Inside the NFL  

 

Notebook: Bengals' character conundrum, Chip Kelly's new gig

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):

» One thing Chip Kelly must do to succeed in San Francisco.
» How Adam Gase, Hue Jackson and Doug Pederson came out of the coaching carousel winners.
» The key to Seattle's resurgence in the second half of the season.
And much more, beginning with a look at one of the most difficult aspects of roster construction ...

It was the summer of 2013, and Marvin Lewis was explaining to me a philosophical shift he was trying to drive in the Cincinnati Bengals organization, which was based largely on how the team's old standard had failed with troubled young players like Odell Thurman and Chris Henry.

"I think there was always a feel that it was a 'boys will be boys'-type situation," Lewis conceded, leaning back in a swivel chair in a team meeting room. "Some 'boys' just can't get over that. And unfortunately, the organization had to learn that, and it took a hit with those two kids. ... You gotta be sure [the player is] gonna mature into the right person."

Last Saturday night, the skeletons of the Bengals' past were dragged out of the closet, with a pair of personal fouls committed by predictable parties -- Vontaze Burfict and Pacman Jones -- sealing the team's fate. And in the time since, most of the blame has fallen at the feet of the embattled Lewis, who has led a franchise that had never previously posted more than two consecutive playoff seasons into the postseason the last five years running, but is now 0-7 once he gets there.

Does he deserve it? The truth is, probably not.

Lewis' influence over the Brown family has altered the player procurement process in Cincinnati to a degree, but Saturday's "Rumble in the Jungle" again highlighted the difficulty in bringing in men with checkered pasts. Pressure and high stakes have a way of reducing every player to his natural form.

Over the years, Lewis has been handed guys like this, and then left to figure out the rest.

"I think it's the type of guy they had there," said one rival head coach, speaking on the condition of anonymity. "I don't think Marvin and that staff are about that stuff. Ownership is. They look at value, and see a way to gain an advantage."

An NFC personnel executive added, "People want Marvin to pay with his job, but what about the GM? They went through this period of time where they had a bunch of dirtbags in there, guys like Corey Dillon, and they've changed some. But it's still there. The Brown family, I love and respect them. They're as high character and have as much integrity as any owners I've met. Yet, sometimes, the player selections make you scratch your head."

So maybe you can't win with guys like that. The bigger problem is you can't win without them, either.

As the playoff field is set to narrow from eight to four teams, consider the risks the last four champion coaches have taken on players: It's not like Tom Coughlin, John Harbaugh, Pete Carroll and Bill Belichick haven't rolled the dice on character. Now, flip that and look at the roster the Eagles built under Chip Kelly over the last 12 months, after Philly seriously narrowed what it looked for in players from a personality standpoint.

"You can't have too many, but you have to have some," an AFC personnel executive said. "Burfict is a good example. They know he's crazy, and it's not the first time. As long as you know what you're getting yourself into, and you manage it, you're OK. When you get a lot of guys like that, now the situation changes, because it's a much higher risk to have guys like that around each other. ... Really good defensive players, a lot of times, are really aggressive people. Violence is part of that."

This AFC exec raised Jacksonville's recent history as an example. Under Shack Harris, the Jags took risk after risk from Reggie Williams to Reggie Nelson to Matt Jones, and paid for it. Harris' successor, Gene Smith, cleaned that up, but cleaned out the talent, leaving a mess of a different kind four years later.

At their best, edgy, borderline guys bring a necessary nastiness to a team.

You know what the worst looks like.

"That's where the leaders on your team become really important," another NFL head coach said. "They can control that kind of player to a certain extent. You don't want a bunch of choir boys. ... You always talk about getting smart, tough, physical people, but there's a fine line to that. Certain guys play that way, but then they do dumb things. And it usually is a pattern you can see going back to college."

And it's an inexact science to the point where just about everyone messes up in this area, to varying degrees. The Patriots had Aaron Hernandez. The Chiefs had Jovan Belcher. The Panthers had Greg Hardy. The Seahawks had Percy Harvin. The Cardinals had Daryl Washington. The Packers had Johnny Jolly.

Those six teams are all still playing this weekend.

"When it comes to character, you have to ask, 'Is it permanent or is it a mistake in judgment?' " another AFC personnel exec said. "You want to navigate that carefully. Can they recover? Do they learn from their mistakes? Does it connect to issues from the past? Is it something we can manage?"

That brings us back to Burfict.

According to sources, the NFL has clips of the Bengals linebacker taking cheap shots sent in by teams that were trying to put an end to it. The league actually looked at suspending him a week ago for a hit on Ravens tight end Maxx Williams, before deciding to assess a $50,000 fine instead. In the wake of Saturday night's brutal hit on Antonio Brown, though, the NFL did suspend Burfict three games for repeated violations of safety-related playing rules.

