RENTON, Wash. -- When Tom Coughlin became the New York Giants' head coach in 2004, defensive end Michael Strahan was absolutely not on board. Strahan had heard all the stories about Coughlin as an autocratic martinet, and through his first few seasons, Coughlin lived up to the rep.
But before the Giants' Super Bowl-winning season in 2007, Coughlin changed his perspective. He still held fast to what some would consider to be an overtly disciplined style, but Coughlin learned that his players needed to know that he cared about them as people. He made changes to his thought process, and reaped two Lombardi Trophies as a result. By the end of his career, Strahan insisted that he would never want to play for anyone else.
It's a difficult balance for some coaches, especially those who are naturally more authoritative. Meeting their players in the middle is seen by some as a sign of capitulation or weakness, but at the NFL level, some level of advanced understanding is a necessity. Bill Belichick has been far more adept with this dynamic than his public persona would have you believe, while most of his acolytes -- Josh McDaniels, Eric Mangini, et al -- miss the big picture.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach Greg Schiano, a longtime admirer of Belichick's way of doing things, has been walking the wrong side of this line through most of this season. His 0-7 team is a farce on the field, but it's what's going on in the locker room that has a lot of people around the league wondering just how long Schiano, in his second season as the team's coach, will be allowed to keep that title.
On Oct. 24, NFL.com's Mike Silver wrote a blistering expose of the Schiano regime, in which current and former Bucs players teed off on the coach. One player who spent the 2012 season in Tampa said that the atmosphere was like "being in Cuba." Defensive lineman Michael Bennett, who spent 2012 with the Bucs and currently plays for the Seattle Seahawks (Tampa Bay's next opponent) said that Schiano was so consumed with being a Belichick type that he followed Belichick around like a puppy dog when the Patriots and Buccaneers engaged in group practices in the summer of 2012.
As for his new environs under head coach Pete Carroll, Bennett couldn't wait to praise the Seahawks' different ways of doing things.
"It's lovely here," Bennett told Silver. "I can't even explain to people how it is here, compared to Tampa. They wouldn't believe me."
To be fair to Schiano, it took Carroll a while to figure out the right balance. During his time as an NFL head coach in the 1990s with the New York Jets and New England Patriots, Carroll walked the other side -- he was so "rah-rah," so ceaselessly positive and motivational that his messages lacked the gravitas a pro coach needs to communicate his philosophies to players making several times his salary.
I remember Coughlin talking about his own learning process in Feb., 2012, as the Giants prepared to face the Patriots in Super Bowl XLVI. It was a popular topic of discussion, because the Giants team had become younger than the Super Bowl XLII team by necessity, and the coach now clearly possessed a more practiced touch when it came to delivering the message.
"I think the one thing that has happened, and I've said it a thousand times and I'll say it again, is that once the season is over, you have to take a hard look at yourself and do a valid self-analysis," Coughlin said then. "That's very important if you're going to improve. Decide what it is you can change. Look at your team and decide what it is you can change and what is needed in terms of inspiration and motivation or how you get those messages across to those people. Do your research on the outside, whatever it is you believe in.
"I'm a great reader of autobiographies and historical autobiographies, whatever you get your hands on, and reference things that I think are important in order to win or be the very best that we can be. Probably the one thing over the years that may have happened over the years is I may have gotten a little more patient."
It was a meeting with veteran quarterback Kurt Warner in 2004 that really turned Coughlin's head around. Coughlin was concerned enough about his players' reaction to him to reach out to Warner, who was trying to give his own career a kick-start. It didn't work out for Warner with Big Blue, but he gave his coach some indispensable advice.
"I saw a great man, a great coach, but I also saw a man who, for some reason, didn't know how to combine those parts of his personality when it came to football," Warner told NJ.com about Coughlin. "He could connect with his family on such an intimate level but had no idea how to connect with his players. He was struggling badly. Tom was searching for the right way to lead without compromising his principles. I wanted to help. I thought I could help. I tried to help."
