Lombardi: The importance of player development in the NFL

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He wasn’t going to wait for the bus. 

After not playing in the five exhibition games, (which is what they called them back in 1955) ninth-round pick quarterback John Unitas told his two fellow former teammates on the way to the bus station he was going to hitchhike back to Pittsburgh.  Amazed and confused, both players looked at one another with no urgency to join him on his journey, since Portland, Oregon wasn’t anywhere close to the Steel City.  Unitas cashed in his bus ticket, got his thumb loose and set out for home. 

Steelers head coach Walter “Keez” Kiesling was not buying Unitas.  He thought from the first day of practice when he asked Unitas for the correct audible based in the front of the defense causing Unitas to stammer, hem and haw, before answering incorrectly, Johnny U was too dumb to play pro football (even though Kiesling’s offense loved sending the fullback up the middle on most every play and he was the last coach to break away from the T-formation).  Kiesling was a neanderthal when it came to offensive football, he was in over his head as a head coach and bullied his way to getting what he wanted with everyone in the organization. 

When owner Art Rooney became so tired of hearing the fans in the stands screaming “hey diddle diddle Rogel’s up the middle,” (Fran Rogel was the Steelers fullback at the time) he ordered Keez to throw it deep on the first play, which was out of character for Rooney as he always allowed his coaches complete freedom.  Once Keez felt Unitas was too dumb, he banished him to the bench and never gave him a chance to compete for a position on the team. Unitas completed more passes to Rooney’s children than any other Steeler.  He then signed veteran quarterback Ted Marchibroda to be the backup and with four quarterbacks on the roster, Unitas had to go. 

The Unitas story is important in the days after the draft. Every head coach should share this development with their staff and remind them of the pitfalls of not being open-minded after the draft.  Be careful not to make quick judgements or anyone.  Some might say the Unitas story happen over 60 years ago and therefore it’s not relevant today; they would be completely wrong, it’s even more relevant.  Assistant coaches with no one telling them to develop the rookies will always favor the veteran player, the player that will make the least number of mistakes and keep the coach from being on the hot seat.  The coach can claim the player isn’t talented enough, which isn’t his fault, and as long as he fulfills his assignments the assistant is off the hook.  Raider owner Al Davis, would often tell me to remind the assistants that they are high school coaches, meaning they must coach the players on the team and expect no new talent to arrive.  Davis wanted the coaches to be coaches, not general managers. 

Even though Kiesling wasn’t a great coach, there are many other cases besides Unitas where a player doesn’t get a chance to compete for a place on the roster.  Every play drafted or signed as a free agent, comes to their new team with an abundance of hope and excitement.  The hope and excitement dwindle away quickly as coaches will make their minds up, like Kiesling on the players talent and give them an unfair label. Factor in most head coaches don’t pay attention to the side of the ball that isn’t in their area of expertise, the chances of making a mistake enhance. 

We all get excited for the NFL draft, as new players join teams, and we read all the draft grades of the team, yet no one factors the player development side of the draft.  Which team is going to develop the talent properly? 

Not all teams understand player development, how to maximize the skill set of the player in his first season.  Too many organizations want the players to know everything, as opposed to picking out the one or two areas to develop.  For example, the New York Jets got a bonus first-round pick with Florida State defensive end Jermaine Johnson, who many felt it might be drafted in the top 10.  Johnson has excellent size and speed, shows good get-off when rushing.  He is not ready to play 75 plays per game, so less of Johnson might mean more in terms of production.  

For Johnson to make a huge impact with the Jets in 2022, he needs to become an excellent edge rusher on their nickel unit.  He doesn’t have to be a three-down player or play 90% of the plays, but he needs to be able to impact the ones he does play.  Defining the role of the player, then coaching the player in that role, can help rookies impact the season. 

San Francisco 49ers Hall of Fame coach Bill Walsh would often stay, “The first year we teach a player in the areas he can make the most impact.  The next year, we teach him the system”. When we drafted Charles Haley, a future Hall of Fame rusher, Walsh told the defensive staff that Haley was going to learn to rush this and nothing else.  Haley responded with 12 sacks in his first year. 

Conversely, some rookies will have to play right away, as their team needs them to be a full-time starter. Those players will struggle at times and the head coaches must protect those struggles so the player doesn’t get labeled in a bad way.  There is an art to blending the rookie talent into the team.  Most every rookie will not be in top condition, or ready to handle the volume of a professional practice, therefore, they will suffer soft tissues injuries – hamstrings, groin pulls and calf injuries, which disappoint the coaches, limit the learning curve and start the player off on the wrong foot.  Once the label gets placed on the player, then it’s over.  

When draft grades are poor for some teams, the grader is not counting on the team being able to develop the talent.   For example, the Cowboys select Tyler Smith from Tulsa, whom everyone believed (in the media) wasn’t as good as some other tackles remaining on the board at No. 24 overall.  Yet, the Cowboys are good at developing talent, and their line coach Joe Philbin is good at being able to teach young players how to play.  Smith has talent, and Philbin will be able to nurture that talent.  Philbin had to be involved with the selection of Smith, so he has a vested interest in making the player a good player, which will then prove the draft grades wrong.  Same thing with the New England Patriots’ first-round pick of guard Cole Strange.  Draftniks are claiming he was a reach in the first round, yet everyone knows Patriots develop talent better than most teams, (they are the Miami Heat of the NFL) and if Strange starts at right guard and plays well, is he really a reach? 

We all know that as much as we want the rookies to dominate, the chances are slim in Year 1.  For every Micah Parsons, Ja'Marr Chase and Mac Jones, there are players who will make a more prominent impact in Year 2, as long as the coaches haven’t given them an unfair label like Unitas. 

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