Diner Morning News: First-Year Coaches

Michael LombardiContributor IJuly 20, 2009

IRVING, TX - NOVEMBER 23:  Head coach Mike Singletary of the San Francisco 49ers during play against the Dallas Cowboys at Texas Stadium on November 23, 2008 in Irving, Texas.  (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

National Football Post

Quote: “I think we're going to the moon because it's in the nature of the human being to face challenges. It's by the nature of his deep inner soul....We're required to do these things just as salmon swim upstream.”-Apollo mission press conference, quoted in Of a Fire on the Moon by Norman Mailer (1970) and First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong by James R. Hansen (2005). The first moon landing was 40 years ago.

Remember the old saying, “What’s the best thing about the first-year player? The answer is becoming a second-year player.” Well, the same applies to young head coaches in the NFL.

I can’t think of any job in the world that, no matter how well-prepared you think you are or how old you are, the first year isn’t a big learning experience.

There are ten NFL cities with new head coaches this season: St. Louis, Detroit, Tampa BayDenver, New York Jets, San Francisco, Kansas City, Indy, Cleveland, and Seattle.

Two of them, Jim Mora in Seattle and Eric Mangini in Cleveland, have been in the head-coaching chair before, so they’ve already been through the first-year experience.

This week, most NFL people have ended their vacations—even Brad Childress of the Vikings is back from fishing and is commenting on the Brett Favre situation. (Welcome back, Brad. The summer heat is about to get worse.)

The NFL is gearing up for training camps, so this week, I thought I’d examine the seven coaches who enter their first years as head coaches.

Today: We will start with Mike Singletary of the San Francisco 49ers.



Mike is a Hall-of-Fame player who retired after the 1992 season and became a successful author and motivational speaker before joining the NFL coaching ranks in 2003.

He was the linebackers coach in Baltimore for two seasons, then moved to San Francisco with Mike Nolan to be his assistant head coach. Singletary was promoted to interim head coach last season with nine games remaining and finished 5-4.


Les Steckel Effect

(For those too young to remember, Les Steckel was the head coach of the Minnesota Vikings for one season, 1984. He replaced Vikings legend Bud Grant and won three games but was fired immediately after the season. He attempted to install a Marine-like approach with his team but failed to win over any players.)

Since Mike had nine games in 2008 to sort through some of the problems, he was able to learn what buttons he could push with players and what buttons to avoid.

Yesterday in the Sunday Post, I used a great quote from Frank Leahy, the former Notre Dame head coach, who said the following:

“Superstars don't know how or why they do things right so easily. They are spoiled by how easy it is and impatient with those to whom it does not come easy, so they seldom make great coaches. The men who become coaches understand that most players must sweat and sacrifice for success and that the success of the team depends on the plodders as much as on the rare superstar.”

Mike had a superstar career, but his drive and his work habits were that of a plodder. Singletary made himself a great player through his preparation, his work habits, and his determination—the same qualities that are needed to make a successful head coach.

The challenge that awaits Singletary in his first full season will be to allow players to develop their own way of doing things. Just because they don’t approach the game in the same style and manner he did doesn’t mean they’re not as serious. The paths to hard work and preparation can have different approaches, so Singletary must allow this to happen.


They Didn't Tell Me This Would Happen

Something, anything—maybe some weird thing— is going to happen this year to Singletary, as it will to most other NFL coaches. It’s not in the head coach’s manual—if there was such a manual for coaches to read.

Each situation that Singletary faces, large or small, will force him to make a decision that will have an effect on the team, positively or negatively. So, for the first time in his career, he must think in a three-dimensional way.

Telling both quarterbacks, Alex Smith and Shaun Hill, that he wants to decide on a starter by the third preseason game sends a clear message to the team that every practice will be factored into the evaluation. This places greater importance on practice snaps, thus, creating better practices for the team. This shows the team that Singletary is not afraid to make a decision or place demands on the players, publicly and privately.

He must be the head coach for the whole team, not just the quarterbacks. And when he does make a decision, he must be like any teacher who hands out a syllabus before a class, explaining the grading process.


What Am I Going To Do on Game Day?

Head coaches must be involved on game days because they can inject their personalities into their teams by what they do on Sunday.

If they don’t call plays, their behavior on the sideline will set the tone for the team. For example, if the head coach screams at the officials, you will find an entire sideline screaming at officials. The team will follow the leader’s actions, good or bad.

Since Singletary does not call plays on either side of the ball, he must understand both sides of the ball in terms of game planning. He must know the personnel on each side of the ball, its strengths and weaknesses, without having to glance down at the depth chart. (This is a pet peeve of mine.

When I watched pregame warm ups, I would always look to see if the opposing GM or personnel director had a flip card for the game in his hands. If he did, I knew he hadn’t watched much tape on our team; if he had, there would be no need for him to carry a depth chart. The numbers on the backs of players’ jerseys would have been all he needed.)

Singletary must help each phase of the game, telling each coordinator his plans two or three moves before they occur. He must sense the key movements to make to either put the game away or win it. He’s like the director of a movie; he must have a keen sense of timing.


I Know When To Punt...I Think

Game management is the downfall of most first-year NFL coaches. It is not as easy as knowing when to punt or kick a field goal. It starts on Tuesday night before the game when you lay out your keys to victory.

Since Singletary does not call plays, he must be excellent in this area. If he makes mistakes here, he’ll lose the confidence of the team.

For first-year head coaches or for any coach, you must have someone in your office going over game situations each week, studying other NFL games to determine whether what the team did in each instance was the right move. The results of the actions are not as important as what the actions were.

Being a head coach for nine games last year will benefit Singletary in this area, but he must keep working on this phase of the game every day, allotting at least an hour of study time to prepare for the season.


I Wish We Had Done

Before the season is over, Singletary is going to wish he spent more time on game situations with his team. From OTAs to mini-camps, there’s never enough time to prepare the team for all game situations.

The other area that Singletary must examine closely is the fundamentals of his team. He must be able to know when his team needs more contact and when it needs a break. He’s like a horse trainer preparing for the big race; he must understand when to push harder and when to pull back.

For Singletary, this is going to be an area where he must not do as he would do but rather what the team needs.


I'm Going To Remember This One

In the U.S. Army, they have a Center for Army Lessons Learned, which is responsible for studying all wars, past and present, to determine how to improve techniques or planning or strategy and preparation.

This is a concept that Singletary needs to introduce to his staff so that each game is a learning experience. Win or lose, he must study all his actions in each game, making sure he doesn’t make the same mistake twice in any phase of the game.

Spending all day Monday on this area is more important than starting to prepare for the next opponent.


Things Will Be Different Next Year

There is much to do in order to be a successful NFL head coach, and Singletary, in spite of all his playing experience, is going to find that the last nine games last year and these games this year are going to be a continuing education.

Singletary must plan his work week with tremendous attention to detail. He must also have one or two people, either in or outside the building, to call for advice and counsel. He doesn’t need a committee; he needs someone who has his best interests at heart who knows the game and the problems he faces. Tony Sparano has Bill Parcells for advice; whom will Singletary rely on?

Can he be successful? Much will depend on his ability to manage the game as it relates to his team’s strengths. Much will depend on his growth from last year to this year as a coach, as a leader, and as a football man.

Much will depend on his ability to deal with change.  And much will depend on his ability to keep the confidence of his players through his decisions and actions.

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