The new coaches’ biggest jobs.
Spoke to the four head coaches named in the past week and explored with each what I consider their biggest tasks, at least immediately.
Jim Caldwell, Detroit: Fixing Matthew Stafford.
Stafford got sloppy at the end of the season, throwing 11 interceptions in his last six games and presiding over an offense that slumped badly; the Lions lost six of their last seven, and a team that once seemed like a lock to win the winnable NFC North dissolved, their season ending with another coach firing. Out with Jim Schwartz, in with Caldwell, who gets his second chance (Indianapolis, 2009-11) with a team that, of all the openings, has the most talent.
Stafford reached his zenith in 2011, with a 41-touchdown, 5,038-yard season, but he’s been only a 59-percent passer in the two seasons since—with some great days, but also some inconsistent ones.
Said Caldwell: “I’ve watched every throw Matthew made last season, because when I came here and met with him, I wanted to have some familiarity with him. We didn’t go through film together, but we talked about what I saw, and I listened to him, and it was very beneficial. We have used a set of drills in coaching over the years that I think has added some consistency to all the quarterbacks we’ve coached. The great majority of poor throws—people look at the arm, and that’s important obviously, but I think footwork is the key. I can pull up any game film and show you how our footwork drills help you. In a nutshell, the feet and eyes work together. If I’m throwing in a particular direction, my footwork is pointing in the same direction—directly at the target. We’ll work on it with Matthew, and he will do them flawlessly.”
Jay Gruden, Washington: Getting the most out of Robert Griffin III.
For the St. Louis Rams, the 2012 trade of the second pick in the draft—which Washington used to select Griffin—is the gift that keeps on giving. Four starting Rams have come from the deal, and there’s still the second pick in the draft this year remaining. For Griffin, who never formed the bond there should have been with coaches Mike and Kyle Shanahan, the Gruden addition is vital. Gruden will be judged by wins and losses, to be sure, but also by whether he can coach and teach Griffin into becoming the franchise quarterback he was drafted to be.
“I worked with Andy Dalton for three years in Cincinnati, and built a foundation of concepts and protections that I think worked well with him,” Gruden said. “With Robert, we’ll obviously use his skill set differently. When it comes to the quarterback position, my job is to make him comfortable and productive. I’m not going to try to turn RG3 into Andy Dalton or Drew Brees. He isn’t them. They’re not him. I would be foolish to try to turn RG3 into a pocket passer. It would be foolish. The way he is as a runner, we have to take advantage of that. He strikes fear into defensive coordinators when he runs outside. I’m going to let him be himself.”
It sounds good. But Griffin, as himself, averaged 132 rushes per year in his four Baylor seasons. He ran it 120 times as an NFL rookie in 2012, when he was the Offensive Rookie of the Year. He’ll be 24 when next season starts, and has already had two ACL surgeries. Do you really want Griffin to “be himself” if that self wants to get out of the pocket and run so much? I understand Gruden, but I also would want to limit my young franchise quarterback’s exposure to danger in the open field—unless he was committed to sliding at the first sign of trouble, which Griffin hasn’t shown a willingness to do consistently.
Ken Whisenhunt, Tennessee: Developing some quarterback, who may not be on the team yet.
After the Cards narrowly lost the Super Bowl five years ago and Kurt Warner retired after the following season, Whisenhunt spent the next three years mining for a quarterback. He went through Derek Anderson, John Skelton and Max Hall in 2010, Kevin Kolb and Skelton again in 2011, then Kolb, Skelton and Ryan Lindley in 2012. The result: an 18-30 record, and a horrible composite passer rating of 65.8.
“It’s easy to look at that and say we didn’t develop a quarterback,” Whisenhunt said. “When Kevin got hurt [both in 2011 and ’12] is when we struggled. And after the Super Bowl, we lost Karlos Dansby, Anquan Boldin, Antrel Rolle, Calvin Pace, Antonio Smith and some linemen, and that hurt. But the one thing I can’t argue with is we didn’t have consistent play at quarterback. The mistake I made when I look back now was changing guys out—we went through too many—and what results from switching them out a lot is you see things that are open, and the new guy misses the read or makes the wrong check. One of the things I’ve learned is the approach of the quarterback has to be almost the gym-rat kind of approach. I had that with Philip Rivers [as San Diego's offensive coordinator] this year, through the roof. He can’t get enough of it. Push me, push me, coach me. That’s him. That’s exactly what Russell Wilson is. So passionate. You are not gonna keep him from being successful.”
Too early to tell if Jake Locker is Whisenhunt’s guy. He’s been battling for the starting job and/or hurt and/or inaccurate (57.2 completion rate) in his three seasons. Whisenhunt is right to withhold his seal of approval from Locker.
“I haven’t studied him as much as I need to,” Whisenhunt said. “I have seen good, and I have seen bad. No question he has ability, and I have heard good things about him. The question is, can he harness the ability, and can he be consistent?” That’s been the question about Locker since he was a phenom at the University of Washington.
