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):
» Is Jay Cutler re-establishing a place in the Bears' long-term plans?
» Two must-see college prospects on the national stage this Saturday.
» The Bengals' secret weapon in the game's biggest moments.
And much more, beginning with a superstar quarterback who just refuses to show his age ...
It was December 2007, and Smith had guaranteed Pittsburgh would deal the Patriots their first loss. Brady didn't say anything that week about it. But he heard Smith, did he ever. And he wanted to serve the Steeler safety a reminder of that on this Sunday. Over. And over. And over.
When he found Smith, Brady got in his face. And after that, New England spent the balance of the day picking on him. And Smith was benched the next week, and shown the door by the Steelers just over a year later.
"The kid was talking all that trash," recalls Donte' Stallworth, a receiver of Brady's in 2007 and again in 2012. "He made it a point to go after that kid. We wanted to embarrass him. Tommy had a point to make. That's the competitor he is."
Brady held a four-minute press conference on Wednesday, downplaying the idea that the same sort of dynamic that existed on that December afternoon is present now, as he prepares to face the Indianapolis Colts. By the looks of it, though, it's actually been there all year.
Brady's torrid start to the season -- through the four games he was initially suspended for -- hasn't just impressed all of us on the outside. It also has shown the guys paid to catch those passes from him in the past that very little has changed since they left Foxborough.
In fact, if you're one of his old teammates, you might get nostalgic watching it. Dan Marino, John Elway and Joe Montana -- legends of Brady's formative years -- each announced their retirement at 38. Brady, meanwhile, looks like he could play until he's 48.
"How do we know this isn't his prime?" said Christian Fauria, a teammate of Brady's from 2002 to '05. "What's his prime? 2007? I remember 2007, and you knew, if there was a third down, he was gonna complete it. [The defense] knew it. He'd find a way to get it there. How is this different?"
And there's the question I went looking to answer this week. Through four games, Brady has completed 72.5 percent of his passes for 1,387 yards, 11 touchdowns and zero picks, numbers that are very comparable to what he did in the first four games of 2007 (79.2/1,118/13/2), at age 30 and before his ACL reconstruction. You could easily argue this is the best start of his career. So ...
Is he actually better at 38?
"You can see how he's interacting with his teammates, he makes himself very approachable to everyone," explained Troy Brown, Brady's teammate from 2000 to '07. "Those guys could all be intimidated by him, really all his teammates. And he's made himself accessible and approachable -- anyone can joke with him. He's done a great job transitioning himself. He struggled for five, six, seven years with patience. It's hard for guys to see it on his level. You see with the young guys, he's really improved."
Fauria added, "He's admitted in the past that his patience isn't where it should be. It's on a whole other level, Yoda-type level now. He's the master. He has the glow, like in "The Last Dragon." Everything is moving slow for him."
Brady clicked pretty quickly with Rob Gronkowski (10 TDs as a rookie), but with others, it took more time. Julian Edelman struggled with injuries early in his career. Danny Amendola got hurt, too, upon joining the Patriots -- and his future in Foxborough was in serious question at points over his first year-and-a-half.
So that patience paid off. And now that those guys have a mountain of snaps together, another difference has become clear.
"The guys he has now have been there, and they've got the run game going, so they're able to move guys around," Stallworth said. "That's one of plusses at New England: The positions are interchangeable. They expect you, as a receiver, to know every position. And when they can move guys around like that, look out."
And then, there's Brady himself.
Last week, a Boston Magazine article detailed the checkered past of his body coach Alex Guerrero -- and Brady responded with a passionate manifesto on WEEI in Massachusetts, going deep into his belief system when it comes to training and nutrition.
As I understand it, Brady has always looked at guys like Montana and Elway and Marino, and figured that if he did it the way those guys did, he'd wind up with the same result: having to labor more and more to get it done in his 30s with a late-30s checkout date on pro football beckoning. So he sought the different answers Guerrero is providing him. Which has led to others seeing different results.
