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):
» The Titans' openness -- and realistic potential -- to trade out of the No. 1 pick.
» Two unique draft prospects to keep a close eye on.
» One small change in Philly that points to a bigger cultural shift under Doug Pederson.
And much more, beginning with a look back at the franchise-changing decision that paved the way for Carolina's eventual ascent to Super Bowl 50 ...
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- "Let me show you," said Ron Rivera, as he popped out of his seat, made his way down the hall with a visitor, and hung a left toward the quarterbacks room.
As promised, when the Carolina Panthers head coach swung the door open, on the wall opposite the video screen, there was a whiteboard with a smattering of Xs & Os, accompanied by bent and squiggly lines, handiwork of his quarterback's start on Super Bowl prep less than 15 hours after teal-and-black confetti started falling at Bank of America Stadium. This, as the coach saw it, would be a pretty vivid illustration of the work that's been apparent to everyone toiling away here for five years.
A Chicago Bulls hat on his head, a pea coat covering his oversized frame, a clicker in his hand, and the Cardinals' defense on the screen, the quarterback jumped to his feet and said hello before retreating to his swivel chair. And in one five-second frame, the reason Newton landed here in the first place played out in living color.
About five years out now, Rivera looks back at the evaluation he and then-GM Marty Hurney went through on the 2010 Heisman Trophy winner, and these are the moments he remembers most, those where Newton is doing a little extra -- whether it be on the field or off, inside of football or out -- for someone or something. The Auburn product's overwhelming physical ability, to be sure, drew the Panthers in on Newton. But it was times like this that truly sold them.
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Nine days until Super Bowl Sunday, and it sure does seem like the dominant storyline of the golden edition of the big game will be Newton's image, and America's perceived reluctance to embrace it. The truth is, that all feels very forced. Outside of an attention-grabbing few, it's more difficult than ever to find Newton bashers. As much as anything, the narrative appears to be an attempt to resurrect a five-year-old storyline to give deeper meaning to a football game that demands 14 days of attention.
But back when Rivera and Hurney were turning over rocks in the winter and spring of 2011, the questions surrounding Newton were very real. And so it's that time that I wanted to look back on, when Rivera and I sat down on Monday around lunchtime: How did you come to a comfort level then that this would be the outcome?
Which all leads back to his smile, and how the authenticity of it was used as a bellwether for who Newton was back then, and still strikes a nerve with his head coach.
"That smile is legitimate," Rivera said. "People don't understand, that's who he really is. He's not hiding anything."
"Yes it does, that so much was made of it," Rivera said. "See, I reflect on it and I look at it -- people didn't take the time. I mean, we took the time and we got to know him. The hard part for me is I always feel like I gotta defend him. And I shouldn't have to. His actions should speak for themselves. Giving the ball to the kids? That was his idea. That's him."
And as the coach said, in their travels through Alabama and Georgia in the weeks following Rivera's hire in early 2011, the Panthers got to know that. But just as it's been a process for a lot of the public to start to make sense of Newton as a person and an athlete, it was for the revamped Carolina brain trust back then, too.
As Rivera saw it, there were four checkpoints along the way in deciding that taking Newton over Blaine Gabbert and Jake Locker was the right thing to do:
1) Reviewing the player: Start here -- Ray Charles could see the physical traits. "All you had to do was watch the tape initially, and it was crazy -- you saw him do things where it was like, 'Holy smokes!' " Rivera said. The Panthers watched every throw he made as a collegian, and cross-checked with one of his receivers, Darvin Adams, who'd they had in for a workout. "Coach, the guy can throw the ball," Adams told Rivera, "just put it that way." The question then became how he'd project into a pro offense, which prompted the Panthers to go to Auburn coach Gene Chizik and offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn, who were both invaluable to the process. They emphasized that Newton was smart enough and coachable enough to grow into a pro scheme -- it's just that he hadn't been asked to yet. At Auburn's pro day, Malzahn leaned over to Rivera and said, "He's so coachable -- just watch this." QB guru George Whitfield was giving Newton a coaching point and, true to the Tigers OC's word, Newton implemented it on the fly.
