by Bob O'Connor and Al Groh



-- Football is a game of inches. --

-- Coaching is a race against time. --

Both of these coaching maxims are true. So our concern is coaching to gain the greatest amount of inches and yards in the shortest amount of time. But just as accurate is the reality that a football game is much more than sixty or seventy plays run successively to test a teams execution; rather it is a kaleidoscope of a variety of ever-changing situations. A teams ability to simultaneously execute assignments and fundamentals while recognizing and managing game situations is what determines its performance as a total team.

-- You win with defense. --

-- The losing team generally makes two more mistakes in the kicking game than the winner. --

More truisms! It is certainly important to increase the effectiveness of our defense and win the kicking game. But we cannot take these segments of the total game out of context. Offense is, after all, where most of the points are scored. So we must see these three aspects of the game and prepare our teams to win in each area. We must develop a "team concept" or "collective mentality" so that our players and coaches understand how to think and react in each of these areas of a football game. We need to develop a total team concept for handling a complete gamewith all the changing situations which give us the opportunity to win.

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It comes down to do the little things that help us win big!

At Wake Forest we often ended our practice with a 3 on 3 line with a running back. The team would gather around. "Give me your best three defensive guys. Were going to blow you out of there." And the defensive coaches are pumping up there guys. Here we were looking for high level competition, for toughness. That was a spirited jousting contest but the time wasnt used to teach the players to play the real game. There is a time at all levels of football for a compete and win type of practice such as one on one blocking or one on one tackling. Physical toughness is certainly an essential part of the game. But it is not THE GAME. To win the game we must be prepared for all of the situations which we will encounter. We must be prepared to play intelligently.
The "jousting" part of the game, the necessity to beat a player physically, is the essence of the game, but it is not THE GAME. Just like catching a ball is not baseball, but is essential to the game. And shooting a basket is not basketball, but is essential to the game. Blocking or beating a block, tackling or evading a tackle, catching a pass or making an interception are all parts of the physical aspect of the game, the joust. But the game is much more complicated than just the joust!
I can imagine that in the early days of jousting the knights merely held their lances out and spurred their horses onuntil the crash. One of them probably went down. As jousting became more common more effective knights began to look for their opponents weaknesses. Did he hold his shield to high or too low? Did he hold his lance high or steady on his approach? Was he better with his lance or mace or sword. As a medieval knight, any tip of my adversarys behavior might give me a better chance to win the joust. What if I am knocked off my horse. What if my right arm is injured? The joust still goes on. Have I prepared myself for all of the possibilities?
So with football, we want to find the winning edge. We need to practice the things that will win when their defense stacks up against our offense and when our defense is equal to their offense. Our game has changed since the days of the flying wedge. It goes well beyond the jousting contests of blocking and tackling.
I tell my coaches that we could be the best 3 on 3 team in America, weve got tough guys, we never give up. We know how to block and how to beat blocks. Our runners run hard. Unfortunately we are not playing "3 on 3" football in this league. The game is more complicated than that. What if the defense blitzes in that 3 on 3 drill. If you cant pick up the blitz you are going to lose.

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Fundamentals are fundamental!
Walking is fundamental to running, but it isnt running. Blocking and tackling are fundamental to playing the game of football, but they are not THE GAME. If you cant block and tackle, you cant play the game.
Certainly the fundamentals are important every level of football. I remember talking with the perennial All Pro linebacker Matt Millan one time. I asked what do you do in a game when things are not going right. He answered, "First I check may stance, then I check my reads, then I evaluate my reactions to the opponents plays." Yes, fundamentals are certainly essential at any level.

Executing the fundamentals.
Effective play execution is another essential of winning in football -- as it is in other sports. The double play is practiced in baseball, the full court press is practiced by the basketball team, and the punt is practiced by every football team. But does punting effectively win the game? It helps, but there is much more to the game.
Football is the most complicated and interesting of all games and it takes more than merely perfecting the fundamentals. Certainly blocking, tackling, throwing, catching and kicking are absolutely essential to playing the game. But just as having a strong forehand and backhand is essential to a tennis player, it is how and when you use them that is essential to the game.

