This is episode is the full, unedited interview with Sage Rosenfels. If you haven’t listened to the fully produced episode yet, we strongly encourage you to do so before listening to this one. They’re shorter in length and much more refined.
Guest Starring Sage Rosenfels, Former American Football Quarterback
Produced & Hosted by Adam Greenfield
Executive Produced by Patrick Yurick, Instructional Designer – MIT OGE
Executive Produced by Heather Konar, Communication Director – MIT OGE
Special thanks to the following editors who provided us invaluable feedback that aided in the development of this show:
Christopher O’Keeffe, Co-Founder of Podcation
Kristy Bennet, Manager – MIT Women’s League
Jennifer Cherone, Phd Candidate – MIT Burge Laboratory
Erik Tillman, Phd, Formerly of the Kim Lab & Currently A Fellow at Vida Ventures, LLC
The Great Communicators Podcast is a part of Gradcommx. Gradcommx, targeted at enhancing research communication, is the first offering of Gradx – a professional development project created for the graduate student population at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology by the Office For Graduate Education.
MUSIC & SOUNDS
“Divider” by Chris Zabriskie is licensed under Attribution 4.0 International License (http://freemusicarchive.org)
Hello, Adam Greenfield here, host of The Great Communicators podcast series. What you’re about to hear is the full, unedited interview with one of the guests we spoke with. If you haven’t listened to the fully produced episode yet, I definitely encourage you to do so before listening to this one. They’re shorter in length and much more refined. You can find them all at gradx.mit.edu/podcasts.
The idea behind these longer, unedited conversation is to give you an opportunity to hear the entire talk, warts and all. This is not only a fun way to hear the full flow of the conversation but it also emphasizes the importance of the points made in the shorter, produced episodes, which again, can be found at gradx.mit.edu/podcasts.
Thanks for listening and enjoy the conversation.
Adam Greenfield: To start, then. Can you give me- or can you tell me your name and occupation?
Sage Rosenfels: My name is Sage Rosenfels. I am a retired NFL quarterback of 12 seasons, I live in Omaha, Nebraska, I am a father of three kids, so that’s one of my occupations, I guess, and I dabble in different aspects of the media, whether it be calling football games, writing articles, doing radio shows, radio interviews, all that type of stuff. So I also invest the money that I made while playing football and pay attention to all those businesses or real estate deals that are ongoing.
A: And probably pretty frightening. I mean, we hear those stories of athletes retired in any sport and all of a sudden a few years later they’re bankrupt.
S: Yeah, there is a crazy stat that’s something like, 80% of NFL players after two years removed from the NFL, I think, are either divorced, bankrupt, or something like that. And not surprising, the divorce rate’s just high in general amongst young people with a lot of money. I always say that giving young people a lot of money is not really a good stepping stone to maturity and as well- a lot of NFL players, different than maybe baseball or basketball, the majority of players, one, don’t make that much money, a lot of them are making four or five or six hundred thousand, not ten and twenty million that you sort of see amongst the premiere players. And the majority of the players only play for maybe two or three in the NFL. The average career is just over three years. So you’ve got a lot of players who make, say, a million or a million and a half dollars, and then obviously taxes and all sorts of things come out of there, and money gets to be gone fairly quickly. So it’s not a surprising stat that guys sorta do go broke fairly quickly.
A: And all it really takes in one injury to cut all that income off.
S: Yes, it’s true. The hard part about the NFL, say different than baseball, is that you- the injury aspect of the game, whether it be head injuries or knee injuries, can really shorten a career or end a career almost immediately. So you never really know, when you’re playing, when you’re gonna be done playing. It can be very nerve-wracking, sort of are living on the edge when you’re playing. But the only way to be successful and play at a high level is to play on the edge. It is very obvious when somebody isn’t, I guess, going full-go. That’s actually the best way to get injured, is to play I guess sort of passively or- to not get injured is the best way to get injured, is the best way for me to say it.
A: Ok. And I hear players- like, Terrell Suggs, for example, was playing this season with a torn bicep and just this morning Elvis Dumervil stated that he has a torn Achilles that he’s been playing through- a 60% torn Achilles. And the entire time was playing concerned that it was going to completely tear or pop or whatever it may be. That’s gotta be a frightening thing to have to deal with, I guess.
S: It is and there’s a lot of- every player by the end of the season has different injuries of some sort. It’s just such a physical and brutal game. Anytime you get grown men who are, say, a minimum 190 pounds to 350 pounds, who are trained to run as fast and be as strong as possible, you create a lot of force and the body isn’t, no matter what you do training-wise and weights and no matter what you do, it’s not set up to take that type of punishment and that kind of contact and force. So injuries are a major part of the game and it’s one of the main reasons why players don’t play very long.
A: You have a degree in Marketing from Iowa State?
