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The Tale of Two Seasons

Last December at this time, the Falcons were floundering. Here’s how an offhanded comment helped Atlanta fix the problem for 2016. Plus notes on Aaron Rodgers’ rebound, Lane Kiffin’s NFL prospects, Los Angeles’s biggest problem and five names to watch in Week 13

So it was February, about 10 months ago, and the Falcons cut a veteran. That vet packed up and headed down a hallway for the exit. He ran into a younger player, who happened to be in his position group. A little small talk, and as the vet was walking away he nonchalantly said, Hey man, let me grab your number.

Dan Quinn overheard that. And the simple fact that the question had to be asked — that one guy didn’t already know how to get ahold of the other — told him all he needed to know.

“At that point, I knew we weren’t there yet,” the Atlanta coach said from the team facility late Wednesday afternoon. “I was just thinking, ‘How could that be?’”

Quinn had his launching point for a bigger fix that he, at that juncture, became assured his Falcons needed.

No coach knows how a season will play out. But 13 weeks in, Quinn knows the fix has taken hold. And while everyone has wondered if the Falcons’ 2015 meltdown would repeat itself, the leader remained confident his group was better equipped to avoid that fate.

“Honestly, we spent time during the offseason on what was attacking our mental toughness and resilience,” Quinn said. “Because you’re gonna have losses, it’s how you respond. You don’t become relentless until you face those scars, and I’ve gotten my answers through the year. The opening game, the loss to Tampa, was a bummer. But instead of the sky falling, we went to Oakland. And we reset.”

Reset. Remember that word.

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In this week’s Game Plan, we take a look at why the Packers’ Monday night flourish could stand as a real breakthrough, examine the future of the 9:30 a.m. broadcast window, check out what the hot starts of Marcus Mariota and Dak Prescott mean for quarterback scouting, look at some college coaches who could land in the pros and much more.

But we start in Atlanta, and for a specific reason. Last week, as I was watching the early games and getting ready for my Sunday TV work, Atlanta fell behind 7-0, then 10-7 to a proud, desperate Arizona group, yielding a lot of yardage in the process. And I realized: Atlanta already had lost three of five, this would make four of six, and the Chiefs were next. So 6-6 seemed to be on the Falcons’ doorstep.

Turns out, Atlanta won 38-19. And now—what a difference a week makes—you look at Sunday’s Chiefs game and see Kansas City is the last Atlanta opponent left carrying a winning record into December. Now, Quinn isn’t going celebrate that. But he’ll certainly acknowledge progress, and what got him to break his thinking about how 2015 ended.

Even better, he can illustrate a very clear turning point.

During the second week of Phase I of the offseason program, buoyed by seeing that player ask for a position-mate’s number—incredulous that he wouldn’t already have it—Quinn surprised his players by bringing in a group of 10 Navy Seals, all members of Acumen Performance Group. The Seals, Quinn told the guys, would take over for the next four days. (The MMQB’s own Kalyn Kahler chronicled it in April.)

OK, so remember that word “reset”? The Seals explained to the players that when they carry a log in training, and a soldier slips, the others yell RESET! to make sure that the guy who slid has a chance to get his feet back underneath him. So when things go sideways for the Falcons this year: RESET!

It’s just one tool the Seals gave the Falcons that has become part of the team’s heartbeat, and one that’s particularly important in dealing with the kind of rough patches that buried the 2015 group. And it’s another element that fits into the larger theme that would suggest that everyone has the next guy’s phone number.

“When they came in, guys were probably like, ‘Q’s lost his marbles’,” Quinn said. “But it developed that standard of accountability and the bond in the team got stronger and stronger. … It’s how hard they want to play, and play for something bigger. They have that connection. Everyone likes to play, but if you’re gonna have success, it’s gotta be, ‘I’m gonna bust my ass for that guy there, I want to ensure he’ll do well.’

“We all have to be an extension of each other.”

The one tangible product of that April week was an assignment the Seals turned over to the players: create “The Falcon Standard.” It’s spelled out clearly and is in every player’s locker. It’s some big stuff. It’s some little stuff, like keeping a clean locker and not stepping on the logo in the locker room. And it’s something that, as Quinn explains, “we talk about on a regular basis. Players holding each other to it.”

It’s December, so the Falcons don’t discuss last year’s collapse anymore. But earlier in the year, Quinn didwant to see something to make sure the team was past it. He got it after Atlanta fell to San Diego in Week 7, the Falcons’ second straight loss after a four-game win streak.

