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Week 13 Notebook: Texans blocked out noise to fuel turnaround

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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):

» Why Bill Lazor was fired in Miami.
» Two must-see college prospects on the national stage this Saturday.
» How the projected salary-cap figures could affect pending free agents.
And much more, beginning with how the Texans have completely turned their season around ...

There are tough spots every week in the NFL -- and then there's where Bill O'Brien and the Houston Texans found themselves at about 2:30 p.m. ET on Oct. 25.

It was halftime. They were facing a Miami team many figured was broken, led by an interim coach. The score was 41-0, and they were on the wrong end of it. A fifth loss in Week 7 was 30 minutes away.

So O'Brien came clean.

Guys, we're probably not gonna win this game, he recalls telling his players. So what I'd like you to do is go out there and compete like hell. Treat it like a new game, and let's see what the score is at the end of the second half.

It worked. And in more ways than the second-half score -- Texans 26, Dolphins 3 -- could illustrate.

The challenge was just beginning for Houston, but the foundation for what came next was set. See, in 2015, commanding a pro football team is a job that, realistically, doesn't stop when the work does and doesn't end at the doors to the stadium.

In the days following that lop-sided loss, Twitter probably fired O'Brien a thousand times over. His name began to link up with open college jobs, based on the assumption he could be out in Houston. Questions arose about his relationship with general manager Rick Smith. More wondered if he'd lost the locker room, which is to be expected when a team falls behind by 40 twice in a four-game stretch.

Cutting through the noise is as hard as it's ever been for coaches. Start losing, and the voices get louder, and that, on top of a team's struggles, can become a problem in itself. And many coaches, in O'Brien's spot, would've implored their players to ... say it with me ... ignore the Noise.

He didn't, though, mainly because that no longer seems feasible to him. Instead, he was open and honest, and rather than shut his players off to the outside world, he tried to guide them to what was important. As he saw it, what inevitably was coming next needed to be confronted, not avoided.

"You can't ask a pro athlete not to look at Twitter or watch TV. These guys are grown men," O'Brien said from his car on Tuesday. "I think it's challenging in the fact that when they go home, and forget just the media, say their family that sees all this and asks what's going on with the team. We try to talk to them honestly. And we told them, 'Guys, the only thing that matters is what we know in this team meeting -- not what's going on outside here. We can't do anything about that. We know what the truth is.' "

The truth these days is a lot easier to talk about than it was then. The Texans have won four straight.

That, of course, isn't all because of how O'Brien, his coaches and his players handled the social-media obituaries of that week. The Texans' quarterback situation has stabilized, the running game on offense and tackling on defense have improved, and special-teams play has been more consistent.

Playing better, to be sure, is the main thing. But all of this doesn't happen if the team doesn't handle the adversity -- perceived or real -- around it properly. And the Texans sure did.

"We really do two things," O'Brien said. "We try to educate the young guys on the media and Twitter, all those things. I think we do a good job with that, through things like our rookie development programs. We address those things. And you have to have strong leaders in the locker room. We have strong leaders. ... Those guys have as much to do with keeping guys' eyes on the prize as anyone. You have to have strong leadership, because everyone has storms they deal with."

The Texans coach said he isn't on Twitter -- director of corporate communications Amy Palcic serves as a social-media adviser to him -- but he's done what he can to embrace the technology with the team because, in his words, "That's how these guys communicate."

O'Brien asks his players for total focus in meetings and practice, but build breaks into their day so they can check their phones on a consistent basis, and trusts them to do parts of their job at home so they can manage their own time. He also addresses news, or anything relevant that may pop up on social media, directly with them during morning meetings to eliminate grey area.

"It might just be, 'Here's a tweet out there wasn't phrased well,' " he said. "Or, 'Here's something you wanna be aware of.' "

And to make sure communication stays strong, O'Brien has a 12-man leadership council (Arian Foster, J.J. Watt, Vince Wilfork, Shane Lechler, Brian Hoyer, Nate Washington, Brian Cushing, DeAndre Hopkins, Johnathan Joseph, Kareem Jackson, Duane Brown, Ben Jones) that he meets with every Friday at 7 a.m. to get the pulse of the locker room and address any issues guys might have. He's given guys breaks (earlier afternoons, later mornings at times) as a result of those summits.

All of that was important in dealing with, as O'Brien put it, the "storm," as was his own experience.

"When I was at Penn State, two weeks before the season, the NCAA all but shut the program down," he said. "It doesn't get much tougher than that. And to be honest, having that experience will always help me."

Add it all up, and things weren't as bad on the inside as they seemed outside.