S: I do, yes. Marketing at the Iowa State Business School.
A: So what did that teach you about communicating, not just your profession, but other ideas to people who may not have the same background?
S: Well, when I was trying to pick a major there was nothing that I truly wanted to do. I wasn’t one of those kids who when I was 16 or 17 just knew I wanted to be a doctor or a lawyer or own my own business, an entrepreneur. I thought I would probably be in the business world. I always have liked ideas, sort of the creative side. I guess I feel like I’m a little more creative rather than analytical. So I decided to go to Marketing, rather than, say, Finance or Accounting. Those did not interest me, looking at numbers all day. So I’ve always taken that view of business, sort of the big world view or how products would be marketed, what would be a good product or a good app or a good website or one of those types of things. So when I do invest in real estate or other projects, that is definitely not my specialty and I have to lean on close friends and people that I really trust. That’s their specialty.
A: So on the field, as a player, you’re dealing with communicating pretty much the entire game. You get the communication from the sideline, which is the play, and then you have to communicate that with your teammates. We’ll leave audibles and the pump fakes out of the equation for now. Can you give me an example play and what that would sound like if we were in the huddle?
S: Sure. Well, in the NFL, for one, I like to say there’s multiple languages, probably just like for a computer programmer there’s different languages and just the- English or Chinese or French or Spanish, there’s different ways to say the same thing. Well, in football there’s different ways to say the same thing. So in what they call a West Coast Offense type of offense, which is west coast language, you’d say something like, “double right zebra right three jet zebra arches,” and that would be the play. In a different type of system, one that Norv Turner, an NFL longtime offensive coach, he would say “twins right motion scat right 525 F post swing.” These are the exact same plays in two completely different languages.
A: So is there- let me see if I can figure out a way to word my question understandably.
S: Should I break down what that means?
A: I guess that’s kind of my question. That sounds complex but do these pieces have a general meaning behind them?
S: Absolutely. So generally in an NFL play you start with a formation, two players on the right and two players on the left or just start with three players on the right and one player the left. And then there’s what they call the “strength,” which is usually what the position of tight end signifies the strength of the formation. So on a play double right… double is sort of a different way of saying two, so it’s a two by two formation, right being the tight ends on the right hand side. And when I say zebra right, well, zebra is this position in the West Coast Offense where he is in what they call the slot or sort of the midway point between the outside receiver and the offensive lineman. He is the zebra player in the west coast offense. So I say double right zebra right, so I sent him in that formation to the right from the left hand side, so now he’s over on the right hand side in what we call a trips formation. So now he’s in a trips formation and we’re going to run a trips play. The next thing I said was three jet. That is a type of protection, so that is telling the offensive line, the running backs, the quarterbacks, the tight ends, really everybody, how the offensive line is going to block that play, who are they responsible for, if the Sam linebacker blitzes or the Will linebacker blitzes, who is going to block who so everyone is on the same page. And then the last thing I said was zebra arches. Zebra arches is the name of a pass pattern and that really tells all the other receivers and running backs what to do. As a quarterback, you obviously have to understand all of it. The running backs, they’re listening for the three jet and zebra arches. That’s really it. They’re not so worried about the formation as much. Offensive linemen are really just listening for three jet. That’s all they really care about, is the pass protection aspect of the plays. So everyone has their individual responsibilities and it sort of tells everyone what to do but generally almost all NFL and college offenses start with a formation, a possible motion, some sort of protection, and then the pass pattern.
A: Interesting. So how do you disguise that? If these are general concepts that even the defense might know, how do you disguise that so the defense doesn’t know what you’re going to do?
S: Yeah, so, you run the exact same formation and motion and you can really run hundreds and hundreds of plays out of that same play and formation. And that’s- teams use a lot of different formations. They’ll bunch guys together; they’ll start in an empty formation, which is just the quarterback in the backfield and motions guys around; sometimes you have three receivers on this side, sometimes you have two, and you can even put four on a side. There’s a lot of different variations and combinations you can come up with, which then attack the different possibilities you’re going to see on defense. I’ve always felt that people that are, say, engineers- and I’m sure at MIT- people would enjoy the aspect of what I always call the physics of football or the science of football. There’s definitely reasons why defensive players are positioned inside a wide receiver, outside a wide receiver, who they’re trying to funnel that player to, and those types of things. It really is a numbers game when you really break it down.
A: So you went from being a player on the field, studying playbooks in a classroom with all these complex and terminology and what seems like even a choreography to each play. And now you’re in a broadcast booth where you’ve become a communicator of all these elaborate schemes to the common audience. So how do you ensure that you’re explaining these complexities in a way that they can understand and not lose them with all this jargon?