2) Finding his drive: The day before Auburn's pro day, Rivera was on campus and snuck into the stadium because he heard Newton was getting work in. Rivera tried to keep a low profile, as he settled in to see Newton prep a bunch of his teammates for the next day. "I was in the corner of the stadium and I'm watching him and I'm watching him interact with everybody, and then they start working out," Rivera said. "I start watching him compete with nobody but himself. And the way he did things, the way he handled things, it was impressive. The way the guys rallied around him, the way he organized it, it was awesome. And this was in an informal setting. He didn't have to do what he did." If Rivera needed any further confirmation of the work Newton was doing when no one was watching, he certainly got it from an unusual place. That spring, Rivera's daughter was a senior at Cathedral Catholic in San Diego, which happened to be where Whitfield was training Newton. So Rivera's kid would swing by and check on Cam every day and report back to her dad. Those reviews, as you might expect, were glowing.
3) Cam the teammate: There were plenty of rumors on Cam during that draft cycle, but only one that really stuck out to Rivera -- allegations that his teammates didn't like him. A call to Auburn was placed immediately. "I called Gus and said, 'Gus, what the hell?' " Rivera recalled. "And he said, 'Coach, we had a meeting with the other coaches, and I put it on the table: You got something to say, say it now. It didn't come from our place. Somebody made that up.' Then I called a couple players we'd worked out and I said, 'Tell me the truth.' They said, 'Coach, come on, that's not true.' " Five years later, Newton has spoken openly about the difference between having what he'd term "co-workers" and having teammates. Rivera says Newton's a big part of the reason the players there treat each other as teammates, rather than co-workers, which is why it was so important to dig on that quickly.
4) Getting to know the person. Around the time of Auburn's pro day, the Panthers set up a breakfast to meet with Newton at a Marriott Suites near campus. Hurney and Rivera met him outside, and as they walked in, a group of kids recognized the Heisman Trophy winner. "He stopped and smiled and shook all their hands, took pictures and signed autographs, and made sure everybody got what they wanted," Rivera remembered. "And then, bam, he sat down with us and just started talking. I'll never forget how he handled that. I thought it was outstanding." A little over a month later, Hurney traveled to Atlanta to meet Newton's family. The next weekend, five days before the draft, Rivera did the same. They left impressed. "Kids that have parents like that are a little different," Rivera said. "Knowing that his mom was there all the time and his dad, you walk in the house, you see where it comes from with his dad. But if you ask me, I think mom was a real big influence. And the way he just adores his mom was just tremendous. I was thinking, That's a young man that's got it all together."
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Rivera got back from Atlanta on that Saturday afternoon, with the draft looming.
"I'd been thinking it for a while, but when I got back from Atlanta after I visited, soon as I landed, I got on my phone, called Marty and we started talking," Rivera said. "I said, 'Marty, I don't see anybody else being better. I think this is the guy for us, I really do. I see him being the guy that fits us.' And Marty said the same thing -- 'Ron, I think you're right.' "
As it turns out, they were both right. And five years later, Rivera thinks there's a lesson for everyone in this day of snap judgments and sweeping generalizations.
Mainly, he says, it's that there's no replacement for doing the homework the way it's supposed to be done.
"I think he should change how people evaluate everything," Rivera said. "I know it's hard, really unrealistic, to think you're gonna be able to do that with all 250 or 300 kids that go out there. But when you've got top guys, you have to be right."
The Panthers sure were. And five years later -- manufactured storylines aside -- it looks like the rest of us finally figured out what Carolina knew that April.
1) Titans open for business at No. 1. According to club sources in Tennessee, the Titans are very open to the idea of shopping the top overall pick in April's draft, with plenty of holes to fill on the roster. But as I understand it, the outlook here will be predicated by the Titans' ability to walk away from this draft with a truly elite prospect. That means there likely will be a limit to how far down the board that new GM Jon Robinson will be willing move, given the scarcity of blue-chip players in this year's class, which -- by all accounts I heard during my week in Mobile, Alabama, for the Senior Bowl -- is deeper than it is strong at the top. So here's the ideal scenario for the Titans: Either Paxton Lynch, Jared Goff or Cason Wentz gets real hot, and a team further down the board gets antsy and feels the need to leapfrog the second-picking (and quarterback-needy) Browns. At this point, the 49ers appear to be the only team in the top 10 that has enough of a need at the position to pursue striking such a deal (though the Cowboys could sit and take one at 4). The Bears, Saints, Eagles and Rams -- sitting at Nos. 11, 12, 13 and 15, respectively -- could be in play for a QB, but that's a long way to go down for the Titans, and a long way to go up for one of those four. At any rate, the placement of teams needing a quarterback, and the solid-but-unspectacular rap on this particular quarterback group, should create an interesting dynamic over the coming weeks. And the Titans certainly will need a few things to break in the right direction to be the beneficiary.