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“There wasn’t a sense of ‘here we go again’, it was just, ‘let’s go kick ass’,” Quinn said. “We know what our identity is. That was a long trip to the West Coast [Denver, then Seattle], and we came back and lost that game, but we knew how tight we were. And this became about us.”

As he hoped they would, the Falcons reset, then outlasted the Packers in Week 8.

Everything’s not perfect, of course. But what’s becoming pretty obvious now is that the vision Quinn had when he got to Georgia two Januarys ago is coming to life. And that counts for plenty, given what he overheard last offseason in the hallway that made him wonder when the Falcons would get there.

Simples way to describe the difference: Quinn calls the 2015 Falcons a “neighborhood”, and the 2016 Falcons a “brotherhood”.

“I feel like we’re a lot closer to the identity we’d like to have,” he said. “We wanted to make sure we were attacking in all three phases, aggressive on offense, defense and special teams, make sure we outhit people. We want the effort to jump out, and people who see us play see a style where the city gets behind us, and can say, ‘these guys ball.’ We’re moving closer to that.

“That starts with connection between the players—every great team I’ve been around has it. We’re closer to that. And the cool part is, the players see it too.”

In a lot of ways, they’re living it. And life is certainly better now than it was last December.

• THE FINE FIFTEEN: Jenny Vrentas’s Week 13 Power Rankings

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Tom Brady will be interesting to watch against the Rams for two reasons. One, he can become the winningest quarterback of all time. And two, it’s worth keeping an eye on his gimpy left quad/knee.

• Can Jameis Winston and the Bucs handle prosperity? They’ll be going for the franchise’s first four-game win streak since 2012. Before that, they last won four straight during Jon Gruden’s final season, 2008.

• Interested to see how the Bengals hang together against Philly with things going south (four straight without a win), and how guys like Vontaze Burfict conduct themselves. That should say something about where the program stands in a tough year.

• The resurgent Bills benefited big-time having Sammy Watkins back on Sunday. He suffered a setback Wednesday though, and so his status this week is certainly worth monitoring.

• We’ve discussed the importance of the Miami offensive line here plenty, and so having Branden Albert back to deal with the fearsome Ravens defense should loom large.

• HOLIDAY GIFT GUIDE—APPAREL: Dominic Bonvissuto shares picks on everything from hoodies and hats to jackets and jerseys, for men, women and kids

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1. Rodgers’ rebound for real? Sometimes the simplest things a coach tells you about his team ring truest. And that’s why when I looked back at my conversation with Green Bay coach Mike McCarthy, and looked closer at the Packers’ win over Philadelphia on Sunday, it started to hit me that there was, in fact, a genuine breakthrough here. Take this from McCarthy: “The biggest thing to me, on offense, is our turnovers—in the games we lost, we turned it over—and big-play production. … I think we’re on the upswing. The big-play production, we’ve been close of late, and we’re taking care of the ball. We had one turnover against Indy, zero against Atlanta. And then if you look at the statistics, we haven’t had the big plays on first down. We’ve had opportunities. But you have to make the big plays in this league, and we’ve had a number of chances that we’re close on.”

OK, so the turnover problem resurfaced against the Titans and Redskins, and those games dropped the Packers to 0-5 in games in which they’ve lost the turnover battle, but the big plays started to come. And then on Monday night it all came together. The Packers didn’t turn it over, and consistently struck downfield. Aaron Rodgers’ dime to Davante Adams for the game’s first touchdown was a 20-yarder that was a true downfield throw—into the corner of the end zone—and came on first down. Ditto for the 50-yard strike to Adams down the right sideline early in the third quarter. And in the fourth quarter, having made those first-down plays earlier, the Packers were able to dial them up when they really needed them—with a deep in-cut to Jordy Nelson going for 22 yards to convert a third-and-12, and a deep comeback to Nelson going for 21 yards to convert a fourth-and-5 and effectively put the game away.

This stuff, of course, isn’t the extent of Green Bay’s problems. The defense still needs work, even after holding a pedestrian Eagles offense to 13 points. Rodgers and the offense, at least as other teams see it, need to do a better job generating plays on schedule from the pocket, which they did Monday. But what there should be little question about is that there is plenty of good for the team to take into December after the way they played in Philly.

