THE MODERATOR: Welcome to today’s call to discuss this weekend’s Sunday Night Football as the Green Bay Packers visit the Denver Broncos in the NFL’s ever first primetime meeting between teams that are 6-0 or better. Joining us on today’s call, Football Night in America analyst, Rodney Harrison, who was a member of three teams that opened 6-0. All three went to the Super Bowl.
Also joining us Sunday Night Football analyst, Cris Collinsworth, whose 1988 Bengals team shuffled to a 6-0 start en route to the Super Bowl. And Football Night in America analyst, Tony Dungy, who played for the 1978 Steelers team that opened 7-0 on the way to a Super Bowl win, and as a head coach three of his teams opened 7-0 or better, with the 2006 Colts winning the Super Bowl. With that we will take an opening comment from each on this weekend’s game, and then we will open it for questions.
RODNEY HARRISON: I think we’re all excited about this week’s game. A lot of intrigue, a lot of fascination, two really great quarterbacks that have had tremendous careers coming off byes. I think when I look at this game, the Denver Broncos, and Peyton Manning in particular, have a lot more to prove than the Green Bay Packers.
Peyton has a lot of questions about his arm and his arm strength, and they have had some struggling on the offensive line – just a bunch of different questions about that team. The one thing that no one questions is how tough that defense is. I think it’s going to be a great opportunity for us to sit back and watch a great offense versus a great defense and we will see what happens on Sunday night.
CRIS COLLINSWORTH: I was just thinking how relieved I was to have at least one team that started 6-0, but like everybody else, we’re excited about this game. We think this is one of those classic match ups, and depending on what happens in playoffs or whatever, may be the last time we ever get to see these two great quarterbacks facing off against each other.
I know for all of the conversation that is going to be around Peyton Manning and what he is doing and what he is not doing, I just got finished watching the tapes, and there is a lot to talk about with that really is. There were at least three times the Cleveland Browns basically dared Peyton Manning to throw comeback routes across the field, so if he was on the right hash, the cornerback on the far side of the field would basically play off and inside. Say if you want to throw a comeback, throw it, and he threw three really good ones in that game.
Maybe to prove a point, maybe just because it was open, I have no idea. Now, he made some bad mental decisions in that game, which were sort of uncharacteristic of what we’ve seen from Peyton Manning in the past. But certainly there is enough there, and then the long touchdown pass to Emmanuel Sanders as well, so for me personally, I’ve got my own theories on what’s going on. Is his arm what it was when he was playing for Tony Dungy? Probably not. Is it time to put him out to pasture? I don’t think we’re there yet either, though.
TONY DUNGY: I’m really excited about this game. Two teams, 6-0, and both teams coming off a bye, which from a coach’s standpoint is interesting. I know when you’re rolling like that and winning, you really don’t want to stop playing. You want to keep going and see if you can continue to string things together, but both teams have had a chance to study themselves and study the opponent, so I think we’re going to see some little wrinkles that will really make the game interesting.
The other thing that is exciting to me is we’ve got not only great quarterbacks, but you’ve got two outstanding defenses. As much as we will talk about the quarterbacks this week and as much as we will talk about them on Sunday night, the pass rushes on both sides, the corners on both sides, I think those groups are going to win the game. The offense will play well, the quarterbacks will do what they do. Whose defense can come up with the plays to change the game, that’s what I’m look forward to seeing.
Hey, Tony, we have seen Peyton Manning at times this season look just absolutely not like himself and just never good. But in crunch time he always seems to come through. What’s your take on this season so far and what’s going on?
TONY DUNGY: It’s strange to see them go 15 drives without scoring a touchdown and to see 22 incompletions in one game. That’s something I’m not used to seeing, but as Cris mentioned, I can look at it and some of it is just timing and not having that chemistry with the receivers, running a little bit different offense, some of it is balls not coming off his hand well. But I’ve seen enough throws in the money situations where they need them, and it seems like especially in the two minute situations, in crunch time, when they’re playing up-tempo, you see better rhythm.
