|Tony Dejak / Associated Press|
|Browns coach Eric Mangini is doing his best to teach his scrappy team how to win.|
So go ahead. Ask him about Bill Belichick. Analyze the postgame handshake. Dig for the status of the relationship between Mangini and the man who raised him, in many ways, as an NFL coach.
It hardly bothers him anymore.
"I've done it so many times that now it's at the point where you can have more fun with it," Mangini said Thursday night. "It's old news, you know? But I'm over it. Bill's over it, I'm sure. It's not a division game anymore. And I haven't been there in five years."
But if talk really is cheap, how's this for flattery: Mangini is using the game film of this year's Patriots not just to prepare his team for the opponent it faces Sunday, but also as an example of what it will take to get over the hump.
New England, with the best record in the league, doesn't just look like the team he used to help coach. It also looks like the team he hopes his Browns can be.
"There are teaching points in there for any coach, that's the truth," Mangini said. "More games are lost than won, and if you don't beat yourself, and just start there, you'll be in every game. New England doesn't beat itself, and they're very good when people provide opportunities.
"It's sound. It's sound football, and when you play sound football, that's why they're 6-1."
About a year ago, I had Mangini on the phone, and he compared the Browns in 2009 -- at that point, Cleveland had just fired GM George Kokinis -- to the Patriots in 2000. The Patriots, of course, won the Super Bowl in 2001, and it doesn't look like the Browns are that kind of team now.
But if you listen to what Mangini is saying, you see why the win over New Orleans, going into Cleveland's bye week, was mighty encouraging for a team that just fought through a brutal early schedule (opponents' aggregate record: 32-18).
The Browns were outgained 394-210 in that one. "Sound football" is how they won the game. Even with a rookie quarterback, Cleveland didn't turn the ball over. Conversely, the defense picked off Drew Brees four times, and David Bowens took two of those back for touchdowns. The offense's only touchdown drive was buoyed by a 38-yard pass-interference penalty.
The 30-17 triumph hardly qualified as an aesthetic masterpiece. But it was exactly what Mangini has been preaching.
"We did it in New Orleans, and we've done some of that at different points," Mangini said. "I think it was Joe Paterno that talked about the progression. First you work. Then you compete. Then you win. And then you win consistently. I think they know how to work and compete, and they're learning how to win, and then you can win consistently.
"The first two phases, we've moved that forward the last year-and-a-half. That's big. Now it's learning how to win, and changing it from hoping to win to expecting to win."
That's where you come to maybe the most encouraging thing about that Saints win: The play of Colt McCoy. If you remember, those 2001 Patriots were forced to insert a young quarterback named Tom Brady. Asked about that, Mangini refused to compare the situations, both prompted by injury.
But he did relay stories. Like when McCoy addressed his teammates the night before his first start, in Pittsburgh, and told them they could count on him. Or how McCoy, who has always had a reputation as a gamer, made the two-minute drill hum that Sunday after struggling with it in practice. Or the way McCoy seamlessly transitioned into the role as The Man, the role he played for four years at Texas, after scuffling over the summer as the third- or fourth-stringer.
"I'm really pleased with the things he's done," Mangini said. "He's working at it, it's important to him. Not that most quarterbacks are not like that, but it's all been so positive with him."
That's one more reason why, with the bye week in the rear-view mirror, Mangini is confident about his team going forward and where his rebuilding effort is.
Whether he'll get to see it through has been up for debate this week, as team president Mike Holmgren has hinted at returning to the sideline to coach, something some saw as inevitable from the time "The Big Show" took over. It might be trouble for Mangini, but he's not getting worked up over the situation.
"Our relationship is good, and I get what Mike is saying," he said. "No coach I've met has gotten out of it and doesn't still think about it. Luke Steckel is one of my assistants, and his dad is Les, and he hasn't coached in eight years. He was in the office last week, and you could feel his passion. A lot of times we joke around about what we'd do if we didn't coach, but this is what we know and love. So it doesn't surprise me Mike would say that.
