Posted: Monday November 29, 2010 8:41AM ; Updated: Monday November 29, 2010 5:47PM
Peter King

Back-stabbing in Bronco-land; how NFL will handle Texans-Titans fight

Story Highlights

Josh McDaniels not to blame for video mess, but Broncos fans still want his head

The proper punishment for the Johnson-Finnegan fight is to suspend both

A new leader (again) in the Fine 15, MVP watch, weekly awards and 10 Things

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After a 6-0 start last season, Josh McDaniels and the Broncos have lost all but five of their past 21 games.

NEW YORK -- Watch your back, Josh McDaniels. Get ready for January, Matt Ryan. What's gotten into you, Matt Cassel? The interim tag is a good thing, Leslie Frazier. You might be going on vacation for a week, Cortland Finnegan. Sleep much last night, Steve Johnson? The NFL wants your secrets, Ron Rivera. Yours too, Rod Marinelli. Believe in the Fine Fifteen jinx, Arthur Blank? Apparently you really don't wear a cape, Michael Vick. Way to make the Hall of Fame semifinal list, Ed Sabol. Way to run, Peyton Hillis. Way to Tweet, Ryan Clark. What a play, Alfred Malone.

Alfred Malone?

All of my secrets revealed in due time. We'll start at the odd beginning of the news of the week, the six minutes of tape that no one believes anyone could have been stupid enough to order, or to actually tape.


Josh, Lies and Videotape.

How ironic will it be if Steve Scarnecchia ends up being the final straw in what gets Josh McDaniels fired after the season? The one question no one is asking in the wake of the six-minute tape that got video director and McDaniels friend Steve Scarnecchia fired is who ratted him out? And who spilled information from a private meeting McDaniels had with his coaches Friday to Fox's Jay Glazer -- information that the Patriots' taping practices, in Glazer's words, quoting McDaniels at his meeting, "that was practiced, that was coached, that was worked on.'' Some would view that as throwing the Patriots under the bus. Some would view it as a simple admission of the facts of the league's well-publicized findings against the Patriots.

What you need to know about Spygate II going forward:

McDaniels is adamant that he didn't trash the Patriots in his staff meeting Friday. What Glazer reported is essentially true -- McDaniels did say what the Broncos did was one individual act, and not a systemic, practiced series of videotapings over several years, which the league found the Patriots guilty of in 2007. The meeting was called to share with staffers what they were about to hear concerning the league's fining of McDaniels of $50,000 and the team of $50,000 for Scarnecchia's videotaping of a 49er practice in London the day before the two teams met Oct. 31.

"There were questions at the meeting I had with the staff on Friday in a private staff meeting,'' McDaniels told me last night for a report I aired on NBC's Football Night in America show. "I was asked by someone in the meeting how this compared to the Patriots situation. I didn't try to minimize the seriousness of what we did [in the Denver incident]. I feel bad that it's being represented that I had some inside information about what happened with the Patriots, because I don't.'' Instead, McDaniels told me, he was speaking of the New England case.

Nothing McDaniels said or did will re-open the league's investigation. The league doesn't see the connection between McDaniels' statement and any new information. I was told by one league official Sunday that I was way off base, and there was nothing in Glazer's report to suggest the league has a reason to re-open the case. In the same vein, the Patriots declined comment Sunday, saying, in essence, there was nothing there -- no new news.

Videotaping a walk-through, usually, would be a far more educational piece of tape for a coach to watch than viewing the defensive signals and matching them to individual plays, which is what got Belichick in trouble in 2007. I say usually because the 49ers didn't show anything worth seeing in their walk-through the day before playing Denver in London, when the videotaping was done by Scarnecchia. "We purposely didn't show them anything, because we'd been warned about [Scarnecchia],'' said a source close to the 49ers coaching staff. "We didn't run any of the plays we were going to run in the game.'' Normally, though, a Saturday walkthrough might be a team's first X number of offensive plays -- so such a scouting report would be invaluable. "Far more valuable than anything like taping coaches signaling in plays,'' said one official of a different team. "That's why most people will look at this and say the Broncos got off light. If you succeeded in taping a team's walkthrough, you could wreck every one of its first 15 plays or so.''

