NFL Media's Albert Breer touches on multiple topics in his robust Inside the NFL Notebook, including (click on each link to go directly to the topic):
» Why the Seahawks are still having flashbacks to their Super Bowl defeat.
» The key to Carson Palmer's excellent play.
» One NFL trend that apparently has run its course.
And much more, beginning with two men making a great first impression ...
Two of the NFL's three first-time head coaches have made it through the season's first two weeks unscathed, and Todd Bowles and Dan Quinn sure won't give back those wins.
But if you want to know the best part about this early success for them, and their franchises, it's much deeper than just being 2-0.
Bowles saw it show up in the second quarter of the New York Jets opener -- when mercurial veteran receiver Brandon Marshall chased down Tashaun Gipson after a Ryan Fitzpatrick pick, stripped the safety and got the ball back for Gang Green. Quinn saw it a week later, on the same Meadowlands turf, with the once-beleaguered Atlanta Falcons defense getting the stop it needed to make a fourth-quarter comeback stand up.
For the two neophytes, those were examples of their respective programs taking hold. The teams, in many ways, are reflecting the men in charge. And this development, for both coaches, is more important in the long term than anything that could show up on the scoreboard in September.
"We have the long (pass) from Matt (Ryan) to Julio (Jones), just great players making a play, and then we finish it on defense," Quinn said on Thursday afternoon. "We're at New York, facing a quarterback who's as good as it gets in those situations, and we're finishing with toughness and effort. That's one of those where you say, 'Hell yeah! That's what we're trying to do.' "
"It was the effort," Bowles said, of Marshall's play. "It wasn't a highlight or a big touchdown, it was just an effort play. To take the ball away, it showed toughness and smarts and grit."
What does this stuff mean in the big picture?
Obviously, when it comes to the new NFL season, we really don't know much after two weeks. At the end of last September, the Patriots were a house on fire; at the end of October, the Seahawks were in turmoil; and at the beginning of February, those two played for all the marbles. And when it comes to the new crop of coaches, we certainly don't know which ones are going to make it in the long run.
All that said, you can look for signs on where things are going. And the cool thing about what's happening with the Jets and Falcons, in the coaches' eyes, is how the players in Jersey and Atlanta are providing an on-field illustration of everything they've been force-fed over the last eight months.
"These guys get it," Bowles says. "They understand what it takes to win, and you see it the way they carry it on and off the field -- guys like (Darrelle) Revis, (Antonio Cromartie), (David) Harris, Brick (Ferguson), (Nick) Mangold, (Eric) Decker, Marshall. They understand the process, and they get the chemistry that we need to build."
There are five other spots on the NFL map where coaching changes happened this past offseason. One of the men who filled a vacancy is, like Quinn and Bowles, a first-timer. Three others are getting a second shot. And one is taking his third crack. Here's a quick look at them:
John Fox, Chicago Bears: Fox is the one man in this coaching cycle who's serving as the head honcho of his third NFL team. The rebuilding Bears are under no illusion that this is their year, so the 0-2 start isn't exactly a shocker. Good thing Fox's specialty is keeping things level in choppy waters.
But let's get back to the two guys with unblemished head-coaching records.
I asked Quinn what his team has accomplished through two weeks, and his response was "I don't know if I'd use the word 'accomplished.' "
Bowles' answer wasn't much different: "We haven't accomplished anything. It just means we're off to a good start. We're trying to establish ourselves and guys are coming together. To me, it's a long season, a very long season. No guarantees. The only guarantee is we won't be worse than 2-14."
To those in the Jets' locker room, that philosophy was pervasive after this past Monday night's win in Indianapolis. There was no celebration. The win was treated as if it was just a part of the overall process, or part of an approach that feels a lot different for a franchise that seemed a tent short of being a circus in recent years. As Bowles explains it, "Win the game, enjoy the night, watch the film and move on."
Meanwhile, Atlanta has inherited Quinn's intensity and zeal for football. As a result, the Falcons have just looked faster overall this September. Quinn wants to keep the team's scheme from being too complicated, enabling his players to make "full-speed decisions." His belief is that'll lead to his teams in Atlanta playing with an edge -- like his defense did in Seattle.
"There's a style we'd like to play, and I think we're playing that way," Quinn said. "I want them to play hard and with effort, and that toughness is coming through. They're outhitting guys, and you saw in the first two games, we're understanding how to finish. That's the style. How hard we play, playing with toughness, and finishing."
