Football For Dummies (2015)
Meet the Rest of the Team
Coaches, General Managers, and Other Important Folks
In This Chapter
Getting acquainted with the different types of coaches, their roles, and their styles
Exploring the functions of owners and general managers
Scouting opponents and college prospects
Finding out how trainers take care of players
Depending on the football franchise, a coach, a general manager, or even an owner has the ability to put the team in the best possible position to win. Each person’s primary function is to help the team win, assisting the players in any way possible.
I’m proud to say that I became an All-Pro player because of Earl Leggett, who coached the defensive linemen for the Raiders. I had quickness and strength, the skills that I needed to play in the National Football League, but Leggett was the one who taught me how to harness my ability. He showed me how to anticipate an offense’s intentions and use my talents on every single play. He was my mentor.
Probably hundreds of coaches, maybe not as gifted as Leggett, have the same impact on players throughout high school, college, and pro football. If a player is willing to commit to a coach’s system, a good coach can develop him into a very good player.
In this chapter, I explain how coaches, from the head coach to the strength coach, work together toward one goal: winning. And for NFL coaches to win, they need a personnel department that has the ability to find players and then sign them. Similarly, a college coach needs the support of the school’s administration to be able to recruit good players. I guess I’m saying that there’s more to playing football and winning than simply the players — coaches, general managers, scouts, and all the rest play important roles on winning teams.
A Team’s Fearless Leaders: The Coaches
Every army has a general and a group of lieutenants; similarly, every football team has a head coach and a coaching staff. The coaches are the leaders of the team; they’re the men who put the players in the position to win games. They decide what offenses and defenses the team will use, and good coaches devise these schemes to get the most out of their players’ talent. In the NFL, the coach is highly visible because the television cameras show him on the sidelines every Sunday or Monday night.
Some coaches are stars, like the New Orleans Saints’ Sean Payton. He has a perfect personality for coaching football because he’s charismatic and emotional. Other coaches prefer a low-key, business-like approach, which can be equally successful. Bill Belichick of the New England Patriots and Mike Tomlin of the Pittsburgh Steelers have had great success holding their cards close to the chest.
I’m using NFL coaches as examples because covering them is part of my job, and I know these men personally. I can relate to their powerful impact on a football team. However, thousands of high school and college coaches have the same impact on their teams. Why? Because coaches are special. They devote countless hours to preparing practice schedules and game strategies, working with players in practice and in film sessions, and dealing with them one-on-one when necessary. In high school and college, a coach can be stern and fair like a father. And many coaches have earned players’ respect because of their success and longevity — they’re revered for being great for the game of football.
A good coach is a special man, one who’s supremely confident in his ability to build, prepare, and focus a team on winning a championship. Because the season is long and the games are few in comparison to other sports, a football coach must cope with the mood swings of his players during the week and know when and how to be assertive and when to be relaxed. He sets the tone for his team.
The sections that follow give you a better idea of the coaching staff members and their roles, as well as various coaching styles and philosophies and the day-to-day tasks of coaches.
Discovering who does what on the coaching staff
Almost every football team has more than one coach. Some teams have two coaches monitoring special teams: One coach handles the punter and placekicker, and the other coach handles coverages and kick protection. Including strength and conditioning coaches, the typical NFL team averages 15 assistant coaches. (A college team generally has 9 full-time assistants and 2 graduate assistants, not including strength coaches.) Here’s a common NFL coaching staff:
· Head coach: The head coach is the main man who gets most of the credit for winning — and most of the blame for losing. Most head coaches are more than 40 years old, have 20 or more seasons of playing and coaching experience, and are experts on one side of the ball or the other. Their styles of coaching vary. Some head coaches demand control over what alignments and plays the team uses on defense and offense. Others delegate one aspect of the game plan, preferring to focus on their particular expertise, whether it’s defense or offense. Depending on the franchise’s power structure and ownership, the head coach may have a lot of flexibility and control over personnel, or he may have a rather limited role.
· Offensive coordinator: The offensive coordinator is the coach in charge of the offensive players. He usually calls the plays and works directly with the quarterbacks. He’s responsible for developing the offensive game plan (the plays he believes will be successful against the upcoming opponent) and works with the head coach on how practice is organized, especially if some of the plays are unusual or somewhat unfamiliar to the offensive personnel. Some coordinators do all the work and are almost as valuable as the head coach. On some NFL teams, the owner is as involved in the hiring of the offensive coordinator as in the hiring of the head coach.