2) Bortles growing up faster than expected. Just two of the last five draft classes have failed to produce multiple top-10 quarterbacks. The first was 2013 (EJ Manuel, Geno Smith, etc.), which was clearly the worst of the five. And the second was 2014, which might wind up being close to 2012 as the best. Yes, Johnny Manziel's in that group. But the other three to go in the top 40 picks (Blake Bortles, Teddy Bridgewater and Derek Carr) are now regarded as long-term answers for their respective franchises. Carr is playing in this year's Pro Bowl, and my understanding is Bortles would be in, based on those who pulled out, if he hadn't broken his thumb in Week 17. One thing all four had in common? Each entered the league with the expectation to sit at the start, something that could be a benefit to this year's top QB draftees if they're scattered through the first round rather than stacked at the top. For Bortles, the real upshot of that circumstance was getting to work quietly on all the little things the Jaguars wanted him to focus on, without the demands that are placed on a starting quarterback. It allowed him to evolve naturally into the role, which he did quicker than expected. One coach told me in the leadup to the 2014 draft that Bortles showed everything you'd want at UCF, it just "took a lot of tape to get there." The implication, of course, was his penchant for the spectacular was held back to some degree by a need to learn to make more routine plays. "The first thing that jumped out about Blake to me -- he has no fear," Jags coach Gus Bradley told me the other day. "He comes out and he will challenge himself, he will take chances, and that was a really good part of it. So the big thought was, We've got this guy that will do that, really challenge himself and take some risk, and that's OK. He made some big plays. Now, we'll bring it down where it's less and less interceptions, and that sort of thing." And in Year 2, the numbers reflected some of that growth: Bortles threw for 4,428 yards and 35 touchdowns against 18 picks. Bradley also credited new OC Greg Olson and QBs coach Nathaniel Hackett with pushing the process along: "They really slowed the game down as much as possible for a second-year quarterback. And then, it allowed him to play with that freedom. With a young quarterback, it always comes down to good decision-making." The end result is a guy who's in a position to keep growing, because it's been such a methodical step-by-step process. Bortles is the rare top-five quarterback who has gotten the chance to learn that way. Bridgewater and Carr did, too. It seems the benefits are obvious, and something to bear in mind as the new crop prepares to enter the league.
3) Elway's plan has come to fruition. When Peyton Manning hoisted the Lamar Hunt Trophy on Sunday, I immediately thought back to a conversation I had with John Elway in August of 2012, when no one was quite positive how Manning would look or how long he'd last coming off a quartet of neck procedures. Elway emphasized that day how he wanted to build for his new quarterback what he had down the stretch of his career under Mike Shanahan. "We were a better football team when I was 35 than when I was 28," Elway told me. "Taking the burden off of him is getting the best people we can around him. And blending the team, and trying to get as good as we can and quick as we possibly can, with the idea of having been through and seen what world championships look like. He's going to make certain receivers look better than they are, so it's not always going out and getting the marquee wideouts. The thought process for a quarterback: If you can stop people, you have a chance. And so, to be able to concentrate on the defensive side also, and not put it all on him, where he has to score every single time, is big." Earlier this year, it looked like Denver finally got that kind of defense -- and that it might have come a year too late. But Manning fought back, and Brock Osweiler performed admirably in his stead, and new coach Gary Kubiak (who was the offensive coordinator of those great late-1990s Denver teams) handled the tricky quarterback tango as well as a coach could be expected to. And after some tension in the offseason between Manning and the team over his 2015 salary (the Broncos initially asked him to take a massive paycut), all parties were able to move forward and put the team's goals above any leftover animosity. Winning helps, of course. Chances are, we would be hearing different things out of Denver if this were another one-and-done. But the fact that it's not is, at least in part, because Kubiak and Manning and Elway were able to evade the potholes that the circumstances here created. It's been a challenging year, without question. That the Broncos are still standing is a credit to all the guys involved who, inexplicably, now have a nice 60-minute shot at realizing Elway's vision of four years ago.
