With training camps open across the NFL, I have been looking back at my offseason reading and thinking about something that is talked about in America when comparing the major sports. It is often said that baseball is a GMs’ league, basketball is a players’ league, but that the NFL is a coaches’ league. This is an oversimplification for all of the sports, but in the NFL the level of competition is such that a coach can only do so much to overcome a real deficit in talent given how fine the margins are between winning, but this is the part of the season where a coach really demonstrates what does make the NFL a coaches’ league.
A football coach has to be more than just someone who gives an inspired half-time speech, in fact there is only so often he can pull that trick given the frequency of games, and how often it is do or die time. In fact it seems to me that there is so much to do for a head coach that we routinely oversimplify their role when judging them. There are thousands of hours of planning, preparation, and training that goes into getting a team to the game, yet alone managing the play calls, in-game adjustments, the clock, and liaising with your team of coaches. There is so much more to their job than whether you should run or pass a yard out from the end zone with twenty-six seconds left in the Super Bowl, although when you have one of the best short yardage backs in the game perhaps you should have run.
However, whilst there has been talk of how the Seahawks are going to come back from that loss, and the scars that decision will have left on Pete Carroll, having read Carroll’s book on his coaching philosophy I think that this has been over blown. His whole coaching philosophy is built round competition, and specifically always competing to win forever. I don’t know how many NFL coaches have gone away, sat down and deliberately written down their philosophy in such a structured way, but I’m pretty sure that a focus around always competing with yourself to do things better than they have been done before is likely to deal with a set back like losing the Super Bowl in such a heart breaking manner pretty well.
So why is this time of year so important to the coaches? The answer is pretty straight forward, time. During the marathon of the season there is so much time spent dealing with recovery, installing the game plan, travel, and dealing with matters that crop up that there is only so much time a coach can spend actually working with their players. It is in training camp where a coach gets to work for a prolonged period setting the tone for the upcoming season. It is also the time where a coach has almost double his game day roster, and so whilst you never want to over work your players, it is possible to get a huge amount of work done and to get in all the reps you want. This is where there is time to work on technique, getting the rookies and free agents steeped in how your team plays football, the calls, the structure of your playbook, and getting your timing down. These are all standard parts of training camp that remain true even if the old fashioned two-a-day practices and some of the more confrontational contact drills are becoming relics of the past.
There has been talk for years that the preseason is too long, and that coaches only two of the pre-season games to get their teams ready. I wouldn’t presume to know if this is true or not, but just trying to keep up with the news coming out of a training camp is a mission in itself. Like much of the pre-season content, it is filled with optimism. Players that are in the best shape of their lives, players on the come back trail from injury, the new picks looking good already. The proof is coming though, we have the NFL Hall of Fame game tonight, and next we’ll start getting actual football.
I wrote last year about how there is plenty to fascinate during the offseason and I am really looking forward to the up-coming preseason. It was quite hard for me to narrow down the teams I was going to watch through the preseason, but in the end I managed to get the list down to four. The Bengals were a given, and they are the team that I will understand best due to following them with the obsessive interest of the fan. The next obvious team was the Houston Texans, not just because I am such a huge fan of JJ Watt, but because they are this year’s team being covered by the TV series Hard Knocks. I will be fascinated to see how Watt practices as his work ethic is widely praised, but it will also be great to follow the series and watch all the games.
I am planning to watch two more teams, and after my offseason reading it was actually fairly easy to identify the theme if not whittle down to the two remaining teams. It became obvious to me that what I love about Football is not just the physicality and spectacle, but the tactics involved and the coaching that going into the games. So if I was going to focus on well coached teams who would be the other teams I would watch this season?
The Cardinals managed to get to the playoffs despite losing two starting quarterbacks and in my opinion were one of the best coached teams of last year. They have lost their defensive coordinator as Todd Bowles has become head coach of the New York Jets, but given the fantastic job Bruce Arians and his staff did I really want to take a look at them this preseason. It is also going to be interesting to see what effect the hiring of the NFL’s first female coach will have, even if it is only for the span of training camp. Doctor Jen Welter has played professional football for fourteen years, has a master’s degree in sports psychology and PhD in psychology, and so is a pretty incredible person just from the get go so I hope things go well with her working with the inside linebackers during camp.
The other team I am going to be watching is one that has dominated the offseason news when it has not been focussed on deflated footballs or other matters of league discipline management. I first really went all in with Chip Kelly whilst listening to him on the Ross Tucker’s podcast, and I was seriously impressed. However, since he’s been given the GM responsibility Kelly has demonstrated that he is not afraid to do things his way, but I’m not entirely sold. At the start of the offseason moves I could see an underlying plan, that he would trust his system to generate offense, and that he would invest in players on the defensive side of the ball. Then Kelly started signing expensive running backs and letting go of starting offensive linemen. There is also the small matter of not having an established starter at quarterback and not making the playoffs last season. I will be fascinated to watch what all the turmoil of the offseason produces this year, and shall have to make a point of watching the TV feed for some of their games as you simply do not pick up the tempo difference between the Eagles’ offence and other teams when you are watching the condensed cut or coaches’ tape.
So roll on the first game this evening as the football season gets closer and closer to starting.