Inside the NFL  

 

With Barkley now out of picture, attention turns to Griffin

In his robust Inside The NFL notebook below, NFL Network's Albert Breer touches on multiple topics including (click on the link to take you directly there):

» Four things he's looking forward to in Week 16
» Why success has not gone to the heads of the Packers
» Who the Steelers are turning to with Ben Roethlisberger shelved
» What interim coach is making a strong statement for a full-time gig
» And more, beginning with a look at how Matt Barkley's decision impacts another college QB ...

Robert Griffin III won the Heisman Trophy after a stellar junior season at Baylor.
Robert Griffin III won the Heisman Trophy after a stellar junior season at Baylor. (Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press/)

It's easy to see all that Robert Griffin III does right. He's got a Heisman Trophy as a result of that. He put together a 3,988-yard, 36-touchdown, six-interception season to prove it.

And the offense Baylor coach Art Briles deployed his star QB in is undeniably well-conceived for the college level, having a proven track record at Houston and now with the Bears.

But for Griffin -- who has yet to declare his intention for next year, on whether he'll be a fifth-year senior or NFL rookie -- the trouble arises not in what scouts can see on film. It's what they can't see.

"They don't call plays in the huddle. They walk to the line, the play comes from upstairs to the sideline, and it's signaled in," said one NFC executive. "The coordinator upstairs is reading the defense, (Griffin) is not doing that at all. And in the NFL, you're going to have to be the one reading the defense. You have to know what's going on at all times. And you have to get him under center, taking 3-, 5- and 7-step drops."

Another NFC exec said, "It's a very good system, and they've done a heck of a job recruiting for it. ... But it's simple, and he'll have to adjust. He's really smart, accepted to law school and all that, but it'll be an adjustment. … You're not gonna come in and put him in a Peyton [Manning] offense."

Stanford's Andrew Luck, of course, has been running that kind of attack for three years, which is one big reason why he's considered one of the most pro-ready college quarterbacks in decades.

And with his recent admission of what everyone has long assumed, Luck brings a lot of certainty to the process for evaluators, in that his production in college came while performing a facsimile of NFL tasks.

USC's Matt Barkley falls into a similar category, though he lacks the physical tools Luck has. His decision Thursday to return to Los Angeles for his senior year only further shines the spotlight on the questions surrounding so many other college quarterbacks, with potential potholes lying ahead for those making the transition.

One college scout assigned to the Big 12 I spoke to was less enthusiastic about Griffin's prospects than the above execs, but conceded that he's one that some will more than likely fall for over his overwhelming physical gifts.

"That offense made things simple on him," said the scout. "Because he's such a running threat, he saw soft coverage, you didn't see defensive ends bending the corner to get him. They played him different to keep him in the pocket, and as a result, he got passing lanes he may not get in the pros. It's a problem, because he's got average-to-below-average size. The Vick comparison is there, because you figure he'll miss games (due to injury), but you can't tell him not to run, because that's what makes him special."

The scout continued that, "There's gonna be a significant development period. Him moreso than anyone. You can't fault him for what they didn't ask him to do. I think he's capable of it. But it's natural as a talent evaluator to want to see it."

Brooks: The book on Barkley
Matt Barkley announced Thursday he will return to USC for his senior season. Bucky Brooks says the young QB has a few skills to hone. More ...

The positives? Griffin is more athletic and has a better arm than Luck or Barkley. Also, Griffin did complete 72.4 percent of his passes this year. The college scout said part of that is that "roughly 75 percent" of his throws went no further than 7 or 8 yards past the line of scrimmage, but Griffin also exhibited deep accuracy uncommon for a spread quarterback in limited chances to show it.

Beyond Baylor's offensive structure, other negatives you get from these evaluators start with Griffin taking hits that aren't necessary. "He's not as big as Cam (Newton) and takes more hits than he should. You wonder if he's trying to be a tough guy ... because he doesn't always play smart," said the first exec.

On the flip side, he does run with the purpose of throwing, but his accuracy was rarely tested with tight-fitting throws. There were also third-down inconsistencies that raise red flags. "If it's third-and-6, Barkley will get it more than RG3 does," said the second exec. "When I look at RG3, I see a lot of big plays, but a lot of third downs he didn't get too."

