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):
" How Josh Gordon's return will impact the Browns.
" Two intriguing prospects to watch on Saturday.
" The absurd play of Aaron Rodgers and Green Bay's offense.
And much more, beginning with a coach's candid appraisal of his embattled quarterback. ...
ASHBURN, Va. -- The fire wasn't put out entirely here on Wednesday, but it was at least controlled for the time being.
And now, what Jay Gruden, Robert Griffin III and the Washington Redskins are left with -- putting aside the press-conference and social-media missteps -- is the sobering reality of where their hopes for 2014 have gone.
The first-year head coach isn't gonna sugarcoat it. Being 3-7 is a problem; the quarterback position is a part of it; and one way or another, it's up to everyone here to find a way to fix it over the next six weeks. The alternative, as he's said, is a rough and honest evaluation of where the team stands come January.
So I asked Gruden late Wednesday afternoon how Griffin needs to prove himself. He responded bluntly.
"Consistency. Just consistency," Gruden said. "Since the preseason, in the games that he's played, our production from an offensive standpoint has been awful. I think five touchdowns in all the drives he's played, for whatever reason, and that's not good. We're still trying to figure that out."
As the coach said, the truth is more than bad. It's a mess.
Griffin has directed 33 full Redskin possessions in 2014, excluding a kneeldown and a Hail Mary, as well as the drive he was injured on against Jacksonville in Week 2. The results: fourteen punts, six turnovers, five touchdowns, four field-goal attempts (two missed), two turnovers on downs, along with one drive that was stopped at the end of a half and another that finished at the end of a game.
That's not all on him, of course, and Gruden concedes the timing of his injury didn't help, either, robbing the quarterback of reps and the coaches of time to get a feel for how to build a game plan and call plays around Griffin. But even if it is a work in progress for those reasons, progress isn't coming quick enough.
"We have a guy behind him that played pretty well, and people are looking, 'OK, he's 2-0,' " Gruden said, of Colt McCoy. "There's always pressure on the quarterback to perform. And if you don't perform, like any other position, somebody's behind you pushing you."
You can chalk some of it up to Griffin's bastardized development. In 2012, Kyle Shanahan imported large chunks of the Baylor offense to create a comfort level for a quarterback the team had to play right away. Then, RGIII got hurt. And he went through bumps last year, and lost confidence, and eventually was shut down.
So Griffin, 32 starts into his NFL career, is still very much the project he was three springs ago. Asked if he considers the quarterback raw, the coach doesn't hesitate: "Oh yeah. Very raw. Very raw."
"They did a great job with him that first year," Gruden said. "They had the element of surprise with that zone-read, the pitches off of it; they did everything to utilize him. But then he got hurt, and they weren't able to do a lot of that stuff. And now, OK, you gotta do more dropback concepts, and he struggled. And he had the injury, so they shut him down. And then I came."
Since, the problems have been twofold. First, because he's a different type of quarterback, and because he missed those six weeks, Gruden says it's been "very difficult" for the staff to get a handle on the best way to build an offensive identity around him. Second, because he saw very few coverages as a rookie -- since the Redskins ran an option offense -- and has been banged up since, he's still behind in learning how to match up and adjust offensive concepts against defensive schemes.
Griffin's numbers aren't terrible. But to stare at those and validate his play would be like declaring the Lakers healthy because Kobe Bryant is leading the NBA in scoring.
"It's a production-based business. We haven't won many games lately with him," Gruden said. "We gotta figure out a way to get in the end zone. We just have to score. I don't care how we do it. If it's running the zone-read, I don't care. Quarterback sneaks, I don't give a damn. We gotta find a way to utilize him where we can get productive drives and stay away from negative plays and have some consistency."
And yes, the off-field stuff is a factor, too. One Redskins source acknowledged there is an element of Griffin fatigue in the building now: "We just want him to stop talking and play. He has to outperform all the antics."
