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NFL coaching now a coordinated effort

WashPost: Teams lean on top-flight, well-paid assistants to thrive in today's game.
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At the end of another long day as defensive coordinator of the Washington Redskins in 1999, Mike Nolan trudged to his office and discovered containers of multi-flavored ice cream melting at his door, along with a note from the team's owner.

That was Daniel Snyder's way of criticizing a unit he considered to be one-dimensional, too vanilla. A few weeks later, Snyder deemed that nothing had changed and repeated his message, this time sending commercial-sized containers of ice cream.

Among the NFL's 32 teams, the offensive and defensive coordinators have become as recognizable as the head coaches. When their units perform well, as is the case with Redskins defensive guru Gregg Williams this season, they are lauded as much, or more than, the head coach. When their units fail, as Greg Robinson learned in Kansas City last year, they take heavy amounts of blame.

Working conditions may include 18-hour days from the start of training camp until the final gun of the last game, but coordinators are well compensated for their work, drawing salaries that can top $1 million. Long gone are the days when assistants had to take offseason jobs just to scrape by.

"The way the dynamics of the NFL are set up, the market for coaches is looking brighter all the time in terms of their participating in a phenomenally competitive league," said Gary O'Hagan, head of International Management Group's coaches division. "It is brutal competition between teams, and that only augurs well for the coaches."

According to a 2004 annual salary survey conducted by the NFL Coaches Association, executive director Larry Kennan estimated that 12 to 15 assistants — all offensive or defensive coordinators — earn $1 million a year and have incentive-laden contracts.

Defensive coordinators are the highest paid, averaging $600,000. Offensive coordinators are averaging $466,000, lower than their defensive counterparts because some head coaches coordinate the offense and call plays.

Tampa Bay defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin, a career assistant who has been with the Buccaneers since 1996, is believed to be the highest-paid assistant with a $1.7 million salary. Williams, whose title is "assistant head coach-defense" and whose unit is ranked second in the league, will earn $1.2 million and could get $1.7 million if the defense meets certain incentives. Although Williams accepted a demotion when he joined the Redskins — he had been fired as head coach of the Buffalo Bills in 2003 — he received a pay increase. He was earning $1 million with the Bills.

Despite Snyder's unhappiness with his defense in 1999 — the only season the Redskins have made the playoffs since Joe Gibbs left after the 1992 season — Nolan is considered one of the league's brightest minds and was hired by the Baltimore Ravens in 2001. At 45, he calls his time in Washington "a learning experience," and earns around $425,000 as coach of one of the league's best defenses. As a result, he is increasingly mentioned in connection with NFL head coaching vacancies.

For Nolan, a new week starts with two days spent compiling, processing and analyzing information and formulating defensive strategy. Nolan and his seven assistants typically are in the team's Owings Mills, Md., training facility long after midnight studying game film of the upcoming opponent.

"After 10 o'clock, I guess some people think, 'What do you do at home, anyway? Just go to bed?' " said Nolan, who is married with four children. "Some of our coaches do come in at 5:30 a.m. I'm usually in the 7:30 range. Then you hear stories about guys like [Tampa Bay Coach] Jon Gruden getting in at 4:30 a.m. and staying until 2 in the morning. My dad used to say, 'If you're that stupid, then I want to play you.' "

At 9 a.m. on Wednesdays, Ravens players and coaches usually gather for their first meeting of the week. Coach Brian Billick speaks for about 15 minutes on topics ranging from upcoming games to the importance of stretching to parking spaces and the importance of players wiping their feet as they enter the newly completed complex.

The offense and defense then separate into smaller classrooms, with each player getting a personalized binder containing the game plan and a wide range of information: offensive tendencies from the previous five games as well as defenses the Ravens are likely to deploy.

