AFC East: Sterling Sharpe

Hey, playa! Can you coach?

March, 30, 2011
SparanoSam Greenwood/Getty ImagesDolphins coach Tony Sparano felt it was necessary to add former players to his coaching staff.
Miami Dolphins receiver Brandon Marshall scoffed in September that broadcast analyst Sterling Sharpe had no right to judge him. Marshall claimed Sharpe didn't do enough on the field to earn the privilege.

Imagine, then, how much disdain Marshall would harbor for criticism from those who didn't play in the NFL at all.

When you consider Marshall's logic and the sort of position coaches he has worked with, you get a sense of how unstable a situation can be.

As a rookie, he learned from former Pro Bowl receiver Steve Watson. But since 2007, Marshall's coaches have been Jeremy Bates, Jedd Fish and Adam Gase with Denver and Karl Dorrell last year with Miami. None of them played in the NFL. Neither Fisch nor Gase played in college.

Probably not the kinds of guys you'd expect to make a connection.

Dolphins head coach Tony Sparano rearranged his coaching staff after last season. He moved Dorrell into the quarterbacks vacancy and promoted Steve Bush from a quality-control role -- usually considered entry-level -- to receivers coach. Bush hasn't been an NFL position coach before. In 2008, the Dolphins hired the one-time Syracuse assistant away from West Genesee High in upstate New York.

Some help was in order, and not just for Bush.

Sparano made it a point to add former players to his coaching staff because he identified a deficiency. He needed more voices to reach his players.

Although the Dolphins parted ways with running backs coach James Saxon, they hired Ike Hilliard to assist Bush and Bryan Cox to coach pass rushing and promoted Dan Campbell from intern to tight ends coach.

"I feel good about the way we were able to put the staff together with the infusion of ex-players onto the staff," Sparano said last week at the NFL owners meeting in New Orleans.

"A little bit of that flavor and that knowledge on your coaching staff helps a lot. Sometimes, as coaches, we can get tunnel vision and forget about what the players' needs are. When you get an ex-player on your staff -- somebody that's really not far removed -- it helps you a lot."

A breakdown of AFC East coaching staffs shows there are multiple philosophies on former NFL players as assistants.

The Dolphins went into last season with two position coaches who played in the NFL: assistant head coach and secondary assistant Todd Bowles and Saxon. They now have four assistants with a combined 557 games.

Buffalo Bills head coach Chan Gailey has one former NFL player on his staff, but none coaching a position. Former defensive back Adrian White, a veteran of seven seasons, handles quality control.

New England Patriots defensive line coach Pepper Johnson is the lone member of Bill Belichick's crew to have experienced NFL action. Johnson played linebacker for four teams over 13 years.

Then there's Rex Ryan's staff, populated by six former NFL players with 62 seasons and 829 games. Matt Cavanaugh coaches quarterbacks, Anthony Lynn running backs, Henry Ellard receivers, Mike Devlin tight ends, Mark Carrier defensive line and Dennis Thurman defensive backs.

I reached out to three former coaches who played in the NFL -- Tom Flores, Herm Edwards and Ted Cottrell -- to get their opinions on the significance of having on-field experience on staff.

"It's always been a thing with the players," said Cottrell, an Atlanta Falcons linebacker and successful defensive coordinator for the Bills, Jets, Minnesota Vikings and San Diego Chargers, "where they think in the backs of their minds, 'Well, you haven't played this game. You don't know what we're going through. You haven't done this, Coach.' But if you have some playing experience on your staff, it helps offset that."

As valuable as those players-turned-coaches are, they're difficult to find. The best players don't necessarily make the best coaches because what came to them naturally can't always be conveyed through instruction.

[+] EnlargePepper Johnson
AP Photo/Elise AmendolaPatriots defensive line coach Pepper Johnson is the only member of Bill Belichick's staff with NFL playing experience.
Flores found a way to make it work. He and Mike Ditka are the only two in NFL history to win a Super Bowl ring as a player, assistant coach and head coach. Flores played quarterback for the Bills, Oakland Raiders and Kansas City Chiefs before guiding the Raiders to pair of Super Bowl titles.

"Some of the young kids coming out have no idea," Flores said. "They think they invented the game. Sometimes you have to bring them back to reality.

"But you also don't want somebody who keeps saying, 'Well, when I played ... When I played ... When I played ...' The player thinks, 'I don't give a damn when you played. We're playing now.'"

