Developing the Talent: Wide Receivers Coach Richard Mann
Richard Mann is an unusual case. He was a longtime well-respected coach who decided, all on his own, to retire from coaching. And unlike some “retired” coaches one can think of who took another job about an hour later, Mann retired in 2009 and wasn’t lured out of retirement until Mike Tomlin came calling in 2013.
Tomlin knew Mann when they were both assistants at Tampa Bay in 2002. The team won the Super Bowl after the end of that season. Mann later moved up assistant head coach in his final year. He had 28 years of NFL coaching experience when he retired.
But as we all know, Mike Tomlin has a winning way about him, and he has managed to keep Mann un-retired for the past three seasons, with no end in sight. And given the quality of the Steelers offense, I’m guessing Mann can stay as long as he wants.
When he first came to the Steelers Bob Labriola did a sort of “what can the guys expect” interview, and I found several of his responses quite fascinating:
I’ve been coaching a long time, and I’m a fundamental technique guy. If I’m teaching something, I have a lot of tape from over the years of different guys doing the same thing so I know it works. The bottom line is if the player has good fundamental technique, along with his athletic ability, he can be a productive player.
I wonder if the apparent inability of the previous staff to teach the very fast and talented Mike Wallace much more than “one trick” had anything to do with Tomlin reaching out to Mann. Obviously, a good bit of the equation is the willingness of the player to learn, and to work at his craft.
An excellent example of this is the ESPN Sports Science video of Antonio Brown running an 8-yard curl route:
Not to put out a spoiler or anything, but Brown runs essentially the exact same route in the exact same amount of time, blindfolded, as he did the usual way. You don’t develop that sort of precision without a mind-numbing number of repetitions.
No coach can force you to do that, even if he wanted to try, because for one thing the NFLPA would have a few words to say. In fact, Mann more or less addressed this:
I’ll put the time in, [for film study and planning] and if they see me putting the time in, they’ll put the time in. All players, if they believe what you’re teaching them will make them better, they’ll buy into it. I’ve always thought that. I can’t make them do what I want them to do.
You can, however, help a player to utilize the time they choose to spend outside of practice in a focused way, because despite my use of the term “mind-numbing” in fact to be really effective such practice has to be done in a consciously present manner.
I think you can see Mann’s emphasis on fundamentals even in the way the team worked Martavis Bryant into the offense. Mann and the staff taught him one trick at a time, and slowly incorporated him and his tricks into their plans. Just about the time a team figured they knew how Bryant could be defended, he seemed to be suddenly in possession of more of the playbook.
Unfortunately the trick which would matter most to the Steelers ultimately, the trick of staying off the Commissioner’s suspension list, is not within Mann’s purview, although I suspect he’s made numerous suggestions to Bryant as to how he might be best advised to conduct his personal life.
But to return to Mann’s responses back in 2013, here’s another thing I found quite interesting:
If [a receiver is] not getting the ball, he’s staying busy in the other aspect of the game, which is blocking. We do it all – we block and we catch. That’s part of what I’ve always preached, that we are not just good receivers but we’re also good blockers… If you’re going to be a good running football team, then your wideouts have to block the perimeter. It doesn’t have to be us knocking people out or knocking people down. What we have to do is be accountable and trustworthy and do what we’re supposed to do.
The last line is particularly germane. Later in the interview Mann talks about “protecting” the quarterback by either catching balls that aren’t perfectly thrown for whatever reason or at least seeing to it that the opposition doesn’t get them. This is obviously easier said than done, depending on the quality of the throw, but of course part of being accountable is being where you are supposed to be on that particular play, which comes back to the fundamentals Mann preaches.
I loved the next comment. Mann wasn’t actually answering the question asked, which was whether, as an avowed old-school guy, he finds modern receivers to be divas:
I coach everybody. I’ve had some experience where I’ve been accused of just coaching the starters, and I don’t think that’s right. I didn’t agree with it, and I told the person who said that to me that it would never happen again. That was years ago, and it has never happened to me again. I coach everybody. Everybody has got to do his job. Whatever your role is, that is what you have to be held accountable for. My accountability comes with everybody in the room. I should be accountable to everybody, and that’s the way I coach. I always have.
This argues a humility on his part that is most impressive. In as “macho” a profession as football it takes major courage and humility to admit to someone that they have a point.
In a December 2015 ESPN article by Steelers beat writer Jeremy Fowler, he talks about the factors which have made the Steelers what he calls a wide receiver factory. One of the factors he cites is Mann:
…the Steelers laud the work of assistant coach Richard Mann, who operates a fast-paced wide receiver room. Players can be called out at any time in this space. Receivers fine each other for dropped passes, late attendance to meetings and running wrong routes in practice. He doesn’t treat Brown differently.
As he is being interviewed, Mann, a 31-year NFL veteran coach, pulls out a long black-and-white sheet that looks like a grid, pointing to the dozens of rectangular spaces he just filled with observations from a two-hour practice.
He’s heading to the receiver room, where he rehearses every line to his players.
“We teach everybody the same thing — we critique it, what’s good, what’s bad,” Mann said. “If they ain’t doing it, we coach them up some more. If it ain’t working, we change it.”
Don’t look now, but it seems to be working.