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NFL still will court college coaches despite Greg Schiano's woes

Associated Press
(From left) Penn State's Bill O'Brien, Stanford's David Shaw and Texas A&M's Kevin Sumlin could draw NFL interest.

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

» Marvin Lewis and the gritty Bengals' good start.
» How Tom Brady became the teacher he never envisioned he'd be.
» The third-round draft pick who's giving the Cardinals first-round play.
» And much more, beginning with college coaches' chances at landing top NFL jobs ...

Greg Schiano's Tampa Bay Buccaneers are 0-5, so his future is tied to the final 11 games of this season. And many believe those games will help shape NFL teams' perception of college coaches entering the next hiring cycle.

Whether or not that should be the case is another matter.

"I don't think it should," one NFC team executive said. "You can't look at one category (of coaches) and say this blanket idea applies. So you're not going to hire (Stanford coach) David Shaw because of Schiano? Well, what if you wanted to hire a really high-profile position coach? Should you not do that because of Raheem Morris? If you break these things down, there are hits and misses in each category. Where they come from, their background, has no bearing. If it did, everyone would fish from the same pond."

That, as matter of fact, is correct.

NFL Media studied every head-coaching hire made over a 14-year period (2000-13) and presented that list to a handful of decision-makers within the league. The only decisive conclusion they drew from looking at the list is there isn't one to be made. Ninety-four head coaches have been selected over the last 14 hiring cycles -- 46 NFL coordinators given their first NFL head-coaching shot, 26 men hired soon after leaving another NFL head-coaching job, along with 11 college head-coaching types, nine NFL position coaches, one college coordinator and one CFL coach.

Eight of those 94 men have won Super Bowl championships.

Four of them (Bill Belichick, Tom Coughlin, Tony Dungy, Jon Gruden) were in their second NFL head-coaching stints. Two (Mike McCarthy, Sean Payton) had been NFL offensive coordinators. One (Mike Tomlin) had been a defensive coordinator. And the other (John Harbaugh) was hired after one year as a secondary coach, which followed a long run as a special teams coordinator.

Meanwhile, two of the 11 college coaches (Jim Harbaugh, Pete Carroll) still were standing during the divisional playoff round last season, one of them made the Super Bowl, and both have teams that remain among the league's elite. And they aren't the only ones having earned respect.

"Look at Doug Marrone (of the Buffalo Bills). For having an average team, and as much as people make of Schiano, they should be making more of what he's doing," a second NFC team executive said. "Doug's doing a really good job with average talent. Does that not count now?"

All of this, of course, isn't to rubber-stamp the idea of college coaches being hired into the NFL. It just shows how much of a crapshoot the whole thing is.

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If Schiano doesn't turn it around in Tampa and winds up being fired, a dent will be left. The question will be how far-reaching the damage is.

"I think it'll be tough for a certain type of head coach -- the Schianos, the Sabans," one AFC college scouting director said. "Those guys are in complete control, and that's where you see the difference between a pro team and a college team. Those guys, in college, control the AD, they control the media, they control everything. I think those are the types that will start falling by the wayside."

Two NFL executives brought up Notre Dame's Brian Kelly as one coach who could be hurt by this dynamic, because of the league's sense of how he runs his program. The college director raised Ohio State's Urban Meyer -- who's never shown any desire to go to the NFL anyway -- as another coach who might be viewed differently in the wake of Schiano's struggles.

Other college coaches, most league executives believe, would be just fine. Penn State's Bill O'Brien should be in demand again. Texas A&M's Kevin Sumlin probably will be, too. Both Shaw and Northwestern's Pat Fitzgerald are alums of the programs they lead and considered to be tough gets, but they still could be pursued. Washington's Steve Sarkisian is well-regarded in pro circles and seen as a future NFL coach. One exec identified Air Force's Troy Calhoun as a dark-horse candidate.

So college coaches will continue to land on NFL head-coaching lists. And environment might be most important when making a hire.

The San Diego Chargers and Jacksonville Jaguars were retooling their teams and could afford to grow up with young coach/GM tandems. The Kansas City Chiefs, on the other hand, had a veteran roster that had gone through considerable tumult, so a steady veteran hand such as Andy Reid was needed.