It's not like the coaches haven't talked to Burfict in the past to try and curb his behavior. More so, it's that the bright lights and big spot brought out something, in both him and Jones (who's generally been a good soldier of late), that's simply part of who they are.

"How do you put that on Marvin?" said the second head coach. "Can he stop [Burfict] from taking those three steps?"

In the end, it seems like the easier solution would be not to have players like that on the team.

The problem is, putting together a team that way is a lot easier said than done.

Four downs

1) Controlling the violence. Before last week, NFL executive vice president of football operations Troy Vincent sent a video to all players pleading for sportsmanship. "Take care of one another. Play fair. Play hard. Play smart. Play safe," he said in the video. "Emotions will run high, but no amount of emotion should give way to demeaning or offensive words or actions. No one wants a penalty to determine a game." My understanding is that nothing additional was sent to the eight clubs in the wake of the Steelers-Bengals game, but other teams did take notice. And one of the first things that came up actually validated Pacman Jones' postgame rant. When the second head coach quoted above was asked what popped into his mind watching things come undone, he responded, "What's Joey Porter doing on the field? He was a pain in the ass when he played. What's he doing on the field? That's just wrong." Another problem that was brought up: The officials setting a tone early on. Our above NFC exec pointed out that he thought the crew set a good tone early on, but allowed things to spin out of control later because, in his mind, they were letting stuff go. "The officials don't officiate. They were throwing flags at everything early on, and it's Bengals-Steelers, so it should be officiated that way. But then you let it go, you let it go, and eventually you have this ugly scene." One thing to watch going forward will be if, in 2016, there's more emphasis on setting a tone with specific players, for which the guys I spoke to this week advocated. Burfict is one example. Two more would be Odell Beckham Jr. and Josh Norman, who each had a history of chippy, aggressive play that would spill past the whistle at times -- which in turn created a perfect storm for their Dec. 20 confrontation.

2) Chip's second chance. Count me as a believer that Chip Kelly will get it done in his second go-around, with the San Francisco 49ers, because he's one of the most intelligent and pragmatic people I've been around. But there's one caveat that's an absolute when it comes to all this: He needs to sell his program better and the resulting buy-in needs to be much better. Consider this, from a discussion I had with Shady McCoy (yes, the same guy who purportedly can't stand Chip now) back in December 2013 on sports science: "It's the small things you don't think about: the nutrition, the sleep, the way we train. Coach Kelly, maybe a guy in the front is working so hard, and it's the guy in the back who may be putting out more of a workload. It's him knowing everybody individually, how hard they're working. It's, 'Hey, McCoy, I might cut you back a little today, because your workload has been amazing.' It's things like that, monitoring everything. ... I'm probably at my best weight since I've been in the league, staying around that 210-to-213 range, never up, never down. It's the way we train, staying strong. It's not lifting to get bigger or extra strong -- it's maintaining, to get through a long season." And on his fit in Chip's offense, Shady added, "He gives me the ability to be myself, to run where I want to run at, and he gives me the ball enough. ... This offense is built around the back." Somewhere along the line, thereafter, Kelly lost that kind of buy-in from McCoy and other players. And part of that is just this generation, which is different than previous generations. Word around the campfire is that Kelly could've done more to explain to guys why they were doing what they were doing, and to use guys like McCoy (when he was getting results) as salesmen. In other words, his methods were sound, but needed to be made more relatable. So I went to Trev Moawad, a mental conditioning coach who works at Alabama and Florida State and with pros like Russell Wilson, to see how that gets done with sports science at places like 'Bama and FSU: "They can't be gimmicks. Players see right through that. Implementation is everything. It starts at the top and the execution is everything. Your subject matter experts have to be unbelievable ambassadors of the top-down message." And to that end, Moawad cited 'Bama strength coach Scott Cochran, "He doesn't rest until players understand how and why the training will help in the fourth quarter. He is a world-class coach and guys know it. NFL players are some of the toughest 'consumers' in the world. You better have a strong game to get them on board. But when they understand and buy in -- watch out -- they go all in." At one point, Eagles players, even McCoy, seemed to be that way with Kelly. The job in San Francisco will be to make sure it's more widespread and sustainable.