4) How the Panthers found Kuechly. So, this is doubling up on Carolina, but this story is too good to leave out of here. As Rivera and I talked about how the Panthers vetted Newton, he went into how coaches try to conceal their intentions like assassins before the draft -- and he offered a pretty funny rundown on how he wound up gathering info on Luke Kuechly without giving away Carolina's affection for the Boston College star. "We didn't go out to see Luke because we didn't want that on the radar," Rivera said. "He's one of those guys. I was fortunate, as far as Luke was concerned, one of my teammates that played on the '85 Bears, Jim Morrissey, was my travel roommate for nine seasons. His son was Luke's travel roommate. So we're getting ready for the draft and I get this call from Jim and he says, 'Hey Ron, you gotta check this guy out -- he's Michael's roommate.' I knew who he was. So I said, 'Tell me about him.' So he starts describing this guy, who he is. I ask, 'Can I talk to Michael?' He gives me his son's number; I call his son. Then I talk to Jim's wife, Amy, and they told me this story, when their daughter went to go visit their son, they said, 'Make sure you introduce her to Luke.' When I heard that, I was like, OK, this kid has gotta be a good kid." So there's some free advice for all the prospective draftees in April: Coaches like guys who can be trusted to date their buddies' daughters.
1) The Bucs ultimately went with Dirk Koetter, but here's one to file away: Panthers defensive coordinator Sean McDermott interviewed very, very well there. He came prepared -- despite having to juggle all his responsibilities of coaching in the playoffs -- and impressed everyone. And word of these sorts of things usually gets around, so it's fair to expect that with a strong 2016, McDermott will be at the very top of 2017 search lists, the same way Adam Gase was in that position during this past cycle.
2) The hiring of Colts pro scouting coordinator Andrew Berry in Cleveland did raise some eyebrows around the league, given his age (28) and relative inexperience (seven years in the NFL). So here's what the Browns saw in him: high character, training under Bill Polian and Ryan Grigson, passion for the job and winning, worth ethic, humility and, of course, he's kinda smart (Harvard Class of 2009). The Colts thought extremely highly of him. Also, it's worth mentioning that despite the similar background to Sashi Brown and Paul DePodesta, Berry didn't know the decision makers in Cleveland before the interview process. He simply won the job. There'll be a learning curve for this group (Berry will need to learn the college scouting side), to be sure. And it should be fascinating to watch.
3) This'll be the final set of notes for the 2015 season -- and I wanna thank everyone for reading. I also want to thank my editors -- John Marvel, Ali Bhanpuri and Gennaro Filice -- for being big advocates of it, and pushing me to make it better. Our hope is we can keep tweaking it, and make it even better from here.
Two prospects to watch in Saturday's Senior Bowl
1) Braxton Miller, ATH, Ohio State: There was legitimate buzz around Miller in Mobile -- I spoke to more than a couple evaluators who were surprised by his physical stature (they thought he'd be smaller), and sounded like they were beginning to talk themselves into the idea of what the quarterback-turned-receiver could be. "He's had a very good week," one NFC general manager said. "He's intriguing. Someone with multiple picks in Rounds 2 and 3 will definitely think about pulling trigger if he keeps rising. He's gonna have to prove he can do it mentally, but he could be a 'weapon' early on with the chance to evolve into a good receiver. You could do some wildcat stuff, jet sweeps, etc." An AFC college scouting director added, "He's big, fast and raw. Being here helps him. He's flashing his tools." Miller never returned punts or kicks in college, and the North coaches had him doing that at practice, along with the work he got at receiver. The flip side is that Miller wasn't overly productive in his one season as a receiver at OSU -- he only had 58 yards of total offense in his last four games as a collegian. He certainly has a ways to go. But if he runs in the 4.3s (as expected) or 4.2s (what he's shooting for) at the NFL Scouting Combine, he'll be hard to resist, given his ability to make things happen in space, his size and his experience having been a highly productive college quarterback.
