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Old guys, young guys, and rookies

Posted Mar 28, 2014

 

ORLANDO, Fla.- Mike Zimmer called it a political caucus ("Just come out here and talk"), but as Jay Gruden looked around his first head coaches' media breakfast this week at the NFL annual meeting, he looked like he was running for student council.

"There are new guys at most of these tables," Gruden said. "That's why you admire guys like Tom Coughlin, Marvin Lewis. Rex (Ryan) has had a good run now. Sean Payton is going to have a great run.  I don't know what it is…Obviously, it starts with winning." 

Gruden is in that other Oval Office now in Washington D.C. after three seasons of running the Bengals offense. There aren't too many two-termers in the NFL's executive branch. Only the Patriots' Belichick has been with a team longer than Lewis as he begins his FDR-like 12th season in Cincinnati. When Lewis became the coach in January of 2003, Barack Obama had just become chairman of the Illinois Senate's Health and Human Services Committee, Vontaze Burfict was in junior high, training camps still had two-a-days, and Facebook and Twitter were a gleam in the eye of geeks.

"You've got to be flexible to survive. If you don’t change, they're going to leave you behind. Move the cheese," said Lewis alluding, to the title of one of his favorite leadership books. 

Everything is big now. At Lewis' first national media appearance at the Arizona Biltmore in 2003, the Bengals'  web guy along with a couple of fellow unwashed scribes looking for a seat to eat their eggs were the only guys that first sat down to breakfast. This week the NFL Network put its boons over bagels to go live.

"You've got five people asking you questions when you're trying to get to the bathroom and not be rude," he said of the March Madness media atmosphere outside the meeting rooms. "It's just the growth. It has to grow and it certainly has. It's probably the decline of the newspapers and the evolution of the internet. Everything is web-based. It's quite a change."

The key to longevity in the NFL, they say, is change.

“Everyone has to adjust. You better adjust,” Coughlin says, and Lewis has changed well enough that people are noticing. Like Mike Zimmer.

It can be no surprise that Gruden and Zimmer, Lewis' aides de camp that got their own teams this year, are two rookies that are looking at how their old boss in Cincinnati has stayed at the same table all these years.

Zimmer has gone as far to replicate some of the Bengals concepts. He says he’s literally re-building the team room as he and Vikings general manager Rick Spielman re-craft the roster. Zimmer even called old friend Bill Connelly, the director of operations for the Bengals, to get the specs of the team meeting room as Zimmer carves out a chunk of the Vikes’ indoor facility to get a Paul Brown Stadium-like amphitheater.

“I’m trying to make this a team. A fit here, a fit there,” Zimmer said. “That’s why one of the first things we did is build the team meeting room. The team meeting room in Minnesota…I’ve got to talk to one group over there. ..It’s just a flat room. I wanted to make it so I can teach. I want to make it a learning environment.”

With the 2011 collective bargaining agreement severely cutting back time on the field and in the classroom, coaches like Lewis have adjusted by opening up time in that classroom. It’s a dilemma that bothers even an 11-year coach that has won two Super Bowls.  The Giants’ Coughlin says he’ll be worrying if he gave his guys enough time to get ready, which is maybe why his teams’ preparation borders on legendary.

“You’ve got some of the best coaches in the game, and we don’t feel like we have a real handle on it yet,” Coughlin said of the new work rules. “You tinker, you tune, you change from one year to the next. I'll give you just one example.

“You can't practice a lot, but you can jog through. How are you going to make these jog throughs more competitive and realistic and let the player feel the pressure of learning to perform in a jog through? That's a challenge. Look at training camp and it’s, ‘Oh my God, we’ve got another jog-through coming up, here we go.’ Believe it or not, you can get more done at the opposite ends of the field, but you probably mentally, at some point in time, you need to go against each other in a jog through just the pace picks up a little bit.”

Lewis thinks the rules have hurt the fringe players such as late-round picks and college free agents that are coming back for their second seasons. So he’s jacked up the minutes of the meetings when the offseason workouts begin, which, by the way, start April 21 this year as opposed to this week in March back in 2003.