3) Rams' plan in L.A. The Rams have been so trained on getting to Los Angeles that preliminary construction work in Inglewood actually was done even before the league approved their move on Tuesday. Still, the hard part really does begin now, with the effort to actually pick up and move enveloping much more than that parcel of land by LAX. Per a club source, the goal is to get the team itself to Los Angeles by the beginning of organized team activities in May, if not sooner. And as part of that, the team will construct a temporary/permanent facility, like the one the New Orleans Saints built for their training camp at The Greenbrier in West Virginia. (The resort spent $30 million to assemble a complex with meeting rooms, weight rooms, offices and three lavish practice fields in under 100 days in 2014.) The team's already looking for a site, with plots north of L.A. in Oxnard or Westlake a possibility. Additionally, according to the Rams source, regardless of whether the facility goes up that quickly or not, the plan is to run the draft and all associated events in Los Angeles. Meanwhile, they'll be looking for a place to build a state-of-the-art permanent facility, with an eye toward moving there in early 2018, a year before the Inglewood stadium is to open. Ideally, that facility would be near the temporary/permanent facility, so team officials won't have to move twice, and also close enough to the Coliseum and new Inglewood stadium. The other piece of housekeeping here, of course, would be the fate of the Chargers, which remains uncertain, though the Rams have given them multiple options as both a partner and a tenant. As for the more immediate future, most of the team operations will continue to be run out of Rams Park in suburban St. Louis for the next few months. Therefore, much of the team's draft prep and free-agent movement will be carried out there, which is at least a little awkward.

4) Packers embracing different role. It's been five years since the Packers last opened the playoffs on the road -- this year was the first since 2010 they didn't win the NFC North -- but the history there isn't all bad, of course. Fourteen players remain from that group, which won in Philly, Atlanta and Chicago before beating the Steelers in Super Bowl XLV. And maybe it's just convenient -- because that's the situation facing the Packers again -- but the guys who were there back then believe there is something to be said for taking that path, with external expectations lagging far behind those internally. "Obviously, you can tell the way they're talking about the best quarterbacks in the playoffs, the potential matchups, we're not even in the discussion," Clay Matthews told me, over the phone. "In years prior, being in the [NFC Championship Game] last year, we're always a team to watch out for. And if we can take anything from 2010 -- when we were the sixth seed and we had to win the last two to get in, and took the playoff field by storm -- it's that we can harness that." After the Packers blew away Washington -- turning an 11-0 second-quarter deficit into a 35-18 win -- it's clear that the younger guys were following the older guys' lead in doing just that. "I like everyone telling us that we suck and that we're the underdog and no one's talking about us like we're any good," star defensive lineman Mike Daniels said. "Keep ignoring us. All it does is make us angry. I like it like that. Good. Let everybody doubt us and tell us how bad we suck. ... We all love football, we all watch TV, we all keep up with everything. Everyone's telling you how bad you stink, they're talking about all the teams except for yours -- OK, cool. I like that." We'll see if it makes them 30 points better this week than they were the last time around in Arizona.

Three checkdowns

1) Adam Gase's first crack at interviewing for a head-coaching job came back in 2014, thanks to a recommendation from Peyton Manning, his quarterback at the time, to Manning's old friend (and Browns owner) Jimmy Haslam. Manning felt strongly about Gase. The reason why? Because if Manning had a question about something that was keeping him up at 1 a.m., he could get Gase on the phone and get an answer. That proved two things, and in a way showed Gase was similar to the guy on the other end of the line. First, it meant Gase was amazingly committed. Second, it illustrated Gase was proficient enough football-wise to get Manning what he needed. That doesn't mean that he'll crush it as Miami's head coach. But it's not a bad starting point.

2) Speaking of the Browns, count me among those surprised that Cleveland got the coach at the top of its list, after fumbling around in 2013 and '14. It's a win for Haslam and a win for the organization -- and it happened for good reasons. To begin with, the club acted decisively and let Hue Jackson know he was their guy. From there, the brass was able to sell its unorthodox power structure to Jackson -- and, in particular, executive vice president Sashi Brown found a way to show Jackson in a logical manner why it would work. And then, the Browns gave Jackson a direct line to the owner: He'll be reporting directly to Haslam, putting him on level ground with Brown and chief strategy officer Paul DePodesta. As crazy as it would've sounded a couple weeks back, this was a very coach-friendly setup for candidates, which signals a pretty smart start for the new regime in Cleveland.

3) The anticipated hire of Doug Pederson in Philly, whenever K.C.'s season ends, is logical in that it re-aligns an organization that had become fractured. Owner Jeffrey Lurie made the changes he did two weeks ago because he didn't like the environment in his building, and choosing Don Smolenski (business side) and Howie Roseman (football side) to help lead the coaching search was as sure a sign as any that he wanted to go back to what he had for 14 years with Andy Reid, since both those guys were in the building for the duration of the Reid era. Pederson, of course, was Reid's first starting quarterback in Philly, and has coached under him for the last seven seasons.

