Transition Game  

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Ivy League QB, Bills bond over blue-collar roots

Each Tuesday, NFL Network reporter Albert Breer will share his thoughts on topics around the NFL as teams transition from the previous Sunday's game to the next encounter on the schedule. Today, he begins with a look at a blue-collar worker from Harvard.

I've always thought the term "blue-collar work ethic" was a little silly. It implies those who labor in offices and boardrooms aren't capable of pulling long hours, grinding themselves to exhaustion, or have to go through adversity to succeed. That notion, of course, is ridiculous.

Exhibit A is now playing quarterback for the Bills.

Can you be blue-collar coming from Harvard, as Ryan Fitzpatrick does? If you follow the definition above, the answer has to be yes.

"That is a great question," Bills coach Chan Gailey said, laughing. "But if it's possible, he is. I would certainly put him in the blue-collar category. I don't know if Harvard can go in the blue-collar category. He is, though. He is blue-collar."

So, it seems, is Fitzpatrick's entire arsenal of skill position weapons. C.J. Spiller is the only one of the 12 backs, tight ends and receivers on the active roster who was drafted in the first three rounds. The lone fourth-rounder, tight end Scott Chandler (by San Diego in 2007), was claimed off waivers last December. Half the group was undrafted, including four of the five receivers on the list.

No, the quarterback didn't go to a place like Coe College (Fred Jackson) or even Youngstown State (Donald Jones). But Fitzpatrick's underdog roots, as a seventh-round pick from a place where football players become stock brokers and lawyers, make him a perfect fit for this ragtag bunch.

"That's definitely something we bond over, and I think it makes us appreciate the opportunity we've been given even a little bit more, because we're all so unheralded and had to work so hard to get where we are," Fitzpatrick told me. "All of that fits with this city, that blue-collar mentality. I enjoy playing with those guys so much. There's zero ego. That makes my job a lot easier. The guys that I work with, they're all in to win, they're not about individual statistics."

That's led to two more important stats -- 3-0 (the team's record) and 113 (the league-leading number of points the Bills have scored) -- which are impressive, no matter where you're from. And it answers the question, too. If you want to follow the definition of that well-worn colloquialism, blue-collar work ethic, then yes, a Harvard guy is capable of rolling up his sleeves and fitting the bill.

"I guess you can say that," Jackson said, laughing. "He epitomizes a blue-collar guy. I've never seen a guy work as hard as he has, to get to where he is now."

Fitzpatrick got a kick out of the idea, too. But he was sure to add, "You're from Harvard, they assume you're spoon-fed your whole life. I promise you, that wasn't my upbringing."

And that goes especially for the way he's made his bones in the NFL.

Raiders in prime position

Some folks finally realized how good the Raiders can be on Sunday, as Oakland ran right over a very good Jets team. But my belief is that there were some pretty good signs in the previous Sunday's loss that the "bully" that Hue Jackson has envisioned since taking over was coming to life.

Yup, the one where the Raiders blew a 21-3 lead in Buffalo.

First, consider the circumstances. The Raiders were coming off playing the late game in the Week 1 Monday night double-header on the road, and going across the country for a 1 p.m. ET kickoff. Then, take a hard look at the fight of Hue's Crew.

They allow three straight scores, getting behind 24-21, and answered with an eight-play, 80-yard scoring march to seize back the lead. Buffalo takes it back, at 31-28, and Oakland answers again, going 88 yards with a 50-yard strike from Jason Campbell to Denarius Moore making it 35-31. And even at the very end, down 38-35, the Raiders' last gasp Hail Mary made things interesting.

Now, the Raiders get the Patriots, still smarting from a loss to those same Bills, then have to go to Houston. If they can manage a split of those two -- and I know Jackson wants more than that, of course -- they'll be 3-2, with a schedule that's workable the rest of the way and what could be a very big home-and-home with San Diego on the horizon.

Surprise, surprise

In my seventh year covering the NFL (and however many years before that following it), I really shouldn't be surprised by much. But with Week 3 complete and just three undefeated teams left, it most certainly was not what I expected to see.

Last year, the Steelers, Chiefs and Bears got to 3-0. In 2009, there were seven (Ravens, Giants, Jets, Vikings, Saints, Broncos and Colts) unbeatens at this point. In 2008, there were five (Bills, Giants, Titans, Broncos, Cowboys) such starts.