Knowing how to execute their assignments.
Being able to execute the required assignments with the appropriate fundamentals is certainly important. Missed assignments are a major cause of losing games. Some years ago some of the players for one pro team decided that they could hit harder if they were high on uppers. Some took those uppers. They hit hard, but they didnt hit the right people. It was soon learned that using uppers interfered with the essential of executing as a team.
I remember coaching a college team in Los Angeles. I picked up a challenge drill that Jim Owens used at the University of Washington, one on one with a ball carrier. On Wednesday I let any defensive lineman challenge anyone who was playing ahead of him. I had one third stringer who could whip anyone in this drill. He would get to start the next game. But in the game he didnt have that simple 1 on 1 situation. He played too high. He didnt do his assignment. He didnt pursue. He was soon out of there. After repeating this scenario for three weeks I finally abandoned the drill--and he quit the team. It was made clear to me that the individual joust doesnt win the game.

Motivation and team cohesion.
Motivation and team cohesion are certainly more important in football than in any other sport. How do you plan for this? How can you develop in your players the same feeling of the importance of winning, on the field and in life, that you feel?
It goes without saying that your players must be motivated. They must want to become the strongest and quickest possible. They must want to learn so that they can perform in the game. Motivation is an essential to perform at a higher level in any sport. And no team game requires the type of collective motivation that football does. It is certainly a game of the heart. As individuals and as a team we have got to want it! This, too, is an essential of winning.
But even with execution and emotion, with the inspiration of the team and perspiration of the hard practices, the team may not be sufficiently prepared to win. Certainly fundamentals and emotion are the foundations for winning--but on the field more is always necessary. Successful coaches must plan for the unexpected--to practice for the possibilities which can turn the game in their favor.

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The next level of coaching.
All coaches realize the importance of learning the fundamentals, knowing how to execute, and playing with enthusiasm. We play this game with the head and the heart. The head learns how and when to perform a skill and the heart gives us our motivation to perform to our highest levels for every minute of every practice and during every second of the every game.
But there is another level of learning another opportunity for the head to play an essential part in winning the game. We must understand more than the fundamentals and how to execute them. We must understand the BIG PICTURE. We must understand how to win the multiple situations in which we will find ourselves in the game.

Winning the Situation.
The lessons of this book start after your people have: mastered the fundamentals, learned when and where to use them, and are motivated to practice and play with enthusiasm. Unfortunately these three primary elements of success are not enough. Just because you execute better doesnt mean you win in football. Better execution will help you to win but it doesnt guarantee it.
In track and field, because you just run or jump or throw, fundamentals and conditioning are nearly all there is to the competition. But when you are playing a game you will find more situations which must be successfully encountered. In an individual game like tennis, winning the situation often wins the match. As we move to team games, the situations take on an ever increasing importance and become absolutely critical to winning.

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In football we need to teach our players how to play the GAME. This game, after all, is the most complex game ever invented. It has more circumstances, more variables, more players and every play is a chess match which can result in a win or a loss depending on who plays correctly and who makes a mistake. The coach must be an engineer who builds a TEAM which can perform efficiently in all of the intricacies of THE GAME. It is the coachs job to develop in his team that collective mentality which will help to win the various situations which can come up in a game.
Practicing the situations is of major import for us, as well as for many winning coaches at every level. But at the pro level there is more time to practice these small things that win big the IMPACT AREAS of the game. As an example of how we teach situations during training camp, we might follow a high tempo all out hitting drill with a very low tempo situation teaching situation. It is strictly a learning period. All the coaches know the day before what situations we will cover the next day. We discuss it with our groups before practice. "Here is the situation" then the defensive coaches will discuss what the defense will do in the predetermined situation. The offensive coaches are working on the same situation from their points of view.
Bill will say "fellas this is how I think this situation should be handled. I want you to understand how I think this situation should be handled so that when you are out there on the field and this situation happens you will have a collective mentality on how we will handle it. Because if nine of you understand exactly how I am thinking and two of you are not part of that collective mentality, one of those two might make the error that loses us the advantage -- and possibly the game."
One of the major jobs of a head coach is directing the development of that collective mentality. Of course the coach must have a clear idea as to how he wants his team to play. Just as peripheral vision is important to the athlete and guides his successful movement, the coachs total vision of how he will win is essential to the both the success of the season and the success in each game. The head coach, the assistants and the team members must all be on the same page, have the same collective mentality, if they are to play the game as a unified team.

