Inside the NFL  

 

Blueprint for interim coaches, 49ers' resurgent defense and more

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):

» How the 49ers' defense got its groove back.
» Why no one should worry about Tom Brady, despite his slow start.
» Why draftniks should tune in to one particular college football game.
» And much more, beginning with a blueprint for the Broncos and Texans to follow as their respective head coaches recover from health scares ...

No one wants to go through what the Denver Broncos and Houston Texans experienced last weekend.

But Bruce Arians is here to tell them that good -- and plenty of it -- can come from the darkest times.

In fact, when Arians reflects on 2012, a year when he was charged with temporarily taking over the Indianapolis Colts for leukemia-stricken friend Chuck Pagano, almost all of the memories are fond ones.

Was it difficult? Sure. Was it satisfying? Even more so.

"Oh gosh," Arians said over the phone Thursday afternoon as he prepared for his ninth game as head coach of the Arizona Cardinals. "In my 37 years coaching, that was the most gratifying season by far."

So it stands to reason that a similar opportunity awaits in the offices that John Fox and Gary Kubiak were forced to vacate this week. Maybe Jack Del Rio will be the bridge to a Denver run at a championship. Maybe Wade Phillips can help spark a turnaround in Houston.

What's clear, from speaking to Arians and Colts general manager Ryan Grigson this week, is that it's not simple. Sure, there's the emotional shot in the arm a team might get, but there's also a mountain of logistical challenges in sustaining that over time with such a big piece to puzzle taken away.

And that's part of it, too: If what Arians and the Colts went through last season was easy, it wouldn't mean so much.

With all that in mind, and with help from two of the principles in last season's fairy-tale run, here's a list of things the Colts saw as key in keeping the sticks moving over the three months Pagano was absent:

Keep the head coach present. Pagano had his hospital room set up as a coach's office and constantly texted and talked with players and assistants. Just about every Wednesday morning, he handed the scouting report for all three phases over to the staff, and he set team goals for each week. Pagano wasn't there, of course, but the important thing was that his program continued to be.

Arians spoke with Del Rio on Tuesday night and simply told him, "Just keep the head coach in the presence of the team." He'd have said the same to Phillips, if the Texans and Cardinals weren't playing this week.

"There was never any doubt who the head coach was -- I wouldn't allow it," Arians continued. "I didn't even like the term 'interim.' I referred to it as an 'expanded leadership role.' I was talking to the special teams and the defense and instructing more people, but that was really it. It worked."

Keep communicating. One of the challenges in the above is making sure everything the players hear remains consistent, with a different voice out in front day to day. For the Colts, that meant not only constant communication but organized communication. To that end, Arians and Pagano would meet every Friday to go over what the players had heard from the interim coach and would hear going forward.

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"There were times when I wanted to make sure, and I'd check with Chuck and see if he'd texted anything to the guys, just to make sure we were all on the same page," Arians said. "As he got healthier and healthier, it became constant. That was so important, we couldn't have anything that made it look like we were on different pages. The practice schedule, meetings, all that stuff was set."

Keep a handle on the details. With a little more on everyone's plate, every minute counts. For the Colts, that meant the small stuff had to be managed, even things like Pagano's radio show. In part to make sure Arians wasn't misrepresented as full-time head coach (Arians was adamant about keeping it Pagano's team), and in part to free up time, the Colts set up a rotation where assistants would host the program. And it would've been hard for anyone to let details like that slip, because Pagano himself wasn't letting it happen.

From his hospital bed, the head coach would text practice-squad players he'd never met to point out something he saw on that day's film. "Guys he'd never coached," said Grigson, who randomly recalled Isaiah Green as one of these players. "There were a lot of players he was doing this with that other coaches wouldn't give the time of day to. He's just a ballcoach."