Remember, there was a time when Carroll was considered "perfect for college," the same way Belichick once was tagged "just a coordinator." As it turns out, both just needed the chance to build teams that better matched their personalities.

Bengals grow up, get tough


Expectations for the Cincinnati Bengals entering 2013 couldn't have been much higher, so the fact that they're 4-2 after six weeks won't turn any heads.

What's interesting is that the uneven early moments have been most encouraging internally. Overcoming four turnovers and a 16-point deficit to outlast the Green Bay Packers in Week 3. Riding out critical penalties at the wire to knock out the New England Patriots in Week 5. Playing field position down the stretch to squeak by the Buffalo Bills in Week 6.

"The old Bengals would've just given up," linebacker Rey Maualuga told me. "We have so many leaders on this team that step up and say what needs to be said on the sideline, and when we go back on the field, it's go time. I won't say this is the new-and-improved team, because this is the same team. We just found something inside that says, 'OK, hey, it's time to go.' "

Maualuga is right: It's not a new team. It's a more grown-up one, which is part of the vision coach Marvin Lewis had when he reworked the roster a few years back and adjusted the Bengals' draft philosophy to put a heavier emphasis on character. That has allowed Lewis to lean on his team leaders in those tough spots.

Lewis is hesitant to say a corner has been turned. But he sees progress.

"We're mentally stronger," Lewis said in his office Thursday. "They have that kind of resilience. But I'd say the season is more like an oval. There's a corner (to turn) every foot or so. That's the way I see it. It's a continual process you go through every week, and every week, there are new challenges. And I think the resilience and determination of the guys will help keep that mindset going forward."

Talent isn't much of an issue, outside of quarterback Andy Dalton needing to elevate his game in big spots, which proved problematic for Cincinnati the last two postseasons. Lewis, owner Mike Brown and director of player personnel Duke Tobin have the Bengals' roster where it needs to be.

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The hope, of course, is there will be breakthrough moments when that ability shines through in the coming weeks. But the players' energy in slogging through the grind, the Bengals believe, is important, too.

"They're not afraid to hold each other accountable, which is a huge step, to pull a guy up and take him with you and not leave anybody behind, don't let anyone fester, don't let anyone worry about himself, keep it focused on the team," Lewis said. "And I think that's good. That's part of professional sports: To minimize the selfishness and maximize the selflessness."

The Bengals also know that the next step in their maturation and growth can't be proven out until January -- by logging their first playoff win since the 1990 season. But they're confident that'll happen if they stay the course.

"That's not who we want to be," Maualuga said. "We're tired of that. The city of Cincinnati is tired of that. Like I said, we would've lost to New England, we would've given up. We would've lost to Green Bay. We aren't losing those games anymore."

School's in session for Brady, young Patriots receivers


A few hours after his New England Patriots beat the New Orleans Saints in dramatic fashion, Tom Brady called it "a special day" in an email.

One reason why? Everything the Patriots have been through this year, particularly on the offensive side of the ball. Wes Welker is gone, Aaron Hernandez is in jail and Rob Gronkowski still hasn't taken the field (though doctors have cleared him to play against the rival Jets on Sunday). Other injuries, such as those to Stevan Ridley, Danny Amendola and Shane Vereen, have sunk additional best-laid plans.

I've talked with Brady several times about all the turnover, and he's consistently reluctant to position himself as a coach to all the new guys. But his own actions provide the best evidence that it's exactly what Brady has become.

As we discussed last Sunday on "NFL GameDay Morning," Brady has called his rookie receivers to do film work with him on Tuesdays, which is the players' off day. Brady can't compel the rookies to come in. They must do it on their own, and they have, which explains why Brady has spoken so highly of the effort Kenbrell Thompkins, Josh Boyce and Aaron Dobson have put forth.

"He wants us to be great, and I'd thank him for pushing us this hard," Dobson said. "It's a challenge, but he's doing it for us to be great, and I respect him for that. That's what we have to do."

Dobson said the Tuesday film sessions focus on getting everyone to see what Brady does when he looks at an opposing defense, allowing the Patriots to better adjust on the fly. To accomplish that, Brady breaks out anything, from film of OTAs and/or minicamp to old tape of Welker and Deion Branch.

