Sideline Coaching

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This is Diana Nyad for KCRW, and this is The Score.

I love everything about the NFL. The hype, the weekly dramas, the division of labor by skill positions, the new cameras allowed on the field down inside the 35-yard lines. Even the uniforms these guys wear are pure eye candy. Animators would be hard put to come up with super-hero threads any cooler or more colorful than the uniforms of the electric blue Jacksonville Jaguars. There's only one NFL aspect that annoys me and that's the huge sideline coaching staff. All the teams have devised a thick, intricate playbook. In some cases the playbook counts out to more than 700 pages. Quarterbacks spend many hours a day, many months a year, memorizing their Dickensian-length playbooks. The reading isn't as entertaining as Dickens, though. This manifesto is crammed with plays for every possible situation that could arise over the period of four quarters of football. There's the 3-yard-run play to the left-off play action to the right that might be called "XX-33-hut." Then there's the 3-yard-run play to the left-off no-play action that might be called "XX-55-hut." OK. The reason NFL games by and large look so slick is that, under all those enormous shoulder pads, there is a carefully planned science of criss-crossing X's and O's. Fair enough that during training camps this big posse of 15 coaches per team works the various groups of positions players in fundamental skills and specific routes out of the playbook. There's the wide receivers coach, the defensive line coach, the linebackers coach, the defensive backs coach. But come game time, it's gotten to the point that these guys who have eaten and slept football all their lives suddenly can't think for themselves. The 15 coaches rove the sideline with headsets tethered to their stats men and to other guys who are watching with a broader vantage point from up high in the stadium. The head coach has a microphone connected directly into the helmet of the quarterback and it's the coach who calls virtually every single play of the game. The 3rd-down running-back doesn't trot onto the field without a mini-conference with the running-backs' coach.

The courtside coaching in basketball is intense throughout the game. But the beauty of basketball is that the game is moving so fast, basket to basket, that the players are acting on their well-honed instincts, as well as executing strategy called in by the coach. In football, it's almost like these are robots, told to take seven steps downfield, turn two steps toward the middle, turn, look and catch.

On the same subject, the rule in tennis is that a player cannot receive any coaching whatsoever once play begins, although for decades now we've been witnessing parents and coaches using finger signals on the brims of hats to mean "serve more to the backhand side." During last week's U.S. Open, cameras clearly caught Maria Sharapova's father waving a banana from his courtside seat during a changeover. Maria would immediately reach into her bag and unpeel a banana. No coaching is a written rule of the sport, yet a rule not taken seriously. But I must say that I like the fact that a tennis player is supposed to tackle her opponent with her own resources once the match begins.

Use of instant replay works better in tennis than in football, too. In tennis, it's brilliant to see the slo-motion replay arc of the ball and the shadow imprint of where it landed, in or out, within seconds of a player's challenge. And the players, the stadium crowd and the home audience all see the replay at the same time. In football, the ref's head is buried under the camera cape for long minutes as he looks at multiple angles of replays and, in the end, nobody is sure of what brought him to his conclusion. Why can't we all see the replay that convinced him on the jumbotron as he explains his logic for making the final call?

Football's more complex than tennis, sure. But it seems to me one could take some cues from the other.

This is Diana Nyad for KCRW, and that's The Score.



Diana Nyad