And while Quinn also says he's encouraged by how his players are playing with "respect for the ball" -- protecting it on offense and attacking it on defense -- he knows there's still plenty of work to be done. When it comes to areas of focus going forward, the Falcons coach points to improving on both lines of scrimmage, achieving better balance on offense and tackling more aggressively to eliminate yards after the catch on defense.
Similarly, Bowles has his nits to pick with the Jets, looking for improvement fundamentally and with the team's communication, and for the practice habits to keep getting sharper and the players to get more situationally focused. But that doesn't mean Gang Green's still at ground zero.
"It's a good start," Bowles said. "We have a long way to go and it's an uphill climb from here. It's just a good start. There's a lot more progress to be made."
The good news is that, for both teams here, the foundation is now in place for that progress to happen.
1) Ugly memories remain in Seattle. Most of the offseason focus in Seattle was on the ill-fated decision by coach Pete Carroll, offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell and the staff to throw in the red zone at the end of Super Bowl XLIX. But the guys on defense were dogged by something else: namely, the two epic drives put together by Tom Brady that squashed their chances of putting a championship away. And the first two weeks of the season have provided new defensive coordinator Kris Richard's unit with a bad case of déjà vu. The Seahawks have now let three games slip from their grasp when it matters most: in the fourth quarter. "You have flashbacks," defensive end Michael Bennett told me. "You have flashbacks because you come so close and little things like that come back to bite you in the ass. ... Goes back all the way to the Super Bowl, being up and not [finishing]. We gotta make sure we're finishing the game when we're ahead, not giving up those big plays." Asked about the Super Bowl, Bruce Irvin echoed Bennett's sentiment. "We didn't finish then, either," Irvin said. "But the last two weeks, we didn't finish. And including the Super Bowl, the last three games, we didn't finish. So something's gotta get corrected. We'll go back and look at the film and make the proper adjustments. But finishing is desire and will." Getting the secondary's battleship of an enforcer, Kam Chancellor, back in the fold will help. He's an intimidator and a leader, and his ability to deftly make calls back there helps free up guys like Earl Thomas and Richard Sherman. Also, the more comfortable new tight end Jimmy Graham gets, the better. But it's important to remember the Seahawks aren't exactly flush with time to work all this out, either. Six of their next eight opponents made the playoffs last year.
2) Gronk's monster start. It's silly to project two weeks' worth of numbers over a 16-game season. But let's do it anyway. If he keeps up with his current pace, Patriots tight end/freak show Rob Gronkowski will finish the year with 96 catches for 1,656 yards and 32 touchdowns. Know what's nuts? Those figures -- health permitting -- don't seem completely out of the realm of possibility for the 26-year-old All-Pro, though they would easily outdistance the numbers he posted in 2011, which were historic for a player at his position. But his value goes well beyond the way he hoards statistics for himself. It's also about how he opens up things for everyone else. "He's comfortable and confident running a lot of different routes from a lot of different spots, and can catch it deep or underneath -- unique catching skills for a tight end," one AFC pro scouting director said. "[Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels] does a great job scheming matchups and big-play opportunities for him. ... He opens up a lot of space for Julian [Edelman] and the third-down back, now it's Dion Lewis." Another AFC exec added, "It's geographic. He dominates the middle of the field in the passing game. Opens up things elsewhere." And when he's lined up elsewhere, it can compromise the structure of the defense and make him harder to double-team without completely flipping around what you're doing somewhere else. Want proof? It's very tangible in this case. Since Gronkowski's breakout year of 2011, the Patriots are 38-12 in regular-season contests and average 32.4 points and 295.1 passing yards per game when the big tight end is in the lineup -- and when he's out, they're 11-4, averaging 26.7 points and 242.7 yards. It's even more pronounced with the quarterback. With Gronk, Brady's quarterback rating is 102.1, his completion percentage is 65.1 and his touchdown-to-interception ratio is 115:29. Without Gronk, those figures plummet to 83.5, 57.9 and 23:11. Add it all up and it's hard to remember another weapon in football that would approximate what the sixth-year pro has become, or come close to his value as a tight end to a football team.