The transition from player to coach is difficult. Many players focus so much on their specific jobs when they're active that they don't become students of the overall game or learn how their roles fit into the overall puzzle. Others find it difficult to stop acting like a player when their careers are over.

Still, the ex-player element can be crucial in various instances.

"Sometimes you need a bridge with a former player," said Edwards, who played cornerback for the Philadelphia Eagles and was head coach for the Jets and Chiefs. "His voice is going to speak volumes, especially during the rough times because he's done it; he's been through it. He can give them, 'OK, this is what we gotta do' speech.

"He's going to respect because he played, but can he teach? That's the whole key. Players will figure that out."

Not all coaches are comfortable hiring former players, particularly those fresh off the field. Cottrell claimed there's a fear of subversion, that the former player will relate better to the locker room than the man in charge.

"Who do you think the players on the roster will gravitate towards more?" Cottrell asked. "The guy who played in the NFL and is young, or the older guy who didn't play?"

The former player, I responded.

"Damn right they would," Cottrell said. "That's why some coaches are intimidated to hire them. That's the truth. They don't want that guy around."

Added Edwards: "I've seen that happen. There's no doubt about that. That's when you're paranoid, but there are coaches like that."

Even so, Edwards conceded insurrections aren't an unfounded conspiracy theory.

"If you've got a former player in his positional meeting room, saying, 'Man, the coach doesn't know what he's talking about,' then you've got no shot as a head coach," Edwards said. "That's why you've got to be particular on who you hire."

The Patriots have a more institutional coaching staff. Their message is easy to deliver when players consider Belichick has won three Super Bowls and four conference championships in the past decade.

Rather than rely on former players, Belichick has core assistants such as offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia (28th season with New England) and running backs coach Ivan Fears (15th season).

Belichick grooms assistants from gophers into coordinators and even head coaches. A steady stream of his acolytes -- Eric Mangini, Josh McDaniels, Brian Daboll, Bill O'Brien, Matt Patricia -- got their NFL starts under Belichick with no pro playing experience.

New England's cyclical process protects organizational doctrine from outside influences. Johnson, the lone ex-player on the staff, played 10 of his 13 seasons under Belichick.

"Belichick has a certain philosophy, and you want everybody to be on the same page," Flores said. "Sometimes, when you bring in guys that have been too many other places, they're not going to be on your page because they've been trained someplace else.

"If you bring up assistants through the ranks, then they'll be trained the way you want them to be. Everybody has to buy into the same program."

At the other end of the spectrum are the Jets.

Ryan obviously values former players. Their presence on the staff contributes to the Jets being an attractive destination for free agents, and Cottrell surmises the Dolphins have noticed.

"From a coaching standpoint, he looks at the Jets and wants to catch them in the division," Cottrell said. "He thinks, 'Rex has six guys that have played the game who are coaching. Uh oh. Rex has got an advantage on me.'

"That's got to be in the back of his mind. You've got to win your division to get into the playoffs, and when you look at your coaching staff, you see you don't matchup in that area."

Or, in the case of adding Hilliard at least, maybe it was as simple as noticing the Dolphins didn't match up with Marshall.

Marshall's hammy stirs suspicious minds

December, 11, 2010
A couple of former players turned analysts are suspicious about Miami Dolphins receiver Brandon Marshall's bad hamstring.

Steve Tasker and Qadry Ismail told Palm Beach Post reporter Brian Biggane that Marshall's injury seemed rather fishy to them. Marshall left the Week 11 game against the Chicago Bears in the second quarter. He has missed the past two games and is questionable for Sunday's rematch with the New York Jets at the Meadowlands.

[+] EnlargeBrandon Marshall
AP Photo/Paul SpinelliBrandon Marshall hasn't played since injuring his hamstring against the Bears in Week 11.
"When a guy pulls a hamstring at this point of the season, that tells me one thing and that is that he's not in shape," Tasker, a seven-time Pro Bowler and Hall of Fame semifinalist, told Biggane. "I could see it maybe very early in a game if he hadn't warmed up properly. But this happened well into [the Bears game], and he'd already been involved quite a bit. It was really a surprise to me."

That wasn't the first time respected former players questioned Marshall's conditioning. NFL Network analysts Sterling Sharpe, Solomon Wilcots and Mike Mayock were critical of Marshall's laziness in the waning moments of a Week 3 home loss to the Jets.

Ismail suggested Marshall was quitting on the Dolphins. Ismail, a two-time 1,000-yard receiver who won a Super Bowl with the Baltimore Ravens, made a mental note of Marshall being worked on by trainers before the Bears game.

