In his robust Inside The NFL notebook below, NFL Network's Albert Breer touches on multiple topics including (click on the link to take you directly there):
» Four things he's looking forward to in Week 8
» How the 2012 Olympics could impact the NFL
» Why Ryan Clark thinks the Steelers' critics are right
» Why Matt Flynn won't send Kevin Kolb a Christmas card
» And more, beginning with why Gillette should do a marketing deal with a certain Chiefs coach ...
On the morning of the Chiefs-Chargers game in Week 3, Kansas City coach Todd Haley asked his wife, in San Diego with their daughter and a friend of hers, if he should shave. Chrissy Haley said no. But after a look in the mirror, Todd did it anyway. And following the team's 20-17 heartbreaker, the first thing Chrissy said to Todd was, "You shaved."
So it happened the next Sunday. This time, Haley kept the 5-o'clock shadow. He also wore a hoodie and a ratty red hat. The result? The team's first win of the year, 22-17 over Minnesota.
The superstitious Haley hasn't changed it since, because the Chiefs haven't lost since, and that's pretty remarkable, considering the 89-10 two-week beatdown they took at the start of the season. It's fitting, too, since it projects the coach just doesn't care.
Haley's Chiefs have the Chargers again this week. Last time, there was some question as to whether or not he'd make it out of September, given the horrific opening to 2011 and the simmering tumult between he and GM Scott Pioli. Back then, Haley didn't see the sense in caring about all that. That should explain why when I asked him, late Wednesday night, if he felt the organization had his back when things looked worse, he took the question and went another way with it.
"I've said it plenty of times -- when you're losing, there's going to be tension anywhere you go," Haley responded. "Tell me about a place where there's not that, and I'll bet that's a place where you have no chance of winning. That stuff's not something I'd ever focus on. Wherever I've been, I've tried to stay above the fray and focused on my job.
"I've got pretty lofty goals and expectations for myself, and that's the way I've always done it. It helps you handle the potential insanity in those spots."
It might have been insane to think in late September that we'd be here, going into Halloween night, with the Chiefs having a shot at the lead in the AFC West. But it's certainly not the first time Haley's been associated with the word "crazy", and that's probably how he'd describe Weeks 1 and 2.
Against Buffalo in the opener, the Chiefs fumbled the opening kickoff. Three plays later, second-year safety Eric Berry, just elected a captain, went down with a torn ACL. As Haley describes it, "Word spread down the sideline he was done, and our team didn't handle it well. It was like, 'What just happened.'" By the middle of the second quarter, it was 20-0, Buffalo.
The next week, the Chiefs started faster, with Jon McGraw picking off Matthew Stafford on Detroit's first possession. But McGraw fumbled that one, the Lions recovered, the Chiefs committed consecutive personal fouls on the next two plays, Detroit scored and Jamaal Charles blew out his ACL on the Chiefs' first possession. "Groundhog Day," Haley said. "We really had a hard time handling that. (Charles) clearly was one of the biggest parts of our upward movement. Someone we were counting on."
It's been documented that Haley used the 1989 Steelers, for whom his dad Dick worked, as an example for his team. After the first rout, he referenced them. After the second blowout, he called NFL Films for the highlight tape. That team lost its first two games 92-10, and came back to make the playoffs, and win a game after they got there.
You don't hear as much of that talk about Haley anymore, and he tried not to listen to any of it (a challenge when your buddies are texting you about it and the media is asking about it) to begin with. But if you really want an answer on how he's gotten the dogs called off, for now, he'll tell you it's the functional fixes he gave his players, rather than the symbolic example of a team from two decades ago.
First, there was this: Haley made the simple point, after three weeks, that with a win in Week 4, and three wins in each of the three remaining quarters of the season, the Chiefs would be OK.
Second, Kansas City lost the turnover battle 9-2 in the first two weeks. So Haley got the team's photographer and compiled hundreds of examples of poor technique in carrying the ball. And he identified a larger problem within that one -- players trying to do too much, as stars went down and the team fell behind.