2. NFL will discuss the 9:30 a.m. London window.Over the next two to three weeks, the NFL’s international arm will map out what 2017 will look like, deciding whether to play three or four games in London, and whether to go back to Mexico City (it looks like they very much want to), and figuring out the logistics. And part of the discussion will be about what to do with the 9:30 a.m. window for games in the United Kingdom. That talk will be complex. “Ultimately we have a decision to make, and that’s whether the games have to perform to U.S. ratings expectations,” said NFL EVP of International Mark Waller. “Are we playing them for the U.S. or U.K.? There’s no doubt, from a U.S. perspective, playing a 9:30 Eastern game is not putting the best interest of, for example, the Rams’ fan base first. But it did give the U.K. fans a chance to watch the Rams and the Giants in the first non-rugby game at Twickenham, which was a monumental occasion, on a Sunday afternoon. So we will have a very robust conversation across the entire organization about how we balance growing in U.K. with the needs of the U.S. fan base and media. It’s a tough thing to balance. …  [The early window, at 2:30 p.m. London time] is the perfect time in the UK—it’s the traditional sporting window there. It’s fan friendly, it’s team friendly in that the teams can fly out Sunday night and get back to the U.S., and it’s media friendly in the U.K. If our goal is to grow in the U.K., that’s the right time to play. If our goal is to maximize the U.S. fan’s ability to follow their teams, the early window is not ideal, and from a U.S. ratings perspective, it probably doesn’t help ratings.”

To Waller, this is simply a byproduct of the success of the series, which he says continued this year. “We played half a [home schedule] internationally, and if you take a step back and put that in context of our international agenda, it’s pretty amazing that we had over 300,000 fans at those four games.” As for what’s next, whether the league can logistically make a fourth U.K. game in 2017 work is near the top of the agenda, as is testing London in different ways. The league would like to get more volunteers to go to London without the bye, as the Colts did this year, and try to play games in back-to-back weeks in the same venue next year. And in Mexico, part of the discussion with a 2017 return will be timing—and whether to do it again on a Monday night, or if that was too much to put on the Raiders and Texans during Thanksgiving to try again. Further out, there will be discussion about 2018, with chances remaining that a game could be played in Canada, Germany or China.

3. Time to change how we look at QBs? It’s inarguable that Dallas’ Dak Prescott and Tennessee’s Marcus Mariota are among the most impressive young quarterbacks in football, and there’s something that’s pretty notable about that. Both are less than two years separated from having run a college spread offense. You can throw Oakland’s Derek Carr into the group too, since he spent the great majority of his time at Fresno State running a spread. And then take a look at the recent history of first-round pro-style-raised passers—Christian Ponder, Andrew Luck, EJ Manuel, Teddy Bridgewater, Blake Bortles, Jameis Winston and Carson Wentz. What’s to learn here? Maybe that the type of the offense a college quarterback comes out of isn’t predictive of pro success, and that even goes for early success.

One college scouting director admitted it got him with Prescott. “He’s smart, was working on his master’s, players gravitate to him, he’s a hard worker, a leader, he was wired right. And I missed on him because I saw Tim Tebow. It’s Tebow’s offense, and I was thinking the mechanics are similar, so I missed that he has better instincts and feel than Tebow ever did.” Another scout, sizing up Mariota and Prescott, added that “the common denominator with those guys—they both have the mental capacity. They were able to make progressions, read coverages and make intelligent decisions in college. So when the bullets fly on Sunday, it’s not moving too fast. Dak’s arm talent was very average. The reason Dak is successful is because he’s smart and a good decision-maker, and can think under fire. That’s difficult to project sometimes. They can be robotic in that system, so you almost have to get your hands on them to really know.” And by that, the scout meant, you have to have months of time with a quarterback, not just a couple workouts and interviews in the spring to build off their college file.

This, of course, doesn’t make finding a quarterback any easier. But it does explain why when you hear someone dismiss a quarterback this spring as a “spread guy,” you probably shouldn’t stop asking questions.

4. Rams’ offensive line problems persist. Todd Gurley has rushed for 641 yards on 200 caries in his second season, and the Rams’ supposed offensive centerpiece didn’t suddenly forget how to run the ball. Jared Goff didn’t get into the lineup until late November, and his readiness for the NFL isn’t the only reason why. The problem here is deeper and won’t be easy to fix. The offensive line is an unmitigated mess, and the offensive design hasn’t been creative enough to mask it. The situation boiled over last week when former second overall pick Greg Robinson was scratched for the team’s loss in New Orleans. At Robinson’s pro day in 2014, his coaches warned teams that it’d take the physically imposing prospect time to learn to play in the pros, given that Auburn was only running a handful of run plays and a handful of protections. The fact is, Robinson hasn’t shown the mental capacity to get there since, and that has led to growing problems with consistency and penalties. “He’s not instinctive, and he panics at the top of the rush,” said one Rams source. “That’s why you see the dumb penalties. A lot of the penalties come when they’re not really necessary.” And that has prevented Robinson from leveraging his athleticism, which remains considerable.