· Defensive coordinator: The defensive coordinator is the coach in charge of the defensive players. He usually decides what defensive schemes to run. Like the offensive coordinator, the defensive coordinator meets with half the team on a typical practice day and prepares them for the upcoming opponent. I’ve always thought that a good defensive coordinator is one who can adapt his system to his players’ talents rather than the other way around. But sometimes teams want to find players that fit their particular system. The best defensive coordinators are the ones who are really flexible and simply strive to put their players in the best possible situation to succeed.
· Special teams coach: The special teams coach supervises the kickers, punters, kick return team, field goal protection team, punt return team, and so on. Generally, he’s coaching the younger players on a team, and he must find a way to motivate them to do their jobs. Many of the special teams’ stars are backups and reserves — they’re players who aren’t yet talented enough to be offensive or defensive starters. On some units, the special teams coach may have starters mixed in with rookies, and so he must find a way to get these players to complement one another. He must study the strengths and weaknesses of how teams return kicks and cover kicks. Also, he studies film to discover whether a team is particularly weak in kick protection so he can prepare his team to attempt a block in a specific game.
· Quarterback coach: A quarterback coach is an assistant coach who monitors the physical and mental aspects of a quarterback’s game. He works on the quarterback’s footwork, pass-drop technique, and throwing motion. He makes sure a quarterback doesn’t fall into bad mental or physical habits. In training camp, if the starting quarterback is an experienced veteran, the quarterback coach may devote extra hours to the backup and third-string quarterback, hoping to develop them for the future and prepare them to play in an emergency. On some teams, the quarterback coach serves as a sounding board between the quarterback and the head coach. On NFL teams, the head coach and the quarterback are usually under the greatest scrutiny.
· Offensive line coach: An offensive line coach works with the offensive linemen and generally has a solid understanding of the team’s running game. He and the offensive coordinator spend time discussing what running plays may work, depending on what the offensive line coach views as his unit’s strengths and weaknesses against the upcoming opponent. He is also a key component in developing the offense’s pass protection schemes. A good offensive line coach can mold five blockers, all with different or varied levels of skill, into a solid, efficient unit. On some teams, the line coach is more valuable than the offensive coordinator.
· Defensive line coach: A defensive line coach is the guy who works exclusively with the defensive linemen. He works on individual technique (run stopping, gap control, pass rushing, and so on) and whatever stunts the defensive coordinator wants from these players.
· Linebacker coach: A linebacker coach works with linebackers and, depending on the team’s style of defense, ranks a step below the defensive coordinator. Defenses that exclusively use four linebackers need a coach who can teach all the variations necessary for this scheme to work. This coach must work on tackling, pass-rushing off the corner, and particular pass coverage drops.
· Secondary coach: A secondary coach is the coach who works with the defensive backs. He must have a total understanding of pass offenses. He works on all aspects of pass coverage, from footwork and deep zone drops to how to prepare players for the particular receivers they’ll face.
· Strength coach: A strength coach specializes in weight training and conditioning. He makes sure the players are strong and in shape throughout the season, and he often coordinates off-season training programs. A strength coach also works with team doctors to prepare and monitor rehabilitation exercises following player surgeries.
A team may also have coaches for specific positions, such as a receiver or running backs coach, depending on how many coaches the team can afford to keep on staff. On smaller staffs, the head coach may also serve as the offensive coordinator, or the special teams coach may also be the strength coach. On some large NFL staffs, the head coach, not the offensive coordinator, calls the offensive plays.
Exploring the different coaching styles and philosophies
Without question, a coach can have a dramatic impact on a football team. Some coaches want to control the emotional pulse of their teams; others attempt to use their influence by establishing good rapport with selected team leaders. A coach needs to stand apart as an authority figure, especially if he coaches younger players. He makes the rules, and the players must follow his orders. Still, a coach can’t be as demanding as an army sergeant because he wants his players to feel comfortable talking to him about any serious off-the-field problems they may be facing. A pro coach may even allow himself to become friendly with his players and treat them like the adults they are.
No one set standard for being a head coach exists, nor is there a particular philosophy that a coach should adhere to. Good head coaches learn from the men for whom they’ve worked, absorbing the good qualities and tossing out the bad ones that don’t work with their personality. A coach needs to be himself and be true to how he would want to be treated. Players can spot a phony as soon as he walks into the team meeting room. The next sections run through the different types of coaching styles and philosophies.
The yell-your-head-off coach
Players don’t like coaches who yell and scream all the time. But I’ve known some coaches who can communicate only by screaming. They aren’t screaming because they’re angry; they just know screaming is the only way their instructions are going to sink into their players’ heads. (Granted, players can barely think on the practice field when their bodies are tired and aching from a long day.) The screamers are generally defensive coaches; offensive coaches tend to be calmer and more cerebral.