McDaniels seems to know he's got a traitor in his midst. Leaking what was said in a private meeting -- and leaking it with the possible intent of slanting it to make McDaniels looks bad -- is a sign that a coaching staff and organization could be fracturing from within. I'm pretty sure McDaniels will try to find out who's got the loose lips, though if it's the same person who turned him and Scarnecchia in to Bronco brass he might be hard to find, because of the league's protection of the whistleblower in this case. Said league counsel Jeff Pash on Saturday: "One of the things about our policy and the duty to report is we do make a pledge, and this is not unusual in these settings, we do make a pledge of confidentiality as part of a way of encouraging people to come forward and also protecting people against possible retaliation.'' But McDaniels still has to be troubled that he's got a leak.

None of this will matter if the Broncos keep losing, like they did Sunday to St. Louis. The Broncos leave on a three-game roadie this weekend (at Kansas City, Arizona and Oakland in 15 days), and the road is probably the best place for him to be right now. Less booing there, probably. If the Broncos lose out, McDaniels is probably done. It's a results business, and the Broncos are 5-16 in McDaniels' last 21 games, and the fans have turned on him viciously.

I find all of this sad. I know McDaniels fairly well, and my gut feeling is he neither watched the videotape nor ordered the taping. He's a smart kid with a very strong family background who's made some terrible personnel decisions; Peyton Hillis for Brady Quinn, trading a 2010 first-rounder to choose Alphonso Smith in 2009 -- and then dealing him for next-to-nothing a year later. But he's a smart offensive strategist. The Broncos did him no favors by giving him an inexperienced GM, Brian Xanders, who clearly hasn't been strong enough to save him from making some bad personnel calls. The team should have invested in a savvy, veteran GM to help McDaniels navigate his way early.

But in the end, it'll be sad because half of Broncos Nation decided when Jay Cutler got traded and later when Brandon Marshall started acting 11 that it was all McDaniels' fault, and he had to go. It was not all his fault. Cutler never gave McDaniels a fair chance to build a relationship, and then an angry owner, Pat Bowlen -- not McDaniels -- directed that he be traded. Marshall wanted a new contract, thought he had been promised it by Bowlen, didn't get it, and then acted up. I don't see how either of those departures constitutes being run off by McDaniels, but legions of Bronco fans do. If he goes, Denver will have to start over with another coach, and that coach may well have no belief in Tim Tebow as a quarterback of the future, and there would go another prime piece, wasted. And so it goes.

Finally, I've been asked scores of times this weekend why the league went so light on the Broncos -- and I'd agree, because of the potential competitive advantage that could have been gained by taping a Saturday practice. I thought Pash explained it well on Saturday. "Here [in Denver] you had, as best we can conclude, a single incident as opposed to, in New England, years of activity. You had an incident that, as best we could identify, was carried out by a single employee without direction from the coaching staff or anyone else at the club. That's obviously different from what we saw in New England, where the head coach was actively supervising the activity. And ... from the Commissioner's standpoint, the most important point [with Denver] was that as soon as senior management and ownership was aware of it, they came forward and reported it to our office and cooperated fully in the investigation.''


Don't ask Matt Ryan about the home cooking thing. He doesn't have an answer.

"If I knew,'' he told me after beating the Packers on Sunday at the Georgia Dome, "we'd bottle it and take it on the road with us, believe me.''

Does Atlanta have a weakness?
Source: SI's Richard Deitsch discusses the Falcons' legitimacy and explains where their weakness may lie.

The significance of Ryan leading a last-minute comeback for the second time in three weeks -- and in beating their fourth straight playoff contender -- cannot be overstated. "It means we can play with the best teams in the league,'' Ryan said. It's more than that. Atlanta is 19-1 at home with Ryan starting at quarterback, and the Falcons now control the top seed in the NFC playoffs. Six teams are breathing down their neck at either 7-4 or 8-3, but the 9-2 Falcons are in pretty good shape. In the last five weeks, they do play three road games and two at home, but they also play the worst team in football, 1-10 Carolina, twice in the last five weeks. Atlanta likely could go 4-1 down the stretch and still win home-field through the playoffs; its most dangerous game, a rematch with New Orleans Dec. 27, is in the Georgia Dome.

"I just know we feel confident in the building, whatever that means,'' Ryan said. "We've been in tight situations all year, especially at home, and we just feel when we're in those situations, we've got enough confidence in the guys around us that we can win, because we've done it before.''

Against Green Bay, Ryan completed his first 14 passes in the second half -- he finished a marksmanlike 24 of 28 -- and drove the Falcons to the winning field goal after a stupid Green Bay facemask penalty on a kickoff after the Packers had tied it. "I didn't even know that 'til you said it,'' Ryan said about the 14 straight. "When you look back on it, and think about it, obviously in a game this big, it's a pretty good thing.''

