Philip Rivers' rebirth, Johnny Manziel's NFL prospects and more

In his robust Inside The NFL Notebook, NFL Media's Albert Breer touches on multiple topics, including (click on each link to take you directly to the topic):

» What the NFL thinks about Texas A&M star Johnny Manziel.
» Tom Brady's temper.
» An examination of the Trent Richardson trade.
» And much more, beginning with a progress report of the reinvention of Philip Rivers ...


Now 15 minutes into his workout on the elliptical at the San Diego Chargers' complex and a little short of breath, head coach Mike McCoy paused and made sure to be very clear with his words.

Philip Rivers is his quarterback now -- and going forward.

"Without a doubt -- there is no doubt in my mind," McCoy said into his cellphone on Tuesday afternoon. "I've said that since Day 1."

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To be sure, plenty of questions, after the past two years of rocky play from Rivers, have been asked. In 2011 and 2012, Rivers' completion percentage dipped below 65 for the first time since 2007; over 32 games, his touchdown-to-interception ratio was a pedestrian 53:35.

At least for now, though, critical talk has quieted down. Through two games this season, Rivers has completed 65.8 percent of his passes while putting together a 7:1 TD-INT ratio and a 115.8 QB rating -- some 27 points higher than he managed in 2011 and '12.

Of course, with just two weeks in the books, it's way too early to draw conclusions about anything in the NFL.

What we know is that the early selling points presented by McCoy to Chargers owner Dean Spanos and just-hired general manager Tom Telesco back in January -- days after McCoy participated in the Denver Broncos' crushing divisional-round loss to the Baltimore Ravens -- are playing out between the white lines.

Back then, McCoy asserted to the San Diego brass that Rivers' problems would be best fixed by improving those around him. That meant better coaching, better players and better solutions to problems in general.

"I told Dean that everyone in the organization needs to do better," McCoy said. "Phil's one of the best in the league, and I was confident that if everyone around him was doing their job better, he'd be fine."

The process in getting him there, in fact, was the same approach McCoy employed with all of the quarterbacks in his past, from Steve Beuerlein, Rodney Peete and Jake Delhomme in Carolina to Kyle Orton, Tim Tebow and Peyton Manning in Denver. And it's pretty simple: Install the system; let the player acclimate, get it down and build belief in it; then, adjust the system as needed around the players.

McCoy entrusted hand-picked coordinator Ken Whisenhunt and quarterbacks coach Frank Reich -- both of whom, like McCoy, are rooted in the Dan Henning scheme -- to do most of the work for and with Rivers.

"Frank and Ken put the tapes together to do the install, and used Indy, Denver and Arizona -- those were good examples," McCoy said. "From Day 1, we said to Phil, 'Let us install it first, and then you buy in, and if you're used to having things called differently, speak up as we go.' If there are things that don't make sense, we can talk about it. We'll change if we need to. The thing is, everything you do is all off the quarterback. He has to be comfortable. If he's not, you've got two strikes against you."

The proof, for Rivers, was in McCoy's track record. As offensive coordinator for the Broncos, McCoy helped Orton pass for more than 7,400 yards in two seasons, then rewired the offense as an option attack for Tebow -- getting Denver to the playoffs -- before finally reverting back to a more traditional attack for Manning last season. Similarly, Whisenhunt's two most accomplished quarterback pupils -- Ben Roethlisberger and Kurt Warner -- were vastly different players.

The point here is, and always was, to have a system malleable enough to work for whomever is taking snaps. As McCoy put it: "Do what they do best. I don't care what we run. As long as the quarterback likes it, we have a chance. If he doesn't, we don't."

In Rivers' case, that meant there had to be some give and take.

Rivers is an accomplished deep-ball thrower, so McCoy built in elements to accentuate that part of Rivers' game. On the flip side, though, the coach emphasized two things to his new quarterback. First: If the checkdown or flat route is there, take it -- don't hesitate because you want to take a shot. Second: If nothing's there, it's OK to throw the ball away.

The best part, for the coaches, was how eager Rivers was -- in part because of the newness of everything -- to learn.

"It was the same thing with Peyton," McCoy said. "You get reenergized because it's something different. Every day, there's a new wrinkle, something added, and you're excited to do it different than you have."

Bringing in pieces like first-round pick D.J. Fluker to the offensive line helps, as does juicing up old assets like veteran receiver Eddie Royal.

And that brings us back to the original point, which is what McCoy sold Spanos on in the first place. There's still a long way to go. The wheels could come off. Anyone who follows the NFL knows that. But the hope in San Diego is that by doing enough to get the right people around Rivers, the Chargers are giving Rivers himself a chance to prove -- with his 32nd birthday just three months away -- that he remains the right quarterback for the franchise.