"His biggest thing, he's been coddled for so long. It's not a negative, he's just been so good, he just hasn't had a lot of negative publicity," Gruden said. "Everybody's loved him. Some adversity is striking hard at him now, and how he reacts to that off the field, his mental state of mind, how it affects his confidence, hopefully it's not in a negative way. I read Drew Brees said after a couple interceptions, 'I'm never gonna lose confidence, I'm gonna come out firing all the time.' "
The coach wants Griffin to be that way now. And Gruden said that he's seen cracks there, too, where Griffin is unsure of what he's looking at, which leads to sacks and turnovers in spots where the quarterback should be letting the ball fly. (You can ask DeSean Jackson about that.)
"The big thing is negative plays," Gruden said, "way too many."
And all of this leaves everyone in D.C. in a weird spot. Come early May, the team will have to make a call on Griffin's 2016 option (which would cost $16.12 million, based on a projected $143 million cap). Gruden has been frank in saying that the organization still has to assess its future at quarterback.
"He's auditioned long enough," Gruden said. "Clock's ticking. He's gotta play. We'll see. ... We want Robert to excel, we really do. But the last two games, it hasn't been very good, anywhere. We gotta play better around him. And the biggest thing for us as play-callers, and for him, we just have to come together and jell with plays he's comfortable with. That takes time. But we don't have a lot of time."
Griffin's relationship with the owner, the draft picks he cost the team, his face-of-the-franchise standing -- all of that could also come into play later. With six games left, only this much is clear: The honeymoon for Griffin in D.C. is most assuredly over.
1) Patriots keep growing. When New England was at its lowest point -- days after the Kansas City debacle -- I asked Tom Brady if the problems were fixable. His answer was that he'd know "by the end of the season. It just turned October. There's a lot of football left to play." And while he wasn't sure where things were going, Brady said he felt like he could be a positive influence and did like the makeup of the locker room: "It's a competitive group. We're not gonna back down to anybody or anything. We've all been challenged in our lives at different times. And I think this is gonna show, over the next few months, what we're made of." So now we can see what they're made of. The Patriots have gone from 29th to seventh in total offense, 23rd to 13th in rush offense, and 30th to ninth in pass offense. It is, in other words, fixed. How? Two things stick out. First, after shuffling through a number of interior-line combinations, the staff settled on Dan Connolly as the left guard, rookie Bryan Stork as the center and Ryan Wendell at right guard. Second, part of the problem early on was that the lack of a big-play threat allowed defenses to smother the Patriots' slew of complementary parts at receiver -- a problem that Rob Gronkowski has alleviated emphatically. And with that worked out, offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels has shone, adjusting his play-calling as the offense has grown. Hard to argue with the results, as the unit preps for the top-ranked Lions D.
2) Second chance in the front office? Over the past four hiring cycles, seven guys have been given second chances as NFL head coaches -- and with Andy Reid, John Fox and Jim Caldwell carrying the flag, there's been more good than bad. Bill Belichick, Tom Coughlin, Jon Gruden and Tony Dungy are just the most recent examples of men who won championships in one place after being run out of town somewhere else. So here's my question: Why don't you see many -- or really, any -- shots taken at retread GMs? Going through all 32 teams, there's only one GM (Washington's Bruce Allen) who previously held the same title in another city. So ... why? Part of it could be age, since general managers are generally older when they're hired than coaches are. Another piece is that it's harder for GMs to live down shaky decisions, since theirs are fairly black and white. Yet another could be that coaches are far more out there publicly. But to me, the disparity is striking. It'll be interesting to watch the case of a guy like Scott Pioli going forward. The Chiefs' roster that Pioli put together served as the core of a playoff team in Andy Reid's first year and is well on its way to getting back there this year. He drafted four players that were 2013 Pro Bowl selections (Eric Berry, Justin Houston, Dontari Poe, Dexter McCluster), signed three others to contract extensions (Tamba Hali, Jamaal Charles, Brandon Flowers) and left the team with more than $20 million in cap room. Mike Tannenbaum is another example of a guy who probably seems more valuable now (after the roster he put together was gutted) than he did back when he was fired (a couple years after back-to-back AFC title game appearances). And how about Detroit exec Brian Xanders, who drafted Demaryius Thomas, Julius Thomas, Eric Decker and Von Miller, among others, in Denver, and helped to create a situation attractive enough to lure Peyton Manning in 2012? Or even Scot McCloughan, who built the core of the Jim Harbaugh 49ers as GM, then served as John Schneider's right-hand man in building the Seahawks? Those aren't the only examples, either. It just seems strange that the hiring pool is limited in one area of football ops vs. another.
