Happy Father’s Day to all.
Some people are lucky enough to be tutored in the game of football by their dad. Mine introduced me to the game and was a big fan his whole life, but my real knowledge and love of the game comes from some other men. I’ll talk about my Football Fathers for today.
At the top of the list is Tom Landry. Some of you may wonder how an Eagles fan can love Tom Landry so much? I wasn’t an Eagles fan as a kid. I grew up in NC. We had no team. I watched the Game of the Week, which back then meant lots of Dallas Cowboys. The first game I remember was the first Cowboys-Steelers Super Bowl. For some reason, I cheered for Dallas. They lost. To this day, I hate the Steelers with a passion. I might have hated the Steelers going into that game. I don’t recall. I have no idea why I hate them so much, but I do.
Tom Landry fascinated me. He stood on the sidelines in his hat, looking more like a professor than a football coach. Nobody told me to like him. I just did. As I got older and read about him, it was easy to love Landry. He invented the 4-3 defense. He was an innovative offensive coach. Did you know he brought the shotgun to the NFL in 1975? It had been introduced by Red Hickey with SF in 1960, but disappeared quickly. Hickey became a scout and assistant coach for Dallas eventually and Landry brought the idea back. I guess you could say it stuck. Heck, it is the base for a lot of offenses these days.
One of the people who did help me to love Landry was John Madden, another of my Football Fathers. I don’t remember Madden as a coach. Heck, my first remembrance of him wasn’t as an analyst. I remember him from the beer commercials.
The more I listened to Madden do games, the more he grew on me. And he taught me a lot about football. He made O-line play come alive unlike anyone before him. He told great stories, but they usually had football relevance. They enhanced the game. Madden loved talking about coaches. He sung the praises of Landry, Joe Gibbs, Bud Grant, Don Shula and so on, but the man he worshiped was Vince Lombardi.
Madden told all kinds of Lombardi stories. He taught you about football history, but also life. The best story is the one about the coaching clinic. Madden thought Lombardi would teach him all of Green Bay’s secrets. Instead, Lombardi talked about the famous Green Bay sweep – for 8 hours. At that moment, Madden realized just how smart you had to be to be a good NFL coach. You had to know plays at an expert level. If a player or coach had a question, you needed to have the answer. At some point in the clinic, a guy up front asked Lombardi a question. It was Sid Gillman. He was an offensive guru in his own right, but sat in front, took notes and paid strict attention. Again, another lesson for Madden. You never stopped learning.
The man who really blew my mind was Buddy Ryan. I might have become aware of him in 1984, but I know I did for sure in 1985, as his Bears proved to be the best defense I’ve ever seen. Reading about the 46 Defense made football come alive in a way that I’d never experienced before. This issue of Sport Illustrated was my version of Moses being given the Ten Commandments.
Up to this point, I focused on players. Who was the biggest? Who was the fastest? Who was the most talented? I hadn’t really embraced X’s and O’s. Part of that is because they bored me. Part of that is because they confused me. Things were never the same for me after reading about the 46. I’ve been into schemes and playbooks ever since.
Steve Spurrier was the offensive version of Buddy Ryan. That may sound funny to some of you since I love to rip on the Ol’ Ball Coach for his Skins days, but I first knew him at Duke. Spurrier was the OC for Duke in the early 1980s when a guy named Ben Bennett was setting national passing records. Spurrier then went to the USFL and coached the Tampa Bay Bandits. He came back to Duke as the head coach from 1987-1989. I started to learn about the passing game. Buddy Ryan wanted to attack on defense. Spurrier wanted to attack on offense. Both guys also had gruff personalities and loved to insult opponents. This worked well for their teams by helping them to play with an edge. Attitude could be a good thing.
