It’s been a rough start to the season for Colin Kaepernick’s 49ers, Bill O'Brien’s Texans and EJ Manuel’s Bills.
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While five unbeatens dominate the power rankings, five other erstwhile contenders are plagued by discord and dissent. Let’s put that chaos in order

By Don Banks
October 28, 2015

It’s Week 8, and the NFL has not been shy to trumpet that in its 96-year history it has never gone this deep into a season with so many undefeated teams. New England, Green Bay, Denver, Carolina and Cincinnati are all sitting pretty at 6-0, and that makes everyone’s power rankings the most top-heavy in memory. A fearsome fivesome, if you will.

But I’ll tell you what also feels absolutely unprecedented, and that’s the amount of ugly discord out there, which is impossible to miss as NFL 2015 approaches midseason. Forget the top of the power rankings and take stock of the league’s dissension rankings. Because they too go five deep, are just as fascinating to contemplate and may even present the tougher calls.

Who you got at No. 1? Indianapolis (3-4), on the strength of its season-long behind-the-scenes melodrama featuring the dysfunctional triangle of lame-duck head coach Chuck Pagano, short-tempered general manager Ryan Grigson and unpredictable team owner Jim Irsay? We already know Pagano and Grigson butt heads, but now comes word that the GM and the owner had a “heated conversation’’ after the team’s most recent loss, in which the Colts fell behind 27-0 at home to the Saints on Sunday before rallying to make it a game. Hey, at least they’re still talking.

As for Pagano, three straight playoff trips or not, he already seems destined to lose that bet he made on himself this year, and the feel-good vibe of 2012’s “Chuckstrong” storyline seems like a distant memory. There’s a whole lot of angst in Indy this season, and can you imagine how testy things might be if the Colts weren’t in first place?

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What do you think about San Francisco at No. 2? I mean, after all, the 49ers (2-5) have been the epicenter of dysfunction for two years running now in the NFL, and these people certainly know their way home from here. As it turns out, it apparently wasn’t Jim Harbaugh’s fault after all. I’m sure Trent Baalke and Jed York have called to tell him that.

The 49ers are a certifiable mess. No one seems to know for sure if enigmatic quarterback Colin Kaepernick has support or contempt coming from his own locker room; the organization seems overmatched in every way, from the front office on down; and new head coach Jim Tomsula prefers to liken his club’s recent “heated” team meeting to a scene from an Italian restaurant. Or something like that. Can’t we all just get along?

“The biggest thing I said to them was, ‘Guys, it’s like an Italian dining room table,’ ” Tomsula said on his weekly KNBR radio show. “Everybody’s sitting around the table, and sometimes it gets heated, dishes get broken, people leave. [But] everybody’s got to come back to the table to eat. And when it’s all said and done, we’re hugging and kissing and we’re eating good food again.”

I get it. It’s ”Moonstruck,” Bay Area-style. Without the wedding in the end.



For now I’m going with Houston (2-5) at No. 3, but this is a team that really has a chance to move up as the season goes on. Because who knows how deeply the difference of opinion might really be between coach Bill O’Brien and general manager Rick Smith, and how far it extends past the botched Ryan Mallett episode? It only takes one careless spark to start a raging forest fire.


Quite understandably, O’Brien reportedly wanted Mallett gone as soon as the disgruntled backup quarterback missed the team’s charter flight to Miami last Saturday, even if it meant leaving only Brian Hoyer and a freshly signed team ball boy on the QB depth chart for the Dolphins game. Smith is said to have blocked the move of whacking Mallett, at least until he was let go late Monday, which raises the question of just who is running the show for these Texans? And we don’t mean “Hard Knocks,” which come to think of it was the last time the Texans were remotely watchable.

I have to put Dallas (2-4) at No. 4, but then prepare for Jerry Jones, Jason Garrett and everybody else wearing the Cowboys’ star to tell me why Greg Hardy’s sideline fire and passion should not be confused with friction or a lack of harmony. You have to admit Hardy’s team leadership has a funny way of showing itself, but really, what was special teams coordinator Rich Bisaccia doing carrying a clipboard anyway in this day and age of tablets and advanced sideline technology? He was almost asking to get it slapped out of his hands, and then shoved. Or is that too much enabling for even Dallas to stomach?

The Cowboys may not wish to see Hardy’s anger and antics as any sign of contention or division, but I know this: If they keep allowing that tone-deaf jughead to set the narrative of their season, they’re going to be quickly out of contention in their division. If they’re not already.

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Don’t worry, I didn’t forget Buffalo (3-4). I’ve got the Bills locked in at No. 5 as they enter their bye week. Buffalo is a just a thick, ill-tasting stew these days. General manager Doug Whaley is still trying to make his wasted EJ Manuel first-round pick of 2013 work, but that ship has sailed. The Bills really could have used the steadier hand of veteran backup quarterback Matt Cassel in Sunday’s agonizing loss to Jacksonville in London, and we suspect head coach Rex Ryan would have preferred keeping Cassel as Tyrod Taylor’s No. 2, but Cassel is now caught up in Dallas’ dysfunction, with games to help lose for someone else’s team.

Whaley and Ryan clearly are not on the same page in terms of the roster, and that was a near-record honeymoon the couple had in terms of brevity. Seven games into this new era in Bills history, Whaley looks like he won’t overcome the failed Manuel pick and the ultra-costly Sammy Watkins trade, or the perception that he hasn’t been able to work cohesively with either Doug Marrone or Ryan, the two coaches new owner Terry Pegula has employed.

Not that Ryan is blameless in this saga. Far from it. The defensive guru has a defense that has seriously regressed from last year’s greatness, his big talk and bravado is already ringing hollow in Western New York, and his own guys, key players like Mario Williams and Marcel Dareus, have called him out and criticized how they were being used in his defense. Rex can’t get his team to stop killing itself with penalties, can’t get anyone to stay healthy and can’t seem to get anyone interested in trading for Percy Harvin, which is supposed to happen every year around now.

The bottom line in the NFL this season is that there’s a bevy of strife and conflict at work, and a lot of it is with teams that were supposed to be among the league’s best this year. Indianapolis was considered a strong Super Bowl contender. Dallas, with a healthy Tony Romo, had designs on making it to Santa Clara as well. Buffalo underwent a massive overhaul and was a chic pick to finally end its playoff drought, and the Texans were seen as a young, ascending team coming off a 9-7 mark in O’Brien’s first season.

But instead, discord and dissension rule the day. The top of the league remains unbeaten. A good portion of the rest of the league is coming unglued.

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