"We don't see the same thing that he sees through his eyes," Thompkins said, "and to actually have him here and telling us what he wants, that helps us a lot. When you get adjusted to that pace and seeing exactly what he wants, and then you do it the way he wants, you're, 'OK, now I see what you're seeing.' "

There's no hiding the fact that the group has experienced rough moments, some of which TV cameras captured, with Brady being animated and blunt with his teammates. Dobson explained: "You can't take that part personal. He's a perfectionist. He wants everything to be perfect. You can't take it personal. You have to learn from it and do it right the next time."

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Where the rest of us see harsh Brady, the younger players being indoctrinated into a complex, evolved scheme see a broader picture. It hasn't been perfect, but there's evidence it's working. Last season, T.Y. Hilton and Josh Gordon led all rookies with 50 catches apiece. Thompkins and Dobson now are on pace for 56 and 51, respectively, and both believe they have their quarterback to thank.

"He's the coach on the field," Dobson said.

"He's been a teacher since Day 1," Thompkins added.

Even if that wasn't Brady's intention from the start.

Four downs


1) Honey Badger gives Cardinals a second first-round draft pick. Arizona's actual first-rounder, Jonathan Cooper, won't play a down this season because of a broken leg he suffered in the preseason. But the Cardinals still have a rookie who's playing like a top-10 pick. One team official said Tyrann Mathieu, a third-round selection, has been "all we expected, and then some." Playing safety and slot corner, Mathieu has emerged as Arizona's best tackler, a legitimate weapon as a blitzer and a top-notch inside cover man, allowing a passer rating south of 65 entering Thursday night's game. I did an extensive story on Mathieu in May, and Cardinals general manager Steve Keim told me then that "he could be the best playmaker in the draft." Doesn't seem so crazy anymore. Keim has started his reign with a hot hand. He plucked Andre Ellington in the sixth round, and the running back might be Arizona's most explosive offensive player. Keim also grabbed Alameda Ta'amu off the scrap heap, and the nose tackle has started three games. Mathieu and Ta'amu show how coach Bruce Arians' strong presence has allowed the Cardinals to take at-risk players.

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2) Robert Griffin III's next step. Coming off a bye week and with a quarter-season under his belt, RGIII indeed looked like a new man Sunday night at Dallas. It appeared he had the green light to run with abandon, and that's just what he did in ripping off 77 yards on nine carries. As long as the Washington Redskins properly manage their quarterback's running load, that's fantastic news. But as I wrote last month, the biggest remaining hurdle has nothing to do with Griffin running in a straight line. His completion percentage still is below 60, and he had a few bad misses against the Cowboys. Three weeks ago, Packers players told me the goal was to get linemen around Griffin's feet to create uncertainty in his movement, which is how most defenses like to test quarterbacks coming off a knee injury. Whether or not this is a result of that, one NFC personnel director observed that Griffin indeed was inconsistent setting up and teams are testing him in different ways: "He's not very good throwing outside the numbers or reading coverages." That helps explain why 2013 is such a massive challenge for Griffin. There's the rehab, then the natural growth he needs as a quarterback with the NFL having a year of film on him.

3) The case for Keenum in Houston. This much is clear: The Texans aren't married to the idea of finishing the season with Matt Schaub as their quarterback, so Case Keenum now has a chance -- a chance -- to stake his claim to the job, starting with Sunday's game at Kansas City. He wasn't bad the last time he was a team's starter, throwing for 5,631 yards and 48 touchdowns with just five picks as a senior at the University of Houston. I went back to a scout who evaluated Keenum then and asked if he's surprised by the quarterback's quick ascension. "Nope," the scout responded. "I loved him coming out of school. I thought he'd be a really good No. 2 who could spot start. They have enough talent around him where he could very well excel." Keenum was undrafted partly because of his height, limited athleticism and injury history. The fact that he had a noticeable limp during his final collegiate season didn't help. But the scout said, based on his work, it's not out of the question for Keenum to evolve into a starter. "Yeah, he can," the scout said. "Tireless worker. Outstanding competitor. Loves the game. Extremely smart. He doesn't have standout physical traits -- his arm and athleticism are just OK -- but he's smart, accurate and tough." Should be interesting to monitor this one.

