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With season slipping away, Del Rio losing grip on his team

  • By Vic Carucci NFL.com
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Doug Pensinger / Getty Images
Jack Del Rio's grip on his team will be something to watch closely as the season closes.


You would think that going from a presumptive Super Bowl contender to being stripped of virtually all hope of making the playoffs would be enough damage from the Jacksonville Jaguars' loss to the Tennessee Titans on Sunday.

The ramifications could, in fact, prove to be even worse.

Two weeks ago, Jack Del Rio put his coaching credibility on the line in a big way when he made a series of moves apparently intended to jolt the attitude of the team.

He suspended and fined one of his top players, Mike Peterson, for insubordination after the linebacker argued with him during a meeting. Del Rio then permanently benched Peterson. The coach also established a new rule banning hats and hoods in meetings, domino-playing in the locker room, and made several players switch lockers.

Del Rio drew media criticism for risking the loss of his team's belief in him over what, for the most part, could be viewed as petty issues.

When the Jaguars cruised to an easy victory over the Detroit Lions a week later, he received a little bit of a pass. But it's hard to form any real conclusions when a team beats up on the woeful Lions.

After squandering an 11-point halftime lead on the way to a 10-point loss to the Titans, Del Rio is back to being scrutinized for something that, in the long run, could end up doing more harm than good to his long-term relationship with his players.

From the time he took the Jaguars' helm in 2003, Del Rio was cast as a player-friendly coach. He engaged with players on a personal level, making the most of the fact he was a former NFL linebacker. He instantly gained their trust with an I-can-relate-to-you-you-can-relate-to-me approach that was high on emotion and raw energy, which was just the way Del Rio played.

However, as the Jaguars' season began slipping away, Del Rio clearly felt that his style had lost its effectiveness. So he decided to become a mega-disciplinarian.

Did the Jaguars need a shakeup? Perhaps. They had underachieved enough to prompt some sort of response from Del Rio, who felt secure enough (after receiving a contract extension in the offseason reportedly worth $5 million per year) to deliver it.

But when a coach drastically changes how he goes about his business, it can create more than a little confusion within a team and compromise the players' trust in the man in charge. Remember, the Jaguars reached the playoffs last season and generated so much promise for this year based on how Del Rio handled things previously.

It also should be noted that Tennessee's Jeff Fisher, the NFL's winningest coach this season and one of the very best in the league for many years, is known as a model of consistency. He is neither too soft nor too strict with his players. And when you ask them to cite reasons why they're able to maintain the focus necessary to remain perfect this season, they almost always start with Fisher.

Although several Jaguars players insisted after the Detroit game that Del Rio had not lost the team, there's a distinct possibility that, with very little chance of reaching the postseason, the mentality could be quite different through the next six weeks.

How Del Rio manages his relationship with them the rest of the way, and how they respond, will be something to watch. Closely.

"What we are going to do is focus one game at a time and try to have a little more fun playing football," Del Rio said.

Fun. That might very well have been something that disappeared two weeks ago when Del Rio decided it was time to tighten things up.

Monday night musings

The Browns' 29-27 victory over the Bills came down to a story about two second-year quarterbacks and two kickers with 10 and nine seasons of NFL experience, respectively.

The quarterbacks:

» Cleveland's Brady Quinn was far from spectacular, but he performed well enough, especially for only the second start of his NFL career.

Rick Stewart / Getty Images
Brady Quinn did just enough to help his team beat Buffalo.

Quinn was more impressive against Denver in Week 10. However, against the Bills, he made throws when he needed to make them and didn't crumble when pressured by blitzes that nearly resulted in a pair of interceptions. He saw some different fronts and coverages than he did in his first start, yet never seemed flustered. He carried himself with an air of confidence reflective of a quarterback extremely comfortable in the skin of a starter. This counts as significant progress for a player in the embryonic stages of his career.

Although the decisive points came from ultra-low-percentage field-goal range, Quinn did his part to put the Browns in position to win. "I think he knows that the quarterbacks that are going to be good in this league have to be able to move the team and produce in that situation," coach Romeo Crennel said.

The mostly impressive performances of Matt Ryan and Joe Flacco this season flies in the face of conventional wisdom that rookie quarterbacks are rarely successful. But Quinn should continue to benefit from the fact the Browns are able to bring him along slowly, even if it's less a function of an original plan than the fact Derek Anderson played out of his mind in 2007 ... then struggled through the first half of this year.