"We were frustrated and pissed off, but the guys were looking for ways to improve, and there was no complaining -- none," the coach said. "Everyone got each other's back."

It most certainly was tested in that Sun Life Stadium locker room on Oct. 25, at Houston's rock-bottom moment.

But the truth is that was more revelatory than revolutionary for the program. Following the 44-26 loss, one prominent vet texted, when asked about O'Brien's grip on the team, "He's not the problem. Very cool coach to play for and everyone enjoys the way he treats us." The larger idea is O'Brien hopes he's built a partnership, rather than a dictatorship, one that's blunt, honest and up with the times.

"To me, you can't even put a number on that, the value of being honest with them," O'Brien said. "These guys can sniff BS right away. If you go into a meeting, and you don't know the answer, you don't BS your way through the answer. You tell them you'll go research it and get an answer for them. That's how we approached it. I've learned, coaching in this league, and in college, too, the best thing is always to be honest.

"They want to get better, they want to help the team win, and so you always should give them your honest opinion on how to do that."

On Oct. 25, it was just about putting 30 good minutes together after a humiliating start. No one paid attention to that garbage-time flourish, as the Texans became the "dumpster fire team of the week."

The players knew what was being said, too. As it turns out, it was the rest of us that were missing the story.

Four downs

1) Dolphins' disconnect continues. The bottom line in Miami's latest shakeup this week: If Dan Campbell's going down, he's going down his way. And so it is that Bill Lazor is without work, meaning that the interim coach, two months on the job, has now fired both his offensive and defensive coordinators. One source said it irked Campbell that Miami had the markings of a "finesse team in a power division." The Dolphins have failed to crack 100 yards rushing in four of their five games since rolling to 248 yards on the ground against the Texans in that Oct. 25 blowout, and the run/pass balance became increasing disparate of late, with Miami running it just 14 and 9 times, respectively, in losses to the Cowboys and Jets the last two weeks. As a result, there was a sense that Lazor was losing the offensive coaches and players, and the offense's failures were beginning to hurt a talented defense. And worse, a perception grew that quarterback Ryan Tannehill had become indifferent to his coordinator, who had a rocky relationship with Nick Foles in Philly. Going forward, Campbell is expected to take a more active role in putting together the offense, with quarterbacks coach Zac Taylor, a close confidant of Tannehill's and respected member of the staff, calling plays. And the hope is all that will reenergize the defense. And speaking of that group, Campbell and the defensive coaches were in the room for the ballyhooed meeting called by Ndamukong Suh -- Campbell actually signed off on it beforehand -- and the belief is that the message the well-paid defensive tackle was trying to convey, and didn't do a great job of delivering, has been clarified and received. According to those there, Suh told his teammates that he was asked by management about individual players -- based on his standing on the team, he expected he would be -- and he planned to be completely honest and hold guys accountable. And if it seems like there's a lot going on here, it's because there is. Campbell seems committed to pulling every lever to make the temporary appointment he was given a permanent one. Giving the offense an identity that matches his philosophy, and trying to give the defense a jolt (via Suh's scattershot speech) is a start.

Pro Bowl ballot

2) Hack-a-Gronk? Patriots TE Rob Gronkowski has drawn an eye-opening five offensive pass interference flags in New England's first 11 games. It's part of his team's 2015 total of nine such flags, which amounts to four more than any other club in the NFL has drawn (Washington has been called for five such fouls; Tampa Bay and Atlanta have been called for four apiece). What's going on here? Part of it -- and we touched on this earlier in the year -- goes to what teams are telling officials to look for. When Tom Brady had his full complement of weapons, it was becoming nearly impossible to play zone against him because of the job he and his more experienced receivers were doing finding dead spots (See: The fourth quarter of Super Bowl XLIX, against the best cover-3 defense of all time). So that forced defenses to play man coverage, and New England responded with a flurry of pick routes, and opponents believed it was on the premise that the officials wouldn't flag them all. (Similar to how Seattle approaches defensive holding.) So those opponents made sure the referees' radar was up for offensive pass interference of all kinds, including Gronkowski's propensity to push off. There's some disagreement on how egregious Gronk's tactics have been. One defensive coordinator said "he pushes off on every play," while another countered, "It just looks extreme with him, because of size and strength. A 180-pound dude pushing off is different [than] a 260-pound dude pushing off." A defensive coach with a third team said, "He does push off, and if they're calling pushoffs equally between DPI and OPI, he should get the occasional penalty. ... And they get a lot of man coverage and run illegal picks and rubs, so it makes sense they have the most [penalties]." The result of all this? The first coordinator said the Patriots have cut down on the amount of pick plays they run of late. So it'll be interesting to see if Gronk, when he gets healthy, makes a similar adjustment to avoid being flagged, and adheres to Bill Belichick's well-worn adage to "do business as business is being done."