Keep flexible. To some degree, everyone picked up the slack, and that meant breaking job descriptions. Pagano's special assistant, James Bettcher, moved on to the field and started coaching. Quarterbacks coach Clyde Christensen, Indy's offensive coordinator from 2009 to 2011, filled in some blanks for Arians. Grigson and Arians had to collaborate more when the injury bug hit.

"It just evolved," Grigson said. "We had to trust each other. In terms of personnel, I'd say, 'These are the guys we're looking at,' and he'd help, and in a lot of cases, with 13, 14 guys on IR, we'd have to put the players out there. We just rolled with it. Everyone rolled their sleeves up."

Keep together. Game day could be a challenge, too. Arians turned his back to the field to coach up the offense far less than he normally would. He delegated rules and challenges to a young assistant. He had Christensen on some details. It worked because everyone was on board.

"It was uncharted waters, and the way everyone handled it was unbelievable," Arians said. "Getting to the playoffs, when we were plugging in players left and right, what a great experience. We'd have a D-lineman off the street and you'd be like, 'Who was that who got that sack?' Ryan was great. Mr. (Jim) Irsay is the best there is. It was a cohesive effort."

In the end, thanks to the game plan detailed above, the Colts achieved their stated goal of extending their season long enough to see Pagano back on the sideline.

The light in his office stayed on. The challenge was met.

"We were not turning that light off, and everyone in the building knew it," Arians said. "We were keeping Chuck in front of the team every day. It was, 'If Chuck said this, you need to do it.' He'd text and stay in touch with everyone. And then when things got real bad, when we'd break, it wouldn't be '1-2-3 Hard Work!' or '1-2-3 Team!', it was '1-2-3 Chuck!', because all those things were what Chuck is."

Grigson still shakes his head thinking about it, as unique as it was: "Everyone's thinking we're at the bottom of the league, and just the way Bruce kept the thing going for Chuck to come back for the last game, it still hasn't lost its luster in my mind."

So you can excuse these two if, where so many others see the Texans and Broncos in tough spots, they see opportunity.

Welcome back, Niners' D

The standard for defense in San Francisco was raised a notch when the new 49ers regime came aboard in 2011, but as the franchise collected figurative bouquets on the way to its sixth Super Bowl in February, a funny thing happened: The way the team was winning changed.

The 49ers allowed 34, 42, 13, 31, 24 and 34 points, respectively, in the final three regular-season games and three playoff contests last season, with the "13" coming in Week 17 against an Arizona Cardinals team on the verge of firing its coach. And it carried over to this season, with San Francisco allowing 28, 29 and 27 points, respectively, in its first three games.

What in the name of Patrick Willis was happening?

"Some of the games you're alluding to there, in that stretch last year, we were playing some good teams and some elite quarterbacks," 49ers defensive coordinator Vic Fangio said Wednesday night. "But the bottom line, we just didn't play as good as we needed to. And then this year, what happened early, we got behind the eight ball on field positions and turnovers and just didn't answer the bell in some of those spots. I think our play's been fairly consistent overall. Not that much has changed."

Except on the scoreboard, where San Francisco has given up 61 total points in its last five games (all wins), or an average of 12.2 per contest, which is 16.9 fewer than the 29.1-point average it allowed over the aforementioned nine-game stretch. Over the first 31 games of the Harbaugh Era, leading into last year's swoon, the Niners allowed 14.8 points per game.

Even more amazing is that the surge happened just as star edge rusher Aldon Smith left the lineup to enter rehab, following a Week 3 blowout loss to the Indianapolis Colts. Maybe the prospect of losing Smith for an extended period gave the defense a jolt. Maybe it didn't. But something happened.

"That's an intangible. I don't know if I can quite put my finger on that one," Fangio said. "But we sure knew we had to pick it up, losing a really good player for five games. And Dan Skuta and Corey Lemonier came in, held the fort down and did a nice job -- Dan in the base and Corey in the sub. Were we as good as we would've been with Aldon? No. But it didn't hurt us as much as it could've."

