Q. You always talk about your job being to give the team what it needs at specific moments. Based on that, what did you decide this team needed from you this week coming off its two-game losing streak?
A. Not to focus on the losing streak, just like we didn't focus on the winning streak. We needed to get recalibrated at the top of the week and get singularly professionally focused on this week's challenge. We have an opportunity to go on the road and win our fifth AFC North game to wrap a bow around the AFC North, if you will, and so there are enough things that lie ahead for us that we need to get focused and centered in that regard. I'm comfortable saying that because I was comfortable saying it when we were on a winning streak, and so my behavior and approach at the top of the week has been really consistent, as it needs to be. Because there are going to be some weeks where you perform and there are going to be some weeks unfortunately where you don't, and we've been in this thing long enough now where we've experienced both, and the bottom line is the biggest battles lie ahead.
Q. That's your message, but does it matter the tone you use in delivering it?
A. By Wednesday, it's all arrows pointed ahead and moving forward. You might be angry on a Monday based on a Sunday performance, but it's all old and stale at that juncture. If you're holding onto emotions more than 24 hours, you're going to get beat to the punch in this business in today's game. There might be anger initially after a performance, and it might even push over into the next day, but you have a 24 hour limit in our business to carry things of that nature.
Q. How does fatigue manifest itself within individual players or within a team as a whole over the course of a season?
A. Cumulative fatigue either creates more mistakes in people and so it messes with their quality of play, or it makes them more susceptible to injury. Those are the two critical things when you start talking about fatigue, whether it's in-game fatigue or cumulative fatigue. You're more susceptible to mistakes – you're less wired in – and you're probably more susceptible to injury as well.
Q. Does physical fatigue contribute to mental fatigue?
A. Absolutely. And that's why we say, "Physical conditioning precedes anything else." We acknowledge fatigue makes quitters of us all. That's a human characteristic, and that's why we have to be in the very best condition to start a season, or to get this train out of the station, because we acknowledge that is a real component.
Q. How do you balance players' fatigue or trying to prevent it while also needing on-field work to improve performance?
A. I work hard to try to give as many people as I can what it is they need. And that's why on a Wednesday you might see me keep young guys after practice or put pads on and get some physical work, while at the same time on that same Wednesday you might see me give some veteran guys a day off in an effort to help them recuperate from their last performance in an effort to be at their physical best for their next performance. I think when you're working with a large group like a football team, you have to have an over-riding approach, but you better be willing to have little side agendas to meet the needs of the people within the group because there's a thing to balance there, particularly when you have guys at different stages of their careers and different levels of participation, etc. How I treat 38-year-old Ben is very, very different than how I need to treat Alex Highsmith in terms of his preparation, for example.
Q. Generally speaking, when it comes to a typical NFL passing play, are there potential receivers deployed to every level – short, medium, and deep?
A. Not on every play. On some plays you're stressing a defense horizontally with quick-rhythm passing, and there are some route concepts – particularly in West Coast passing – where none of the receivers are beyond 5 yards of the line of scrimmage. Some concepts stretch defenses horizontally. Some concepts stretch vertically in one quadrant of the field, meaning you could have a three-level flood and all three routes be outside the numbers. Some concepts stretch a field vertically, and some concepts stretch a field horizontally, and some concepts have the potential to do both.
Q. What determines who the primary receiver is on a particular play?
A. It really depends on the nature of the construction of the play, and the construction of the defense it's going against. So there are a couple of variables that dictate where the quarterback's eyes go from a progression standpoint in any concept.
Q. Would you ever instruct your quarterback to throw the ball to a certain area regardless of the coverage just to make the defense respect that area throughout the game with their coverage?
A. Not in that simplistic of a statement, no. You can never minimize what the defense does to that degree where you can pretend that's not a variable. That's always a variable at this level.
Q. How has Marcus Allen adapted to the move from safety to hybrid linebacker?
A. I think it always has kind of been in his makeup in terms of how he plays the game. He's a downhill player. There's not a lot of difference in today's game between a strong safety and a sub-package linebacker if you look at those guys globally in terms of height-weight-speed measurable things, but also in terms of play demeanor and how they combat physical confrontation. He's always had those things in him. I think it's the evolution of the game that has brought itself to Marcus. Five or 10 years ago, I wouldn't have thought of putting somebody who was 210 pounds or so at the linebacker position down in and down out because every team you played had a 235-pound fullback who was prepared to match that. Over half the rosters in today's game don't even have a fullback on it, and so there are a lot of matchup-related things in terms of the evolution of the game that make this thing a real thing and an opportunity for him. And what he's doing with it is impressive.
