Some revealing nuggets from the four rookie AFC coaches
New AFC Coaches (cont.)
PHOENIX -- Tuesday morning was the media's chance to share breakfast with the AFC head coaches at the NFL annual meeting, and it just happens to work out that there's a rookie head coach in each of the conference's four divisions: Jacksonville's Gus Bradley in the AFC South, San Diego's Mike McCoy in the West, Buffalo's Doug Marrone in the East, and Cleveland's Rob Chudzinski in the North. (Sorry, Andy Reid. You're new to Kansas City, but you're old hat).
My breakfast game plan was simple: Spend 15 minutes at the table of each rookie head coach and find out a few things about each hire that I didn't know before I sat down. Here are some nuggets gleaned from my conversations with the fresh faces that lead the Jaguars, Bills, Chargers and Browns....
First, a caveat: It's a long way until April 25 and the first round of the NFL draft, and much can happen in the coming five-plus weeks. But I left Bradley's table convinced that West Virginia quarterback Geno Smith is at least a possibility for the No. 2 Jaguars. Not a likelihood. But a possibility. We know the No. 1 Chiefs aren't taking him, with Alex Smith already in K.C., so Jacksonville is the first team that has to make a decision on Smith.
Jaguars officials from Tony Khan, son of team owner Shad Khan, on down went to Morgantown, West Va., last week to watch Smith go through his pro day workout. Afterward, Bradley and the Jacksonville contingent spent nearly 90 minutes with Smith, interviewing him and putting him through various paces at the chalkboard. Big deal, right? Just a team doing its due diligence, and maybe feigning interest in Smith in the hopes of smoking out a trade partner willing to move up to the No. 2 slot in pursuit of Smith. Quite possibly that's all it was.
But here's why I think Smith really is on the radar screen for the Jaguars, even though Bradley and new Jacksonville general manager David Caldwell have both expressed support for incumbent starter Blaine Gabbert, drafted 10th overall in 2011: Bradley saw what happened at quarterback in Seattle last season. He was the Seahawks defensive coordinator when Seattle drafted Russell Wilson in the third round, despite having already signed free-agent quarterback Matt Flynn as the team's presumed new starter. Bradley learned first-hand last year that you can't be afraid to draft another quarterback if you have a strong enough feeling about him, even if you already have an investment made in a veteran passer on your roster.
I put the Seattle scenario to Bradley and asked him if the Wilson-Flynn example might color his thinking on Smith, the draft's consensus top-rated quarterback, if the Jaguars come to believe he's a special enough prospect?
"That's right,'' Bradley said. "There's no doubt. There's no doubt. You're right. You talk about Pete Carroll making a decision. They just spent all this money on Matt Flynn, they drafted a third-round quarterback, and he said we're going with Russell? You have to have the backing of ownership and the wisdom to say, 'You know what, I have such conviction that I'm willing to take him and I believe in him.'
"I'm guessing all three years they were looking for a quarterback [in the Carroll era in Seattle]. They were looking for a guy that can take over a team, and it's difficult to find. We always say, 'Oh, he's got it. Peyton Manning has it. Drew Brees has it. And I know we had a conversation in Seattle last year and it was like, Russell, you've got it. You can feel it. I think there's a lot of quarterbacks you can win with and do a very good job in the NFL, and maybe you can develop that. But some of those guys are unique.''
Bradley also echoed what I've started hearing a bit from league sources, that Jacksonville was much more impressed with Smith last week than it was prepared to be. Both in his workout and in their one-on-one time. Again, it could be a smoke screen, and the Jaguars have plenty of other needs to address with their first pick. But I wouldn't dismiss Smith in Jacksonville just yet.
"I sat down one on one with him and I just wanted to see how he would be once he entered our building, our stadium,'' Bradley said of Smith. "Are people going to gravitate towards him? Is he going to be a leader? Is he a guy that everybody will back and will he allow that to happen?
"I wanted to see how competitive is he going to be. Is he going to step into the building and it's like his team and somebody has to take it away from him? Really it was just to get a better feel for his mindset, and we had a great talk. I was very impressed with him at the meeting. I had high expectations, but I think he exceeded them. I came out of it feeling even better.''
When the smoke clears on draft night, it could still be Gabbert and Chad Henne competing for the starting quarterback job this summer. But Smith might be in the process of giving Jacksonville another option to seriously consider.