Part of the reason it hasn't slipped much is because of that standard. And Fangio coached defense for five years in Baltimore, so this isn't the first time he's seen this kind of thing. At some point, in places like that, the players have a way of saying enough is enough and correcting the issues, which is what's happened of late in San Francisco.

"We've set the bar pretty high, and when we don't reach it game to game, we're disappointed," Fangio said. "Our guys believe in what we're doing, so when it doesn't work out for a series, a quarter, a game, they're extremely disappointed -- and the good thing is they look at themselves, not other people. ... In a way, it's just like (Baltimore). We don't have the flamboyant leadership they did, but Justin Smith, Patrick Willis, NaVorro Bowman, Donte Whitner -- they're tremendous leaders.

"In a way, all our guys are leaders and all are held accountable. When you don't do the job, you let all 11 down."

This week, Fangio gets to add Smith back to that group of 11 -- Fangio told me he'll take it slow with Smith early, then adjust as he sees fit during the game -- and that should be a pretty scary thought for everyone else.

The key to Josh McCown's fill-in success? Friday night lights

Here's a stat you wouldn't expect to see: Josh McCown was at the controls for the Chicago Bears' second- and third-greatest offensive performances in their 55 trips to Lambeau Field, with both coming in prime time within the last 23 months. And here's something you might not believe: Coaching high school football has been one of the keys.

First, the background.

Two years ago, during the NFL lockout, McCown worked with kids at Marvin Ridge High School in suburban Charlotte, N.C., near where he and his wife settled their family, to pass time as much as anything. He went to camp with the 49ers that summer, was cut on a Friday and wound up on the field that night after Marvin Ridge's coach asked him to help out. The Mavericks eventually lost in the second round of the playoffs, Jay Cutler injured his thumb that week, and McCown signed and played in Chicago for the rest of the season.

In 2012, a similar scenario played out. McCown was cut by the Bears on a Friday at the end of camp, and hours later, his wife was waiting for him at the Charlotte airport with a coaching polo -- he actually worked the final two quarters of the Mavericks' game that night. Marvin Ridge, again, lost in the second round and, again, Jay Cutler happened to go down that week, this time with a concussion, which opened the door for McCown to return to Chicago.

So McCown has almost two full seasons of coaching experience under his belt, without having sat out a full season of playing.

"It was unique for me," McCown said. "And I tried to approach it the same way I do playing and put time into it. I want to be good at it, I want to help the kids get better, and it's such a great way to teach life lessons. I learned so much through it."

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And, as it turns out, he became a better player, too.

As McCown explains it, the toughest adjustment about moving from player to coach is the loss of control. Once the huddle breaks, your work is done.

"You stop at the sideline, and that extension of you is out on the field," McCown said. "Whether they execute the play the best they can depends in part of how you communicated it to them and coached them. The onus is on you to do that to best of your ability, so you better know what you're talking about. Anything you know well, that's what you'll be able to communicate the best."

Coaching forced McCown to learn the jobs of all 11 players and have the answer to every question. It wasn't "they only play these coverages, so I'll be OK," as McCown said used to be his thought process. It became a quest to have all the answers to every test.

Of course, the high school schemes McCown coached and coached against weren't nearly as complex as what he'd run or played against in the NFL. But the principle of knowing things inside and out transferred right over, and it has paid off with his NFL career extended. McCown also got to know himself better, that he's a visual learner who needs to be very deliberate in both digesting the information and dispersing it to others.

McCown said he doesn't have the old "if I knew then what I know now" regrets, but he's passing on the way he's grown to younger players now and believes, as Cutler returns to the Bears' lineup, that he's playing the best ball of his career.

Coaching indeed might be next for McCown, who said he'll probably do it at some level, maybe the pros, maybe just high school. The cool part for him is the message he's given the kids -- that the feeling he got for those Marvin Ridge playoff games is the same one he gets coming out of the tunnel at Lambeau Field -- is one he's still living through now, long after many expected he'd be done.