S: Well, I don’t bring up all that jargon within the play. I do feel like, sort of, the common football fan who watches a lot of NFL or watched a lot of college football, does start to understand when somebody says a “two by two formation” or a “three by one” formation. You know, if I’m doing a replay and I say, “They’re in a three by one trips formation here,” I think most fans at this point that watch enough football do understand what that means. “Oh look, so there’s three receivers on this side and one on the other side. That trips, that makes a lot of sense.” But you do have to be careful with giving too much of sort of that type of information that’s not commonly known. You do have to talk about safeties being deep or safeties being up close to the line of scrimmage to tackle. You know, those types of things. You do have to simplify the game down but I think there is definitely a way of doing that. And it’s always a learning experience. I’m sure sometimes when I’ve called games I’ve been too complex and think sometimes I probably don’t give the fan enough credit as well. So the really, really good ones, like Chris Collinsworth, they’re great storytellers. Teaching the science of the game is a small aspect of being a color commentator. A lot of it is a storyteller about how a play developed, about how a matchup occurred, or even sometimes an off-the-field type of story that gives sort of more credibility or background to a certain highlighted player.
A: I like Jon Gruden’s analysis. He can be a little intense sometimes, but I like his play-by-play analysis, or color commentating, I should say.
S: Yeah, so Jon Gruden, he’s one of those analysts- and this goes, uh, I think most people understands this- that a lot of times people love analysts and a lot of time people hate analysts. It’s just sort of the way it goes and everyone has their own style that they like more. He likes to talk the X’s and O’s of the game. He was obviously a coach for a long time in the NFL and that was really his specialty, was always talking the language of football. So I think sometimes he likes to occasionally sprinkle in one of those plays. “Oh, we got 200 jet X slant with space. He’s gonna come out, he’s gonna look at X, he’s not gonna like it, he’s gonna reset his feet over the ball, he’s not gonna like it. He’s gonna get to his 4th read to his halfback on the wide. Perfect play, first down, Houstan Texans.” And that’s what Jon Gruden likes to do, and I think some fans do like to see, wow, this is all that’s going on in this simply play that’s just a pass to the running back.
A: And it adds a depth the game. You’re watching these people running around running into each other and from the unfamiliar eye that may look like they’re just running into each other but there’s a depth and complexity to this game that needs to be explained.
S: It’s an extremely complex game. You really can’t be dumb to play it. You can’t be dumb, at least, from a football aspect, to play it. And the longer you play it the more knowledge you’re going to have. You have to realize, this is the player’s full time job, the coach’s full time job. I mean, we were talking off the air about Marc Trestman, who was one of my former coaches. He has his law degree from the University of Miami. He’s not a dumb guy. And he’s a long-time NFL offensive coordinator. These guys spend a lot of time in the summer, in the off-season, coming up with new concepts, coming up with new plays. I mean, you’re practicing so much. It’s not like you have other things to do. This is your full-time job. You spend probably somewhere between four and six hours in meetings every single day as an NFL player. There’s a lot of information and there’s a lot of teaching and coaching that goes on. It’s definitely not a simple game. My older sister asks me, how come you don’t run trick plays all the time and how come guys always just run into the pile and they don’t run around it. It seems simple on TV but it definitely is more complex than that.
A: I had no idea Trestman had a law degree. Even John Urschel, one of the smartest men in football, took some classes at MIT this summer, these mathematical classes. And it sort of kills that jock stereotype.
S: Believe me, football players do plenty of things to live up to that stereotype, as well. I have also learned that there’s a very big difference between being smart in, say, a normal classroom, in mathematics or science or something like that, and then being smart in a sport. There are people who are brilliant and they go to MIT and Harvard and those types of places but have a hard time understanding how football and basketball really works in a lot of ways. I think it’s a different kind of creative smarts that go into athletics than, say, go into a classroom.
A: You played football in front of audiences of all sizes. Do you remember your first time in front of a large, stadium-sized, NFL audience and do you remember what you were feeling at the time?
S: Well, um… college and NFL are very similar. I mean, once you reach that level. My first college game probably had over 50-55,000 fans. I definitely remember walking down- from the locker room, you had to sort of walk down a ramp to the field and really just looking up at all the people in the stands and the crowd and just being in awe. And I’m sure my mouth was open, my jaw was dropped, and I completely almost like left the group of quarterbacks I was walking down with. I was just completely in awe of the situation. Over time you definitely get more and more used to it and you get so focused on what you’re doing, this crowd sort of becomes this thing that’s around you and it’s something you don’t really pay attention to. Believe me, we can’t hear you when you yell at us from the stands. We don’t hear any of it. We’re very focused on our job and plus, there’s usually 70-80,000 people. We’re not going to hear your complaint over their voices as well.
A: So you’re not going to hear me screaming through the television, then, I take it?