“We never did the classroom much until we started OTAs,” said Lewis of the on-field work that begins in May. “Now with the way the work rules are, we actually begin in the classroom and we split our time every day. Two days a week we spend in the classroom. We've moved ahead and done more football than we used to do.

“Every place I'd been, Baltimore, Pittsburgh and when I started in Cincinnati, we kind of left it up to the young player to come in and spend time with the coach. Now we put everybody together and have three segments of meetings throughout the day and we can manage the guys through their training program.”

And the kids have changed. In part, that’s because Lewis has seen the college game change.

“The players are different because the expectation is that everyone makes this great amount of money,” he said.  “They make good money, but they can only make it for a small proportion of time and so they better do the right thing with it. From the fundamental standpoint, the guys aren't quite as fundamentally sound as they used to be.”

Now, the scouting process includes checking Facebook posts and Twitter feeds.

“We have somebody who goes through that,” Lewis said. “I will tell you it's more important in college right now than it is for our guys. They think it's a cool thing in college. If you go to Alabama, or Missouri, or Tennessee, or where ever, and you're tweeting and you have these followers, it’s the natural reaction of the fans. They think someone cares. No one here cares where you went, what you're eating. Can you imagine that with Chad (Johnson) in '04 when he began to be a good player?”

You could make the argument that a Pro Bowl player like Johnson helped make Twitter. And, that maybe twitter took a guy that already had focus problems and accelerated his decline. Maybe. You can debate it, but there’s no question that coaches have to address it.

“We’ve had our incidents like everyone else,” Coughlin said. “I don’t go on it, but I have people that do.”

Lewis’ greatest skill is probably relating to his players. If there’s one thing that has been a constant in the ebb and flow of franchise quarterbacks, torn ACLs, blown Achilles, free agency, the salary, cap the CBA, the tweets, it has been Lewis’ ability to recruit and retain and then get players to respond.

(Forget there are no players from his first team and just one left from his first division title in 2005 in Robert Geathers. How about there are just seven players left from the second AFC North title in 2009?)

 The irony is that the early Lewis had been hesitant to play young players. But as he’s gotten older, his best players have gotten younger. Any proof that he’s still got it came two years ago when he pulled  Burfict out of the train wreck, fed him exactly what he needed to hear, and is the main reason an undrafted free agent became a Pro Bowler at age 23. Burfict had not yet turned two when Lewis coached his first NFL game in 1992 after 10 seasons in college.

“I love coaching in college. I love coaching here, so I think I'd be changing with the times regardless,” said the 55-year-old Lewis.

Gruden certainly is taking notes. It is Lewis’ interaction with the players that he has in mind as he takes control of his own team.

“He's a father figure to those guys. He treats them all with respect. He didn’t take a lot of stuff on the field or off the field,” Gruden said. “He was great with discipline, but he also maintained that loose type ship. Overall, he had a consistent approach every day, which is important.  He didn't treat anybody any differently. He didn't treat A.J. Green any differently than he treated Dane Sanzenbacher.”

Gruden gets it, though. He can’t be Marvin Lewis.

“I don’t know how I'll be. I'll be myself, we'll go from there,” Gruden said. “If they need a kick in the rear, you kick them in the rear. If they need a pat on the back, you pat him on the back. Hopefully, I'm good judge when to do both.”

And not only with your players, but your coaches. Coughlin just went through some shuffling on his staff, as Lewis did this offseason with the departures of Gruden and Zimmer.

 “You have to surround yourself with great people,’ said Coughlin of his survival. “You have to delegate. You learn along the way. I learned it. You have to delegate. One of the themes here (at the meeting) is the cultural discussions. You better make sure your assistant coaches are conducting themselves in the classroom by expounding on the same virtues that you do. Not, you say one thing and then it’s not carried out the way you want it carried out. That’s part of what I’m talking about when I say delegation and trust and responsibility.”

And it took the Old Coach, who’ll be 68 when the Giants kick off for real in 2014, to offer some of the best advice any coach could get. He said it to the rookies, but it could have been to Lewis and Belichick, too.

“Hang on. Grab a hold and hang on,” Coughlin said. “They got the job because they're pretty good football coaches. Don’t forget that.”

 

 

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