Greg Schiano's Tampa Bay Buccaneers embrace detailed plan

In his robust Inside The NFL Notebook below, NFL Network's Albert Breer touches on multiple topics, including (click on each link to take you directly to the topic):

Rookie Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Greg Schiano looked like an overbearing, sore-losing jerk in sending the house after Eli Manning on a game-ending kneel-down that sealed a New York Giants win on the season's second Sunday.

Nine weeks later, we might have a bit more context on that circumstance.

Less than 24 hours after his young team -- which might not know enough yet to have thought it was dead in the water -- pulled an absolute Houdini act in Charlotte, Schiano considered the idea that the infamous mid-September incident might have burned an idea into the group's head that served it well in snatching that 27-21 win from the Carolina Panthers. And while he rejected the idea as presented -- that it was part of some "never say die" ethos -- Schiano didn't flatly shoot it down.

"I don't think it's that; that one is necessarily connected to the other," Schiano said from his office. "But what is connected is our team's willingness to prepare for every situation. The kneel-down is one thing we practice. We were ready for that. Same thing (against Carolina), in different situations. Down two scores with six minutes left, and for overtime, we were prepared. Our guys were cool, and that isn't easy; it's a total mindset change from two-minute hurry-up back to regular football.

"We put them through a lot, but if they accept it and commit it to memory and really want to learn it, when they need it most, it will be there. These guys have done that since we got here."

Knowing how to handle one situation and then the next, in Schiano's mind, is a matter of mastering the details, which is a lesson he's driven home in lording over "throwaway" situations like the kneel-down or even being maniacal about the temperature in the meeting room.

Weird? It sure is, to most of the rest of us. But it's also working: The Bucs (6-4) already have two more wins in 2012 than they earned all of last season, have been close in all four of their losses and sit a tiebreaker short of being an NFC playoff team, as things stand today.

"All this started from Day 1, right from the press conference, he spent 30 minutes going over this detailed plan, the program he wanted," said general manager Mark Dominik. "The players saw he was walking the walk. They wanted to believe in it. Thing is, most players like discipline. They want to get better, because they want to play as long as they possibly can. And you have this coach, he brings the ball-disruption drills, the tackling circuits, and they see it carry over to games. That's why it was such a fast attraction."

And it's been a fast turnaround, too. In the midst of the 10-game losing streak that ended their 2011 season, the Bucs dropped a pair of December games to Carolina by a cumulative score of 86-35. Sunday's win completed a sweep of those same Panthers, and made the end of 2011 -- marked by a season finale in which Tampa trailed 42-0 in the second quarter in Atlanta -- seem like 11 years ago, rather than 11 months ago.

Even more remarkable is that the Bucs didn't have to blow up the program to get here. Sixteen of the starters from the Falcons' debacle remain on the roster, and while a strong rookie class headed by safety Mark Barron, running back Doug Martin and linebacker Lavonte David has been huge for the team, many of the key pieces from a club that looked like it flat-out quit last year are still in place.

Schiano says the difference is that this group is smarter, which goes back, again, to situational football. And yes, that sounds drab and boring, but it's easy for Schiano to explain his rationale. The Bucs were 1-4 in their first five one-possession games, but have won their last two. And in their last three games, they've come from behind twice and held off a furious comeback bid on the road.

"I do believe in clutch," Schiano said. "What makes you clutch is your ability to trust your training in big situations. What generally happens in big situations is guys try too hard, go too far in what they're trying to accomplish. Guys that are clutch trust their ability and their training. And when everyone else is losing their cool, they're keeping theirs."

So it was on Sunday, with the trimmed-down Josh Freeman commanding the offense, down 21-10 with six minutes left. First, he drove the team 58 yards in 1:57, and when that drive stalled at the Carolina 22, there was little panic. The Bucs kicked the field goal, and understood it put them in striking distance. Sure enough, when they got the ball back, the Bucs went 80 yards, and had the wherewithal, after Freeman's scintillating 24-yard touchdown pass to Vincent Jackson, to come back and notch the two-pointer to tie it.

Then, as Schiano said, they switched gears in the extra session, and calmly, calculatingly went 80 yards again to draw the curtains on Carolina.

And while Schiano, in essence, looked at the objective rather than the subjective correlation between all that and what happened back in his native Jersey in September, others were more willing to breathe in the emotion of the moment and say, yes, the die-hard mentality apparent then is coming to life now.

"That's what Greg believes in: The game is never over," Dominik said. "It's a belief he's instilled here. You hear so much about situational football in practice, constantly, being ready for these situations. I'd agree (with that idea). That's the mindset he wanted. And the guys bought in."

Certainly, the winning helps bolster the message. But Dominik says the clarity in it helped all the players, many of whom had mud kicked in their face through November and December of 2011, buy in. Dominik also recalls a moment over the summer when it became obvious that the coach had gotten through to them.

