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Week 11 Notebook: Mike Zimmer, Bruce Arians head NFL trend

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

» A Cowboys teammate provides the backstory on Greg Hardy's latest incident.
» Two must-see college prospects on the national stage this Saturday.
» The most striking aspect of Jameis Winston's encouraging rookie season.
And much more, beginning with a hiring trend that could shape the coming coaching carousel ...

By the time Mike Zimmer finished his 20th year as an NFL assistant, just under two years ago, it wasn't hard to get the story on why he was struggling to land his first head-coaching job.

Zimmer's M.O. in interviews: Tell the boss across the table what's wrong with his organization and how he'd go about fixing it.

It seems like a logical approach, except that billionaires don't often like having an outsider pick at the scabs that afflict their businesses, and the general managers who are sometimes part of the process aren't huge on having their mistakes revealed in front of their superiors. And so the rap was that the Cincinnati Bengals' defensive coordinator was far too blunt and direct with the people doing the hiring.

Then, he met with the Minnesota Vikings.

"That's what appealed to me most," said Vikes GM Rick Spielman, laughing. "I loved that. I was like, God, this is awesome. There's no bull----! We probably spent 16 hours interviewing him. We spent a lot of time together. And that's probably the one thing that drew us to him, how blunt he was."

The moral here: You don't act that way unless you have a fully developed philosophy, carry resolve in doing things your way and feel comfortable in your own skin. And generally, in turn, you have to be a little bit more experienced to check off those boxes.

With 57 years on this planet under his belt at that point, Zimmer most certainly was. And he became the latest example of trend in pro football to go older with head-coaching hires.

The results aren't hard to see. Six teams have two or fewer losses 10 weeks into the 2015 season. Their coaches are all 53 or older. Zimmer will hit his 60s next year, while two others on the list -- Bruce Arians and Bill Belichick -- having already crossed that age threshold. The two youngest guys in the group, Gary Kubiak and Ron Rivera, played in the NFL. The next youngest, Marvin Lewis, is 57. All six served as NFL assistants for at least a decade before getting their first shot.

So as it turns out, with as many as a dozen potential openings to be filled in January, the next big thing in pro football might be having the guy who looks least like the future run your team.

"Age was not a factor for us, but experience absolutely was," said Cardinals president Michael Bidwill, who hired Arians at 60. "There's a groupthink around hiring coaches and personnel people, and there was a trend out there that you want a guy who's 'rising up.' We did all our own research, and I wanted someone who had a lot of experience with different systems, different personnel, someone who could adapt as the team changed.

"Having the same Hall of Fame quarterback or middle linebacker your whole career as a coordinator is great. I wanted to find the guy who did it with multiple quarterbacks or multiple middle linebackers, and handled different strengths and weaknesses. That experience, that's what you want, because you're constantly dealing with injuries and personnel changes."

Bidwill is right, too. Over the last decade, seven teams have hired under-40 coaches. Pittsburgh's Mike Tomlin is the only one still employed. The other six were all fired within three years. Eric Mangini was the only one of those within five games of .500, having gone 23-25 with the Jets. He got a second shot in Cleveland at age 38 and went 10-22.

As you might expect, the trend has slowed considerably. Six of those seven hires were made between 2006 and '09. Dennis Allen, who was 39 at the time of his hire in Oakland, is the only 30-something to land a job over the last six hiring cycles. He was canned after compiling an 8-28 record in two-plus seasons.

There are success stories, of course -- Tomlin, Bill Cowher and Jon Gruden are championship-winning examples -- but fewer of late, maybe because of the challenges the job presents.

"Experience counts in a lot of areas, but it really counts when you're going through challenging times," Bidwill said. "Every team goes through injuries, there can be off-field stuff, and so you gotta have a staff with a leader that can adapt and come up with the right kind of game plan for any situation. That's borne out of experience, that's how you come up with something new that others wouldn't see. I know with Bruce, having those experiences really mattered."

It showed up last year, to be sure, with the Cardinals' quarterback situation. Arizona lost Carson Palmer to a torn ACL, then Drew Stanton (who was carrying a three-year, $8.2 million contract to be a walking, talking insurance policy) went down with a sprained MCL. That left the team with rookie Logan Thomas, a project who wasn't ready to be thrown into the fire. So they went to Ryan Lindley, who'd been on the team a month. At the end of the day, Arizona still found a way to scotch tape it all together enough to get into the playoffs.

