Assistant coaches caught in the crossfire of labor strife

No one's going to feel sorry for Bill Belichick or Mike Tomlin, or any of the other well-established, well-compensated coaches caught up in this CBA mess.

But there are men behind those men, the guys who help make operations like the Patriots and Steelers go, that are in need of an advocate as the NFL's labor strife trickles down through the league's 32 big-budget businesses. And former Eagles, Rams and Chiefs coach Dick Vermeil is more than happy to carry that burden.

In March 2009, clubs voted to make the league's uniformed pension for coaches, which had been mandatory, voluntary. NFL Coaches Association president Larry Kennan says 13 teams have opted out since, and there could be more coming.

Vermeil knows just where that will hit hardest, and that's why he's going to bat for assistant coaches as the rhetoric between the league and NFLPA threatens to drown out the message.

"To me, the football assistant coaching staff is the most important aspect of an NFL franchise other than the players," Vermeil said. "These are the guys that touch every one of the players. They touch them individually, they touch them collectively, they touch them mentally, physically and technically. The head coach doesn't touch each player like that.

"I'm always concerned about them, first off, because they're so important, there are such good people in that group. And in these situations, they get caught in between. The better the owner, the less pressure there is to get involved."

Vermeil actually does have some level of experience in situations like this. His final season in Philadelphia, 1982, was cut to nine games by a strike. These are different days, of course, with coaches on every level of a staff making substantially more than back then.

But some of the same dynamics exist, and it's not just in fear of paycuts or layoffs or even worse -- the Eagles' owner at the time had to sell the team as a result of that strike. It also has to do with a spot that could be awkward -- collecting a paycheck from one man and trying to maintain a relationship with dozens of others who are in a labor dispute with that guy.

"The players knew I cared about what they were trying to do," Vermeil said. "But (the ability to navigate the situation) really depends on your relationship with them in the first place. If they trust you, and know you care, in their experience of going through highs and lows of a season, then a union negotiation won't affect the relationship between a coach and a player.

"On the other hand, if that relationship is fragile in the first place, you might be in trouble."

It's obviously different for new head coaches, or even coordinators, but Vermeil thinks the important thing for all those men is to be as organized as possible, no matter what that particular coach's situation is.

The plan Vermeil says he would use is to have three days set as "business as usual" for the coaches during the week. The other two would be to work on contingency plans.

Outside "business as usual," the three contingencies he'd prepare for: One with no OTAs but a spring minicamp; another with only a training camp; and then, what he calls the "doomsday scenario," in which coaches would only have 2-3 weeks to get a team ready to play a regular season game. Part of all this, too, is these hyper-competitive coaches recognizing and accepting that there will be less they can do with each day they miss.

"Take the Packers, and all the starters they lost (last season) to injury," Vermeil said. "If they hadn't had the time to work with all those kids and coach them to be prepared, let them play in preseason games, it's hard to believe it would've worked as well as it did. All those kids who wound up starting, I'd bet they played a lot in the preseason, and so when they were needed they were ready to go.

"There's just no way you can work less and be as good, and we're kidding ourselves if we think we can be."

But Vermeil does have confidence that, no matter how long the lockout lasts, it won't lessen the resolve of the assistant coaches who make a living grinding through the minutiae that makes an NFL team go.

And his hope is that a new appreciation for their work comes as a result once the dust settles, that their readiness to traverse the uncertain landscape brings some sort of reward.

"I just think as we go through processes and negotiations with the players, and the lockout, we should consider what we do as a league to make the assistant coach's job a better job," Vermeil said. "Imagine if they were paid by the hour. I just got back from the garage (auto mechanic), and they were charging $95 an hour. If assistant coaches got that, they'd be making a lot of money. And they ought to.

"Think of it this way: You're paying $16 million a year for your quarterback, so isn't it important to have someone of quality leading him as his position coach?"

For now, the NFLCA stands as a trade association, and Vermeil says he'd prefer to see the organization avoid having to unionize. That's why this time -- one of furloughs and salary cuts -- is a pivotal one for the NFLCA and its membership.

Kennan says all the group is looking for is a restoration of the old rules, with mechanisms like the Rule of 75 (coaches over 58 are eligible for pension/retirement if age and years in league add up to 75) put back in. For now, they're dealing with an environment in which Kennan says "12 or 13 teams are either taking money from coaches, or that's in their contracts and they're not doing it quite yet."

The NFLCA president cited one example this offseason of a coach changing jobs because his team had opted out of the traditional pension plan, only to see his new team do the same after he arrived in his new workplace.

"We're not in this (CBA) fight," said Kennan. "And at this point in time, players haven't lost (base) salary, owners haven't lost money, but coaches are losing money. It doesn't seem right, or fair, that it's happening that way."

Is it as impactful and as important as the battle between the NFL and NFLPA? No. But Vermeil sees it as more important than you might think.

"I think it was (long-time Colts and current Eagles line coach) Howard Mudd who said it, 'Why don't coaches have the same insurance as players?'" Vermeil said. "I respect so much what assistant coaches do, how important they are. And this is a general statement, but when owners get involved, it's over concern about players. The assistant coaching staff takes a backseat.