"The thing I stressed is that good is good enough," Haley said. "You don't have to be great. After losses -- and our guys care, I promise you -- they were clearly trying too hard. You can see that everywhere in sports. I could see it the other day with my daughter's volleyball team, her team fell behind, started pressing, and all of the sudden, everyone's out of position. This is the same thing.
"That's why you're fumbling. Sometimes, you're going for that extra yard you don't need to get. We just needed guys to play within themselves, and then we'd get better."
In Week 3, the Chiefs fell behind by 10 on three occasions, but by playing sound ball and winning the turnover battle (2-1), they had a chance to win at the end. That they lost to San Diego mattered, but Haley went to his team afterward and "I said to them, 'We're going to be OK.' I meant it."
Billick: 3 coaches in tough spots
Behind Haley's high-wire style, the Chiefs now are OK. Maybe as much because he kept the pressure on -- something obvious in his well-scrutinized sideline demeanor -- and expectations high as anything.
"I've never worried about anything but my job," he says. "Whether it's a position group, an offense or a team, I just try to get the most I possibly can out of them. I refuse to stop doing that. It's not OK for me to let things go. I think that's served the players I've coached well. I stick to it, because it's worked."
Another corner was turned last Sunday, with the Chiefs being the one administering the mugging, shutting out the Raiders 28-0 on a hot day in Oakland. Haley credits the performance in the heat to a coaches' decision early this season to move Wednesday practices to the afternoon, after the players lifted, as a conditioning measure.
It also validated something else -- Haley's commitment to his new get-up. "I'm wearing the hoodie for superstition," he said, "and I'm dying out there, sweating like a pig." But he learned this stuff from folks important to him. Haley says his dad used to make him sit in the same seat in the car on the way to games at Three Rivers Stadium during win streaks. And he recalled Bill Parcells visiting the dentist weekly during the 1998 Jets' season, because a big win had been preceded by a root canal.
"What I'm most proud of is we stayed the course," said Haley. "We had a clear cut plan, myself and the coach on lots of things, how to go about things. And things go poorly, and we stayed the course. I'm proud of that for the team, the staff. No one panicked. … I like these guys. They battle and fight and believe and respond. We just tried to keep them understanding that two or three games don't make a season. And now, we have an identity."
At the top of Wembley Stadium on Sunday, sections of seats were blanketed with black tarps. It signified what was well-known by then -- the fifth edition of the NFL's venture taking regular-season games to London was going off without having sold out.
In the end, the Buccaneers-Bears game drew more than 76,000 fans. The league viewed the day and, on a larger scale, the week as a success. More than 40,000 folks passed through the Fan Rally on Saturday at Trafalgar Square; 7,000 showed for the NFL's Movie Night a few days earlier. NFL vice president of international Chris Parsons chalked up the less-than-ideal attendance figures for Sunday as a residual effect of the lockout.
Last year, 81 percent of the crowd came from outside the London area for 49ers-Broncos, and the fact that the league only had six weeks to sell tickets that usually go on sale in the spring made it difficult for those kinds of people to arrange trips into the city, particularly with it being a holiday weekend for schools, and many families having made other plans.
"I thought the whole week was incredibly positive," said Parsons. "To deliver what we did in a relatively short period of time was a great achievement. We had tremendous fan support, and tremendous fan turnout at our events. The game wasn't quite a sellout, but the fact that we got that attendance in just six weeks of selling, we were very pleased.
"As far as what we've learned going forward, we always learn a lot, but this year, because we were forced into that short selling window, one thing we know we need to get right is the announcement, and making the most of things, especially in regard to how it falls with other events."
That'll be key in 2012, with the Summer Olympics coming to London. That, of course, will stretch the British sports consumer dollar, and it'll be part of the consideration in deciding whether to have one or two games next year (the assumption is the games will be at Wembley, but the league's deal with the stadium is up and still needs to be renewed).
Parsons said over the next 6-8 weeks, the league will review where it stands and solicit teams to go to London in 2012. The first step in going from a single game to two is having four willing teams. Next, the league, according to Parsons, needs to make certain the interest is there to sell tickets for multiple games, and that sponsors will be on board to expand their agreements. The plan is for an announcement during Super Bowl week.