S: Definitely not gonna hear that, either. You know, as I said, you get used to it over time and you’re so focused on your job. There’s a lot of adrenaline in football. There’s a lot of games, even if I didn’t play and I was the backup quarterback, when I was done I was exhausted. There is a big-time build up before the game, even the night before. The nerves, sort of the nervous energy. When you go into the game and then you play the game, there’s so much- any time there’s violence that goes on and there’s such a fine line and playing on the edge like that, there’s an energy that sort of pushes you through pain and through injury. Obviously, you build- you have the courage to go make a crazy, dangerous play because it’s just- the adrenaline rush is what the formers players do miss. It doesn’t matter how much money you have, what type of car or house you buy, or how much golf you play. You’re never going to get that type of adrenalize rush from when you’re playing football.
A: So how do you stay calm and focused in that moment?
S: Again, I think a lot of it is just based over time and practice. Anytime you practice something hundreds and hundreds and thousands of times, you get so used to it that your body just sort of does it. It just sort of adjusts and you’ve trained your mind over the years to make certain throws or make certain reads. I think you just get so focused on what you’re doing, you’re just not worried about what’s going on around you and you’re so focused on the game plan and what the coach wants you to do in that play, that you dive into that play, you sort of forget about all the rest that’s going on.
A: That sounds like a question I had, that “in the zone” question. I’m a podcast producer and a writer at the same time and sometimes when I write I get in this zone and the next thing I know-
A: -I’ve written pages upon pages and the sun is down and it’s dark in my apartment. In sports, that phenomenon is like when the game slows down for the player. It’s as if there’s more time for the athlete to perform. So I guess that is just a result of practice and repetition, then?
S: It is. It’s practice, repetition. I believe if you really understand the game at a high level, again, the science of the game, the speed of the game will start to slow down. If you’re one of those players that, I guess, isn’t well-schooled in all the intricacies of football, I think the game can seem really fast and chaotic and there’s a lot going on but if you’ve really mastered, sort of, the X’s and O’s of the game, what everyone’s responsibility is, the defensive responsibilities, what’s going to happen, and you can anticipate, the game does slow down much more than people realize.
A: That’s just a result of being mentally prepared? I watched a broadcasting reel of yours online and in a video clip- I think you were on the NFL network- you said if you had to start on a pro level straight out of college, you would’ve been out of the game in a year, that there’s such a drastic difference between the two levels. So I guess that is just a matter of being mentally prepared or there’s a physical aspect to this, too, as well, right?
S: Well, it- there is both and over time you physically start to- I think during that NFL films or NFL Network show that I was on, we were talking about the jump from college to NFL. We were actually talking about Johnny Manziel, of all players, and how challenging that is. Yes, the NFL game is faster. They are superior athletes who are more mature, they’re older, they’re 25 or 27 rather than 19, they’re bigger, they’re faster, they’re stronger. They’re also smarter to play at that level. So it means they’re more instinctual in those types of things. But I do feel, again, you get better coaching at the pro level, you spend more time on it so you understand the X’s and O’s of the game, the science of the game more. You also just do get used to practicing more. You know, in college you don’t practice as much as you do in the pros. You don’t have spring and summer, or what we call OTAs, these mini camps. I mean, training camp is much longer in the NFL, about five or six weeks, than a college camp. So you just spend so much more time on that you sort of get used to one, the complexity, and two, the speed of the game.
A: Are there rules preventing teams from playing- practicing all year?
S: Yeah, in the NFL they have collectively bargained, the players and the NFL, to have a certain amount- the OTAs are called Offseason Training Activities and they’re really just practice. But those days you can only spend so much time at the facility, only so much time on the practice field, so much time in the mean room. They all have that collectively bargained. If that wasn’t the case, NFL teams and head coaches, when the season’s over January 2nd or whatever, they would have players in the next day and start practicing for next year. That’s just how they are. So the players negotiate how much time is really spent- I think it helps the player from a wear and tear on the body standpoint. It is hard to do anything at that high of a level the entire year so must of winter, say, February, March, April, a lot of that time is not spent practicing but more physical training. Lifting weights, running, getting in top physical condition for the upcoming season. And then obviously through those summer times you’re doing both. You’re training physically and practicing and then again the actual training camp, which is less weight lifting and running and more just practice.
A: I want to talk a little bit about process and failure for a little bit. I’ve been a fan of football since I was a kid and over the years heard enough coaches and players in interviews say that this and really most competitive sports require an ability to move on after failure. There’s like a 24 hour rule. You have 24 hours to grieve or to celebrate then it’s on to the next game or thing or whatever it may be. Not to imply that you are a failure because I think we all fail at some point in time. Are there any process you use to remain grounded after a failure in your profession?