When the Bills signed free-agent outside linebacker Manny Lawson away from Cincinnati last week, he raised a few eyebrows by admitting he didn't know Buffalo hadn't made the playoffs since 1999, the longest active postseason drought in the NFL.
But when I asked Marrone about the challenges of winning in Buffalo, he basically admitted to having the same lack of awareness of the Bills' futility as Lawson, at least until very recently. It was a surprising admission, to say the least, especially since Marrone had coached in the NFL as recently as 2008 and spent the past four seasons as the head coach at Syracuse, virtually in the Bills' backyard.
"I think I was the same way,'' Marrone said. "I really didn't know, like Manny. I didn't know at first. When I did find out that situation, obviously it was probably right before when I was researching [the Bills], and I mean, maybe because I am from New York and I was right down the road, all of a sudden when I heard that, you could feel it. You could feel the ... I don't want to use a word like pain, but I don't know what the adjective is. But when you go around town and you see people, and you do those things, you can feel it.
"It inspires me and gives me a greater sense of responsibility. I am responsible to the community and the fans to get us back to where everyone wants us to be. And there are expectations, from our owner, our administration and from our fans.''
Until he becomes the coach who breaks the playoff-less streak for the Bills, Marrone is going to have a hard time not hearing about the failures of the past 13 seasons in Buffalo. But to win, he needs a quarterback. The Bills released Ryan Fitzpatrick last week and are almost certain to draft a quarterback, perhaps with their No. 8 overall pick.
But Marrone wasn't exactly a fount of information when it comes to Buffalo's plans at the game's most pivotal position. For starters, I asked him for the short answer on why the organization decided to move on from Fitzpatrick, whom they gave a long-term contract extension in October 2011?
"How it really went down and decisions and everything, it's just I'm probably not the best person to talk to about that,'' Marrone said. "I don't really know.''
Along the same lines, I asked Marrone what it feels like to be a new head coach in a quarterback-driven league and yet not know who his quarterback will be this season, also wondering what he has told Bills fans who are desperate to believe Buffalo will get a franchise QB?
"I always think to myself, 'What do people mean when they say franchise?' '' Marrone said. "You know? What's the definition of that? I was fortunate, I was part of a team with Dan Marino (Marrone was an offensive lineman with the 1987 Dolphins). So was Dan Marino a franchise [quarterback]? And obviously I was in New Orleans with Drew [Brees], and in New York [with the Jets] we had Vinny Testaverde and Chad [Pennington]. What are they? Are they franchise? I'm only asking that.
"We're going to have somebody back there playing that position for us. I don't know what category to put them in.''
There you have it, Bills fans. Marrone may not yet know who his quarterback will be, but you don't have to listen to him long to realize that Buffalo taking a quarterback in either the first or second round is the biggest lock of this year's draft. At the moment, the Bills have just two quarterbacks on their roster: Tarvaris Jackson and Aaron Corp (who Marrone referred to as Andy Corp).
It's a good thing for Marrone and the Bills that it's only mid-March. They still have a bit more time to sort out the most crucial position on their depth chart.
Some rookie head coaches in the NFL are facing steeper challenges than others. Like Chudzinski. The Toledo native and life-long Browns fan just signed on in Cleveland, where he's now competing in the AFC North with the defending Super Bowl champion Ravens, the near-perennial playoff contender in Pittsburgh and the improved Bengals, who have made the postseason in three of the past four seasons, including two in a row. Nothing like upping the degree of difficulty or anything.
Chudzinski doesn't seem daunted by the division he's in, however. He was twice a Browns assistant (2004 tight ends coach, and 2007-08 offensive coordinator), so he knows the lay of the land and the history of Cleveland's one playoff berth (2002) in the 14 years since it rejoined the league.
"I'm an optimistic person, and I believe, I truly believe we're going to win in Cleveland,'' Chudzinski said. "There's a process and some things we have to do, and we have a lot of work to get to that end. But I believe we're going to do it. It starts with [owner] Jimmy Haslam and [team CEO] Joe Banner and [general manager] Mike Lombardi, and the coaches we've been able to put together on staff.
"It's going to happen. We're going to win in Cleveland and why not start now?''
The Browns have won just four or five games for five years running, with a 23-57 record in that span. Chudzinski is the sixth Browns head coach since they started as an 1999 expansion team, and three of his predecessors lasted just two seasons in the job (Chris Palmer, Eric Mangini and Pat Shurmur). Only Romeo Crennel has survived four full seasons as the Browns head coach.