Mike Zimmer, Minnesota: Building a program.
The Vikings want a tougher team. They want a more physical team and one with a hard-hitting defense. And in hiring Zimmer, they got a man who led the Cincinnati defense for six years, each year finishing in the top half of the league in team defense: 12th, fourth, 15th, seventh, sixth and third. He learned under Bill Parcells while a defensive assistant in Dallas in Parcells’ last head-coaching stop, and he thinks he can learn today from Bill Belichick.
“I’ve got so much respect for Belichick and the Patriots,” he said. “They’ve taken so many guys either people don’t know or who were on the street, and blended into one cohesive unit fighting for each other. I realize that’s a cliché, but it’s what I believe. Bill Parcells used to call players independent contractors, and so the first thing you’ve got to do—the first thing we’ll do here—is make sure everyone’s on the same page. I want the wide receivers and offensive linemen to know they’re not just operating alone; they have to rely on each other to succeed. And we’ll demand they do all the fundamental things the right way. That’s how you get your program started right.”
A quarterback would help. Expect the new offensive coordinator, Norv Turner, to mold a high draft choice into the quarterback of the future, with a veteran like Matt Cassel to back up and start if need be.
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The excommunication of a Pope.
We see the news about head coaches being hired every day, and we wonder what schemes they’ll install, what impact they’ll make and what coaches they’ll import. But what about the exported coaches? What do they do? Where do they go?
The Giants parted ways with tight ends coach Mike Pope Thursday. Pope loved the Giants. He worked for them for 23 years as a tight ends coach, first under Bill Parcells, last under Tom Coughlin. He is the only coach with his name on all four Giants Super Bowl trophies (from the 1986, 1990, 2007 and 2011 seasons). The divorce has to hurt. He loves the Giants so much that one of his four grandchildren is named “Wellington,” after late Giants owner Wellington Mara. He did not want to leave, and does not intend to retire, at 71. “I had the option to retire as a New York Giant,” Pope said over the weekend, “and I chose not to. I still want to coach. But this is a big-boy business. I understand. There’s going to be a new coordinator, Ben McAdoo, and I’m not going to be here for the next 10 years of something new.” Pope said he hopes to be in a new spot this week.
“This is my drug,” Pope said. “Trying to make players better every day is what inspires me. Everyone’s got their own way to live on this planet and their own jobs to figure out, and mine is to coach football players. I have listened to people in this business say, ‘Ten years to retirement,’ or however many years, and I think, “That’s not me. That will never be me.’ ”
Every summer when I went to Giants camp, I liked to watch Pope coach. In 2000, when I stopped by, I watched Pope for an entire practice. I thought he had such good ideas and coaching techniques. On this day, he was working with his four tight ends—Howard Cross, Adam Young, Mark Thomas and Dan Campbell. Pope gave Campbell and Cross footballs, each with five feet of rope attached. He handed the end of Cross’ rope to Young, and the end of Campbell’s rope to Thomas. He had Cross cradle the football and begin running, and he said: “Adam, you start tugging on the rope. Get the ball away from him! Pull hard!” They did it again. Young yanked. Cross lost it. “I’m not sure I like this drill,” Cross said. Pope then made his point to his charges: “Hey, this is what defenses get paid to do. We cannot fumble.” Thomas and Campbell did it a few times. They followed with 10 minutes more of quick ball reaction drills. Pope would yell: “Down!” and the player would fall to the ground, and just as he’d be coming up, Pope would fire a pass from 10 yards away over the guy’s head. To get it, the player would have to be very quick, with very good hands.
Turns out Pope is like so many personal trainers. Workouts are boring, so the smart trainers make every workout different. Football practices are boring to many players. So variety was his spice of life. Once, when he knew the Giants were going to play in a stadium that had portions of the field in shade and some in bright sunlight, he put his tight ends, one by one, in a shed near the Giants’ practice field and had them, one by one, come out from the dark into the sun with a ball immediately being fired at them.
“I had 368 of those drills at one time,” he said. “Players learn in different ways, with different drills, and there’s more than one way to accomplish what you want. Drills should match what players are going to experience in games. There has to be a reason for everything you do. If Tiger Woods is going to spend one hour practicing three-foot putts, he is trying to refine and perfect some technique, and you have to respect that.”
The Giants were famous for taking late-round and undrafted tight ends (Kevin Boss, Jake Ballard) and handing them to Pope expecting NFL contributors to surface. Now that job will fall to someone new. Pope gets it. I get it. But the Giants will miss those 368 drills.
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Speaking of coaches …
Norv Turner joined his ninth NFL team Friday, agreeing to become Mike Zimmer’s offensive coordinator in Minnesota. He’s had quite a geographical tour of America in his 30 seasons in the NFL, since taking the receivers coach job with John Robinson’s Rams in 1985:
|West||L.A. Rams, San Diego, San Francisco, Oakland||16|