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The Art of Developing Players

As NFL teams continue to fill their coaching staffs around the league, the common questions that seem to get the most attention in the media are, “what system will they run” or “who is going to be the play caller” or “where did this guy come from”? Sure, these questions are important, but if I’m an owner or general manager doing the hiring, I would not lose track of something else that’s very important — player development. We still have to develop players at the NFL level and as a general manager, I want to know how good the coaches that we are considering as candidates will be at doing that? I’d want to know how they are as teachers and communicators before I’d hire them and/or our staff.

I would surely drill down on this question, face to face and with research. Have players improved and grown more productive under their direction?

In my opinion, this is important FOR SURE. If players don’t know what they are doing, they can’t improve at their trade. For our team to be successful, we have to make our players better. We just can’t roll out the ball, call the plays, and think if we get more reps than the other guy, we can overcome. Everyone is talented in the NFL. The common thread for me when looking at great coaches is their ability to communicate and teach. Sure, we want leaders of men. I get that. But a coach’s ability to identify how a player learns best and then, gets them to understand the message or the system and why it works, will go a long way toward determining the level of success a team might have.

I’ve been lucky to have had a chance to work with some of the best teachers of football ever. Mike Holmgren and Nick Saban are not just good teachers, both are GREAT teachers. I was fortunate to have an office right down the hall from both. Holmgren, in fact, started as a high school teacher and, along with Saban, has an uncanny ability to break complicated things down into the simplest form.

I’ve seen how players flourish under their direction. They are no different than my 9th grade Algebra teacher who struggled to get me to listen and understand the basic principles needed to take math to the next level. Both Holmgren and Saban have the ability to find the magic button and can identify how to get you to understand the basics or fundamentals. I’ve always asked, how can you apply anything to your trade, no matter the industry, if you don’t know what you’re doing?

It’s not a secret that NFL players improve most in years two and three with an organization. Why? My answer is because the light bulb has come on and their mind frees up their body to “play” with instincts and reactions. They actually “know what they are doing”. It sounds like a GIVEN, but it far from it, even at the NFL level. Coaches have to be teachers and good communicators, first and foremost.

Look no further than what Holmgren disciple, Andy Reid has accomplished in both Kansas City and in Philadelphia before that. A more specific example was the fourth-down play that he called, and more importantly, executed last week in the playoff game against Cleveland. A backup quarterback, under the brightest lights, ran it to perfection. To me that served as a shining example that all of his players had been taught, drilled and clearly understood each and every nuance of that play, and there were many. That one play was “high level intellect” on display. The poise they exhibited before the snap was another example of Reid’s detailed teaching and communicating ability.

It’s not a coincidence that the best coaches in this league, in my humble opinion, are the best teachers as well. It’s really not all about speaking eloquently nor is it all about personality or always saying the right thing. That is required as well, especially from the head coach (who also needs to coach and teach the coaches), but I always wanted teachers on my staff and their ability to develop players starts with the players knowing what they are doing.

Good teachers have flexibility in how they teach. Players all learn differently. The teacher has to adapt. I always believed this gave us an upper hand in a league where there’s always change. There is a constant learning curve where 35% of your roster, at minimum, is changing every year. The coaches are teaching more new players on a team each year now more than ever before.

This can be said for the general manager as well. The best ones are the ones who can define, for everyone, the criteria and direction of not only the team, but the individual players that will make it up. Scouts and personnel people need to be taught and coached as well. I see more young and inexperienced scouts on the road than ever before and they really have no idea what they are doing. They have just never been taught. It’s not their fault.

Their boss has just rolled out the ball and hoped they would report back with good information about players at the top of their list. Mentoring, coaching and more specifically, teaching and communicating are where it starts in the personnel department as well. Having been a GM at the NFL level, I know how your time is consumed away from the group or film room. You need someone on staff to still do this teaching and help direct (much like an assistant head coach). The teaching does not wait until you have time. Leaders develop people and an NFL organization is no different than the real business world.

Mike Singletary said “I want winners”. I’m saying, in order for that to happen consistently, “I want teachers and communicators and the winning will come”.

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