But Chudzinski said if the Browns focus too much on their three powerful division rivals, and not enough on their own rebuilding program, they will only continue to look up at the Ravens, Steelers and Bengals.
"The focus has to be on us, and improving and doing the things we need to do, then hopefully the other things will take care of themselves,'' Chudzinski said. "The challenges are great no matter where you are in this league.''
I like Cleveland's defense, and the work the Browns did in free agency last week, highlighted by their signing of Baltimore outside linebacker Paul Kruger. But until they get their quarterback situation completely solved -- and second-year man Brandon Weeden will have competition this year is all we know at the moment -- it's hard to see Cleveland's offense competing with the likes of Baltimore, Pittsburgh and Cincinnati.
"It's unbelievable,'' Chudzinski said, of the AFC North. "It's a great division. Baltimore wins the Super Bowl this year, Pittsburgh won it in the last few years and been in the playoffs it seems every year. And then Cincinnati made the playoffs the last couple years and they've improved. So it's quite a challenge for us in the division. But we're getting the structure in place, we're getting the right people in place, and hopefully we'll get to the point where, hey, we can compete, and we get a chance to win.''
The Chargers new head coach has been asked a lot already this year how he intends to "fix'' Philip Rivers, after the San Diego quarterback struggled for most of last season. Interestingly, his standard reply is to bring up an object lesson derived from Peyton Manning's low point from 2012, when he and his Broncos trailed 24-0 at halftime in that Week 6 Monday night game in San Diego. The memory is a painful one for Chargers fans, and McCoy must know he's picking at that scab.
In essence, McCoy, who was Manning's offensive coordinator last year in Denver, said that the entire Broncos team underwent some very useful self-reflection during that halftime break in San Diego, wiping the slate clean and starting over in the second half. The Broncos rallied to win that game and improve to 3-3, the first victory in what would become a season-ending 11-game winning streak, earning the AFC's top playoff seed.
Rivers and the Chargers need that same kind of restart, McCoy said, and he intends to show them the way.
"I've tried to tell everyone in San Diego when they asked the same question you just did,'' McCoy said. "Everyone's got to play better around Philip, it's not just him. There are a number of things that have happened in the past, but I wasn't here for all that stuff. I just know with Denver last year, we were getting beat 24-0 and we kind of looked at ourselves a little bit in the mirror as an organization at halftime.
"We had a talk, and we didn't talk anything about football. It was more about, what do we want to do with the rest of our season? And everything took off from there. So it was a matter of everyone understanding, 'Do your job a little bit better,' and that helped Peyton. Peyton played better from that point on, and the entire organization did. That's kind of the same message we've got here. Everybody's got to pick up their game, it's not just Philip.''
Sounds simple enough, but it was clear at times last season that Rivers was pressing, trying to will his team to the success it was once accustomed to. But reality is the Chargers haven't made the playoffs for three years in a row, and their record has dropped from 9-7 in 2010, to 8-8 in 2011, to 7-9 in 2012. McCoy was in large part hired as Norv Turner's successor due to his strong track record with quarterbacks, so now all he has to do is help Rivers return to form much like he helped Manning bounce back last year.
"There aren't any [quarterback] gurus, because once you think you've got it all figured out, it changes in a hurry. I've been very fortunate to work with different types of guys, and you have to adjust to the players you have and what they do well.''
Rivers played as if he were in a rut last season, and McCoy said he saw firsthand how much change reinvigorated Manning's game. It can have the same effect on Rivers, who grew stale in the same offense he had played in for six seasons under Turner, McCoy said.
"He's excited for the change,'' McCoy said of Rivers. "Bringing in [former Cardinals head coach] Ken Whisenhunt, [Rivers] is really excited about the history Ken has had and the success he's had with quarterbacks. I think sometimes as quarterbacks, and a football team, when you hit a little lull, change is good. Peyton coming to Denver last year, that re-energized him, and the same thing can happen here with Philip.
"When you've been in a system for so long, it gets easy. You come to work every day knowing exactly what's going in [the game plan]. Now it's a little bit of a foreign language to start learning. Now it's going back to being a little kid again, that rookie, saying I've got to go home tonight and study. That can help a quarterback.''
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