S: Well, you are correct. Failure is very much a part of sports. Of all sports. I mean, Michael Jordan, the greatest basketball player of all time in my opinion, he missed more shots than he made. So he failed more than he succeeded as far as shooting the basketball. In football, very early, whether it’s high school, football, or pro, coaches are always pushing “next play, next play, next play.” There’s really nothing you can do about whatever happened on the last play whether it was really good or really bad. Many times it’s bad when they’re bringing that up. “Hey, next play. Let’s move on. That was a mistake. Next play.” Because the clock is ticking. You don’t have time to sit there and mope and contemplate and worry about what happened. Obviously you have some time between games but not much. The week is so regimented that, yes, after a loss you maybe have 24 hours but the next day? Worrying about that game and feeling bad about that game or the play is not going to help you win the next one. So it’s all about how can we get better for the next game and learn from those mistakes. When you’re actually in a game or in a practice and, say, you have a bad play, again, that play is not going to have an effect in a positive way on the next play if you spend any time worrying about it. Bad play happened. What’s the next play and how can we maximize that play because that’s the great thing about football, is you can have a bad play and the next play or the next group of plays you can play perfect football and make up for that bad play. So it’s all about really playing each individual play as its own separate entity throughout the sixty minutes of a football game.
A: And when it comes to speaking in front of an audience and you make a mistake, it seems like that would be a little harder to recover because then at that point, your audience is sitting there with that one mistake and there isn’t- I mean, I guess there is another play. They can keep listening. But it seems like that’s the one difference, is that in sports there’s so much activity going on that, I guess, it doesn’t require a short attention span but in a way that could be kind of helpful. Whereas speaking in front of an audience, that maybe- is that the same, do you think?
S: I agree with you. When it’s something like, say, you’re speaking in front of 1000 people or you’re in a ballet or you’re in a play. If you fall down and have an incredibly embarrassing mistake, it’s hard to really make up from that. I think the difference is in football or, say, golf, another similar sport to football in a sense that there’s individual plays or individual shots and the last shot doesn’t necessarily need to affect the next shot. The hard part is when you’re speaking in front of a crowd or maybe doing some theater, if you make a really, really bad mistake, there’s not really much you can make up for that. So then just put on the best performance you can from then on out. People may remember that mistake or they may remember the rest of your performance as being spectacular. I think that’s the difference between that type of world and, say, athletics, as I said, sort of the next play doesn’t have to have any bearing on the previous play.
A: Now, you also teach kids about the game of football at the Sage Rosenfels Quarterback Passing Academy. So what do you tell the kids you teach about the process of preparing themselves for a game?
S: What I do is I train young kids who are just sort of learning football, from fundamentals of the game, you know, quarterbacks, wide receivers, that’s sort of my specialty, obviously. I’m not really coaching defense. We also talk about the X’s and O’s of the game and really teaching the science of football. What’s really fascinating about the sport of football different than, say, basketball, is that it’s such a uniquely positioned sport. When I say that, a college or pro football team has usually between 11 and 20, 25 coaches on the staff because each individual position is very unique and different from the rest. Wide receiver is very different than defensive line, quarterback is very different from an offensive line, as far as responsibilities work out, what they need to know, all these things. So it’s a very position specific sport. And so what’s amazing is how few people really understand all the things a quarterback needs to know to be successful. Even the dad that was a really good high school or college player that played DB that’s now coaching your son’s Pop Warner or middle school team probably doesn’t know that much about quarterbacks. That’s just the way it is. So what I try to do is give as much knowledge to what I feel is the most important position in football, the quarterback position, but as I’m teaching sort of these footwork and throwing fundamentals and these types of skills, I’m also talking about sort of the mental side of the position, being the communicator, being someone that has to do- try to things right all the time, sort of the ambassador of the team. So I try to give life lessons of the quarterback position, not just individual skill position work.
A: Do you have any examples of those life lessons?
S: Well, something just like what you’re talking about. There’s a, what we were talking about, making mistakes and coming back from those mistakes. If a kid has a bad throw during a drill it’s, “Hey, it’s a bad throw. Let’s do it right the next time. Let’s try to do it right the next time.” to, you know, as a quarterback on the team, you’re entire school is really looking at you set the tone of what they think the football team is all about. If the quarterback is a jerk, the student who doesn’t play football and maybe is just in the band or is a regular student, might think all the football players are jerks because the quarterback I feel is sort of the symbol or sets the tone for the entire football team. The Dallas Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett once used a phrase, ambassador. He said the quarterbacks are the ambassador of the football team, they have to hold themselves at a higher level, on the field and off the field, in the classroom, how you treat other students, how you treat other people, people will make judgments on your entire team based off what they feel about the quarterback.
A: Interesting. So can other personalities shine through? For example, well, I’m using the Ravens only because I’m most familiar with them. Ray Lewis was THE leader. It wasn’t Flacco, it wasn’t Kyle Boller, for sure. And I don’t say that to be disparaging, I’m sure he’s a great guy. It takes a lot of skill to throw the ball 70 yards on your knees… without any accuracy. As a quarterback, being that ambassador, does it feel weird to sort of give it up to another position player?