3) Cowboys searching for Romo's replacement. Nineteen months ago, Jerry Jones, Stephen Jones and their football people discussed the very real possibility of taking Johnny Manziel while they were on the clock, readying to pull the trigger on the 16th pick. The scouts' sensibilities (and the resolve of Stephen Jones) won that day -- Notre Dame's rock-solid Zack Martin was the selection -- but the idea of getting a jump on finding Tony Romo's heir was enticing then, and is moving closer to necessary (we're not there yet) now. So my understanding is the Cowboys will consider all options at quarterback behind Romo this offseason, including taking one high in the draft, working another reprisal (like they tried to do with Brandon Weeden) or both. And that was going to be the case even if Romo hadn't reinjured his collarbone in Week 12. There are a number of reasons why. The first one is obvious, and that's Tony Romo's health and age. He'll be 36 by draft day, six months or so older than Brett Favre was when the Packers drafted Aaron Rodgers, about the same age Peyton Manning was when the Broncos drafted Brock Osweiler, and less than one year younger than Tom Brady was when the Patriots drafted Jimmy Garoppolo. Second, the Cowboys want to avoid being pinned into drafting a quarterback in a particular year, something that's led other clubs under the gun to find a signal-caller to make shaky decisions. (The 2011 draft is a case study on that.) The idea, of course, is that it's better to give yourself a three- or four-year window to find one, which is how Green Bay found Rodgers and how, more recently, Seattle landed Russell Wilson. Third, the changing financial climate allows flexibility. Whereas in the old system, it'd have been crazy to carry an established franchise quarterback and a high first-rounder at the position, consider now that Mark Sanchez and Chad Henne both make more than $4 million per year as backups and the idea of adding a first-round pick at the position at $6 million or so per doesn't seem nuts. All this, of course, doesn't mean that the Cowboys -- currently lined up for a top-five selection -- will spend a premium pick on a quarterback. But the plan, for now, is to at least be open to the idea.

Every game, all season

4) Eagles' wings clipped. There are enough natural connections between Chip Kelly and USC to assume there were never any secrets there, and that the school was well-aware whether Kelly was or wasn't interested in becoming the Trojans' next head coach. His agent, David Dunn, has close ties to USC, having represented almost every QB to come out of there since Carson Palmer, as well as many of their other stars and former coaches. He also has a strong relationship with AD Pat Haden and has a nephew on the football team. Take all of that into account, and it's fair to think that Kelly's commitment to the Eagles, as publicly stated, hasn't wavered. My belief is that Kelly loves the challenge of the NFL and recognizes its difficulties. He's also pragmatic, so if it's just not going to work in the pros, Kelly isn't the sort to lie to himself, which indicates his resolve is still there. And so that leads us to the question of what needs to change. And it's clear that starts with the overall approach to the way his offense and defense relate to one another. One thing opponents have become keen to is an ability to wear out Billy Davis' defense, thanks in part to the pace of Kelly's offense, and one club's research that was passed along bears that out. Since the beginning of the 2013 season, Kelly's first, the Eagles rank dead last in time of possession; they're the only team among the bottom 11 in that category to have a winning record over that period. You can extrapolate that the D spending more time on the field per game is part of the reason the unit also ranks last in total defense and pass defense over that 43-game stretch. One illustration of the stress on the Eagles' defensive players: captain Malcolm Jenkins is leading the NFL in defensive snaps played for the second straight year in his second season in Philly. Of course, using tempo against opponents is central to Kelly's philosophy, and so no one should expect that to go away. But it'll be interesting to see, given the defense's struggles of late, whether some tweaks there would be one offseason initiative.

Three checkdowns

1) It's the time of year when players-only meetings are popular as last-ditch attempts to save flagging seasons, and so I thought the answer I received from Eagles DT Fletcher Cox was interesting, when I asked if Philly had called any such summit: "When you start having players-only meetings, that's when you know things are going south. I've been around that before. We aren't gonna be having any players-only meetings."

2) You can make the case that Mike Pettine was harsh about Johnny Manziel's bye-week trip to Austin, Texas, but the Browns coach's decision to stick with Austin Davis this week is tough to argue. The whole deal the last nine months has been this: Pettine wanted Manziel to earn his snaps. The second-year passer blew his chance, in the coach's eyes, and Davis was the beneficiary, moving up a spot on the depth chart. Josh McCown's injury opened another door on Monday, and Davis did nothing to blow his shot in going 7 of 10 for 77 yards in the waning moments of the loss to Baltimore. So if this is truly a meritocracy, there really wasn't any choice to make here. If Pettine wanted his message to resonate, and not have discipline come off as toothless, this was the only call to make.

