What I Learned About Football This Week That I Didn't Know Last Week
The power tree in the NFL is the Belichick Tree, and no other coach has branches nearly as strong or expansive. But this isn't just a coaching tree, it's an overall football tree.
This week's nominee for smartest man on the football planet -- or at least the most forward-thinking one -- is Kraft, the New England owner. In 2000, when he was about to hire a new coach, he ignored those who told him Belichick was a drab and uncommunicative bore who failed at his only previous head-coaching job in Cleveland. And Kraft didn't go all knee-jerk when the Pats slithered to 5-11 in Belichick's first year in New England, nor when Belichick and his personnel man, Pioli, chose to deal franchise quarterback-turned-backup, Drew Bledsoe, to Buffalo in 2002. But the team was building a system in which coaches and scouts and players were trained and developed from within.
Just look at the seeds Belichick -- along with former Browns general managers Ernie Accorsi and Mike Lombardi and college scouting director Dom Anile --planted in Cleveland in the first half of the '90s. "The public doesn't realize what a great teacher Bill is,'' Lombardi said. "He'd rather bring in young people and train them in his way than bring in experienced guys who say, 'Well, this is always the way I've done it,' and wouldn't be as open to new ideas.'' Belichick went only 37-45 in his five years as coach, but check out who was in the football-knowledge incubator during that time:
Ozzie Newsome, scout and eventually pro-personnel director. Now the highly successful GM of the Ravens.
Scott Pioli, scouting department assistant and eventually pro-personnel assistant. Named general manager of the Chiefs last week.
Jim Schwartz, scouting department intern. Named coach of the Lions last week.
Eric Mangini, coaching staff assistant. Named coach of the Browns this month.
George Kokinis, scouting department intern. Expected to be named general manager of the Browns this month.
Mike Tannenbaum, scouting department intern. Conducting his second coaching search now as GM of the Jets.
Phil Savage, quality control coach and eventually scout. Fired as Browns' GM last month.
Nick Saban, defensive coordinator. Went on to coach at Michigan State, LSU and the Miami Dolphins; now coaching Alabama.
Kirk Ferentz, offensive line coach. Now coaches Iowa.
Pat Hill, personnel assistant. Now coaches Fresno State.
Two more notables from Belichick's New England tenure: McDaniels, hired as a personnel assistant to Pioli in 2001, was named coach of the Broncos last week. Thomas Dimitroff, hired as a scout under Pioli in 2002, was hired as Atlanta's GM last year.
Five men with Belichick roots have gone on to be NFL general managers; that will become six if Kokinis gets the Cleveland job.
Four Belichick men have gone on to be NFL head coaches. (There are others with ties to Belichick, but I count Romeo Crennel and Al Groh as Parcells guys.)
"We were all first-timers in the NFL with no families,'' Schwartz recalled the other day, speaking of the Pioli-Schwartz-Mangini-Tannenbaum-Savage-Kokinis group. "Fifteen years later, you real how special that group was. "It was like getting a Ph.D. in Footballology. Bill had a soft spot for people who came up the way he did -- remember, he entered the league making $25 a week, or whatever it was, as a gopher for Ted Marchibroda in Baltimore.''
Schwartz feared he'd get fired one Memorial Day in Cleveland. Hungry, he went to the meal room to see what was in the fridge. He saw a turkey sandwich and ate it. Later, Belichick came into the room, looking for his lunch -- the aforementioned turkey sandwich -- and was not pleased when he learned the sandwich resided in Schwartz's stomach. But Belichick saw something in Schwartz, an economics grad from Georgetown and son of a Baltimore cop who bypassed big-money jobs to work for next-to-nothing learning the business in Cleveland, bunking together with complete strangers in dorm-like housing.
In the spring of 1995, Schwartz, then 28, was dispatched to Phoenix to study the players on the Playboy All-America team. He didn't wear logoed clothing; he was just there to observe, blend in and look at the behavior, personality, competitive nature and off-field habits of the top college prospects as they hung around for a weekend, being photographed, playing pickup basketball and going out at night. This is what Schwartz wrote in his report about University of Miami linebacker Ray Lewis, the youngest member of the 1995 All-America team:
"Ray Lewis is the most dynamic leader of the group. This guy drips with charisma. He is extremely competitive and constantly challenges other players to games, then he'll keep playing 'til he wins.'' Schwartz strongly recommended the Browns pick Lewis in the next draft, even though some scouts would say he was too small to be a middle or inside linebacker. The Browns moved to Baltimore after that season, and the new team in Baltimore picked Lewis in the first round.
"I'll be forever indebted to Bill for starting me in the business and giving me the kind of education that's gotten me to this point,'' Schwartz said.
One of Belichick's mantra, those around him say, is this: Not all evaluators of talent can coach. Not all coaches can evaluate. But if you can do both, your value goes up exponentially. That's the story of many of the guys from his Cleveland days.
Good Guy of the Week
There is no Good Guy of the Week in football, or in any walk of life, other than this one extraordinary man.
