Time management
ESPN's Chris Mortensen and Kenny Mayne discuss possible NFL playoff scheduling scenarios.
wav: 1081 k
Real: 14.4 | 28.8 | 56.6

Tagliabue: 16-game season 'vital' to NFL

Patrick: One step at a time

Patrick: Outtakes with Jim McKay

Vitale: Reflections from weekend of remembrance

Full coverage from ABCNEWS.com

Mortensen: 2001 archive

Coaches' calls on post-tragedy workouts raise issues

Sept. 19
Shortly after NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue announced last Thursday that games were being canceled or postponed, Baltimore Ravens owner Art Modell went to his players to explain a few things.

Modell's speech to his players went something like this:

Brian Billick
Brian Billick's Ravens got a big road win over the Broncos.
"First question you probably have is whether you'll get paid for 16 games instead of 15, and I can tell you that there will be a favorable owners' response to that," the owner started.

"Second question, what is the practice schedule? The league has asked all teams to observe a national day of mourning and prayer tomorrow [Friday], so I'm assuming you won't practice..."

Ravens players got antsy and shook their heads in the negative, when coach Brian Billick stepped up next to the owner.

"Oops," said Modell.

Billick began to explain his reasons for practicing Friday and Saturday to a group of players that were not particularly thrilled with the plan.

"I have valid reasons," he told them.


Meanwhile, in New Orleans, Saints coach Jim Haslett hatched what he thought was a terrific idea when he learned of the cancellation. His team already was facing a bye in Week 3, and therefore would have 21 days off between games. Not ideal. Haslett called Steelers coach Bill Cowher -- who faced an identical 21-day layoff -- and proposed that the Steelers and Saints practice against each other this week for three days. Two old linebackers who once coached together put the plan in action.

The Saints would travel to Pittsburgh under the plan, so Haslett put his administrative staff to work on the details. The team would fly Monday for workouts Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday against the Steelers. The league office gave an informal approval.

A couple of major details remained. Getting a chartered jet was a problem because major-league baseball had priority with the airlines. But the biggest detail came Friday when Haslett tried to break the news to his team that it would hit the road. Oops again.

"It didn't go over very well," the coach admitted. "The guys had concerns. They were scared to leave their kids, their family. They didn't want to fly. After taking it into account, I figured we would do what was best for the players and called it off. To be honest, my wife wasn't fired up about the idea, either."


Billick explained his reasons to his uneasy players about practicing Friday, Saturday and Monday.

I have a responsibility to get this team ready to play football, and I don't care about anybody but us.
Ravens coach Brian Billick
"I have a responsibility to get this team ready to play football, and I don't care about anybody but us," he said. "I didn't want guys leaving town and traveling, or even trying to get up to New York. I wanted the guys physically and mentally prepared to resume our season."

Billick may have been sending another message by conducting relatively intense practices. He did not necessarily embrace the quotes of veteran Rod Woodson, who referred to the Ravens as "Club Med" compared to Jacksonville under Tom Coughlin. The comments were made when the Ravens signed their second ex-Jaguar, Carnell Lake, after earlier doing a deal with Leon Searcy. Billick even made a sarcastic reference to the "Club Med" quotes when he explained his plan to the players.

As for a level of grumbling among the players about their Super Bowl champion coach, Billick shrugged it off.

"My players know me," he said. "There's no lack of communication here."


Coaches must know their players, too. They must communicate, especially in this era with this generation.

Jeff Fisher understands this as well as anybody. His Tennessee Titans also practiced Friday and Saturday, but not without first exercising a little common-sense democracy.

"What I did immediately was get three or four guys, our player representatives, and a few other leaders, and sat them down to discuss what I thought was a fair schedule," said Fisher. "We discussed what we wanted to get done on the field, and off the field in the community, in light of this tragedy. In the end, we all concurred."

When the Titans returned Monday afternoon, Fisher's speech most likely touched the same theme as many coaches across the NFL.

"We're back playing football and yet everybody wants to still help with the tragedy," Fisher said. "Football has been a part of our culture for decades and decades. It has permeated our society and has been part of our daily lives. Last week, it no longer was. I believe on Sunday the country took the first big step when it was clear that everyone was where they needed to be -- in church, turning toward their faith and toward prayer.

"I told the guys that the next step is getting back to sports. If you want to help, then let's put on the best entertainment we possibly can. That's going to be our contribution. In order to do that, it involves being extremely focused."

Fisher said he has had a great response from his players, but conceded, "This is a completely different situation than anything a coach has had to deal with. To grow as coaches, you have to be able to evaluate your players, know where their heads are at, read 'em and react. But this isn't easy. It is different. Last Tuesday, I felt like we were putting a terrible start against the Dolphins behind us, and we were back on track, game planning for the Bengals, when this thing hit. We lost our focus, and now we've got it back. "


The brutally honest Haslett did not call himself a hypocrite, but he was transparent enough to admit he may have made a misstep by asking his players to travel during this off week to Pittsburgh.

The guys had concerns. They were scared to leave their kids, their family. They didn't want to fly.
Saints coach Jim Haslett on scuttling plans to practice against the Steelers this week
"I didn't really think of the whole situation -- I was thinking strictly football, and what was best for the team," he said. "I always preach to the guys that our priorities should be religious faith, whatever it may be, our family and then football. I didn't take my own values into account, and it probably wasn't right."

Yet the league is back to business, even if it isn't quite business as usual. The Saints were back on the practice field Tuesday and Haslett, along with GM Randy Mueller, thought of a way to get his players excited about working again. They moved practice to late in the afternoon and invited the public to attend Tuesday and Wednesday. There were a couple of thousand fans who showed up for a spirited practice.

"We wanted to accomplish two things, starting with giving something back to the community and letting kids come and see their favorite team to ease their minds a little bit," said Haslett. "The other thing it does, it picks up the energy for our practice. Our players like that atmosphere. They practice harder. It's hard to describe, except that we had the pads on [Tuesday] and it was very crisp. It's what we needed."


I take you back to 1987 during the players' strike that interrupted a season already under way. One game was canceled, and then the owners did the unthinkable by hiring replacement players to resume the season. The games would count in the standings. Something very interesting happened that year.

Buddy Ryan of the Philadelphia Eagles refused to coach his replacement players and made no bones about it. It was a very popular decision with his striking, veteran players.

Redskins coach Joe Gibbs took a different approach, knowing the games would count. He and his staff coached the replacements with the same intensity -- which was unparalleled -- that they coached the regulars. Not a very popular move with his guys.

For three weekends, the Eagles were miserable. They went 0-3. The Redskins went 3-0. The strike ended and play resumed with the regular players. When the regular season ended, the Redskins were 11-4 and won an NFC East division title. The Eagles were 7-8 and out of the playoffs.

The Redskins went on to win the Super Bowl. The Eagles watched. Joe Gibbs was revered by his players, and even more so by his owner, Jack Kent Cooke. Buddy Ryan was still popular with his guys but he burned a bridge with owner Norman Braman that he never rebuilt.


Coaches do what they have to do, and they live or die with the consequences. The coach's lament and charge -- his primary and perhaps sole responsibility -- is to get his football team ready to play and win games.

Sure, many people may now reason that "it's just a game." Somehow, even in this fragile state in which our world currently resides, I have a feeling that a coach is still going to be held accountable at the end of the season for the bottom line.

Send this story to a friend | Most sent stories



Copyright ©2000 ESPN Internet Ventures. Terms of Use and Privacy Policy and Safety Information are applicable to this site. Click here for a list of employment opportunities at ESPN.com.