NFL Media's Albert Breer touches on multiple topics in his robust Inside the NFL Notebook, including (click on each link to go directly to the topic):
» A debate among NFL evaluators over Kirk Cousins' worth.
» Scouting reports on two Heisman finalists.
» The league's potential reaction to low-hit carnage.
» And much more, beginning with a look at one team with everything on the line in the stretch run ...
IRVING, Texas -- The next three games will define a lot of things for the Dallas Cowboys. And they know it.
When I brought that up to Tony Romo on Thursday, he wasn't hiding from it.
"Absolutely," he affirmed.
It's not hard to tell what the stretch drive means.
If things go to plan at Valley Ranch, the Cowboys will win an NFC East that's as winnable as it's been in a long time. As for the flip side, and the possibility Dallas lands at or under .500 for the fourth straight year, Romo addressed that by saying, "Nah, I don't think about that. I think it could swing positively."
Can't blame the quarterback for sidestepping the worst-case scenario. After all, if things crumble again, some sort of change should be in the offing.
Romo's in his seventh full season as the Cowboys' starting quarterback, and on his second monster contract. Jason Witten, like Romo, is in his 11th year as a pro. DeMarcus Ware is in his ninth season and he, like Witten, has gone through a statistical decline in 2013. Meanwhile, their coach, Jason Garrett, is just under seven years removed from returning to Dallas as the pedigreed, blue-blooded offensive coordinator destined to become head coach.
Point is, the window that was once wide open is now just cracked. The championship hunt has become a year-to-year proposition. Everyone sees it, and it's why the urgency around this place is so immediate.
"We'll worry about these three games," said COO Stephen Jones, when asked how the next three weeks could shape the direction of the club. "You only get so many years to play, they know that. That's why these three games are critical. It's doable. And Tony, Witten, Ware, (Jason) Hatcher, Miles (Austin), they'll stand up and lead this team. I have every confidence in the world knowing they will."
What we know about the 2013 Cowboys is that they've shown flashes, but aren't consistent -- and when it goes wrong, it looks like they wouldn't be able to keep Southlake Carroll High School out of the end zone.
Monday night in Chicago was like that, as was last month's blowout loss in New Orleans. The good news is Dallas has survived the body blows to remain in contention deep into December, with a chance to clean up what's gone awry.
"We've been resilient," Jones said. "We've had ups and downs, and had to overcome some things. At times, we've played well. At other times, it's looked like the injuries have taken a toll on us. I still believe in these guys. They're fighters. We went in the ditch a time or two, but they've responded. They lost to New Orleans, then beat a hot New York team and Oakland at home. I expect us to respond again."
And the bad news?
The defense's struggles don't appear to be much of an aberration. The move from Rob Ryan to Monte Kiffin at coordinator looks like an out-and-out disaster, with Kiffin's unit ranking dead last in total defense, just off the pace to allow the most yards in NFL history. Meanwhile, Dallas is 22nd in total offense, well en route to finishing in the bottom half of the league on that side of the ball for the first time since Dave Campo was coach.
All of which means no one's exempt.
"We have to play better," Jones said. "All the way around, there's room for improvement. We need to be better on offense, on special teams, and obviously we need a lot of improvement on defense. We're 32nd there, and we gotta own that. But we're getting players healthy -- we're probably the healthiest we've been -- and now we have every chance to improve."
It needs to happen quickly, for obvious reasons, and even if the Joneses aren't publicly calling people's jobs into question, those who work for them know the score.
Last year's 8-8 finish was met with a detonation of half the coaching staff. Similar disappointment this year probably won't go unpunished.
"There's an unbelievable amount of urgency with where we're at," Witten told me. " 'Jobs on the line' is a relative term, because it's the NFL, that's the world we live in. But there is a mindset of -- the last couple years, coming up short -- wanting to overcome that. And you believe you have the guys to do that, and so you gotta go out and do it. It's a tough league. The leaders on the team have to put it on themselves to be able to overcome it."
When I asked Jones directly if Garrett and the players were coaching and playing for their jobs over the next few weeks, he simply answered, "We're worried about these three games. We're not worried about the future right now. ... All hands on deck. We'll address the rest of it when the season is over."
How quickly that happens, of course, will play a role in the way that course is charted. What we know is that an organization that always has outsized expectations hasn't lived up to them for some time. And a core group of players is well aware of that. Romo doesn't need a reminder. He knows the legacy of his group is on the line and that, based on the uniform he wears, he'll ultimately be judged by what's in his trophy case.