» To say Buffalo's Trent Edwards is having a confidence problem would be an understatement. His confidence has been obliterated.

For several weeks, Edwards has not looked anywhere near as poised or as comfortable in the pocket as he was in leading the Bills to a 4-0 start. Then came his thorough unraveling against the Browns, when he threw three interceptions on his first six pass attempts.

Believe it or not, what happened after that had to be even more discouraging for the Bills, whose playoff chances are fading as quickly as so many of us were ready to declare them the best team in the AFC East and one of the best in the NFL. Edwards became hesitant and seemingly fearful of throwing the ball downfield, even when he often had multiple open receivers. Failing to get the ball in the hands of his top pass-catcher, Lee Evans, even once is almost incomprehensible.

Perhaps the most disturbing postgame development for the Bills was this comment from coach Dick Jauron in response to question about Edwards' confidence: "It's not a question, really, for me to answer ... You'll need to ask him that, because only he can tell you. I would say that for a young quarterback, it's got to affect you when things start to slide a little bit and go downhill."

Jauron did go on to call Edwards a "terrific player," but his observation was hardly an endorsement of his faith in his quarterback. Other coaches might not have chosen to be as brutally honest, but it seems as if Jauron has run out of answers to explain Edwards' rapid decline.

The kickers:

» Cleveland's Phil Dawson is money from almost any distance, although it is hard to expect any kicker to come through from 56 yards with a prime-time game on the line in an electrified stadium.

The reason Dawson delivered for the Browns is because he corrected himself from an earlier long-range attempt this season.

"I had a 50-plus-yarder against Washington to tie the game and I tried to get on it a little too much and left it out to the right, which you do sometimes when you over-stride," he explained. "I concentrated on just staying short, trusting my technique. When you do that, you hit the ball well. When you hit the ball well, you got a shot to make kicks."

» Buffalo's Rian Lindell is money from inside the 40. The Bills' coaches didn't do him any favors by not being more aggressive with their play-calling after Edwards connected with Robert Royal for 22 yards to the Cleveland 34 with 1:03 left (although concerns over Edwards probably were a factor). After three straight runs by Marshawn Lynch, the Bills set up Lindell with a 47-yard attempt that he pushed wide right.

Asked if the distance should not be considered easy, Lindell, to his credit, disagreed. "It should be," he said. "That's my job, to pick up the slack the offense leaves. I just got to make it. It's ridiculous."

When will Titans go Young with strategy?

After watching the Titans roll to 10-0 with an offense capable of dominating on the ground and making big plays through the air when necessary, it's reasonable to at least ponder the possibility that they might come up with some creative offensive packages featuring a highly talented backup player.

In other words, with six games left, when are we going to see what Vince Young might be able to contribute to this incredible season?

Young, who has not seen the field since suffering a sprained knee in the season opener against Jacksonville, is healthy and presumably still able to do some of the amazing things he did on his feet before Kerry Collins took over as the starter. Mike Heimerdinger, the Titans' highly respected offensive coordinator, certainly is a progressive enough thinker to devise a few plays that would take advantage of Young's running, throwing or both.

Doug Benc / Getty Images
Having Vince Young run a version of the "Wildcat" would be one way to get the talented backup QB involved in the game.

Collins, for one, supports the idea of getting Young involved in single-wing formations -- usually with a running back taking a direct handoff -- that have been so popular this season.

"Between Jeff and Dinger, I think there's always that possibility for new things," Collins said. "I think Dinger's doing a great job of adjusting things. Obviously, every week you prepare, you game plan and things may not go according to the way you see them going. But, really, you've got to use all the weapons you got."

Even if it means having Collins lined up at receiver, as the Dolphins do with Chad Pennington in their "Wildcat" formation? Collins laughed.

"If I'm lined up out there, I don't know if I want any balls coming my way," he said.

Here are a couple of factors that could pour cold water on the idea of installing offensive packages with Young:

» The Titans have not worked on any gadget plays involving Young in practice all season.

» There have been reports circulating around the league that Young hasn't been particularly attentive in meetings since losing his job. It also has been speculated that he hasn't been fully aboard with the team's success because he hasn't had a part of it. However, for the record, as the Titans ran up the tunnel in Jacksonville Municipal Stadium on Sunday, Young was celebrating with his teammates. He even got a huge hug from center Kevin Mawae before entering the locker room.

Stay tuned.

Have a question for Vic? Send it to AskVic@nfl.com, and the best ones will be answered on NFL.com.

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