The challenge Zimmer faced last year was, to be sure, more unusual than that one.

He lost his best player, Adrian Peterson, one game into his tenure -- and Peterson's child-abuse case became part of a much larger discussion on professional football and domestic violence. Zimmer didn't have a playbook for that particular situation, of course, but he had valuable experience, having coached in the 1990s in Dallas and worked with a number of troubled players in Cincinnati.

"It was the approach he took -- Zim takes a very simplistic approach," Spielman said. "It was just, We can't do anything about it. What are we gonna do? This is what we have and we're not gonna feel sorry for ourselves. He took it as a challenge. Plus, the whole I'm gonna prove you wrong thing, that's what's driven him. People doubt him and that drives him."

Zimmer's team wound up 7-9, very respectable given the circumstances, which were exacerbated when his then-rookie quarterback was pressed into action unexpectedly in September. Since, Peterson has returned to a team that was less reliant on him because of the experience, and more ready to win around him. Similarly, the team around Palmer is now better for having gone through what it did last year.

Every game, all season

All of which underscores the larger point that the experience that years of work give you still matters. And these particular examples show the benefits can multiply.

In discussing that, Spielman recalls a discussion he had with his brother, former All-Pro LB Chris Spielman. The advice the younger brother passed along to the Vikings GM: If a player believes a coach can make him better, and that coach tells the player to jump off a cliff, that player will jump off that cliff.

Two years in, it does appear that the Vikings would follow Zimmer off that edge, just like the Cardinals would do the same with Arians nearly three years after the Cardinals tabbed him. And it's fair to assume that the maps those guys draw for the players are largely a result of all the years they spent on the road.

And so it is that when asked what advice he'd give all the teams that'll be looking for coaches in a couple months, Bidwill answered like this: "People shouldn't get caught up in the groupthink. Don't focus on age, either. Focus on experience, and the diversity and quality of experience, and whether that person has the leadership skills, the plan and the ability to carry it out. Age is not a part of it."

But for Zimmer, back when he interviewed with Spielman and the Wilf family, it actually was. Those 57 years gave him a conviction in what he was saying, no matter who was across the table.

Truth is, it was a matter of finding someone who was willing to listen. Maybe now, in that spot, more teams will be.

Four downs

1) The truth about Hardy's latest incident. A few weeks back, we detailed how Greg Hardy's issues with tardiness (or even just showing up) have affected his time as a pro and college football player. And so it should hardly come as a surprise that, once again, in the face of adversity, an inability to get himself in on time with the rest of the workforce created an issue. But this particular one -- as FOX first reported, last week, he came in late Thursday and missed morning meetings -- is a little different than the others, and might shed some light into why he's been such a challenge for those around him to handle. After Hardy's social-media mishap on the preceding Wednesday, he was summoned (again) by Cowboys coach Jason Garrett to talk about his behavior. His feelings coming out of the meeting explain why he didn't show up on Thursday morning. Hardy told others in the organization he was humiliated after messing up again, apprehensive about facing his teammates in the aftermath and needed the extra time to "get his mind right." After arriving at the facility, he and veteran linemate Jeremy Mincey sat down for a 15-minute man-to-man, and they went deep into the sordid recent past of Hardy. "In the end, no one knows the truth [about the domestic incident of 2014] except the people who were there," Mincey told me. "We can all speculate and say it was this or it was that. I just know he's working hard on being a better person. We had a heart-to-heart -- I know he feels like the world's against him." Mincey advised Hardy to "keep yourself out of harm's way. And remember, they [the public] can do and say whatever they want to do or say." Part of this, of course, is what the Cowboys signed up for -- a high-maintenance player who once vanished on his college team, and who basically needed a chaperone making sure he got to work in his early pro years. But there are still those in Carolina who root for him, and those in Dallas who believe things aren't quite as so many on the outside see them. "He has great intentions," Mincey continued. "We're trying to give him a good support system. I believe in him as a man: He's strong-willed and strong-minded. And the things he wants to get accomplished, he can get accomplished. He just needs to start looking at things from a positive perspective, and all these things will start falling away, and eventually he'll be forgiven by people." The end result of the tardiness: a fine for Hardy, and continued hope that this will finally be the time that he gets the message.