Add it all up and you have a fascinating player. Where one of the execs said Luck's upside is that of a more athletic Peyton Manning, and Barkley's ideal is to wind up being a shorter, more compact Troy Aikman, all three of the aforementioned guys compared Griffin to Randall Cunningham. Not bad.

"He makes some throws that blow your mind," the first exec said. "With Luck, you're getting a safe pick. With Barkley, you're getting a safe pick. Maybe they won't win world championships, but they'll be plenty good no matter what, in my mind. There's more of a risk factor with Griffin. But if you hit on him, you've got a chance to have a world-championship-making player."

The makeup of the Packers

Clay Matthews was a walk-on in college before becoming an all-pro with the Packers.
Clay Matthews was a walk-on in college before becoming an all-pro with the Packers. (David Stluka/Associated Press/)

It had been pointed out to me that the Packers' locker room is unique in that it is largely devoid of cliques, something you rarely see in the NFL. And so in my 10 days there recently, I tried to figure out how that came to be.

CEO Mark Murphy gave me the best answer. He said that, by design, the roster that GM Ted Thompson and coach Mike McCarthy have constructed is stocked with players who had been dismissed at one point or another on their road to Green Bay. Seems weird when you think about the Packers, with their core of 20-something stars that promise to keep this operation rolling for a long time to come.

But it actually is true. Take their six Pro Bowlers from last year:

» Greg Jennings: Lightly recruited out of Kalamazoo, Mich., Jennings stayed home for college, and went to Western Michigan. Starred there and was drafted in the second round in 2006.

» Chad Clifton: Still a second-round pick, and has a good pedigree, as Peyton Manning's left tackle at Tennessee. But he did overcome a serious pelvic injury in 2002 and is a 12-year Packer staple.

» Clay Matthews: Was a 170-pound high school safety who walked on at USC and worked his way into becoming a first-round pick. Didn't even start for the Trojans until his senior year.

» Charles Woodson: Another one who came to the NFL with an unquestioned pedigree, but struggled mid-career, dealing with injuries as a Raider before being discarded, reluctantly heading to Green Bay.

» Tramon Williams: Overlooked in favor of teammate Brandon Jacobs in high school, Williams walked on at Louisiana Tech and was cut by Houston in 2006 after getting a shot as an undrafted free agent.

» Nick Collins: Started his career at I-AA Bethune-Cookman as a linebacker, before switching to safety and playing his way into the second round of the 2005 draft.

» Then, there's Aaron Rodgers, who wasn't a Pro Bowler last year, being edged out by Mike Vick, Drew Brees and Matt Ryan. The quarterback was barely recruited at all coming out of high school, went to junior college, landed at Cal and dealt with the Brett Favre drama when he got to the NFL.

Almost everyone in the locker room has a story like that. The belief in Green Bay is that's why the team doesn't have a sense of entitlement, and it's no mistake the roster has been constructed this way.

"Every decision that's made, when Ted and I sit around and talk about bringing a guy in during the draft or otherwise, the last thing that's always said is, 'How would he fit in the locker room?'" McCarthy told me, after I asked about that dynamic. "It's something we've really invested in since '06. We're really conscious of the people we bring in here. It's not just that they're all really good guys. We believe culture wins. People win, people lose. At the end of the day, it's about people."

Those people just got done winning 19 games in a row. And when you really pore over the above, it's not really all that hard to see why none of it has gone to these players' heads.

Batch to the future

Interesting decision this week for the Steelers on injured quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. At this point, a pivotal part of it is whether or not it's time to concede the AFC North to Baltimore and potentially sacrifice an outside shot at a first-round bye.

That's not to say the Steelers can't win against the Rams and Browns without Roethlisberger. It just won't be as easy.

Say the Steelers win out. They'd need the Ravens to lose to either Cleveland or Cincinnati to win the North. Then, to get a bye, they'd need the Texans to fall to the Colts or Titans. And if you wanna get real ambitious, a Patriots' loss to either Miami or Buffalo, on top of everything else happening, would give Pittsburgh the top seed.

So the question becomes what percentage of Roethlisberger's health would you sacrifice by making a run at all of that, particularly since a high ankle sprain is the type of injury that can get worse through play.

