The Baltimore Ravens and Atlanta Falcons are exceeding expectations, but are they also setting a dangerous precedent?
In my new career with the media, I find it difficult to throw away the preconceived notions I have about a team or a player coming into the season. Nowhere is this more evident than when I look at what is taking place in Baltimore and Atlanta. Week after week I think these teams can't possibly be this good with a rookie head coach and rookie quarterback. On an almost weekly basis, they prove me wrong.
I thought, like most people, the Falcons would win about four games this season. After seeing the Ravens offense during training camp, I was pretty sure there was no way, no matter how well the defense played, Baltimore would win more than eight games. Yet, here we are, nine games into the season, and both teams are in contention for division titles with matching 6-3 records. Their success has owners in places like Detroit, Kansas City, St. Louis and elsewhere looking very closely at the rookie head coach and first-round quarterback experiment.
It's a copycat league, right? So all you need do is get a new head coach and draft a quarterback and immediate success can be yours, right? Not hardly. Even the principals involved realize theirs is not a fool-proof plan.
"What we are doing is the exception," said long-time Falcons linebacker Keith Brooking, who has seen his fair share of organization restructuring over the years. "This is too good to be true, but this is what this league has become. The talent is so close that a couple of key moves can be the difference."
"I wouldn't say it is necessarily a great formula for winning," said Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco, "but if you get the right guys you can get the job done."
But therein lies the problem. What Flacco and Matt Ryan are doing with coaches John Harbaugh and Mike Smith, respectively, is turning upside down everything most NFL people thought. Franchise-building is supposed to take time, especially when quarterbacks who just got out of the dorms are paired with previously non-descript coaches. For reminders, they need only look back at the Mike Nolan-Alex Smith combination in San Francisco or Lane Kiffin and JaMarcus Russell in Oakland.
The secret to Atlanta's and Baltimore's success is obviously not simply having hired a new coach and drafting a quarterback in the first round. Rather, it was in hiring the right coach and the right quarterback.
Ravens center Jason Brown said he knew Flacco was the right guy early on because, "You could see spurts of brilliance from him. He is going to keep his foot planted and step into the throw and deliver the ball even when he knows he is going to get hit. It is the test of a man, really, and he is a man. He's not scared."
If anything, it's the rest of the league that needs to be scared of how good the Falcons and Ravens might become.
Status among players in NFL locker rooms is determined by a number of factors, including production on the field, contract numbers and longevity in the league and on a particular team. The Saints' Jeremy Shockey found that out firsthand last Sunday when Drew Brees publicly dressed down the flamboyant former New York Giant.
Shockey was well established in New York by the time Eli Manning came into the fold, so he felt he had the upper hand every time a conflict arose concerning certain routes or whether or not Manning was getting him the ball enough. Manning's reserved demeanor certainly played a part in the aggressive Shockey's behavior as well.
Brees, however, is the face of the franchise in New Orleans and he can have a fiery personality when necessary, which he exhibited on the sidelines during his discussion with Shockey. It is all about winning for Brees and he will not tolerate guys who aren't doing what they are supposed to do.
Brees showed Shockey who wears the proverbial pants in their relationship.
I know this story is a week old, but I still can't help smiling every time I get the image in my head of Jack Del Rio and the rest of the Jaguars coaches meeting to discuss what to do about the locker room in Jacksonville. There is no doubt that the act of shuffling the deck, so to speak, may have contributed to some renewed vigor on the part of the Jags, but coaches in the NFL have a long history of over-coaching when it comes to their players' psyche.
Can you just imagine Del Rio with a chart on the white board at 1 a.m., trying to figure out if he should put John Henderson next to offensive lineman Tony Pashos or placekicker Josh Scobee? I would have loved being a fly on the wall as they discussed who to move where and the reasoning behind it.
"Henderson lost his composure against the Bengals," I envision Del Rio saying. "We should move him next to Scobee, who has been calm under pressure so far this season."