“Each day you must choose: the pain of discipline, or the pain of regret.”This is one of the many mantras that Coach Eric Mangini has painted in large, intimidating block letters, strategically located around the Cleveland Browns facility. Players are expected to have all of these mantras memorized. During team meetings, Mangini will call on a player, who must stand up and face a dreaded interrogation. “There is a quote written above the door to the locker room, what does it say and who said it?” Better get it verbatim. “What coverage do the Titans like to play in the red zone on third-and-long vs. our 11 personnel group?” Better know it. “Why are we choosing to punt on fourth-and-2 from their 38, down by six points, going in to halftime, when we have a field goal kicker who is good from 55 yards?” Better know that one, too.
This was the environment that existed in Cleveland last August. I was on the team for one week, toward the end of training camp. I was not around long enough to learn much about the playbook, or get to know my teammates, or get into any kind of football rhythm, but it was plenty of time to get a feel for Mangini’s coaching style and to see how his players reacted to it. From that very first meeting, certain things became very clear. Players had notes—pages and pages of hastily scribbled notes—laid out in front of them on their desks and on their laps. I didn’t know why until Mangini called on a player, asked him to stand, and quizzed him on extremely arbitrary statistics about the team we were set to play that week. And this was preseason.
Mangini’s football IQ is through the roof. His attention to detail is legendary, but—at least as of last summer—he had zero understanding of his audience. Getting the most out of a professional athlete does not involve filling his head with useless facts and statistics and probabilities, and filling him with fear of what may happen if he forgets them. When I was in Cleveland, I saw an extremely talented football team—big, fast, strong athletes who were in great physical shape—who hated playing football there. All of them did. The facility was newly remodeled, outfitted with high ceilings and industrial steel. It felt cold. People walked around that place as if they were shuffling through a mausoleum. Players looked emotionally drained. Granted, it was training camp. Training camp is hard wherever you are. But these men were not just weak of body, they were weak of spirit, having been stripped of their manhood almost daily as Mangini tried to create 53 perfect cyborg football players.
The same thing is happening in Denver, where Josh McDaniels is making another crop of freakishly talented football players hate their jobs. The result—no big surprise here—is a bad football team. That’s what the Browns have been under Mangini and what the Broncos have been under McDaniels.
The psychology goes like this: Players used to love the game. They enjoyed their talent and had high self-esteem. If a coach comes along who makes them feel insecure and paranoid, they begin to hate the game. Then they begin to hate the man who made them hate the game. When they hate the man, they hate his agenda. His agenda, in this case, is an impersonal obsession with winning a football game, with (the perception is) little respect for the players who are doing the winning. The result: a player who doesn’t care whether his team wins or loses. And it happens constantly.
The good coaches are malleable, open-minded, humble. The good coaches make it feel like it’s our team, not his team. The good coaches understand that there is a fine line between being prepared and being confounded. The good coaches adjust their approach when they see 53 grown men ready to cry on a daily basis. These are the best athletes in the world. You don’t have to run them into the ground and call them pussies. You simply have to turn them loose. Sure, you must do so intelligently, with the opposing team’s strengths and weaknesses in mind. But you can’t project your own pedantic, inactive analysis of the game onto the athletes who actually have to do it.
I’d like to think that someone as smart as Eric Mangini can learn from what has happened in Cleveland—that he could sense that his tactics weren’t working. Perhaps the Browns’ success over the last few games is an indication that Mangini has finally painted over those corny mantras and let his boys play. For the sake of my former teammates, at least, I hope that’s what’s going on.
As for public concern about the health of the players, the occasional gasps of horror about concussions are completely rhetorical, because there is no personal point of reference. People don’t actually view these athletes as humans. They are Things I See on Television. I learned this long ago, when I started playing in Denver. When I would meet someone who knew I played in the NFL, their eyes would glaze over and they would start speaking to me as if I were visiting from another planet. I don’t blame the fans for this. The NFL markets its players that way, as interchangeable superheroes. You see them on Sunday. The other six days of the week, they don’t exist. They are there for your entertainment.
So, Josh, are you not entertained?