"He's one of the fiercest competitors I've ever been around, and I saw that twice a year in Denver," McCoy said. "He made some poor decisions the last couple years, but so does every quarterback. The offensive line struggled, so he'd throw off his back foot. They got behind, so he'd force things. Everyone had to be better around him."

And, McCoy added, by doing that, "he could get back to playing like he's supposed to. Just have fun. Enjoy what you do. Trust the system, make good quick decisions, play the next play, no matter what happens. And we kept telling him: 'You're a damn good football player.' "

At least, through two weeks, Rivers finally looks like one again.

Eagles strongly believe Chip Kelly's program is sustainable

On Thursday night, Chip Kelly's mile-a-minute offense hit its first significant speed bump -- one that sent it careening into a ditch in a 26-16 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs. The Philadelphia Eagles did manage to pile up 431 yards from scrimmage, but only entered the red zone once (failing to punch it in when they got there), turned the ball over five times and scored roughly half the amount of points they averaged in the season's first two weeks.

The test of time will tell where this one goes.

The truth is that most people I've talked to in the league believe what Kelly's doing can work conceptually at the NFL level. Whether it holds up over the long haul or not, NFL folks think, will come down to two factors: the quarterback's health and, on the larger scale, the ability to execute this style of play with a 46-man game day roster, rather than one with 85 players on scholarship and over 100 dressing.

In terms of general sustainability ... Remember the guys on Kelly's staff with the funny job titles? The players think that this is where those guys -- the sports science guys -- come in.

"The biggest thing I can say is that a lot of NFL teams aren't incorporating what colleges are doing," DeSean Jackson told me the other day. "So for him to have a college program and bring it here, and everyone buying into it, everyone sees the difference that it's making as far as recovery, and doing the things that we have to do to keep that pace."

Players are leery about getting into the specifics, but allow that it's far more comprehensive than the typical pro program. It emphasizes recovery above all else. And it doesn't stop at the facility's security gate, with Kelly and Co. educating on how a raucous social life can affect performance.

"At the end of the day, he's not asking us to do anything that's not beneficial to us," veteran receiver Jason Avant said. "As grown men, we have the option, but it's great to know that someone has the gall to state what needs to be done. Now, he can't make anyone do it, but he'll tell you this is what needs to be done in order for us to win."

One person who has definitely taken to Kelly's program is Michael Vick. While the quarterack has been exposed to punishment in the offense, entering Thursday's game -- Philly's third in 11 days -- Vick said that he felt "fresh" coming out of each of the first two games. In his 11th NFL season, he's enough of a vet to know there's a long way to go. But so far, so good.

"It's the way we recover, it's the things we do," Vick told me on Tuesday. "I can't really tell you exactly what we do. That's between us. But the way we recover, and the way we take care of our bodies, and at the same time push our bodies to the limit, it's hard to explain. Sometimes, we feel like we can't sustain, we can't make it through, but then we do. It's all mental."

And as for the scheme fit, for Vick, that part is academic.

"Absolutely. Absolutely," he said. "I hate talking about it, because I don't want to get too far ahead of myself. I wanna stay humble and stay hungry. And that's what I'm gonna do. I'm just thankful that I'm in the position that I'm in."

Now, if the Eagles can clean up the sudden rash of missteps -- they had just two turnovers total over the first two weeks -- Vick will stay thankful.

Where does Johnny Football stand?

When I called around about Johnny Manziel this week, what came back was interesting -- and illustrative of the sea change taking place at the quarterback position. Is Manziel unconventional? Sure, if you go by history, he is. But maybe not so much looking forward.

"Nowadays, you have to be special as a pocket passer to get away with being just that," said one area scout who attended Texas A&M's 49-42 loss to Alabama -- a highly anticipated (and highly entertaining) contest in which Manziel accounted for 562 total yards and five touchdowns. "It's essential to have mobility to make it. I know he's 5-foot-11, 6-foot, but I believe, with the way the league is going, with the success of the mobile quarterback, if he can grow up and study and work, he can be successful."

The simple scouting report for Manziel, at this point, reads like this: Average NFL arm strength, above-average accuracy, excellent athleticism.

From a physical standpoint, Manziel's size is the biggest issue. And, as the scout said, "It's not about his height, it's how he's built. He's a smaller-frame guy. He doesn't have the body type to get bigger, and that concerns you."

One comparison out there -- and one AFC GM said it was fair -- is to Russell Wilson. The big difference is that while Wilson is also short, he's built like a tailback, which allows him to withstand punishment.

Then, of course, there are the well-documented off-field concerns.