Many of these screamers are good coaches. When Steve Mariucci screamed at any of his Detroit Lions or San Francisco 49ers, everyone at practice knew he meant business. Mariucci wasn’t a screamer by nature, but he, like many other coaches, yelled when a player or unit constantly repeated the same mistake. After all, a coach can be patient for only so long.
You can spot the yell-your-head-off coach anywhere. Here are some examples of that coaching style:
· Whenever these coaches believe their teams have been penalized unfairly, you can bet they’re yelling at the referee or some official along the sidelines.
· Whenever a player misses an assignment and causes a critical play to fail, you may see these coaches actually grab the player and tell him, inches away from his face, how and why he screwed up.
· These coaches often grab a player’s face mask and rattle his cage before telling him how poorly he’s playing or practicing.
· These coaches throw things. Coaches who scream a lot love to toss their hats, clipboards, or whatever they’re holding to get everyone’s attention.
The kinder, gentler coach
Another kind of coach takes the kinder, gentler approach. These coaches rarely yell, and they believe that teaching good character to players can be as important as teaching physical skills. Tom Landry, revered coach of the Dallas Cowboys from 1960 through 1988, was known for his calm, stoic demeanor.
The smash-mouth football coach
Smash-mouth coaches love nothing more than to see a tremendous block by an offensive lineman and then watch their running back gain 10 yards while running over the opposition. Most of these coaches began as defensive coaches, and they believe in dominating the line of scrimmage and want their defense to decide the outcome of a game. On offense, they’d rather win by running the football. Bill Cowher (who won a Super Bowl with the Pittsburgh Steelers) and Bill Parcells (who won two Super Bowls with the New York Giants) are examples of the smash-mouth coach. They prepared their teams to be the stronger, dominant team in a matchup, and that’s why they were successful.
So that you’re sure to recognize this type of coach during a game, take a look at these examples of the smash-mouth coaching style:
· When the game is close and the offense needs to convert a play on fourth and 1, these coaches are likely to gamble, believing that their offensive line and running back can pick up the first down.
· These coaches are more apt to continue to run a successful play until the opposition stops it.
· These coaches’ football teams usually focus on both the offensive and the defensive linemen. Their teams may not always win the game, but they plan on winning the war along the line of scrimmage.
· These coaches rarely waiver from their beliefs in how to approach a game or a particular opponent. They’re very strong-minded coaches.
The offensive-genius coach
You see a lot of offensive-genius coaches in the NFL. Mike Shanahan, who directed the Denver Broncos to their 1998 and 1999 Super Bowl wins, typifies this type of coach. An offensive-genius is a coach who seems to have an unlimited ability to develop new plays; defensive coaches know that these coaches will try more than one new play or variation of an old play every week. Offensive-genius coaches aren’t always viewed as tough guys because they’re so cerebral. Nevertheless, although their minds may be working overtime on the sidelines, they don’t tolerate a lack of discipline or shoddy play on the football field.
This kind of coach is constantly looking for an edge on the field. One example of Shanahan’s genius took place in the 1997 season when the Broncos had to beat the Kansas City Chiefs to reach the Super Bowl. The Chiefs had a great pass-rusher in Derrick Thomas, and they preferred to line up Thomas on the weak side, away from the tight end. The Chiefs had a strong linebacker, Wayne Simmons, who demolished most tight ends. Prior to the snap, Shanahan would move his tight end off the line of scrimmage and motion him over until he was in front of Derrick Thomas. Then he’d call a running play directly at Thomas. That simple formation adjustment prior to the snap gave Shanahan’s offense the matchups that he wanted on a running play. In such a short period of time, Thomas and Simmons couldn’t switch sides before the ball was snapped. Denver had success running at Thomas while negating the Chiefs’ greatest asset: Thomas’s pass-rushing ability.
Here are some typical actions of the offensive-genius coach:
· These coaches generally wear headsets on the sidelines to communicate with their assistants upstairs in the press box, and they always have a playsheet (the game plan of offensive plays) in their hands. They’re more involved with the offensive team than the defensive team during a game.
· These coaches tend to be more thoughtful and under control during sideline sessions with their players. They don’t rattle easily.
· When they talk during practice, these coaches explain the whole play and show how a small aspect can lead to a gigantic reward. For example, each player’s alignment dictates a defensive alignment response. Anticipating the defense’s alignment to a certain formation or pass route can lead to an opening to spring a big play.
· At the training facility, these coaches work alone most of the time. They have a daily staff meeting, but they like to think and tinker with the offense for hours on their own.