3) The Gordon difference. Early returns out of Cleveland are that Josh Gordon returned to practice this week in shape and ready to go. And while there have always been concerns about the mercurial receiver's self-esteem, there's nothing better for him -- and his well-being -- than getting back between those white lines. That makes it similar, but not exactly the same, to the way it is with Dez Bryant in Dallas. In the case of both receivers, maturity problems melt away when they're playing. Each genuinely loves being on the field. And the hope for the Browns is the same one the Cowboys have long harbored -- that the idea of football being taken away is enough to scare the star player straight. As for what Gordon can bring to the team ... Veteran Paul Kruger was part of a contending outfit a couple years ago (the eventual Super Bowl champion Ravens) that got an integral player back late in the year (Ray Lewis). Kruger said that, mentally, it does make a difference: "You're adding an extremely valuable guy. There's nothing but positive. ... Same type of deal (as Lewis), a leader who makes plays, it's nothing but positive it can do for a team. (Gordon) is one of the best receivers in the league. He can change a game."
4) Peterson case looms large. The NFLPA's appeal letter highlighted a part of the problem the NFL has now in dealing with Adrian Peterson, as well as Ray Rice and Greg Hardy. In so many ways, everyone is in a gray area. First, because the incidents happened before the new domestic-violence policy was in place, it's easy for the players' side to argue that they should be held to the old standard, and not the revised one. Second, the union asking for Commissioner Roger Goodell to recuse himself puts the league in an interesting situation, since momentum has built for change on that side of the conduct policy. The likelihood, as it stands now, is that there will be either a discipline czar or a three-man discipline panel that will mete out sanctions, with Goodell serving as appeals officer, when the new policy takes effect (likely early next year). So now probably wouldn't be the time to undercut the credibility of the commissioner in handling a situation like this, or to create precedent for others to handle appeals, from the league's perspective. Either way, Peterson's best shot to get back on the field in 2014 was to win his grievance and come off the exempt list, and play while his suspension was under appeal. Obviously, with his grievance failing, that ship has sailed.
1) With Peyton Manning in the midst of his worst three-game stretch since his first month as a Bronco, there's been much self-analysis in the building this week. The key, as the coaches see it, is to help Manning -- and the hope is that balance will do the trick, even with Montee Ball and Ronnie Hillman hobbled. In last week's loss at St. Louis, Denver had 56 called throws and 10 called runs.
2) The ousters of LeGarrette Blount in Pittsburgh and Ben Tate in Cleveland this week once again underscored how the position has become largely a fungible one in the eyes of personnel people. It'll be interesting to see how that affects what should be -- even with Todd Gurley tearing his ACL last week -- a bumper crop of draft-eligible tailbacks this spring.
3) The Colts have back-to-back home games against the Jaguars and Redskins on tap, which should give them the chance to reset. And it looks like they'll have to rework their identity heading into January, assuming they win the division again. With the defense showing serious cracks last week against New England -- as it did against Denver and Pittsburgh earlier in the season -- and Ahmad Bradshaw down, it's time to ride Andrew Luck.