He did help, and it really paid off. Coughlin asked Warner to write a list of the things he could do differently and better. Warner responded with a letter exhorting the coach to “swallow his pride and find a way to connect with his players — each player, from the biggest star to the guys on the practice squad.”
Warner told Coughlin that his players needed to know why their coach was doing things -- it was the only way they would buy in, It was a life lesson that Coughlin still referred to years later.
Carroll came to the Seahawks in 2010 after a wildly successful and somewhat controversial decade at USC. There, he re-jiggered all of his own philosophies and finally found the way to make things work for him. The ever-positive Carroll added a new weight to his words, and an increased ability to back them up with decisive action. To get to his current roster, among the youngest and most talented in the NFL, Carroll and general manager John Schneider went through a seemingly endless combination of possible players before finally hitting on all the guys who would buy in.
"When you have a philosophy -- when you have an approach, if it's any good, you're going to reap the benefits of it as soon as everybody joins in and gets on board," Carroll told SI.com Wednesday. "I think it's hugely important, and it's what leaders are called to do -- put out the program, and then demonstrate reasons why everyone should join in. You can all be together, and take it as far as you can with those guidelines. I think it's really important to us, and I'm thrilled that we are where we are. These guys talk the way they talk, and perform the way they perform, and they understand. They get it. I think it gives us a chance to be the most powerful we can be, and we're still growing. There are aspects of it still ... we're not performing well as we're capable at times, but our attitude is right. They're practicing and playing and studying hard ... we just have to grow into the ability to function really well, regardless of what's going on around us. That just takes time."
True, but the first thing a coach must do is build relationships with his players so they'll accept his paradigm. Talking to Carroll and Schiano on the same day about organizational philosophy, as I was able to do on Wednesday, revealed a glaring contrast in delivery. Carroll has been through it -- he's failed, and grown from his own subsequent crisis of conscience. As has Coughlin, As, by the way, has Belichick -- whose tenure with the Cleveland Browns in the early 1990s was a relative debacle.
Schiano, for all his alleged tantrums and missteps with his players, sounded more like a man in over his skis -- a guy who just didn't get it. When he said that treating people right was the key to getting through tough times, I asked him what that meant.
“I think the golden rule is usually the best to go by, right? You treat others the way you want to be treated," Schiano said. "If I’m not doing something right I want somebody to tell me, I want them to tell me. I don’t want them to disrespect me, but I want them to tell me. If I am doing something well I’d like to hear some praise and everything in between. My big thing when I deal with anything is is the guy’s motive, right? As long as he’s trying his best out there, and doing everything he can to be the best he can, I’m going to help him the most I can; if a guy is not of that mindset than he’s probably not right for the organization. What we have right now is a bunch of guys that are trying their guts out, and unfortunately it hasn’t proven the results yet, but we’re confident it will.”
Sounds fine in the abstract, but whatever Schiano's real philosophy is, it isn't clear, and it certainly hasn't been battle-tested in a way that will resonate. He talks about guys playing hard, and nebulous challenges, but what's lacking is a clear way to get from where his team is to wherever he wants it to be. Schiano's mistakes as a leader are well-documented, but perhaps the most distressing aspect to his time in Tampa is that he hasn't seemed to learn from any of them.
“I think the temperature [in the locker room] is disappointed because we’re 0-7 for sure, but certainly fully engaged, and a team that’s’ united, and a coaching staff that’s united," he said. "We just want to get started, get a win and get going, and we believe we have good players and good coaches, we just have been a little off in some different areas. We have to get that straightened out because I think we do have a good football team, we’re just missing out a little bit here and there. That’s the goal. We know it’s a tough challenge coming out there to Seattle. The environment, the team that we’re playing, everything, but we’re certainly looking forward to it.”
If Schiano really wants to get something out of his trip to CenturyLink field this Sunday, he'll pause and look across the field, and observe an NFL coach who has established his process through time and patience as opposed to impetuousness and desperation.