So, I think it’s probably a combination of a lot of things, but trying to get used to this offense as much as any.
Rodney and Tony, just a question for both you guys, playing in this type of game, you’ve got two undefeated teams playing on primetime. Do you feel like you have to talk to your team or as a player do you get too hyped up that this game may take you out of your element?
RODNEY HARRISON: I look at the teams I’ve played for and we always had a good mixture of veteran players as well as young guys that really understood, obviously, it’s not just another game. They understood the importance of the game but at the same time they understood that you can’t get overwhelmed by the moment.
I think that message comes down from the head coach, it’s echoed from the very first day of training camp, every day that you’re basically practicing, it gets echoed. There is always a sense of urgency to improve on things that you need to work on, but the veterans take that message.
It’s all in preparation. When you’ve been there before, when you’ve had success, you kind of get used to dealing with it, so when I look at both of these teams, both of these teams have had success; it’s no surprise that they’re 6-0. I think we all picked both of these teams to start fast and to play well this year, so it’s really no surprise. I don’t think with the veteran players and the leadership that they have on both sides, that it’s something that’s going to overwhelm them.
TONY DUNGY: This game is a little different. When I was with the Colts, and we played Rodney’s team, they’re undefeated, we’re undefeated, we knew them well. We played them five or six times in the previous three years, and both sides knew whoever loses this game, you’re going to have to go to the other place in the playoffs, so there was a lot riding on it.
This is a little different. These teams haven’t played each other in four years now. They haven’t played them when Peyton was with Denver, so this is a new experience and you’re only playing them once.
It really is one game and to stay undefeated, unlike where there is so much riding on it if both teams are in the same conference.
For Cris, you said you had your theories about Peyton. How much of this is derived by Gary Kubiak deciding to implement his own offense and not really modeling it after what Peyton is used to or what he’s good at?
CRIS COLLINSWORTH: A little bit, I think it does have a little something to do with it. It always felt like Peyton was completely in control. We used to accuse him of going in a little room somewhere on Monday and when the puff of white smoke came out, the game plan was distributed to the coaching staff from there, and of course that wasn’t the case, but it was always good for a little bit of fun.
I thought Tony hit on one of the keys, too, in that this was a team that when they had a Julius Thomas they could put him to one side, they could put Demaryius Thomas and Emanuel Sanders to the other side. You either covered one side, left one side uncovered in man, and if you tried to cover both sides, then C.J. Anderson and Ronnie Hillman could eat you up running the football.
You take Julius Thomas out of that mix, and Emanuel Sanders out of that mix with the shoulder injury, and all of the sudden you’ve got young players. You’ve got Jordan Norwood, who they tried to hit on a back shoulder for a first down in that game that was completely mistimes, Peyton thought he was going to stop at the first down marker, he didn’t. Cody Latimer, he tried to hit him on a comeback route, one on one, on third down. He wasn’t even close to being open.
Bennie Fowler is playing a lot right now, so not only do you take Julius Thomas out of the mix, and not only is your offensive line completely reshuffled, plus Ryan Clady not being there from the beginning, and Ty Sambralio was hurt in that game, Ryan Harris playing the left tackle, Evan Mathis, who’s got a hamstring injury, and I love Evan Mathis as a player, but that pass game he was a shell of what I’ve seen from him, because he couldn’t move!
When you look at a team that’s undefeated and they’re not scoring the number of points that they’re used to scoring you go, it’s the quarterback, right? I mean, that’s what we all do. So I think there is a lot more to it. They’re playing well on defense. I think as both these teams get healthy, and I’m talking about the Packers as well, here, they are playing one hand tied behind their back with some of their skilled position injuries that you’re going to see both these teams get better and better as we go along.
TONY DUNGY: I know Peyton is a creature of habit, and it’s not always good, but that’s what he is. The first two years that I saw him play in Denver, I don’t know what they called the plays, but I could call a number of the pass plays, most of them, and I recognized the routes. Now it’s different, so that’s new for him as well as new receivers.