"It's the same thought, in the process of what is needed to do the job and, in my opinion, it's overlooked and taken for granted what these guys do. There are people who say, 'If a coach doesn't like it, he can leave.' But they're not easy to replace."

And in a time like this, those guys are even more important, with so much uncertainty ahead.

Going deep

No one would argue the value of a shutdown corner.

Last year, the two highest-paid defenders in the NFL -- Darrelle Revis and Nnamdi Asomugha -- played that position. And when Rex Ryan goes on about Revis, the hyperbole might be turned up, but there are also lots of football folks nodding. As one veteran NFC personnel exec puts it, "He's the best player in the NFL."

Revis, if you remember, went 14th in the 2007 draft. Asomugha came off the board at 31 in 2002. And those aren't anomalies.

A cornerback has never been taken with the first overall pick in the NFL Draft, and in the 41 years since the merger, only 13 have gone in the top five, with none going first or second. If that seems amazing, well, it should, because it is, considering the steadily increasing importance of the position.

"I don't know if there's an exact answer for why," said the NFC personnel exec. "Look, last year, Eric Berry was probably the best defensive player in the draft, but he didn't go first. If you knew for sure that a guy was going to be a shutdown corner, it makes it easier. Otherwise, you feel better with a big body or a quarterback at that spot.

"You might ask yourself, 'Why now?' and think you can wait and get a good one in the second round. Getting an Asomugha or a Revis makes a defense so much easier to call. But maybe people figure they don't score points, they aren't big-body guys, and you have to weigh the priority, especially because you can have the best corner, and with no pass rush, they're still going to get beat."

Another factor? Actually scouting the players.

Our exec agreed that it's a difficult position to evaluate, as much because of the mental part of playing it as the physical part.

"Most of them are prima donnas, they're cocky, and personnel people and coaches get (ticked) with that, but it's part of the deal," he said. "They come in different shapes and sizes, and they need to be competitive, have a short memory, be confident as hell. ... It's very hard, because one guy's a press corner, another's a cover guy, you have cover-2 corners. And there's not a lot of them in general."

He then pointed to Deion Sanders, who might have gone higher than fifth in 1989 had he been a better tackler, and Revis, who had a swagger in interviews that turned some off. The point is, the multitude of categories to check off with corners make it easy to knock a player down a rung or two.

That brings us to this year's group, led by LSU's Patrick Peterson, who's had his tires kicked by the Panthers and Broncos, holders of the top two picks. Our exec says Peterson is not worthy of being the one to crack through the ceiling and go first or second, because he's plainly "a press corner," and he adds that Nebraska's Prince Amukamara "has a much better chance to excel at corner."

And that only further illustrates how wildly opinions can range at that particular position.

I know this truth ...

Sticking with the draft, there have been rumblings that Clemson's Da'Quan Bowers could slide because of a knee issue, and North Carolina's Robert Quinn seems, at this early stage, to be strugging to stay in the top 10.

Believe this: Both will be just fine come draft day.

As our exec alluded to above, the value of edge rushers in the NFL has never been higher.

Seven players have averaged 11 or more sacks per season over the last three years -- DeMarcus Ware (46.5), Jared Allen (40.0), James Harrison (36.5), John Abraham (35.0), LaMarr Woodley (35.0), Dwight Freeney (34) and Julius Peppers (33).

Any coincidence that all seven are currently signed to deals averaging more than $10 million per year? Fact is, as valuable as a great cornerback like Revis or Asomugha is, they're harder to find in the draft, and there are fewer of them in general.

Now, look at the aforementioned seven players one more time. Only two, Allen and Harrison, were diamonds in the rough coming out of college, largely because each attended a non-BCS school. Of the five that did go to BCS schools, only Woodley didn't go in the first round (he went midway through the second). Three of the other four went in the top 11 picks.

That's not to say every edge rusher that goes high makes it. Vernon Gholston is the poster boy for the argument against that, but there are plenty of others, too.

It does, though, underscore the point that if you want an elite pass rusher, you generally have to invest high to get them, and you'll have to invest high again to keep them.

So if you're a team that really believes that the sack production of Bowers or Quinn will translate to the NFL -- and scouts say the sack is one of the most consistent stats to carry over from college to the pros -- it'd be very tough not to pull the trigger. Which is why it's important to be careful if you're hearing that a Bowers or Quinn is slipping at all.

... I don't know a thing

I'm a firm believer the NFL should do whatever it can to promote player safety, and that the plight of a litany of retired players should be taken into account when thinking of how to help current players have a life after football.

But I have to say I'd be a little disappointed if the importance of kickoff returns in today's NFL would be diminished, and it seems like that's what the rules proposals affecting that phase of the game to be voted on next week would do.

The plan is to move the kickoff up to the 35 for kicking teams, and the line of scrimmage following touchbacks up to 25 for the return team. That, of course, will lead to more balls going deep into the end zone, or through it, and create added incentive for the return man to kneel on the ball.

It's enough to make you wonder if guys like Devin Hester will be able to have the impact they have with, it would reason, less chances to take one back.