2) Diving into Osweiler. The Broncos' decision to take Arizona State junior Brock Osweiler with the 57th pick in the 2012 NFL Draft, just weeks after signing Peyton Manning to a five-year deal, was an interesting one back then on a number of different fronts. First, Osweiler was a college roommate of Broncos boss John Elway's son. Second, the standard rookie deal meant that Osweiler's contract would actually expire before Manning's. Third, he was taken 18 picks ahead of Russell Wilson, 31 picks ahead of Nick Foles, 45 picks in front of Kirk Cousins -- and one pick ahead of Lavonte David, who could've been a dynamic front-seven complement to reigning Defensive Rookie of the Year Von Miller. In the end, coming off the Tim Tebow/Kyle Orton era, Elway liked Osweiler's stature in taking the 21-year-old over Wilson, whom the Broncos had eyes for and had in for a visit (Wilson actually met with Manning at Dove Valley). And the questions surrounding Manning's neck -- the Broncos still hadn't seen him do all that much physically -- won the day in deciding to take a quarterback there, rather than selecting someone like David and waiting until the third round. So how has Osweiler developed in the ensuing years? The Broncos, and this includes the coaches who left last January and are now in Chicago (this week's opponent), have been impressed with the his progress, and his preseasons have progressively gotten better (57.5 passer rating in 2012; 68.8 in '13; 84.0 in '14; 94.2 in '15). But starting is a different deal, so we went to two evaluators who wrote him up this summer. One (an AFC pro director) texted: "Good height and size, strong arm, can make all the throws. Decent zip. Needs time to operate -- his awareness and ability to see pressure is average. He can force throws into traffic and has been known to hold the ball too long -- will take sacks. Ordinary athlete outside the pocket, not great making throws on the move, best when given a clean pocket where he can read coverages and step into throws. He should have success if he can get the ball in the hands of his weapons, but if pressed, will give the defense opportunities." The other (an AFC scout) offered this: "I'd like to see how he performs as the guy for a regular-season game, but he improved this preseason. Looked more accurate and decisive. More of a pocket passer, but has enough athletic ability to run the boot action and play under center. Not as athletic or quick of a release as [Joe] Flacco, but could see [Gary] Kubiak running the offense more like he did last year."

3) Eagles move to Sanchez. The benching of Nick Foles in St. Louis and Sam Bradford's health problems have framed the Rams/Eagles offseason deal as the ultimate lose-lose situation -- and if things don't change from here, that's fair. It's also now fair to ask if Philly might wind up being better off with Mark Sanchez in there, ugly as it might have looked down the stretch against Miami. And that's the question I asked one rival NFC exec this week, eliciting this answer: "If they just use the zone-read and run the ball, yes. Otherwise, he'll throw the ball to the other team in crucial situations." An NFC defensive coordinator added this: "I think having been in the system last year, [Sanchez] has a good understanding of it -- that's a positive. And from an athleticism standpoint, the ability to run adds another dimension to that offense." Now, Sanchez isn't Randall Cunningham out there, but this particular DC said you do have to "account for Mark as a runner." Looking at the raw numbers, Bradford and Sanchez are remarkably similar as passers under Kelly: The former has a 63.9 completion percentage, with 11 touchdowns and 10 picks while compiling an 82.4 passer rating; the latter also has a 63.9 completion percentage, with 14 touchdown passes, 12 picks and an 86.6 rating. As runners, they differ. Sanchez averaged 3.8 carries in the nine games he played last year, while Bradford has average 1.9 in his nine starts this year. And again, just the fact the Bucs will have to account for that this week matters. In fact, that dynamic brought to mind a piece ESPN did in 2011, with Kelly sitting down with Urban Meyer to explain his offense. Here's how Kelly explained it: "It's really two-back football when you have just a one-back set, because the quarterback can essentially block the backside by being a threat running the ball. And if you don't honor him, he's gonna hurt you by keeping it. If you do honor him, he's essentially blocking you." Add that up, and it's worth watching not just Sanchez as a passer this week, but how in a very subtle way he could wind up helping DeMarco Murray and Co.

