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NFL Coaches Take a Gentler Approach
They Used to Rant and Rave After a Loss, but Now They're More Reflective

By Leonard Shapiro
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 6, 2005

Sam Huff not only played for Vince Lombardi, the Hall of Fame coach with the Vesuvian temper and a profane vocabulary, he was a defensive assistant for him. He knows only too well how Lombardi, who coached the Washington Redskins in 1969, would have prepared for a game the week after his team suffered a lopsided loss to a traditional rival in a midseason game for first place in the division.

"Here's what Lombardi would have said," Huff said this week in the wake of the Redskins' 36-0 loss last week to the New York Giants. "It would have been something like: 'You guys stunk so bad, I won't even embarrass you by showing you the film. You not only got embarrassed, you embarrassed me and you embarrassed this organization. Now we're going to go back to work this week, and we're going to work hard. And I promise you, that won't happen to this team again.'

"The first thing you have to know is that everyone thought Lombardi gave inspirational pregame talks. But it was the postgame talks you always remembered, and the last place you wanted to be was in that locker room after a loss. He was steamed, and he did not talk about forgetting about it, like they do now."

Thirty-six years later, the syllabus in NFL Coaching 101 generally calls for a kinder, more measured approach than volatile, profane tirades often employed by coaches in the past. As the Redskins (4-3) prepare to face the Philadelphia Eagles (4-3), coming off a similar 49-21 disaster against the Denver Broncos, in another critical NFC East game tonight at FedEx Field, nary a harsh word apparently has been spoken in private or public by either team's head coach.

In fact, postgame comments by Joe Gibbs and Philadelphia's Andy Reid have been remarkably similar in tone and substance.

Gibbs on Sunday: "Something like that starts with me. . . . It was all of us together."

Reid on Monday: "In everything it's my responsibility. It's my football team. It's a reflection of me."

Gibbs on Monday: "I always think it's ultimately my responsibility. I always start with myself. I haven't done a good job if we play a game like that. . . . You tell them, 'Here's the good, here's the bad.' It's a common-sense thing. This was disappointing for all of us."

Reid on Wednesday: "We're obviously teachers. We try to teach our players and our coaches, learn from our mistakes and move on. We've got to right our wrongs and do better, and we all understand that."

Players on both teams this week insisted there had been no screaming behind closed doors or on the practice field, that both coaches and their assistants went through the game tape with them on Monday not to point fingers but simply to correct mistakes. By the time both teams hit the field Wednesday for their first major practice in preparation for tonight's nationally televised game, as Redskins wide receiver Santana Moss said: "It's not trying to worry about last week. It's over."

It's an approach that generally has been employed throughout the league for a number of years. And the most consistently successful coaches are generally those who can pick up the pieces after blowout losses and somehow get their teams on track to win again -- immediately, and in the long-term as well.

Mike Nolan, San Francisco's first-year coach, did it for the first time last week, getting the 49ers to rebound from a 52-17 loss to the Redskins with a 15-10 victory over Tampa Bay last Sunday. In the 49ers' FedEx Field locker room after the Redskins game, Nolan said he asked his players if they were still with him.

"They all blurted out 'yes sir,' " Nolan said. "I don't know what that means other than these guys are really in it."

Early in the 49ers' practice week before the Bucs game, Nolan, a defensive specialist, paid a rare visit to a meeting of his offensive linemen. "I've never seen a head coach do that," 49ers tackle Kwame Harris told reporters last week. "He told us if we don't block up front, we weren't going to have a good game from the quarterback and we wouldn't have a running game. I loved to hear that from our coach."

Gibbs and Reid, each of whom suffered the most one-sided losses of their respective careers Sunday, have been past masters at such turnarounds. In each of Gibbs's four Super Bowl seasons, for example, the Redskins never had back-to-back losses in consecutive weeks.

From the third game of the 2000 season through the last two games of the 2004 regular season, the Eagles also did not lose two in a row. Philadelphia did drop its last two games at the end of last season after clinching the NFC East title and home field in the playoffs. Reid chose to rest a number of starters going into the postseason on the way to the team's first NFC championship and Super Bowl appearance.

