Can Coaching Get in the Way of Good Football?

by Ivan Cole

In recent years I have come to reject the idea of coincidence. So when the following three things came together I had to respond. The first is a statement I made in my Pittsburgh Steelers First Quarter Report:

“I do have a bone to pick with the offensive coordinator with some of his play calling decisions. The bookends being the Brown reverse against New England and some of the decisions late in the Ravens game. Each are variations on a theme and a theory that I will go out on a limb to advance. Is it possible that Haley’s liability is that he has not played the game?”

The reason I go there is that there are two things that Haley (and others, frankly) seem to lose sight of. First, better to fail with your best players attempting to do what they do best. This was something, to their credit they did attempt to do on the failed fourth down pass to Brown in overtime against Baltimore, though I would have chosen Bell. Against the Pats it was also Brown, but it wasn’t what he does best. The second is realizing that the most demoralizing thing you can do is not to outsmart an opponent, but to out execute them even when they know what’s coming. In other words, Lombardi 101. Sometimes the simplest thing is the best thing.

Then I come across Rebecca’s latest, a thorough examination of the philosophies and methods of preparation by Steelers defensive coordinator Keith Butler and offensive line coach Mike Munchak.

One of the themes addressed was the tension between the need for meticulous preparation and allowing talent to express relatively unfettered. Here is Butler talking about Ryan Shazier:

“It’s best to not let him think and just let him play, I think,” Butler said.

Finally, there was this article in the Tribune-Review about a new book that focused on Bill Nunn.

This took me back to a portion of my interview with Nunn and this particular segment on his views on coaching.

Nunn has more to say about coaching, not all of it kind. He speaks to the promotion of coaches and coaching to the detriment of natural athleticism:

“If you’re always thinking, and you’re a natural athlete, then something isn’t right. Now if you’re smart and you know what’s going on, you can make it look like you’re reacting on instinct. Is that instinct? Now another guy, if he has to think he cannot react with his natural skills. So now you have two different types of people.

Now who’s coaching them? See, coaches are making so much money. So, now they’re like, ‘Hey, I’m making all this money—I’ve got to be doing something.’ They’ve got these huge playbooks. What do you need all that stuff for? They’ve got something for every kind of scheme…. If I were playing I would have been lost.”


So an intriguing question is posed—is it possible that certain players, perhaps the most talented ones, can be over coached?

This is a conversation I have tried to avoid, and even denied its validity. But I think it is time to take it head on. First let’s bring my biases fully into the light.

I have been very sensitive to how athletic success has been described and evaluated over the years. Observers and critics often bring political and cultural baggage to bear on conversations involving athletic excellence. Why was it that athletes of a certain hue came to their success through virtue (hard work and intelligence) while those of another hue were the beneficiaries of a somewhat ‘unfair’ advantage of natural gifts and ‘instinct’?

I understand the problem. Back in the day when Jesse Owens, Joe Louis and not a few Jewish athletes took down the Aryan Supermen, what was a Nazi to say by way of explanation? An “unfair biological advantage” works. You get extra credit if this biological advantage is spun as a compensation for intellectual and moral deficiencies, or as an unintended consequence of breeding for forced labor.

This ticked me off because I and countless others were working our butts off to become competent athletes when all we had to do was roll out of bed and let our natural gifts and instincts carry the day. [full application of the sarcasm font here]

Perhaps we were intellectually deficient. The construct has become so ingrained that even now some are loath to acknowledge that J.J. Watt and Rob Gronkowski have more in common with Jim Brown as extraordinarily talented athletes while James Harrison, Antonio Brown and Hines Ward are more akin to Rocky Bleier.

Over the years I became defensively reactive to this. So when discussion turned to that of talent and preparation I came down heavily in favor of preparation. I embraced a radically democratic view of talent, not parsing the difference between value and abilities. That is to say, in terms of value, human beings are equal. However, that does decidedly not mean that we are all equal in abilities. This is what Bill Nunn, a naturally gifted athlete himself, was driving at. And this opens the door to a conversation about the possibility of over-coaching.

