First-year coaches off to fast starts
As a Georgia native who attended Georgia Tech and has spent his entire 11-year NFL career with the Atlanta Falcons, Keith Brooking knows the roads of the Peachtree State the way salmon know their home stream.
And for a short time in 2007, Brooking wasn’t sure he wanted to drive them anymore.
“It got to a point last year where I would be driving to Flowery Branch,” Brooking said, referring to the Falcons’ training facility north of Atlanta, “and I really wished I was driving somewhere else.”
A little more than halfway into the current campaign, Brooking is once again enjoying the ride through his hometown state.
While Brooking’s story has some unique twists, including a star quarterback who went to prison and a coach who quit on the team, it’s not so unlike those of players from other struggling NFL franchises who have been revived by the new direction of a first-year coach.
The four teams with new coaches (excluding interims)– the Falcons (6-3), Miami Dolphins (5-4), Washington Redskins (6-3) and Baltimore Ravens (6-3) – are all above .500 and in the thick of the playoff hunt.
“I’m just so happy for the 25 guys who were here last year and endured a really tough season,” said Dolphins coach Tony Sparano, referring to the 1-15 season of ’07 under the one-year stewardship of Cam Cameron.
The satisfaction of getting above break-even was obvious to anyone who saw Sparano’s reaction at the end of the Dolphins’ 21-19 victory over Seattle on Sunday.
“That’s one of the things we talked about earlier this season, learning how to win close games,” Sparano said. “A lot of it is learning to avoid things that lose games for you. That’s a big thing we’ve talked about.”
Sparano, Atlanta’s Mike Smith, Jim Zorn in Washington and Baltimore’s John Harbaugh aren’t simply in their first year with their teams. They are in their first year as NFL head coaches; none of them retreads in a league that used to recycle coaches so effectively its motto could have been “Go Green.”
Denny Green, that is.
The so-far Fantastic Fresh Four have a number of common traits on their teams that have made life easier. Good running games and solid-to-great defenses are obvious foundations on which to build competitive teams. Even more, all of the new coaches have a willingness to build a communication between players, fellow coaches and just about anybody who has anything to do with the team. That was Smith’s first task after he was a mild surprise among NFL circles as Atlanta’s head coach in January.
“I made it a point to introduce myself to everyone in the building when I first got here, not just the people working in football operations,” Smith said. “I wanted everyone to know how important they were to what we were trying to accomplish.”
Smith’s approach was a far cry from predecessor Bobby Petrino, a man so uptight he didn’t even want players to talk during the Sunday pregame team meal, as several current and former Falcons have said. Rather than keep players at arm’s length, Smith has invited many of them into his office for regular meetings.
Smith formed The Over-30 Club, for all of the veteran players older than 30. The point is to discuss issues and keep a pulse of the team. While there have been some changes – Smith took the advice of players and shortened the time between meetings and practice – the more important element is the communication and ultimately empowerment the players feel.
“I may not always do what the players want, but I want them to know that I’m going to listen and I’m going to think about it,” Smith said.
In Miami, veteran defensive lineman Vonnie Holliday consistently talks about Sparano’s thoughtful approach. Linebacker Channing Crowder commended Sparano for not forcing him to do silly things, such as wear pads in practice he would never wear in a game.
In Baltimore, Harbaugh has demanded more active practices, particularly in training camp. Veterans went along with it and Harbaugh earned points with them by streamlining practices.
“We’re not out there just standing around, wasting time,” Ravens wide receiver Derrick Mason said. “It’s a high-tempo, but we’re on and off the field fast. Coach wants to get a lot done, but he’s not making us spend all day out there.”
Down I-95 in Washington, Zorn has taken the same approach with the Redskins. The morning walk-through practices have become “run-throughs.”
“That’s what we’ve started calling them because we want to get a lot done in a hurry,” said Washington assistant coach Joe Bugel, a staffer during the great Redskins days of the 1980s under Joe Gibbs. “We’re not out there for an hour, an hour and 15 minutes all the time. It’s 30 minutes and it’s fast, up-tempo. A lot of us have had to learn to coach on the run.”
Like the other new coaches, Zorn has been an outstanding communicator and, above all, has avoided creating walls between himself and the players.
“Jim has things that are important to him that he’s not going to waver on, but it’s not like he has a whole lot of rules,” Bugel said. “And he has a great funny bone, a way of making fun of himself so that the players know they can talk to him anytime they need to.”
While predecessor Gibbs was roundly respected by his team and has an indisputable résumé, some players considered him unapproachable and distant at times.
“Coach Zorn is demanding, but it’s not like you feel scared to say something,” quarterback Jason Campbell said. “He’s going to listen to you.”
Thus, so far, so good.
Of course, there’s a cautionary tale in all of this, an outsider said.
“Everything is great right now because they’re winning. Good for them. But didn’t (Scott) Linehan start fast in St. Louis?” Bengals receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh said, correctly noting that Linehan started 4-1 in 2006, but quickly crashed to 11-25 overall. The Rams fired him after four games this season.
“It’s not just about how you start in this game,” Houshmanzadeh said.