Yesterday, bowma101's FanPost Building a team the Bronco way sparked my interest. I mentioned that I coach baseball and softball at both the high school and competitive levels (actually, I have a rec baseball team this year), and I outlined some of my coaching philosophy when it comes to building a team, something that is somewhat reflected in the way that Josh McDaniels and Brian Xanders are building the Broncos. You can read that comment here.
I've never really sat down and written out exactly how to build a team. I'm somewhat unique in the coaching world in that I don't write a whole lot of things down. I guess you could call me a "baseball guy", in that I just remember things, whether I see them or I come up with them on my own (though I have a feeling that will change in the future, as I'm only 20 years old and still have a sharp memory). Somehow, though, I've always known what I've wanted in a team that I have control over building.
I hope to make this into a regular series here at MHR. It's something that I've thought about doing on my blog at FanNation, but I think it would be more relevant here. I will lay out what I see as the the 4 phases of putting together a winning team. Keep in mind that in the competitive softball/baseball world, you are generally building a team one year at a time, though you evaluate players with the idea that you hope to keep the team together for another year. It's basically a 2-year process of getting core players, then evaluating ones that you deem either replaceable or a bad egg for your team, as well as those that you want to keep for another year. The 4 phases are: Profiling, Evaluation 1, Development, and Evaluation 2. With that, welcome to the first edition of From the Coach's Desk!
Phase I: Profiling
Though this word isn't necessarily PC, generally speaking, profiling is exactly what every coach does prior to building a team. It is an absolute necessity. Every coach likes a different type of player. If the coach fails to recognize what he wants in a player before putting the team together, he will constantly be frustrated because the players won't be able to recognize and understand what he wants to do or be able to respond accordingly. This is why I've never understood when analysts noted during the Jay Cutler saga that the QB has to be on the same page with his coach. That is 100% inaccurate from a coaching standpoint. It's backwards. The coach has to be on the same page with his players, which is why you often see new coaches jettison a high number of players from the previous regime and bring in their own guys. Guys that don't do that generally aren't in the correct mindset in order to win at a high level. Being a successful coach isn't about adjusting to the talent that is given to you. 90% of successful coaching is about knowing what you want in a player and having a large number of players that fit that mold. Minimizing difficulties such as the need to make adjustments is key. That's not to say that the coach shouldn't be able to make adjustments; rather, what I mean by this is that the coach should do everything in his power to force the opposing coach to make adjustments to his team, and the first step to doing so is to get players that fit the mold that the coach is trying to build a cast from. Profiling is the most in-depth phase. As the saying goes, if you study hard, the test will be easy. If you have a solid profile to go off of, the actual building of the team will be much, much easier.
As I mentioned, every coach has a different idea of what he wants in players. For my money, character, leadership, and versatility are key, which is a big reason why I'm drawn to the McDaniels method. If you ever get into coaching, you will find that your job is infinitely easier if you have high character players. This doesn't mean that they have to be out cleaning highways every weekend. Character is a much broader term. First and foremost, they just have to stay out of trouble. In high school, this usually means, on a basic level anyway, staying academically eligible. Coachability is another area that falls under the 'character' heading in my book. They have to allow you to coach them; otherwise your life will be miserable. A sense of 'team' is the final point on character. Players that want to win - that are driven by the proverbial "name on the front of the jersey" - are the best kind to have around.
Leadership is also key. Generally speaking, I like to have leadership for every wave of players. In football, this means that, for the offense, there is leadership on the offensive line (generally the center), in the backfield (quarterback), and out wide (it seems to emulate from the slot receiver position mostly). In baseball, I consider the main leadership positions to be catcher, shortstop, and center field, though first base can also be thrown in there, as well as a guy that leads at the plate. Having high character players in positions of leadership means that it is easier to handle some of the "problem cases", as there are players that can take up the mantle of keeping the team in the right mindset for the coach to stay on the same wavelength with them, and you can handle more of the "problem cases" if you have strong leadership from high character players at the "leadership positions".
