NFL football is back, and for this year's collection of rookie head coaches, the next few weeks could not be any more important.
We've got first-year head coaches in Cleveland (Mike Pettine), Houston (Bill O'Brien), Minnesota (Mike Zimmer) and Washington (Jay Gruden). Meanwhile, we've got a few head coaches in the first year of their second go-around in Tampa (Lovie Smith), Tennessee (Ken Whisenhunt) and Detroit (Jim Caldwell).
For players, training camp is the time to get back into the football grind. Make no mistake about it, football (and keeping one's body ready for football) is a year-round activity in the NFL, but camp takes it up a notch. For some players, they will never work harder than these moments—whether that's trying to make a team or trying to be part of a team that is taking things to the next level.
In a first-year coaching situation, both for new and "new to you" head coaches, these are the kind of "welcome to the NFL" moments that leave grown men wondering just exactly what they've gotten themselves into.
It's important for coaches to put their best foot forward. This is, after all, a league in which the acronym can just as easily stand for "Not For Long." In any coaching situation (especially Cleveland), a bad first year can mean a quick hook and a trip back to the career drawing board.
A good first training camp, however, can set a brand-new head coach and his team on the path to success.
Former Pittsburgh Steelers head coach and current NFL on CBS/Thursday Night Football analyst Bill Cowher took some time out of his busy schedule to discuss the topic with me, and he made this same point loud and clear within seconds of starting the phone call:
"Personally speaking, I always loved training camp. You really set the foundation for the season. You start over every year—never assume anything. You start from scratch. Eventually, things become more of a habit."
A new head coach only gets one shot at his first training camp, and how that head coach performs will largely define his tenure with his new team.
First Impressions Are Everything
Let's get one thing straight, lest anyone misunderstand me.
By "first impression," I don't mean anything coming out of training camp through the filter of team public relations or the media that covers the game. I mean, if the NFL draft is the time of unbridled optimism, training camp is the addict stumbling upon a gold mine of whatever substance or activity to which he or she is addicted.
When football returns, we eat it up like so many pigs at a trough.
Features on rookies that will never make the team but made one good play at one practice becoming the next big thing, interviews with player after player describing the new offense as "more uptempo" or the defense as "more aggressive" or "more multiple"—these are the hallmarks of training camp. It's not an indictment of the people covering it or the fans who fall hook, line and sinker for the same each and every year; it's just the reality of the situation.
We can't help ourselves.
No, rather, the first impressions I'm talking about here are the real impressions that matter: coaches upon their players, management and ownership. Generally, fans—by nature—are a fickle sort that will backtrack on even the most negative of opinions if the coach gives some reason to be positive. Timing, too, is important here because it's too early in a coach's regime to see any real psychological benefit from being a "Negative Nancy."
Teams have to be more pragmatic, though. This is a multi-billion-dollar business, and if the first impression of an integral piece of management is ineptitude, that sets a tone.
One has to feel for Pettine in Cleveland. New ownership realized that its given course with men like Michael Lombardi and Rob Chudzinski in charge wasn't going anywhere and made one of the quickest hooks in football history this side of Al Davis. Though Pettine likely got all sorts of assurances before he took the job, this is a results-oriented business for him and all of these coaches.
A new coach also needs to impress his new players.
Tom Bass spent 30 years as an assistant in the NFL with some of the greats of the game, including Paul Brown, Sid Gillman and Don Coryell. He's coached on both sides of the ball and has seen more football than most of us can ever hope to. He still serves the game as an advisor for USA Football and spends time mentoring coaches.
Bass passes on a piece of advice from Paul Brown:
"You get what you demand. If you let the inmates run the asylum, they’re going to do it. You need to have it very structured—good, sharp drills, eliminate stand-around time as much as you can."
There's an old canard about prison culture that says it's a good idea to pick the biggest, baddest alpha dog of the pack and knock him off his block. In theory, that tells everyone around not to mess with the new guy, but NFL training camp isn't really analogous to your binge-watching of Orange is the New Black, and that kind of attitude from rookie coaches is likely to get you shivved (metaphorically speaking, of course).
More from Bass:
"The biggest thing is that the players know you’re with ‘em and that everybody’s going to be treated the same. Some coaches pick their favorites, and players ultimately resent it. If you’ve got someone who’s not getting it and is a disruptive force on the team, you get rid of him. If you do it early in your career, players know that and they won’t make everything a test."
At certain levels of the game, coaches tend to pick an "us vs. them" mentality that just doesn't seem to work in the NFL. Maybe it worked for Denzel Washington playing Herman Boone in Remember the Titans, but it certainly didn't work for Greg Schiano in Tampa Bay.
