The bye week between Championship Sunday and the Super Bowl is like no other week you have ever prepared for as a head coach. And the challenge -- for first-time Super Bowl coaches Gary Kubiak of Denver and Ron Rivera of Carolina -- is that you can't really know what it's like until you go through it.
Of course, you can't wake up the morning after the conference title game and exclaim, "Oh my God -- we are going to the Super Bowl!! What do we do now??" Both Kubiak and Rivera have been through the Super Bowl bye-week process as players and assistant coaches, but it's different -- a lot different -- when you're the head coach of one of the teams.
Your players need to see that, with every move you make, you are ready for this and have every contingency covered. When I went to Super Bowl XXXV with the Ravens at the end of the 2000 season, both the head coach and the team were in uncharted territory -- the organization in Baltimore had not had a winning season since its inception (and its proud antecedent, in Cleveland, had never been to a Super Bowl).
That season, I forbid my players from using the word "playoffs" until we actually clinched a spot, after beating the San Diego Chargers on Dec. 10. But the day after that game, when they came back for our first meeting before our 15th game of the season, I gave the players a day-by-day, practice-by-practice, meeting-by-meeting outline for the entire playoffs, from the first practice two days after the regular-season finale, to the last meeting the night before the Super Bowl. I wanted them to know we knew what we were doing, that a plan was in place, and that we expected to be working that plan throughout January.
Once we won the AFC Championship Game, I got a great deal of advice from a number of sources about how to deal with the two-week lead time heading into the Super Bowl. Dan Reeves, who had been to four Super Bowls as a head coach with the Denver Broncos and Atlanta Falcons, talked with me for an hour on the phone. After detailing every aspect of the weeks leading up to the Super Bowl, he added, "Hell, I have not won any of these as a head coach, so you might want to just do the opposite of everything I just told you."
For what it's worth, here is an outline of all the advice I received -- combined with my own observations -- about the bye week before the game:
Sweat the small stuff
We used the first three days of the bye week to organize the players -- and the entire organization -- for the next week's events. We had a cadre of people available for the players and their families to organize the travel, hotel, meals and transportation at the event -- and most importantly, the tickets for the game. We wanted to make sure that the players, after getting all this settled the first three days of the week, could put all that aside and focus solely on getting ready for the game. We also wanted to make sure that each player had a designated person from our staff to use as a conduit for anything he or his family might need to handle the week's problems. We wanted the family members to each have a specific person they could go to, so they didn't have to bother the players.
Plan your work and work your plan
The single most consistent advice I got, and give now, is to get your game plan set prior to getting on the plane before Super Bowl week -- and then, just as importantly, to stick with it. What typically happens is that, with all the extra time you have to prepare (and with coaches' natural tendency to overanalyze), you go through multiple iterations of the game plan right up to the weekend of the game. For all those machinations, you come back to what is inevitably the original game plan you had to begin with.
Early in that first week, I had my coordinators give me a detailed outline of the game plan they had for the Super Bowl, and then insisted that they give me a daily report on any changes they were making. I ran both the offensive and defensive scout teams, so it was impossible for them to change something without me knowing.
Inevitably, you will tweak a few things during the week of the game, just to keep the meetings fresh, so that the players don't get bored or complacent. However, if the players see you changing a lot of things at the last minute, they will know you are panicking.
Less (contact) is more
When I went to the Super Bowl with the Ravens, we already had played three playoff games, including two on the road. So by the time we got to the bye week, my team was exhausted, physically and mentally. You would not know it at first, because of the adrenaline rush everyone gets when you qualify for the Super Bowl, but I knew that would wear off and hit them hard by week's end.
To that end, we used the three practices at the end of the week to install the game plan in such a way that we could have shown up that Sunday and played the game if we had to -- mentally. Physically, we did next to nothing. Practices, in shorts, were little more than glorified walk-throughs. We did extensive film study, knowing that, during the week of the game, the schedule would not allow for as much classroom time as we normally had.
We had a very veteran group, so I knew if we gave our players the game plan early enough, they would be able to focus their film work specific to what their responsibilities would be. We also used the time to cover, as in training camp, many of the situational nuances of a game (onside kick, two-point plays, backed-up offense and defense, etc.) that rarely come up but can be the difference in a game.
Focus on the process
We spent a great deal of time getting the players to focus on the process -- something they had done for an entire season -- and not the outcome. When you get to the game itself, it is like no other week you have ever experienced. Just getting there a week early -- all the media demands early in the week, the arrival of the families mid-week -- was foreign to anyone who had not done it before. And game day itself -- with the unusual kickoff time, the extended pregame festivities, the neutral site and the long halftime show -- is a weird experience that looks and feels the least like a typical NFL game day.
We made sure that by the Wednesday of the second week, we had a prep schedule similar to any other game week. Because of the way we had coasted through practice the week before, we actually had more physical, padded practices than we had had all year long. And we prepared the team for the screwy schedule on game day. The mindset has to be: No surprises.
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I can tell you the exact moment I knew we were going to beat the New York Giants in Super Bowl XXXV. As a head coach, I never had a lot of rules. My one overriding rule was, "If you act like men, I will treat you like men. If you act like children, I will treat you like children." That week in Tampa, as usual, we had no curfew or bed check. Even the night before the game, we had a curfew, but no bed check. I had not done that all year long, and I was not going to start now.
One rule I did have was that everyone was to travel to and from practice on the team buses. We were about 30 minutes from our practice facility, and traffic in Tampa can get sticky, so I wanted to make sure everyone got to and from practice without difficulty. (In the Bay Area next week, that will be even more imperative, as anyone who's driven there in the last 25 years can surely attest.)
After our first practice in Tampa, I was heading out to the buses. In front of me were Shannon Sharpe and one of our rookies. I was behind them, so they did not know I was there. The rookie looked at Shannon and said, "My mom and dad are here in a motor home. You think coach would let me go back to the hotel with them?" Without hesitation, Shannon said, "Coach said we are going to and from practice on the buses. Get your ass on the bus."
I knew right then and there that the message had taken hold with my leader, and that the Giants didn't stand a chance.