"That's a good thing. You want that," Romo said. "Who wants to play for second? You want to be part of an organization that has that ability, and has done great things. That's a great thing to have. We all want that."
Truth is, there's no telling how many chances are left for these guys to get it.
Kirk Cousins: Hot commodity or bona fide backup?
On the other hand, the young passer also could hit it really, really big.
Cousins' best interests actually coincide nicely with those of a franchise that's been light on high draft picks the last two seasons, and will be again in May. If Cousins plays well, his value increases, and the Redskins might find themselves -- no matter who's coaching -- in an enviable spot to replenish their portfolio of picks.
It's possible Cousins becomes a hot commodity. His strong preseason play doesn't hurt the cause, nor does the one outstanding start he had nearly one year ago while filling in for Robert Griffin III. And word that Mike Shanahan's staff is actually very high on its backup quarterback -- and his $570,000 salary for 2014 (remember, he can't, by rule, get a new contract until 2015) -- is an additional positive on the periphery.
Now it's up to Cousins to gain the faith of someone outside of Washington. Plenty of questions still exist.
One pro scouting director watched tape of every snap Cousins has taken in 2013 (including the preseason) for us on Thursday, and said the second-year man reminds him of another young quarterback:
"(Cousins is in) the same genre as Nick Foles, but has better arm strength and athleticism. He's a quick decision-maker that knows where he wants to go with the ball, anticipates well, (and has) good toughness to stand in the pocket versus pressure looks and deliver the ball. Ultimately, I think he's an above-average starter who you would love to have as your backup. Like Foles, he can win games for you if he has weapons around him."
I then asked if he'd trade a high pick for Cousins, and this is where you'll see the debate.
"As my starter, no," the pro director responded. "I just don't think he's worth giving up a high-round pick for when, in the end, you're gonna be looking to replace him."
However, an AFC personnel executive said Cousins has "the potential to be a starter." Over the next three weeks, he said, Cousins needs to "win, for one. Move the offense, provide a spark, avoid turnovers, and you'd look for touchdowns over field goals and third-down success." As for if he's worth a high pick, the exec opined, "It only takes one (team), and these few games may have a strong influence on the answer."
So as the rest of us (rightly) focus on the Griffin drama, and its connection to Shanahan's and the franchise's futures, Cousins' play looms as a pretty important subplot.
The upcoming quarterback draft class doesn't have a slam-dunk guy -- each of the name prospects have holes -- so there's a pretty good chance the veteran market will dictate some of what happens in May, and not the other way around. With a couple good weeks, Cousins could be right there with Jay Cutler as a pivotal figure.
Browns building a bully on defense
A bad couple minutes of football caused the Browns to fall from fourth to seventh in total defense this week, but it shouldn't cloud what's become abundantly clear: Although the new Cleveland regime has a lot of work to do, it also has a lot to work with on that side of the ball.
In the final 2:39 of last Sunday's 27-26 loss at New England, Tom Brady went 10-for-12 for 93 yards and two touchdowns and benefitted from a shaky pass interference call that gifted another 29 yards. But before that? The Browns had held the Patriots to 14 points, and Brady, though he had run up 325 yards, was just 22 of 40 with a pick. And it took the Pats more than 43 minutes to get anything on the scoreboard.
"We've been trying to say it's a building process with the players," Browns defensive coordinator Ray Horton said. "We have a bunch of young players, and we've done a lot of things extremely well. One area where we were not good was on third down, but then, since the Kansas City game, we've been outstanding there. Some things aren't broken, and then other things, we've fixed."
The idea, in Horton's mind, is to raise the bar. And he's done it with his players by pushing numbers to the forefront.
Going into last week's game, he informed the unit that it was 267 yards behind Seattle in total defense, and just 34 yards out of third place. He has constantly reminded the group it has a chance to become the highest-ranked defense in the New Browns Era -- they need to be better than 10th to accomplish that feat.
"I think it works in a couple ways," Horton said. "It's a motivational thing, a pride thing. We have a shot to do something that hasn't been done here. That gives them a sense of pride. You work hard to do your job better, and be the three things we preach -- accountable, dependable and responsible. You do all you can to help your team win. To be that high in the rankings, that would be a heck of a thing for such a young group, to be able to say, we did our job for the team -- week-in and week-out -- playing defense."
D'Qwell Jackson is the heart and soul of the unit, but there are numerous foundation pieces. Before the year, Horton challenged Joe Haden to become elite, and the coordinator believes his star corner has done just that. T.J. Ward has become a force at safety and Tashaun Gipson is a nice piece to pair with him. Along the front, Horton says Ahtyba Rubin has played at a Pro Bowl level, and Phil Taylor, Barkevious Mingo, Jabaal Sheard and Paul Kruger complete an impressive young group.