3) One thing to remember for the next few months is that the NFL can't mess L.A. up. There's a reason the league has waited 21 years to have a team back in the city, and so getting Los Angeles right is the No. 1 priority in this game of musical chairs. And that means putting the future there in the hands of people the owners trust. Chargers owner Dean Spanos carries the political capital in the room, as a popular figure who has tried for more than a decade to get a stadium in San Diego. Rams owner Stan Kroenke carries actual capital, and the most advanced project -- with the financial wherewithal to invest heavily in L.A. The tricky thing here is the owner whose team gives the league the best chance to succeed in the nation's No. 2 market is also the least qualified of the three to move under the relocation guidelines. That's why this will likely require what owners call "an elegant solution." My guess is they'll find one to reach the conclusion they want. It is their league, after all.

Two college players to watch Saturday

1) Stanford QB Kevin Hogan (vs. USC, Pac-12 Championship Game, ESPN, 7:45 p.m. ET): Two years ago, Stanford coaches believed Hogan would likely bolt a year early for the pros. Then, came 2014 -- a massively disappointing season for Andrew Luck's successor. So Hogan returned for his fifth year on the farm, fourth as starter, and he's rebounded nicely, completing 68.3 percent of his passes, posting a 23-7 TD-INT ratio, leading the Cardinals to a 10-2 mark, and reestablishing himself as a legit prospect. "He started his career with a lot of promise," said an AFC college scouting director. "His production trailed off last year. His accuracy was inconsistent. It was just a bad year. And this year, you felt like, with the quarterbacks Stanford has, he'd have to hold off the young guys. And he's responded. When you watch him, you see a big, strong, athletic guy who does a great job of finding guys downfield, and when things break down around him, he keeps his eyes downfield. He's had a positive year." An NFC GM added, "He's played a (ton) of football and in a pro-style offense. From a coach's standpoint, that makes it easier. He's not special, but there's no reason he can't be a solid [QB2] early and you see if you get lucky and hit on him being a [QB1] in the future." Hogan's accuracy is still inconsistent, his windup is long and he lacks "special" traits. But he's solid in a lot of areas and could wind up in the third-round range. What's interesting is he's facing USC's Cody Kessler, a similar prospect with a little less size and polish, but maybe a little more upside. So those two could be jockeying for draft position on Saturday. "I like both of them," said the GM. "They could both be in the league for a long time."

College Football 24/7 Hot Topics:

2) Clemson DE Shaq Lawson (vs. North Carolina, ACC Championship Game, ABC, 8 p.m. ET): Clemson has been a pipeline for NFL pass-rushers of late (Vic Beasley, Da'Quan Bowers, Ricky Sapp, Andre Branch), and Lawson is the latest, a 6-foot-3, 270-pound do-everything defensive end. In his first year as a starter -- Lawson played behind Branch his first two years on campus -- the true junior leads the top-ranked Tigers with 8.5 sacks, but has proven to be more than just an edge rusher. "He's a very talented pass-rusher," said another AFC college scouting director. "He has good size and length, and he's really strong, but can also rush. He's not the speed guy that Beasley was, but he has legit pass-rush moves. He's just not an elite-type athlete the way those others guys were. He's not a 4.5 guy. ... But he's definitely got a shot to go high. He has that pass-rush ability -- those guys always go higher." North Carolina's high-octane offense, behind quarterback Marquise Williams, plays with a tempo that Clemson hasn't seen all year. So with Lawson playing about double the amount of snaps this year than he did in either of his first two years, the Heels figure to provide a good test of his consistency.

Extra point

Clubs were given a 2016 cap projection of $147 million to $153 million at the league meeting in Dallas this week, and that means we can take a good stab at the prices franchise tags will cost in February and March.

