As an avid football fan, I have found this NFL season the most enjoyable there has been in at least the last four years. There have been spectacularly dominant performances by teams like the Ravens and 49ers, stellar seasons by players like Russell Wilson, Christian McCaffrey, and Michael Thomas, a record-breaking postseason by Derrick Henry, thrilling playoff games culminating in a Kansas City-San Francisco Super Bowl, and of course there has been the electrifying and exuberant Lamar Jackson, whose season for the ages has been made more entertaining by his warm and magnetic disposition; but I think what I will remember this season for most is the emergence of new coaches and stars. After the first decade and a half of this millennium being dominated by Tom Brady, the Mannings, and Ben Roethlisberger, the last few seasons have felt somewhat like a limbo state, with Brady and the Patriots still kicking, their old competition faded or retired, and the next generation still finding their feet. Yes, the Eagles, a young team under Doug Pederson’s second year at the helm, won the 2017 Super Bowl, and other young coaches and players have found success; nevertheless a true changing of the guard had yet to occur. This season, however, felt like a renaissance, and below are the lessons I learned from watching it. But first:
How I Came to Be a Fan of the NFL
In the late 60’s, after my father graduated high school in South Africa, he was given the opportunity to attend a boarding school for a year in America through a foreign exchange program. My father played soccer, rugby, cricket, golf, and squash, but with a willingness to try new things, he joined the football team. (After we immigrated to Canada, he joined an ice hockey league even though he only learned the sport – and how to skate – in his forties; impressive moxie considering the level of hockey in Canada across the board.) With his soccer background, and potent kick, he became the team’s kicker, but he also played as a linebacker. At 5’7 then (perhaps shorter now in his late sixties), this seems a strange position for him, but he said he knew how to tackle from rugby which is why they put him on defense.
Growing up, he recounted to me how he was once mentioned in The New York Times after a game when he converted many kicks. In my second year at university, studying Film, I had a research project involving databases of old newspapers, and I thought, why not track down this long lost article my father had told me about. Indeed there was an article, and while it was mostly about a dominant win by my dad’s school team, it did mention him by name. According to my memory, it introduced him as “African kicker Chris Albertyn” and reported that he made seven of seven extra points. Not South African kicker Chris Albertyn, but simply African kicker, which, though a cool moniker, seems perhaps a bit misleading considering that he’s white. I imagine the story of that game, my dad’s successful kicks in it, and the article reporting it was embellished over time, as somewhere along the line in my upbringing I conjured the vision of a grainy black and white photo of my father in football attire, his right foot arched high before him, his eyes still down where the football had been, before its epic flight out the frame, a frozen moment in time evoking all the grandeur, drama, and history the sport is known for – my father as its centrepiece. The short article, with its brief mention of his touchdown conversions, didn’t quite match this vision; nevertheless, I was very proud and happy to find the article, and I have a printout of it hidden away in some storage box somewhere.
With these experiences under his belt, my father became a fan of the NFL and watched the Super Bowl on TV during that year in America. Back in South Africa, NFL games were not televised until the 1992 season, when I was nine years old. On Tuesday nights, one channel picked the best game of the previous week, edited it down to 45 minutes, and showed highlights of all the other games over the remaining 15 minutes. It was a very exciting way to be introduced to football. My father was thrilled to show me the sport, and I think the sense that this was both something exotic and something that my father valued was as much of a draw as was the entertainment of the game.
One other engaging touch of the broadcast we received was that at the halftime of the featured contest, they ran a profile of one of the players. The first game I ever watched was between the Detroit Lions and the Chicago Bears, and the halftime profile was of Barry Sanders. His jukes, spins, and cuts seemed the most thrilling, dynamic, and aesthetically pleasing manifestation of athleticism there could possibly be. He instantly became my favourite player.
The next year we immigrated to Canada, and while my father and I sorely missed watching cricket and rugby (this was before the days where people could watch any sport from any location) at least we had greater access to the NFL. Every Sunday afternoon was time spent together watching this game, with breaks for us to run around outside to throw the football ourselves.
Now we watch RedZone and still spend most Sunday afternoons together. I’m well aware of the issues associated with the NFL and its owners, and like so many things in life many of us are engaged in that have consequences for society and the planet – driving, flying, eating meat, for instance – I have misgivings about consuming this product. But it has been a pastime for my father and I, and brought us much shared happiness.