"It doesn't intimidate me. We're going to keep moving forward. If you're sensitive to any of that, you're not going to be productive. He's gone from coaching to being a team president, having to deal with market and stadium issues, and I'm not sure those things get you going the same way. But our conversations, his support, it's all been great. He's honest, sincere and up-front. I know it's always more exciting to talk about conflict and drama. But we talked at practice today, and it was no different than six months ago."
And after spending his entire career in the Parcells/Belichick coaching tree, he likes that he's getting a different perspective from Holmgren, a product of the Bill Walsh family.
Mangini also knows that winning will cure all of that, and he is confident his team is capable of making that happen. Was the Saints victory a corner turned? Well, that's what the coach is hoping.
"It's hard to predict, but that's my expectation, and the team's expectation," he said. "I don't think people are sitting in meetings or the locker room thinking we're going into each game outgunned. There's a sense of purpose there. There's a big different between having a sense of purpose and executing that purpose. But I'd expect us to prepare properly and win now."
This is how close Randy Moss came to going completely unclaimed on waivers: Had receiver Kenny Britt not gone down with a hamstring injury in San Diego last Sunday, Tennessee would not have put a claim in on him. With Britt down, the Titans felt compelled to pursue Moss, and it was more to prop up their running game than anything else.
Defenses have been more than willing to go man-to-man in all situations against the Titans, freeing more players to crowd the box and smother reigning NFL rushing champion Chris Johnson. One source called it, "An absolutely unreal commitment to containing Chris."
It showed Sunday in San Diego. After Britt left the game, Johnson was held to 54 yards on 13 carries. And if you eliminate his 29-yard touchdown run in the second quarter, the star's stats fall to 25 yards on 12 carries.
The Titans expected, in the wake of Johnson's superlative 2009, defenses to target the 2,000-yard rusher. They didn't expect it to go as far as it has, and so they needed to properly replace the presence Britt brought -- forcing defenses to pay the price for playing up. Moss can do that, and the Titans couldn't afford to go the 6-to-8 weeks Britt is expected to miss trying to find a way to wriggle Johnson loose.
The expectation in Tennessee is that, by the time the Titans next hit the field in nine days in Miami, Moss will have grasped more than just the basic stuff, and he'll be able to do more than just run go routes the way he did in his Viking debut. The hope is he'll be motivated sufficiently to pull that off.
"He's still got enough left to be a threat, at least 75 percent of the time," said an NFC scout. "And that's the issue. But he can still run vertical, he can still catch the ball, and he's still one of the best deep-ball trackers in the history of the game. It's the other stuff ..."
The "other stuff" there is Moss' motivation and behavior, and the Titans believe their head coach and locker room will be able to absorb him and push him in the right direction.
To the first point, Jeff Fisher is a player's coach who has a laid-back demeanor, like Moss does, and is an expert at handling and managing veterans (see: Haynesworth, Albert). The caveat there is that what structure Fisher does have, and what requirements he does make, are strictly enforced, so Moss will be able to get the "veteran treatment" in Nashville, so long as he can follow a baseline of rules. Basically, the message is not to abuse the freedom the coach gives you.
To the second point, Tennessee's locker room proved its mettle in weathering last year's 0-6 start, and the Titans feel as if Moss wouldn't be a threat to influence younger players if things did go south, because of the strength of leadership within its walls. One player who vouched for Moss in that regard was Kerry Collins, and his thoughts were meaningful in that the quarterback and receiver were together in an impossible situation in Oakland.
Could this be more than an eight-game rental? The answer is yes, but the Titans brought Moss in to win games, and so it seems like the team would need to make the playoffs -- proof positive he can still help a club win -- for Tennessee to enter into negotiations.
I know this truth...
Once a darkhorse pick for the Super Bowl, the Bengals seem to be grasping for the very things that made them contender in 2009. The identity of that team is gone.
The Bengals won the old fashioned way last fall -- ranking fourth in the NFL in total defense, and ninth running the ball -- and became a game-management machine. Six of their 10 wins came by less than a touchdown.