Two (injured) draft prospects to watch

College Football 24/7 Hot Topics:

1) Jaylon Smith, LB, Notre Dame: Had he not torn his ACL and MCL in the Irish's Fiesta Bowl loss to Ohio State, Smith very well might've gone in the first three or four picks in April. As it is now, Smith, who announced his plan to enter the 2016 NFL Draft, is unlikely to fall too far in the first round. One AFC college scouting director projected his floor, without seeing his medicals, to be the Colts' pick at No. 18. "He's fast, athletic, instinctive and versatile," the scouting director said. "He can close quickly against the run and shows very good athletic ability and speed in coverage." When asked for a weakness, the scouting director sarcastically texted, "Knee injury." But there's truth to that, too: There aren't many other things to pick at here, and it's unlikely he falls from the top half of the first round, but how his knee checks out at the NFL Scouting Combine is incredibly important. "A lot will really depend on how the docs see the repair and recovery." Smith finished his All-America junior campaign with 114 tackles, nine tackles for losses and five pass breakups. He is just the kind of Swiss Army Knife 'backer that NFL defensive coordinators salivate over.

2) Will Redmond, CB, Mississippi State: The senior corner's not the prospect Smith is, but he's ahead of where Smith is in his rehab (his ACL tear happened in October). Given when his injury occurred, being ready for opening day next fall isn't impossible. NFL clubs will get a closer look at the plausibility of that at the combine next month. The shame of this one, though, is that he was starting to emerge as a potentially hot commodity before the injury. "Love him," said one area scout assigned to the Bulldogs. "Competitive. Athletic. Tough. Could've been a first-rounder." Another area scout down that way added, "He could've really helped himself if he were to stay healthy. He was definitely trending up. He'll be a good nickel in the league. He's tough and competitive." Maybe the biggest drawback on Redmond is his lack of a very long track record -- this was his first year as a starter, which is why being able to play the year out might have changed everything, even if he is lacking a little in length (which is part of why he's better suited inside than out). As it is now, someone could get a steal in the third or fourth round.

Extra point

Sometimes, the idea of a seminal, season-turning meeting is a little too hokey for an NFL team to wrap its arms around.

Other times, it's not.

In Seattle, it took a collapse for this particular summit to come into being: The defense had just blown a 17-point, fourth-quarter lead in Cincinnati, and the team was 2-3, with unbeaten Carolina looming.

"After (Cincinnati), we had a meeting as a defense, really started holding guys accountable," said fourth-year linebacker Bruce Irvin. "That's the biggest thing: We're just trying to hold each other accountable. That's the biggest difference."

Sounds small. Played out big.

The Seahawks lost a white-knuckler to the Panthers in the next week, and the change in defensive ethos took hold after that. The Seahawks have allowed a league-best 291.3 yards per game over their last 10 contests, and are second in scoring defense (15.2) in that span. The yardage number is nearly 44 yards under the defense's average yield in its first six games, and Seattle is also allowing more than five points fewer per game.

"There's a million things I could tell you, but the easiest way to get it across: All teams in sports have to figure it out," coach Pete Carroll told me after Friday's practice. "Sometimes, they come out and they get hot early, and they can't hold it. We know it's most important to finish. We've learned how to keep working until it feels right -- get it right and then it is right."

So what did Seattle need to get right on defense to get back to its generationally good recent past?

More than anything, it was about finding a way to play for each other and through one another. Whether it was a Super Bowl hangover, or foundational pieces like Earl Thomas and Richard Sherman coming back off surgery, or just the fact that so many guys had been rewarded with big contracts and plenty of plaudits, the early parts of the season showed a bunch of talented guys just kind of doing their own thing.

Confronting the problem was the first step.

"It took us a little longer to find our identity this year, to really play together as a team," Irvin said. "When we played Carolina the first time, I don't think this was the same defense as it is right now. There's a lot of stuff we hadn't gone through on or off the field yet, as far as relationships and guys with personal goals. We had to put all that stuff aside and get back to playing for one another. That was the biggest thing."

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Thomas added, "I think we realized we weren't far off. We were blowing [the Panthers] out -- we just let them come back. I think we had to realize it just wasn't flowing right. And it takes that chemistry, with health, spreading love, communicating. I think every loss we took helped us get to this point."

And at this point, Seattle seems to be rounding back into its own title-winning form. The numbers would tell you that, for sure: The Seahawks are 9-2 since that Carolina loss, and have held four of their last six opponents to single digits.

This Sunday gives those guys the chance to show just how close they are to arriving as a team, against a hungry group looking to end the Seahawks' two-year reign as NFC champs and score a season sweep of the home-and-home.

Maybe the 'Hawks get to the Super Bowl for the third straight year. Maybe they don't. But this much is certain: They're much better equipped to do it than they were a few months ago.

"It took us a while after that, for things to come together, after Carolina, I think, before we really got going," Carroll said. "But that's always what you're trying to find, that connection that's so important for a team. We've been there, we know when it's not right. It's just getting guys connecting. All of that stuff has something to do with it. It takes time."

Good thing the players there used theirs wisely.

Follow Albert Breer on Twitter @AlbertBreer.

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