"He has to overcome some obstacles, and one, really, is himself," said the AFC GM, who thinks Manziel is a second- or third-round pick, as it stands now. "He has to prove he has the maturity to lead 53 players, to take it serious. You're dealing with a lot of people's livelihood; everyone in the organization will have to rely on him to take it seriously, to not miss meetings, to not be late. It's one thing if a receiver or running back does that. It's another if it's the quarterback."

And there are things that will need to be examined. Because of the 20-hour rule in college, there's only so much that players can do inside their school's facility. Whether Manziel is putting in extra work -- and whether that would happen in the pros -- is a question many will try to answer. Another thing that will be investigated is his football IQ, which is hard to gauge, as his off-the-charts instincts often take over.

The most common NFL comparison I've heard when it comes to Manziel is to Jeff Garcia, a four-time Pro Bowler who went to the playoffs with three franchises. Last year, Ty Detmer's name came up. This year, it's Wilson. But in any case, because Manziel does look different, he figures to be one of those "it only takes one team" prospects who will probably draw wildly varying grades from different organizations.


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"You have to have an unconventional offense to build a team around him, which is difficult to do," the AFC GM said. "And you see what happened with Washington (and Robert Griffin III); you build around him, (then) he gets hurt, or he's just not 100 percent, and now what do you do? ... It's difficult, because you have to have a backup plan, and it's easier with a conventional quarterback to find a conventional backup. With Philly, how do they function if Vick goes down? That's the risk."

Going forward, Manziel needs to prove he's maturing, and probably has to pack on a little bulk, too. But even if he can't be viewed like a traditional pocket passer, clubs already have a pretty good idea of what he is as a pure football player: an awfully intriguing prospect.

Four downs

1) The quarterback market is packed. Speaking of QB prospects, one college scouting director commented this week that more teams than normal are doing work on -- and sending out high-level personnel people to see -- signal-callers at this early juncture. The director surmised it's "because there's a lot of potential" in the class, "but no sure thing." Teddy Bridgewater is the presumptive first guy, but his hold on that designation isn't necessarily permanent. Redshirt sophomores Marcus Mariota (Oregon), Brett Hundley (UCLA) and Kevin Hogan (Stanford), as well as Manziel, could shake things up, while fifth-year seniors AJ McCarron (Alabama), Tajh Boyd (Clemson), Derek Carr (Fresno State) and David Fales (San Jose State) are in the mix, too. That, of course, is a lot of names.

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2) Checking up on RGIII's status. The Washington Redskins' feeling now is that the most important hits Robert Griffin III takes are the ones he absorbs from within the pocket. Against the Green Bay Packers last Sunday, there were consecutive plays -- on a second-and-7, then a third-and-7 in the first quarter -- that featured Griffin throwing off balance when it wasn't necessary to, leading to a Redskins punt. Then, in the second quarter, he went too far in the other direction, standing in and taking an enormous shot from Davon House. The lesson here is that Griffin still seems to be getting his feel back. I asked Packers coach Mike McCarthy for his assessment, and he said, "I think we're gonna see him more comfortable. I mean, he's human. He's gotta play. It's hard to go the whole preseason and not play quarterback; that's a challenge." Which is -- and really has been -- the logical conclusion to make.

3) Tom Brady's fiery approach. Having covered Brady for most of the past decade, I was surprised to see, well, the surprise over the firebrand demeanor that the quarterback displayed during the New England Patriots' offensive fits and starts in a Week 2 win over the New York Jets. This is not new. His sideline blowup with ex-offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien in Washington in 2011 was caught on camera. There was the shot that made the back page of the Boston Herald in 2005, of Brady chucking a water bottle in frustration. There were several examples with a transitioning offense in 2009, including the time that Brady muttered "It's not (bleeping) hard" to Joey Galloway. And that carried over with a younger group in 2010. Even after the offense turned a corner that year, during a November game in Pittsburgh, Brady huddled his group for an upbraiding caught by the TV cameras. I did ask Brady a week ago about his visible frustration, and whether he has to be more patient with the youngsters around him. He said he does. But he said there's a place for the tough-love approach, too. "It's both; that's the way I learned, and I've seen other guys respond really well to that. I think you just have to naturally feel it, and if you sense things aren't going well, you change things up." This will be monitored, of course, from here on out.

