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):
» Why the Bengals share AJ McCarron's confidence in himself.
» Why the Cowboys might not necessarily regret letting DeMarco Murray walk.
» How the Cardinals' bet on Tyrann Mathieu paid off.
And much more, beginning with the suddenly steady Redskins ...
There was Bashaud Breelandrunning down Bucs tailback Doug Martin from the back side in Week 7, turning what would have been a game-clinching 54-yard fourth-quarter touchdown sprint into a 49-yard prelude to a goal-line stand that kept the door open for Washington to pull off a 31-30 win. Three weeks later, there was 337-pound offensive lineman Trent Williams' manhandling of Saints corner Kyle Wilson some 50 yards downfield to pave the final steps of Matt Jones' 78-yard touchdown on a screen, which blew open what would become a 47-14 rout.
"Probably the fight in training camp against Houston," Gruden said on Thursday, smiling broadly. "It brought everybody together. You got the new guys, the new season, everybody says the right things. But when the fight happened, everybody came together with one another -- and I'm sure Houston's probably saying the same thing. It was pretty awesome. I was in there, got jacked up in the head."
Gruden then laughs. "That was good [expletive], but yeah -- Hey, everybody, break it up!"
It's funny for him now, too, because you can say also this: Outside of that widely publicized donnybrook in Richmond, Virginia, the Redskins are first in the NFC East standings and last in the division in drama.
And it's hard to say which outcome would've been less predictable when the season started.
True, leading the East right now doesn't require a winning record. And the 6-7 Redskins don't have the position all to themselves, as they're locked atop the division in a three-way tie with the Giants and Eagles. But if you had to pick one "program" of the four in the NFC East that appears to be on the upswing, it may well be the one that was a few jugglers short of being a full-blown circus a year ago.
As you might imagine, that's been about the people inside the building as much as anything else. In January, Redskins president Bruce Allen handed personnel control and his GM title over to one of the more accomplished scouts in recent league history, Scot McCloughan. And as Gruden and McCloughan went to work, they reaffirmed an emphasis on not just finding the right kinds of players, but the right kinds of people. That, the thinking went, would be a start in lancing the boils on 2014.
Asked to describe the type, Gruden said, "Football players. Unselfish football players that have a strong desire to get better and win and help others and make the team better. Sometimes, you're gonna give up a little on talent or fantasy stats or whatever, but you get guys that are willing to do the little things to succeed, work hard in the weight room in OTAs, just show up at OTAs. That started very early with our veteran guys showing up and being the hardest workers."
The 2014 draftees -- Trent Murphy, Morgan Moses, Spencer Long, Breeland and Ryan Grant -- fit the bill, and the 2015 group added to that, with those two classes now making up over 20 percent of the roster. Holdovers like Williams, Will Compton, Perry Riley and DeAngelo Hall bought in, too, which sent a message to the rest of the team, and like-minded veterans such as Terrance Knighton and Dashon Goldson were brought aboard.
"If you're gonna spend some money, you want talent, but you also want strong leadership, guys you don't have to worry about Friday night or Thursday night," Gruden said. "Guys that are gonna be here, and be in the weight room and lead the way for younger guys. Sometimes, to have these guys in here for a number of years, they pave the way for younger players, and that's just as important as production."
A meritocracy was established, and it carried through to the little things, like awarding hard work in the offseason with the parking spots closest to the facility, and the big ones, like entrenching Kirk Cousins as the starting quarterback.
And here's the truth on that: Everyone in the building knew Cousins was the best option for the team over the summer. Acting on that knowledge meant something, as did taking that storyline off the table for 2015.
"[The change] is reflected in this locker room," Hall said. "Guys aren't having to worry about answering questions about who's the quarterback, or what do you think about this or that. It's more just football-related. Anytime you can make it about football, that's what we're here for. ... Even coming into training camp, it felt different."
And not just to the players, but to the coach as well.
Gruden remembers late last year, going downstairs to eat breakfast, seeing his face or former starter Robert Griffin III's face on national shows and wondering why a 3-9 or 4-11 team was getting that kind of coverage. Now? He indicates the weight room and proudly points out that the TVs are tuned to news (not sports) networks.