For now, though, Parsons is off to Toronto, where the Bills and Redskins will play this week. The Bills and Rogers, Buffalo's partner in this version of the International Series, are making an effort to turn Sunday's game into an event, using the Wembley model. It's interesting, too, since Toronto is presumably more ready and logistically suitable than London to have a team full-time. Given that Parsons and Co. have said a London team isn't on the radar yet, Toronto's probably closer to getting one too.
And this weekend should be a good barometer: It's the first time Buffalo's gone up there as a contender.
"Our view on this weekend is that it's an NFL game, and we want all of them to be incredibly successful," he said. "That we have two teams that are off to good starts has excited the fans, and that's reflected in the acceleration of ticket sales. The excitement in the press is heightened, and we're seeing the things we wanted to see early on. Toronto is a great market."
How soon it, or London, becomes an NFL market remains to be seen. (NFL Commissioner) Roger Goodell told me in London last week that, "We're going to play multiple games over here, and if that's successful, there is a possibility of a franchise here. … Eventually you want to see if we can sell it by focusing on maybe one or two or two or three teams, so we can get to the point where we could have a franchise here."
So it seems inevitable, before too long, the league will be international.
Bright future for Browns defense
For as much as we all made about the arrival of Mike Holmgren in Cleveland and the gradual implementation of the West Coast offense -- his mentor Bill Walsh's offense -- the commitment early in the tenure of Browns president Mike Holmgren has been on the other side of the ball.
As Tony Grossi of the Cleveland Plain Dealer noted the other day, Holmgren and GM Tom Heckert have had four top-40 picks in their first two drafts. And all of them have been spent on defense. Last year, corner Joe Haden and safety T.J. Ward came on board. This year, it was defensive tackle Phil Taylor and defensive end Jabaal Sheard.
Seems to be working. The Browns rank fourth in total defense -- interestingly enough, behind AFC North rivals Baltimore, Cincinnati and Pittsburgh -- and it's in no small part due to Heckert and Holmgren's Core 4.
"They're really hard-working guys," Browns defensive coordinator Dick Jauron, who was charged with leading Cleveland's switch from Rob Ryan's 3-4 to his own 4-3. "They continue to play hard, and we've got a long ways to go, we can better, but they're learning. In this game, everyone's good enough to beat you. You gotta be really sound, tough and talented, and get lucky at times. A number of those things occurred on Sunday."
But where this story really started was in camp. One of the more startling things I encountered on the trail this summer was seeing Taylor and Sheard running with the first team very early in the summer.
Jauron had an idea on what he had with Haden and Ward: "Joe's exceptional. I don't look at every corner in the league, but he's gotta be playing at a level with anyone else. And T.J.'s played well. He's a tough guy and we're learning more on how to use him." What he needed was a better idea of how ready the rookies were, and trial-by-fire was his preferred method, rather than making the players fight their way up the depth chart.
"There are times when you think, 'We drafted him high, we believe he's a player, we're starting something different than what they had here, and he's gonna be a starter, so let's put him out there," Jauron said. "Then, there's the argument that you make them earn it. But I think you increase the learning curve and say, 'Here we go. Get it done."
Darlington: 3-loss teams with a shot?
Things get tougher from here for Cleveland. Trips to San Francisco and Houston are next, and Baltimore and Pittsburgh populate four of the final five weeks of the season. And Pat Shurmur's group might need another draft or two to get things right, roster-wise. But Heckert and Co. went searching for mentally tough, smart football players in the draft because the staff knew they'd have to play right away.
Add those guys to Haden and Ward, and it does look like foundation pieces are in place.
"That's what they have to be," said Jauron. "They can and have to be good for us to succeed. … Overall, they've been very good picks for us, and good players for us. So far, so good."
On the other end of the spectrum in the AFC North -- as far as track record -- is a Pittsburgh defense that's been questioned since it was ripped apart by Baltimore in Week 1. The Steelers ranked 21st in total defense after that one, jumped to second the next week, and have been top three ever since.
"It's not about proving anything," safety Ryan Clark told me. "It's about getting the W. There are a lot of people whose number he has, not just ours. People pay more attention to us, because we're consistently a very good defensive team and Tom Brady has had success. But the great thing about that -- we don't have to play all those games over again. We have to play on Sunday at 4:15."