Even better, eight of the nine players named in that paragraph are 27 or younger.
Yes, there are questions going forward. The Browns likely will try and lock up Haden, and they could franchise Ward. But the future most certainly looks bright.
Horton, to his credit, knew he wasn't inheriting a mess when he came over from the Arizona Cardinals this past offseason. In fact, during one of his first meetings with the players, the new coordinator asked good players to stand up, and everyone did; then great players to stand up, and everyone did. Now, the challenge becomes sustaining this level of play.
"We talk about the longevity on our defense, and what we can accomplish. It's a system, but it comes down to good players," Horton said. "I said to them, 'That's all we need.' We've got good players, and that's all we need. We're building a reputation and that's not built over one game. It's built over a season, it's built over years. Our goal is not to be a flash in the pan."
1) Carson's renaissance. Count me among those who were skeptical that Carson Palmer would have much left in the tank when Arizona acquired him in the spring. And count me among those now pointing out that the Cardinals' recent surge is in large part directly attributable to improved quarterback play. In the six games since Arizona got handled at home on a mid-October Thursday night by Seattle, Palmer has been pristine, completing 69.3 percent of his passes for 1,717 yards, 12 touchdowns, four picks and a 106.8 rating. No coincidence: The Cardinals have gone 5-1. Right tackle Eric Winston told me something has clicked for his quarterback. "I don't want to be speaking for him, but it definitely feels like, whatever it's been, and not that it wasn't there before, but now with Carson, it's like, bam, and he's firing on all cylinders," Winston said. "It just takes time, even for an eight-year or 10-year vet, it takes time to let a new system marinate in. You can't expect someone to go into a playbook, especially one as thick as ours, and for it to click right away. Carson's just now starting to trust the receivers, the backs." That's not to say he's the long-term answer for Arizona, not by a longshot. But it's clear that picking up Palmer has given the Cardinals, with a talented roster overall, a better-than-good shot to compete.
2) Bengals ready to roll? Cincinnati's inability to finish the season as strong as it'd like has carried over to the playoffs in each of the last two years, and the players there did indeed think about how best to fix that problem as this November drew to a close. Captain Andrew Whitworth told me the players and coaches deduced that the team wasn't playing a physical enough brand of ball when it mattered most. And it's starting to look like the Bengals have fixed that problem. Cincinnati rolled up 164 yards on 38 carries in its 17-10 win over San Diego on Dec. 1, following up that performance with 155 yards on 35 carries during last Sunday's 42-28 trouncing of the Colts. The man under the microscope, Andy Dalton, rebounded from his November swoon, completing 65.5 percent of his passes for 465 yards, four scores, one pick and a 105.9 rating in those two games. One reason why: Whitworth moved inside to guard because of injuries and has proven to be a rugged, bulldozing presence there, to the point where he might be more valuable at that spot than he was at left tackle. Either way, it's fair to say the Bengals have the look of a more playoff-ready team than they did in 2011 or '12.
3) Cutler isn't the only decision the Bears have coming. Marc Trestman's determination to stick with Jay Cutler shouldn't surprise anyone -- no matter how well Josh McCown is playing. If either of the two is a franchise quarterback, it's Cutler. The Bears aren't winning a championship this season, so the most important thing for them is to get as clear and thorough an evaluation as possible of Cutler in the new offense. And what's really interesting here is that the quarterback decision could work to guide some other calls. Julius Peppers (33), Lance Briggs (33) and Charles Tillman (32) combine for almost 100 years on the planet, and there are other areas of the roster where Chicago still leans on older players. If the Bears do decide to move forward with Cutler, who'll be 31 in April, it makes sense to hang on to some of those guys. Conversely, switching gears at quarterback could mean switching gears elsewhere. With that in mind, it's not difficult to surmise why seeing more of No. 6 now is the right call in Chicago.
4) Houston presumably moving forward with its current core. Texans owner Bob McNair reaffirmed to me earlier this week at the Special League Meeting in Irving, Texas, that GM Rick Smith is safe, that he wants an experienced hand to be his head coach, and that he'd like the search wrapped up in "three to four weeks." So what does it all mean? Apparently, that Houston plans to go forward with the current core. And that will be a challenge. If the Texans cut QB Matt Schaub, there'll be $10.5 million in dead money on their cap. Add that number to the 2014 cap charges of eight other current Texans, and you get about $76 million -- or more than 60 percent of the projected cap. Of those eight players, four are currently on injured reserve and four are over 30. Now, if Houston didn't think the window were still open, it wouldn't move forward this way. But it certainly will be tricky for Smith and Co. to continue to build around Andre Johnson, who turns 33 in July, and Arian Foster, who has a lot of mileage on his tires and just had back surgery.