4) Bills' run game is rolling. Monday's night Bills-Patriots clash is fascinating in a number of ways, but maybe most interesting will be seeing whether Buffalo's advances on the ground hold up against an increasingly stingy New England defense. Greg Roman's ground-and-pound attack (now second in the NFL in rushing) blew up for 266 rushing yards against the Dolphins on Nov. 8, then methodically grinded out 148 against the Jets' top-ranked rush defense. And when Roman's crew plays that way, it helps everyone. On three occasions, Tyrod Taylor has posted passer ratings north of 120 this year -- and the Bills rushed for 147, 151 and 266 yards in those games. Meanwhile, the Patriots rank second in run defense, and that's despite giving up 160 yards on the ground (some of that being situational, given New England built a big lead) to Buffalo in Week 2. So ... Unstoppable Force vs. Immovable Object? Even more so now than then. The Bills have improved with time in Roman's scheme, according to a few players I've spoken with -- largely because Roman's vaunted run scheme brings a lot of volume and complexity to the table. After nine games, the Bills are less 49er-like (power scheme behind Frank Gore) with their own identity now forged (outside zone with Shady McCoy, with power behind Karlos Williams sprinkled in). On the flip side, the Patriots' young defensive line has settled in -- with first-rounders Malcom Brown and Dominique Easley having gained experience -- and the team has allowed just 55.3 rushing yards per game over the last month. So it's fair to say this is an area where the game likely will be won or lost.

Three checkdowns

1) It will be interesting seeing how Nick Foles reacts to his benching in St. Louis -- considering that teams had serious questions about how competitive he was coming out of Arizona. One thing that was spotted on college tape was how, after interceptions, he would simply jog off the field rather than trying to go after his interceptor and make the tackle. And then, there was the fact that he bolted from Michigan State after being beaten out for the starting job by Kirk Cousins.

Pro Bowl ballot

2) The NFL's progress in Mexico City remains steady, and the effort to get a game there for the 2016 is still ongoing. To that end, the league will send a contingent down there next week for further reviews of Azteca Stadium -- the second time the NFL's done so in a three-week span. According to one source, the league is "continuing to look for solutions" that will allow the '16 game. Among the problems that needed to be resolved: The locker room situation, the amount of space for the broadcasting network to set up, and the technical infrastructure that would allow things like coach-to-quarterback communication to take place as they usually do.

3) The Giants would tell you their effort against the Patriots was nothing but not good enough, but it did reveal something about the team that's been obvious throughout the early part of the season: New York is supremely well-coached. Offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo has helped settle Big Blue's O-line issues, develop the young receivers and get the most out of Eli Manning. His defensive counterpart, Steve Spagnuolo, has masked deficiencies of a group that has holes talent-wise, and that has been hit by injury. And the guys have responded to Tom Coughlin, which normally would be something to worry about with a 69-year-old coach in his 12th season on the job.

Two college players to watch Saturday

1) Ohio State DE Joey Bosa (vs. Michigan State, 3:30 p.m. ET, ABC): He's been among the best players in the country since the end of his freshman season, and the subject of extra attention for offenses facing the Buckeyes since the start of his sophomore year. And while his numbers are down (four sacks in nine games after posting 13.5 last year), that's largely a product of opponents scheming to stop him. One AFC exec listed Bosa's "hands, strength and power rush" as his strengths and his "bend and pure speed rush" as issues, while adding that this will be a great week to watch him, since he'll be seeing plenty of Michigan State left tackle Jack Conklin ("two power players duking it out"). Maybe the biggest issue with Bosa is where to play him. The AFC exec said that he's best off as a 5-technique end in a 3-4, while others think he should be pushed further outside. Part of that will depend on how big he gets as a pro: He's currently listed at 6-foot-6 and 275 pounds. The two NFL comparisons I got for him: Ryan Kerrigan and Patrick Kerney. Bosa does have some off-field stuff to sort through -- he was suspended for the team's opener -- but those in the building in Columbus do seem to vouch for him. "Draft him," is what one source there said when I asked about what he'd tell scouts about that issue. And, of course, there will be talent elsewhere -- all over the place -- in this game.

