NFL coaches describe first season as never-ending learning process

ORLANDO – On Monday, Jay Gruden admitted to feeling a little overwhelmed as he tried to digest six hours’ worth of information received during the opening sessions of the NFL’s annual meetings. The first-year head coach said he continues to learn how much goes into running an NFL team as opposed to just overseeing a unit.

On Tuesday, at the AFC coaches’ breakfast, many of Gruden’s counterparts classified Gruden’s eye-opening experience as typical, and a challenging, but necessary part of the education of a head coach.

Raiders coach Dennis Allen (John Raoux/Associated Press)
Raiders coach Dennis Allen (John Raoux/Associated Press)

Oakland Raiders head coach Dennis Allen found himself in Gruden’s shoes just two years ago, when he accepted his current job after spending the 2011 season as the Denver Broncos’ defensive coordinator and eight previous seasons as an assistant with the Falcons and Saints, respectively.

His take on that first year as a coach:

“Listen, there’s way more involvement that you could ever imagine,” Allen said. “And you think you know, but you don’t really know until you go through it. Every day there’s something that comes across your desk that you’ve got to make a decision on, and the volume of those decisions and the repercussions of those decisions, a lot of times, have a huge effect on the football team. The biggest thing is the volume of the decisions that you’ve got to make. Sometimes it’s the most minute decisions, and sometimes it’s the most critical decisions.

“It’s like parenting,” he added. “The first time you were a parent, you didn’t know how to do it. You’d read all the books, but you still weren’t ready for it. And it’s the same thing with coaching. A lot of it’s trial and error. Hopefully you learn from your mistakes.”

San Diego Chargers coach Mike McCoy (now entering his second season), and Titans coach Ken Whisenhunt, who got his first head coaching job with the Arizona Cardinals in 2007, and this offseason was hired as head coach of the Tennessee Titans, both agreed with Allen.

McCoy says the key to success is remaining true to your beliefs and your plan. He spent 12 years as an assistant before becoming a head coach. Over the course of those years, he took notes on the things that he saw work well, and not so well for the head coaches he worked for. During interviews last offseason, he shared with prospective teams that he had extensive binders that served as how-to guides of sorts for any given scenario.

 Mike McCoy
Chargers coach Mike McCoy. (John Raoux/Associated Press)

McCoy found himself referring to those binders this past season, and said remaining confident in his plan helped produce positive results.

“The most important thing is, when you have a plan, that everyone buys into it, and then you’ve got to stick to the plan. Not everyone’s going to agree with the decision you’re going to make, but you can’t worry about that,” McCoy said. “Do what you think is right. You have a plan. It’s why you got the opportunity. You’ve had success other places for certain reasons, so just go with your heart and go with your gut.”

Whisenhunt listed expanding one’s view, and time management as two crucial keys to success that he learned.

“As a coordinator, you’re only essentially looking at one side of the ball, and you’re only responsible for the offense or the defense,” he said. “Now, when you’re a head coach, now all of a sudden you’ve got all three phases and you’ve got a lot more going on. That, for me was – I don’t want to say I wasn’t prepared for it – but it’s just the volume of it and the things that come up that are non-football, even as far as what times are the busses leaving this week to go for the airport for the road trip. Those things are all part of it. Fitting those things into your schedule, and making sure there’s enough time in the day while you’re still involved in football.”

McCoy said in addition to learning how to handle different situations, a coach also has to learn his players. That also proved itself as a year-long process, he said.

“On film, you see what kind of players they are, but personally, you don’t know them,” McCoy said. “Even up until the first playoff game, you learn about the players on your team because you don’t know how they’re going to respond in certain situations. Even in practice, I’ve never been with Philip [Rivers] in a huddle. So after he throws an interception or touchdown pass, or misses the ball to an open guy, how’s he going to react? And there’s certain things that happen from the first playoff game.  How are we going to react to the pressure going on the road. You’ve never been in the locker room with that team in a playoff game, and then the next one. How’s it going to be? It was good. It’s good before we got into the draft to say, ‘Okay, we know a little more about our team.’ And you find out who your leaders are going to be? People can tell you, ‘Here’s the leader.’ But you don’t really know. It’s a process.”

All three coaches also stressed the importance of surrounding themselves with quality assistants, who in some cases might be more experienced than they were themselves.

McCoy hired Whisenhunt as his offensive coordinator, and although he himself had served as an offensive coordinator before getting the Chargers job, McCoy charged Whisenhunt with play-calling duties so he could ensure that he could devote equal attention to all phases of the team.

When Whisenhunt left to take the Titans job, McCoy promoted quarterbacks coach Frank Reich to offensive coordinator. Reich has never called plays in a game as a coach, so McCoy envisions a collective effort when it comes to play-calling this year.

The coaches said there’s nothing wrong with admitting that you don’t know the answer to a situation and leaning on veteran assistants.

“There’s a lot of things on your plate,” Whisenhunt said. “I was lucky because I had some good coaches there that I could lean on. I think that’s a big part of it, too.”

Said second-year Jaguars head coach Gus Bradley: “You want to go into it with an open mind enough to say, ‘Hey, there’s something I can learn from every day,’ and take that approach to see that as things are happening.”

Have a Redskins question? E-mail Mike Jones at mike.jones@washpost.com with the subject line “Mailbag question” for him to answer it in The Mailbag.

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Mike Jones covers the Washington Redskins for The Washington Post. When not writing about a Redskins development of some kind – which is rare – he can be found screaming and cheering at one of his kids’ softball, baseball, soccer or basketball games.
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Mike Jones · March 24

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