What is a coach? The Oxford American Dictionary defines the word "coach" relative to athletics as, "an instructor or trainer in a sport." I'm not sure that this simple definition truly defines what the word "coach" has come to mean to each and every one of us in our own lives.
Over my last 30-plus years in athletics, I have found some of my own coaches to take the form of a teacher, mentor, guide, psychologist, sideline doc, spiritualist, second parent, motivator, disciplinarian, and a game-changer.
At one point in my life when I was a walk-on wide receiver at Tulane in 1973 (I think I was the first), I wanted to quit because I felt I was not making any difference to the team (self pity). It was my Tulane receiver coach Billy Laird (during the Benny Ellender era), who straightened me out and kept me on a path to earn a varsity letter with a nickname by the team of Super Fly.
Since those days, there have been many more unsung coaching heroes, who have left their imprint on me and numerous other individuals like me who were searching for guidance in some form.
With the NFL season about to come to a close on Feb. 3 here in New Orleans at the Super Bowl, we should take a look at the four coaches who will trot out their respective teams at the conference championship games Sunday.
An NFL head coach must lend his guidance to grown men – sometimes not much older than he is. I remember a pro football coach told me once, "while age is mandatory, maturity is not," which in many cases can sum up the life of a pro athlete.
Sports Illustrated estimated in 2009 that 78 percent of NFL players were bankrupt or facing serious financial stress within two years of ending their playing careers and that 60 percent of NBA players were broke within five years of retiring from the game.
Divorce is also a serious issue for pro athletes. In an Aug. 9, 2009, New York Times article, "Talking Vows in a League Blindsided by Divorce," polls, studies and anecdotal evidence suggest that the divorce rate for NFL players is between 60 and 80 percent, which is higher than that of the general population, where nearly half of marriages end in divorce, but comparable to athletes in other sports."
So, I think you quickly see that the NFL head coach is more than just a teacher of X's and O's. He must contend with as much drama off the field with his players, as is the case within the "white lines."
Let's start our coaching scouting report with Bill Belichick, who has been the New England Patriots head honcho since 2000.
Belichick has been a mentor et al to Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, since he was the 199th pick from Michigan in the 2000 NFL draft, three months after Belichick arrived in Foxborough.
Since that time, Belichick, Brady, and company have amassed three Super Bowl titles, five conference championships, and 10 division titles - which probably disproves that maturity issue I raised. According to a New York Times sports story this last weekend regarding the pair's work ethic, "around the Patriots, tomorrow does not exist until midnight. It is always about the next practice, the next meeting, the next film study, the next session in the weight room. Nothing matters more than that moment, a philosophy instilled by Belichick, enforced by Brady." By the way, New England ended this season with a record of 12-4, winning nine of its last 10 games, while leading the NFL in scoring and total offense.
The Patriots' nemesis on Sunday night at home is the Baltimore Ravens, who won last week in a double overtime game against the Denver Broncos 38-35. The Ravens' coach is John Harbaugh, the older brother of 49ersCoach Jim Harbaugh, who along with his team beat the Green Bay Packers 45-31 last Saturday.
John signed on with the Ravens in January 2008, after serving from 1998-2007 in various coaching capacities with the Philadelphia Eagles. He has a record to date of 54 regular-season wins with 26 losses, and a postseason record of 8-4. After last Saturday's incredible win at Denver, John Harbaugh said, "that game did the game of football proud."
One interesting point of reference is that on Sept. 7, 2008, when both Harbaugh and Joe Flacco, his quarterback, made their respective starts with the Ravens, to that point no other team had ever won, when a coach and quarterback both were making their NFL debuts.
Should the Ravens prevail over the Patriots in the AFC championship game and the 49ers win over the Falcons on Sunday afternoon, it could set up a brother vs. brother head coaching Super Bowl battle, which would be a first in the NFL and the delight of the sports media.
And speaking of the younger brother, Jim Harbaugh signed on with the 49ers as their head coach in January 2011. He was previously a pro quarterback with the Bears, Colts, Ravens, and Chargers. Prior to coming to the 49ers he was Standford's head coach.