That brings us to Charlie Batch, a 10-year Steeler who's got the system in Pittsburgh down to muscle memory. It was Batch who the Steelers turned to when things went off the rails a little during Roethliberger's 2010 suspension, and young Dennis Dixon struggled. At the very least, Batch's presence is a steadying one for the team.

"I'm preparing as the starter," Batch told me Wednesday. "Last week, I took the majority of the practice reps during the week, and I don't anticipate that changing."

Batch explained that during a normal week, Roethlisberger would take most, if not all, of the snaps. Last week, Batch got most of the work, with Dixon getting the scraps. And as late as Saturday, Batch thought he'd start, even taking off for San Francisco with the idea that Roethlisberger still might have to sit.

That didn't happen.

But Batch said having a full week of prep, and actually having mentally prepared to start the whole way through, will be invaluable. And of course, while he understands the above contingencies as to playoff position, he thinks there's more out there for the Steelers to pursue.

"If you have the bye week, that helps out," Batch said. "At the same time, we can't ease into this thing just because we clinched a playoff berth. A lot of things still can happen for us to be able to get that one or two seed, depending on how it plays out. But regardless of how it plays out, we need to win. That's where our focus is with St. Louis. We can't worry about anything else."

Those higher up in the organization, though, don't have that luxury. And these aren't easy calls to make.

Bowles makes his case

Last week, two interim coaches won their debuts -- Miami's Todd Bowles on the road in Buffalo and Kansas City's Romeo Crennel in a shocking upset of the previously perfect Packers. Crennel already is widely seen as a prime candidate with the Chiefs, largely because of his connection to GM Scott Pioli. Bowles is seen by most to be more of a placeholder for the sellable coach that Dolphins owner Stephen Ross is likely to pursue in January.

But that doesn't mean Bowles, who won two Super Bowls as Redskins safety and was among those who came from Dallas to join Bill Parcells in Miami in 2008, isn't going to make his case.

"I think whether you're thrown into something like this, or you just step into it, it's valuable having that experience for the first time," Bowles said Wednesday afternoon, getting ready for a second straight trip to the chilly Northeast. "There's no better way to learn than doing it first-hand. And it hasn't been bad. It's still football. I know the X's and O's and we want them to keep playing hard, and the team has responded well."

The Dolphins, of course, weren't exactly slumping when they fired Tony Sparano. The club went 4-1 after starting 0-7, but even as the team hit its stride, most in the organization maintained that Ross had made up his mind. That much was proven, with the trigger pulled after the team's loss to Philly two Sundays ago.

And maybe Bowles isn't a big enough name for Ross in this circumstance. But this much is sure: His name isn't unknown in NFL circles. He interviewed for the Cowboys' job both in 2007 and again last winter. Parcells was said to have always seen Bowles as a future head coach, one reason he and Sparano gave him the "assistant head coach" title back in 2008 when he came aboard to lead the secondary.

"He's no nonsense," Dolphins LB Cameron Wake told me. "He's played between those lines, so he has more perspective from that standpoint, and he's going to keep you focused on doing your job. A lot of the things he's saying now are the things that Coach Sparano told us along the way. As much as possible, it's been a seamless transition."

Bowles reiterated that his first job was to keep a team that's been through a cyclone of a season on task. And he's giving them goals. One is to finish with a winning record in the AFC East -- the Dolphins were 1-2 before Bowles took over, and are now 2-2 with the Patriots and Jets looming. Another, players say, is to properly represent both the name on the back of their jerseys and the front.

Yes, that's a little cliché. But last Sunday, his team did play with pride and purpose, when things certainly could've gone the other way.

"The biggest thing is we stayed together as a team," Bowles said. "The guys played hard, in tough circumstances, in a tough place to play. It's snowing, and we're a team from South Florida, but our guys took it as a personal challenge. They had pride. They played tough."

Again, chances are Bowles won't have much of a shot, if Ross goes star chasing. But he does know the best way to change that. No question, a big step could be taken in Foxborough on Saturday.