The December projection, given to teams so they can budget, is traditionally low, so it makes sense to take the high end of the range. If the cap does sit at $153 million, a hike of a little less than $9 million over 2015, here's where each individual tag would fall (with the transition tag figure in parenthesis):

» Cornerback: $13.7 million ($11.7 million)
» Defensive end: $15.4 million ($12.5 million)
» Defensive tackle: $13.4 million ($10.7 million)
» Linebacker: $14.0 million ($11.7 million)
» Offensive line: $13.5 million ($11.7 million)
» Quarterback: $19.6 million ($17.5 million)
» Kicker/Punter: $4.5 million ($4.0 million)
» Running back: $11.5 million ($9.5 million)
» Safety: $10.6 million ($9.0 million)
» Tight End: $9.0 million ($7.6 million)
» Wide Receiver: $14.4 million ($12.0 million)

And so as teams start to quietly look at who'll be available in March, and with these rough figures to work with, I went to a number of club execs and pro scouting directors to figure out who might merit the tag in a few months. It's important to remember, too, that fewer guys are being tagged these days -- a result of the figures rising on a consistent basis since the new CBA took effect in 2015. Here are the names:

Eric Berry, S, Kansas City Chiefs: Berry has recovered from Hodgkin's lymphoma -- a checkup this week forced Berry to miss his first practice of 2015 -- better than anyone could've hoped. But it'd cost the Chiefs to keep him off the market. Thanks to an old-system rookie deal, his tag will come in at just over $10 million.

Kirk Cousins, QB, Washington Redskins: The 'Skins don't want to have to make this decision. They'd rather just reach a deal with Cousins, at a reasonable price. Absent that, it'll likely be a tough call: hand Cousins $19.4 million and the according negotiating leverage, let him test the market, or, maybe, transition him.

Mike Daniels, DE, Green Bay Packers: This diamond-in-the-rough has grown into, perhaps, the most complete player on the Packers' defense. But he's also an interior linemen who happens to have "DE" affixed to his name because he plays in a 3-4, and a tender of $15.4 million feels too steep.

Cordy Glenn, LT, Buffalo Bills: Buffalo's 2016 salary cap is messy, with $160.7 million in cap charges for next year and just 46 players under contract. So whether the team will be able to make room for the $13.5 million tag is an open question. (Could Mario Williams' $19.9 cap number land him on the chopping block?) Based on Glenn's play, it makes sense to do what it takes to keep him.

Alshon Jeffery, WR, Chicago Bears: Thanks to 2015's blockbuster deals, the receiver tag projects to jump almost $2 million. Jeffrey might just be worth it. He's compiled a staggering 43 catches for 605 yards in just six games while battling injuries in his first year as Chicago's No. 1 receiver.

Janoris Jenkins, CB, St. Louis Rams: An elite talent who fell to the second round in 2012 because of off-field issues, Jenkins has the look of a player who could, with a little more time, grow into an All-Pro. Corners aren't cheap, though, and $13.7 million is a lot if you're not Richard Sherman, Joe Haden or Patrick Peterson.

Von Miller, LB, Denver Broncos: On paper, despite his off-field issues, this is pretty much a no-brainer at $14 million. Here's the problem: You only get one tag. And if Brock Osweiler improves in the coming weeks, there could be intrigue surrounding the call Denver will have to make.

Josh Norman, CB, Carolina Panthers: He'd cost roughly $13.7 million to take off the market. He's an elite corner who'd command more than $14 million per year on the market. The math isn't hard here. Probably the easiest call on this list, and definitely in the aforementioned Sherman/Haden/Peterson category.

Russell Okung, LT, Seattle Seahawks: The Seahawks haven't given much of an indication that they'll move heaven and earth to keep Okung, who has decided to serve as his own agent. Their troubles along the offensive line might make this a tougher call than it should be, but at $13.5 million, this feels like a no.

Brock Osweiler, QB, Broncos: We'll know more in a month or two about the fourth-year pro's value. Yes, $19.4 million is steep. And Miller is too good to let go. But say the Broncos go deep in the playoffs behind Osweiler, who has impressive tools ... 25-year-old quarterbacks don't grow on trees.

Justin Tucker, K, Baltimore Ravens: Usually, at least one kicker gets the tag (ask New England if it regrets tagging Stephen Gostkowski last year). Tucker looks like he'll be the guy this year for a pretty simple reason: It's worth $4.5 million to keep a guy who you can trust in all the big spots.

Muhammad Wilkerson, DE, New York Jets: The price tag for Wilkerson is high for an interior lineman; because he's an end in a 3-4, he'd cost $15.4 million to tag. But there should be trade value for Wilkerson, who potentially could be used as a chip to deal up in the draft for a quarterback.

Outside looking in: Dwayne Allen, TE, Indianapolis Colts; Prince Amukamara, CB, New York Giants; Sam Bradford, QB, Philadelphia Eagles; Coby Fleener, TE, Colts; Doug Martin, RB, Tampa Bay Buccaneers; Eric Weddle, S, San Diego Chargers.

Follow Albert Breer on Twitter @AlbertBreer.

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