NFL Nation: Steve Bush

Sparano elaborates on ex-player assistants

March, 31, 2011
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Miami Dolphins head coach Tony Sparano felt it was important to add former NFL players to his coaching staff.

I posted a story Wednesday that looked into the importance of assistants with playing experience. To follow up, I wanted to share Sparano's thoughts on his three new position instructors: assistant wide receivers coach Ike Hilliard, tight ends coach Dan Campbell and pass-rush coach Bryan Cox.

[+] EnlargeBryan Cox
AP Photo/Beth A. KeiserBryan Cox played for the Dolphins, Jets, Bears, Saints and Patriots over a 12-year career.
Cox is the most familiar player to fans who follow the AFC East. He was a lightning-rod linebacker who played for the Dolphins, New York Jets and New England Patriots in a 12-year career. He recorded 51.5 sacks, 22 forced fumbles and a nice double-bird salute to Buffalo Bills fans.

Cox never played for Sparano, but former Dolphins vice president of football operations Bill Parcells -- the man who hired Sparano -- coached Cox for two seasons with the Jets. Cox's entire coaching career has been working as Eric Mangini's defensive line assistant for the Jets and Cleveland Browns.

"Since I came into the league with Bill Parcells, Bryan is a guy I've always talked to Bill about in different ways," Sparano said at the NFL owners meeting in New Orleans last week. "Bryan's a unique guy. His passion for the game is tremendous, and that's something that really intrigues me. Putting him in the role I have him in now gives me great luxury."

Former Dolphins defensive coordinator Paul Pasqualoni often would pull pass-rushers out of defensive drills to work with them individually. But current coordinator Mike Nolan doesn't like to leave the group much for one-on-one work -- although outside linebacker Cameron Wake didn't appear to suffer from a lack of instruction last season.

Cox "gives me the ability to split the pass-rushers up and get them away from the inside drills and exclusively work on pass-rush with a guy that's going to be able to help them," Sparano said.

Sparano was a Dallas Cowboys tight ends coach when Campbell was there. Sparano promoted him from intern to tight ends coach, replacing George DeLeone.

Sparano said Campbell, a 10-year veteran with three clubs, is "a guy I think an awful lot of" and called him "one of the toughest players I ever coached" and "fundamentally really good."

Hilliard was a receivers coach for the UFL's Florida Tuskers the past two seasons. He played a dozen NFL seasons for the New York Giants and Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He caught 546 passes and scored 35 touchdowns. He'll help first-time NFL position coach Steve Bush.

"Ike Hilliard comes highly recommended to me from a lot of people that I respect in this business, guys that he played for," Sparano said. "Steve Bush is very good from a mental standpoint, scheme, how he attacks people. But Ike Hilliard would be a guy from a fundamental standpoint that would help those guys, particularly with the man-to-man stuff and how he played the position.

"It's unique to have a guy that has played the inside position as well as Ike has played it in our league, to be able to bring some of those details to the table for a guy like [Davone] Bess or [Brian] Hartline or even Marlon Moore. These guys can learn a lot from him."

Hey, playa! Can you coach?

March, 30, 2011
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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.

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