"It looks like he's moving in the pocket better than anything, being able to move and get rid of football," Brown said. "It looks like he's in better shape than he's ever been -- lean, trim and thin. The other thing you notice: He's not afraid to lay down, he's not taking unnecessary hits. That helps you cut down on turnovers, really cut down, and limit the amount of abuse."
All of which can bring you back to that moment with Smith in 2007, and how it relates here.
Brady clearly never lacks for motivation. But anything he needed in that department was handed to him this offseason. And so he's come out with the same fire as the guy trying to make the team -- the guy he actually was way back in 2000.
"I haven't talked to him about it, but I know his mentality," Fauria said. "You'll be able to tell when he's playing that it matters to him."
And Fauria expects to see it this week more so than other weeks, given the Deflategate fallout from last season's AFC title game, and that this is the first time he's seen the Colts since.
"It's in the back of his mind, everyone knows that," said Stallworth, who then laughed and said, "It's probably gonna be ugly."
Anthony Smith likely would agree.
1) Eli's resurgence. When the Giants signed Eli Manning to a four-year, $84 million extension a month ago, there was some question as to the wisdom in locking up a 34-year-old who'd gone through a tumultuous, playoff-free three-year stretch following the team's 2011 title run. Safe to say, that's quieted since. Manning is on pace to post a career high in touchdown passes, his first 100-plus QB rating, his first single-digit interception season and his second 4,500-yard campaign. And he's done it without star slot receiver Victor Cruz or left tackle Will Beatty -- and on Sunday, in a comeback win, lost Odell Beckham Jr. and Rueben Randle for parts of the fourth quarter. Credit second-year offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo for making it work, and helping push Manning forward after the QB struggled to get out of neutral for a few years. One rival executive said it's apparent that "his footwork is much better and his progressions appear to be quicker," and an opposing coach lauded the job McAdoo's done in protecting Manning and propping up his receivers. Gone are the run-and-shoot principles Kevin Gilbride employed -- which left linemen without help on longer-developing pass plays and asked receivers to read the defense like a quarterback would. In are seven- and eight-man protections on seven-step drops and vertical routes, and a simpler system that allows receivers to play fast and makes it so the bottom doesn't fall out if less-experienced guys have to jump in. The result is Manning getting the ball out quicker -- and getting hit less, even if he does have to hold the ball -- and the offense being less reliant on players like Cruz who know the system inside and out. That, and guys like Justin Pugh and Weston Richburg playing in their natural positions, has made all the difference in the world.
2) Cutler coming alive. Don't look now, but Jay Cutler might be giving the Chicago Bears reason to think hard about keeping him beyond this season -- even if he hasn't set the world on fire statistically. (His 85.4 QB rating would project to be the third-worst of his career.) You have to look into the nuance of his situation to see it. New GM Ryan Pace and coach John Fox inherited a roster in disrepair in January, and immediately went about deconstructing it. They dealt away Brandon Marshall before the snow was off the ground. They've since sent defensive pieces Jared Allen and Jon Bostic on their way. And in doing so, they've started a process, a necessary one, that's likely to take a couple years, at least. All of which doesn't provide the best environment for a 32-year-old quarterback, especially one who promptly got hurt in Week 2. But all Cutler's done since then is come back on his hobbled hamstring faster than anyone thought he would, lead a 48-yard drive to set up a game-winning field goal in Oakland in Week 4, and then guide TD drives of 88 and 67 yards in the fourth quarter in Kansas City last week to bring the Bears back from a double-digit deficit to win. And already down Marshall, he did it the last two weeks with his top three receivers out of the lineup. One thing that's helped has been Cutler's comfort level with new OC Adam Gase (Gase actually picked up Cutler at the airport for the QB's 2006 pre-draft visit to Detroit and was briefly with him in Denver) and QBs coach Dowell Loggains (who got to know Cutler well as the Titans studied the Vandy prospect in '06). Remember, this is a player who's on his sixth coordinator in eight years. Another thing? The no-huddle. The Bears are going to it more often, and that's given him more time, freedom and control at the line of scrimmage (Gase saw those benefits with Peyton Manning the last three years), and allowed him to build a better rapport with his teammates. It'd cost the Bears $16 million to keep Cutler in 2016, but $10 million of that is already guaranteed and next year's cap figures would be similar either way ($17 million if he's kept, $13 million if cut). So if Cutler keeps playing well, it's not insane to envision Chicago keeping him -- or another team looking at him, seeing that the onerous part of his contract is finished, and viewing him as an enticing trade target. And those potential scenarios are a lot better than what the Bears appeared to be faced with six months ago.