After 20 minutes, Nolan turns the meeting over to his main position coaches. Linebackers coach Jeff Fitzgerald talks about position groupings, defensive line coach Rex Ryan dissects the running game and secondary coach Johnny Lynn does the same for the passing game. They speak in NFL-ese, with references that include tiger, police, Yogi, stings, panther, fire zone, cougar, boss, joker, wolves and China.

"It is teaching," Nolan said. "Constant repetition. At this point, they all know what we're doing. But you have to keep reminding, keep brushing them up on everything. And they also have to study their books and the game film. But the bottom line is, when you play the game, it's still man against man. That will never change."

Players then break into smaller groups with position coaches. On a recent Wednesday, Nolan went to his office and spent the next hour on several tasks. He did a five-minute phone interview with a Miami writer working on a story on the art of tackling. Nolan told him about a tape he often shows his own players using clips from nature shows to illustrate how an animal attacks prey in the wild. "They'll get him down any way they can," he said. "If they're in a pack, you watch how they swarm. It's not unlike what we do in football. You want to see them swarm to the ball."

Around 11 a.m., the team does a walk-through. Nolan's defense will work against the same "look" the upcoming opponent's offense will show them in four days. His defense also gives the Ravens' first-team offense the look of the opponent's frequently used formations.

When practice ends, usually around 4 p.m., Nolan will work out, with just enough time for a 20-minute run and a shower before the 5 p.m. meeting with his coaches. While the players head for the parking lots and home, Nolan and his defensive coaches gather in his office to review tape of the afternoon practice, play after play. After a 15-minute break for dinner at 6:45 p.m., they usually are back in Nolan's office, then retire to their own offices for more film study and preparations for Thursday morning meetings.

Nolan, a veteran of 18 years coaching in the NFL, has been following this routine for most of his adult life. A defensive back at Oregon, he realized his future lay in coaching the sport he loved. It has not always been easy. Like most NFL assistants, Nolan has made nine moves since he first began coaching at his alma mater in 1981, including a stretch from 1997 to '99 with Norv Turner and the Redskins.

Though the '99 team made it to the playoffs, Nolan often took the brunt of fan and media criticism for the shortcomings of a young defense that included several highly overpaid free agents. After the ice cream incidents with Snyder, Nolan felt it was time to move on when his contract was up. Nolan spent 2000 as defensive coordinator with the New York Jets before his boss, Al Groh, left to become head coach at Virginia. In 2001, Nolan accepted an offer to coach Ravens receivers, although he had never been an offensive assistant. That was the only opening Billick had and he knew it was only a matter of time before defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis left. When Lewis did, becoming the first $1 million assistant in NFL history with the Redskins in 2002, Nolan replaced him.

"When [Steve] Spurrier came to the Redskins," said Kennan, a longtime NFL assistant, "one of the first things he said was that if you were going to pay an offensive guard $1 million a year, why wouldn't you also pay a guy like Marvin Lewis $1 million a year? Wasn't he worth just as much, if not more, to the team? Steve made a lot of friends around the league when he said that."

Nolan certainly looks the part of a head coach. Handsome, with a full head of dark hair sprinkled in gray, he seems fit and trim. He fields media queries with informal ease, and his leadership and teaching skills are evident.

"We really appreciate this coaching staff," said Ravens safety Ed Reed. "We know they work just as hard as we do to get ready every week. They put in the time. Man, do they put in the time."

In comparison with the average NFL head coach's salary, now at around $3 million, or even with almost all of the players they coach (average salary, $1.1 million), assistants are at the bottom of the compensation scale for a sport with no letup. The morning after the New England Patriots won their second Super Bowl in three years in February, Coach Bill Belichick walked into a news conference and lamented the fact that "we're already four weeks behind" in preparing for the 2004 season.

"The lifestyle has always been brutal, and now it's worse," Kennan said. "There really is no offseason. And for 26 weeks [from the start of training camp on], coaches don't have a day off. Even during bye weeks, these guys are still working. The average work load is between 80 and 100 hours a week."

But Nolan is not complaining.

"You do it," he said, "because you love the game."