Lou Holtz had a huge influence on my love and understanding of football. He took the Notre Dame job in 1986 and I watched as many games as possible. Holtz turned losers into winners. He did this as a mixture of coach and salesman. Holtz inspired his teams. He got them to believe in each other and that made a huge difference. Holtz also hired good assistants. Just think about his list of DCs: Monte Kiffin, Barry Alvarez, Rick Minter, Bob Davie and Charlie Strong. Holtz was more of an offensive coach. He loved the running game, especially the option. I learned to love the option.
I really enjoyed watching the first couple of Holtz Notre Dame teams. They had some talent, but played great team football and made the most of the talent they did have. Tim Brown went from WR to jack of all trades. He literally did a bit of everything to help the team. Holtz knew Brown was his best player. Rather than look at him as a WR, he looked at him as a player and found a variety of ways to use him. Brown was a KOR, PR, RB, and WR. He even threw a pass. Holtz fed him the ball and Brown won the Heisman Trophy in 1987 due to his big plays and versatility.
Holtz also had all kinds of sayings and tips that I found amusing and informative. I laughed at the funny stuff, but would find myself writing down the 4 keys to winning on the road: 1 – play good defense, 2 – win on STs, 3 – togetherness, 4 – focus/concentration. That may sound somewhat obvious, but I’ve learned over the years that far too often we overlook the obvious in search of something more that really isn’t needed.
Football took on a new angle starting in 1987. I played one year in high school. You could say I sucked, but that might be too positive. I lacked size, speed, strength, athleticism, skill and experience. But other than that…
It was great to learn about the game from Coach Gene Brewer and his assistants, Kim Cain, Mel Braswell, and Coach Rice. These men taught me a lot about the game. They weren’t X’s and O’s gurus. We ran the veer offense and a 5-2 defense. Our combined playbook (offense and defense) might have been 12 pages. These men taught me the reality of football. The 46 Defense might look great on paper, but trying to get 11 knuckleheads to run something like the 5-2 was a huge challenge. We didn’t even have the word blitz in our playbook.
These men taught me that football coaches could be complete assholes, while also loving, caring people. They pushed and pushed and pushed, sometimes too far. Off the field, the coaches loved the kids and showed genuine interest in their well being. And not just with stars. Hell, we didn’t have any star players. We went 1-9. I saw first hand how Coach Brewer looked after a kid from a rough situation on off-days and that was something that wasn’t done for show.
In college I did some broadcasting and this allowed me to interview coaches. I learned a tremendous amount about the game from a technical standpoint. David Knaus, Ruffin McNeill and John Wiley are 3 that stand out. Wiley was especially helpful in answering questions honestly. Once I gained his trust, he was willing to talk about things in more than coachspeak. This was all off the record and it wasn’t rumor type stuff. He was just honest. The head coach, Jerry Moore, gave me no info and useless answers. I learned nothing from him, about those teams or the game. Moore didn’t know me well and treated me like any media member, even though I was there from the student station. The assistant coaches got along with me because I knew enough about the game to make them take me seriously, but I also didn’t come off as some know-it-all. Rather than telling them running the option to the short side of the field over and over was dumb, I asked why we did that. What was the thinking? They explained and it totally made sense.
I don’t remember the first time I read anything from Joel Buchsbaum, but I’m guessing it was 1994 or 1995. Much like Buddy Ryan, he was one of the life altering types. Buchsbaum was the in-house scout for Pro Football Weekly. Buchsbaum was a football purist. He didn’t get caught up in hype. He didn’t try to be funny. He wrote about football in a simple, basic style. Buchsbaum would mix in some scouting phrases from time to time (“It’s a $20 cab ride just to get around him”), but he focused on providing information and not entertainment.
Where Mel Kiper threw out names, numbers and phrases, Buchsbaum offered a scouting report. He told you what a player could and couldn’t do. He offered specific reasons. A WR didn’t just have good hands. He could pluck the ball away from his body. A pass rusher didn’t just have 14 sacks. He had “tremendous movement skills”. Buchsbaum would offer specific thoughts on moves and counter-moves.
