Good Guy of the Week
Derrick Mason, wide receiver, Baltimore.
Last summer I watched Mason sign every last autograph after a Ravens' training-camp practice in Westminster, Md. I mean, he signed for 57 minutes, maybe one every five or seven seconds, all the while sprinkling in comments and answers to questions all these kids and adults had. Remarkable, really. And I was told this isn't something Mason does two or three times in camp. It's something he does every day. "Why not do it?'' he told me. "These people come to support us, every year. Maybe they can't make it to a game, or they can't afford to go to a game. They're big fans, too. They deserve our attention.''
Knock me over with a feather, why don't you.
I have owed the "Good Guy of the Week'' to Mason all season, and I should have gotten to him earlier. The other day I asked Mason about the Plaxico Burress story, and how much it was impacting his life, and the life of his teammates. "We've talked about it quite a bit,'' he said. "Plaxico is a colleague of ours, even if a lot of our players are not close to him. He made a terrible mistake, and I hope it doesn't, but it could cost him his career. You've got to be smart when you go out. You've got to go to the right places with the right people. The way the world is now, with the economy hurting so bad, people are desperate out there. And when people are desperate, they might do crazy things.''
I asked Mason about owning a gun. "I don't own one,'' he said. "I really don't want to. But I am thinking about it now.''
What I Learned About Football This Week That I Didn't Know Last Week
NFL teams, particularly one of the league's hot teams this season, don't practice like your father's NFL teams did.
"We're not trying to land on the moon here,'' Atlanta coach Mike Smith said Friday. "It's a football game. The idea is to keep your players as fresh as possible late in the season while continue to teach them what they need to know to play each week.''
Who could argue with that? But coaches have different ways of getting to that point, and one of the reasons the Falcons have been revived this year (probably not a major reason, but it's part of the puzzle) is the smart way Smith has gotten his team to practice.
Players generally have Monday off, except to lift weights or perhaps to stretch and do limited aerobic and conditioning work on the field. Tuesday is a day off. In regular weeks, when games are played on Sunday, the practice work is done Wednesday through Friday. In the first eight weeks of the year, Smith had his players work in pads on Wednesdays, in shorts and shoulder pads on Thursdays, and in shorts on Friday. Helmets are worn each day. In the last eight weeks of the season, Wednesdays and Friday are in shorts without pads, and Thursdays are in shorts and shoulder pads for part of the practice only.
Each practice begins --on padded days -- with stretching and aerobic work, followed by a physical portion of practice, maybe 12 to 20 minutes of offense working against defense in a timed, up-tempo period with limited contact. Then the practice stops. Players take off helmets and pads, if they're wearing them, and put them aside for the first of three learning sessions incorporated into the practice.
Each practice contains three of what Smith calls "Concept Periods,'' 10- to 12-minute blocks in which players break down into their position groups, or into full offensive and defensive groups, and walk through concepts they'll be using in the game plan that week. "It might be the kind of session where we say to the players, 'If they do X this week, we'll do Y,' '' Smith said. Sandwiched between the three "Concept Periods'' are two practice periods, where the offense might work against the defense and run a set number of scripted plays Smith wants to make sure his players work on during the week .
"We always script the number of plays we'll practice in a week,'' Smith said. "But we never say how long we'll be at practice. We tell the players we have to get through X number of plays. A practice that's scheduled for an hour and 40 minutes might be, say, an hour-32 because the guys are setting a quicker pace. They know the quicker they get in an out of the huddle, the quicker the practice will be over.''
Smith credits past mentors Brian Billick, Marvin Lewis and Jack Del Rio for teaching him how to run efficient practices. He explained that these practices "mimic the way guys play. In a game, you play for a series, come to the sidelines, look at the pictures, and talk about what you're doing out there. We're doing the same thing with these practices -- you play, you look at the pictures, you learn.''
The Falcons must be learning pretty well. They're five wins better than they were a year ago, with three games still to play.
The Way We Were
Mike Shanahan vs. Marv Levy.
I'm not comparing these two distinguished head coaches because I feel they're very similar, though they both have left innovative stamps on football. Levy's one of the godfathers of special teams, while Shanahan has proven you can consistently contend with a very good quarterback, a marginal defense and marginal offensive talent, particularly at running back.
I compare them because Sunday in Denver, the 56-year-old Shanahan, who I'm certain plans to coach several more years, won his 154th NFL game, tying Levy for 15th on the NFL's all-time victory list for coaches. It got me thinking. Levy coached 17 years, went 154-120 and made four Super Bowls, winning none, as a head coach and made the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Shanahan has coached 16 years, is 154-100, and made two Super Bowls, winning both. If he gets to 200 wins -- or if he only comes close -- how can we keep him out of the Hall? If he never coaches another day, how can we keep him out of the Hall?
We're headed for a major coaching bottleneck at the Hall of Fame. Bill Belichick is going to get in, unless a bloc of 10 or so voters won't vote for him because of Spygate. He won his 150th game in Seattle on Sunday, the 17th coach to get to 150 ... Marty Schottenheimer and Dan Reeves are 6-7 on the all-time wins list ... Bill Parcells is ninth all-time, with two Super Bowl wins and four teams out of four led to the playoffs ... Mike Holmgren is 10th, with more wins than Joe Gibbs or Paul Brown ... Tony Dungy has the racial-barrier-busting Super Bowl win -- and only George Halas and Don Shula have better winning percentages in NFL history than Dungy's .650.
So what do you do with those seven? How many do you put in? It's unfair to judge those coaches whose careers are still active, but I'd say Parcells is the one who deserves to get in first, when his three-year period out of coaching is up in 2010. (Hall of Fame bylaws mandate a three-year wait for coaches after their last year on the sidelines.) After that, it's going to be mayhem, with the top coaches of this era competing with the top players ... and leftovers like Richard Dent and Russ Grimm still garnering significant support.