Niners' success rooted in chemistry created during lockout

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):

The race for Coach of the Year only has one horse in it. And the story of Jim Harbaugh remains, of course, fascinating. What can we learn from the Niners' hiring of the ex-Stanford coach? Let's check it out …

Patience is important: Unlike what you see in some places, the Niners didn't slobber all over their No. 1 candidate last offseason. In fact, San Francisco management thought it was important for Harbaugh to investigate all his options -- most notably at Michigan and with the Dolphins -- because, as I understand it, they wanted the coach to be all-in and "didn't want second thoughts."

Structure is, too: The Niners promised to hire a general manager first, and didn't go back on that, handing the keys to holdover Trent Baalke. As it turns out, the roster that Baalke, as assistant GM, had helped ex-GM Scot McCloughan build was pretty sturdy. And so was the relationship that Baalke built with Harbaugh, something those involved in the process were smart enough to see coming.

Honesty goes both ways: The temptation, after an old coach washes out, is to clean house. The Niners didn't do that. The talent was better than most realized. You may remember owner Jed York saying in 2010, when the team was 0-5, that he thought his team could still win its division. That was reflective of an organizational belief in the roster. So were the decisions to elevate Baalke and keep much of the roster intact.

Brooks: Smith finds comfort zone

Alex Smith has gone from first-round bust to an important part of the 8-1 Niners' success. Bucky Brooks explains the transformation. **More ...**

Free thought should be promoted: Put it like this -- Harbaugh and Baalke never bought the lockout-would-cripple-new-coaches theory. Then, they personally disproved it. That kind of defiant attitude is what you need to win big at a place like Stanford, as Harbaugh did, something that was an important part of the Niners' evaluation of his candidacy. And as it turns out, Harbaugh's college background became a Niners advantage, in that he and his staff had dealt with serious time constraints at that level.

It wasn't long before the Niners could add their own experiences to the above evidence that Harbaugh could succeed. In the spring, the coach and GM showed a competitiveness that would soon permeate the organization.

The first story comes from the gym, where Harbaugh "would will himself" to keep up with a very in-shape Baalke, matching his GM's pushup counts and bench press reps.

The second comes from the racquetball court, where Harbaugh, because of his age and beat-up NFL-weathered knees, shouldn't have been able to keep up with Baalke. When the two started playing, Harbaugh struggled. But eventually, he found a flaw in Baalke's game. And he relentlessly attacked it, finally beating the GM. "He couldn't walk for two days after that," is how one witness described the fallout for the coach. Yet, he won, and that's what mattered.

According to those in the organization, that is a microcosm of a coach-GM relationship in which each party is constantly pushing the other.

Therein lies the benefit the Niners got from the lockout. Coaches and personnel folks bonded, learned about one other, and built a model for what they were looking for collectively without being wrapped up in the players being in the team's facility. It gave them a chance to look at the players more dispassionately. As a result, there was a competitiveness and chemistry permeating the new regime when those players finally did arrive.

Add all this to the Niners' 8-1 record, and it's easy to see why they have confidence, internally, that Harbaugh was the missing piece to a football operation that already had more going right than most people could see.

Bears show their fight

With fines and reprimands from 345 Park Ave. being what they are these days, it's hard for any player or coach to look at an in-game fight, and publicly say, "That was good."

But the Bears will come close to telling you that last week's fracas with the Lions provided everyone with a window into the team's soul. Just as the players had Jay Cutler's back last January when the rest of the league was questioning his toughness, and have had Matt Forte's back the past few weeks as the star tailback fights for a new contract, they did what was instinctive when D.J. Moore was decked by Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford.

Maybe things went too far. But in a lot of ways, the Bears' reaction is just what a coach is looking for from his players.

"Every coach doesn't want his team to fight, but I will say this, too -- every coach will tell his players, 'If you see another man or you see a group of guys on one of your teammates, you need to go in there and protect him,' " nine-year vet Charles Tillman said. "I can't see a coach saying, 'Just walk away, let the NFL handle it.' I don't see a coach doing that."

