Head Coaches and Their Head Games

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Pat Kirwan   By Pat Kirwan
NFL.com Senior Analyst

(Aug. 20, 2006) — Sure, teams are working overtime to get the offense, defense and special teams installed and running like a finely tuned engine, but the head coach at every one of the 32 teams has other work to do.

Tatum Bell better shape up or he's going to lose his job to an undrafted rookie.  
Tatum Bell better shape up or he’s going to lose his job to an undrafted rookie.    

With complications and personalities of the players evolving over the past 15 years — due to free agency, contract issues and public scrutiny of every move a team makes — the head coach’s job has become even more important.

The head coach has to galvanize the 53 players into a team as fast as possible. In some cities he has to change the culture in the locker room from a losing one to a winning one. In towns where winning is a way of life, the coach has to bring the players down a few notches this time of year so they don’t get knocked off by a team on the rise. More than a few head coaches have a superstar or two who want to do everything their way, and the coach has to demonstrate to those players that the “tail doesn’t wag the dog.”

Each and every practice is a challenge to every head coach, and unless he has incredible organizational skills, there just isn’t time to install the offense or defense, call the plays and manage the team. Believe me — someone else can call the plays, but no one else can manage the team. Joe Gibbs has always called the plays in his Hall of Fame career, but not this year. Now Al Saunders takes over those duties so Gibbs can bring his team together and keep it together. Mike Holmgren stepped down from his GM duties and just focused on managing his football team. One year later the Seahawks were in the Super Bowl.

Head coaches must quickly become master psychologists or they can disappear from this business. Right now the clubs are in the dog days of camp and meaningless preseason games, so the motivational techniques are different than they might be late in December with the playoffs on the line.

Here are a few examples of head coaches working on “head games” from the past week or so in an attempt to get their team on the right course for the season:

1. Art Shell, Oakland Raiders. Shell has had to set WR Jerry Porter straight on who the boss is and how things are going to be done in Oakland under his watch. But the other day a significant number of Raiders players weren’t practicing to Shell’s satisfaction, so he brought the team together on the practice field and then threw the team off the field. Players don’t have much love for practice, but they really don’t like being told they can’t practice. Shell got the attention of the team. My experience is this coaching ploy works once in a while and can’t be used more than once or twice a season before it loses its effect.

2. Tom Coughlin, New York Giants. Coughlin wasn’t very pleased with the production of his defensive tackles, so it was rumored in most media outlets that Grady Jackson was in town and Brentson Buckner was soon to follow. The Giants defense held the Chiefs to 40 yards rushing on 17 carries the next night and Coughlin said he felt the defensive tackles played a little better. Pressure to be replaced is a great motivational tool and can be used every time there are viable candidates out there on the street.

It started with a hamstring injury, and now Terrell Owens is working on his words.  
It started with a hamstring injury, and now Terrell Owens is working on his words.    

3. Bill Parcells, Dallas Cowboys. Parcells is one of the greatest head games coaches to ever walk the sideline. Terrell Owens is his latest project, and his constant referencing of the high-profile receiver as “the player” doesn’t even let Owens feel like he’s part of the team yet. The other day Parcells responded to a question about Owens with, “I don’t know the player that well yet.” Believe me — Owens is going to practice a lot more than he expected to practice this year, or he simply will not play.

4. Herm Edwards, Kansas City Chiefs. He’s the new head coach and the team has a lot of older veterans, so Edwards simply stated after their second preseason loss, “We are living off what people say about us.” Edwards was using the media to tell his team it isn’t as good as the players think it is right now, and if they don’t change their attitude to one with a bigger sense of urgency, then it could be a long season. Edwards is a former player and a head coach who brought another team to the playoffs, so he can be very effective when firing off warning shots.

5. Rod Marinelli, Detroit Lions. Marinelli is trying to change the culture in the Lions locker room, and the team was making progress until the preseason game against the Browns. Following the contest he said, “We took a step back in this game.” The coach knows this team isn’t ready to win, but he didn’t want to bash them either. A step back suggests that they are headed in the right direction and they hit a bump in the road. Marinelli is trying to get a team with a losing history to trust him and raise the standards. If the team continues to lose and he continues to use kid gloves, the media will label him a “players coach” and suggest he isn’t tough enough on the team. Don’t count on Marinelli keeping the gloves on all summer long. He’s going to push these guys a little harder every week.

6. Scott Linehan, St. Louis Rams. He’s dealing with a group that is starting to feel better about itself than it should be at this point in the team’s development. He’s trying to keep his squad in reality and not a group building a house of cards. Linehan cautioned his team about “false progress.” This week he explained that issue by saying, “I don’t want us to think we have it figured out yet.”

7. Bill Cowher, Pittsburgh Steelers. Cowher is trying to prepare to repeat as a Super Bowl champion, and naturally he has players who feel their contracts don’t reflect their status around the league. Cowher is excellent when one-on-one with his players and he has a great knack for keeping the team glued together by establishing trust on an individual level. Joey Porter wants a new contract, and often players don’t show up when they are in this mindset. The Broncos and Patriots are still waiting for Ashley Lelie and Deion Branch, respectively, to show up to camp. But Porter has already sat down with Cowher, and while he’s frustrated, Cowher still got him to be at practice. Porter trusts Cowher, and my experience is a coach has to build the kind of relationships Cowher has one player at a time. No team speech, press conference or captain’s meeting is as powerful as a one-on-one situation.

Finally, the challenges each and every head coach faces with his team on a daily basis will ultimately determine what kind of team he has for the season. There are a lot of different styles among the 32 head coaches in the NFL, and no one way is the right way. I talked with a number of head coaches around the league and they are constantly thinking of ways to reach the players, build a team, deal with a crisis and make sure the athletes have not tuned them o

~ by Sactown Raider Boosters on August 21, 2006.

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