This is where the inexperience of non-athletes can become a liability. Such individuals may be inclined to believe that intelligence is an advantageous but nonessential element in athletic success. Nothing could be further from the truth. However, to fully understand this we have to expand our understanding of the concept of intelligence.

In our culture the bias concerning intelligence is that it is decidedly left brained; which to say that it is discrete, verbal and linear. Howard Gardner, a developmental psychologist, developed a theory centering upon the idea that there were at least eight different types of intelligences. What we call instinct is bodily or kinesthetic intelligence. Other forms of intelligence includes musical intelligence, which Rebecca might have something to say about. I also believe that spatial intelligence may play a significant role in the success of running backs, for example. If, like me, you found yourself differently gifted when studying geometry as opposed to algebra you may get what I am talking about here.

When these forms of intelligence are taken into account, much that may fly over the heads of many fans becomes more understandable. Because we are so wedded to the connection of intelligence to linearity and verbalism, we don’t comprehend the kinesthetic version which is nonverbal and nonlinear. Trying to explain using normal methods of expression is not unlike trying to use words to explain a color to someone who has been blind from birth. Any attempt at describing it (verbalizing) misdirects us from understanding it. It (and this is really, really key) slows us down.

Would you sign up for classroom instruction in how to ride a bicycle? Or to learn how to walk? You could of course. But I don’t know anyone who has, or who would consider that the preferable method of learning. How would you explain to someone who doesn’t have any exposure to bicycles how to ride a bike? You can’t. At least not efficiently. Walking would even be harder.

This not to say that the body is not amenable to skills training—it obviously is. But to the gifted, skills training can be as much a hindrance as a help. To someone trying to master a dance step a certain amount of linear, verbal training may be necessary to get the ball rolling, but mastery will elude you until you move beyond that and get into the rhythm (nonlinear, nonverbal) of the activity. In other words, you have to stop thinking and yield to the intelligence of the body as opposed to using the verbal intellect, which is far too slow, to direct the body’s actions.

This adds texture to the concept of ‘the speed of the game’ that everyone is always talking about. Nunn’s point is that some coaches, either in their misplaced democratic zeal, or because of a lack of comprehension due to their own limitations, in essence dumb down the class in favor of the slower students—the hard working, left brained intelligent plodders whom most of us better relate to and hold in special regard.

To be fair, this can cut the other way as well. Hall of Fame baseball great Frank Robinson’s first foray into management was marred by reports at that time that he didn’t understand why many of his players couldn’t ‘get’ what came to him naturally. [This is a failing of many top-tier musicians who attempt to teach others—they have no idea how they do what they do, and can’t fathom why their students don’t get it.]

The key, it would seem to me, is to be able to strike a balance between an adherence to structure, but allowing the flexibility of the expression of talents and, importantly, the different rates of learning to be taken into account.

Personally, as a learner I have experienced both sides. In math, science and English grammar I was slow. I needed a lot of reps (at least relative to other areas of learning) to get things. I didn’t fully understand until I got to graduate school that we view math education in a talent biased (as opposed to skills biased) manner. Some Asian-American social scientists have contended that this difference accounts for the relative success of Asian students over their American counterparts. This same bias also plays in the verbal skills area.

My gifts were in the areas where verbal skills were dominant, such as writing. My affinity for these things was ‘natural,’ insofar as I don’t recall any instruction that informed my ability to express myself in this manner. (Refinement is another issue.) This led to terrible evaluations on the ‘Citizenship’ sections of my report cards. I was constantly accused, correctly, of day dreaming, not paying attention and so forth. It was too slow. This is precisely the logic behind the segregation of the so called gifted and talented.

But you can’t really do that on a sports team. This leads us to questions as to how a coach develops a methodology that manages the differing needs and abilities of his/her players. Which brings us back to Rebecca’s piece that analyses the approaches of Munchak and Butler, each of whom is experiencing a measure of success.