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4) Cowboys' contract conundrum. Jay Ratliff was cut this week, but Dallas will keep paying for him, with the defensive tackle counting for $3.45 million on this year's salary cap and $6.93 million on next year's. Ratliff, Tony Romo, DeMarcus Ware, Jason Witten, Sean Lee, Miles Austin and Brandon Carr are set to account for roughly $86.7 million on the cap next year -- that's about 70 percent of the alloted space committed to seven players, one of whom isn't on the team anymore. Considering that figure, you'd have to assume Anthony Spencer, who's injured, will be a goner next year, wonder if one or two of the players on the list could be gone, and understand how complicated it might be to re-sign Dez Bryant, who'll be in a contract year in 2014.

Three checkdowns


1) Two early season results that surprised some: The Carolina Panthers blowing out the New York Giants in Week 3, and the San Diego Chargers handling the Indianapolis Colts on Monday night. The commonality? Both winners have first-year GMs plucked from the team they beat, which is to say Carolina and San Diego had pretty intimate knowledge of their opponents' staff and personnel.

2) The trade deadline is less than two weeks away, and here's an important reference point for everyone: Only in the most desperate situations (see: Freeman, Josh) will a team ever admit to shopping a player. That doesn't mean such players aren't available.

3) Emmanuel Sanders is an interesting name to watch on the trade market. The Pittsburgh Steelers matched an offer sheet that the wide receiver signed with the Patriots in the spring, forgoing the chance at a third-round pick. At 1-4, the Steelers might be receptive to getting someone for a player who'll likely bolt after the season.

Two college players to watch Saturday


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UCLA QB Brett Hundley (at Stanford, 3:30 p.m. ET, ABC/ESPN2): I spoke to one NFC executive who didn't believe Hundley should be a first-round draft pick. Another NFC personnel exec disagreed, with a caveat: "He has big-time arm talent, and great athletic ability and speed, but he makes quite a few questionable decisions in every game. Someone takes him inside of 20. But he's not ready yet." Here's the thing: We all know how quickly these things can change, particularly at quarterback. And this game -- against a big, tough, pro-style Stanford defense -- is one of those that can change minds. The second exec said it's important this week for Hundley to "manage the game and not force throws like he always does." Hundley can make a statement here.

Florida State LT Cameron Erving (at Clemson, 8 p.m. ET, ABC): It seems like every other NFL team has offensive line issues, so it's a good thing the well isn't dry in the college ranks. Erving is an intriguing prospect, having been a defensive tackle just two seasons ago before becoming the anchor of the Seminoles' O-line. The issue here is consistency, and the redshirt junior surely will need to be consistent while facing the nation's sack leader, Vic Beasley. "He just had a horrible game against Boston College (last month), but he does have a lot of ability," one AFC college scouting director said of Erving. "If he goes out and does a good job, he'll solidify himself in the first round. After BC, you're thinking, maybe he needs to stay in (school). ... He'll work out really, really well, but he has to put together some good film. This is the game to do it."

Extra point


I spent six weeks covering the Peyton Manning-Colts divorce in 2012, and I've spoken to Jim Irsay twice in the last week about his emotions entering Sunday night's showdown at Lucas Oil Stadium.

Trust me when I say that I sincerely believe there was no malice toward Manning in Irsay's recent remarks.

I included in last week's notebook what I thought was central to Irsay's point: He now believes the Manning-era Colts were built on a flawed model. ("So the vision when I brought (Ryan) Grigson and (Chuck) Pagano in was to have a really well-rounded team," he told me.) When Irsay raised the Patriots, Steelers and Giants -- all multiple-time Super Bowl champions -- his point was that those teams, while plenty good at quarterback, could pull other levers to win when it mattered most.

In a way, Irsay was saying the Colts could've done more for Manning, not the other way around. And if you look at it, as the Patriots became more Brady-centric, relying on their passing game, they began to have a harder time winning in January, too -- and since have worked to revert to the old model.

I understand the storyline here. It's a fantastic, unique situation. I also know Manning didn't leave Indy without some hard feelings. He's an incredibly accomplished athlete who was, in essence, fired. And I'm more than aware that it'd be foolish for Denver Broncos coach John Fox not to try to tap into those emotions with an important game upcoming.

Let's just not call this something it isn't.

Follow Albert Breer on Twitter @AlbertBreer.

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