"It was like, 'I'm glad he's taking care of his body. It puts him in a better position to win,' " Ismail said. "But after that it caught me off guard to see him get hurt. And it's been surprising to me that it's taken him this long to come back from it. When guys do things differently, like he does, they normally come back a lot faster than that.

"I'll be curious to see how motivated he plays [Sunday against the Jets]. In other words, I'm not expecting too much."

Marshall's season has been a serious disappointment. The Dolphins made him the NFL's highest-paid receiver after acquiring him from the Denver Broncos for two second-round draft picks.

He has decent reception numbers but just one touchdown catch. In his past two games he has been flagged for chucking a ball into the stands and for throwing one at former Broncos teammate Jay Cutler on the Bears' sideline.

Marshall claimed he was keeping his lack of production in perspective.

"The great players around the league want to be put in position to help the team," Marshall said Thursday. "But sometimes, like Coach [Tony] Sparano taught me and is trying to teach me still, some days it's a shot glass and some days it's a wheel barrow.

"You got to understand that, and you just got to try to be mentally tough, and it's a struggle when you're used to catching a bunch of balls or being so involved. But we got to do what's best for the team and hopefully get a couple wins here and have some things fall into place for us and get in that postseason."

Brandon Marshall an uncaged force

October, 2, 2010
Brandon MarshallJoel Auerbach/Getty ImagesBrandon "The Beast" Marshall gets so intense before games, coordinator Dan Henning is working with him to dial it back so he conserves evergy.
Before a game, Miami Dolphins receiver Brandon Marshall becomes an animal.

Marshall loves being known as "The Beast," a persona developed over three straight seasons of 100-plus catches. He has dubbed the section that overlooks the players' tunnel in Sun Life Stadium's west end zone "Beast Alley" and expends considerable energy exhorting fans to reach full froth with him.

"He's a high-anxiety, high-energy guy," Dolphins offensive coordinator Dan Henning said. "You ought to see him before the game. He's like a caged tiger. I mean, literally like a caged tiger."

Rather than throw raw meat at Marshall, the Dolphins have been flinging tanned cowhide in his direction. At any point from opening kickoff until the game clock expires, he's hungry.

In one of the NFL's bigger offseason moves, the Dolphins acquired Marshall to unlock all sorts of new offensive possibilities.

After a relatively tame first two games, the Dolphins finally unleashed their manimal last week, and there's no reason to think he'll be subdued Monday night against the New England Patriots at Sun Life Stadium (ESPN, 8:30 p.m. ET).

"The guy is a monster," Buffalo Bills cornerback Terrence McGee said before he faced Marshall on opening day. "He's one of the best receivers in the league, so you've definitely got to expect they're going to throw him the ball. That's what they brought him there for."

Marshall showed in Week 3 why the Dolphins traded a pair of second-round draft choices to the Denver Broncos and then signed him to a beastly four-year, $47.5 million extension.

With quarterback Chad Henne throwing for a career-high 363 yards, Marshall had 10 catches for 166 yards and his first Dolphins touchdown in a home loss to the New York Jets. The yardage tied for the second most of Marshall's career.

Marshall also ran twice for 3 yards and made his first Wildcat cameos. Dolphins running back Ronnie Brown tried to throw deep to him once.

"He's definitely a go-to player for them," Patriots coach Bill Belichick said of the 6-foot-4, 230-pound Marshall. "They get the ball to him in a lot of different situations.

"He's big. He's like a tight end. He's huge for a receiver. He can go up and get the ball. He's a strong runner with the ball in his hands and good after the catch. He's got good speed, good quickness, good receiving skills. He's a tough guy to match up against."

The best way to negate The Beast might be when he tuckers himself out.

One of the hot topics in South Florida the past week was Marshall's energy level against the Jets in the sweltering heat. Henning revealed Marshall was so drained in the first half Sunday night that he went to the locker room early to receive intravenous fluids.

NFL Network analysts Sterling Sharpe, Solomon Wilcots and Mike Mayock faulted Marshall's lack of effort on the final set of downs with the Dolphins desperate for a touchdown. Marshall got them to the Jets' 11-yard line with a 30-yard catch and run but then disappeared over the next four downs.

"He's on the field, and he's wound up really tight before the game," Henning said. "So we're working on that, to try to get him to be patient and utilize all that energy in the game and not expend it too soon."

Said Marshall: "I'm just so passionate, and I guess when we get on that football field a lot of emotions come out, and I just turn into a different person. I think that's what helps me be successful in my young career."

