Sports Nut

The Biggest Thing Fans Don’t Understand About Life in Pro Football

Nate Jackson on field for the Denver Broncos 

Rex Ryan’s “Goddamn Snack” speech was a goddamn good speech for the night before a game. I liked it. It was passionate and honest. By the time Rex gave that speech, the players had been sitting through two hours of meetings led by less charismatic, more calculated coaches who were—for the 40th time—going over everyone’s assignments for the game. There is nothing more boring. I took up dipping Copenhagen one season, out of sheer boredom. I hated the feeling, but I loved the distraction.

The trend in the NFL is to robot-ify the athlete, making the game plan as specific as possible so that the coaches feel that it is flawless execution that wins games, not the talent of the players. That’s why it is refreshing to see Rex Ryan’s style of coaching. While his personality and the way he comes across on Hard Knocks might suggest otherwise, Rex understands that it is not about him. He knows that his players will win games for him. It’s the bad coaches who will lose them.

The culture of coaching and the way it affects NFL players represents the largest information gap between fan perception and reality. From the outside, the NFL is a place where superstar players get paid shitloads of money to run around on Sundays and play a game that everyone likes to get drunk and watch. While drunk, fans like to check mobile updates to see how the league’s superstars are performing for their fantasy teams. These superstars have been ingeniously packaged and pimped out in multimedia, action-hero highlight films and profiles—Adrian Peterson running in slow motion, Peyton Manning talking to himself in a cornfield while throwing ball after ball at an imaginary player.

Needless to say, these images are a mirage. This is not what life in the NFL is like. On the inside, you learn very quickly that the NFL is all about coaching. Coaches have the power. For a player to have any longevity, he must learn how to do exactly what a coach tells him. Exactly. The more closely you mirror your coach’s vision of perfection, the better off you’ll be, even if his instructions are bullshit.

Every player has a position coach. The position coach has been instructed by an offensive/defensive coordinator, who must then answer to the head coach. The hierarchy, which starts with “the smartest guy in the building,” is extremely rigid and fosters a climate of paranoia as you descend down the totem pole. Everyone is motivated by one simple rule: Do not fuck up. For a position coach, this means making sure that his players do everything exactly the way the coordinator draws it up. If one of his players fails, the coach will be reprimanded and belittled. Many times, I witnessed a position coach tell his player the exact wrong thing to do on a particular play. The player, of course, got yelled at on the practice field by the head coach. Despite giving the player a bum assignment, the position coach would invariably keep quiet. Anything to avoid the wrath.

NFL coaches have unique ego issues. Most of them were never NFL players themselves, so they have a physical inferiority complex to the players. Also, most coaches make less money than the players they are coaching, so they have a monetary inferiority complex as well. The insecurities of the coaches create a system that makes it almost impossible for NFL players to appreciate or enjoy their own talents. The coaches spend all year, and all hours of the night, watching film and coming up with ridiculous formations and audibles and rules and reads that more often than not confuse the players. This confusion is essential for the fertility of the coaches’ egos. Since the coaches understand the game plan—they came up with it, after all—the players’ screw-ups confirm that their football minds are inferior. The intricacies of the game plan also make the players beholden to their position coaches—they are the keepers of the wisdom that the player needs to master in order to remain an employed football player.

I know it sounds like I hate coaches. I do not. I consider many of my former coaches friends, and I got along well with all of them. I do not blame them for what they became. It is the institution that drove them mad.

The problem is that the athlete’s mind—reactive, instinctual—does not work like the coach’s mind. And so the player’s day-to-day struggle becomes a battle between instinct and coaching. In high school and college, it was the player’s instinct that earned him accolades and caught the attention of teams in the NFL. But now that you’re in the NFL, that instinct must often be capped and ignored.

This was very difficult for me to master. I was an instinctual player, doing what felt right and believing that since I felt it, it was right. I knew the playbook inside and out but often didn’t agree with its rigidity. I tried to have constructive discussions about this conflict with my position coaches, but ultimately, there is no room for player input, and I established myself as a player who would execute the plan. That’s what kept me around for six seasons, but I was constantly tormented by this dilemma: Listen to your instinct, and you’ll be looking for work. Listen to your coaching, and you feel like a puppet.


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