Jackson, once a San Diego malcontent, was one of the first players to take Schiano's pre-camp conditioning test in July. After he passed it, he stood near the finish line, pushing teammates to get through it strong. Nearly everyone did on the first try, something that wouldn't have happened with the same group a year earlier.

That told Dominik two things. First, the team was with Schiano. Second, they were with each other.

Schiano sees that, too. He says what he couldn't have predicted is how it'd carry over to Sundays. As it turns out, that part is starting to work itself out.

"There's no panic, no quit here -- the guys keep sticking to the plan. Sometimes it works out, sometimes it won't," Schiano said. "We didn't know what to expect, but I know that the guys that are here, the staff, we came to win. We didn't come to feel it out, and that's why we were frustrated at 1-3. Now it's turned around a little bit. But there's a lot of football left."

Judging by Sunday's theatrics, that seems to be the way Schiano always sees it.

Four things I'll be watching in Week 12

1) The Houston Texans' secondary. Gary Kubiak's bunch has shown an ability to win different types of games the last couple weeks, taking a rock fight in Chicago, then a shootout at home against the Jaguars. And that's big for a team that has few holes. But one might have reared its head Sunday. "They dared (the Jaguars) to beat them throwing the ball, and (Chad) Henne was able to get the ball downfield to their playmakers," said one AFC scout. "Jacksonville protected well, and Houston took a lot of chances. What you see is if you have two really good receivers, you can expose (cornerback) Kareem Jackson, which is what they did." Because of Titus Young's travails, the Texans might be able to mask the problem on Thursday against the Detroit Lions, who are likely to have rookie Ryan Broyles opposite Calvin Johnson. But this will be something to watch going forward, particularly with the likelihood that the Denver Broncos, and their combination of Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker, get another shot at the Texans in the playoffs.

2) The San Francisco 49ers' quarterback situation. One thing that struck me talking to San Francisco offensive coordinator Greg Roman a couple weeks back was his emphasis on the collective in explaining Alex Smith's near-perfect night against the Arizona Cardinals on Oct. 29: "That was a great night for us at the (quarterback) position." Roman would almost certainly say the same about Colin Kaepernick's breakout performance on Monday against the Chicago Bears. What was he getting at? During our talk, Roman explained, pretty methodically, that a set of responsibilities go into playing every position, and that Smith "does a very good job of quarterbacking within that context." Again, it's easy to surmise the same would be said about Kaepernick on Monday night. The clue I take from all this is that the Niners will look at the decision, now and also when they have to choose their guy for 2013, from a cold point of view. There won't be an emotional attachment to Smith, nor will there be an overreaction to the kind of show Kaepernick put on. That very much fits the way Jim Harbaugh has set up that place, and it's why he did more than dip his toe in the Peyton Manning pool last winter. Sounds simple, but my sense is Harbaugh will do whatever is best for "the position" and what San Francisco asks of it.

3) The Seattle Seahawks' playoff position. Seattle's shown plenty of progress in Year 3 of the Pete Carroll/John Schneider regime, but the team's inability to show that on the road this year is positively baffling. The Seahawks are 1-4 outside the Pacific Northwest, and rookie quarterback Russell Wilson's rating is nearly twice as good at home (122.0) as it is on the road (65.8). This week, the Seahawks get a 3,000-mile trip from one corner of the country to another (Miami), during a holiday week, with much on the line. Seattle has tiebreakers on the Vikings and Bucs for the sixth playoff spot, and the Saints and Cowboys are just one game back. Now, it's not like the Seahawks have been getting their doors blown off away from home; those four losses have come by a total of 21 points. So what does it all mean? This week could be a launching point to bigger things for Seattle. They travel to Chicago after this one, and then play three of their last four in Seattle. Or things could go the other way entirely, with Seattle surrendering the little breathing room it has left.

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4) The scene at Arrowhead. The Kansas City Star reported on Monday, a day after a lopsided loss to the Cincinnati Bengals led to some humiliating images of a mostly-empty Arrowhead, that Clark Hunt and his family have "been privately concerned about a growing fan resentment for some time now." On Sunday, the Kansas City Chiefsget Peyton Manning and the red-hot Broncos at home. And in light of that reporting, it's not a stretch to say a bad effort might well accelerate the process. Owners can take getting beat. They can take booing. What's hard to swallow is apathy. The large pockets of vacant seats sent a powerful message on Sunday. If Manning gets off to a quick start, more of that could be coming, and facing 1-10 and a December of irrelevance might be too much for Hunt to take. And remember, that's the same Manning who wouldn't give the Chiefs the courtesy of a visit back in March. What it could add up to is a repeat of last Sunday's sad scene in K.C., and potentially the eventual ouster of two good football men (GM Scott Pioli and coach Romeo Crennel) who haven't come close to getting it right the last 12 months.