1) The projected 2014 salary cap of $126.3 million is representative of the slow growth we've seen under the new collective bargaining agreement -- it was $120 million in 2011 and $120.6 million last year, and is $123 million this year. But the 2015 figure is the one to watch. The new TV deals kick in next fall, so 2015 will be the first to factor those into the equation, and the cap formula is heavily weighted on broadcast money.
2) It still seems like John Harbaugh doesn't quite get the credit he deserves. He's the only coach in NFL history to win a playoff game in each of his first five seasons, and he's deftly guided the Baltimore Ravens through a retooling this fall and back into contention.
3) It was interesting to hear Tony Romo empathize with Aaron Rodgers' fight to return from a broken collarbone. The Cowboys QB suffered the same injury in 2010, and like Rodgers, Romo was expected to miss six weeks or so. It became a 10-week injury for Romo -- when the Cowboys fell out of contention, they shut him down.
Two college players to watch Saturday
With no games this weekend, we'll focus on a couple of finalists for the sport's biggest individual award:
1) Florida State QB Jameis Winston (Heisman Trophy Presentation, 8 p.m. ET, ESPN): The Heisman favorite is, again, not draft-eligible. But as a player, Winston's skill set might be superior to any other college quarterback. So while NFL folks have yet to really dig in on him, it's been impossible not to take notice. "He's a big athlete," one AFC college scouting director said. "He's erratic at times with his arm and inconsistent reading defenses. He'll make bad decisions and that big receiver, (Kelvin) Benjamin, bails him out of trouble. But on the positive side, he's very gifted, he has great size and strength. The energy he runs the offense with makes the offense run, and he's got very talented players around him." Another AFC college scouting director said, "You can't help but notice he's a talented passer with the physical tools -- arm, accuracy, mobility. And he looks to be smart and aware as a decision-maker." And so, the 6-foot-4, 227-pounder probably will take home some hardware Saturday, and get a closer look soon from the folks at the next level.
2) Auburn RB Tre Mason (Heisman Trophy Presentation, 8 p.m. ET, ESPN): Mason runs into the same problem that Oregon backs have over the years: Their production is deemed more a result of an innovative, effective run scheme than their individual talent. As one NFC GM said, "He's a solid runner, but my gut is the offense is really the engine that drives the production." The upshot? His big-game effectiveness in 2013. Mason gashed Alabama for 164 yards on 29 carries, and bled Missouri for 304 yards in the SEC title game. He even went for 132 yards in the Tigers' one loss, to LSU. The second college director from above said, in those showings, he saw, "good speed, balance, burst and vision" and added that while Mason "lacks size," he "has shown up on film each year before this one" (when Gus Malzahn arrived on the Plains). Bottom line: Mason should intrigue clubs that employ passing-down backs on a more regular basis.
Earlier in the fall, we addressed a string of controversial comments made by Brandon Meriweather, emphasizing that the veteran safety was somewhat correct in saying defensive players now need to go low in certain circumstances.
Such a circumstance arose on Sunday in Foxborough, and as a result, Rob Gronkowski's season is over.
We've heard plenty of players saying they would rather take a high hit than a low one, because their legs are their money-makers. And the league is listening.
When I asked Gronkowski's boss, Patriots owner Robert Kraft, if the league needs to address hits like the one executed on his star tight end, he responded, "It's complicated. We have folks who are spending a lot of time on it, and we'll weigh in with them on thoughts, but I don't want to give quick analyses. It's just very, very unfortunate."
So here's what's happening. The competition committee does plan to review ways to take certain low hits out of the game, but it's not a reaction to what happened to Gronkowski. If there's a hit that's factoring into this review, it's the one Texans rookie D.J. Swearinger laid on Dustin Keller in the preseason.
On that play, Swearinger went low on Keller while the Dolphins tight end was in the act of catching the ball. And I'm told it's likely the competition committee will come up with a proposal to label receivers in that spot -- pulling the ball in -- as defenseless and outlaw shots below the thighs on them. Conversely, it's far less likely that we'll see new legislation banning low hits to players who are simply running in the open field, as Gronkowski was.
It's not easy to separate what's OK and what's not in these situations, of course. There always will be hits that simply are chalked up to being part of the game.
Follow Albert Breer on Twitter @AlbertBreer.