I saw timing had to grow with our receivers from Reggie Wayne’s first year to his fifth or sixth year, completely different chemistry with him, and every guy that came in there, just trying to find out how they run routes, how they’re going to make their breaks. So it’s not just a matter of how fast you can throw the football or how accurate, but for him it is, a lot of confidence and timing and comfortableness. That’s what’s missing right now from what I can see.
Gary Kubiak was essentially run out of Houston for doing things like saying, “It’s on me” when the team did not do well, and now he obviously is having some success in Denver, and Bill O’Brien is saying, “It’s on me” as the team falls down 40 something points for the second time in three weeks.
Would you have any observations on what Kubiak has been able to do in Denver and any thoughts, as a corollary to that, in terms of what’s happened to the Texans with a team that’s fallen down by 40 points twice in two weeks and you have a backup quarterback who can’t get to the team plane on time? For anybody.
RODNEY HARRISON: As far as Houston, and I had the displeasure of watching that game yesterday on my tablet, and what I see is just a team that’s completely discouraged. I think you look at Bill O’Brien, and I think he kind of started all this stuff, I mean, from the summertime naming the starter, then switching back and forth. I played on a 16-0 team, and I’ve been on 1-15 team, where we had the first place defense but we had the last place offense, and it’s discouraging for your team when you don’t know who is going to be your quarterback from week-to-week.
It’s no excuse the way they played on the defensive side of the ball. You saw some of their key players not even hustling. One guy in particular who I love, Brian Cushing, I saw him kind of loaf on a couple of plays, and it was surprising to me that a guy that had a reputation of work ethic and things like that, to loaf on a couple plays. Vince Wilfork, love him to death, but he is not the same player. He just absolutely has no impact. Jadeveon Clowney, he looks like he’s hurt. J.J. Watt hasn’t been a factor. This team isn’t very good, and no matter what type of scheme you put there if you have guys that don’t want to tackle, missing tackles in open field, guys who have completely checked out, then I don’t know what else you can do.
You can cut Ryan Mallett, yes, he probably deserved that, but there is probably a bunch of other guys that deserved to be on that same train as Ryan. So that’s something he’s going to have to deal with internally. But when I looking at Houston I’m very disappointed, because I really thought they would be a lot better than what they are now.
TONY DUNGY: I will speak to Gary Kubiak. Gary is a very good coach. He was a good coach in Houston. We played against him a number of times. He always had the team prepared, he had a style of play he believed in, and that’s what he’s doing in Denver, and he’s got the guys in Denver believing in it.
Sometimes it can happen. You don’t just get satisfied with winning, you think, oh, we should win Super Bowls, or we should be a little bit better. Gary did a lot in Houston, took ’em to the playoffs a number of times. So he’s a good coach, and he’s proven that in Denver, and he’s got the guys believing, and as Rodney said, that’s a big part of it, when you believe in what you’re doing; you’re going to play well.
Cris, you have a high capacity for outrage. Do you have any thoughts on what you’ve seen on the Mallett situation in particular?
CRIS COLLINSWORTH: My outrage is getting less and less the older I get, I think, but, having been in – and Rodney I’ll let you speak to this as well – we all have come close to missing an airplane at one time or another when you’re 24- or 25-years-old and you want to make that one last stop at McDonald’s or whatever the case may be? Yeah, I’ve come close a few times, too.
I had seen a couple of tapes of those guys. I thought Brian Hoyer was clearly outplaying them at the time they made that decision, outplaying Mallett at the time. It did not surprise me at all. So frustration builds, but as a pro, those are things that especially as a quarterback, who now may be looking around at other teams, you don’t want that reputation. That is the worst one. You can handle bad eggs in a lot of different positions. If your quarterback is, he better be one of the greatest players in the world, or you do not want that guy leading your football team.