Two college players to watch Saturday
1) Indiana RB Tevin Coleman (at Ohio State, Noon ET, Big Ten Network): Of the nation's top backs, the guy who's largely unknown might well be putting up the best season of them all. The 6-foot-1, 210-pound junior has rushed for 1,678 yards and 12 touchdowns on just 214 carries through 10 games, and he has grabbed the attention of just about everyone in the college scouting community. This week gives him a chance to shine on the first piece of tape most evaluators will pop in. "This is a showcase game for him against a great defensive line and fast linebackers," an AFC college scouting director said. "Big-soled player, with solid size and good hands." And an AFC GM, still waiting to get a better look at the tape, added, "He's definitely got skills, burst and the body, but you wonder about his stamina at the next level to be a bell cow. ... It'd be interesting if he was running behind the Wisconsin offensive line." The agreed-upon NFL comp I got here was Darren McFadden -- Coleman's a bigger back with fantastic straight-line speed.
2) UCLA QB Brett Hundley (vs. USC, 8 p.m. ET, ABC): The junior's case is an interesting one, in that the NFL types scouting Hundley don't see him quite the same way those in the public have. "I feel bad for him, because everyone hyped him up so much in the preseason, it was like he had to play at a (Marcus) Mariota-type level or he'd be a failure," one AFC area scout said. Statistically, Hundley has, indeed, gotten better. But it still doesn't seem like it'll be enough to push him into the first or second round, mostly because the problems that existed before remain. "He has very good size and athletic ability, but he struggles reading things and throwing with accuracy," another AFC scouting director said. So this becomes a big week for Hundley -- compared by the area scout to former Jaguar David Garrard -- for a couple reasons. First, he'll face a pro-style defense in playing USC. Second, there's another pro-style offense on the other side, and so -- from an optics standpoint -- just looking better than Cody Kessler could leave a positive impression.
For now, at least, coach Mike McCarthy isn't going to reflect on just how good his quarterback looks.
"I'm not a real good person to ask that," he said over the phone on Thursday. "We're 10 games into this, and he and we have a lot of football in front of us."
So we can say it for the coach: Rodgers looks like he's playing at about as high a level as anyone at the position can play. His 120.1 QB rating is approaching his 2011 NFL record of 122.5; Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb are posting career years; and a handful of the anonymous are chipping in on his watch.
And this is all a result of two things, as McCarty sees it. First, the no-huddle offense coaches implemented two years ago is finally hitting its stride. Second, the work Rodgers has put in is paying off.
"Really, it happens Monday through Sunday with Aaron," McCarthy said. "It starts in game plan meetings, he comes in the office and stops in on Tuesday. On Wednesday, we're putting the plan in. And we're tweaking and working the plan all week. I hold his opinion in high regard. And then, at the end of the week, on Saturday, we go through the plan. I call it, he adjusts it out there, and we play. It's been a good approach for us."
We're seeing what it looks like at full throttle.
The Packers have scored at least 28 first-half points in three of their last four games, and each of those contests was over by the time the fourth quarter started. Rodgers has incrementally improved his own game -- this offseason, he focused on footwork and ball handling -- but the bigger strides continue to be made in the way he lifts those around him.
"Not that I didn't trust my former quarterbacks, but this is the most trust, responsibility, confidence, and not just in our approach, that I've had in a quarterback," McCarthy said. "You talk about maximizing our communication network, this is the best I've been around as far as the way we go about it, in utilizing all of our resources. He can recount what we did Monday-to-Saturday and put it to work Sunday. He's the face of the franchise and the leader of the team, and we trust him."
As a result, the Packers have a legit shot at the team record of 560 points set by the 15-1 group of 2011. Rodgers was MVP that season. Could well be again, too.
And with the way Rodgers has grown, McCarthy probably wouldn't argue much with the notion.
"It's a two-way street: He's an extension of the staff, and we're an extension of him," McCarthy said. "We see it the same way he does, and we understand and trust him when he makes an adjustment. It's human nature that it's not all 100 percent. But we always feel like we can set the plan and go, and feel good that Aaron has the ball in his hands."
Follow Albert Breer on Twitter @AlbertBreer.