"Last year, there was so much drama," Gruden said. "And I'm not blaming Robert; there was just so much drama with this organization. I think putting an end to all that stuff was very helpful. We had a lot of leaks, and I don't know where they came from. We haven't had any stories that have come out where we don't know how they came out -- I mean, nothing has come out. That's been a huge, huge difference.
"If you're reading the paper in the morning and it's, 'How the [expletive] did that get out? What are they talking about?' A player or coach is bringing information that may or may not be true, and you don't know how it got out; eliminating that has been huge."
Gruden conceded "part of [last year was] my fault." He credited a locker room that had grown weary of those kinds of problems for taking command, then joked, "We're only 6-7; it's not like I'm up for Coach of the Year."
Maybe not, but there's no question that he and McCloughan have engineered quite a makeover in a short amount of time, and not just when it comes to the team's record.
Much has changed, and that may be best described by how he and I reminisced about some of our previous conversations. "Last year at this time, we'd be talking about the other [expletive]," he said.
Safe to say, Gruden likes this talk better.
1) AJ McCarron believes in ... AJ McCarron. Start with this: AJ McCarron's comments referencing Tom Brady after his appearance in Sunday's loss to the Steelers were harmless. The Bengals' backup-turned-temporary-starter wasn't exaggerating. He actually is in the same situation Brady was in back in 2001: having ascended to second on the depth chart in his second year, then being pressed into action through an injury to an established, longtime starter. That said, it's a good bet McCarron also believes he can do what Brady did 14 years ago with the Patriots, because that, in fact, is part of what attracted Cincinnati to him in the first place. "There's no question [he believes he's capable of it]," one club source said. "Those are the things we loved about him." Quarterbacks coach Ken Zampese made the trip to Tuscaloosa before the 2014 NFL Draft and came back raving about the Alabama product's personality, direction and belief in himself. And when the Bengals drafted McCarron 18 months ago, they saw a winner who loved football and brought experience a) in a demanding program where he was coached hard and b) on the biggest stages. But things took a wrong turn quickly. After his first day of throwing in OTAs that May, the team shut him down, because his throwing shoulder had been worn ragged. He had the shoulder taken care of and went through a recovery program, and while the initial hope was that he'd heal up quickly, it was six months before McCarron practiced again. The coaches saw that it was killing McCarron not to compete, but they also noticed that his confidence never wavered. When he did get back last November, Marvin Lewis fed him reps on Fridays to move his development forward. And by last spring, the Bengals saw a quarterback they believed could develop into a starter. Months later, in the preseason, things were at a point to where the staff felt McCarron was a starting-level backup with a "high ceiling" for growth. Of course, having potential is one thing; delivering on it is something else entirely. But for now, the Bengals see a guy who showed some of the same things on Sunday that he has over the last year-and-a-half, and that has at least given them some hope that they can keep winning until Andy Dalton gets back.
2) Jets find the right Fitz. Todd Bowles telling the New York Daily News last week that he would "definitely" want to hang on to Ryan Fitzpatrick, who is set to be a free agent this offseason, after 2015 should hardly come as a surprise. The veteran quarterback was good in Houston last year and he's been better in New York this year, while the other quarterbacks on the Jets' roster either have shown little in the opportunities they've gotten (Geno Smith) or are still in need of time to develop (Bryce Petty). But there are things you don't see that are considered just as important internally, things that make Fitzpatrick an ideal piece to the puzzle Bowles and general manager Mike Maccagnan are putting together as they continue rebuilding and flushing out some of the problems they found when they arrived on the job in January. Most of it goes back to the 33-year-old's self-assuredness in who he is and where he's at in his career. Rather than look over his shoulder at his 25- and 24-year-old backups and cordon off territory the way an old dog does when his family gets a new puppy, Fitzpatrick has been good for both Smith and Petty, as the former tries to pump life back into his career and the latter works to jumpstart his. And with an eye toward the future, there's no question that both parts of that equation matter. The fact that Fitzpatrick can still play gives the team flexibility, so they won't be pushed into drafting the wrong young quarterback. That he's been good for Smith and Petty indicates that he'd be accepting of the next guy the bosses bring in. Both sides know where the other stands, and while there's no rush to get something done for now -- there are a few other players the Jets need to think about for 2016 first -- there's a good chance a deal could be worked out between the end of the season and the start of the league year. And no, Fitzpatrick isn't suddenly the long-term answer. But most quarterback-needy teams are looking for a guy they can tread water with, and the Jets have a pretty good one.