RODNEY HARRISON: I had a chance to talk to some people out in New England, because I was curious, and I wanted to know what kind of guy he was. Really they had nothing but high praise. They said he knew that he wasn’t going to be a starting quarterback and that he was never going to essentially replace Tom Brady, but he was a guy that didn’t cause any problems. But I also talked to someone that said he kind of walked around in a sense like he was God’s gift to the earth and that he had it all figured out.
It’s unfortunate, because they said this is probably a good thing, what happened to him, he wasn’t very humble. Even though he behaved under Bill Belichick and Bill O’Brien, coming from that whole Bill Belichick thing. I’ve seen it with Adalius Thomas, Pro Bowl, special teams guy was late to practice and got on Belichick’s bad side, and ended up getting released and really never played in the league again.
Those are things that guys like Bill O’Brien and Bill Belichick, they hold in high regard. You have to be on time. You’re a quarterback. There is no excuse for you being late to the facility, missing the plane. You should be one of the first guys at the facility, point blank. So it’s no excuse, even if he’s 21, 22, 23. I was never late, especially on game day. I was always there a custom hours early just preparing myself, so I get it, and these things, they even come to surface even more when you’re losing.
Looking at the Broncos and what they have in the second half, Green Bay, Indianapolis, I guess you go down the line, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, New England, I guess you’re going to find out how good they are at this point, but are they the best team equipped, if someone is going to knock off the Patriots, and might have some evidence of that this week, or is there some other team in the AFC that you would like to get that job done?
RODNEY HARRISON: I kind of started frowning my eyes a little bit when you said, ‘are they the ones that can challenge the Patriots.’ You know what? I look and I say yes and no, because of old memories of Peyton and what he’s done to the Patriots kind of came to mind, but this is a new Peyton. I think when Cris and Tony talked about the absence of a really impactful tight end. I think that’s really hurting Peyton. He’s always had a pretty good tight end that he could always go on to, and now that his arm strength is a little weaker, that really takes a huge dimension out of the offense.
I think also the run game, obviously the run game, they did a pretty good job the last time they played but it just hasn’t been consistent. I think when your quarterback is struggling, when he has some type of doubt, he’s learning a new system, Tony talked about the timing being off, that affects everyone and it really affects Peyton. I played against Peyton, I know how important timing is, we’ve had corner backs right there, and he put it in perfect position because of the timing.
But when I look, I still see a team like a Cincinnati Bengal team, I know Cris is over there smiling, because they don’t have any weaknesses. Andy Dalton, he’s a lot more mature, they can run the ball, they can pass the ball, every week it’s a different player.
So you can’t just focus on A.J. Green. The defense is coming around, I think the secondary has proved, so I think if there is a team that can beat the Patriots, that can stand up to the Patriots on a consistent basis, I think it’s the Cincinnati Bengals, and I still believe in the Denver Broncos, because I could never doubt Peyton Manning, because I played against him so many years, but I just think if those two teams met I would probably have to go with the Cincinnati Bengals to beat the Denver Broncos if they ever met in the playoffs.
CRIS COLLINSWORTH: Its way early! Who knows what they’re going to look like in this war of attrition by the time we get to the playoffs.
I thought the Jets played really tough against the Patriots in New England the other day. So now they’ve got to make a return trip. Dolphins with Dan Campbell – I don’t know what that team is going to be. All of the sudden this team that couldn’t find their way is physical and running the football and seems to be completely full of themselves, Ben Roethlisberger comes back for the Steelers, and I think there is a lot of football yet to be played out there to see how this thing is going to mix out.
I do have to say this – the way Tom Brady played the other day was amazing; it was amazing. That may have been one of the best games I’ve ever seen him play, and he’s, what, 38 years old? He refused to let his team get beat in that game, when they had some opportunities to get beat in that game. It was a tremendous performance. So, look to the quarterbacks and who do you like? It’s usually the same bunch that comes through.