Cowher, often known as a tough coach, explained his philosophy of pushing his players:
"If we didn’t have a fight in the first week, it was almost like we weren’t pushing the guys hard enough. To me, [training camp is] where you create mental toughness—a sense of focus. But you ask for so much, you have to pull back at times. There were times we might be ready to practice and I’d have the buses pull up and go to a movie."
It's one thing for a first impression to be a new coach's intolerance of players swimming across the stream of his team. Men like Pete Carroll and Marvin Lewis have made their careers letting players be themselves as long as they're all essentially working toward the same goal.
Pettine on Gilkey/Taylor scrum - it happens, frown on it but also part of attitude they're trying to build but close to crossing the line— Daryl Ruiter (@RuiterWrongFAN) June 11, 2014
Once a tone is set for a coaching regime, it's almost impossible to reverse course. If players, management or ownership sense ineptitude, friction or otherwise poor coaching early on, those impressions aren't easily overcome. Losses—especially early in the year—can set those impressions in stone.
One Shot to Establish a Culture
Connected to the impression a coach makes is the culture he intends to foster.
Intends is a pretty important word there, as head coaches in the NFL are more and more like CEOs than the foremen they are typically portrayed to be. Certainly, many coaches are hands-on with some positional groupings, but in many ways, a coach is only as good as the staff that he's assembled around him.
Bill O’Brien will immediately change culture inside Texans locker room for Texans. Leadership in the room will be a top priority— Lance Zierlein (@LanceZierlein) January 1, 2014
Cowher also explained that the culture isn't just about what the head coach is saying. When asked for the one piece of advice he would give to a first-year head coach before training camp, he said listening is the most important thing to do:
"Be a good listener. Listen to your players. Listen to your coaches. Yes, you have to establish certain things, but sometimes you force them by trying to get there a certain way.
"Some people will say that 'he's an offensive head coach' or 'he's a defensive head coach,' but as a head coach, you should have a pulse of your offense, defense and special teams. You should know what’s being said by team doctors, PR people and in the media. Always listen."
Although it's difficult to get much more "old-school" than Bass, who did most of his NFL coaching before I was born, he has an atypical approach to culture that starts with the assistants and doesn't include a lot of yelling:
"Most important thing is to make sure all the coaches are on the same page. I think that’s a hard thing to do, so you don’t have any undercurrents that players think they’re getting told one thing by one coach and other things by another.
"Make sure your staff is coaching from a positive position and that they’re good teachers. That, to me, is the most important thing at any level of coaching. I’ve gone out to colleges at the request of the head coach and I’ve seen assistant coaches that all they do is yell at guys ('don’t do this'…'don’t do that'). I tell the head coaches to get ‘em in the office and tell them to get in line."
That coaching from a positive position is more closely related to the typical NFL experience than many of us would believe. Being a "player's coach" is much more common than it used to be, and the league has little room for strict authoritarian types. Even the modern paragon of that line of thinking—New York Giants head coach Tom Coughlin—has softened his stance considerably over the years.
Mike Tannenbaum, the former New York Jets general manager and current agent for a number of NFL coaches, spoke to me about what he looked for in a coach while he was running an organization. Saying that he looked for men with "emotional intelligence," he believes it is important that the message the coach is trying to get across is both "consistent and authentic."
Positive, consistent, authentic—these are the kind of traits one looks for in any organization, not just football.
In his book, Quiet Strength, Tony Dungy explains the culture shift he had to oversee with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Though there were many practical matters he took on, he also describes listing for his players all of the reasons the Buccaneers could've used at that time to explain a losing season. Additionally, he discusses his expectations, first and foremost: "Be a pro" and "act like a champion."
In that section, Dungy also repeats the mantra: "No excuses, no explanations."
That's emotional intelligence. That's positivity.
Last year, Carroll took some time to explain his "Win Forever" philosophy and discussed what that means for his team. Although in January 2013 one couldn't predict with absolute certainty that the Seahawks would be winning a Super Bowl in the coming year, it was easy to see that they were on the right track. From Carroll:
"It's about being the very best you can be. Nothing else matters as long as you're working and striving to be your best. Always compete. It's truly that simple. Find the way to do your best. Compete in everything you do."
That's emotional intelligence. That's consistency.
In Raising Lombardi, by Ross Bernstein, Mike Ditka had this to say about his coaching style:
You gotta treat people with respect, too, that's the key. You can't treat everybody the same either. You had the same rules for everybody but you gotta handle people differently. Some people you gotta coddle, others you gotta be stern with. Once you were able to figure that out, then it was all downhill from there. Once you got your guys to buy into what you were selling, that was when coaching became less of a job and more about fun. Because when you're having fun, you're winning—and that's the name of the game in this business.