As for the age thing, six of the Steelers' 11 starters last Sunday in Arizona were over 30 -- Clark, Troy Polamalu, Ike Taylor, Larry Foote, James Farrior and Brett Keisel. When Casey Hampton comes back, and he's expected to play Sunday, that'll make seven of 11, which is a fairly high number. But there's also a young core forming behind them. LaMarr Woodley (26) is a legit DPOY candidate, Lawrence Timmons (25) has been invaluable, and Ziggy Hood (24) and Cameron Heyward (22) are playing bigger roles.
And over the past 15 years, if there's one thing Pittsburgh has proven, it's an ability to replace its defensive stars.
"Been hearing that for years, about this team being old," said Woodley, who credits Hood's progress for helping him to an AFC-leading seven sacks. "I heard about this team being old when I was in college. And being a part of this team, they say we're still getting too old. Either you're too young or you're too old in this league, and every time they call this team old, we always seem to be in the big game at the end."
Across the board, the Steelers seem to think they're being judged, as a defense, on what happened Sept. 11 in Baltimore. And they also are sure they're that much better, for simple reasons. "We're starting to get in a flow, get comfortable, starting to see our reads and get our keys, and doing what coach LeBeau coaches us to do," is the way Polamalu described it.
About the age questions, Clark said, "Eventually, they'll be right. Eventually, we'll be old."
Has that day already come? Stay tuned.
1) How Tim Tebow's long release affects him against Detroit. You'd have to assume that Denver offensive coordinator Mike McCoy will do things to get the southpaw on the move, rather than having him sit stationary in the pocket too much. Among Tebow's problems, his long delivery -- the kind that really hurt Byron Leftwich as an NFL quarterback -- is near the top of the list. It contributed to the six sacks he took in Miami last week. And you better believe it has Ndamukong Suh and Co. licking their chops this week. Add to that the fact that Detroit is coming off two straight losses, and that entire D-line is steaming over the treatment they got last week in the wake of the Atlanta game, and that Denver has been mediocre running the ball, and it'll be pretty interesting to see how Tebow is deployed. And how he holds up to a potential beating.
2) Chris Johnson taking on a lighter defensive front. Suffice it to say, the Titans aren't thrilled with where Johnson is. He wasn't in great shape after the contract dispute, and the thought was that last week would be when he finally hit his stride, with the bye giving him the chance to settle all the way in. Sixteen touches and 45 yards later, there's even more reason for concern on whether or not Johnson will regain the form that earned him that huge payday in time for the Titans to keep pace with the Texans in the South. If there ever was an elixir, it's coming now, with the Colts set to pay a visit to Nashville. Not only does Indy rank 31st in run defense, the Colts also now lack the ability they used to have to make Johnson less relevant by building huge leads. Could this be the week? For now, all bets are off.
3) The Giants' focus. Since their Week 1 loss to Washington, Big Blue has been enigmatic in going 4-1. They beat up on Philly, and played clutch against the Bills to score a big win two weeks ago, but scuffled to get by against the Rams and Cardinals, and inexplicably lost to a shaky Seattle team that was traveling cross-country for a 1 p.m. ET start. These kinds of hiccups can cost a team in the long run, and so it's worth watching how they handle the winless Dolphins coming to MetLife Stadium. The rest of New York's schedule is murderous -- in order, at New England, at San Francisco, Eagles, at New Orleans, Green Bay, at Dallas, Redskins, Jets and Cowboys again -- so they need to take care of business in games like these now.
4) Rob Ryan's defense against Michael Vick. Quietly, the Cowboys seem to have turned a corner defensively behind new coordinator Rob Ryan. That group left the field in Foxboro two weeks ago with 3:36 remaining, having allowed just 13 points, staking the offense to a three-point lead. After that wasn't enough, Tom Brady needed to be just about perfect to win that one at the wire. And last week, they took care of the shorthanded Rams. Playing against the Eagles and all the speed they bring is a different kind of challenge for a bigger 3-4 front. We should have a pretty good idea of how real what we've seen the past two weeks is just before midnight on Sunday.