3) Payton's future? Sean Payton was right the other day: This isn't the first time the idea of him bolting New Orleans for greener pastures has come up. Three years ago, with Dallas struggling, there was a very real train of thought that had Payton leaving for Dallas, where his children lived and he shares a close relationship with the owner. It didn't happen, but part of the reasoning then was the horrific cap situation the Saints were in. Three years later, the reasoning still exists. The Saints have $153.6 million committed for the 2016 season (including over $14.8 million in dead money), and only 41 players under contract. Also, there's a $30 million cap number assigned to quarterback Drew Brees, who'll be 37 for the opener. There's wiggle room, of course, and older vets like Jahri Evans and Brandon Browner could be gone. But the lack of cheap, young talent makes it harder to make up the difference. The 2012 draft class (those would be fifth-year guys in '16) is a complete washout now, and Brandin Cooks is the only player from the '14 group to have started a game for the team. Trading Jimmy Graham and stocking picks for 2015 may well have been the start of a rebuild. "There's a lot of work to do there," said one rival NFC exec, "And it's gonna take time." Does Payton want to hang around for that? Time will tell. And if he's available, he'll have no shortage of options. Miami may be the one out there now, but it's worth noting that he's very close with Tony Sparano and Bill Parcells, and those two could well steer him away from Dolphins owner Stephen Ross. If the job opens up, Indy might be attractive because of Andrew Luck. And the lure of the Giants is thought to be strong for the former New York offensive coordinator. For now, he's still with the Saints. And there, he faces a very challenging future. Though the team did log a big win over the previously undefeated Falcons on Thursday night.
4) Palmer red hot in the desert. It's been four years now since Carson Palmer decided to hang up his cleats in Cincinnati and head back home to California. And the interesting thing about that is that his drive to come back from last year's ACL surgery is now helping to drive other guys in Arizona -- making him the 35-year-old the antithesis of the "retiring type." Here's how center Lyle Sendlein, 31 years old himself, explained it to me: "For someone at that age, to do what he did, and we saw the rehab and how he committed himself, that shows his love for the game and his commitment to winning. Obviously, he's got a good amount of money, so doesn't need that. A lot of guys, at 35 years old, they'd hurt their knee, and get back and kind of sail off into the sunset. He didn't do that. He worked his tail off to be better, and that's inspired a lot of the guys. Everyone gets nicks and bruises, and his level of commitment in coming back has guys doing a little more across the board -- do a little more studying, do a little more in drills, give a little more in everything." And all Palmer has done to this point is pilot the league's highest-scoring offense and post a 114.0 quarterback rating through four games. There is a way, though, you can tie these two events -- the faux retirement and the resurgence from ACL surgery -- together, and that's by looking at Palmer's resolve. The one thing the Bengals knew in 2011 was that when Palmer set his mind of something, he'd follow through, to the point of being stubborn. So when Palmer told Cincy he was done with the franchise, the Bengals reassessed the QB position, and wound up with Andy Dalton. Same thing here: Palmer set his mind to being better coming back from the ACL than he was the first time around, a decade ago, and ... That sure seems to be happening, too.
1) Two Januarys ago, the Wall Street Journal did a story on the Seahawks, defensive holding, and how it was employed strategically: They may call it a few times, but they won't call it every time. Now, we have our offensive equivalent. Brady is so advanced as a quarterback, it's become next to impossible to play zone against him (ask Seattle). So the Patriots routinely, through empty sets and motioning, can sniff out teams going man full-time. The counterpunch? A relentless barrage of man-coverage-beating pick and rub routes. A consequence: New England has drawn an NFL-high five offensive pass interference penalties. But what opposing teams have noticed is the Patriots betting, like Seattle did with its aggressive defensive approach, that they'll get away with it more than they won't. And they've won that wager thus far, without question.