4) As the Jaguars turn. The quarterback prospects in the draft are going to get a good look from the new Jacksonville Jaguars regime, which hasn't exactly hidden its feelings about where the team is from a rebuilding standpoint. The club has made 10 waiver claims over the past four weeks, turning over 20 percent of its roster in the process. Having to deal with the absences of quarterback Blaine Gabbert, tight end Marcedes Lewis and receiver Justin Blackmon -- and having to incorporate claimees like Stephen Burton and Clay Harbor on the fly -- has only made the growing pains more visible on Sundays. And it also shows why -- aside from a lack of love for the quarterback crop of 2013 -- Dave Caldwell, Gus Bradley and Co. didn't even use a later-round pick on a signal-caller this year. The roster simply isn't ready to provide the right environment for one. Maybe it will be next year, but because of these circumstances, don't expect the Jags to overreach then, either. And give the team credit; people commonly pledge to build slowly and methodically before getting swept away in the moment, but that's not happening in Jacksonville.

Three checkdowns

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1) The live experience. Given that, with fierce competition from the in-home product, the NFL is keeping a close eye on stadium attendance, Sunday night's matchup between the San Francisco 49ers and Seattle Seahawks at CenturyLink Field should provide everyone with a valuable lesson. As is the case at big-time colleges, the games need to be events going forward.

2) Cincy's new toys. The Cincinnati Bengals' offense didn't look great Monday night, but we did get a glimpse at the two keys to real growth: rookies Giovani Bernard and Tyler Eifert. As intermediate weapons, they fit quarterback Andy Dalton, and are ideal for making teams pay for overcommitting to A.J. Green.

3) Heart of a Texan. It's worth pointing out the grit that the Houston Texans -- who didn't exactly exude resilience last December and January -- have displayed. They scrapped past a feisty Tennessee Titans team (one that I believe to be legit) on Sunday, six days after rallying from 21 points down to beat the Chargers, and that counts for something.

Two college players to watch Saturday:

1) Arizona State DT Will Sutton (at Stanford, 7 p.m. ET, FOX): Colleague Bucky Brooks just raised issues about the Sun Devils' star; as luck would have it, Sutton gets a chance to answer the NFL's doubts in short order with a trip to fifth-ranked Stanford on the docket. One NFC exec compared Sutton physically to Jets rookie Sheldon Richardson; he said that, at worst, Sutton will go in the second round, and quite possibly the first. However, as Bucky pointed out, Sutton will have to prove he's capable of staying in shape to get there. And the other thing? We know he can get to the quarterback (13 sacks last year), but the power-running Cardinal will give him the chance to show he's complete. "He can show he can play the run," texted the NFL exec. "He's proven he can pass rush, and Stanford will be the best between-the-tackles running team he faces."

2) Tennessee LB A.J. Johnson (at Florida, 3:30 p.m. ET, CBS): Just about no one on the Vols' defense looked competent last week against the supersonic Oregon Ducks. Johnson, a potential high draft pick and three-year starting middle linebacker in his true junior season, has an immediate chance to atone. One AFC area scout assigned to the SEC said that playing an athletic -- if not overly productive -- Florida spread offense should give Johnson a shot to display "his range, his playmaking ability in space, and his ability to blitz and cover." Johnson will have to do that to prove he can be a three-down NFL linebacker.

The extra point

The big Trent Richardson deal has been posed as a win-win in some circles, as these things often are. But there is significant risk to both sides, too.

For the Cleveland Browns, blowing up the tailback position could well hamper the development of other players on offense. There's also no telling where the pick will land, since the AFC lacks depth and the Indianapolis Colts could be capable of making a serious run. On the flip side, the new Browns regime rightly saw Richardson as a player who didn't necessarily fit, and who might not be at the top of his game when Cleveland is finally ready to contend. Given that they felt that way, and given that a No. 1 pick had been offered, it's hard to imagine they would have passed up on the deal.

The Colts, meanwhile, have given up a high pick for an established player for the second straight year. Last year, Indy was without a second-round pick, thanks to the Vontae Davis deal. And the Colts dealt away their fourth-round selection in 2014 to get Montori Hughes in the fifth round this year. Having fewer picks means they have a smaller margin for error. Conversely, Indy is getting a player who, the Colts believe, has the feet and run strength to mesh with offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton's scheme, one who looks like a supersized version of Hamilton's Stanford backs.

"Indy got a good back, but is he special?" asked a rival AFC exec. "They get a guy they think is what they want to be in the run game, but to forfeit a (No. 1) at a position that (has) proven to be one you can solve outside the first round is tough. And for Cleveland, you see the new brass is less inclined to be connected to the previous regime's players, and it may also speak to how they feel about the position as a replaceable commodity."

In short, it's a simple piece-for-piece deal that is complex in its meaning. But maybe most of all, it's a window into how each team's brass sees its roster, with one rebuilding and the other very clearly fancying itself as a serious contender.

Follow Albert Breer on Twitter @AlbertBreer.