1) Andrew Luck could be a bust, but I highly doubt he will be. After writing earlier in the week on the prospects of the Colts"creatively" pursuing the Stanford star, I got tweets and emails asking the question: "What if he's a bust?" It's impossible to completely dismiss that. This kid is as sure a thing as is possible. USC coach Lane Kiffin called him "pretty much perfect" at his press conference Tuesday, and the numbers bear that out. Luck's completed 145 of 202 passes for 1,888 yards, 20 touchdowns and just three picks in a pro offense, as part of Stanford's 7-0 start. He's widely viewed as the safest quarterback prospect since Peyton Manning, and the best since John Elway. I'll roll the dice on that.
2) The rookie market won't be the only place to find a quarterback in the offseason. Good foresight by Ty Dunne of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel to write on Matt Flynn this week, and the possibility that Aaron Rodgers' backup, now in a contract year, could get a shot to start somewhere in 2011. Patriots backup Brian Hoyer is another player who could get a look, though he'd cost a team a draft pick with New England certain to put a prohibitive RFA tender on him before potentially listening to trade proposals. What will be interesting is to see the effect 2011 has on those guys -- a year in which the big veteran catch (Kevin Kolb) has looked bad, and the two rookies that have started from Day 1 (Cam Newton, Andy Dalton) have looked good. Neither Flynn nor Hoyer will command near the market (Flynn financially, and Hoyer by trade or contract) that Kolb did, since Kolb was a high second-round pick with significant starting experience. And Kolb's failures probably won't help those guys find work, since the idea in getting a vet over a rookie would be the hope for an immediate return.
3) Parity is alive and well. Last week, we showed you the reasons why one preseason theory -- that defense would be ahead of offense -- was wrong all along. This week, we'll point out another post-lockout fallacy that I subscribed to in August. The gap between good and bad has not widened, as I expected it would, and the proof is clear as day in the standings. Only three teams remain without multiple losses (Packers, Patriots, 49ers), and one of them isn't close to being an established power. On the flip side, you have five teams who have failed to win multiple games (Colts, Rams, Dolphins, Cardinals, Vikings), but only one has a new coach, and that's Leslie Frazier, who's been in Minnesota since 2007 and got his feet wet as interim coach last year. That leaves 24 teams who have multiple wins and multiple losses seven weeks in.
Two pieces of business
1) The Bears should pay Matt Forte. And I know that's just me joining the chorus. But it's coming for a guy who thinks it's a bad idea to pay tailbacks 95 percent of the time, because of their short shelf life and replaceability. Start with the value. He's clearly gotten better the past three years, and his versatility as a receiver (209 catches in 55 career games) makes him more than just a back in the Mike Martz system. Then, there's the symbolism. Other players in the locker room are clearly keeping an eye on this one, and it could affect future contract negotiations. And finally, by doing it now, you can manage the money, and take care of him at 25, rather than 26 or 27, mitigating the long-term commitment by doing it earlier, and in a year when the club has nearly $20 million in cap room.
2) Keep an eye on the Buccaneers and Rams in the next few years, and their efforts to market overseas. Both clubs have an inherent advantage in their knowledge of the market -- with Tampa owner Malcolm Glazer also owning Manchester United and Rams owner Stan Kroenke owning Arsenal -- and there could be untapped opportunities for the NFL to cross-promote its teams through the wildly popular Barclays Premier League. The Bucs have already been over for games twice, but the league hasn't yet worked with those in soccer, from a marketing standpoint, and exploring that could lead to an "everyone benefits" scenario.
The Redskins' leveling off will continue this weekend. But it would be a mistake to take too much negative out of that.
Washington seems to have put together a solid 11-man draft class in 2011. You can see pieces coming together on defense.
But last year, the Redskins committed to a slow build, laying a foundation through the draft. They still need to find a long-term answer at quarterback, something they held off on last year, and help at a lot of other spots on offense.
And this is the right approach. So I'd advise those in D.C. to give coach Mike Shanahan a chance to bring in another draft class. That team is still on the right track.