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Coaching Different Personalities (Part 1)

Syndication: Phoenix Michael Chow/The Republic

One of the greatest challenges of my high school teaching career was being assigned to teach AP English Language and Composition to a class of juniors —- a college level course that was now being offered to the students for the first time.

So, on the first day of school while I was outside of my classroom door greeting the students as they were entering, the English department head (who for years was the AP Literature and Composition teacher for seniors) pulled me aside and commanded me to go in there are read the riot act to the students. “You tell them that if they are not willing to put in the two to three hours of homework a night that this difficult course requires, then they should go right down to their guidance counselor and drop out of the class.”

Well, I think you all know me well enough by now to sense that I went in and did my best to try to encourage them, not intimidate them. I said that this brand new adventure should be exciting and exhilarating and seeing as we all were in this for the very first time, we should help each other out and take things one class at a time. “We are the pioneers,” I said. “Let’s get started.”

On that day I was standing there among 24 new students, none of whom I had worked with before. Getting to know each of them to thereby understand each of their personalities and learning abilities was very exciting to me, but, of course, I knew it was going to take a considerable amount of time.

As I had come to realize over the years, the most exciting thing about working with a group of bright, bold and eager students was that I was going to learn much more from them, than they would ever learn from me.

I will never forget that first day of AP. one of the students raised her hand and said, “Well, I want you to know, Mr. Mitchell, that I am taking this class because you are a legend.”

“Whoa, wait a minute,” I said. “You are very kind to say that, but let’s get one thing straight right from the beginning. As you will come to understand over the next few months, I am not a legend, I am the facilitator of legends. You are the ones playing the game. I am just the coach.”

As most of you know, I still feel heartbroken for Steve Wilks.

In my opinion, no one will ever know just how good of an NFL head coach he could be, because in his one year tenure in Arizona, he never had a chance.

Just as I sat among 24 new students on the first day of our AP English journey, on his first day of training camp, Steve Wilks stood among 90 players, the vast majority of which he had never coached before.

So. let’s talk about the preparation that led up to that first day of training camp, because, if one wants to garner a fair assessment of Steve Wilks’ abilities as a coach, the contexts here are of paramount significance.

If you harken back to the press conference when Michael Bidwill announced the hiring of Steve Wilks, the major theme that Steve Wilks addressed during his remarks was the notion of teambuilding through “coaching players with different personalities.”

Do you think that Steve Wilks had thought up that “coaching different personalities” theme on his own?

Have you ever heard a newly appointed NFL head coach focus his remarks on “coaching different personalities”?

Clearly, Steve Wilks was told by Michael Bidwill that his ability to coach players with different personalities was the major reason why he was hired. And Cardinals’ fans know precisely who and why. Coaching players with different personalities was not exactly a strength of Wilks’ predecessor, Bruce Arians.

Arians’ “cuss ‘em out now and hug ‘em later” coaching mantra worked for some, but certainly not for all.

The poster boys for those players whom Arians’ alienated and disenfranchised were two of Steve Keim’s first round picks, T D.J. Humphries (2015) and DT Robert Nkemdiche (2016).

Within a mere few days of having those two first round picks in training camp, Arians and his offensive line coach, Harold Goodwin, were eager to share with the media their “Knee Deep” sobriquet for D.J. Humphries. And while Robert Nkemdiche avoided a vulgar nickname, from the get-go Arians was quick to say that the young defensive tackle was not only immature and out of shape, but he had “no clue” about what it means to be a “professional.”

Which begs the question, how many 20 or 22 year old rookies, have a clue as to what it means to be a professional as they walk out on the field for their first NFL training camp practice?

Coaches, like rhetoricians, need to know and understand their audience. That’s the first thing they have to know.

Coaches, like teachers, need to know that it takes time to know how to push the players’ and students’ right buttons. Every player and student is different in some way. Every one.

Coach Wilks was supremely ridiculed by fans and the media for trying to inspire his new Cardinals’ players through his brick and hurdle metaphors.

I can tell you, as someone who worked with young adults for close to forty years, that Wilks’ strategy, while somewhat unconventional from an NFL head coach, was commendably perspicacious, particularly for those who are visual learners and those who feel a connection to symbols.

As Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, “To be great is to be misunderstood.”

For a coach who was commanded to be a team builder amongst a group of “different personalities,” in my opinion, the brick and hurdle metaphors were a sign of Wilks’ bold creativity —- as well as to his sincerity in trying to do what Michael Bidwill was asking him to do.

But, there were so many things working against Steve Wilks:

  • The GM being AWOL during training camp due to his 5 week DUI suspension.
  • A depleted roster.
  • The Arians Hangover —- “ I wasn’t here more than one day before I noticed the ghost of Bruce Arians looming everywhere in the building” (Josh Rosen).
  • The OC being so extraordinarily vanilla.
  • The $20M free agent QB being so extraordinarily incompetent.
  • Putting in a 4-3 defense —- that was going to take time to develop.

But what Steve Wilks never knew from the outset was —- the one thing working most against him —- was time.

As mentioned previously, to get to know the 53 players on Wilks’ first roster well enough to know how to motivate them all, especially the ones with different personalities, was going to take a significant amount of time.

And think of this —- think of how reluctant Steve Wilks would have been to be a hard-ass for those who needed it. In dealing with his players, Wilks could ill-afford to commit a “rush to judgement” the way that his predecessor did. Because —- In effect—- Wilks was hired not to.

As difficult as it was for fans to watch the worst team in the NFL that season, there was evidence to suggest that Steve Wilks was showing signs of being able to motivate players with “different personalities”, the highlights of which were:

  • T D.J. Humphries, despite losing the season to injury again, graded well at LT (70.1 with only 2 penalties), well enough that despite D.J.’s injury history Steve Keim elected to pick up D.J.’s 5th year option which then lead a year later to D.J. becoming the first (and only to date) of Keim’s 1st round picks to be signed to a second multiple year contract.
  • DT Robert Nkemdiche had his best production as a pro, registering 22 tackles, the only 5 sacks of his career thus far, and the third best tackling grade on the team at 76.7. His stellar 3 sack game versus the Chargers was the most dominant single game performance from a Cardinals’ defensive tackle since Darnell Dockett’s 3 sack performance in the 2008 Super Bowl.
  • QB Josh Rosen and the team pulled off the stunning upset over Aaron Rodgers and the Packers at a snowy Lambeau Field, which led to the firing of Mike McCarthy (who a few weeks later declined the invitation to interview with Michael Bidwill and Steve Keim).
  • Despite the Cardinals’ offense having the worst time of possession in the NFL at 26:33, Wilks’ 2018 defense finished:

19. Rams (Wade Phillips) 358.56 —- NFC Champion (Offense: 8th in Time of Possession)

20. Cardinals (Steve Wilks) 358.81 —- (Offense: #32 in Time of Possession)

21. Patriots (Bill Belichick) 359.13 —- AFC and Super Bowl Champion (Offense: #2 in T.O.P.)

Certainly, the negatives of the Cardinals’ overall play in 2018 far outweighed the positives, but did Steve Wilks deserve the most blame for it?

Please cast your vote:

This is where I would like to hear your responses before chiming in with my own.

You might ask, why are you drudging this back up right now?

For one, I was very happy for Steve Wilks’ sake that after losing his DC job with the Browns in 2019 by virtue of another rare one-and-done head coaching firings (Freddie Kitchens) and spending last season as DC of the Missouri Tigers (tough assignment with MLB Nick Bolton leaving for the NFL and having to coach in the SEC), that he has come back full circle to the Carolina Panthers as their passing game coordinator and secondary coach.

But. as you will read in Part 2 of this article, I feel very concerned that Kliff Kingsbury is being set up to be the next scapegoat of the Bidwill/Keim regime in ways that Steve Wilks was. Yes, Kingsbury has been given 3 more years to try to prove himself, but, in my opinion, he hasn’t been given the benefits of enough personnel and staffing adjustments that highly competitive teams typically afford their head coaches.

Meanwhile, things in Tampa for Bruce Arians could be getting dicey. More will be included on that in Part 2.

As an added incentive, I will award a Cardinals’ crystal freezer tumbler (I just received one from my sister! It’s awesome!) to the ROTB member who can predict which of the 4 options I voted for with a reasonably accurate account of the reasons why.