The end of the season, whether it comes during the Super Bowl or earlier in the process of elimination, carries a jarring finality -- as well as a nearly instant rebirth.
I've been on both sides. I walked off the field in Tampa after Super Bowl XXXV as the coach of a world champion. But I also trudged off fields after crushing playoff defeats, disbelieving that it was actually over so quickly. In either case, there's no speechwriter alive who can adequately articulate all the disparate emotions you feel and all the things a coach might want to say to a team in the locker room afterward.
The parting process is more drawn out when your season ends on the road. And when you finish showering, being interviewed, traveling back to your city and eventually getting off that bus to go back to your family, you know there's going to be a few people from that bus -- people you've lived, worked, celebrated and bonded with for the past year or two years or five years or more -- who will leave the team. And you hope, whether you're a player or coach, that you're not one of those people.
To call it a draining emotional experience is to give it short shrift. It's as though you're coming out of a trance you've been in for the past half-year. And if you're a head coach, you have to take that powerful, absorbing experience (which, by nature, usually ends in disappointment) and sleep it off. Then get up the next morning and more or less immediately start making plans for the next season. Some of those plans will, inevitably, involve not offering contracts to players who've been cornerstones of your team for many years.
The upside is, for the next seven or eight months, you're building toward creating a team that's stronger, younger, more talented, more cohesive and more successful than the one that just finished its season. You have hope. Your injured players have time to recover. Your young players have time to mature. Some problems go away: The big-money free-agent acquisition who whined all year can be let go. Some problems fall on someone else's desk: You can take comfort in the fact that the general manager is the one who has to negotiate with the abrasive agent representing your star cornerback who thinks he deserves All-Pro money when maybe he only deserves Pro Bowl money. And as the draft approaches, you can dream about one or two prospects who you feel could really help your team.
Seattle coach Pete Carroll said that, the day after the parade celebrating the Seahawks' win in Super Bowl XLVIII, the team would go back to work. Some people scoffed at this remark, as though it was some type of overcooked coach-speak, a melodramatic statement about how hard coaches have to work. The fact of the matter is, the NFL Scouting Combine is just two weeks away, and the free agency process begins a week and a half after that. The Seahawks are a month behind most of the other teams in the NFL, so Carroll and his staff won't be taking any well-deserved time off until mid-March. And even then, things won't relent much. College pro days begin in March, the draft is now in early May, and then OTAs begin. You can usually get a week or so in June, but before you know it, you're back in training camp.
So after the season ends, you put the whistle away for a while, but you continue right on working, with much of that labor coming in the form of intense studying and scouting. There are several distinct areas that you're concerned with, but they are all ultimately interdependent:
At the end of the season, you have time to reflect and reconsider your decisions, your program, your playbook and your philosophy. What can be gained with the benefit of distance and perspective? I always tried to ask myself, at the end of every season, What have I learned? How can I apply that to the next season? Sometimes it's something your own team is doing -- or not doing. Other times, it's investigating how other teams are finding success.
The whole league will be looking at what the Seahawks did, and there will be plenty of copying going on this offseason. As with so many new systems in football, it's not just X's and O's -- it's also personnel. People who tried to imitate Air Coryell without a difference-making tight end like Kellen Winslow Sr. were out of luck. Similarly, teams trying to replicate Seattle's punishing defense without two legitimate "long" corners like Richard Sherman and Byron Maxwell -- along with a hybrid enforcer like Kam Chancellor -- won't have much success. And that might not even be the main factor in Seattle; all that talent in the secondary becomes exponentially more valuable when you can pressure the quarterback with just four pass rushers, which the Seahawks consistently did on Super Sunday. Typically, the key to catching up isn't merely improving the playbook; it's improving the players, as well.
Early March is decision-making time with regard to the roster. And while many determinations have already been made, some of them -- often the most important and nettlesome ones -- have been tabled. After celebrating all night following our Super Bowl XXXV triumph, I remember sitting next to Ravens GM Ozzie Newsome on the flight back to Baltimore for the eventual parade. We began, very generally, the discussion about which players we could afford to bring back and which ones we couldn't. It was a surreal experience -- here we were, heading home for this grand celebration of everything the team had just accomplished, already discussing the roster for next season -- but it also was necessary. By virtue of playing in the Super Bowl, you're way behind in offseason planning. It's a great problem to have, but it's still a problem.
This is obviously dependent on the previous element. You can't start planning a free agency shopping spree until you know whether you're going to be shopping at Neiman Marcus or Family Dollar. And as I've said before, it's not baseball. There's much less of a plug-and-play aspect to free-agent signings in football. Obviously, you want to add good players to your team, but you also need guys who are going to respond to your coaches, fit in with teammates and work within the system you have in place. Then, of course, you must be able to afford those individuals, and convince them to play for you. That's rarely a simple process.
The coaching staff faces a serious game of catch-up -- and even more film work than it typically does during the season. By necessity, the coaches have been focused on the pro season that just ended. They know the names of the star college players, have seen a bit of film on some of them and might have caught a few games on Saturday afternoons in hotel rooms on the road. But in the weeks ahead, the coaches will grow more acquainted, watching the players in the flesh and meeting them at the combine, reading each prospect's scouting file and watching him on film. That all builds toward the draft. And with that event now pushed back into May, the scant "offseason" downtime coaches get shrinks even more.
There will be a couple of brief respites for coaches along the way, but not many.
So, want to know when the 2014 football season starts? It already has.