3) Packers' problems. With Mike McCarthy taking play-calling duties back in Green Bay last week, I went back to an October conversation I had with the Packers coach about why he'd decided to pass the torch to Tom Clements. And in revisiting his comments, you get some clues as to what he's thinking now. "My goal was for us to play to one another better," McCarthy told me. "We've been so heavily tilted to the offense. It's always been about the offense." He explained that Green Bay's 15-1 season of 2011 (and I wrote about that part of it) was the impetus for the change: He felt like his team wasn't prepared to play the kind of bare-knuckle game the Giants baited the Packers into playing in that season's playoff loss. "As great as it was -- 15-1 and we had a lot of opportunity to be 16-0 -- that's really a team I never wanna be again," McCarthy said. So what's changed? Well, the Packers are middle of the league in total defense and sixth in points allowed. The running game is workman-like, if not explosive. They're balanced. Now, it's their long-standing strength -- Aaron Rodgers and the passing game -- that hasn't been quite strong enough. McCarthy said back in Week 5 that "when you have that common thread that runs through your whole team, it gives you a good chance to be a pretty balanced football team. That's the goal, that's the secret, that's why I did it." Conversely, he said if there was a problem with his play-calling, it was that he was too aggressive. So maybe with the desired balance in place, the Packers need a little more of that aggression now. And, of course, there's the overriding thing here: No one wanted to waste a year of Rodgers' prime due to an experiment.
4) On the Cowboys' running back issues. That the Cowboysrank 11th in rushing yards and ninth in per-carry average despite playing most of the year without quarterback Tony Romo or any steady, consistent tailback is a testament to the kind of offensive line they're putting out there each week. Losing Romo for all but four games was a stroke of horrible luck, for sure. But the running back situation didn't have to turn out this way, and it might not have, if things had fallen differently in late April or early May. According to multiple club sources, the team was prepared to take Todd Gurley with the 27th overall pick (which wound up being used on Byron Jones). That seemed realistic at the beginning of the process, but it quickly became a pipe dream. Taking that into account, Dallas targeted T.J. Yeldon as a potential second-round pick, and the team would've wrestled with taking him over Randy Gregory (whom they were surprised to see available at 60) had he not gone to the Jaguars at No. 36. Dallas also looked hard at drafting Thomas Rawls in the seventh round before trying, in vain, to sign him as a college free agent. Would having Gurley, Yeldon or Rawls have changed everything? No. And Dallas isn't under the illusion it would've. But this situation does illustrate that while some positions may be fungible to some degree (the Eagles went through this with their guards), you can't just get by with anyone in those spots. One thing the Cowboys aren't exactly showing regret for is the decision to let DeMarco Murray walk. Yes, he was a great fit for the Dallas offense. But the Murray-related drama of the last two weeks didn't exactly shock his old co-workers. "The guy is a pro in his preparation and toughness and competitiveness," said one club source. "But he's also entitled, selfish and condescending. He's a great 'team' guy when he's the guy." Murray's reputation in Dallas was of a player who'd mope at times when things didn't go his way, which is part of what the Eagles have dealt with of late.
1)Khalil Mack's five-sack breakout in the Raiders' win over the Broncos on Sunday may have been aided by the Denver offensive line, but the guy's been a nightmare for opponents to deal with for the balance of his sophomore season in the NFL. Here's how one offensive coordinator for a team that has faced Oakland describes it: "He has great burst -- and his lower center of gravity makes him a difficult aiming point for all these big tackles. He's very athletic." How do you stop him? At this point, according to this coordinator, the best way is to make sure you have good "body presence" (an extra guy waiting) on him, chip him when you can, and get the ball out quickly.