After the game, coach Lovie Smith had his own way of rallying behind his guys, saying that Stafford should've been thrown out, just as Moore was. The players appreciated that, too.

Even through the events swirling around Forte and Cutler the past 10 months and some of the team's early season inconsistencies and now this, there hasn't been any hint of a divide in the Chicago locker room. Even when players, mostly privately, railed against management for the handling of the Forte negotiations, the team didn't splinter. Smith has built a hard-to-divide group.

"Sure, it makes you feel good as a coach," Smith told me, when I asked him about players defending their teammates in the brawl. "And I knew that before we had that fight on Sunday. We're a close-knit group. They do look after each other. We don't want to get into fights and stuff like that. But sometimes, you have to hold your ground."

As 11-year vet and seven-year Bear Roberto Garza said, "Nobody's going to take advantage of any of our players."

The team, too, has held its ground in the NFC North. Just like last year, the Bears seem to be turning it up in midseason. Already, they have run down the Lions after falling three games behind them in the standings. Things were at their worst after the club's Monday night loss in Detroit in Week 5, what Garza termed a "rough night" and one that prompted defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli to put together a reel of all the bad plays his players had made.

Six weeks later, the Bears are firing on all cylinders. They're not catching the Packers, but they have a stretch-run schedule (San Diego, at Oakland, Kansas City, at Denver, Seattle, at Green Bay, at Minnesota) that makes it look like matching, or even exceeding, last year's 11 wins is an attainable goal now. That should get them a shot at where they want to go, and there's a good chance that they'll look back on that melee against the Lions as a defining one of 2011.

Falcons' Jones puts in the work

After last week's loss to New Orleans, the Falcons find themselves in a precarious spot fighting for playoff positioning. One player they'll really need from here on out is the guy they drafted to put them over the top offensively: Julio Jones.

Jones missed two games already with a hamstring pull, and the injury flared up again Sunday and sidelined him for most of the Saints' game. The Falcons were able to rally in the fourth quarter, but failed to produce a first down in two overtime possessions without Jones.

But it'd be wrong to look at the coming weeks as judgment time for the blockbuster trade GM Thomas Dimitroff pulled off last April. In fact, the club couldn't be happier with Jones, and one reason why -- his work ethic -- has been on display in the two weeks since he first returned from the injury.

After Atlanta's uneven 2-3 start, coach Mike Smith preached that his players needed to "take the extra step." So Jones and quarterback Matt Ryan started staying late after practice to work on the deep ball and communication. The results were immediate -- three catches for 131 yards and two touchdowns against Indianapolis two Sundays ago.

"The messaging doesn't come from one guy," Smith told me, on the 'extra step' idea. "It has to permeate around the room, around the team, and we've got guys that do that. That (Jones and Ryan working), to me, it's a very good example. That picture is worth 1,000 words."

The idea of working with his QB wasn't complicated, according to Jones.

"Just knowing you're on the same page and seeing what he's seeing at the same time, instead of going out there and seeing one thing, and thinking 'Should I run my route like I was taught or should I break off or doing something else?'" Jones said. "You know what the quarterback's thinking in his mind. It's just him having that confidence in me."

Though Dimitroff traded a haul of picks to get him, the Alabama product continued, "I don't see pressure on me. … There's no added pressure." That meshes with what Nick Saban told the Atlanta brass -- that Jones is "unaffected" as a player, meaning outside forces don't mess with his game.

Jones agreed with that assessment, and the Falcons can see it for themselves too. No matter how 2011 turns out, it looks like their vision of having Jones and Roddy White become their version of Reggie Wayne and Marvin Harrison has a pretty decent shot of coming to fruition. Which would make the draft day deal a success, by almost any measure.