Buchsbaum could tell you about the game from all types of angles. He could write about any prospect from any college in a given year. He could then write about players from the 1970s, college or pro. Buchsbaum knew more about the history of scouting than anyone else (outside the scouting community). Want to know about Jim Finks picks? Buchsbaum could rattle them off, despite the fact they covered 25 years and several organizations.
I bought draft preview books from Kiper and Buchsbaum in 1996. That’s the last thing I bought from Kiper. I bought Buchsbaum’s again in 1997. That’s when I decided that I needed to quit reading and start really scouting on my own. I still bought PFW on a semi-regular basis to read his notes on NFL players and some of his stories.
If given a chance to talk to any of the football legends, Buchsbaum is the guy I’d choose. Forget Landry, Lombardi, or whichever other legend you bring up. Buchsbaum’s ability to talk about scouting, players, coaches, scouts, GMs and the history of the game would keep me entertained for eternity.
If PFW wants to do something to make some money, put together a collection of his notes, writings and reports. I’d be first in line to buy it and would read that over and over and over.
I hated Bill Walsh when he came to the NFL. I have no idea why. I was heart-broken when his Niners beat the Bengals in the Super Bowl. I wanted Kenny Anderson to get his title. Walsh and his pretty boy QB, Joe Montana, drove me nuts. I softened my hatred for Walsh when he beat the dreaded Dan Marino a few years later. As I got older and began to study the game of football, Walsh became a bigger and bigger influence.
I got his book, “Finding the Winning Edge”, in 1998 and have read that many times over. It is the closest thing there is to a coaching bible. Walsh breaks the game of football down unlike anyone else. You don’t just read the book. You keep it handy, like a dictionary. You’ll go back to it, over and over.
The thing I love most about Walsh is his use of systems. You can build a team around players, but what happens if someone gets hurt? The Cowboys won 3 Super Bowls from 1992-1995 because they were able to acquire great players and have them stay healthy. The Niners won 5 Super Bowls in 14 years because Walsh set them up to be good over the long haul. He had the ability to balance short and long term thinking. Walsh had plans.
Finally, speaking of plans, we come to Andy Reid. I know it is fun to pick at Big Red for the way things ended, but he is the greatest coach in the history of the Eagles and I loved being able to follow his career. From the first time we heard about the famous blue binder, we all knew Reid was going to be a different coach than what we were used to.
It is funny that as I followed his career, it felt like Reid had also read “Finding the Winning Edge” and based a lot of his ideas on that book. Reid built the Eagles into a winner and did some great things in his time here.
The biggest lesson I got from Reid is…relationships. His players love him. This seems odd to those of us on the outside. Reid has a goofy public persona. Clearly he is a very different man behind closed doors. I think we all learned a huge lesson in the summer of 2004, when Jeremiah Trotter returned to the Eagles. That seemed like a ridiculous notion back in January of 2002. Trotter and Reid had a nasty encounter due to the Eagles reluctance to pay Trot the Ray Lewis money that he wanted.
So what happened? Trot tore up his knee while away from Philly and got a surprise call from Reid. Andy made it clear that their disagreement had just been business and it didn’t affect the fact that he cared for Trot as a person. That’s a kind of loyalty that is so simple, but so rare as well. The power of a phone call. Or, these days, a text message or email. Let someone know that you care about them when there is nothing to be gained from it. You genuinely care.
Reid remains close to his coaches and players. You may wonder about the awkward firings of Sean McDermott and Juan Castillo. I don’t think Castillo is as mad that he got fired as he is happy that he got a chance to run a defense. Reid gave him a once in a lifetime opportunity. It didn’t work out. Reid helped McDermott land in Carolina. He fired Sean not because he can’t coach, but because McDermott needed to get away from the shadow of Jim Johnson. McDermott will be a good coach. He just needs some time. He also needed a fresh start. Succeeding JJ was going to be darn near impossible for any young coach.
I hope in 10 years I can re-write this post and add Chip Kelly to my list of Football Fathers.