Chesley B. Sullenberger III, pilot, US Airways. As you all know by now, on a frigid Thursday afternoon in New York, Sullenberger took off from LaGuardia Airport, flying an Airbus A320 with a full cabin of 155 passengers and crew, bound for Charlotte. The plane apparently struck two birds or more, ruining both engines, and Sullenberger had to ditch the plane in the Hudson River, halfway between New York and New Jersey. "Brace for landing,'' he said calmly, without an exclamation point at the end, when the plane was about to hit the water. When the emergency exits opened and the passengers began to file out to lifeboats and the wings, Sullenberger would not get off the plane until he walked the complete cabin twice, including the bathrooms, to make sure no one was left on board. Then, and only then, did Sullenberger duck out of the emergency exit and get on a life raft. According to the New York Times, Sullenberger, his tie not even loosened, took a congratulatory handshake from the New York state public safety director, Michael Balboni, and responded: "That's what we're trained to do.''
An instant celebrity, Sullenberger did no interviews, didn't appear for any cameras. Rather, he waited to be interviewed by federal investigators wanting to know why the plane went down. He did have one immediate concern, according to the Times: calling his wife in California to tell her he was OK but that they'd need to cancel their dinner reservation Friday night.
US Airways stock went up 13 percent Friday. Maybe in these weird times we all just need a hero.
Factoid of the Week That May Interest Only Me
One of the arguments about keeping the current overtime system that I've heard in the last couple of weeks is, "Defensive guys are getting paid too. It's an equal part of the game to offense. It's no huge advantage to win the toss.'' The argument goes that the coin flip starting overtime is a fairly insignificant thing; it's the way you play that decides the game in overtime, not whether you win the flip.
A couple of things about that trouble me.
In the 35 years since the current sudden-death rule was made law, there have been 453 regular-season and postseason overtime games. On 444 occasions, the winner of the coin flip chose to take the ball. That's nine times in 35 years the coin-flip winner chose to kick off and play defense.
In the past 108 overtime games, the team that won the coin toss elected to receive.
I wrote last week that the coin flip winner has won 39 percent of the games on the first possession of overtime in the last five years. Like I've said for weeks: The coin flip does not win or lose the game. But it has become too big of an advantage for the league to simply go with the current system without a healthy debate on the alternatives.
"I'm certain we'll discuss it,'' said Indianapolis GM Bill Polian, a member of the rules-making Competition Committee, which begins its offseason rules deliberations in February. "The new stats are interesting. The most interesting part of it is the drive-start position [at the 27.2-yard line].''
When overtime was adopted, teams kicked off from the 40-yard line. Now they kick from the 30. So teams can begin overtime knowing they need only 30 or 35 yards to be in field-goal range.
Polian mentioned something I hadn't thought of concerning the advent of the "K'' balls on all punting and kickoff plays. (Kickers now have a limited time to work the leather of new balls before a game, and formerly they could work in the leather and make the balls softer and supple, allowing for longer kickoffs.) Kicking harder footballs in cold weather can lead to shorter kickoffs, particularly in harsh weather, which in turn can lead to tremendous field position and short drives to game-deciding field goals.
Enjoyable/Aggravating Travel Note of the Week
After making my second Montclair, N.J.-to-Pittsburgh drive in two months, I'm really thinking of changing my mode of transportation for any trip under 400 miles. I just love driving, especially with a cell phone and an earpiece, especially on roads like I-78 in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, and the Pennsylvania Turnpike from Harrisburg to Pittsburgh, with almost no interruptions in cell service for 375 miles.
Compare driving to flying. Driving, it's 5.5 hours from my house to downtown Pittsburgh, six if you count the four times I pulled over to take a few notes during talks with NFL people. Flying, it's an average of 3.5 hours from my house to downtown Pittsburgh (25 minutes to the airport, an hour of pre-flight hubbub at Newark Airport, 75 minutes -- if I'm lucky -- of taxiing, flying and taxiing, 25 minutes of post-flight car-renting and belongings-gathering, 25 minutes to downtown Pittsburgh and hotel check-in, assuming light traffic.)
Unless I'm tired, I'd rather spend two more hours getting somewhere if I can be productive doing it. I'm on my own schedule, not the airline's. I've got the miracle of satellite radio (Bob Papa and Randy Cross, then Adam Schein and John Riggins, breaking down the playoff weekend Thursday was fun and educational). And I'm not wedged into a puddle-jumper, the increasing form of short-hop transportation across the country.
On Thursday, I spoke with NFL Films video-dissecting guru Greg Cosell as the Garden State Parkway turned into the interstate headed west, then with Arizona defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast just crossing over the Delaware River into Pennsylvania, followed by Cleveland coach Eric Mangini from just west of Allentown to just east of Harrisburg, Kansas City owner Clark Hunt around Carlisle, Baltimore safety Jim Leonhard in the Turnpike hinterlands around Breezewood.
From Montclair, I mostly drive to Foxboro, East Rutherford, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh (now), Owings Mills (Ravens). Or I take the train if it's more timely. I've driven on a training-camp trip from Foxboro (Patriots) to Albany (Giants) to Rochester (Bills) to Latrobe, Pa., (Steelers) to Westminster, Md., (Ravens) to Ashburn, Va., (Redskins). The cell and satellite radio make it all a breeze.