"When we drafted Matt Ryan, he sat in that chair, and I sat in that chair and I hadn't won a game in the NFL," said Smith, pointing to an area of his office near the door. "I told Matt, 'You don't need to change who you are, what you do. The reason that you're sitting there right now is that you're a very talented player, and obviously you know what it takes to be successful. Don't change.' And I told him I wasn't going to change, now that I'm a head coach, my goal is I don't want to change who I am.

"I gave Julio the same talk. You have been successful in college, high school, junior high, because you are who you are. Don't change who you are."

Four things I'll look for this weekend

1) The Bengals trying to continue their mastery of Baltimore. Believe it or not, Cincinnati has won three of four against Baltimore and are 10-6 against their former cross-state rivals (if you ignore the record books and remember the Ravens were once the Browns) since Marvin Lewis was hired in 2003. In both of Lewis' division-winning seasons -- 2005 and 2010 -- the Bengals swept Baltimore. This one's important for Cincinnati. The Bengals showed their toughness last week in coming back from a 14-0 deficit to tie the Steelers at 17, and push Pittsburgh to the very end. You have to build in some of the mistakes with a young quarterback like Andy Dalton, and you got that with two fourth-quarter interceptions. But there's plenty to build on for the Bengals, and this week, the chance to do it will come in a big game against a team Cincinnati matches up well with.

2) Carson Palmer in a dome.The Raiders can keep their one-game advantage in the AFC West with a win on the road against 2-7 Minnesota, which is on a short week and coming off a beatdown at the hands of the Packers. It's also a shot for Carson Palmer to build on the momentum of last week's solid night in San Diego. Folks around the league took notice of the way the quarterback looked against the Chargers. Palmer showed command, poise, and touch in his game, and an ability to threaten the deep areas of the field that would make Al Davis proud. Now he needs to do it again, which is where the Vikings' 30th-ranked pass defense should help.

3) The Lions in a must-win situation. OK, so maybe it's not a must win. But it's definitely a really-would-be-helpful win. The Lions have lost three of four, slumping out of their bye. Tough as this team has proven to be, the core (Matthew Stafford, Ndamukong Suh, Calvin Johnson, etc.) still is very young, and that leaves questions unanswered on how the 2011 team will handle its first tussle with adversity. So why is this week against struggling Carolina so vital? Check the rest of the schedule. The Lions get Green Bay on Thanksgiving, then have to face the Saints in the Superdome. Potentially tricky games against Oakland and San Diego, who could be vying with one another for a division title, and a trip to Lambeau follows all that. So things don't get easier after this Sunday, and chances are Detroit will need as much elbow room as it can get competing with Atlanta, Dallas and Chicago in the wild-card race.

4) The Eagles' last stand. Eventually, you run out of answers, and you get the feeling that this Philadelphia team is at that point. At the tail end of the team's four-game losing streak, Cullen Jenkins stood up in the locker room and said, "We need to take all the bull and clear it out. Trust the man next to you." Prior to that, veteran receiver Jason Avant addressed his teammates and implored them to fight for the job security of Andy Reid and his staff. So what's next? Eventually, results have to be what motivates a team, and if Vince Young has to start in New Jersey on Sunday night, I'd worry that another bad three-hour run could send this collection of seemingly mismatched parts, good as those parts are, into the tank.

Three conclusions

1) New England did the right thing in jettisoning Albert Haynesworth. And I'm not saying that just because I railed against the move in August, or because a defense that is closer to the bottom of the league in talent than the top came through against the Jets. It's because of the core of what Bill Belichick is as a defensive coach -- a professor of assignment football -- and the recognition that Haynesworth's acquisition strayed from such principles. I remember asking Jets guard Brandon Moore a month ago if the new Patriot 4-3 looked much different than Belichick's standard 3-4. "When Haynesworth's in there, it does," Moore responded. "He's playing gap football, with the other guys two-gapping out of the four-man line. He's rushing different than the others. They go into certain games 3-4. They go into others 4-3. I just think most of the time you have to understand they're two-gapping from the 4-3, too." That answer made me think at the time, and made wonder even more after, whether Haynesworth was following his assignments or instinctively straying. I'd think that, as much as his wild inconsistency, had to be part of his ouster.