This year, Cincinnati is 19th in total defense, and 20th in rush offense, and those grind-'em-out days seem like years, not months, ago.
"We're not that team; this is a totally different team," said tailback Cedric Benson. "Last year, we were run first, we went to establish the run every game. We practiced that way, we trained that way, and that was the way we played. We were very successful with it. It got us to where we wanted to be, the playoffs.
"We're much different this year. We're not as aggressive, we don't run first anymore. And there are a lot of different elements to the team. No doubt that was done with all intentions of improving the team, but it's let us down."
When asked about the revamped receiving corps to follow that up, Benson said, "It brought a different style, of course. Chad (Ochocinco) has been here, and we've always been able to make it work with Chad. T.O. is here now, and he's made things different, but he's had success too."
Cornerback Jonathan Joseph, one of the rising young stars on a defense with a few of those types, said that the problem on his side of the ball comes down to "finishing. It can be as little as bringing your feet through on a tackle, so they don't get extra yardage, or you're not finishing the play on a turnover. ... It's a lot of different things."
Overall, Benson's belief is that can be attributed to approach.
"It's changing the style of the team," he said. "We've gone from being smashmouth, assertive and aggressive to being finesse, and that's a big adjustment, I've never been in a situation like that. I have found myself reading things better in the passing game, and doing more on third down, so I've gotten some positives out it."
But the negatives have outweighed those, as evidenced by the team's win-loss record. "It's robbed us of our aggression, our attitude," said Benson. "It's allowed complacency to set in."
I don't know much at all ...
What does Shawne Merriman have left in the tank? Talking to the now-ex-Charger back in the winter, I found that he felt like his performance was unfairly assessed in 2009, since he was coming off a knee reconstruction.
"I just think it's foolish to think like that,'' Merriman told me then. "Ask anyone who has come back off a major knee injury. It's ridiculous for anyone to think you're going to be the same right away. But the biggest thing for me is, I can't just say what I'm going to do; I'm more anxious to get back doing it.
"It's beyond the importance of just playing football. What's important to me is that I get back to transforming the game."
Since then, Merriman has six tackles in three games and will now take his shot at resurrecting a career that started at a torrid, Lawrence Taylor-like pace in the NFL outpost of Buffalo. The Bills aren't expecting the second coming of Cornelius Bennett, let alone Taylor, but GM Buddy Nix -- who headed San Diego's college scouting department before going to Buffalo -- was partly responsible for the drafting of Merriman back in 2005 and has intimate knowledge of what Merriman can do.
The upside is that Merriman is still just 26 and once possessed a high-end skill that is among the most prized by NFL personnel folks and coaches: Pass-rush ability. In Merriman's first three years, he had 37.5 sacks. DeMarcus Ware, drafted one spot in front of him and perhaps this era's best edge rusher, had 33.5 sacks in the same timeframe. Julius Peppers, another transcendent talent, had 30 in his first three seasons.
Then, for Nix, there's Merriman's love of football, which is a factor with a player in this kind of place.
On the flip side, there's the PED suspension on Merriman's resume, and the perception that he is breaking down physically. Fair or not, plenty of league people relate one to the other.
"He's got a little burst left, but he's not nearly as explosive as he used to be," said one AFC scout. "The strength is still there, but he moves like a 35-year-old. ... I don't know how he'll hold up physically if he gets banged around against the run. His lower body just doesn't have the explosiveness it used to."
Seems like a decent gamble for a Buffalo team that can't rush the passer. The best-case scenario is that he becomes a productive rusher who is worth trying to hang on to after the season, and one who has enough success to want to stay. The worst case is that it's a nine-game experiment for a team that's rebuilding.
What's fascinating to me about the AFC race is that, where the NFL season is often a war of attrition, a handful of contenders are actually working guys into their teams in midseason and likely will be better for it come December and January. In Baltimore, you have Ed Reed and Donte' Stallworth. In San Diego, where the schedule sets up for another Lazarus act, you have Vincent Jackson. With the Jets, Santonio Holmes is still getting comfortable, and Darrelle Revis and Calvin Pace are getting well. The Patriots add Logan Mankins and could get something from Fred Taylor down the stretch. And the Steelers are still working out the kinks with Ben Roethlisberger back in. There may not be a team this year like the Colts and Saints were last year yet. But these additions could push one or two of the above to that level.
