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Want to alter a team's culture without changing the head coach?
The best avenue might just be through the team's strength coach, the one assistant who deals with everyone on the roster with some regularity throughout the NFL year.
In Jacksonville, Jack Del Rio recently hired a new man for the job, Luke Richesson. In Houston, Gary Kubiak still has an opening at the spot.
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|Jack Del Rio hopes a new strength and conditioning coach will help turn things around for the Jags.|
Gone from the Jaguars' staff is Mark Asanovich, said to be a steady and uncompromising personality. Gone from the Texans' staff is Dan Riley, a stronger presence some categorize as cantankerous.
With open offices, Del Rio and Kubiak had a chance to be sold on a different kind of training regimen and decide what sort of approach might work best for their rosters. But they also had a chance to gauge personalities and the ability of a new assistant to buy into the team's philosophy and to be an effective disciple of it.
"Those guys probably spend as much time, if not more time, with your players than you do," Kubiak said. "I know they are with players a great deal of time from the standpoint of being in the weight room doing their work. Then when they are not with us in meetings or in practice, that's usually the first place players go. The mentality of your football team and a lot of those work habits are developed down there in that atmosphere."
In Richesson and the Houston hire -- which rumblings suggest could be Ray Wright, a Riley assistant who remains on staff -- the Jags and Texans hope they'll have a coach who players come to consider both a resource and a model.
Richesson joined the Jaguars from Athletes' Performance, a company that trains college players looking to post great workout numbers at the league's annual scouting combine. Indications are he may not have been the Jaguars first choice, but Del Rio is confident he will be a difference maker. (When teams don't get their first choice, I'm always compelled to remind people how far basketball coach Roy Williams was down the list before he got the job at Kansas and how well that turned out.)
Richesson's biggest challenge may be broadening his repertoire in a way that embraces a more diverse pool of athletes. At Athletes' Performance, his focus was narrow -- elite college athletes were sent to him by agents looking to boost draft status. In the Jaguars' locker room, he'll deal with veterans and rookies with more established routines, some of whom are emboldened by status or paychecks.
Whether a strength coach is a drill sergeant who rides players incessantly, a prankster who keeps them laughing or an easygoing type who drops subtle hints, he is constantly presenting a message, said Bert Hill, strength coach for the Detroit Lions from 1990-2000 and for the Dolphins during Nick Saban's two seasons in Miami.
"You're around those guys on a daily basis, and whether you think you are or not, you are delivering a message every day," said Hill, now the defensive line coach for SMU. "And that message needs to be consistent with the philosophy of the football team and the head football coach and what he wants done and the type of attitude he wants corresponded to those guys."
Was Asanovich a fall guy because of the Jaguars' slew of injuries? Was Riley ousted because he was connected to the Texans' previous regime?
It's hard to say for sure.
But Riley recently told Jason Wilde of the Wisconsin State Journal that he wasn't looking to get back into the league.
"You go through a season with hardly any injuries, and you don't hear any compliments from the coach and you don't get any bonuses," Riley said. "But as soon as injuries start to become a problem, it's our fault even though coaches don't give you enough time with the players to really do your job right."
When Jeff Lageman started his 10-season career as a defensive end, players weren't necessarily expected to spend much of the offseason at team headquarters. Now plenty of players have bonuses tied to attendance and coaches want players around for the bulk of the offseason programs.
Lageman, now the color analyst for the Jaguars' radio broadcasts, was a first-round pick in 1989 out of Virginia, before playing for the Jets and Jags.
Lageman said the year-round commitment isn't all that's changed. The specialization of programs for each player -- not just based on his position but also based on his body -- is something he never imagined 14 years ago when his weight work was the same as quarterback Mark Brunell's.
The offseason may be the most important time for Richesson as he lays the foundations of his program, Lageman said. Minus the pressures of practice, the coach helps build team camaraderie along with a competitive lifting environment.
But the most important thing about Richesson may be where he comes from.
"Here in Jacksonville over the last couple years, I think Fred Taylor was the one who said, 'Hey look, I feel like I do better when I am home and I am training with this bunch of guys that I know down in South Florida and it's more of an individualized workout specific to me,'" he said.
"... I think Jack saw that and how some guys started to migrate toward that and Jack said 'Hey, if we're going to build the team concept, instead of having guys migrating to that atmosphere why not bring that atmosphere here and have guys stay here and migrate here and be around their teammates and get that type of strength and conditioning coaching?'"
Will it work? It'll be one of the Jaguars' most interesting upcoming story lines.
If Del Rio offers up any numbers connected to offseason program attendance after things get rolling in five or six weeks, take it as a good sign.