Jim Harbaugh's temporary time in the hot seat came when he replaced his popular QB Alex Smith (who suffered a concussion at week 10) with Colin Kaepernick, whose performance in San Francisco's 45-31 win over Green Bay last Saturday, was nothing short of "dynamic." The younger Harbaugh has 26 wins in his first 35 games as an NFL head coach.
Kaepernick, who played at Nevada, has a strong throwing arm, and the speed and quickness to match. Last Saturday he rushed for 181 yards against Green Bay.
Kaepernick is intelligent and has the ability to put temporary failure out of his mind, such as he did when his second pass against Green Bay was intercepted by Packer cornerback Sam Shields for a pick-six. Kaepernick, with Harbaugh's support and guidance, proceeded to pick apart the Packer secondary at will. Harbaugh was quoted after the game about Kaepernick's performance, "he's got the ability to come back." I'll say he does!
This Sunday Jim Harbaugh will square off against Atlanta's head coach, Mike Smith, who joined the team in 2008. Prior to this job, Smith served at the defensive coordinator for the Jacksonville Jaguars. In his first year in Atlanta, he was awarded the Coach of the Year award by The Associated Press. The Falcons went 13-3 this season adding to Smith's Falcon coaching record of 54-24. By beating the Green Bay, Smith broke an 0-3 record in the postseason.
Many of the keys to the Falcons' success this season has to do with balance on both sides of the line of scrimmage and the performance this season of Smith's quarterback Matt Ryan – 32 touchdowns, 14 interceptions, 4,719 yards passing with a league-best 68.6 completion percentage.
For the NFC championship game, the Falcons will need to have an effective pass rush against Keapernick, which will hinge on the status of Atlanta pass rusher John Abraham, who re-injured his ankle against the Seahawks, after only being in the game for 15 plays. Without Abraham, the Falcons will need to restructure their blitz package to disrupt Kaepernick's rhythm. Atlanta, ranked 21st in stopping the run, will have its hands full with the 49ers tandem of Kaepernick and Frank Gore, who combined for 300 yards rushing against the Packers.
As of Monday, Smith noted at his news conference, "we anticipate John (Abraham) will be back out practicing with us before the end of the week."
Over in 49ers' world, the defense relished the return last week of its co-captain, defensive tackle Justin Smith, who was sporting an arm brace to protect his injured triceps muscle injured in week 15, causing him to sit our for the last two weeks of the regular season, when San Francisco played none other than what could be their future Super Bowl opponent Patriots. By the way, Smith has made four Pro Bowls in five seasons. And, despite the arm brace, Smith had eight tackles against Green Bay.
The most interesting game may be the match up for the AFC championship between the Patriots and the Ravens. The Patriots lost tight end Rob Gronkowski to a left forearm injury suffered in the first quarter of their win over the Texans. He is projected to be out for the rest of the playoffs. Also injured was running back Danny Woodhead, who injured his thumb, but he was back at practice Wednesday, as was defensive end Chandler Jones, who also left the game against Houston with an ankle injury. Cornerback Alfonzo Denard, who was previously listed with hamstring and knee problems, was also not at practice Wednesday.
The big question for the Ravens on offense is whether Joe Flacco can give a repeat performance of his quarterback skill set demonstrated against the Broncos – probably his finest game as a pro. As I noted last week, the Ravens' defense is like a fine wine, which seems to have gotten better with age and good health, as we witnessed with their performance against Peyton Manning last Sunday.
Practice Wednesday for the Ravens had rookie running back Bernard Pierce limited due to his knee injury last week. However, media reports have him playing Sunday in New England. Again, as I said last week when the Ravens faced the Broncos, they know how to play banged up. This week the Ravens noted 16 players as "probable" for the game against the Patriots.
Based on what I have reported all season long regarding the impact of the NFL team injury reports, especially during the playoffs, you must take them with the proverbial "grain of salt." The New York Times, in a discussion of Belichick and Brady's bland personalities commented, "the weekly injury report (Patriots) is all but a farce." In other words, discount everything and prepare like all players on all teams are coming to the dance and expecting to dance. So, bring on Dancing with the Stars.