It might be tough to get Marshall settled down for the Patriots because their secondary likely is causing him to drool.

[+] EnlargeBrandon Marshall
Ron Chenoy/US PresswireBrandon Marshall had eight catches, including two for touchdowns, in the Broncos' 20-17 win over the Patriots last season.
Conditions are right for Marshall and Henne to have another gigantic game.

For the Denver Broncos last year, Marshall had eight receptions for 64 yards and both touchdowns in a 20-17 overtime victory over the Patriots, whose secondary was more stable then compared to now.

The Patriots' pass defense has been lenient so far and chaotic in terms of personnel. Veteran cornerback Leigh Bodden and safety Brandon McGowan were placed on injured reserve, ending their seasons before they began. Pro Bowl safety Brandon Meriweather lost his starting job in Week 2. Cornerback Darius Butler lost his last week.

Belichick said limiting Marshall's infamous yards after the catch is "a top priority."

The Patriots' defense has allowed an NFL-high seven touchdown passes. It has surrendered at least two in each game. Quarterbacks have completed 69.4 percent of their attempts, are averaging 260.3 yards and have a 101.3 passer rating against New England.

You can expect Marshall's appetite to be voracious, whether it's Henne throwing the ball or even Brown.

"Oh, absolutely," Marshall said. "I want the ball every play. What receiver doesn't?"

Marshall belittles Sharpe's expertise

September, 30, 2010
To have an opinion on Brandon Marshall, you better be a coach or a Hall of Famer.

Nobody else is qualified, apparently.

[+] EnlargeBrandon Marshall
AP Photo/J Pat CarterBrandon Marshall had 10 receptions for 166 yards and a touchdown Sunday against the Jets.
On the latest edition of the NFL Network's "Playbook," analysts Sterling Sharpe, Mike Mayock and Solomon Wilcots criticized Marshall for fading at the end of Sunday night's 31-23 home loss to the New York Jets.

Marshall responded Thursday by essentially saying the analysts are not qualified to scrutinize him.

"Those guys are players, former players," Marshall said. "They never coached. So they need to continue to do what they do best and stop worrying about other things that they don't know anything about."

Marshall later added: "What those guys are saying, that's just them trying to sound good and sound like they know what they're talking about. ... I don't honestly think those guys were elite players, including Sterling Sharpe. I got to turn on the film and see what he was able to do. I know he's done some good things, but from my understanding he's not a Hall of Fame guy."

Marshall had 10 receptions for 166 yards and a touchdown Sunday night.

"The guy played probably 60-something plays the other night," Dolphins coach Tony Sparano said, "and if I remember correctly with about four plays left in the game caught one and ran it down. So he looked OK to me then."

Mayock used the Telestrator to point out a seeming lack of effort on the final set of downs after Marshall made a 30-yard catch and run. I selected that play as the AFC East's decisive moment because Jets safety Brodney Pool might have saved the game with his tackle at the Jets' 11-yard line.

Chad Henne threw an incomplete pass to Marshall on first down, scrambled because of coverage on second down, dumped to Ronnie Brown for 5 yards on third down and ended the game with an interception.

Mayock said Marshall was jogging and didn't step up "in money time" throughout that sequence. Wilcots said "a playmaker, a true gamer has to be in great condition to be able to close out games."

"Brandon, you have to give us more," Sharpe said. "Bill Parcells has a great saying that I stole, working with him in TV: 'Don't complain. Don't explain.' You are the guy down in South Florida. If they're going to throw the ball, you are the first option. What Mike just showed us, I'm going to give you a pass on that. That was one game this year. You're getting used to the Florida heat.

"Brandon Marshall, from now on, you, my friend, are going to have to bring it."

Mayock and Wilcots are former NFL safeties. Sharpe was an All-Pro three times and a Pro Bowler five times in seven NFL seasons.

Sharpe likely would have been a Hall of Famer had a neck injury not forced him to retire at 29 amid concerns of paralysis or possibly death because of loose vertebrae. Sharpe left as the Green Bay Packers' all-time receiving leader.

Marshall would be fortunate to have a career that successful and blessed to retire on his terms rather than be forced to leave the game because of a serious injury.

Marshall hasn't been selected for an All-Pro team yet, but he could make a few if he stays healthy. He also could be a Hall of Famer someday -- and thereby become certified to render an opinion on another receiver.

Around the AFC East: QB Beck on the block

August, 20, 2008

Posted by's Tim Graham

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