Until recently I’ve never thought of football teams as democratic institutions. They’re traditionally autocratic, the coach making the decisions, the players expressing nothing but acceptance and agreement.
But those days of silent acquiescence may be over. Players are now asserting themselves, unafraid to say the coach is clueless, that his team’s as disorganized as a snowball fight.
If a player is a leader he’s likely to feel it’s his duty, for the good of the franchise, to speak publicly about his concerns. Bring pressure on the coach who obviously needs help.
So we hear Sammy Watkins becoming increasingly outspoken with the Buffalo Bills. Here he is following his team’s elimination from the playoff race:
“We need to call people out. If I’m doing something wrong, call me out. . . . We need some nasty coaches. If they ain’t doing their job, get them out of here. . . .”
Mario Williams, who has delivered four sacks for his $13 million salary, complained that the Bills’ defense has lost its aggressiveness because coaches called for read-and-react instead of full speed ahead. “My mindset is, if you’re an attack defense, you don’t let anything else dictate what you do.”
Williams also cited confusion caused by coaches being slow to send in substitutions. “We’re trying to switch men as they’re coming out of the huddle,” he said. “Game in, game out, I don’t know how in the world that keeps happening.”
Linebacker Preston Brown, who receives the defensive calls from the sidelines and relays them to his teammates, supported Williams’ view: “I’m getting the calls extremely late. . . . The Texans scored a touchdown on us when we were running out to the field.”
Safety Corey Graham chimed in: “We’re all over the place; we don’t know what’s going on half the time.”
The irony here is that Buffalo’s Rex Ryan, in his first year with the team, is the epitome of a Players’ Coach. When he was with the New York Jets he put a tattoo on his chest of his handsome quarterback, Mark Sanchez. Then he had to blur out the tat when he and Sanchez were run out of town, in different directions.
Wherever he’s coached, Ryan has been appreciated for his humanity, easing off practices when he sensed the players were weary, erring on the side of caution when they were injured. He’s quick to forgive their mistakes. When the Bills lost a game because of 100 yards in penalties, he told the media he was proud of their aggressiveness.
But, like Jeff Fisher with the St. Louis Rams, Ryan’s emphasis on physical dominance—pound ’em with the run, tear off their quarterback’s head – is at odds with today’s flag-happy league that’s getting serious about safety.
Or at least wants us to think so.
The coaches who preach aggression over discipline frequently give up too much penalty yardage to win the game.
And while players enjoy working for Rex, the best ones, such as Watkins and what used to be Mario Williams, want more than anything else to be in the playoffs. They don’t want what they’re getting now: back-to-back losses to mediocre teams, Philadelphia and Washington.
Watkins is calling for tough love. He apparently doesn’t trust Ryan to fix the problem unless he’s forced by the team’s owner, Terry Pegula.
The outspoken candor by the Bills is not entirely an aberration in today’s NFL. Or NCAA. Ezekiel Elliott spoke out about Urban Meyer erring in limiting him to 12 carries in a critical loss to Michigan State. Meyer sheepishly agreed with Elliott.
We’ve heard Minnesota’s Adrian Peterson “as a team leader” jabbing his coaches – primarily for not feeding him the ball. And Philadelphia’s DeMarco Murray knifing Chip Kelly for the same sort of snub.
Which is not to say this is the first year NFL players have gone Brutus on their coaches. Recall the weekly press conferences of RG III last season before he was banished to the scout team.
In the early 1970s the Dallas Cowboys had an All-Pro running back, Duane Thomas, who called his coach, the already legendary Tom Landry, “a plastic man.”
Landry responded with a smile and a shrug. Much unlike, say, Bill Belichick, Landry tacitly approved of players criticizing him. He didn’t want them imploding, holding the frustration inside.
Ryan is not ignoring the outrage. He promised “drastic changes.” When asked if coaches would be fired, he said, “Everybody’s evaluated in this league. You can read between the lines.”
Reading between the lines, defensive coordinator Dennis Thurman soon will be departing. Ryan probably will get a second chance, with his $5.5 million salary guaranteed for next year.
Perhaps it’s good to let the players discuss their differences. The first step in solving a problem is recognizing it.
But I doubt all this airing of dirty laundry will have a happy result. Years ago I worked for a company that sent all its employees to a seminar titled “Facts Are Friendly.” Everyone was encouraged to find faults in their fellow workers and to submit the comments anonymously.
The purpose was to improve each individual’s performance. So I made an effort to “stop making the coffee so strong” and “wear better clothes.”
But many in the office took the personal comments very personally. They wasted much of the work day huddling and trying to determine who was denigrating whom. We were no longer a happy team pulling together. And there was little appreciation of the executive who required us to criticize each other. The facts did not turn out so friendly.