Elsewhere, the Rams are starting 2015 draft picks Jamon Brown, Cody Wichmann and Rob Havenstein, and had right tackle Rodger Saffold (who signed a lucrative five-year deal in 2014) flip sides against the Saints. Add it up, and there has been a major investment made in making that area better. And the fact that there’s been so little progress there has spilled over to affect players like Gurley and Goff, which certainly means that there could be changes coming after the season in positions that aren’t just filled by players.

• THE BEST AND WORST OFFENSIVE LINES: Andy Benoit breaks down the film to find the answer

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• I’ll give you an interesting name as an NFL offensive-coordinator candidate that you’ve heard before: Alabama’s Lane Kiffin. Despite all the craziness attached to his name, it’s almost undeniable that he’s done great in Tuscaloosa. He’s got pro-style roots but was able to subtly turn Bama into a Tom Herman-style spread team around a true-freshman quarterback, which isn’t easy to do. And he may be on the doorstep of a second national title. Trust me when I say this: NFL people respect the job he’s done there. “I think he’d instantly upgrade an NFL offense, he’s arguably one of the best offensive minds in the game,” said one area scout assigned to the Tide. “He’s able to adapt in terms of personnel. The offense this year is completely different in style and play-calling than it was last year with [Derrick] Henry.” If Kiffin doesn’t land at LSU, expect him to get some calls from the pros.

• Whether or not the deal that Oakland is putting together to try to keep the Raiders winds up coming close to what’s waiting for them in Vegas remains to be seen. And Raiders owner Mark Davis is on record saying that he plans to apply to relocate to Vegas in January. But I’d expect the league to maintain strong interest in what Oakland’s doing, for a very specific reason—they very much want to keep a foothold in the North Bay. With the Niners’ move to Santa Clara, the league believes there’s opportunity for the Raiders to grow their fan base in that very affluent section of the Bay Area, and it’s important for the league too since Oakland is much more accessible to those communities than Santa Clara.

•  Speaking of the Raiders, they’ve got a little spending to do over the next few months. The CBA set cash-spending floors for teams over two four-year periods—2013-16 and 2017-20. Over each of those, every club must spend to 89 percent of the cap in cash. And with the end of the first period upon us (to clarify from the earlier edition of the story, they have until the end of the league year in March) , the NFLPA will release figures this week that show the Raiders are the only team that hasn’t yet reached the threshold, according to a union source. Oakland is close and may be able to get there naturally as players hit incentives over the coming weeks, and have players like Derek Carr and Khalil Mack that would be worth extending and will be eligible for new deals as soon as the season ends. Also, the requirement that the league-wide spend exceed 95 percent of the cap over that four-year period has already been met. All of this means each team spent in excess of a half-billion dollars on players between 2013 and ’16, and players have taken home a total of around $17 billion total in cash over that time.

• THE RAIDERS’ ROUGH ROAD: Peter King on how the schedule-makers did Oakland no favors with a difficult stretch to end the season

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1. Alabama DL Jonathan Allen (vs. Florida, SEC Championship, CBS, 4 p.m. ET): The most dominant player on the nation’s most imposing defense, the listed 6'3", 294-pound Allen is not ideal in some ways for the pro game. But he’s so good in other ways that it doesn’t matter. “He’s a really good football player,” said an AFC college scouting director. “He isn’t a big hulking guy—average height, average weight, not long enough to play end. But he maxes out everything he has. Tough, great hands, instinctive, a really good athlete, motor, balance, bend, everything. The only thing he lacks is size. He will run good [at the combine], but he won’t light it up. But his motor, leverage, hand use, he can rush the passer, he’s stout versus the run. He’s just a good all-around player. I can’t say he’ll be a dominant force in the NFL, but he’s just the type of guy you win with. A first-rounder all the way.”

This evaluator said Allen is a better athlete than the two Bama defensive linemen—Detroit’s A’Shawn Robinson and Seattle’s Jarran Reed—who came out last year and have become immediate NFL contributors, though Allen is not as physically imposing. On top of that, based on character, the smart money says Allen will keep working in the pros, as he has in college, which makes him the quintessential “high floor” type of prospect that some team won’t regret taking down the line. And this week, scouts get to see him play against a pro-style offense on a big stage.