Three conclusions

1) The New England Patriots' offense is better equipped for January than ever before. New England has scored plenty of points, enough to win rings, over the eight years since it last won one. But this offense is different than all the others since 2004 -- when a motivated Corey Dillon played there -- in its growing ability to control the pace and tenor of games. Tom Brady told me last week, "Running the ball has saved us in a lot of games." In the next breath, he said of the team's Week 10 effort against the Buffalo Bills, "There are reasons we ended up with 37 points instead of 52." And after explaining it more thoroughly, the understanding was that it's not about pinball numbers, it's about controlling the ball, the clock and, as a result, the game. Brady said, "There haven't been too many times where I thought, 'Wow, they schemed us up on that one.' It's usually a mistake we made that leads to them to making a play." In the Week 7 win over the New York Jets, an offensive pass-interference penalty killed a potential game-clinching drive. Two weeks ago, a late drive of over five minutes ended in a field goal, which left the door open for the Bills. In last week's game against the Indianapolis Colts, conversely, when the Patriots had to have it, they shut the door, going on an 80-yard drive to push the lead to 52-24. Brady only completed two passes on that one. Which is progress.

2) Remember this at draft time: Discipline issues do matter. I get asked plenty why folks in my position dig into the backgrounds of college kids. The stock response is that, in each case, it's relevant because it affects the player's draft stock. And what happened in Detroit this week is an example of why. Jim Schwartz sent Titus Young home because of behavioral problems. His draft classmate, Mikel Leshoure, was suspended earlier in the year. And the team had to release Aaron Berry in the offseason after repeated problems. Anyone can get up on his/her high horse and say it's wrong to employ guys like that. Most teams do anyway. The real problem comes when the club is put in the lurch. Berry's issues left the Lions woefully thin at corner. Leshoure's problems compounded a depth issue at running back. Young's potential absence Thursday would force rookie Ryan Broyles into the lineup against the Texans' stout defense. Meanwhile, the team has been up-and-down all year, which was at least a little predictable, given the makeup of the locker room. The bottom line here seems to be that everyone can take risks. But once those become part of your identity, you might be in trouble.

3) The Philadelphia Eagles would be wise to let Andy Reid coach the season out. And that's taking into account all that's gone wrong. The problem here is that, after firing Juan Castillo, Philly's coaching staff is simply stretched too thin. Todd Bowles is running the defense; taking him away from those duties to be interim head coach would be a lot to ask and would take a toll on the players on that side of the ball. Offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg might be an enticing option with his prior head-coaching experience, but there's too much on the line at the quarterback position to take him out of his current role. The organization needs answers on Mike Vick and Nick Foles, and throwing another layer of chaos into that mix won't help them get those. So as long as the situation doesn't become so toxic that it's affecting the development of young players, Philly should stand pat and take the heat for the next six weeks.

Two college players to watch this week

1) Arkansas QB Tyler Wilson (Friday vs. LSU, 2:30 p.m. ET, CBS): Wilson was once considered a potential top-10 draft pick, but he has fallen from grace with the rest of the 4-7 Razorbacks. "You wonder which is the real Tyler Wilson," one AFC college scout said. "Should we crush him for all the things that weren't his fault? Or are we seeing his true flaws that may have been masked last year with a great play-calling head coach and three NFL receivers." The scout said Wilson is talented, "but he's not very big and his arm is average." And the fact that he missed Arkansas' game against Alabama makes the final game of his college career an even bigger one: "It's one of those games the GM will turn on first, because he didn't play 'Bama."

2) Florida State CB Lamarcus Joyner (Saturday vs. Florida, 3:30 p.m. ET, ABC): A fascinating player because he's been so productive in Tallahassee, because he can play anywhere in the secondary and because he has one prominent deficiency as a hybrid safety/corner. "He's a dominant little player, effective in the run game or the pass game," one college scouting director said. "A game-changer type with playmaking ability, and he'll affect both the run game and the pass game of Florida. The downside is that he's short." He's listed at 5-foot-8 on the FSU roster, and will face playmakers of all shapes and sizes from UF.

One prediction

Three AFC North teams will make the playoffs. That means I like the Steelers to survive the Ben Roethlisberger injury, and the Bengals to keep surging.

I feel comfortable saying those two and the Baltimore Ravens are among the six best teams in the conference, but the ability of each to ride out its problems illustrates, above all else, the lack of depth in the AFC this year. The other contenders for the wild-card spots: Jets, Dolphins, Colts and Chargers.

Yeah, give me Pittsburgh and Cincinnati to be the wild cards.

Follow Albert Breer on Twitter @AlbertBreer.

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