Bloated staffs sap coaches' influence

October 31, 2006|By JOHN EISENBERG

Bloated staffs are growing problem for coaches, game

When Vince Lombardi began coaching the Green Bay Packers in 1959, he had four assistants.

This year, Denver Broncos coach Mike Shanahan has 21.

Are the Broncos five times better than Lombardi's Packers because they have more than five times as many coaches? Hardly.

It's surely nice to be Shanahan and have so much more help; more details get covered, no doubt, although Lombardi seemed to get the job done.

But there is such a thing as taking it too far, and all NFL teams, not just the Broncos, have gotten carried away with their coaching staffs.

Twenty-one assistants?

Is one the czar of lunch? Is another strictly in charge of cleaning the digital video equipment?

The NFL has never been more popular than it is now, but if it has a shortcoming, it's that there's too much coaching and not enough playing. Too much control being asserted from the sidelines, and not enough natural instinct on display.

Most teams have between 14 and 18 assistants. The Patriots, for what it's worth, have just 13, and they seem to win a lot.

The Ravens, who started 2006 on the high end, with 18 assistants, unwittingly struck a blow for sanity Sunday when they pounded the Saints in New Orleans. Head coach Brian Billick called the plays instead of the deposed offensive coordinator, Jim Fassel, and - shhhhh - everything went fine.

The absence of what had been a key coaching voice actually seemed to help the offense rather than hurt it.

Take away a couple more voices and, shoot, the point-starved Ravens might average five touchdowns a game.

I'm not suggesting anyone should lose his job, but by the end of Sunday's game, weren't you wondering why Billick didn't try the "less is more" philosophy years ago?

He came to Baltimore in 1999 with a reputation for being an offensive genius based on his years as the Minnesota Vikings' offensive coordinator, but his Ravens offenses continually misfired and he became the butt of cruel jokes. You know, with geniuses like this, who needs idiots?

But, of course, Billick never actually ran the offense. His coordinators (Matt Cavanaugh and Fassel) did.

Given the heat he took, he probably should have taken over the play-calling years ago to prove himself. The Ravens might well have benefited.

But NFL teams don't operate that way. They operate like the Washington Redskins, who paid Hall of Fame coach Joe Gibbs $25 million to come back and try to turn the team around, but then put their offense and defense in the hands of layers of highly paid coordinators, effectively cutting Gibbs out of the loop.

On the offensive side alone, the Redskins have an associate head coach, an assistant head coach and a coordinator, along with an assistant, a quality control coach and four position coaches. They don't have room at the table for Gibbs when they have meetings.

Doesn't it make sense for Gibbs, who makes $5 million a year, to be calling the plays, or at least to be in charge of something on game days?

Not in a league that has become obsessed with process and is so replete with coordinators and assistants that they're bumping into one another on the sideline.

The other major sport with a staff size problem is college basketball, where there are more guys in suits than sweats on many benches. That's really sad. With only five guys playing at a time, why do you need eight assistants?

Some college teams have so many that the lower-echelon assistants have to sit on a second bench behind the big one. And they thought they'd outgrown the Thanksgiving kids table.

What do college basketball and pro football coaches have in common? They're notorious control freaks and tend to be more high-strung than, say, baseball managers. They like having acolytes around.

That's not to say their swelled coaching staffs are entirely about ego. Pro football coaches have infinitely more information at their disposal than they did years ago, when teams were lucky just to have game films. Every aspect of the game can be analyzed and quantified today. That takes time ... and people.

But when staffs are up to 21 assistants, with no end in sight, the situation is officially out of control. You don't need a coach who motivates like Lombardi. You need one who delegates effectively. Where's the drama in that?

If the Ravens go on to make the playoffs without an offensive coordinator, maybe other teams will notice and start cutting their staffs. Maybe they'll dispense with a few assistants and increase their head coaches' hands-on responsibilities.

The head coaches are already making the big bucks. Why not give them more to do?

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