2) Even with 0-5 taken into account, it might seem rash to consider the future of Lions coach Jim Caldwell shaky, with his 11-5 debut season not yet a distant memory. But the ownership structure in Detroit makes it fair to raise some doubt. Caldwell was hired by the since-deceased William Clay Ford, and his son, Bill Jr., was a major part of the process. Bill Jr. said last week on Detroit radio that he's now less involved with the team, with his mother Martha running the ship. So it's fair to wonder where Martha's feelings are on both Caldwell and GM Martin Mayhew.
3) The success of Browns QB Josh McCown is yet another example of the power of experience at the position. Consider this: There are nine quarterbacks with passer ratings of over 100, and seven of them are in their 30s. There are five undefeated teams, and three are led by quarterbacks in their 30s. Palmer's having a renaissance season at 35. Brady's dominating at 38. Aaron Rodgers, at 31, looks every bit the athlete he was at 21. And many of the 20-somethings we've anointed as saviors of late are having their issues.
Two college players to watch Saturday
1) Texas A&M DE Myles Garrett (vs. Alabama, 3:30 p.m. ET, CBS): I won't often shine the spotlight on a guy who isn't draft-eligible yet, but Garrett is worth doing it for. "He's the best player in the country," said one area scout assigned to the Aggies. Listed at 6-foot-5 and 262 pounds, the Dallas-area native set an SEC freshman record with 11.5 sacks last year. He's now up to 19 sacks in his 17 career games, and he won't turn 20 until after Christmas. Those who work College Station already believe he'll be a better prospect than Von Miller was coming out of A&M five years ago. "He's absolutely explosive off the football," said the area scout. "A very special first step, as good you'll see. He's elite. The guy is explosive, can turn and bend the corner, all of that. It's impressive. Pound for pound, he has good strength, too, but that's not his game. He's such a good athlete, he doesn't need much of a rush plan to create havoc. And if you watch, you'll see he gets a step or two before the tackle's even out of his stance. It looks like he's offsides." This will be a good week to watch, as 'Bama will combat the Aggies' monster with its own true-sophomore prodigy -- left tackle Cam Robinson -- in a matchup of two potential top-five picks for 2017.
2) Michigan State DE Shilique Calhoun (at Michigan, 3:30 p.m. ET, ESPN): Saturday's loaded slate is highlighted by a pretty surprising development -- Jim Harbaugh's upstart Wolverines are actually favored against hated rival Michigan State. Still, for now, it's the Spartans who are bringing the blue-chip prospects, and Calhoun is one of three (joining quarterback Connor Cook and left tackle Jack Conklin), who are fair bets to go in the first round in April. "He's athletic and long -- a plus pass rusher," said one AFC scouting director of Calhoun. "This is a good test for him to show that he can defend the run against a team that will play downhill and physical." An NFC scouting director added Calhoun is "a good, solid technician with good instincts that finds a way to make plays," which is to imply he's not exactly physically overwhelming. Indeed, Calhoun's long frame (he's listed at 6-5, 250) looks more like a basketball player's than a defensive lineman's, which has him drawing some comparisons to the Browns' disappointing 2014 first-round pick, Barkevious Mingo. After recording eight sacks in 2013, eight more last year and five so far this year, it's clear Calhoun can get to the quarterback -- a skill that put him on the NFL's radar last year as an early-entry candidate, before he chose to come back for his senior year. So this will be a great chance for evaluators to see how he stands up in a street fight of a game that's more about power than pluck -- and Saturday could be a difference-maker for those guys in deciding if he can be a complete player on the line of scrimmage as a pro.
If it seems like the Cincinnati Bengals can't really take a meaningful step forward until January -- good as they've looked through five weeks -- don't worry about it. Marvin Lewis understands. The Cincy coach gets the focus on the four consecutive playoff one-and-dones, because he's put the emphasis on it himself over the last nine months.