2. Oklahoma WR Dede Westbrook (vs. Oklahoma State, FOX, 12:30 p.m. ET): One of the nation’s breakout stars, this former junior-college stud has caught 70 balls for 1,354 yards and 15 touchdowns in 11 games, catapulting himself into the discussion for the Biletnikoff Award and onto the radar of scouts. “The rise that he’s made, it’s unbelievable,” said one area scout assigned to the Sooners. “Last year was his first at a big-time program, and he was inconsistent—drops, it didn’t seem like he was aware on the field, he looked unnatural. He’s a totally different player now, and he’s talented to begin with. They’ve done a great job coaching him. He’s pretty good in all areas now—hands, he’s more confident, he’s catching the ball better, and there’s a little something about him. He could go really high.”

The biggest problem with Westbrook is his slight frame. Even his listed height/weight—6-foot, 176 pounds—reflects that, which is why some evaluators look at him as a poor man’s DeSean Jackson. The good news is that, like Jackson, Westbrook brings plenty of versatility to the table, excelling in the return game and bringing an ability to play inside and out on offense. So even if he could use a cheeseburger or two, Westbrook’s got plenty of promise.

• LSU AS DBU: Robert Klemko on the Tigers’ defensive back tradition and the latest top prospect ready to make the jump to the NFL

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Northwestern’s Pat Fitzgerald might be a good fit if the Bears’ head-coaching job opens.

Northwestern’s Pat Fitzgerald might be a good fit if the Bears’ head-coaching job opens.

According to data compiled by Forbes, only 12 of the 117 head coaches hired by NFL teams since 2000 came directly from the college ranks. And things have slowed to a near standstill of late. After six such hires (Pete Carroll, Jim Harbaugh, Greg Schiano, Chip Kelly, Doug Marrone, Bill O’Brien) in the first half of this decade, there have been none in the last two hiring cycles.

So what gives? A couple things, according to a few people in the know.

First, of the names listed above, five could be considered crossover coaches (Kelly is the exception) with experience at both levels. Now? There are fewer of those with the more recent proliferation of the NFL “lifer”—coaches who start as grunt workers in their 20s and simply climb the pro football ladder. That’s depleted the pool.

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Second, NFL jobs aren’t necessarily more attractive than college jobs to coaches anymore. The difference in pay is small, if it’s there at all (it’s common for coordinators at blue-blood programs to make seven figures). And while college coaches have to deal with the thorny fields of recruiting, they have more control and better job security, in most cases, than they ever would in the pros.

Of course, all of this is cyclical. The success of Carroll and Harbaugh certainly didn’t hurt Kelly or Marrone or O’Brien, and if there is another from-college hire that works, you can bet a few more would follow.

With that in mind, and the college season wrapping up, I figured we’d come up with a list of guys who could reverse the trend. And for this one I focused on guys who have done more with less. (So we can eliminate obvious names like Nick Saban, Urban Meyer, Jimbo Fisher and Harbaugh). Here are five who have …

• Paul Chryst, Wisconsin: Chryst’s team will play for the Big Ten title and went toe-to-toe with Michigan and Ohio State in its two losses. His brother, Geep, is a long-time NFL assistant; Paul coached three years in the NFL, his systems are adaptable, he’s been a success at two programs, and his family has connections to the Harbaughs. That said, Wisconsin is home for him, so getting him to leave wouldn’t be easy.

• Pat Fitzgerald, Northwestern: Long a favorite of scouts, Fitzgerald has been in charge for 11 years, and only turns 42 this Friday. And he’s 76-62 at a program that lacks top-shelf Big Ten resources. NFL people respect his football acumen, his rapport with players and how his teams outperform their talent level. Given his Chicago roots, perception holds that the Bears job is the one that would really entice him.

• Tom Herman, Texas:Since he’s now in Austin, this is the last time he can appear on a list like this, but Herman’s work at Houston was noticed to the point where he was on two NFL teams’ preliminary search lists last year. As one scout described him, in addition to Herman’s program-building skill, “he’s got the most well-rounded package of emotional and intellectual makeup for the NFL.”

• Chris Petersen, Washington: He’s 118-25 as a head coach and has resurrected an old power. And the Huskies are loaded with NFL talent, despite Petersen’s first three recruiting classes ranking 37th, 31st and 37th nationally (per, which tells you he can evaluate and develop talent. He’s still just 52, and he runs a tight ship, so the question would be if he could handle the NFL spotlight and personalities.

• David Shaw, Stanford: Saddled with the task of following Jim Harbaugh, Shaw has actually helped Stanford take the next step, winning three Pac-12 titles and two Rose Bowls. He was an NFL assistant for nine years and helped develop Andrew Luck and Kevin Hogan in Palo Alto. There is some skepticism remaining from his NFL years, but the big question here really is whether he’d leave his alma mater.

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