"There is a balancing act," said Competition Committee chairman Rich McKay. "It is a very good way to look at it because that's what we try to make in this proposal. We had a number of clubs in the survey that actually proposed the potential of the elimination of the play. That's not where we were.

"The balancing act is trying to adjust the play and keep the play in the game but realize that modifications were probably in order with respect to the play itself."

It'll be interesting to see how this one turns out.

I do remember, in the past, hearing Belichick speak out against the idea of the college overtime system being implemented in the NFL because, in essence, it provided a bastardized (my word, not his) version of football, eliminating the kickoff aspect of the game. And this, it seems, is working in that direction.

One other thing to keep in mind: In the mid-1990s, the NFL actually moved the kickoff from the 35 back to the 30 to create more returns. At the time, the league thought there were too many touchbacks and not enough chances for electrifying kickoff returns.

So in a way, we might be right back where we started.

First ...

If the union is granted an injunction to lift the lockout -- the hearing on that starts April 6 in St. Paul, Minn. -- look for free agency to start quickly.

And the reason why is actually pretty simple: It's what's best for everyone.

If Judge Susan Nelson rules on this quickly, and most expect she will, then it would make sense for the start of the 2011 league year to happen before the draft, which starts on April 28.

The football people within the clubs would prefer it that way, of course, since it would allow them to plug holes and get added flexibility prior to the draft. And the players on the market -- probably a boiled-down group with the 2010 rules likely in effect -- would have a better chance at fair deals with a pre-draft free-agency period, with more teams sitting out there with more needs.

What bears watching in such a scenario is how the secondary market plays out. Traditionally, after the first wave of free agency, there are some bargains to be had with older veterans left on the market.

But if the first wave of free agency happens just prior to the draft, it's possible teams could wait to see what they get in the way of rookies, and that would likely leave less there for those on the secondary market.

Either way, it'd figure to be a pretty frenetic few weeks.

... and five

1. No. 1 guns: Mentioned this before, but please -- please! -- let's not fall into the trap again of saying a quarterback won't go No. 1 just because an elite player returned to school. Folks said that when Matt Leinart returned to USC in 2005 (Alex Smith went first) and when Sam Bradford went back to Oklahoma in 2009 (Matthew Stafford went first). They said it again in January, when Andrew Luck, perhaps the safest quarterback prospect since Peyton Manning, decided to stay at Stanford. Yet, here we are in mid-March, with not one but two quarterbacks under consideration for the Panthers' first overall pick. That would be a Carolina team, too, that took a signal-caller in Round 2 last April. Getting a good one is just too tempting for teams in the Panthers' position to stay away, and that's why 10 of the last 13 first overall picks have been quarterbacks.

2. After Newton, Gabbert ...: Assuming Cam Newton and Blaine Gabbert are the first two quarterbacks off the board, an interesting case study could ensue over the next quarterback taken, and it concerns the mental and physical aspects of evaluating the position. Jake Locker has everything a team could want from a makeup standpoint in a quarterback, but lacks as a passer. Ryan Mallett has much of what it takes as a passer, but has issues in the decision-making department, both on the field and off. So the question then becomes, "Which problems are easier for a team to fix?" We'll get someone's opinion in late April, based on which of those two is off the board first.

3. All together now: A great sign for Jim Schwartz's rebuilding efforts in Detroit: Lions players organized this week to start offseason workouts just three days after the start of the lockout. A Titans import of Schwartz's, Kyle Vanden Bosch (who's also the team's player rep), brought a group of players together to train in the suburbs. What Vanden Bosch said to the Detroit Free Press about the sessions should be music to Schwartz's ears: "The most important thing right now is everybody is accountable to the Lions, to each other, to make sure they're in shape and physically ready to go when we do start up. No. 2 is, again as this offseason goes, building that chemistry, building that accountability and trust in each other." Just another sign that Detroit, pending the health of Stafford, could be ready to make a leap in 2010.

4. A labor leader: There was no owner more present at the federal mediation of the last few weeks than John Mara of the Giants, and it's also no surprise that he's handling the lockout a little different than his brethren. The Giants are the only NFL team that won't ask fans for their season-ticket payments until after this work stoppage ends (the 31 others are offering full refunds plus interest if games are lost). Hard not to have tremendous respect for that gesture, and it's also interesting to see Mara following in the footsteps of his father, Wellington, who was a leader in labor issues in the past and was a leader in helping the league establish a system promoting competitive balance among all teams. Mara is likely to be a good resource for his peers because he's one of the few that has experienced a work stoppage.

5. Rules, rules, rules: If the 2010 rules are imposed in 2011, in the event the injunction to block the lockout is granted, there's one nuance that must be remembered: The Final Four Rules and the Final Eight Rules. The Packers, Steelers, Jets and Bears would be subject to the former. The Patriots, Ravens, Falcons and Seahawks would be subject to the latter. The Final Eight Rules severely restrict the number of free agents (one for $5.5 million or less, another for $3.7 million or less) teams affected can pursue, beyond replacing their own. The Final Four Rules only allow affected teams to sign free agents as they lose one of similar contractual value.

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