Q. Based on what you just said, are the challenges Allen is facing in this move more of the mental variety than the physical?
A. Certainly there are some mental challenges in terms of being a hub of communication and the responsibilities that come with being a defensive quarterback, if you will. He has done a nice job of that, but I'd be remiss if I didn't talk about the adjustment that comes with dealing with the interior bigs. When you're a strong safety, even when you're in the box you're on the periphery of the box – you're dealing with tackles and tight ends. Once you become a linebacker and you're on the interior of that box, you're dealing with guards and centers, and there's some wear and tear associated with those confrontations that's new to him.
Q. Al Villanueva did a Zoom call with the media this week, and to say he is a unique and interesting individual is an understatement. Without betraying any confidences, can you share some of your interactions with him, particularly in non-football matters?
A. We're all shaped by our experiences, and this guy has done tours of duty in combat areas. His college experience is different than everyone else's This guy went to West Point, and Maurkice Pouncey went to Florida in Gainesville. (Laughs) And so I'm not surprised that he is different than most of these guys. His journey has been different, and we're all shaped by those journeys and experiences. I think Al has an appreciation for life and a perception for life that few of us have unless we've been in circumstances that really make us have that view or appreciate it. So although I do acknowledge that he is unique and very different, I understand why and I'm really appreciative of it and want to learn more about why he is the way he is.
Q. You have a great feel for the locker room. How does Al fit into that social dynamic?
A. Al is a chameleon. There is not a conversation that he's not comfortable in. Any corner of the locker room, Al infuses himself in the fray. He has no issues in that area.
Q. How do his teammates look at him based on some of the things you just talked about. Him being in combat as an Army Ranger is very serious business, so how do they view Al?
A. Many of them think Al is legitimately crazy, and that's just the business we're in and the journey he has traveled. Obviously he's not, but there are things that occur from time to time that would lead you to believe that, and I understand why that's the perception in some corners.
Q. With a victory tonight over the Bengals, you will clinch the AFC North Division title. In your mind, what is the significance of that?
A. It's the first significant box to check when you're on your journey for an intended World Championship. Having been in this thing as long as I've been in this thing, I understand that the ultimate goal is what it is, but if you're moving fluidly on a trajectory to push you toward that ultimate goal there are certain things that occur, and the hat and T-shirt game is usually the first thing that occurs. So we're appreciative of the position that we're in, but we also don't feel like we won the lottery. We've been working our tails off. I'm sure everyone is going to fight their tails off to get those hats and T-shirts and everyone is going to sleep in them on Monday night, but Tuesday we're going to get up and go to work and proceed.
Q. Because of the COVID situation throughout the country, teams are not permitted to have the typical number of fans in the stands for games. Does having no fans, or a highly limited number of fans, render home-field advantage non-existent in the postseason?
A. It has affected it. I don't know if it has rendered it non-existent, but you would be naïve to think it hasn't affected it. Just the analytics of it, the winning percentage of home teams in the NFL is down this year. I think the winning percentage of home teams in the NCAA might be below 50 percent this year. That goes to show you what the 12th man does to the environments, and it's going to be interesting to see how it plays out as we get into the postseason. But make no mistake about it, (having no fans) is a factor, but I stop short of saying (home-field advantage is) non-existent.
Q. With no crowd noise as a detriment to the visiting team, what are the advantages of playing at home in the postseason?
A. Just comforts of logistics leading up to the game. You get to prepare all week in the comforts of your home environment. You get to stay in your home hotel, etc., etc. You get to get out of your car and walk into the stadium. When you're a visitor, you move as a group. You don't get a chance to move on your own itinerary. Buses leave hotels going to games and things of that nature. Just the logistics of travel and the inconveniences that provides is an element of it that makes me stop short of calling it non-existent. It has nothing to do with what goes on in-game or inside the stadium, but the logistics leading up to it are really comfortable when you're in a home game environment.