Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve taken a deeper look at the offseason programs in the NFL through the eyes of both rookies and veterans as they start their prep for the 2014 season.
From OTA practices to lifting programs and coaching sessions on the field, players work on technique, conditioning, playbook install, etc.
But when a new head coach comes to town—and looks to change the “culture” of a football team—everyone is put on notice.
Today, let’s focus on the offseason environment that is created when there is a coaching change using some of my experiences from playing for Joe Gibbs and Gregg Williams in Washington.
Everyday Is an ‘Interview’
“Autograph your performance every time you step on the field.” – Gregg Williams’ message during his first defensive team meeting of the offseason in Washington.
When a new coach comes to town, there is nothing “voluntary” about the offseason program. That means guys are expected to show up for conditioning workouts, lifting sessions, meetings and OTA practices on the field.
Sure, we know there are players who are protected to a degree this year with coaching changes in Tampa, Houston, Cleveland, Tennessee, etc. Think of the top draft picks and the Pro Bowl talent on the depth chart.
But for the rest of the roster, the new coaching staff is watching to see how you handle yourself as a pro in the meeting room, weight room and on the field.
Do you fit the scheme, the locker room and the overall “culture” the new coach is trying to install?
When Coach Gibbs came to Washington (replacing Steve Spurrier), everything changed from the daily schedule to the practice script, and the locker room began to turn over with veteran cuts and free-agent additions.
Gone was the protection of Spurrier’s staff, and the competition on the field that spring reflected the coaching change at the top.
Shorts and helmets during OTAs? That didn’t matter. Those offseason practice sessions were full speed, and we went after each other as the evaluation process started to take shape.
In the secondary, we broke downhill on the ball (with contact at the point of attack), running backs dropped a shoulder at the second level, and the line play up front was a step away from being “live.”
The competition was legit and guys played through the whistle as we gradually installed Williams’ high-pressure defensive scheme on the field.
Pushing, shoving, some punches thrown after plays. We had it all.
As a result, we lost a week of OTAs when the NFLPA stepped in and reviewed some of our practice tape. It was too physical, and we had crossed the line according to the old CBA agreement.
But once we got back on the field after our one-week “vacation” from OTAs (courtesy of the league office), the competition level began to rise again.
And we continued to practice like our jobs were up for sale under the watchful eye of our new coaches.
New Terminology and Techniques
For rookies, everything is new from a playbook perspective as they make the difficult transition to pro-level schemes and coaching.
But for the veteran “holdovers” in Washington (players from Spurrier’s teams), we also had to erase all the terminology used the previous season along with the techniques that were taught on the field.
Time to start over, learn a new system and work with new coaches.
The veteran players around the league this year who are going through a coaching change will experience a similar transition as they fill up their notebooks and work through the new drills, footwork, etc., on the field.
That offseason in Washington, Cover 4 became our core call on defense and the pressure packages were complex, exotic and required extra reps to learn the system.
We were taught to use different run/pass keys, our footwork was a top priority, and “offensive ID” (ability to identify wide receiver splits, alignments, formations) became a key factor to executing Williams’ scheme.
And we started practice with conditioning drills.
Up-downs, shuttle runs, ladder sprints, the “Redskin” drill (run 100 yards, do an up-down every five yards), etc.
Williams wanted us to be tired during practice to see who could execute their pre-snap keys, adjustments and show the ability to play with technique while our legs felt like Jell-O.
On the offensive side of the ball, our players went from Spurrier’s passing attack to a scheme built on the power-running game under Gibbs with the Counter Trey and double tight end sets.
We should expect the major changes this offseason with Bill O’Brien, Jim Caldwell, Mike Zimmer, Jay Gruden, Ken Whisenhunt, Lovie Smith and Mike Pettine as they work through the process of building their new squads.
And the veterans quickly find out it’s not just the rookies who have to adjust. This applies to everyone on the team when there is a new headman running the show.
Set the Stage for Training Camp
The depth chart under a new head coach is fluid, and there will be plenty of changes (or movement) before the opening day lineup is set this September.
And while that will be played out during the preseason schedule, the position battles we always talk about during training camp (the ones that produce jobs or roster spots) begin to develop in the late spring.
This is the time for players to show the new staff that they deserve the opportunity to compete this summer through OTAs and minicamps.
As I’ve said before, no one is going to “win” a job in the spring. But with a new coach, don’t think for a minute that these reps lack value during the offseason program.
Whether during seven-on-seven, team drills or the individual periods that focus on technique, the film is always rolling.
And the evaluation process never stops.
The new staff is going to look for players who buy into the system and are willing to accept the coaching on the field.
They will push you, put you in adverse situations and ask (or demand) that you execute while they begin to dissect the roster during personnel meetings.
Remember, the organization made a change because the last coaching staff (and the players) didn’t meet the necessary expectations to win on Sundays.
Because of that, the new staff members are going to make sure they have the best personnel to fit their scheme, or their style of football, to meet a level of professionalism that produces wins this season.
I do believe coaching changes can be extremely hard on players as they lose a certain level of security when they step on the field.
However, that’s part of the job as a pro ball player.
And the new staff is going find out during the offseason program which players can put in the work, compete and show the accountability to be a part of the squad moving forward.
Seven-year NFL veteran Matt Bowen is an NFL National Lead Writer for Bleacher Report.
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