Atlanta now has a quarterback it can trust in very big moments. January moments? We'll see. But Matty Ice, in year three, has shown no signs of freezing in the big moments yet. Why should the playoffs be different?

By the way, let's give some credit where it's due to a man who gets very little credit in Atlanta -- in large part because he's fairly invisible and likes it that way.

The Falcons clinched their third straight winning season Sunday, and until last year, the franchise had never had back-to-back winning seasons. General manager Thomas Dimitroff hired Mike Smith to coach the team when Smith was an anonymous Jacksonville assistant no one was interested in hiring as a head coach. Dimitroff signed Michael Turner as a free-agent running back even though he'd never been a full-time back in San Diego. Dimitroff drafted Matt Ryan with his first draft choice. Dimitroff signed Roddy White to a long-term contract before he was a superstar. So while we're coronating those who are out front the most --Smith, Ryan, Turner, White, and all deservedly so -- let's remember the man who put them in position to be a very strong team.


The Interim Thing Works.

Myth of the Year: No good can come from firing a coach in-season. Interim coaches are a waste, and owners should let the incumbent coach and his assistants dig themselves out of the holes they dug.

It's a little early (one game) to completely judge Leslie Frazier's impact on the Minnesota Vikings, seeing as today is his seventh day on the job after taking over for Brad Childress. But counting him, there have been seven interim coaches since the start of the 2007 season, and every one of them has had a better winning percentage than the coach he replaced in that season. (And if Frazier wins one of the Vikings' last five games to go with Sunday's over the Redskins, he'll be assured of a better winning percentage than Childress in 2010.) That includes Jason Garrett with the Cowboys; he was assured of bettering Wade Phillips' 2010 winning rate by winning his first two games.

How the last seven teams to make in-season coaching changes have fared with the new man:

Team, Season Original coach W-L, Pct. Interim coach W-L, Pct.
Minnesota, 2010 Brad Childress 3-7, .300 Leslie Frazier 1-0, 1.000
Dallas, 2010 Wade Phillips 1-7, .125 Jason Garrett 2-1, .667
Buffalo, 2009 Dick Jauron 3-6, .333 Perry Fewell 3-4, .429
San Francisco, 2008 Mike Nolan 2-5, .286 Mike Singletary 5-4, .556
St. Louis, 2008 Scott Linehan 0-4, .000 Jim Haslett 2-10, .167
Oakland, 2008 Lane Kiffin 1-3, .250 Tom Cable 4-8, .333
Atlanta, 2007 Bobby Petrino 3-10, .231 Emmitt Thomas 1-2, .333
. Total 13-42, .236 Total 18-29, .383

The surprising thing to me is that some owners have an I-hate-interim-coaches ethos. Look at the record. Interim coaches, mostly, bring fresh air and new approaches. Look at what Jason Garrett and Mike Singletary did with discipline and rules, for instance. It works.

Frazier did the right things when he came aboard in Minnesota. He basically forbade the players from talking about all the distractions that had been enveloping their team. "He removed anything other than what he felt could help us beat the Washington Redskins,'' middle linebacker E.J. Henderson told me after the Vikings broke a nine-game road losing streak with their 17-13 victory over Washington at FedEx Field. "If we weren't focusing on that, we were wasting our energy. The thing I really like about coach Frazier is he shoots you straight and there's no negative energy around him -- ever. I think a majority of the guys are happy the decision [to change coaches] was still done fairly early so we'd have enough time to right the ship. Now we can focus on football instead of the distractions, like whether coach Childress was going to get fired.''

Frazier told me the other day he was disturbed that he heard lots of talk about distractions at the team meeting the night before the Vikings got waxed by Green Bay last week. The night before the game, he thought, should be spent solely on thoughts of the game the next day. So the night before the Washington game, he harped on what he'd harped on all week: no turnovers, force turnovers, get the running game going, stop the run, don't put so much pressure on the passing game to win. The results: Minnesota outrushed Washington 137-29, even after losing Adrian Peterson for the game (ankle) in the second quarter ... Minnesota didn't fumble or throw an interception ... Washington turned it over once ... And the Vikings didn't need a great Brett Favre day (15 of 23, 172 yards, no touchdown or picks) to win.

After the game, Favre gave Frazier the game ball on the field. "You deserve it,'' Favre told him.

"You guys are much more deserving,'' Frazier said, and as if to prove it, he told the players they'd all be getting a game ball from this one.

What's this? Harmonious sounds around the Vikings? Another interim coach changing the culture on a fractured team.

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