Finally, a buzzword lately at Dove Valley is versatility. Versatility is really an ambiguous concept. Concerning the Broncos, Josh McDaniels is fond of saying that he wants players to be "versatile". I'm assuming that he means that he wants players that aren't just one-dimensional - e.g. he wants his tailbacks and receivers to be able to block, and he wants his defensive front 7 to be able to stop the run and the pass. For me, in baseball, I also want versatile players, both offensively and defensively. I'll always believe that, in order to be successful on the field, you need your starting 8 to have their one "go-to" position, a position that they are excellent at. You also need them to know what everyone else's responsibilities are on a play so that they can be able to play a different position in a pinch. Offensively, you want players that can both swing the bat and bunt, and you want players that can work a count and drive in runs.
Phase II: Evaluation 1
This is a scary phase for high school and club coaches, as well as at the college level. It can be scary for professional coaches as well, but not as much as lower levels. At lower levels, though not as much so at the college level, you get one evaluation before putting the pieces in place. These are the dreaded "try-outs", something that has caused many a player to lose more than just a few hours of sleep. This can be alleviated by club coaches scouting high school games, as well as keeping an eye on other clubs in the area. High school is a different animal, as you get what the school district lines tell you you get. College is a little less of a shot in the dark, as scouting and recruiting are very involved sciences these days, but you never know what a kid will be like in college. A player may be promising only to get caught up in the campus life and lose a little bit of the love and feel for the game. Kids often still grow in college, and you can never tell if this is going to cause physical issues such as joint pain. Professional coaches, on the other hand, know what they are getting in players, specifically when dealing with free agents and trades, but also, though to a lesser extent, when coming out of college. Injuries aside, players' bodies don't change much once they reach the highest level of their craft.
This step also includes recruiting, and that is where communication is a key skill. Knowing the players that you want on your team is one thing, but actually getting them to play for you can be difficult. A coach/GM has to be an expert in saying a lot without promising anything other than winning. This is the part where you get to look the players in the eye and really know whether you want them on your team, which you can generally tell pretty easily by their demeanor and the way they carry themselves.
Phase III: Development
Development is what takes place every day in practice, and to a lesser extent in games. This is why building a team is not a singular, once-a-year event, and this is another reason that I love what Coach McDaniels is doing. He is bringing in guys that he wants, and he is building for the future, which is really what development is. It's the idea that what you do today affects what the players do tomorrow, and this is why practice time is so valuable to the coach. Generally speaking, practice is the coach's time, and games are the players' time, though games are also a showcase of the coach's ability to develop his players as well as his strategic craft. Development takes place every day. It's implementing new skills, or building on acquired skills, and strengthening them day after day until they are no longer simply skills, but crafts, works of art. Even artists, though, make misplaced strokes with the paintbrush when they are out of practice, aren't developing their skills. Know what you want in a player, get that kind of player, and develop the player's skillset in order to make him into an artist.
Phase IV: Evaluation 2
Evaluation 2 presents new challenges every day, and it can often be difficult emotionally for the coach or person in charge. This is because, at some point, you have to make difficult decisions regarding some of your players. Should they stay or should they go? The perfect example of this is Pat Bowlen's firing of Mike Shanahan, though this is on a different level. Every coach has players that he likes that he knows he will have to let go at season's end, and that can be an emotionally stressful time. This is why the end of the season, whether you go 0-16 or win the Super Bowl, is met with mixed emotions. A coach's favorite time is the start of the year, and his least favorite time is the end of the year. The rest and relaxation are nice, but the ramifications of Evaluation 2 can be taxing. In professional sports, though, this is the step that separates teams like the Patriots, who are consistently successful, from teams like the Seahawks, who have a good year now and then but fail to consistently maintain that level of success. The coach/GM must be willing and able to make the right decision for the team, regardless of personal feelings.
It's a cutthroat business, but it's well worth the time, sweat, and tears that it takes to maintain a high level of success. Any successful team has had a guy at the top that knows the profile that he likes, evaluates a crop of players and matches them to his profile, develops the talent on the field, and knows when and how to make the necessary changes year after year to be successful.
That's all for today. Until next time, I'll be in my office.