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Studying this NFL season's sloppy start; vital Week 3 questions

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Bill Belichick is far from the first coach to express frustration with the way changes to the NFL's offseason and practice rules have impacted player development in recent years. But it was hard to miss the irony in his remarks this week, knowing he was among those who figured to benefit when the changes were made -- at least in the win column.

When representatives from the NFL Players Association, led by Domonique Foxworth and Jeff Saturday, began drafting a new set of working conditions during 2011 collective bargaining talks, they leaned on templates set by the Super Bowl-winning likes of Bill Walsh, Mike Shanahan and Tony Dungy, who all had utilized fewer padded practices. Some coaches, including then-Houston Texans head man Gary Kubiak, had already done away with padded two-a-days in camp.

The goal of the changes was to extend careers by reducing wear and tear and placing a premium on smart and experienced players, who so often get phased out for younger, cheaper options. Everyone would still be playing by the same rules, the logic went, so why wouldn't good coaches still have the edge in getting their teams to improve as the season went along?

"Yeah that was our thought," Foxworth recalled in text messages to me this week. "Don't make players' bodies pay for bad coaches. If everyone has the same time, the smarter, more efficient coaches will succeed."

Now, there's a separate argument here about quality of play, especially early in the season, given limited classroom time in the offseason and reduced contact year-round. The latter was Belichick's focus when answering a question about poor offensive line play across the league on a conference call with Houston media in advance of Sunday's game against the Texans, saying in part: "You're playing a contact position with pads, and you're practicing it without pads the majority of the time. ... It's like, you go out to the driving range and hit drives and hit balls, but you can't go on the putting green."

Malcolm Gladwell and his 10,000-Hour Rule would agree. More coaches -- including the Steelers' Mike Tomlin and Ravens' John Harbaugh -- pled publicly and privately at the Annual League Meeting in March for letting them have more and better time with players.

It should be noted owners approved these rules back in 2011, making a concession that seemed unlikely to impact competitive balance or their bottom line. And the logic about how this would push teams to retain more veterans hasn't held up on a league-wide scale; the past seven seasons have produced the seven youngest average ages across NFL rosters for teams' first games, with an all-time low of 26 years, 196 days this season.

One NFL executive suggested screenshotting local newspaper headlines this week and then looking back at them in December for a laugh -- point being, the first couple weeks of games might be more deceiving than ever as players gel and adjust to full contact. It does seem like there are familiar points of hysteria:

The Patriots' defense looks undermanned! The Seattle Seahawks' offensive line is going to kill them! The Green Bay Packers are banged up and can't stop anyone!

And yet history suggests the perennial contenders will find ways to contend again.

According to NFL Media Research, Belichick's winning percentage with the Patriots is .655 in September and .759 the rest of the season:

Belichick's numbers have actually gone up (.750 in September, .774 thereafter) since 2012, following the first offseason with the new rules. Look at the other most consistent programs in recent years -- Pete Carroll's Seahawks, Mike McCarthy's Packers, Tomlin's Pittsburgh Steelers -- and all of them have lower winning percentages in September than subsequent months, with a larger improvement over the course of the season in the post-CBA era than before. (Tomlin has the most sizeable discrepancy since 2012: .474 in September, .651 over the rest of the season.)

That's not all based on one factor. Those teams have great quarterbacks. Once coaches are on the job for a while and have success, they might be more comfortable experimenting with personnel and scheme early on, knowing they can get back to what they do best when needed. If you play young guys a lot early -- this is true particularly in places like Green Bay and Seattle -- you're making an organizational decision to bet they'll improve by season's end.

But that's just it. The culture and teaching atmosphere needs to exist to make that improvement. As Belichick pointed out multiple times in his answer to reporters, "all teams are operating under the same set of rules." That hasn't changed. Belichick also said repeatedly these rules make the job harder -- which is true in terms of player development, but also might tilt the scales even further in his favor. Because no matter what the rules are, it's still the best coaches who find ways to maximize the time they have.