3) Run to nowhere. There have been fair questions about the guards and running backs -- and everyone else -- when it comes to the Eagles' failure to get anything going in the run game early in the season. Know who else should be mentioned? The quarterback. No, Sam Bradford shouldn't be expected to rip off 30- and 40-yard runs the way Mike Vick did for Chip Kelly. But the fact that he's not a threat to do much of anything with his legs was a major key to how Dallas bottled up the once-vaunted Eagles ground game last Sunday. As one Valley Ranch source explained: "That was a big part of it. You don't hold the back-side defensive end and linebacker if there's no threat of the quarterback running." When that threat is there, the way it has been for Kelly with Marcus Mariota at Oregon or Vick or even Mark Sanchez in Philly, it creates an extra gap and can cut the defense in half. The Cowboys honored no such threat Sunday, basically ignoring any potential run from the quarterback position -- which meant defenders flowed toward DeMarco Murray and got into the backfield before he could find running lanes. That doesn't mean the Eagles won't fix the issue. One of the things I've consistently heard about Kelly -- and this is going back to when he was at New Hampshire -- is that he isn't stubborn. He won't bang his head against a brick wall, and it's a good bet he'll find a way to coach around deficiencies at places like the two guard spots. And that's good, because it certainly seems adjustments are needed here.
4) Carson's rebirth in the desert. When gathering info for my quarterback poll a couple of weeks ago, I was surprised to hear the feeling of one respected exec that Carson Palmer would be among the top five quarterbacks in the league at the end of 2015. Maybe I shouldn't have been. Four years ago, Palmer was "retired." Now? At 35, he might be playing the best ball of his career. He has the league's fourth-best passer rating (124.4) through two weeks, outdistancing Ben Roethlisberger and Tom Brady in that category, and he's helped fuel a parallel renaissance for 12th-year pro Larry Fitzgerald at receiver. Palmer's improvement certainly hasn't been so much physical. His arm's not stronger, and he's coming off the second ACL tear of his 13-year career. It seems more so due to the mechanical improvement that came with work, through his rehab, with offensive consultant Tom Moore and quarterbacks coach Freddie Kitchens. Those two wanted Palmer to hone in on improving his eyes and footwork, a couple of areas that are vital for any quarterback coming off that injury. He's done that. And against all odds -- without Mike Iupati and Bobbie Massie in the early goings -- the offensive line has done the job for Palmer. "When you give him time," one Cardinals source said, "he can spin it with anyone." With those elements in place, Palmer's accuracy, as well as coach Bruce Arians' focus on decision making (learning not to force things, and that it's OK to check down), have been on full display. If he can stay healthy, Palmer has a chance to be a heck of a story as the season wears on.
1)Bills offensive lineman Richie Incognito's return to Miami will draw local headlines -- and rightfully so, after everything that went down in 2013. Expect him to get a warm reception from Joe Philbin's staff. Several coaches went to bat for him during Ted Wells' investigation into the Dolphins' bullying scandal and were infuriated when their support didn't show up in Wells' report. And those guys still have warm feelings for Incognito. "Awesome guy," one Miami assistant said. "Would talk to everyone in the building, always worked hard, very respected ... A guy you wanted on your side." Another assistant said, "Smart guy, always upbeat, always treated me well." Which is a little different than what perception held.
2) In a number of ways, the Browns' new offensive coaches -- primarily coordinator John DeFilippo and QBs coach Kevin O'Connell -- wanted to rebuild Johnny Manziel's mechanics after the quarterback returned from rehab. And the difference was evident Sunday against the Titans. Manziel displayed a "quieter" lower body with better footwork, and he was more at ease with what he faced defensively. Small -- but good -- forward steps for No. 2.
3) The Rams have had this week pegged for a while as the potential starting point for rookie running back Todd Gurley, and nothing they've seen in the last few weeks in practice has steered them off that course. They took a chance on him because they saw him as a generational talent at tailback. And the expectation is, based on how he's looked in practice, he might have the normal rookie adjustment but won't be hampered by the ACL injury whatsoever. It's why they've waited. Gurley was actually cleared to play by Dr. James Andrews one month ago. On Sunday, it will have been 10 months and one day since Gurley's surgery.
Two college players to watch Saturday
1) Oklahoma State DE Emmanuel Ogbah (at Texas, 3:30 p.m. ET, ESPN): First thing one area scout texted when asked about Ogbah: "Looks the part." And through three games, the junior's played the part, too, registering six quarterback hurries, 4.5 tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks. The issue, to this point, is who's been on the other side of the line of scrimmage: Central Michigan, Central Arkansas and Texas-San Antonio. So the season really starts for the reigning Big 12 Defensive Lineman of the Year this week against Texas. "He's a big, muscle-bound pass rusher," another area scout said. "He had major sack numbers in 2014 -- strong, explosive. They haven't played any good competition yet this year though. ... He needs to prove he can get legit sack production against teams that aren't mid-majors or I-AA types, and are strong at [offensive tackle]." At 6-foot-4, 275 pounds and with his numbers and accolades, some projections have him as an eventual high first-rounder. But the scouts here say he'll have to show more polish and progress as a rusher. "He's not a great athlete; he has some stiffness," the first area scout said. "You wanna see more snap quickness, upfield burst, hand use, an ability to bend the corner, set the edge, shed blocks and make tackles, as well as the ability to change direction on the move." And that only gets tested as the competition gets stiffer, when Ogbah can't physically overwhelm his opposition.