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Planning for, and winning, the impact areas of the game.
How do you pick up the blitz? What do you do in the two minute situation?
Do you have a clear mental picture of how you want your team to behave. When you have that picture you can build on the vision and develop that collective mentality. But if you dont have that complete vision OR if you have it but dont impart it to your players, then it is ridiculous to pound the table after the game and yell "If we had only done this" or "if only that guy hadnt run out of bounds."
You have to practice your vision. You shouldnt blame your team if they havent practiced a situation. Telling them what to do during a time out is not enough. If you can tell them, and they can do it perfectly, there is no need to practice. Just give them a book of your instructions and have them come back on game day.
Coaches who berate their teams for not doing things which they hadnt practiced are no better than the second guessers, such as the arm chair quarterbacks, who know how to handle every situation after it has already happened. The effective coach must anticipate what might happen then practice effectively to prepare for those possibilities. It is the coachs job to have a "grand plan" to allow enough time for the players to learn how to handle the "what ifs" of the game.
We practice the two minute situation with many possibilities. What if you run the draw play on first down and make 50 yards. You didnt expect it, but here you are on their 12 yard line. We practice this exact situation. In our "thud" scrimmage we tell the defense to let the back run. How do you want the offensive team to practice that? How do you want the defense to react to it? If we break a big play in the two minute situation we want our collective mentality to be ready to react. We shouldnt be surprised by success.

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We will explore some of the necessary skills and concerns for which coaches must plan. The problem is that we cant do everything. There are not enough minutes in a practice to perfect every skill and cover every situation. This is true whether you practice an hour and a half or 6 hours. So what will pay off for you? Is doing the carioca more valuable than a ball protection drill? Is practicing twenty running plays or twenty five pass patterns more important than practicing ten plays and seven routes then working on ball stripping or punt blocking? You will do well what you practice well.
Do you include in your practice schedule sufficient red zone offense so that you are confident that you can score when you are in the scoring zone? Have you practiced: taking a safety, taking a free kick after a fair catch from your opponents short end zone punt (high school only), controlling the clock during the last minute or two of a half, who calls timeouts during the last two minutes, ball stripping or long snaps under pressure? Have you practiced when and where you will go for the big play?
Remember that time is our enemy. Are you using your practice and meetings to work on what will win? Do you have a theory of winning that is realistic--and are you practicing to implement it?

A typical high school or college practice.
A typical practice for many programs might include a warm up, individual work, 15 to 30 minutes of the kicking game, then group work, then full team offense and defense. When do you have the time to practice those situations which are likely to win or lose the game?
If you are a high school coach and have a freshman or JV program, your basic offense should be learned at that level. If you dont have that luxury, just cut down your offense and defense. Run 5 plays to each side instead of 15. Run 6 pass patterns instead of 10. Run two or three coverages instead of 7. Be sure that you have time to practice the situations which you must win in the game.

If you want to put in a new play every week what are you going to cut out?
You have a fourth and goal on the 2. How much have you practiced this situation? Do you just call any play in your play book? Or did you have a vision for this situation against this opponent--and does your team share that vision? Your team should know your 4th and 2 plays. They have run them in practice and in games for the last three years. They have confidence in themselves in running it. They have practiced against all the defenses they might see in this situation. You have to decide. Do you want to run more plays and more sets or practice the situations in which you know you will find yourself in a game.

Statistics over the years have shown us that these percentages are working for, or against, in terms of scoring from each zone on the field.

--From your goal line to the 25 the average team will score 7 to 12% of the time.

--From the 25 to the 50 the average team scores 25 to 30% of the time.

--From the 50 to the +25 the average teams scores 45 to 60% of the time.

--From the +25 in the average is 80%.

(Naturally the closer to the goal that the possession starts in each zone, the greater the odds of scoring.)

So most teams are not going to score on every possession. The opportunities for a long drive are often frustrated by an offensive penalty, a turnover, a big defensive play such as a blitz that worked, or not converting on a third down. This means that a punt or, if close enough, a field goal must be attempted.


The EAFCA wants to thank Bob O'Connor for sending us the first chapter of "A football game is more than a jousting match". If you are a football coach, this is something you MUST have in you library.
E-mail: Bob O'Connor

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