Back in January, following the team's wild-card round defeat in Indianapolis, Lewis decided it was time to hit the reset button on his whole operation. He challenged his coaching staff to question everything they were doing. He pushed for changes in the facility -- a new, expanded weight room, a new cafeteria, a players' lounge with a rejuvenation area. He flipped the schedule upside down. So far, so good. Maybe it's hard to give the Bengals too much credit yet, since it's October and we aren't into single-elimination season yet. But it's hard to deny that this 5-0 group has a different look to it.
"Regardless of what we'd done in the previous four seasons, it wasn't good enough, since this group of players was assembled," Lewis told me Thursday. "And so the challenge was for all of us to find a different way to do things."
One change hasn't been the easiest sell.
At Lewis' coaching clinic, he had a speaker who talked to the audience about the power of breathing and meditation -- preaching Eastern concepts to a very Western crowd. The Bengals coach related it back to what he'd heard Pete Carroll and Phil Jackson had done with players, and was so taken by the presentation that he reached out to the woman delivering it, asking for her help. So now, the Bengals offer classes on that stuff. Not everyone is on board.
"Man, I'm the wrong person to ask that because I hate that [bleepity bleep]," said Pacman Jones, laughing. "I'm just being honest with you. It's not for everyone."
Tight end Tyler Eifert added, "I don't do that. I sit in there with them, and I'm respectful of everyone doing it, but ... Maybe I should be more open to trying it. But I don't know -- when they start talking about being one with the ground and the ground supporting you, I'm like, 'The ground doesn't support me, it hurts like hell when you're constantly falling on it.' But some guys get a lot out of it."
The good news? The guys buying in believe the biggest benefits manifest when the stakes are highest. The Bengals blew a 14-0 lead in Baltimore and had to come back from two deficits in the fourth quarter, and they did to win. Last weekend, a sloppy start put the Bengals behind 24-7 against the reigning NFC champion Seahawks at home, and Cincinnati made it back from that one, too.
Fact is, whether the player you're talking to does breathing exercises in-game or not, everyone recognizes a calm among the group in moments that might have elicited panic in the past.
"I've always been a big proponent of that stuff," left tackle Andrew Whitworth said. "There are a lot of guys on the team that understand it in the in-between moments, the TV timeouts, the before-series starts. That's what we're using it for, to get calm, get relaxed and get even keel, then go and execute. That's where it's playing a part."
Again, it's just one of the changes that Lewis imposed -- "Some kind of scoffed at it in a group setting, but when we get to a private setting, there's a lot of people in the class," he said, smiling.
There are other significant shifts to the team's M.O. The schedule is a big one. The Bengals now practice before lunch, with their last heavy work done by around 1 p.m. on Thursday, giving the guys 72 hours to get themselves right for Sunday. The traditional Saturday walkthrough was moved to Friday, with a light, but faster practice replacing it the day before the game to emphasize the ramping-up process.
In a way, all of this -- change that's been cultivated as a result of Lewis meeting with and gathering info from guys like Carroll, Bill Belichick, Urban Meyer and Chip Kelly over the last few years -- was done with an eye on January. The breathing and meditation is meant to help handle the big moments. The hope with the revised schedule is that team will be at its physical peak deeper into the season. And the players' to-each-his-own handling of it illustrates the continuity that's enabled so much of Lewis' shakeup. Andy Dalton is now in his fifth year, and many of the guys around him have grown up as NFL players together. It's one of the reasons why, now, Dalton has become more assertive, and also why the team has become better when it matters most.
"The guys around Andy have really played to Andy's level, which is good," Lewis said. "So it hasn't had to be all Andy in those situations all the time. He can count on those guys getting to the right spots, which enables him to do his job. The defense has done a good job of getting the critical stops in the situations when we need them to in order to get the ball back for the offense.
"They've been together for long enough. They've put the work in, they've put the time in. And when things don't go right, they don't panic. They don't flinch, they just keep playing, and they know in order to get back into things, you've got to put one good play in front of the next good play. You've gotta keep going."
So, same guys, different formula. We'll have to wait a few month to see if the Bengals get a different result.