And 10 ...
1) It's hard to question Donovan McNabb's chops as a winner. He went to the playoffs seven times in his 11 years in Philadelphia and made five NFC Championship Games and a Super Bowl there. And easy as it is to count those up, it's just as easy to see what Mike Shanahan saw in him, a veteran player with a skill set not unlike those of the last two quarterbacks the coach won rings with -- Steve Young and John Elway. So why hasn't the relationship worked? One place to look is at McNabb's completion percentage. Only once in his career has McNabb's number been 62 percent or higher, and he's only been north of 60 four times. Elway's numbers weren't much better from 1995-98, but that was in a run-dominated offense, and Shanahan was able to squeeze three 60-percent-plus seasons out of Brian Griese, and two each from Jake Plummer and Jay Cutler in his 10 post-Elway Denver seasons. Then, there's offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, who had Matt Schaub completing more than 66 percent of his passes in all three of their seasons together in Houston. Bottom line: McNabb, who now has 57.4 completion percentage, isn't running the offense with the precision either Shanahan wants. But considering his past, maybe they should've seen it coming.
2) If Brad Childress winds up a mid-season firing, and I wrote earlier this week that his grip on the team has been slipping for three years now, then Leslie Frazier is an ideal man to step in and try to rescue a marooned season. Now, the easy criticism of Frazier is that the defense has slipped this year. And that's true. That unit is tied for 12th in total defense and has been held without a sack for three consecutive games for the first time in club history. But Frazier was the architect of sixth-ranked defenses the last two seasons, and moreover, success as a coordinator isn't always the greatest indicator of how a coach will graduate to the corner office. In fact, Andy Reid has quite a track record for someone who was never an NFL coordinator, and Raheem Morris seems to be getting similar traction after going from secondary coach to head coach in Tampa Bay. Frazier's predecessor in Minnesota was Mike Tomlin, who was in that position for only one year. John Harbaugh, similarly, never ran an offense or defense. What is more important is leadership skills, and Frazier has those, plus the respect of the players, with his experience as a player in the league. If anyone is going to fix Minnesota this year, Frazier might be the guy.
3) The Eagles defense is far from terrible, currently standing 12th in the NFL (tied with the Vikings) and allowing a not-good/not-terrible 22 points per game. But defensive coordinator Sean McDermott -- once considered one of the league's rising young coaches -- has come under fire of late, particularly after the late-game meltdown in Week 7 against Tennessee. And that's even though the team is showing the kind of big-play tendencies that Jim Johnson's best units had, ranking fifth in sacks per pass play in the NFL and tied for seventh in takeaways. So where's the problem? Well, players believe the inconsistency from the defense in general has come in its inconsistency in converting on big-play chances. And that means there are even more opportunities for sacks and takeaways out there for this group. That might be the difference here between an average defense and a really good one.
4) Two-plus years after entering the league as the fourth overall pick, Darren McFadden finally is coming around. And coming around fast. Increased touches and an improved offensive line have led to this pretty impressive number from the Raider tailback: He is averaging 147.5 yards from scrimmage in his six games this season. That clip leads the league and puts him on pace for a gaudy 2,360 yards for the season, even with the two missed games. Want perspective? Chris Johnson set the scrimmage yards record last season, and McFadden's pace is within 10 yards of the CJ's 156.8 last year. So finally, McFadden's potential is being realized, it seems. Credit the Raiders for giving McFadden more chances in the open field, and allowing him to be the one-cut style of runner he is.