Looking into what coaches do when they’re not yelling on the sidelines
Coaching a football team is a full-time job. While players rest during the offseason, coaches are busy planning for the season ahead. Following is a quick look at what coaches do during the season and in the offseason.
During the season
Coaches at all levels prepare playbooks that every player receives — and many of these playbooks include more than 200 plays for the offense alone. They meet with the general manager and other college and pro scouts regarding personnel — whom to trade for, whom to acquire, and whom to release.
With the head coach leading the way, the coaches meet during the players’ day off. During this meeting, they prepare the game plan for the next week and review hours of film of their own players and the opposition, looking for tendencies, strengths, and weaknesses. During training camp, the coaching staff dissects what it wants to accomplish during the season in all phases of the game: offense, defense, and special teams. At the same time, the coaches test to see how the players are adapting to specific plays and strategies. From there, they refine their plan, tinkering with minute details in order to guarantee success.
In the NFL, every play is analyzed and dissected until the coaching staff knows exactly how it wants to instruct the players on the practice field. A coach can break down a single play on videotape to show a player taking the wrong first step, backing up too much, angling his shoulders improperly, or failing to read the other team’s intentions.
College and high school coaches meet regularly with their school’s athletic director and administrators regarding financial budgets and player eligibility status. They oversee travel schedules and are involved in picking hotels and meals for road trips. College and high school coaches usually work all day on Sunday, examining film of the weekend’s game and preparing for the next week. They have staff meetings in preparation for meeting the players on Monday. And, of course, they devote a lot of time to motivating their players.
Coaches also deal with the media. In the NFL, coaches may have press briefings with newspaper, radio, and television reporters every day except Tuesday and Saturday. However, on Saturday, they must meet with network television producers and commentators to discuss their opinions of what may occur in Sunday’s or Monday’s game. College and high school coaches may also deal with local reporters, although on a smaller scale.
During the off-season
Although high school and college football teams are restricted to a certain number of off-season practice days, NFL coaching staffs work virtually year-round making free-agency decisions, scouting potential draft choices, monitoring selective mini-camps (three or four days of on-field practice), and attending countless organizational meetings. Most NFL coaches take their vacations in late June and early July, right before the opening of training camp.
An NFL head coach spends his days in the off-season preparing practice schedules for training camp and the regular season. The college coach devotes much of his off-season to recruiting high school players and hosting clinics for high school coaches. Recruiting means visiting a potential player in his hometown — which necessitates a lot of traveling — and meeting with his parents, guardians, and high school coaches.
Getting axed: The pressure of being a football coach
Coaches work long hours because they’re usually under enormous pressure to win. If they don’t win, even on the high school level, they get fired. As soon as an NFL season ends, several coaches are usually given the ax. Some teams seem to change coaches every year.
When a head coach is fired, usually his coaching staff of 10 to 15 assistants is also out of work. Or, sometimes, a head coach saves his job but is forced by management to fire some or all of his assistants. This situation doesn’t happen a lot, but it does occur enough to make assistant coaches realize that coaching is more about business than it is about loyalty. Besides being fired, coaching staffs are constantly turning over as assistants move on to different teams and receive promotions. Changing teams creates a lot of upheaval for a coach’s family, especially if he’s married with children. Coaches who begin their careers dreaming of the NFL usually bounce around to several colleges, sometimes as many as eight different jobs, before landing a pro position. And I know good NFL assistant coaches who’ve worked for five different teams during their careers.
The Team’s Public Face: The Owners
People buy teams for many different reasons, but most owners simply want to be public figures. The NFL is structured financially so that every club receives an equal share of television revenue and splits the ticket revenue — it’s more or less a socialist system. The concept is that the weakest franchise can gross as much revenue as the strongest franchise. However, a team’s revenue from local radio broadcasts, luxury boxes, parking, concessions, and private seat licenses (fans pay a fee for the right to own a season ticket) isn’t totally shared with the other teams. But the revenue from NFL Properties (income generated from selling NFL logo clothing, hats, and so on) and the Super Bowl is shared. Therefore, you don’t have to own a Super Bowl team to do well financially.
After the head coach and the star players on the team, the owner may be the next most visible person. Most football fans know, for example, that Jerry Jones owns the Dallas Cowboys. At one time Jones had his own television show in Dallas and also wrote a newspaper column. He’s very visible in marketing his football team and is very active in network television negotiations. However, many franchise owners are rarely interviewed, choosing to remain behind the scenes, preferring that their coach and general manager speak for the franchise.
The NFL requires one person to own at least 30 percent of a particular franchise and prefers that this person has no financial interest in any other professional sports leagues. Some franchises, such as the Pittsburgh Steelers and Chicago Bears, have been owned for decades by members of one family. The New York Giants have two owners, each with a 50 percent stake in the franchise.