2)Ben Roethlisberger's growth as a quarterback into his 30s has been evident, and here's one statistic (per one team's research) that illustrates that. His snap-to-throw average of 2.45 seconds is tied for fifth in the NFL, trailing only Peyton Manning (2.31), Tom Brady (2.36), Philip Rivers (2.39) and Andy Dalton (2.41). That shows that while Roethlisberger still has the ability to improvise, he's more decisive and sees things quicker than he ever has. One more thing on that list: It's interesting to note that Russell Wilson's second-to-last (2.99), ahead of only Tyrod Taylor (3.16).
3) There was back and forth this week on whether the NFL will kick $100 million into St. Louis' stadium effort, but the idea itself is rife with problems. First, it's fair to ask whether or not Oakland and San Diego would be afforded similar help. Second, there's the question of whether it would get through a three-quarters vote of owners. Third, there's the question of whether Rams owner Stan Kroenke would accept the help. The bottom line is that Kroenke's goal in securing a new stadium is to change the economics of the franchise, and, per club sources, Kroenke sees St. Louis' current deal as falling far short of doing that, viewing the deal as substantially worse than the one the Vikings got in Minneapolis. All that would set up an interesting circumstance if the Rams are denied entry to Los Angeles, prompting Kroenke to look at all options in and out of St. Louis. The next step will be the three clubs submitting relocation applications, with the window to do so opening Jan. 4. The hope of all parties was that, by now, the league would have found an elegant solution and would be in the final stages of brokering a deal. No one thought this would come to a vote that didn't have a predetermined result. But here we are: The owners don't have any idea which way this will go with less than a month until the Jan. 12-13 meeting.
Two college prospects to watch
Louisiana Tech DT Vernon Butler (vs. Arkansas State, New Orleans Bowl, ESPN, Saturday, 9 p.m. ET): Butler has been a menace in his two years as a starter, posting 23.5 tackles for a loss over that time, and he earned an invite to the Senior Bowl as a result. In that game and this one, evaluators will be looking closely for progress in his football know-how. "He's athletic for [his size], but raw with his technique," said one NFC personnel exec. "But he's got a chance. He's not as powerful as [Justin] 'Jelly' Ellis, but he's a better athlete." As a point of comparison, Ellis was a fourth-round pick (107th overall) out of Louisiana Tech by the Raiders two years ago, and he's developed into a starting-caliber player since. There are good signs Butler will grow, because he's grown plenty already. "He's helped himself a lot," said one area scout assigned to Louisiana Tech. "Before the year, coming back as a starter, he was a height/weight/speed guy that had not put it together yet. He had all [the] tools. This year, you can see he's developed, and the step you'd expect a kid to take from junior to senior year, he's taken it. And it's happened all across the board. He has good size, he's a very good athlete, an easy moving guy. And he's really not limited by scheme. He's athletic enough to play in a 4-3, but big and strong enough to play in [3-4]. ... But he'd be best used as a big athlete that can disrupt." With Butler at 6-foot-3 and almost 320 pounds, the scout said "there's no scenario where he should get out of the second round," and expected that Butler's athleticism (comparable to Muhammad Wilkerson coming out) would turn heads at the NFL Scouting Combine.
Boise State OLB Kamalei Correa (vs. Northern Illinois, Poinsettia Bowl, ESPN, Wednesday, 4:30 p.m. ET): The early bowl games always provide a good stage for mid-major players, and Correa is one who figures to take advantage. "He's a big ol' dude," said one AFC personnel exec. "He's athletic, has a good motor. Not a bad player overall. You'll put him on the edge, but he's not a natural pass rusher, he just wins with effort. He'll be a solid player in the league for a long time." An AFC college scouting director who saw him live added that, "He's a good-looking kid -- a big, 3-4 outside 'backer type. More of a power rusher than a dynamic one, and he can play the run." So here's the bottom line with a player like Correa: As defenses become more multiple at all levels, players who can go from rushing to covering to stopping the run become the queens on the chessboard. So while Correa doesn't seem to have the kind of overwhelming pass-rush ability that makes the pros drool, seeing how the coaches use him -- and, in particular, how many ways the coaches use him -- in this game will give you a good gauge of why he figures to be a valuable commodity at the next level.