TONY DUNGY: I think challenging the Patriots, I kind of agree with Rodney; you have to be able to do a couple things. You’ve got to be diverse on offense, because Coach Belichick is great at taking away a team that can only do one thing or only has one weapon, so you’ve got to be diverse on the offense, and you’ve got to be able to rush the passer without blitzing, you’re not going to beat the Patriots. So, to me, that points to Cincinnati, but I’m curious to see – Miami has some of those elements, too, and we will see what they do tomorrow night.
Cris, you mentioned earlier about the Browns kind of baiting Peyton into throwing some throws they thought maybe he couldn’t make. Do you think more teams will start doing that, especially down the stretch, because last year it seemed as though his effectiveness starting in about mid-November started to tail off, as far as being able to throw those deep passes. So are we going to see more of that as this season goes on?
CRIS COLLINSWORTH: When I say ‘bait him’ basically what was happening was that there was an inside linebacker that just dropped back underneath the throw, and Peyton tried to lob it in over his head for what should have been the game losing interception. Their defense stepped up in a major way after that. But some of the throws that came before that, and I would challenge any of you guys if you want to have a really good look at this, you can go on NFL.com and watch the offensive tape of what happened in that game in not a very long period of time, and there were some mistakes.
That to me was a positive as I looked forward to this game. I thought Peyton made mistakes that I have not seen him make on some throws, just decisions that he made. You tend to think those won’t happen every week.
I was a little more optimistic watching him throw, even over what I had seen a little bit earlier this year when we watched him play, so teams are clearly challenging him to make challenging throws, if you will, and he answered some of that. But if some of the guys – Demaryius Thomas catches a couple of balls that hit him right in the hands – we may never have seen the interpretation that we were talking about.
So it’s an interesting game, there is a lot to prove. I was also looking to see if I thought Peyton was shying away from some throws, you know what I mean, that maybe he didn’t think he could make that throw anymore? And I will say after one interception he threw, it was almost like he got mad and like he wanted to drive a couple of throws in there and he did a nice job of it. Does he have Aaron’s arm? Not even close, not even close, but can he win a football game and can he win a championship with the way this team with play defense? Yeah, I think he can.
Rodney, first of all, I married a girl from Green Bay so that’s a disclaimer. A lot of talk about the offensive fire power, Manning, Rodgers, everybody else. How about the defensive secondary of the Packers, Clinton Dix, the first round pick from a couple years ago, do you think he will be a factor and do you think he’s lived up to his hype?
RODNEY HARRISON: I think he has. As a matter of fact, I think he’s better than what I expected him to be. A lot of people, when he came out, said, hey, this guy can’t cover. I think he’s been really good in the open field tackling. I think to come in right away and play for such a prestigious organization and to establish yourself as a guy that they can depend on, a guy that has come in and basically and essentially been a pretty good leader to be a young player, I think he’s done a fine job, Jack.
People are going to look back to the San Diego game and say whatever they want about the stats. At the end of the game, they made the plays when necessary, and I think that’s what you look for. I played under Dom Capers for a year, and he was a secondary coach, and his philosophy is, at times, hey, we’re going to blitz, we’re going to pressure, but also at times, he’s going to say, hey, guys, they’re going to gain some yards on you, don’t worry about it. When you get down to the red zone, make sure you make the plays that you have to make, and that’s a philosophy that a lot of coaches I have played under had. But I think Clinton Dix, I think he’s been far beyond what I thought he would be and he’s still a very young player.
Cris, when Jordy Nelson went out, all the Packer fans were freaking out. James Jones comes in just lights it up. Is it Aaron Rodgers, he’s that good? Is it the system? Is it Jones? How does that happen? How can you unplug Jordy Nelson, plug in James Jones and have it be almost, not only seamless but almost improve it?