"Everyone who coaches long enough has games like that," Marv Levy, the Hall of Fame former Buffalo and Kansas City coach, said this week of the Redskins' and Eagles' blowout losses. "The first thing you have to do with your team is to own up to what happened -- 'Men, we were lousy, including the coaches.' Then you've got to recognize the good, tell them you know they're better than that.

"I was never one to go in and throw things against the wall. I would tell them: 'Fellas, are you angry? Well, so am I.' But I'm not going to have a tirade. I'll tell them, 'I know we have the character to get out of this,' and then let them know exactly what we have to work on the next week to get better. If I ever felt an inclination to be personally devastated, I would talk myself out of it. Humiliation is just more adversity, and adversity is just another opportunity for heroism. That's what I'd tell myself, and my players."

Levy once worked for another Redskins coach who took a slightly different tack. As George Allen's special teams coach on the 1972 team that went to the franchise's first Super Bowl, he had a hard time buying into Allen's often repeated mantra that "losing is like death."

"Oh, George would really dramatize things after a loss," Levy said.

"I remember one day after a game we lost that we were supposed to win, George came into the meeting room. It had just started to snow outside. You had to come in through the back of the room at the old Redskins Park, and as he walked in, he heard one of our players, Manny Sistrunk, telling another guy that he was worried about getting home because he didn't have snow tires on his car. George gets up in front of the room and says, 'How can you even be thinking about snow tires after we got beat like that?'

"George was different than anything I've ever been around. When you lost, it was like the Bataan Death March. After awhile, the players kind of enjoyed it. Diron Talbert once said, 'George knows he's BS-ing us, we know he's BS-ing us and he knows we know he's BS-ing us.' But that's how he operated, and whatever works."

Former Indianapolis Colts and Baltimore Ravens coach Ted Marchibroda always took a measured approach after tough losses and said he expected that's how Gibbs would react.

"To me, the number one thing you do is to go back to basics and put the pressure on the guys to go win the next game. I'd tell them, 'You're just playing football. Go out there and act and react.' You don't want them to think that much, just go play the game. Don't try to add a lot to the game plan. Use your basic offense and defense.

"You also have to level with them: 'Hey, we didn't play well, men. Let's find out why. I know you're a better team than that, and you know it, too.' To me, the number one thing in coaching is not to overreact. I think players forget about it pretty fast. They want to get it out of their minds, and that's the great thing about football -- there's always another game the next week."

Marchibroda, now a radio color analyst on Colts broadcasts, heard both Gibbs and Reid take the blame for Sunday's debacles, a tactic he generally tried to avoid.

"You can't always say 'it's on me,' " he said. "If you do it too many times, pretty soon the players start believing it, and you sure don't want to give them a way out."

In Philadelphia, McNabb said Reid's approach "has always been to make sure the guys understand that we're in a great position here. It's more understanding your mistakes and correcting them. Another part of his philosophy is not to yell, but to get his point across. As a team, we understand and realize that. We're men and professionals here."

Said Eagles defensive tackle Darwin Walker: "We're trying to move forward and get ready for the next week. This is the way this business is sometimes. You try to learn from it and move forward. You don't sit around and wallow in it."

Redskins quarterback Mark Brunell said Gibbs is reacting to the Giants game in a similar manner.

"He's very consistent," Brunell said. "He's always positive. He expects us to work. He's not asking us to do anything he's not committed to doing himself. The best thing about Coach Gibbs is that we're all in this together. And that's the way it should be."

Longtime Redskins followers may recall Gibbs's outburst at halftime of a game late in the 1986 season when he wiped out a table loaded down with orange slices and cups of water. But those incidents have been rare.

"I can tell you from personal experience it's not easy to keep from venting during a game," Levy recalled. "I remember totally losing it once in a game in Buffalo. We were up 21-0 in the first quarter and then gave up 28 points in the second quarter. All I did during the half was rant. We came back and won with a late field goal, but it sure wasn't anything I did at halftime.

"Going crazy on them doesn't do anything to solve the problem. The head coach is there to locate the problem and try to fix it. Of course, the other extreme is to be blase about it and say: 'Don't worry, fellas. Everything is okay. We just had a bad game.' That doesn't work, either. You have to strike a balance. Pinpoint what's wrong, let them know how to correct it and go play the next game with everything they've got."

Staff writer Mark Maske contributed to this report from Philadelphia.

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