My thought had been that there'd be more this year, with the lockout giving the NFL establishment an edge and, as such, the gap widening between haves and have nots. Yet, two of the three perfect teams, Detroit and Buffalo, hardly represent the league's royalty. And of the five winless clubs, there's just one, Minnesota, with a new coach, and that one (Leslie Frazier) got reps last year in an interim role.

So I guess this one has gone the way of my "The defenses should be ahead of the offenses" idea.

Don't count out Grossman

Really enjoyed my buddy and new colleague Jeff Darlington's debut effort for the Web site. And I think it again raises the point: If you can find a way to tune out Rex Grossman's uneven years in Chicago, you'll probably view him a little bit differently as a quarterback.

Grossman, of course, spent the first six years of his career either a) getting hurt, b) getting benched or c) getting to the Super Bowl. Look it up. He's started more than seven games once in his NFL career. And the Bears won the NFC title that season.


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More to the point, and putting aside a bit of a rough night in Dallas on Monday, I'd ask if he can, at least, be Brad Johnson for a winning team. Johnson, you might remember, didn't start a game until Year 5, was usurped by Randall Cunningham in Minnesota, Steve Spurrier in Washington, and finally hit it big playing for QB guru Jon Gruden in Tampa. Grossman, too, is on his third team and is now with a similarly big name in Mike Shanahan.

Week 4 is a big one, seeing how he rebounds from a two-turnover performance under the Monday night spotlight. But there's talent here, and a reason he was a first-rounder in the first place. And if he can get his ball security issues under control, well, stranger things have happened.

Dolphins lack singular philosophy

It's a shame things aren't working out in Miami, and it seems as if the value of that Bill Parcells position -- which Mike Holmgren has mirrored to a degree in Cleveland -- is now coming clear.

It's much more than "organizational hood ornament."

What Parcells did was keep the personnel and coaching sides aligned, something that Holmgren's had to navigate through a coaching change. It was easy, of course, when the original Parcells/Jeff Ireland/Tony Sparano staff was in place. Most of those folks were together either in Dallas, or were linked to Parcells from elsewhere, and so there was a singular philosophy.

Mike Nolan took over the defense last year, and Brian Daboll came in to run the offense this year. Without Parcells there, the challenges have been more numerous, adjusting and changing the roster to fit the new coaches and systems. The shame of it is that the current brass has really upgraded what was a broken roster in 2008. But because, at least in part, of all the changes and constant tweaking over the past 20 months or so, it looks like everyone in that building is now on the clock.

Don't expect Titans to fall off

Losing Kenny Britt is a seriously blow for Tennessee, and I'm told that the Titans will keep beating the bushes looking for receiver help. (Remember, it was a Britt injury that prompted the waiver claim of Randy Moss in 2010.) But I don't expect this team's season to go careening off a cliff now.

Are the Titans going to win the Super Bowl? No. Make the playoffs? Quite possibly not. But the fact that they're strong and tough along the lines of scrimmage means that they'll be consistent, and I think that means beating the teams they should beat and sneaking up on some more talented clubs on an off-day.

Plus, there's this: The players really like playing for Mike Munchak. So I'd expect the effort will always be there.

Five one-liners

» Credit to Munchak, Pat Shurmur, Jim Harbaugh and Hue Jackson, for starting 2-1 in what some folks thought was an impossible circumstance for new coaches. And also to Ron Rivera, whose Panthers look awfully tough.

» While we're on the topic, Jay Gruden deserves praise for not only acclimating to life as an NFL offensive coordinator under those conditions, but also getting rookie QB Andy Dalton so prepared for the challenge.

» We're three weeks in, and the questions surrounding the Eagles are right where everyone thought they'd be, along the offensive line and with a defense being run by former offensive line coach Juan Castillo.

» I looked at the Giants' roster a few weeks ago, and marveled at how the personnel had depleted, and then remembered that these have been the situations that New York has thrived in over the Tom Coughlin years.

» The Packers are showing, again, that they can win games every which way, and that's why, as of Sept. 27, my feeling is they're head and shoulders above the rest of the league (which means they'll probably lose this week).

Follow Albert Breer on Twitter @AlbertBreer

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