CRIS COLLINSWORTH: Um, yeah, I think it’s Aaron Rodgers, if you want me to answer the question. I think he’s made all these guys look better, and James Jones, though, remarkable story really to be kind of let go by the Raiders, let go by the Giants, and come and play a starring role in this one, but I still feel like the Packers can be better, and I’ve seen them at their best when they’re sprinting up and down the field, and I think they’re still adjusting. Davante Adams is a guy that I felt was going to have a huge year even before Jordy Nelson got hurt. They’re still figuring it out. James Jones and Jeff Janis, some of these guys getting a chance now, Ty Montgomery, they’re creating a new offense, they’re putting Montgomery and Randall Cobb both in the backfield, they’re handing the ball off to Montgomery inside. They’re creating offense now. But do I think they are running on all cylinders yet with this mix, Eddie Lacy not be healthy, Davante Adams not being healthy, no, I don’t, I don’t think we’ve seen the best from the Packers, and after this bye week, when these guys do get healthy, it could explode, even against a great defense. That’s what makes this game so compelling is that I think we’re going to see the best of the Packers offense this year against, obviously, one of the best defenses in football.
I have a question for Coach Dungy and Rodney, you mentioned a little bit about when you guys met in 2007. Anything in particular you remember about how you prepared for that game, how you shut out all the noise, how you maintained your focus and dealt with the hype?
TONY DUNGY: Like Rodney said, it was really no different. We played those guys so many times, and you play in an AFC Championship game, or playing when are you’re 7-0, is easier because it’s not one game knock out, and if you lose you go home. We just reminded our team it’s like every week, and you’ve got to the things to prepare to win.
RODNEY HARRISON: Like I said before, it’s the same kind of mind set when you play against a great team you expect them to make plays and have production and you just try to be as even keeled as possible. You’re very complimentary during the week. One thing about playing against, like, the Colts, unlike in other rivals we had, you had a respect for them.
It wasn’t like it was a hatred, you played against the Jets, you actually hated that team and playing against Dungy and Peyton Manning, you had to prepare for the “Silent Assassin,” that’s what we called Coach Dungy. And Peyton Manning, he kept you up late at night always watching tape, trying to figure out, how do you confuse him, how do you disguise it, but really, our temperament, it was different during the week. It a lot more focused, we watched more tape from a player’s standpoint, but as far as emotionally, we were always even keeled, because you have to be even keeled when you play against Peyton Manning, because you can’t have so many emotional ups and downs. You have to be emotionally balanced because he gives you so much to think about and to look at. If you’re up and down emotionally, you have no chance to stop this guy.
You guys have seen tons and tons of Michael Vick over the years. You didn’t get to see him for the opener, but he’s on the schedule for later this year, but more than likely not going to play. Do you think this is the end for him? If so do you guys have any thoughts, ideas, inside speculation about what he does next or where he goes next? Does he stay in football in some fashion? Or do you think that he still has some time left in his career even after how this year has gone?
TONY DUNGY: I think when you look at the quarterback in the National Football League, I wouldn’t say this is the end. Everybody needs quarterbacks, we were just talking about Houston.
I wouldn’t say no this is the end, even though he’s clearly not the same player he was five years ago. And I’m not sure what he wants to do when the end does come, whether he wants to stay in football or not, but I wouldn’t be so quick to say this is the end.
Coach Dungy, what do you think of where Mike McCarthy ranks among NFL coaches, just reaching 100 wins with the last win, faster than any other current coach in the NFL?
TONY DUNGY: 100 wins makes a statement. It says that you’re good, and you’re consistently good. He has done a great job with that program, not only with Aaron Rodgers and the offense but home growing talent, drafting the right way, obviously Ted Thompson has done a great job there, but getting those guys in the lineup and playing them, and having that continuity and confidence, and now to me he’s taken another step saying I’m going to turn the play calling over to Tom Clements and try to continue to grow in this.
You have to look at the record, and he has done a tremendous job. Underrated, maybe if they win a second Super Bowl that will bring a little more notice, but he’s done a great job, and I just think he’s a tremendous Coach.
THE MODERATOR: Everybody, thank you for joining us today. We will see you Sunday night at 8:30 for Packers and the Broncos, and for the media we will have a transcript of this call available later on NBCsportsgrouppressbox.com.