2) Carson Wentz, QB, North Dakota State: Back in October, we mentioned Wentz here as the small-college name to keep an eye on. Secret's out. No one garnered more attention in Mobile this week than the 6-foot-5, 233-pound fifth-year senior who was a part of five national championships and a starter for two during his time in Fargo. But despite what you might've heard, his week wasn't perfect. One AFC executive called Wentz "an acquired taste. ... He looked like he was pressing [Tuesday], but started to slow down a little [Wednesday]. I think it's unfair, the attention he's had. There's a lot to like and a lot to kill on him." The exec listed "size, intangibles, athleticism and release" as Wentz's strengths, but "he hasn't been very accurate deep -- the ball's floating on him, and hasn't anticipated very well." Where Wentz really shined was in the interviews at night, which checks out with the high-character grades he's gotten from area scouts who are responsible for the Bison. So where does all this leave him? Like Cal's Jared Goff, Michigan State's Connor Cook and Memphis' Paxton Lynch, Wentz has plenty of potential, some holes in his game and time to compete to be the first quarterback taken three months from now. Overall, this was a positive week for Wentz, even if it might not match the amount of hype he's gotten over the last four days.
In Philly, there's a spacious area connected to the head coach's office that, during the Andy Reid years, was fashioned as a conference room and gathering spot for the staff, intentionally placed near the boss. In 2013, it was overhauled and served as offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur's quarters in the time since.
The idea here is to reconnect the football operation in particular and the entire building in general, a task owner Jeffrey Lurie laid out as an important one to Pederson and other candidates during the interview process.
"I think he felt that was missing -- the communication, an open-door policy -- and it's something I'm obviously willing to change and want to change, to try and make it the best working environment," Pederson said in a quiet moment between practices in Mobile on Wednesday. "If we're all together as a staff, it does bleed down to the team and affect that locker room."
We've talked a lot in this space throughout the season about rocky coaching-staff/front-office situations and how they can wreak havoc on an entire organization. And Philly was one of the prime examples of that over the last few months.
So now, executive vice president of football operations Howie Roseman is empowered, Chip Kelly is in San Francisco, and the Eagles have pulled another branch off the Reid tree to try and recreate the healthy environment they had there for 14 years.
Because of the weather in the Northeast, Pederson hasn't had the chance to gather his staff en masse at the office, but that doesn't mean he hasn't been aggressive in trying to flip the feel in the building. He did his best to get as many coaches as possible to Mobile this week, to get them face time with the scouts and vice versa.
"I wanted our guys down here this week, to start interacting with our scouts and our personnel department," Pederson told me. "I think it's important that we're all on the same page. They're gonna look at a player, [new D-line coach] Chris Wilson's gonna look at a player, I'm gonna look at a player, and there's gotta be a collaborative effort going forward. ... I think it's important that we're here this week, communicating with our scouts, and making sure everybody's on the same page."
For his part, Pederson added he does plan to research what went wrong in the building the last couple years -- "I think you need to know a little bit" -- to better understand some of his staff and players, and make sure similar things don't happen.
But more so, he's looking forward. And he knows that starts with his relationship with Roseman.
"It's good, it's good," he said of where things are with Roseman so far. "It's been that way from Day 1. We talk every single day, while we're down here, back in the office. He's always bouncing ideas off me, he's asking about players. It's a good relationship."
Outwardly, Pederson does seem aware of why he was a logical pick -- and that's a good thing.
Most times when a coach gets fired, the replacement has qualities that counteract (at least on paper) problems that the predecessor had. That's why, so often, a players' coach follows a taskmaster, and an aggressor follows the more agreeable type.
The previous Eagles regime had the feel of an arranged marriage. Conversely, this has the appearance of a family reunion. And accordingly, Pederson has a good idea of what his new/old boss is looking for.
"I want to hire guys that fit that mold; I want guys where it's about the Philadelphia Eagles first, that check their egos at the door," Pederson said. "And for the most part, I think every one of the guys is that kind of guy. ... It's having a tempo and setting a different standard. And then from there, the biggest thing is communication. Communicate with the front office, communicate with the staff, communicate with the secretaries, everybody. And make everybody feel a part of something. That's important."
Pederson did use that Chip buzzword: tempo. And this all certainly is a change of pace.