Four downs

1) Tom Brady will be back. Look at these numbers: Nine starts, 59.2 completion percentage, 15-to-9 TD-to-INT ratio, 83.7 passer rating. Doesn't strike you as Brady-like, does it? Those were his numbers going into Week 11 in 2006. The New England Patriots came into that season stripped of two important pass-game targets and ended it by scoring 34 points in an AFC Championship Game loss. This year, Brady has lost two important pass-game weapons, dealt with a number of other injuries, and his numbers in the above categories are 57.1, 13-to-6 and 82.7. The point is, chances are Brady will be all right. And here's another thing: I think he really likes how his young guys are working, coming in on days off and doing all that's been asked. "Whatever extra (they need to do), they've done to put themselves in a position to help us," Brady told me. "A lot of work on Monday and Tuesday, and constant communication in practice on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday -- they've been out there every day. You can't make up for years and years of experience, but you can try to do as much as you can do in a short period of time. Those guys have worked really hard." The Patriots still have plenty to work through. I just doubt, if they bow out early in January, it'll have anything to do with No. 12.

2) Quarterback depth remains at the forefront. Josh McCown's story is a good example of a team stumbling into a quality backup, and in places like Tennessee and Green Bay, the importance of having the right hold-the-fort guy has been highlighted. Most teams are sunk if their starter goes down for the season. Shorter-term injuries can be managed with the right guy behind the starter. That was part of why Ron Wolf would draft a quarterback every year when he was Green Bay's GM, and why the fact that Ted Thompson has only taken one over the last five years could cost the current-day Packers. Others have learned their lesson. The Pittsburgh Steelers' depth issues at the position came to roost in 2011, when a limping Ben Roethlisberger could barely make it through a 20-3 loss in San Francisco. If Pittsburgh had won that game, it could've become the AFC's No. 1 playoff seed. The Steelers instead lost the AFC North title to the Baltimore Ravens and were Tebow'd in the wild-card round. So in 2013, Pittsburgh invested a fourth-round draft pick in Oklahoma quarterback Landry Jones, even though Roethlisberger isn't going anywhere.

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3) Eight years in, Reggie Bush finds the right fit. The most common comparison Bush got coming out of USC was to Marshall Faulk, and now it looks like he finally has found a place where he's being used that way. Even taking the one game he sat out into account, Bush is on pace for 1,828 yards from scrimmage, which easily outdistances the career-high 1,382 he went for in 2011 and the 1,307 he had as a rookie in 2006. "It's because of the system, the way I'm used," Bush told me. "It's pretty even. When I was in New Orleans, it was more passing. When I was in Miami, it was a lot more running and very little passing. Here's the best of both worlds for me." And for a Lions team that badly needed someone to take the heat off Calvin Johnson, Bush has been doing just that.

4) Carolina's defense is shining. Got a message from veteran cornerback Drayton Florence after his Panthers smoked the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday, simply saying "Top Defense in the League." He wasn't kidding, and I wouldn't have known unless his message prompted me to look it up, that Carolina indeed has allowed a league-low 106 points. It's probably no coincidence that the Panthers have been particularly dominant since moving second-year dynamo Luke Kuechly, a legitimate Defensive Player of the Year candidate, to the middle of Sean McDermott's 4-3 defense. Cam Newton will get a lot of attention in advance of this Sunday's showdown with the 49ers, but first-year GM Dave Gettleman has a fairly well-rounded team here.

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Three checkdowns

1) The Tennessee Titans were my preseason AFC sleeper, and they're still very much alive in the wide-open race for the conference's sixth and final playoff spot. The key could be Jake Locker's health. The closer the quarterback is to full speed, the more creative offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains can get.