2) This is the year the passing yardage record goes down -- and Drew Brees has the best shot at it. Not going out too far on a limb on this one, given that Brees has compiled more passing yards through 10 games than any other player ever. But he isn't the only one on pace to eclipse Dan Marino's 1984 yardage number (5,084). Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers are, too, but Brees has a few things working in his favor. One is the offense he plays in. Another is weather. The Saints, of course, play their games inside, and have just one game outside the rest of the way, in Nashville. The Patriots are exclusively outside, without a game South of Washington. The Packers have one indoor game (at Detroit) left, and play their southernmost game in Kansas City. And there's a good chance that both those teams have a little less on the line than would New Orleans, fighting for the NFC South and in the wild-card race, motivating the coaches to keep the foot on the gas.

3) Kansas City should stay the course with Scott Pioli and Todd Haley, together. Whispers have been rampant for months (and I'm not sure that you can even call them whispers anymore) that Pioli and Haley were having trouble co-existing. Haley told me directly, "When you're losing, there's going to be tension anywhere you go. 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." There's plenty of truth packed in the answer. The Chiefs aren't going anywhere this year, not with Matt Cassel, Tony Moeaki, Jamaal Charles and Eric Berry on the shelf. But there are a few things I feel pretty confident on here. First, I think Pioli's put the team in a position, when healthy, to compete for the foreseeable future. And second, I think that team is solidly behind Haley, evidenced by its sustained fight after a horrific start to the season. My belief is that this team -- with the above players joining Dwayne Bowe, Derrick Johnson, Glenn Dorsey and Brandon Flowers at the core -- might be a real good draft away from contending in a weakened AFC.

Two pieces of business

1) The Kevin Kolb trade looks like a 12-car pileup. On all ends. I'm not gonna get in the business of giving up on just-dealt 20-somethings, but the early returns on the Eagles-Cardinals summer blockbuster are less than stellar. Or good. Or average. In Kolb's last five games before getting hurt, he failed to hit even a 70.0 quarterback rating four times, as the team disintegrated around him. The veteran he was dealt for, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, has also had a minimal impact on his new team. At this rate, there seems to be a pretty good chance that the 2012 second-rounder that Arizona packaged with Rodgers-Cromartie could be the most impactful piece of this deal. But even that one was devalued over the weekend -- with Philadelphia hurting the value of its own pick by losing to the Cardinals. All the way around, not what you're looking for.

2) Decision-time on quarterbacks. I tweeted during Sunday Night Football that Mark Sanchez officially will be under review in 2012. That's the way it generally works. At that point, the Jets quarterback will be heading into the final season before his contract year, and thus the team will have to get a hard read on how committed it is to the player. Need proof? That's where the Ravens are with Joe Flacco now. After the club took care of Haloti Ngata in October, the quarterback moved up the priority list for Baltimore. The team intends to either get Ray Rice a new deal or settle on franchising him, and then will turn its attention to the quarterback. And if you're readying to pay a player $12-15 million per year, Flacco's 75.6 quarterback rating and 54.8 completion percentage are reasons for concern. Sanchez, of course, has his own red flags. Both players have the trump card of playoff wins -- each has four road victories in the postseason -- so we'll see what happens.

One prediction

Tony Romo and the Cowboys will keep the heat on the NFC East-leading Giants the rest of the way.

Don't look now, but the ninth-year pro has put together back-to-back big weeks and has a chance to build on those with the Redskins next on the schedule. Four days after that, he gets Miami, and then a trip to Arizona.

I'm not buying that Romo's turned some kind of corner. But I do know, just as the quarterback can slump, he's capable of streaking. And there's a pretty good chance based on the schedule, that Romo and the Cowboys are 8-4 going into the first of two games against the Giants over the season's final four weeks.

That adds up to an exciting finish in an NFC East that isn't as good as it has been of late, but is still pretty darn compelling.

Follow Albert Breer on Twitter @AlbertBreer

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