We published a book by Patrick McCaskey back in 2014 called Pillars of the NFL. It includes information on the football lives of the 10 greatest coaches in the NFL–those who have won the most championships.
I have been a football fan all my life but working with the author on that book gave me some insight into things that made the best coaches the best coaches. No two coaches are the same and winning does not follow a particular recipe book.
Playing in the NFL is something special. It is a big stage–no a very big stage.
I can think of two coaches who were particularly good at getting the absolute most out of their players during the important games.
You are probably aware of the fact that the Bears kicker Cody Parkey had a couple rough days last year. I don’t think that’s unusual for a kicker, but the last one, the Bears-Philadelphia Wild Card game, was tragic where his missed field goal was blamed for ending the season for the Bears. There are people on both sides of this issue, and I can tell you that blaming one player for a loss is usually just wrong. But the problem for the Bears and Coach Matt Nagy is that he will never be able to convince the fan base that it was not Parkey’s fault. I think the writing was “on the wall” in a sense that Nagy could not bring Parkey back again and see him fail. That’s like a coach who has a young green quarterback who plays poorly and then the coach brings the same guy back the next year to do the same. The risks are too high for Nagy. And I suspect he want to keep his job.
So, Nagy has a number of kickers with tickets to Halas Hall. There, he and his staff are turning up the heat on kickers. At the end of the Bears Rookie Camp, Nagy had his rookie kickers try to hit from the distance missed by Parkey. He will likely do more of the same at the next OTA that go from May 21 to June 7. It’s not Soldier Field, but whoever he keeps may see practice out there later on.
Nagy can bring in a dozen new kickers and if he adds one to the roster, that one had better be very good and have ice in his veins. If the Bears are outed again this season by kicking, it will fall on one person, just like it did on Parkey, but that person will be Nagy this time out.
I can think of two NFL coaches who were very good about getting their players to play at their optimum in game situations: Bill Belichick and Vince Lombardi.
If you study Belichick, historically his practices are quite intense. His players are expected to perform, and he spends time teaching and instructing his players on what he wants. Belichick wants his players to play as a team, but he often tells them to “just do your job.” So, the pressure, day in and day out on the practice field, is for individual players to do things right. Practice is that important. [George Halas used to talk about doing things in practice that you would want them done in a game. Don’t waste time doing things in practice that you would not do in a game.]
Vince Lombardi was a motivator and a confidence-builder. Practice was critical for Lombardi–so much so that many Packers’ players talk about being at the end of their ropes with Lombardi as he would be so demanding during practice. Lombardi would require players to do their drills over and over and over again. His Packers sweep that looked relatively simply had endless possibilities. It was practiced so many times that players must have dreamed about it. In Lombardi’s early days, players got close to rebellion, but once the players saw just how good Lombardi made them, they bought in and never let go. Practice was so painful for the team that players performed with a great deal of confidence in the games. Nothing was as painful as the Packers’ practices–so the game pressure was never overwhelming. In the end, Lombardi also had players that could take the game on their shoulders.
I think it’s fair to assume that Belichick has taken a page from Lombardi’s playbook. Not so much about endless drills, but in making sure the details are covered and that each player knows their role.
In a little different way, Nagy is having his kickers work it all out in practice. His focus for them is simply doing their job–focusing on what they need to get done and doing it in practice. If they don’t perform in practice, they will be asked to hang up their cleats. It doesn’t get any more serious than that.