I don’t think any owner in pro football knew more about the game than Al Davis of the Raiders, who passed away in 2011. In pure Xs and Os, the strategy of a game, Davis was like a coach. He actually started in football as a coach and was an excellent one. And in terms of making the financial commitment, Davis always brought in great players. He made every possible effort to improve his team. You can’t say that about every NFL owner.
In its August 2014 annual listing of NFL franchise values, Forbes magazine placed the value of franchises between $930 million and $3.2 billion. You must be extremely wealthy to own an NFL franchise. Although the financial return is generous, many businesspeople would tell you that better ways exist to invest that amount of money. Many NFL owners are actually sports fans, people who love the game as much as their pursuit of financial success. Many of them contribute their time, energy, and financial resources to their respective communities, believing that football is part of their region’s social fabric.
An Owner’s Eyes and Ears: General Managers
On many NFL teams, general managers are the eyes and ears of the owner, and they oversee the day-to-day operation of the team. They must be cold and calculating people because they have to make a lot of difficult personnel decisions. They make the player trades and free agent acquisitions, decide salary levels, and ultimately determine which players to select in the NFL draft. General managers must be excellent judges of every player’s ability because they’re responsible for doing what’s best for the organization. They must have a feel for what the team needs and be able to work in conjunction with the head coach and his needs.
The best possible scenario is to have a solid general manager and a great head coach, who can put their egos aside and work together. But this situation is very rare these days because head coaches usually want total control over personnel, like Pete Carroll has in Seattle.
General managers oversee a large front-office staff. Some teams have business, marketing, and public relations personnel. People reporting to the general manager include the following: capologists (who monitor a team’s salary scale within the salary cap; more on the salary cap in Chapter 17), business managers, contract negotiators (also known as a club vice president), human resources directors, and public relations directors.
The People Responsible for Finding Talent: Scouts
Two basic kinds of scouts exist in the NFL: pro scouts and college scouts.
A team can have a great week practicing, but if the players don’t know what to expect from their opponents, they may find themselves behind by 14 points or more in a hurry. Pro scouts, people who attend NFL games and study a team’s opponents, exist so teams can anticipate what each opponent will do. These scouts attend the games of upcoming opponents and take copious notes, tracking every offensive and defensive tactic, keeping an eye on key players, noting who gets injured, and so on. Then they bring this information back to the coaches, who may devise parts of their game plans around the scouts’ input.
A college scout examines a pro prospect’s every move. He times the player in the 40-yard dash, studies his ability and decisions on every play, and monitors him off the field. NFL teams want to know whether a prospect has ever been arrested and, if so, for what crime. They’re concerned about illegal drug use and also about how the player performs in the classroom. They want to know about his attitude, his personality, and his approach to football and to life in general. A good college scout watches the prospect in practice and games and also watches film of all his games. The scout then interviews the prospect and members of the college coaching staff. He may even interview opposing coaches to find out their views of the player, and athletic trainers to check on a player’s past injuries or training room habits. When scouting the top 100 college players, teams often have two or more scouts examine a prospect.
Keeping Players Strong and Healthy: Trainers and Team Doctors
A team isn’t very good if its players don’t stay healthy or recover quickly if they get injured. Trainers and team doctors step in to help alleviate these concerns. Most teams have their own orthopedic surgeon and general practitioner. Unless these doctors have total autonomy, they’re often put in really difficult positions because their job is to take care of the player, but their employer, who’s the owner of the team, wants the player on the field all the time.
A trainer’s job is to monitor every injury and then work with the doctor on the rehabilitation process. In some instances, players seek outside medical opinions, especially if the injury is considered serious or the team doctor prescribes surgery. The league monitors injuries and has several medical groups that assist on serious injuries, particularly injuries involving the head and neck.
A trainer also works with the strength trainer to make sure injured players aren’t overextending themselves in the weight room or exercising too much. Most pro and college teams have at least two full-time trainers, and some have part-time assistants for training camps. Trainers are responsible for dispensing and monitoring all medicine prescribed by the doctors and all dietary supplements that players are taking. A trainer also inspects team meals to make sure they contain the proper proteins and carbohydrates.
The best trainer is trusted by both the players and the coaching staff. The worst thing a trainer can do is inform the head coach that a certain player isn’t hurting as badly as he claims to be. If the trainer feels that way, he must confront the player as well. Players need to believe that the trainer is concerned about their welfare, regardless of how that concern (possibly in the form of keeping a player off the field) may affect the team’s win-loss record..