2) Don't look now, but the Cleveland Browns are fourth in total defense. And it's no mirage. This team has pieces in Joe Haden, T.J. Ward, Phil Taylor and Barkevious Mingo, among others. It's already a good enough group to keep the team in every game. Based on age and talent, it could grow to be more.

3) Chip Kelly swore up and down in the spring that he didn't need a quarterback with a receiver's 40 time to run his offense in Philadelphia. Guess we should've listened.

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Two college players to watch Saturday

1) Alabama safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix (vs. LSU, 8 p.m. ET, CBS): At just 20 years old, Clinton-Dix has two years as a starter under his belt and brings every athletic aspect you could want in a safety. In fact, he's good enough to get by on his tools alone most weeks. LSU provides a different challenge, with Clinton-Dix likely to be pushed both physically and mentally by a loaded Tigers offense. "Start with (facing Jeremy) Hill," said one AFC area scout who covers the Crimson Tide. "And I think both receivers (Jarvis Landry, Odell Beckham) can stretch the field, and run and go up and get the ball. So I'm anxious to see his range versus the receivers and his physicality against the running back. He has to prove his consistency. He flashes, but that's it. I don't trust him as a top safety yet." Clinton-Dix was suspended for two games when allegations that he accepted improper benefits popped up, and both his off-the-field and football character have been questioned by scouts, so evaluators have more than a few layers to work through here.

2) LSU QB Zach Mettenberger (at Alabama, 8 p.m. ET, CBS): Most weeks, we'll feature two games in this space, but LSU-'Bama has become such a showcase for future pros, it merits making an exception. Mettenberger has flourished under former NFL offensive coordinator Cam Cameron, with his completion percentage jumping seven points from last year, his yards per attempt going from 7.41 to a gaudy 10.79, and his big improvements in footwork showing how coachable he is. But a three-interception hiccup against Ole Miss has scouts wanting to see more. "Right now, I can't say he's (a first-round draft pick)," another AFC area scout said. "We've been waiting on this game, and he's shown at times this year he can be. Look at the Georgia game. He sure looked like a first-round QB. There's not a throw he can't make. But the three interceptions against Ole Miss took everyone back to last year. He had been ascending to the first round." Games against 'Bama are the first ones that GMs and execs pop in when looking at any SEC prospect, so the lights will be on this week. "We're not evaluating arm strength here," the scout said. "We'll be evaluating what's between his ears -- decision-making, poise under fire and consistency."

Extra point

The Richie Incognito-Jonathan Martin saga is far from over. And after Thursday night's rather aggressive statement from the Martin family's freshly hired adviser, David Cornwell, it'd probably be foolish to try to guess where matters turn next. This thing has taken on a social context, and if some buzz out there is correct, the drumbeat on that could get stronger with more evidence bubbling to surface.

Here's one thing we know for certain: Football culture isn't much different than it was when I, or anyone else reading this, was growing up playing.

It's why, from the start, Miami Dolphins players have been angrier with Martin than they've ever been with Incognito. It's also why, at the end of the day, if neither guy ever plays again for Miami, it'll likely be easier for Incognito to land another job.

Simply put, there are tons of guys in the league on second chances. Pacman Jones got one. So did Johnny Jolly. Ricky Williams got a third and a fourth. So after the dust settles, it's not hard to envision Incognito getting a new start, if he wants one.

Martin, on the other hand, would need to prove to another team that he can fit into its culture, after failing to do so in Miami, and earn the trust of teammates who are sure to be well-versed in this affair.

One NFC pro personnel director agreed that "it'd be easier to bring Richie in than Martin. Guys would be on eggshells dealing with Martin, and that's not good for a cohesive locker room." On Incognito, the personnel director continued: "I feel like very few players have an issue with what happened. (And) he'd be forgiven pretty quickly by those who had an issue."

An NFC personnel exec agreed: "Without question."

That's certainly not a politically correct point of view, but in the NFL, it's a prevailing one.

Follow Albert Breer on Twitter @AlbertBreer.

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