One Innovation is Not Enough: The Firing of Tom Coughlin
I have been a fan of Tom Coughlin ever since he was a coach of the Jacksonville Jaguars in the 90’s. I was a fan of Mark Brunell, Fred Taylor, and that entire Jags team. When Coughlin was head coach of the New York Giants, I continued to support him and was happy when he won his Super Bowls. In 2015 in a bookstore in South Florida, I came across his book Earn the Right to Win: How Success in Any Field Starts with Superior Preparation (co-authored with David Fisher) and bought and read it. From the title alone you knew that this is a person who believes in hard work. That to him an extreme work ethic and professionalism are the most desirable traits in achieving goals.
In Earn the Right to Win, Coughlin tells a story of the inaugural training camp of the expansion Jags, when he came across an NFL veteran Jeff Lageman in the cafeteria. Coughlin asked Lageman what he thought of the food service, and Lageman told him it was “outstanding” but that “the coffee wasn’t very good”. As Lageman describes it, “The next morning, the very next morning, the entire coffee system had been changed and the coffee was top-notch… It was obvious they were well prepared and intended to run a first-class operation.” (p. 103)
Coughlin was sending a message: just because they were an expansion team didn’t mean that they weren’t going to exhibit professionalism; in fact, they were going to be as absolutely professional as possible.
Coughlin famously set all the clocks to five minutes early in the facilities where he coached, and demanded that players and staff show up to meetings five minutes early or else be deemed late. This was his innovation in the NFL: taking work ethic and professionalism to new heights. And it had a great effect, contributing to a successful team with the Jags (the first time around) and two Super Bowls with the Giants.
All this success is in stark contrast to his recent tenure with the Jacksonville Jaguars, from 2017 to 2019, this time as Executive VP of Football Operations as opposed to head coach. After initial success, narrowly losing the AFC Championship game in his first season in this role, the team had records of 5-11 and 6-10 in the last two seasons. Perhaps more damning was that the NFL Players Association (NFLPA) made a public statement that their players should think twice before signing with the Jags, due to the unusually high number of fines they levy on their players for failures to abide by team rules. Apparently 25% of all grievances filed by players with the NFLPA this year were by players on the Jags, about 3% of all players in the league. Within two days of this statement by the NFLPA, Tom Coughlin was fired.
What is there to learn from this? Why did Coughlin’s methods yield such success then as opposed to now? A simple answer could be that he was a head coach then while he was a front office executive in the recent example, and the difference had significant effect. Nevertheless, being fired mid-season while his own players and the NFLPA were up in arms about his methods do make those methods appear to be outdated. How did things get to this point from their positive start? I would argue that Coughlin made one innovation, the rest of the league caught up, and without devising new innovations, he kept mining his original innovation deeper and deeper until it not only yielded diminishing returns but alienated and demoralized his players and was ultimately a detriment to overall performance.
One Innovation Won’t Last Forever: New Innovations are a Must
Instilling an extreme work ethic and absolute professionalism in his organization was an innovation when Coughlin introduced it, and was part of the edge his teams had in order to be successful. In his book, Coughlin writes about his father, who was “tough, proud”, whose “values weren’t complicated: work hard, give your best effort, respect other people, and always be honest and fair.” After one of his son’s high school football games, a loss, he told Tom, “If that’s the effort you’re going to give, you probably ought to find something else to do with your time.” (p. 2) Coughlin learned from his father, and cultivated his own work ethic, which he then cultivated in others.
But pro sports, and sports in general, have come a long way since Coughlin’s NFL head coaching career began in the 90’s. His innovation helped make the NFL more professional and its players harder working and more self-motivating. High-level professionalism and work ethic are now a standard in the NFL, rather than an edge. Also, players, and society at large, are different from how they were a generation ago or even 10 years ago. Fining and punishing players doesn’t work in the same way in this day and age.
Coughlin failed to realize that the innovation he implemented his first time around with the Jags is no longer innovative. If he wanted to once again bring a team to the highest levels of the sport, separating from the pack, he needed to continue exploring for new innovations, not rely on one that had already been absorbed by everyone else.
More Lessons to Come
Check out “Lessons Learned from the 2019 NFL Season: Part 2” after the Super Bowl, including analysis of the championship game!