S: Well, I think a couple things. One, the quarterback position is- it’s hard to be timid and to be quiet and be sort of that quiet leader that just leads by example. I believe that the really good ones are always good communicators. You know, Peyton Manning loves to talk. Tom Brady likes to talk. Drew Brees likes to talk. Dan Marino loves to talk. It’s just sort of part of the position because you’re just non-stop communicating with everybody on the football team from the head coach and the coaching staff, even the general manager and the owner, the quarterback talks to them more than other players than the other players get to talk to the owner. But also, obviously, your teammates. When you’re in that huddle, when you’re calling a play, I’ve always believed you have to sell that play like it’s going to work. “I have the information, guys, and this play that I’m telling you? Twins right motion scat right 525 f post swing? It’s gonna work, it’s gonna get us the first down, it’s gonna help us win the football game.” You have to sell that. So I think over time you do learn how to be a bit of a salesman and be a bit of a vocal leader. I do feel it’s important for the quarterback to do that. Now, on certain teams like the Ravens, and they had a guy like Ray Lewis, and a lot of teams, defensive players, everyone can be a leader but rarely is it not the quarterback sort of taking charge of that situation. I think Ray Lewis was sort of exceptional in that- and the exception in that situation- where he really was the vocal leader of that football team. He really enjoyed giving those speeches and having that spotlight. It was something he, you know, was really into. And I played with a player named Junior Seau who was very, very similar. He really enjoyed those speeches and he played for so long in the NFL at such a high level that that respect was automatically given there. His speeches were very believable because he had been there and done it so many times. I always say respect is not given, it’s earned, so no matter what you say, if you don’t back it up with the way you practice and prepare and the way you handle yourself on and off the field, it really doesn’t matter what you say right before a football game if you haven’t earned the respect of your teammates and coaches and even your community.
A: Do you buy into that leader has to be a very loud, outspoken, vocal guy? I mean, they talk about Flacco being very calm and collected. Joe Cool, you know? In the huddle and in the locker room but he’s still a leader. And he gets criticized for this, too. Even his own teammates.
A: They criticize him for being TOO calm and collected. So I’m curious what you think about- if that makes a difference.
S: No, I- yeah, I don’t think the quarterback HAS to be the loud, vocal leader. I think it also helped that, with Joe Flacco early in his career, he had Ray Lewis and some other players, Terrell Suggs, who were very loud, vocal leaders. So he didn’t really have to have that role. I think more often than not, just because the way football is, people do look to the quarterback position for that vocal leadership. I don’t think you have to be loud, I don’t think you have to always be giving the speeches, I don’t think you have to have that role. But you have to be a good communicator and you have to be somebody that can, you know, caninspire the other players. I played with a player named Andre Johnson when I was playing for the Houston Texans and he just retired this season after a long NFL career. Fantastic wide receiver. And he barely said anything ever. I mean, in the weight room, in the locker room, on the game field he was very quiet. But he worked probably harder than everybody else on the football team. He was the best player on our football team. There was so much respect to the way that he did his business that he didn’t have to say very much. And when he did speak, believe me, those words had more effect on the players and coaches than anything that a quarterback that spoke every single day had to say.
A: Interesting. So I guess that silence sort of added a bit of credibility and stoicism to what he was saying when he did speak?
S: Well, it’s one of those things, “if you want to be heard, listen” type of scenario, right? Again, his credibility was based off his performance and his work ethic. He didn’t feel like he needed to be in that role to psych up his teammates. He felt like if you went on and did your business and everyone took care of their business, the team could be successful. But I think he also would say it does help to have some vocal leadership on a team or any sort of business, whether it’s a CEO or a business owner. You have to have somebody that’s communicating the information to everybody to keep everybody sort of on the same page and motivated.
A: It’s interesting to compare- just thinking about the comparisons with what a scientist does in order to present highly complex and detailed research to peers, or otherwise, and compare that with an athlete, or at least a football athlete, who has a little less than one week to prepare for a grueling physical and mental performance. Can you go through some the preparations and practices that players do in any given week between the day after a game and the day before the next game?