5) We're going to add a Twitter element to this thing soon (follow me at @AlbertBreer!), but for now, how about Pete Carroll's use of social media this week? "Disappointed for Matt but this is best for his health. We're really looking forward to seeing Charlie go to work!" The Seahawks coach should be excited to see Charlie Whitehurst play, too. No one was hoping for Matt Hasselbeck to go down, particularly with a concussion, and particularly with the team squarely in contention in the NFC West. But the club sunk resources into Whitehurst -- giving up a third-round pick, moving down 20 spots in the second round, and signing him to a two-year deal worth $8-10 million -- and so this is a good shot to see him play wire-to-wire. Seattle has to hope the results are better than those in the preseason, when Whitehurst completed just 51 percent of his passes and posted a 4-4 TD-INT ratio.
6) The race for the offensive and defensive rookie of the year awards have taken shape, and we could have the honors taken by the first and second picks in the draft for the first time since George Rogers and Lawrence Taylor turned the trick in 1981. Premature? Maybe not, with the way Sam Bradford and Ndamukong Suh are playing. Bradford has the Rams, 1-15 last year, in playoff contention at 4-4, has a respectable 11-8 TD-INT ratio with a non-descript receiving corps and is ascending. Suh, meanwhile, is already someone that offensive coordinators have to account for and is a cornerstone for the Lions. In fact, when asked for DROY candidates this week, one scout said, "Maybe if Suh falls off the face of the earth?" All accounts in April were that this was one of the best draft classes in years, and this group is backing it up. And in Bradford and Suh, it has two big headliners.
7) For as much as has been made of the Saints going through their Super Bowl hangover, New Orleans is 5-3. And the ninth-ranked offense has been more of a problem than the third-ranked defense, which is reason for optimism, since it's a fair bet that Sean Payton, Drew Brees and Co. will work out their issues down the line. Getting back Reggie Bush will help, that's for sure. Payton has told everyone who would listen that Bush's impact went past the numbers, and this year has given us all reason to listen. Defenses always have had to account for Bush underneath in the passing game, which opened things up downfield for the Saints. New Orleans has missed him there, and whenever he's ready to return from his broken leg, likely next week after he was listed as "doubtful" for this week on Friday, the Saints should benefit.
8) Keep an eye on Mike Hart in Indianapolis. With Joseph Addai on the shelf, Jim Caldwell tapped the 2007 sixth-round pick to start over 2009 first-round pick Donald Brown. And Hart delivered with 103 scrimmage yards on 15 touches. Hart wasn't exactly under the -radar coming out of Michigan, after rushing for a school-record 5,040 yards at that football factory. But he knows why he slipped through the cracks. "I'm not running a 4.3, I'm shorter, I'm just not that (prototype)," Hart said. "If you're 5-9, you have to run a 4.3." Even with all the yards counted up, perhaps the most impressive play Hart made on Monday night was to stymie a blitzing Brian Cushing in blitz pick-up. It underscored how Hart might not be overly fast or big, but he can play. "That's the one thing I always tell people, I'm a football player," Hart said.
9) The Buccaneers get another chance to take the next step this week with a trip to Atlanta. The five teams Tampa Bay has beaten are a combined 12-24, and in that group, only the Rams (4-4) are even at .500. Meanwhile, the two plus-.500 teams Tampa Bay has encountered, the Steelers and Saints, have beaten the Bucs by 25 points apiece. On one end, that speaks well of the players, being able to achieve a level of consistency and grind out victories in the winnable games. On the other, they'll have to beat the better teams to advance to the next level, and support Raheem Morris' talk about being the NFC's best club. "It's good they've got that confidence to say they are the best team," Falcons safety William Moore said this week. "You've got to back that up when you say stuff like that."
10) Pro Football Talk had an interesting report Thursday that players from 25 of the league's 32 clubs have approved the union's effort to decertify in the event of a lockout, and it's all but a formality that the other seven will follow suit. In talking to New England player rep Matt Light earlier this season, I got a guarantee that the Patriots' roster won't just approve the measure, but will do so with a unanimous vote. Ominous? Maybe. But it also could speed up the negotiations. Urgency is often what pushes talks like these along, and the threat of decertification and a lengthy court battle could be a motivator come winter, when the season ends and the new league year looms. And if there's urgency then, the chances of anything in 2011 being called off diminishes.
Follow Albert Breer on Twitter @albertbreer.