Pictured above: one of the quickest, most creative college WRs I saw on tape this year: Jo Jo Ward of Hawaii.
A few years ago I was teaching a poetry class and I had a very spirited group of students.
Typically today’s high school students find the study of poetry to be daunting and on a sophisticated par with studying the greatest poet of all, William Shakespeare.
But, thanks to the student leadership in the class, in short order, the class was showing remarkable aplomb in analyzing some of the most nuanced poems in the British and American canon.
And then it happened...
A student raised her hand and said, “Mitch, do you think we could write our own poems?”
Again, typically, the thought of having to write original poems and feeling especially vulnerable to the critiques of others, is a daunting prospect for high school students.
Thus, I expected this young lady’s avid suggestion would not be enthusiastically received by her peers.
How wonderfully mistaken I was.
Not only was the class excited to turn their attention to writing their own poems, suddenly our classes had evolved into daily poetry jams to the point where some students were writing sonnets while others were hip-hopping and writing 21st century raps.
The excitement meter in the class rose from what was probably a 7 beforehand to a resounding and exhilarating 10.
I was so in awe—-I dropped the curriculum I had planned—-and devoted the last three weeks of the class to the students’ own creations.
This class was a dream come true.
Because, I believe that the ultimate objective of a teacher’s pedagogy is to encourage the students to take ownership of the classroom and the course curriculum.
Same thing in coaching—-when the players take the ownership of the team and its daily preparations—-that is the ultimate form of winning.
We saw a major manifestation of this last season when after three games the offensive players implored Kliff Kingsbury to concentrate a little more heavily on the running game, so as to create a stronger balance of pass and run.
Kingsbury’s willingness to listen to the players and to adapt his game plans in order to accommodate their wishes was fortuitous—-and it is no wonder that Kingsbury’s eagerness to listen sparked a three game winning streak.
Kliff Kingsbury has stated all along that his offensive philosophy is to adapt his playbook to the strengths of the personnel. In my opinion, this is one of the principle reasons why Kliff Kingsbury is a budding exemplar of “new school” coaching.
As I began to analyze why Kingsbury’s vaunted passing attack was not clicking on all cylinders for much of the season, I felt that the wide receivers were playing too mechanically and far too measured. It felt to me like they were being over-coached.
All along and from the very beginning, Kingsbury had said that he likes to build “freedoms” within his offense so that the players can play fast and free. And in doing so, when plays break down, playing fast and free should help the receivers be creative when it comes to improvising.
But, as I mentioned, I didn’t see these kinds of freedoms that Kingsbury was talking about—-and I wonder whether his coaching philosophy was a little lost or misunderstood between him and his receiver coaches. Let’s face it, the Cardinals’ receivers did not look even remotely good at improvising.
Back in the 1980s I was the head coach of a private school near Boston. Like Kliff Kingsbury I have always been fascinated with wide open, attack-style passing games. I had a rocket armed 6’4” QB and a 6’4” TE who was an All Independent School League All-Star. Thus, I surrounded the two of them with capable pass blockers and a cadre of quick, shifty WRs.
In my own version of an Air Raid, I flexed the TE, ran most plays out of the shotgun and liked to have receiver “twins” on both flanks of the tackles. I kept an X type receiver wide on both sides and had the TE and flanker lined up in the slots. Sometimes I motioned into “trips” to overload one side (which is a good tactic versus zone coverages) and thus leaving one-on-one coverage on the 1 receiver side.
Most of our opponents played cover 3 zones versus us—-so for much of the game it was easy pitch and catch on 7-8 yard out passes or 7-8 yard curls. Then when the defenses got tired of giving up those passes and switched to man, we would try to hit home runs over the top.
In explaining all of this, I am setting the table for apprising you of one of the best decisions I ever made as a coach.
The play was called: “shotgun, trips left, motion, GET OPEN, on one.”
By motioning the flanker away from the trips, we could determine whether the opponent was playing man (if a defender chased the motion) or zone (if no one chased the motion)—-and at the same time—-we were motioning into a balanced set of “twins” (2 receivers) to both sides of the field.
As a way to teach “the feel” aspect of “twin” route combinations, I tried to teach the receivers each day how to run what are called ‘complimentary” routes. In other words, if your twin is running a skinny post toward the middle, a complimentary route would be to run a crisp out, fade or corner pattern toward the sideline. The key to great “twins” play is spacing.
Thus, as a way to keep the defense guessing, and as a way to have my receivers apply their knowledge of the easiest way they can beat their man or attack the zone, I thought it would be interesting to let the players “GET OPEN” on their own and have my QB find the first open man he sees.
As you might imagine—-my players loved this freedom.
So much so, that often on key third down situations, my receivers would call over to me “GET OPEN”.
Within a few games of trying the GET OPEN play, I was amazed at how good my players had become in running it. They were pleading with me to run it more often. With each game I did run it a little more often, although I knew I was toeing a fine line because improv plays are good, but they cannot serve as the bread and butter plays of an offense.
But, with each game, the GET OPEN plays were so good they were making me look like a genius...which, of course, I was laughing at because it was all the result of the players’ creative talents and not my own.
By now the players were calling it the “GO” play—-calling over time and time again—-go with “GO”, coach.
What I didn’t know until about 4 or 5 games in was that the QB, the TE and WRs were having their own little practice sessions and were coordinating and designing their GO options. They themselves had 5 calls, GO-1, GO-2, GO-3, GO-4 and GO-5.
The players had taken ownership of the offense the way my poetry class took ownership of the curriculum.
To me, this is the ultimate objective of new school coaching.
Now—-look—-I am not trying to claim to be some sort of teaching/coaching savant.
I was very fortunate to have students and athletes who had the gumption and the desire to take the proverbial ball and run with it.
Thus, this is simply a story about what I learned about the art of what happens when the students and the athletes take charge of their own education.
This what the new school approach is all about. It is giving the people who actually take the test and play the game the kind of respect and encouragement they deserve to take over the principle ownership of their domains.
What is so exciting to me about having Kliff Kingsbury as the head coach and creative players such as Kyler Murray, Larry Fitzgerald, DeAndre Hopkins, Kenyan Drake, Chandler Jones, Budda Baker, Jordan Hicks and Isaiah Simmons on both sides of the ball—-I believe that as the players assume the ownership of the team—-it is now “GO” time in Arizona.
Blending a strong foundation built on structure, player development and disciplined work habits—-and seasoning that casserole with the “freedom” to be spontaneously creative is a savory recipe for 21st century success.