S: Sure. And again, this is one of those things that Norv Turner said to me one time. He was my quarterbacks- well, he was an offensive coordinator back in, I think, 2002 and 2003 in Miami- and he said, “The great thing about football is we get to take a final every Sunday for, basically, 16 weeks in a row. Most people don’t get to do that.” You work on a project, you work in a company, you never really see the results ever over the course of maybe years or you see them- or a project over the course of a few months or six months or something like that. You really do get to see your work come to fruition very, very quickly throughout a season. So, to take you through a week, a general week. Let’s say you play on Sunday and you’re not playing until the following Sunday. Monday, you come in, obviously you’re exhausted, you’re tired, you’re beat up. Win or lose, that doesn’t really matter, you come in, you get a light lift in. It’s important to work out after a game. Usually you have some sort of running or jogging type of exercise, as well. According to strength and conditioning coaches, that helps with recovery, helps you work- get the blood flowing throughout the body to help repair damaged tissue. And with that, then you also watch film. You watch the entire game. The head coach and the coordinators generally give speeches to the team and the respective sides of the ball about what happened in the ballgame, what we did well, what we did poorly. They go through each individual play. That’s a very slow process. They go through the game film with a fine-tooth comb of every player, every position, of what happened well and poorly in that ballgame. Tuesday is the collectively bargained day off for NFL players. A lot of players still do come in that day to, again, maybe get in another work out or get in the hot tub or start watching film on the upcoming opponent but there’s nothing scheduled as far as meetings or on that day, on that Tuesday. It’s also a day where players many times will go volunteer at a children’s hospital or something around the community. It’s definitely the day the community relations director grabs players and does things in the community. Wednesday is your big work day. Wednesdays and Thursdays are very similar. Wednesday you come in, let’s just say seven o’clock in the morning, grab a bite to eat, then you head to meeting from, say, around eight o’clock until, oh, about eleven o’clock. Many times three, three and a half hours, something like that. And you’re watching film of the future opponent, you’re breaking down all the plays- or I should say, installing all the plays that you’re going to run. Running plays, passing plays. “These are the protections that we like, these are the players on the other team that we’re concerned about. This Terrell Suggs pass-rushing defensive end, we’re worried about him so we’re gonna use these couple protections to help out, running backs this week are going to need to chip that player before you get out on your routes because he’s going to give us problems. He’s giving everyone problems so far this season.” You go through all this game plan stuff, go out in the field for a walk through, so you’re going to walk through some of these plays you’ve installed, come back in grab some lunch, then go out for a full two, two and a half our long practice in which you run a lot of these plays that you just installed that morning. Get through practice, come back in afterwards, obviously shower, those types of things. And you actually then go back in and watch practice. And then that’s pretty much your day. Usually you’re done at something like, say, five o’clock. Some players- I was one of those players- like to stay a little longer until a lot of times six o’clock, watch even more film on my own. Even start watching film and getting ready for Thursdays. So Thursday and Wednesday are very similar; they’re just different situations. Thursday, the plays you would install and run and practice, would be plays, say, on third down, which can get very complex in the NFL. Plays in the red zone, short yardage or goal line situations- everything in the NFL is about situations. Is it first down and ten on your own 20 or is it third down and six on the other team’s 40 yard line? Very different styles of plays and schemes that different offensive and defensive coordinators like to use in those types of situations. So that’s Thursday, very similar to Wednesday. Friday is also similar but it’s just shorter. After that practice you’re done. You actually don’t have- you do the morning meetings, then you go right out to practice at around, say, eleven o’clock or so, practice until one… it’s definitely lighter, fewer pads, if no pads at all, are worn on that practice. It’s supposed to be sort of the dress rehearsal. The ball shouldn’t hit the ground as quarterback. There should be high completion percentage rates. Obviously it’s not as physical, it’s not as dangerous in those types of practices. You’re really trying to practice perfectly, as I say, on that Friday. And then Saturday, you come in, you watch some more film and then you go out for a walk through, and you talk about the first plays you want to call in the game. After the whole week of practice, the coaches have found out, these are the plays you really, really like, they went well for us, the quarterback did well on these plays, running backs seemed to really read these plays really well. In the fifteen plays of the game, say the first quarter, these are the plays that we really, really do like. And then you might go over some unusual plays that maybe you don’t practice very often in that walk through. You’re literally just walking through these different plays. And let’s say it’s an away game. You go hop on a plane and fly to another place and have a few meetings that night at a hotel, wake up the next morning, and go play. If it’s a home game, it’s nice because you get to go home for half a day and hang out with your family before you usually go into a team hotel on Saturday night, staying over, waking up the next day, and obviously going to the stadium and getting ready for kickoff usually, say, around noon or one o’clock.
A: Wow. So the night before, if you’re at home, you still stay in a hotel?
S: Yes, absolutely. Usually, say, seven o’clock or so, there’s some sort of meetings. Again, offensive and defensive meetings, sort of last minute film watching. Sometimes a head coach will have the video directors make some sort of highlight film of maybe your last game and footage that they’ve taken within the team to make cool highlights to sort of get you excited for the next day. Then the head coach gives some sort of- probably some inspirational talk that night at the end of those meetings, say, at eight-thirty, nine o’clock. And then yeah, you stay in the hotel. They don’t really- most teams will even have a bed check at, say, ten o’clock or something to make sure everyone’s in their room. There’s a security guard usually on every floor. So there’s very small likelihood of anyone going out and trying to have a good time on a Saturday night.
