NFL

Unusual preseason challenges coaches

Billick explains where teams should be at this point in preseason.
Billick explains where teams should be at this point in preseason.
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Brian Billick

Brian Billick served as head coach of the Baltimore Ravens from 1999-2007, winning Super Bowl XXXV. He has also authored books, including More Than A Game: The Glorious Present and Uncertain Future of the NFL. Follow him on Twitter.

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The beginning of training camp for an NFL head coach is an exciting, but anxious time.

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Teams know how much they need to get done and what is at stake, but they are excited to get in front of the team and begin the process. The problem is, when a coach stands in front of 90 players for their first meeting, the stark reality sets in that he doesn’t even recognize half the guys in the room. The funny thing is, as Panthers new head coach Ron Rivera recently said, “They all know who you are.”

The evaluation of young players and a team as a whole, doesn’t just happen on the field. It is about how they carry themselves in meetings, around each other and around the support staff. How do they deal with the media? What do they do with their free time? It's hard to evaluate when the coach doesn’t even know half the guys in the room. Heck, a coach doesn't even know if the guy he passes in the hallway is a new player or a member of the temporary security staff brought in for training camp.

Although an extreme example, this underlines the most difficult aspect of the first week of camp during a most unique of NFL summers. A coach really doesn’t have a feel for what his team is about or what it is they need. Most coaches will enter camp, after three months of OTA’s and meetings, knowing which 45 to 50 players will eventually make the final 53-man roster. There will be some surprises and changes either due to injury or a late acquisition, but they have a pretty solid idea of what the team is going to look like. Not this year.

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Most coaches will say the main purpose of the offseason program is to just get players and teams ready to start training camp at a fast pace. The large numbers in camp keep it from feeling like a real team, until it gets down to the first cut. After the third preseason game, it's trimmed down to 75 players. Of those 75, 80 percent either made the active roster or developmental squad. Now, with 90 players in camp until the last preseason game and veterans filtering in at different times, it is hard to get into a routine that feels like a normal team.

To further complicate matters, due to free-agency rules, teams don’t have their entire veteran populations participating yet. Kansas City Chiefs head coach, Todd Haley, commented, “I don’t know if we want to shoot all our guns in the first team talk because we don’t have everybody.” He added about his veterans, “It was a skeleton crew, it didn’t feel like training camp.”

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Then there is the teaching progression. The installation of the offense, defense and special teams is very sequential. A leads to B leads to C and so on. When all of a sudden a player drops into the mix and the team is on step C, it disrupts the flow of teaching progression because the team is now starting and stopping with different concepts and having to go back to steps A and B. One coach told me they currently have just half of what they would have normally expected to install in the first week.

Injuries, even when minor, resulting in missed practices will further disrupt what a team is trying to create. A coach may have scripted 100 snaps for his first unit, but because players are in and out of the line-up, he may only get a quarter of those reps.

Next week there are going to be more and more teams conducting scrimmages with other organizations leading up to their first preseason game. Coaches like these sessions because they can control them more than a true preseason game.

Typically, starters will only take one or two series in the first preseason game anyway, but many coaches are telling me they are not yet comfortable putting their top players on the field at all.

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It has less to do with their abilities and conditioning than it does with what is going on around them. Can the player next to them get out of the way? I have lost key veteran players before because the rookie next to him didn’t know what he was doing and couldn’t get out of the way.

But don’t get to depressed.

I think after this next week of practices, the bulk of installation will be completed and young players will have been evaluated in a couple of live situations, and most of the veterans will have been signed or reported. By the second preseason game the world will begin to feel normal again.

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