Player-Coach: Questioning Process vs. Questioning Authority

Photo by Mike Mozart.
There are a lot of great coaches in football, but there are also the “Cartman’s.” Photo by Mike Mozart.

It’s not often discussed, but the quality of coaching and leadership adds another layer of complexity to evaluating prospects.

One of the great things about the Internet – specifically social media – is having conversations with people who don’t go with the herd. Ryan Riddle is one of those individuals. So when my friend says outside linebacker Kyle Van Noy has great instincts, that’s a player I want to watch.

If you didn’t know already, Riddle was a defensive end at Cal who had stints with the Raiders, Ravens, and Jets. He weaves his experiences with major college football and the NFL into his coverage of the pro football at Bleacher Report.

The other night, Riddle and I were engaged in a conversation about teaching and coaching. Riddle told me that there are a lot of layers within the teacher-student dynamic on a football team that the general public doesn’t consider.

One of these layers is how a position coach teaches technique to his players. Dolphins’ receiver Mike Wallace told media at the Senior Bowl that he didn’t have any technical instruction at his position during his first three years at Ole Miss. Riddle will tell you that his defensive line coach was exacting about technique.

Good coaches know that the most efficient way for players to execute on the field is to have the right tools. So while it may be task-oriented thinking at its finest, a coach’s first inclination is to hammer home good form.

Even at the highest level of any profession, the best maintain an understanding of the fundamentals. However, the best at any profession know when to break the rules.

It’s a tough situation for a coach – especially for some of the less experienced coaches who didn’t play the position they’re teaching and may not have mastery of the unwritten rules. Even if that coach is a former grizzled vet at the position he’s teaching, he may lack the vision to recognize productive creativity that veers from basic technique.

Riddle was a creative player with NFL-level athleticism, but his coach was drilling home technique with such exactitude that it clashed with what Riddle did best. In most cases, technique should refine what a player does well rather than limit him.

Unlike many players who fear questioning the coach on this matter, Riddle was fortunate. Even when they initially butted heads in practice about playing style, Riddle and his coach always got along.

Riddle’s coach eventually realized he had a potential exception to the rule on his defensive line. Still, he had to tread a fine line between allowing behavior that could help the team and setting the ground rules that he had final say if Riddle’s way wasn’t working.

Riddle is an example of a productive relationship between a player and coach despite conflict over fundamentals. Although football is a sport where the ultimate goal is to win a conflict, the process of doing so is built on teamwork.

It’s why disagreeing with a coach on a fundamental level the way Riddle did isn’t common. Some of Riddle’s teammates had similar gripes that they kept private, even if it meant the possibility that they’re productivity could have been better for the team. It’s is a difficult thing for people to understand how slippery a slope it is for a player to have differences with a position coach.

There are good and bad coaches just as there are good and bad CEOs, doctors, teachers, and football players. If a position coach is an insecure human being who uses his role to prop up his self-esteem, a young player challenging instruction can pose a serious threat.

As with any profession, good coaches don’t always become good coaches until they’ve been bad coaches. Manage teams of people for any length of time and there will be moments where one can mistake the difference between a player questioning a process and a player questioning authority.

Good leaders understand the difference. However, there are coaches who can’t handle either scenario.

If you ever wonder why some NFL players who seem like good citizens and even better teammates were – in hindsight – puzzling late-round picks, it’s worth considering that some of these players weren’t “difficult to coach,” “soft,” “bi-polar,” or “didn’t love the game,” as their coaches characterized them to scouts.  Greg Hardy, Terrell Davis, and Arian Foster had legitimate gripes about college coaches engaged in character assassination to NFL scouts.

Riddle says there’s a tendency for coaches to over correct the small points of the game. He’s seen it to the extent that when players accept the criticism, they over think on the job and play too slow. They don’t realize that they’ve become more worried about pleasing the coach to avoid risking a bad reputation than making the play.

In Riddle’s case, his position coach sat Riddle down and talked about it. The coach told the defensive end that he was fine with Riddle’s methods, “but it better work.”

In tomorrow’s Futures at Football Outsiders, I explore why Riddle describes Van Noy as “a linebacker version of Tyrann Mathieu.”

Stay tuned.

3 responses to “Player-Coach: Questioning Process vs. Questioning Authority”

  1. Nice column, Matt. I’ve always felt that one of the biggest hallmarks of a poor or overmatched coach is one who’s concerned more with players doing things “his way” than with maximizing the production of the talent he has on hand. (The difference between, say, Bill Belichick changing his defensive front every year to best accommodate his best players, and Eric Mangini showing up as a new coach and dumping everyone who doesn’t fit his rigid 3-4.)

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