Four things I'll look for this weekend

1) The 49ers making a move toward the second seed. Mathematically, San Francisco still is alive for the top spot. Realistically, the Niners are battling with New Orleans for No. 2, and based on the styles that the Niners and Saints employ, the site of a potential divisional playoff between those two teams is important. With a huge win in its back pocket, and on a short week, San Francisco's focus will get tested with a trip to hostile Seattle for a date with the streaking Seahawks. If the Niners win there, they'll go to St. Louis in Week 17 with a chance to secure that first-round bye -- they only have two conference losses, while the Saints have three -- and ensure the only place they'll have to travel to in the NFC bracket is Lambeau Field. So the late game Saturday at CenturyLink Field is a huge one, and one that will provide another test for the mental toughness of Jim Harbaugh's group. Regardless of what happens, you gotta be impressed that they're here.

2) How Tim Tebow holds up in Buffalo. The Patriots' approach in defending the Denver quarterback was to hit him -- over and over again. They made adjustments, too, and that needs to be factored in when examining how Tebow's rushing numbers tailed off as the game wore on. I'd be interested just to see how the Bills, with a coach in Chan Gailey who spent time dealing with the read option in recent years at Georgia Tech, advances what New England did from a scheme standpoint. Considering that, there's a decent chance that, even with the Buffalo run defense struggling, the Bills find a way to pin Tebow in the pocket and make him beat them through the air. One big reason Buffalo has fallen apart of late, however, is that they simply can't pressure the passer from the edges. What does it all add up to? This well could be the week when Tebow has a chance to show how far he's come as a passer.

3) How the AFC West plays out. Would you believe this could be the best division in the AFC next year? OK, so maybe that's taking things a little far, but with some offensive line help in Kansas City, the Chiefs could be legit next year. The Raiders, with better health, have the look of a serious 2012 contender. The Chargers again are showing what they're capable of. And the Tebow hype machine aside, John Fox looks like he's got that whole roster in Denver turning the corner. Of course, this year, that group of teams is bunched together in a muddle of mediocrity. But a closer look shows four teams that have a promising future, with the Chiefs still needing to decide on a coach after the season, and the Raiders waiting until then to find a new general manager. Those two old rivals -- Kansas City and Oakland -- should give us a nice glimpse in an early game on Saturday of what could be to come.

4) Tony Romo in a chips-down situation. The Cowboys' quarterback broke his ribs against San Francisco in Week 2, wore a flak jacket and received pain-killing injections for the six games after the injury. Since shedding the vest, and stopping the shots, here are his numbers through six games: 140 of 200 (70 percent), 1,657 yards, 16 touchdowns, two interceptions and a 117.4 quarterback rating. His team is 4-2 in that stretch, and Romo gave his rookie kicker Dan Bailey a legitimate shot to win the ballgame in both of the losses. You don't hear a lot about all this, and the reason, of course, isn't complicated. When you play quarterback in the place where Roger Staubach and Troy Aikman did, success is measured in rings. And right now, Romo remains with Danny White and Don Meredith, good quarterbacks who failed to ascend to the others' realm. So moments like the next two weeks are important for Romo's legacy. The last time he saw the Eagles was the last time he really didn't play so well, part of a 34-7 drubbing in Philly.

Three conclusions

1) Matthew Stafford will be among the NFL's elite within the next year. You can start here: Few teams are as reliant on a quarterback to drive their offense as the Lions are on Stafford. Maybe as tough an under-the-radar injury as there was over the summer came when Detroit rookie running back Mikel Leshoure popped his Achilles and was lost for the season. With Leshoure, went the team's between-the-tackles ground game, and the Lions' run offense now ranks 28th in the league. Yet, Stafford continually has stood up to the beating and has thrown for 4,145 yards and 33 touchdowns against 14 interceptions. Last week in Oakland was as good a show as any on how far Stafford has come. And next year, with Leshoure returning, some line help presumably coming in the offseason, and Titus Young having a year under his belt, Stafford should have a chance to enter the conversation among the NFL's best.

2) The race for Offensive Rookie of the Year is done. Go ahead and hand it to Cam Newton. A few weeks back, I mulled the idea of Andy Dalton as a candidate, based on his team's success and the efficiency with which he's managed games. But now, Newton's team has just three fewer wins than Dalton, and he's playing for what one executive termed a "one- or two-win team" that coming off a 2-14 season. He's also just 18 yards away from Peyton Manning's rookie passing yardage record, and Newton has rushed for 609 yards and 13 touchdowns. Only DeMarco Murray and Roy Helu have rushed for more yards among rookies, and only one player in the entire league, LeSean McCoy, has more rushing touchdowns. It all brings me back to 11 months ago, when one NFC exec told me, "if you're Carolina, you're gonna have to take a look." Some folks thought I was crazy for writing that. Now it seems crazy it was even a debate.