When Mike Tomlin was quizzed about Le’Veon Bell’s crowd pleasing but worrisome high jumping exhibitions, his response, the smart one I think, was to say that he was loath to tamper with how great talents express their craft. You may recall similar conversations concerning the risks involved with the playing style of Ben Roethlisberger. There is a difference between channeling talent as opposed to imposing a structure so rigid that it frustrates and suppresses its expression. At the other end of spectrum, the less gifted players are capable of achieving greatness as well if given a measure of structure as well as patience.

Truly great coaching involves the struggle to strike that balance. Even the greatest of talents benefit from refinement, and others can achieve superior heights given time and diligence.

This flies over the heads of some coaches and fans, or is just misjudged due to the biases and personal limitations they bring to the process.

Some coaches avoid the balancing act by skewing their teams in favor of a particular type of player. I suspect everyone does this to some degree—Tomlin’s bias would be to smart, very young, fast players—but can you go too far? This is the question currently being addressed in Philadelphia with Chip Kelly.

And while Steelers fans can be quite gifted in certain areas of football knowledge, we are developmentally disabled when it comes to patience. The thinking about players is very similar to how many of us view math—if they don’t “get it” immediately, they aren’t going to get it at all. And no matter how much evidence we are presented that demonstrates the contrary—Timmons, Heyward, Gay, Beachum, Gilbert, Brown (Antonio), Harrison, Foster, Williams (Vince), just to name some of more recent examples—we are like that dog that chases and barks at every car that comes down the street. They never catch it and wouldn’t know what to do if they did. I am absolutely certain that there are those in Steelers Nation who consider Senquez Golson a bust.

There is also the problem of the continuing rivalries of what we could call the differently abled. I’m sure there is some value to analytics and their application to football, but I am also suspicious of this being a continuation of the wars that have been fought since adolescence of the ‘nerds’ (my apologies for the pejorative) attempting to lord it over the ‘jocks,’ because everyone knows that jocks are too stupid to know their own business.

Author James Baldwin famously accused American culture of being stuck in adolescent thought, and wouldn’t some of our dysfunctional reactions to what is supposed to be recreation and entertainment provide some justification for the notion that some of us haven’t quite escaped the playground yet?

But my concern here isn’t how fans conceive of this. The question is rather, when did it become an unexamined truth that the offensive coordinator, any other coach, was the best judge of what was unfolding on the field of play? To this point we have talked about the vertical relationship involving coaches and players. Let us not ignore the horizontal relationship among the players themselves.

So here is the question—if left to their own devices, what play would the Steelers offense have called in those fourth down situations in the Ravens game?

Terry Bradshaw, famously slandered as being dumb, called his own plays. This is particularly significant, given that Chuck Noll was a messenger guard for Paul Brown. [For those of you who, like me, may not know what this was, it is a guard that delivers the plays in the huddle.] Brown could be accused as being the one who got the ball rolling on this coach’s control freak thing. Many of us have noticed a different quality of play when the Steelers are in the no huddle. That would be because Ben has a greater measure of control over the proceedings as opposed to being a slave to the whims of the coaching staff.

Is it possible that the genius and on the ground experience of the players is being suppressed by those who believe they know better, or at minimum feel pressure to pretend they do? There is a long awful history of armies being slaughtered because their generals thought they knew better what needed to happen than their troops that were actually on the ground.

Maybe there is a hierarchy of arrogance at play here. Coaches think that they know better than their players. Fans, in their recliners, fortified by their successes at fantasy or Madden and in agreement with their peers, demonstrate via talk radio or on websites that they think they know better than the players, coaches and team management.

The complexities of the on-the-ground experience are ignored. Coaches like Tomlin try to make decisions based upon the interplay of dynamics in the moment such as fatigue or the field effects of group confidence, which we refer to it by imprecise terms like “momentum.” These are ignored in the smug 20/20 hindsight post mortems articulated by know-it-alls in press boxes and armchairs who wonder why he didn’t follow prepackaged cheat sheets and prevailing theories of play calling, clock management, whatever.

They are akin to military historians who know better than the generals, but whom you suspect would crap their pants if they had to actually make a real time decision themselves in these circumstances.

It should be noted that Munchak and Butler have both played the game at a high level. Is it possible this might inform their coaching just a little? This is not to say that non-players can’t coach effectively. That notion is beyond ridiculous. In the same way, it is no guarantee that those who performed well in the game are capable of completely understanding how the game works, much less are able to competently convey that knowledge as coaches or analysts.

