March 22, 2011
The owners, players and lawyers have been the marquee participants in the NFL's labor drama, but among the most impacted parties should the current lockout last long into (or through) the preseason are the coaches who must try to put together coherent and winning game plans with severe disadvantages in their way. Especially for those coaches taking over new teams or getting their first chances as head coaches in the NFL, it's hard to know how to proceed when you're not supposed to talk to players who can't enter team facilities … and watch film on players you're not allowed to talk to or work out after you draft them. That five different teams are already either being fined or investigated for what NFL Commmissioner Roger Goodell called "illegal contact with players" underlines the difficulty in balancing communicating in a proactive fashion, and supporting the side of the labor battle you've been told to when all you want to do is start teaching.
At the 2011 owner's meetings, the confusion caused by the lockout was certainly a point of focus for every coach there. John Fox, who moved from Carolina to Denver and is now tasked with turning the Broncos around with John Elway above him on the org chart, said that while he was able to meet all his roster players before the lockout began, finds a common impact to each coach in this unique position. "We're all operating in the same situation. A lot is made of being a new coach, but there have been new coaches in this league forever. I don't think it's really that much of a factor in that way … Right now it's just a matter of implementing our systems.''
And the eternally positive Rex Ryan stayed true to form when asked about how the lockout affected him. "When you look at our team, it's kind of a shared sacrifice," Ryan said. "And we understand that. The thing I'm excited about is, when we play football -- and I have every confidence we will play football -- then we'll be returned to whole. Our entire organization will go back to 100 percent. And you know what? I want to be a New York Jet. I'm privileged to be a Jet, and I'd rather be at this organization than any other organization in football. If this is what it is, then so be it. It's just of these things that happen."
But "returned to whole" is a tougher concept to grasp if you're a first-time coach, just trying to get a grip. In past years, the NFL and NFLPA have agreed on an extra minicamp for each team with a first-year coach, so that those coaches could better implement their systems and hit the ground running. With no minicamps in their future barring either a court order or a miracle, rookies like Jim Harbaugh in San Francisco can only meet his new guys, as Fox has in Denver, and hope the playbook takes when it's done.
"Just talked to guys," Harbaugh said of the time he has had with his new charges. "Just meeting guys that happened to be in the facility, like any normal person would. Guys would come in, like Justin Smith(notes) or Parys (Haralson) or Aubrayo (Franklin) or Isaac Sopoaga(notes), Frank (Gore) … a lot of guys just came in and said hello. It was really meet-the-team. Just getting to know guys, conversations, the same as it would be right now. It wasn't playbook stuff. It wasn't scheme stuff. We're still finishing our playbook."
Once the draft prep is over, and those kids are in limbo with nothing organized to do from an NFL point of view, scheduling goes into a very strange place with players trying to get up to speed with who knows how much time to do so. Mike McCarthy head coach of the Super Bowl champion Green Bay Packers, talked about that.
"I think all of us will be nervous if you have a draft and this isn't resolved yet," McCarthy said of the work stoppage. "Now, your scheduling is shifting into another gear. To me, you can shake it anyway that you want. You can talk about nine weeks, 15 weeks, whatever, you still have a job to do and work to get done. That's not going to change. How you get that done is based on your time management, and the league controls that, which is fine, but it's going this way. That's always a concern that you've got less time to do the amount of work to get ready for a season."
Perhaps the most unnerving thing about being a head coach under these odd circumstances is what each of these men must know — at this time, the owners and players are focused on blaming each other. Once it's back to business as usual, any lag in preparedness will force a shift in responsibility to the coaches, who are perhaps the most under-represented key cogs in this fight.
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