3) Rob Gronkowski, at 22, is the best tight end in football. I've said this for months: Gronkowski looks like a better version of Jason Witten, which is pretty high praise when you consider the Cowboy tight end's resume. It goes beyond the numbers, which are pretty darn good, too. It's been three weeks now since a third-down throw to Gronkowski didn't move the chains. And as for the numbers, he's second among tight ends, to New Orleans' Jimmy Graham, in catches (75) and yards (1,141) and first in touchdowns (15), having set the record for tight ends in that category and taken the league lead among all receivers. Not bad, for a guy many personnel folks had medical concerns with.

Two pieces of business

1) Could a new moniker be coming to JerryWorld? With naming rights in the news lately -- the Dolphins' stadium will shed SunLife from its title, and the Chargers rebranded their place for the short-term to promote a product of naming-rights holder Qualcomm -- the big deal coming down the pike is, and will remain, Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas. Some thought hosting last year's Super Bowl would be enough to close a deal on that front, like it was more recently in New Orleans and New York. That didn't happen, and finding a suitor who wants to pay the astronomical price tag -- believed to exceed the 25-year deal worth $425-$500 million that the Jets and Giants copped in New Jersey -- isn't the only issue. My understanding is that it's about finding the right partner, as well. The Cowboys also would like to use this deal to add another layer of prestige (i.e. Brooklyn's new Barclays Center) to the stadium. Bottom line: It ain't gonna be McDonald's Stadium. And I'd expect Jones to make a hard run at Super Bowl L, which would be the perfect time to seek out the right Fortune 500 partner.

2) Just how much is Drew Brees worth? There's no question that, to New Orleans, he's been priceless. But in the offseason, the Saints are going to have to come up with a number he'll accept, and it might be a more difficult negotiation than some realize. The last three big quarterback deals -- given to Tom Brady, Michael Vick and Peyton Manning -- provide the explanation why. On the surface, the Brady and Manning deals were worth $18 million a year in new money, and Vick's came in at $16 million, with all three quarterbacks in their 30s. The difference, here, is the structure. Brady was scheduled to make $48.5 million per in the first three years of his deal, a discounted rate for getting the contract with a year left on his old one. Vick's was worth $48-$49 million in Years 1-3. And Manning? His came in at $69 million over the first three years, $20 million clear of the other three, a difference of nearly $7 million per year. There's your divide. The Saints would argue Manning's extraordinary leverage -- his franchise tag was worth $23.1 million -- painted the Colts in a corner. And it's true that Brees' tag is projected to be worth just $14-$15 million. But it's important to remember here that Brees is a) represented by the agency, CAA, that negotiated Manning's deal and b) principled about this stuff as a high-ranking member of the union. It's gonna be an interesting spring in New Orleans.

One prediction

Miami won't be the only team from Florida trying to make a splash coaching hire this offseason.

The Buccaneers have spent considerable time over the last five years trying to expand their market, even going to the home country of their sister franchise, Manchester United, to try to pull it off. New Jaguars owner Shahid Khan already has discussed similar maneuvering.

One way to quick-fix small-market problems is to bring in a big-city type of coach.

It worked wonders for the Glazers with Jon Gruden -- at first, anyway. It could work for both these teams now, too, in getting fans to the gate.

A word of caution, though, would be that whomever that big name is, he'd better win, because the bloom comes off the rose awfully quick in the NFL. For instance, in Washington, I think Shanahan now is employing the right approach, slow-building the operation through the draft. But people don't show up to watch kids mature, something that was pretty evident in my two trips to FedEx Field over the past month, with the place overrun with Jets and Cowboys fans. Doesn't matter that a foundation is being laid by Shanahan and Co., or that the team isn't very far off at all.

The key long-term is, and always will be, winning. That doesn't happen, and your big name will quickly be viewed as a bloated salary, and the calls for the next coach will be on their way.

Which puts you right back where you started.

Follow Albert Breer on Twitter @AlbertBreer

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