bill Cowher.”
“I think Mike Tomlin has shown that he deserves all the credit in the world for taking them to a championship, and last year was one of those unusual years where you get too many injuries and couldn’t overcome them. There’s not too many teams in the league who can overcome those types of injuries and be competitive.”
But Reeves said that the loss of Roethlisberger is going to be felt longer than just the games he misses. He is going to be a step behind when he returns, because the rhythm, timing, and cohesiveness of the team is going to be different when he finally returns under center.
“Not only are they going to miss him, but his ability to practice with the players for that period of time, that’s going to be very difficult for them. The timing, the continuity, all the things you need, it’s going to be difficult for them to overcome them. It’s not to say that they cant. A lot of times teams rally and know that everybody needs to pick up the slack and play a little bit harder.”
And the Steelers certainly aren’t a young team by any stretch of the imagination. And they are injury-prone, with All-Pro safety Troy Polamalu missing time last year, hurting their playoff chances.
“Missing Troy Polamalu last year was huge for them, ” said Reeves. “He is a catalyst on that defense. When he is flying around, they’re making an awful lot of plays. So if they can get everyone else healthy, they might be able to overcome that. But its going to be an uphil struggle.”
While a lot of the people that follow the NFL are already crowning the Ravens as division-and even Super Bowl champs, don’t forget-the Bengals are the reigning division champs. And they too had a good off-season and draft, bringing in Antonio Bryant to complement Chad Ocho Cinco as well as drafting Jermaine Gresham to give quarterback Carson Palmer more offensive weapons.
But Reeves said the Bengals’ chances of repeating are mainly going to lie on their defense, and if head coach Marvin Lewis and defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer can make lightning strike twice.
“Mike Zimmer did an outstanding job, and overcame some personal adversity last year. That football team played extremely well. And Marvin does a great job. The one thing you know about him, he’s consistent year in and year out. He doesn’t change. If he gets himself surrounded with some good football players, which they came up last year and did that, it’s going to be interesting what they can do this year.”
But Reeves had to save his greatest respect for the Ravens, who by his imagination, do also appear to be the favorites to win the division based on their moves.
Reeves said the real strength of the Ravens though may be that they have the best coaching staff in the league, and it all starts at the top with John Harbaugh.
“They have a great coaching staff. And I think John Harbaugh has done an outstanding job with the Baltimore Ravens.”
And the two offensive coaches the Ravens have in Cam Cameron and newly acquired quarterbacks coach Jim Zorn should be a great fit for Baltimore and Joe Flacco this year.
“Cam Cameron is as good an offensive coordinator as there is in the NFL. And now to have those kind of weapons. He does a great job of being innovative with the people he has. And now you have a quarterback that’s got another year under his belt. I like what they do.”
“Jim is an outstanding offensive mind, and he is really a great quarterbacks coach. He is a guy that got the most out of his ability. And he really came through and became a great quarterback in this league. He’s just going to get better and better. He is just one of the fine young, veteran quarterback coaches and I think he’ll do great job with Flacco.”
And when looking at the schedule for some of the teams in this division this year, Reeves said he has already penciled in one game that he hopes he is not doing a game that day.
It’s the Week 13 match-up between the Steelers and the Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium on Sunday Night Football. That’s a game where Reeves just wants to sit back and enjoy it.
“That’s one you always look forward to because it’s like the black and blue division. In particular when those two teams play, I guarantee I’m going to be one who wants to sit right in front of the television and watch that one.”
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