That's emotional intelligence. That's authenticity.
Players put up with less in 2014 than they did 50, 25 or even 10 years ago. It doesn't take much for a player to detect false bravado or to identify a coach who doesn't radiate that kind of positivity, consistency and authenticity. With players connected more than ever and social media covering teams 24/7/365, it just takes a 140-character practice report or a text from a college teammate to realize the grass might be greener elsewhere.
As mentioned earlier, players might put up with that if the team is also winning, but teams like Carroll's Seahawks are proving that this laid-back approach not only can work, but that it's a favorable way of operating.
Best Opportunity to Teach...I Mean Really Teach
Coaching and teaching are two different things that people often conflate.
In the great Venn diagram of everything that makes up coaching, teaching is certainly a big part of it (integral, even), but there are some good coaches that aren't great teachers and many great teachers that wouldn't make great coaches.
Things like fostering a culture, managing assets and people, maintaining structure, game-planning, etc. are all parts of coaching that take precedence at certain times, but teaching needs to happen in training camp because there's really no other time to do it.
The NFL has a time problem—there's not enough of it. While the new collective bargaining agreement prioritized player safety by eliminating full-contact elements from practice, the corollary of that is that it eliminated learning experiences that coaches might have wanted and end-of-the-roster players might have needed.
John Madden is a Hall of Fame coach and broadcaster whom many in this industry look up to. In his biography by Bryan Burwell, Madden explains how repetition fostered the success his Oakland Raiders teams enjoyed:
We didn't make mistakes, and if we had penalties, it wasn't because of a lot of mental errors: no offsides, no illegal motion. Our teams were smart. Our teams were disciplined. I wanted them to understand exactly what we were going to do in every situation.
If anything went wrong in practice that potentially undermined that discipline, Madden had one simple rule: "Run it again."
In the exact same way, Cowher says how important repetition is to success:
"You get to spring and have [offseason team activities]. It’s presenting your game plan, terminology. You’re installing a system. The one thing you have to do with football is that it has to be reactionary.
"In training camp, you start to see the team practice...see them at full speed. You see what you have as team.
"[Repetition is] huge. Repetition is how you create habits. It’s how you create trust. Football is so much about timing, angles, communication. The only way you can do that is with repetition—over and over. Everyone has to be on the same page. That’s about repetition."
The NFL has 32 head coaches, and I truly believe each is talented in his own way, but not all 32 are great teachers. It takes more to be a teacher, and even more when the repetitions are limited under the new CBA.
Gruden: McVay has done a good job of getting Griffin's head right. "That's something that has to be done with every quarterback in the NFL"— Mike Jones (@MikeJonesWaPo) July 23, 2014
For a new head coach, though, many of the other facets of coaching have to take a backseat at this time. Every single proverbial duck needs to be in a row so the team can be taught. Tannenbaum told me what he would tell a prospective client in this situation:
"Be as organized as you can be, knowing that there’s going to be unexpected events that occur—both positive and negative. Worry about the things you can control."
Coach Bass, of course, is a big proponent of teaching—it's something he still does as much as he can. Repeatedly, he urged that one of the major roles of head coaches is making sure that assistant coaches are taking players aside and teaching, not just yelling.
"If you tell a guy he got beat deep, s---, he knows that."
Robert Blanton: After playing deep ball defense, Zimmer took him aside, showed him some technique. Next rep, he picked off pass. #Vikings— David McCoy (@DavidMcCoyWCCO) July 25, 2014
As for methods, Bass knows that there's a wide variety when it comes to how coaches handle teaching their scheme:
"There are really two different schools: Throw everything at them. Guys that can absorb it and accept it will be your better players. Other school says we’ll go very slowly and we’ll make sure everything we coach is perfect for that play."
While the methods are different, the intended result is the same: Training camp is the only real opportunity to make sure the team is prepared for the season to come. If one of these rookie head coaches is planning on installing anything in-season—Cowher conceded that coaches often like to hide things like that—he's already behind the eight ball.
In the results-oriented world of the NFL and those that cover it, we won't start talking about things like hot seats and "first coach to be fired" for quite a while, and no one should really believe they have a handle on which of these rookie head coaches should go until the dust has settled on their hiring.
That's coverage, however, and the reality is that things may be too late for one or more of these coaches by the time any of us realize it, as the seeds for their success or failure will be sown in their very first, very important training camp.
Michael Schottey is an NFL National Lead Writer for Bleacher Report and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. Find more of his stuff on his archive page and follow him on Twitter. Unless otherwise cited, all quotes were obtained firsthand by the author.