I’m just asking whether we respect and appreciate the actual degree of difficulty being negotiated here.




  • Ivan, wow. You’ve taken on a subject that one could literally write a book about and done it justice in a blog post.

    Let’s agree that it starts with good talent. Dan Rooney has said that when asked about the Steelers success “You have to have the players.” But you also need coaching

    Neal Coolong wrote, I think while he was at USA Today, that he suspects that one of the reasons why the Steelers let LeBeau go was because they knew it was Polamalu’s last year. And think of what Polamalu did in LeBeau’s system – he essentially did what he wanted. Sure, LeBeau had him move up to closer to the line of scrimmage in recent years. But Tory had a license to freelance, and he did just that.

    I’ve never read anything about what coverage was called in the 2008 AFC Championship game, but it would not shock me to learn if that wasn’t at least a partial ad-lib by Polamalu. We know James Harrison’s big play a week later was pure improve.

    I bring that up, because no one’s schemes were more complex than Dick LeBeau’s.

    I think I wrote here a week ago in another comment, that when he was promoted to defensive coordinator in 2000, Tim Lewis admitted that when he was hired in 1995 as defensive backs coach, he didn’t understand LeBeau’s system until the Super Bowl later that year.

    Can too much over coaching get in the way of allowing natural talent to flourish?

    Well, think back to what Chuck Noll said to Dick Hoak after Franco Harris took his first preseason run and improvised his way to a 90 yard plus touchdown:

    “Dick, don’t over coach the kid.”

    That would seem like common sense, but Steelers Nation has seen assistant coaches trying to force unnatural systems on to players. Joe Walton’s offense was a perfect example. With Merril Hoge, Tim Worley, Barry Foster, and Warren Williams, this was an offense built to run. But Walton wanted to pass. And while the offense might have been suited “OK” to Neil O’Donnell’s talents, it was not suited to Bubby Brister’s talents.

    Similar comments can be made about Kevin Gilbride’s offense. It didn’t suit Kordell Stewart’s talents.

    At the end of the day, this comes down to the old “Nature vs. Nurture debate.”

    I think that Mike Tomlin is a head coach who understands how to strike the balance.

    One of his best quotes, which unfortunately doesn’t seem to be available on the internet, came when he was a rookie head coach. He was asked about something, and he said (and this is a paraphrase from memory):

    “Schemes are overrated. Execution is far more important. I’ve been associated with some brilliant schemes that failed quite frankly because they were poorly executed. And I’ve also been associated with schemes that, quite frankly weren’t that well-suited to the situation they were in but succeeded nonetheless because they were well executed.”

    Liked by 3 people

  • This is a wonderful article, Ivan. I could read this for days and days!

    There definitely needs to be a perfect balance between coaching and letting them play. It’s almost like a ballet, or conducting a symphony.

    To me, if a player (or team) is over-coached, I believe there are some underlying trust and confidence issues. On the other hand, if one is not coached enough, they may fall into a false sense of security and have the “Superman” mentality.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Great analogy, skyfire. As a conductor, if I let my singers do whatever they like we have anarchy. Someone has to have the overriding vision. But if I try to force them into a mold I lose the best of them. Wisdom lies in knowing where that balance is – and it is constantly shifting.

      Liked by 1 person

  • It all comes down to trust, doesn’t it? I don’t cater to the idea that being a ‘non-player’ is detrimental to a coach – you shot that down nicely by bringing up Robinson and there are other situations as well (Gretzky was a pretty poor coach, too). But it is a trust issue. Coaches believe in their systems – those systems elevated them to their situations. So when they run into that supremely talented player, the coach has to learn to trust that that player can succeed within his system…but also outside of it. Then the coach has to trust that ‘outside the system’ isn’t a bad thing when it comes to that player. At the same time, the player has to trust the system AND also be willing to swerve outside when necessary. When that balance is struck, it all works. I think we saw that play out over the first couple of seasons between Big Ben and Haley.


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