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2) Penn State QB Christian Hackenberg (vs. Michigan, Noon ET, ABC): Two years ago, Hackenberg seemed on the freeway to becoming the first pick in 2016. Then, Bill O'Brien left for Houston. Then, the brunt of the scholarship reductions took hold, and murmurs about the relationship between Hackenberg and O'Brien's replacement (James Franklin) got louder and louder in the scouting community. And now what we have is perhaps the biggest enigma in next year's draft class (assuming he comes out, which everyone thinks he will). "He's been beat up a lot," one AFC college scouting director said. "In fairness, the scholarship reduction is rearing its head now -- they have a thin offensive line and they haven't had competitive depth to make it better. ... He gets hit a lot." Hackenberg's cleaned up the turnover issue he had last year, but his completion percentage is still hovering around 55, and that's not just what's around him. "He hasn't been very accurate," one AFC exec said. That said, he's still big (physically, the college director compared him to Andrew Luck), and still has the arm strength and mind he had his freshman year. So research on Hackenberg will be key. What Houston does, with the institutional knowledge the Texans have, should be fascinating. And this week -- facing a strong Michigan defense -- will give Hackenberg a good opportunity to put a good piece of tape in that file. "He's going against a good, aggressive defense," said the college scouting director. "You'll see how he handles it under duress, with the rush closing in on him. The more talented team is Michigan, so you see if he can rally the team. Can he be the best player on the field to overcome that? Can he operate quickly, get the ball out, keep himself from taking hits and keep the offense moving?"

Extra point

A lot of you have seen the locker room speech that Jameis Winston gave his Buccaneer teammates after last Sunday's win over Dallas. Some have probably watched footage of him addressing his guys before games, too. And if it seems strange that a rookie's at the center of such moments, just know this: The plan wasn't for it to be this way so soon.

"He is as advertised -- a great leader," Bucs captain Gerald McCoy told me. "We tried to slow him down, let him just be a rookie, just be our quarterback. We tried. It didn't work. He takes over. He can't help it, it's in his blood to lead -- and to win. You see what he's done over the last couple weeks. ... He's really starting to understand how to play this game. And being a leader, that's in his blood. He can't help it."

But first, as Lovie Smith explains it, he had to earn the right to be that guy.

Winston's rookie year hasn't come without bumps. To the casual fan, Marcus Mariota appeared to be on another planet developmentally in the season-opening showdown between the top two picks. Winston was similarly shaky in Week 3 against Houston, then tossed four picks against the Panthers, bringing to mind the turnover issues he had at Florida State that troubled scouts.

That's to be expected from a rookie playing every snap. What his teammates were really watching was how he handled those rough moments.

"In order to move into that (leadership) role, guys need to see you handle every situation, and fight adversity," Smith explained, in a quiet moment late last week. "Right away -- first pass was an interception for a touchdown in the Tennessee game, you see him fight back from that. To see him fight back in the Carolina game. And at the Carolina game, he said to himself, 'It's pretty simple -- experience teaches you, there's no substitute for experience. For our team to win, I have to protect the ball.' "

So he went four games without a pick.

"The first thing you have to do is play good football," Smith added. "You can't say or do anything until you play good football."

And it showed up again last week against Dallas, despite the fact that Winston initially seemed to be regressing.

The Bucs rookie threw his second interception of the game with just 5:48 left. To that point, Tampa's offense had only mustered three points and Winston looked scattershot. The misfire, intended for Adam Humphries and picked by Jeff Heath, had all the markings of a back-breaker.

It wasn't.

Want more than stats and scores? Head to Sidelines, where NFL Media reporters dig deep to find the compelling, thoughtful stories that are the heartbeat of this game.

Tampa's defense forced a three-and-out. And the quarterback responded with a nine-play, 56-yard drive to win the game.

The team has continually responded to him.

"For those guys to see what he did from Carolina to Jacksonville that next week, and then taking the biggest step in the Atlanta game, that's when the vocal part came out," Smith said. "Again, unscripted -- I didn't say, 'Hey, Jameis, this is your week, let's start here.' Nope, it was a natural progression and it felt right and our guys let him have the floor. He's our quarterback. I know he's a rookie, but he's one of our leaders. And I couldn't be more pleased with what he's done."

The players there will echo that.

No, Winston isn't behaving like rookies normally do. But that's seen as a good thing in Tampa.

"Usually, they're the quiet guys," McCoy said. "When we all walk in the locker room, he's the first person in, standing at the door, shaking everybody's hand as they go in, and encouraging everybody throughout the whole game. That's just who he is. ... I think he's gonna be an elite quarterback in this league for a long time. If he just stays the course and keeps doing the right things on and off the field, he can change this team for the better."

If the Bucs' recent surge is any indication, it seems like he already has.

Follow Albert Breer on Twitter @AlbertBreer.

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