The Five W's for Week 3

WHO benefits most from Bill Lazor calling the Bengals' offense? One source who has worked closely with Lazor and Ken Zampese -- whose ouster as coordinator after an 0-2 start was a popular move among players -- said to expect some simplification and a more cohesive offense in terms of meshing the run and pass, all of which could help embattled quarterback Andy Dalton starting Sunday at Green Bay. "He'll run some more zone read," the source said of Lazor, who previously called plays for the Dolphins in 2014 and part of '15. "I think he'll get Andy out of the pocket more, which I think is smart. Andy's a good thrower on the run, and [he has] above-average mobility for this league. It's a little bit more what Hue (Jackson, Zampese's predecessor and current Browns coach) did -- gave him some simple reads, simple throws. And at the end of the day, they've got to take more shots to A.J. (Green)."

WHAT must Case Keenum do to keep the Vikings afloat? Improved pocket awareness is critical, according to scouts who broke down last week's subpar performance at Pittsburgh. Keenum's pass drops in that 26-9 loss were much too inconsistent and much too deep for the line to properly protect him -- on one sack, he was 13 yards behind the line of scrimmage. The Vikings helped out Keenum in the second half by pushing the tempo, which he likes and figures to do more of Sunday against the Buccaneers. Starting quarterback Sam Bradford seeking a second opinion from Dr. James Andrews doesn't necessarily mean big trouble. No doctor to this point has suggested Bradford has structural issues in his ailing knee, a source with knowledge of the injury said. Everyone just wants clarity. The Vikings' next three games after Sunday are against NFC North foes.

WHEN will Derrick Henry replace DeMarco Murray as the Titans' bell cow? Murray's ongoing hamstring problems might open the door -- starting Sunday against Seattle -- for Henry, who isn't as nifty in the backfield, but can wear people out with his size (6-foot-3, 247 pounds), bounce outside with his long stride and close out games in the Titans' downhill rush attack. The allure of a younger, bigger, healthier back has been there from the tail end of last season, when Murray, now 29, was third in the NFL with 1,287 rushing yards and, in some scouts' minds, showed early signs of decline. "Even against Oakland, [Murray] looked like he was a little limited (by the hamstring). He wasn't opening up," said one scout who has broken down both Titans games. "But the way they were able to finish against Jacksonville with Henry (12 carries, 87 yards in the second half), I think it's going to be heavy Henry carries" in the short term. Will the second-year back take advantage of the opportunity?

WHERE will the Panthers feel tight end Greg Olsen's absence? Third down is one key area. Since the start of last season, no Carolina player has more conversions on third-down catches than Olsen's 16, according to NFL Media Research. His 38 targets are second only to Kelvin Benjamin's 41. "It's big," one NFL executive said. "They've got speed now at running back (with Christian McCaffrey), but at receiver, they've got big guys. He gives them someone to stretch the field in the middle and an easy outlet for Cam (Newton). I know [Olsen]'s older (32), but you have to be aware of him when you're playing them." Not for at least eight weeks, now that Olsen's on injured reserve with a broken foot.

WHY can the Saints still not stop anyone? Scouts actually like some of their young talent on defense, which showed signs of life in the preseason. But the Saints seem perpetually caught in the middle -- drafting defensive players high and then letting them walk or trading them, as they did this week with 2015 first-rounder Stephone Anthony. They've also had trade talks about 2013 first-rounder Kenny Vaccaro, NFL Media Insider Ian Rapoport reported Sunday (hours before Vaccaro was benched). "Cameron Jordan's really the only guy that can rush, and he's a power guy," said one NFL executive who has studied the Saints this year. "Their D-line's average, at best. Secondary's young. Linebackers just average -- I like (rookie Alex) Anzalone, but then they've got Manti Te'o and (A.J.) Klein. It's a total rebuild on defense, and I would say they're halfway there." No team allowed more yards per game (390.9) from 2014 to '16, according to NFL Media Research. They've hemorrhaged 512.5 yards in two games this season.

Follow Tom Pelissero on Twitter @TomPelissero.

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