Patrick Peterson may still be the most well-paid and well-regarded member of the Arizona secondary, defense and team. But the gap is closing fast.
And it's not because Peterson has slipped. To the contrary, the fifth-year pro is having another banner year. No, this is because the Honey Badger -- that's Tyrann Mathieu in your program -- is coming. Thirteen games into Mathieu's third NFL season, the former third-round pick has taken his place alongside his mentor and former LSU teammate among the very best defensive players in the sport, worthy of legit consideration for Defensive Player of the Year.
"I think both of those guys are on that level," first-year Cardinals defensive coordinator James Bettcher said over the phone Wednesday night. "Right now, Pat isn't getting the true respect he deserves for the season he's having -- week-in, week-out, he's shutting guys down. It's hard to get statistics when they don't throw the ball your way. But we see, game-by-game, who he's covering, the matchups he gets."
Deference to the established vet aside, Peterson's counterpart -- who always seems to be finding the ball even as the ball avoids finding Peterson -- may be every bit as impactful.
"Looking at him coming out [of LSU], he's the same player now," Bettcher continued, now on Mathieu. "He's electric. When you watch, it's like there are three or four of him out there. He's all over the place."
When Arizona GM Steve Keim and the Cardinals' scouting staff started turning over rocks on Mathieu in 2013 (and there was a lot of off-field stuff to wade through), what they found was hard to pin down. He was maybe one of the best pure football players any of them had scouted, but one without a clear line connecting what he was as a collegian (a pure corner/punt returner) to what he would become as a pro.
So here's how they drew it up: Mathieu was a first-round talent who (without boasting elite size or speed) was absolutely elite as a slot corner, but also too talented to remove from the field in the base defense, when most slots head to the sideline. In a Luke Kuechly/Ronde Barber/Brian Dawkins kind of way, Mathieu had a radar for the ball, which helped lead the Cardinals to decide to play him inside, where he could seek it out, as a safety.
The truth is, they'd wind up using him the way the Crocodile Hunter used to wield his machete.
"We want him blitzing, because he's great at blitzing," said Bettcher. "We want to have him covering, because we know he can cover. We want him on the tight ends, because he's capable of that. We want him on the post and in the deep middle because he has range. You put all those things on Post-It notes, throw them in a hat, and pull one out each week, and that is what we're doing."
And then there's the stuff you can't teach, which is when, as Bettcher explains, you just say, "That's a special player, so stay out of the way."
The coordinator emphasizes, too, that it only works because of how dedicated Mathieu is to playing the game right. Playing in different spots every game means knowing the defense from those positions, and being able to apply it to what the offense does.
And that goes back to part of why the Cardinals were so smitten with Mathieu as a person, not just a player, before drafting him in 2013. Keim's 7-year-old son yanked on his dad's shirtsleeve when they took the former Heisman finalist to dinner -- "Dad, this guy is so cool!" On the same trip, Keim, Bruce Arians, president Michael Bidwill, Jason Licht (the Buccaneers' current GM, who was then in Arizona's front office) and Todd Bowles (who was then the Cardinals' defensive coordinator) took the prospect out for a more formal dinner, and each walked away raving about how attentive and focused he came off.
It's also more than a bonus that his mental and physical makeup made him a perfect fit for a franchise that treasures malleability in its defensive players. Like the three starting defensive linemen (who play anywhere from tackle-to-tackle), corners Jerraud Powers and Justin Bethel (who go inside or out) and Deone Bucannon (who toggles between safety and linebacker), Mathieu has made the Cardinals' defense more flexible, allowing the decision-makers more freedom with the roster.
Add it all up, and three years in, Mathieu is where the Cardinals hoped he'd be -- though where few others would've bet he'd land after being thrown out of LSU's program: As a core player for an elite team in line for a major payday.
"He's as good a player as you'll get, highly regarded by his teammates, a team guy who's great in the room," Bettcher said. "Steve and Coach did a great of making that pick, and getting him. I'm glad we have him."