2) Arizona LB Scooby Wright III (vs. UCLA, 8 p.m. ET, ABC): A nothing prep recruit, Wright has become the heart and soul of Rich Rodriguez's program since winning a starting job as a freshman. The reigning Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year posted an outrageous 29 tackles for loss, 14 sacks and six forced fumbles as a sophomore last fall, but he underwent surgery to repair a torn meniscus after going down in the Wildcats' opener earlier this month. The hope is that Wright will be able to gut it out on Saturday. Scouts would love to see how he'd match up against a tough, big UCLA offensive line that boasts five multi-year starters and is the engine for a powerful run game that's been big for Bruins freshman QB Josh Rosen. One NFC personnel exec compared Wright to former Dolphins All-Pro Zach Thomas: "He's very productive and instinctive; I'm not sure how big he is. [So it's important to see] production against a big, good offensive line. See if can avoid getting covered up by blockers." An AFC college director concurred, saying the production and "motor and instincts" pop right off the screen. The only unfortunate thing is that this should've been the chance to see Wright on the same field as UCLA stud LB Myles Jack. Jack was lost for the season this week with a meniscus tear of his own.
Trends come and go in the NFL, and here's one on the way out: patching together your offensive line with spare parts. That one got going, in large part, because in the recent past, championship teams actually had been able to build their offensive lines with duct tape, elbow grease and strong coaching. Consider these examples:
» 2009 Saints: Two starters drafted in the fourth round, two starters drafted in the fifth round and a right tackle who was a second-rounder taken while the previous coaching staff was in place.
» 2010 Packers: This group had a strong pedigree, with two second-rounders and a first-rounder, and featured guys who've made money -- but the unit was seen at times that year as a liability.
» 2012 Ravens: Big names all over the place, with two former first-round picks in the group, but there were enough issues that Baltimore had to trade for left tackle Bryant McKinnie in midseason.
» 2013 Seahawks: Two first-round picks on the left side, one of whom is now gone, the other of whom is in a contract year. The center has been traded. The left guard played defense in college.
» 2014 Patriots: First-round pick at left tackle, a second-rounder at right tackle and two undrafted guys and a fourth-rounder between them. Another group that had issues in-season during the title year.
All that history emboldened teams to sink their resources into other areas, figuring they'd be able to solve any line issues on the fly. Add to that approach the restrictions on contact both in camp and during the season, which has seriously stunted teams' ability to develop depth on the line, and you see plenty of good, contending teams with issues up front in the recent past.
But the NFL is nothing if not a copycat league.
Increasingly, teams are looking at the Cowboys' model -- Dallas has three first-round picks along its front, a fourth player on a big-money deal and other, more reasonable investments -- as a worthwhile way of doing business. On the flip side, they see the plight of clubs like Denver and New Orleans, who've gotten weaker in front of aging quarterbacks, as cautionary tales.
"I think it's turning," one NFC executive said. "Our draft board on [offensive linemen] has been decimated by the middle of the fourth round the last two years. As Bill Parcells said, 'God didn't make a lot of 300-pound people with good feet who can move backwards.' "
That exec added, "If you look at depth charts, it's hard to find teams with four really good [linemen], let alone those with six or seven, [including quality] backups."
One club's research showed that there are two teams with five linemen on their roster drafted in the first two rounds: Cincinnati and Cleveland. Conversely, there are three teams with just one offensive lineman drafted in Round 1 or 2: San Francisco, Green Bay and Philadelphia.
It's hard to draw conclusions based just on that, but it's easy to see where things have shifted. The Bengals and Browns have drafted two apiece in that range over the last two years to augment groups that already have accomplished pieces. And on top of that, two linemen went in the top 10 of April's draft (Brandon Scherff, selected fifth overall by the Redskins, and Ereck Flowers, selected ninth overall by the Giants) who projected long-term to positions other than left tackle.
"[The Cowboys] went 8-8 three years in a row, then they're 12-4," another NFC executive said. "It all came together at once. [Tony] Romo played great, because he had protection. And they had the No. 1 rusher in the league, a guy who'd been there for four years. That balance makes you awfully hard to defend."