As the annual influx of rookie talent flows into the NFL, we as fans and analysts alike routinely call upon the greatest football minds alive to help mold our still "wet behind the ears" athletes in attempts to maximize their physical gifts and god-given talents.
Ultimately, the goal is for them to forge ahead towards becoming a burgeoning star.
But how much "technique teaching" is actually being done? What are NFL coaches really focused on? We hear all the time about how that new rookie is going to learn so much playing for this coach or that coach. Admittedly, there is often some truth to this, as every circumstance and situation is different.
However, I feel it's my duty to shed some light on the very palpable "perception myth" that NFL coaches prioritize their time and energy on the techniques of individual players in regards to creating a playmaker.
In the real NFL, true playmakers are more often born than they are created or coached.
Generally speaking, the focus coaches put on how to win one-on-one battles is done with much greater emphasis at the collegiate level as opposed to the pros. In fact, with most positions, and with most coaches, absolutely no energy is put towards teaching the art of making plays in regards to specific techniques.
Clearly this myth is more applicable to some positions more than others, but the next time your team drafts a project player who has all the physical tools to be great, yet appears to be lost on the field struggling to produce, remember that he most likely will have to find his way towards greatness on his own, while also learning through watching and listening to the players around him.
NFL coaches either have much better things to do, or it just isn't their forte.
Here are two major exceptions to the myth:
1. The Quarterback
This position is one where the coach can actually make an enormous difference in the creation of a star. This is made more possible for quarterbacks because of the complex decision making that needs to be done, coupled with the necessity to be able to understand and function within the scheme and strengths of the offense as well as the one-on-one time they get with coaches. These elements directly lead to to individual success for the quarterback.
Playing quarterback in the NFL is the most difficult position in all of sports. In order to be truly successful at such a demanding job, one must be able to process many things at once while simultaneously possess a variety of physical skills, most of which are innate.
With so much involved in the position, it requires the aid and accumulation of as much knowledge as possible, including everything from proper form, footwork and release, to reading defenses, understanding protections and managing the game.
Essentially, a quarterback is the closest position in the NFL to actually being a coach, so naturally it would be reasonable to conclude coaching the quarterback position is crucial towards that player's development and playmaking ability.
2. Former NFL Players as Position Coaches
Rarely do we talk about the true value of having accomplished former players as position coaches in the NFL. This, however, is a fairly common occurrence and I would wager at least one can be found on every coaching staff.
These coaches add great value with their ability to draw on past experiences and focus on the actual art of beating the guy in front of you. Former players are guys that have supposedly done it for years and should have the player's immediate respect. They are often loaded with little tricks, secrets, short cuts and clever ways to break the rules without getting penalized. These former players can also explain when is the best time to take a chance or play it safe.
As the saying goes, "There is no substitute for experience." But the next-best thing is having the opportunity to extract the knowledge gained from those who have actually accomplished the things you are now trying to do. When a Hall of Famer is telling you something that he thinks will work, you are much more likely to take him at his word and apply it. But if a little old man with crooked legs and a pot belly who never even started on his high school team is telling you how to run a proper route or how to shed a block, you tend to take his words with a dose of skepticism.
Perhaps it is this very understanding that causes these coaches to refrain from offering up such advice. The general mindset of NFL coaches when it comes roster management and growing talent is not to teach it, but rather import it through the draft, free agency or both. They have no illusions of their ability to create great players.
Both Rex and Rob Ryan have repeatedly uttered the philosophy that great players make coaches look good. For these coaches, their strongest correlation to player talent is reduced simply to the recognition and exploitation of it rather than the development of it.
A group of playmakers can make a system great if you let the players do what they do best and try to stay out of their way. Heavy rule-based and rigid systems are much more likely to stagnate and restrict a playmaker than they are to create one. Thus, the best systems are designed to understand and utilize the skills of the players you have around you.
What Does an NFL Coach Spend His Time Coaching?
The answer to this question is simple. Both coordinators and position coaches alike in the NFL are consumed with making sure the installation of their novel-sized playbook is understood as much as it possibly could be by each key member of their unit.
Practice time on the field and tape review is utilized for making corrections and clarifying technique as it relates to their specific job as a functional piece to bigger machine. They stress your job and duty within the offense or defense and what techniques to implement in order to best do your job within the scheme.
For a defense, these coaching points usually will emphasize things such as making sure not to get too far up field when you have outside contain responsibility, stay as deep as the ball and keep your outside arm free. Sure, this is valuable instruction for the defense to function properly, but this is not the sort of coaching that will launch a player into the Pro Bowl.
In the NFL, there really is very little coaching of technique that goes beyond the functionality of the play. One might think this single element should never consume so much of a coach or player's time, but it cannot be stressed how complicated each play can be. Every rule to every position has so many variables to it depending upon what you see lined up across from you. Even the most basic single play requires numerous repetitions in order for the the decision-making process to become second nature.
It is the pursuit of flawlessness of this component that is so time consuming for both players and coaches in the NFL, leaving only time after and before practice for a player to take initiative and actually put in hours working on his craft to be more than just a guy who knows his playbook.
The second job of a coach is to define key traits of their unit or team that must be emphasized on a daily basis. This tends to be things like toughness, hustling to the ball, not getting penalties or eliminating turnovers. The more these traits are emphasized daily in practice, the more they are embodied by the players and thus, the team.
If you have any hope for a promising draft pick to be great, you better make sure he is surrounded by great character veterans willing to help and provide a good example, or have a positional coach in place who was very savvy as a pro while possessing the skill to teach the very things that led to their own success (because being a great player does not guarantee you can be a good teacher).
If neither of these elements are in place, the most important quality that player must have is a relentless desire to be great, rare initiative, and unparalleled competitiveness, along with the mental aptitude to retain information.
The next time you hear someone suggest coach X will turn player Y into a star, remember, that head coach or coordinator is not going to do much of anything to make a player great. So they better be referring to a former player-turned-position coach.
An NFL coach's job is to teach plays, motivate and get all the pieces to work as a singular unit. The rest falls on the players' instincts and athletic ability.