A: Unlike Janikowski the night before the Super Bowl but we’ll leave that off the-
S: Well, different teams have different things that they stress and I believe the Oakland Raiders are one of those teams that probably doesn’t have, based off of their history- you know, Al Davis, the old owner, was a little more loose in what he felt was important for football players. He sort of liked the guys that were a little more wild and would go out the night before a game. It didn’t bother him so much. But most head coaches, most coaches in general, are control freaks. They really like to control the entire process. Football, one of the things about it, it’s very much- people relate it to the military for a lot of reasons because I think you have a lot of people- not only do you have sixty players on a team- you’ve got twenty coaches and you’ve training staff weight lifting staff and equipment managers and video managers- all these people. Over probably 100 people in a room, you have to have everyone very, very organized and on time and every minute throughout the week is really accounted for. It’s very, very regimented and very similar, I think, in some ways to the military.
A: You know, I heard a story recently. Ladarius Webb was talking on a podcast and he was telling the story about the first time he met Ed Reed. And it was the same year- John Harbaugh’s first year. Harbaugh came in and they were in a meeting, and I think Ed Reed may have been joking around or talking during a meeting, and Harbaugh was like, “You know, this is not a time for talking. Feel free to leave if you need to talk.” So Ed Reed just got up and walked out. And after that, Harbaugh was like, “Ok, I don’t think I can be too much of a militant with these guys.” And I think early on there was a bit of a rebellion between the veterans of the team who had been there for a while. They all kind of worked it out but you talking about coaches being very militant about things, it just reminded me of that story. I just thought it was kind of funny.
S: Yeah, well, every head coach has different philosophies and different ways they treat their players. You call one old school and you could call the other player friendly. Gary Kubiak was not a coach that believed in that military style. He sort of believed in treating everyone like men and, “Your job is to go out there and be a pro every day and act like a pro, practice, preparation, the whole thing. Just be a pro. That’s all I ask of you. I’m not asking more, I’m not asking less.” Other coaches like to have a lot of rules and be more strict and you have to wear this on the road, you have to wear a suit and tie, you have to be a certain way at all times. There’s multiple ways to do it. I don’t know if there’s one way that’s better than the other. Bill Belechick’s a very negative coach. he likes to coach from negativity and Bill Walsh, the great, old coach from the West Coast, the old coach of the San Francisco 49ers, he was very into that, sort of, California, feel-good, positivity, not yelling and screaming type of coaching. So, multiple ways to do it. I know Jimmy Johnson, the old Dallas Cowboys coach, used to say something like, “Every player’s treated differently because every player means something different to this football team.” So sometimes a player like Ed Reed, a first round ballot Hall of Famer, was given more leeway by some coaches than someone who’s just barely trying to make the football team.
A: I love Kubiak. What- the season he was the Offensive Coordinator for the Ravens was probably my favorite- one of my favorite seasons to watch. It was hard to watch him leave but I’m glad he got the opportunity that was kind of his dream job. Anyway. You mentioned Kubiak and I’m a huge fan.
S: Yeah, well, I played for Kubiak for three years in Houston. He’s probably my favorite coach I ever played for. He played in the NFL for a long time. He was John Elway’s backup for, I think, about 10 years with the Denver Broncos back in the 80s. And I think that really helped him understand what players go through and what they- the players like expectations. Like, what do you expect of me? What do I need to do to do my job? And I think that’s why he- why players like playing for him. He creates certain expectations. Ok, this is what I expect of my players and my coaches and after that you can sort of do what you want. I think- and also his style of coaching makes sense. His understand of what I call the science of the game makes a lot of sense, the way he communicates it. He’s not a yeller or a screamer but when he does raise his voice you know it’s very, very important to him. He’s not a guy who coaches through fear. He was a guy who coaches through working together and that’s probably why he was my favorite coach in my career.
A: I like that, I like that. Do you think that it’s- that coaches are better coaches if they were players at one point?
S: I believe so. I actually wrote an article recently. I haven’t sent it to- I write an article for TheScore.com every week and I haven’t sent it off to them yet. But I’m a big believer in particular quarterbacks- it really helps to have former quarterbacks be a coach. Obviously it’s the position I played and so I’m extremely biased in the sense that I think we know more about the sport than other positions but I feel like we do. We have to have a very good understanding of offensive line responsibilities, what receivers go through against the secondary players, what defenses are trying to do to offenses, their different styles. We’re constantly studying athletes. What does this athlete do well? Does he cover well? Is he more of a run stopper? What kind of routes can we beat him on? I feel like we, as quarterbacks, understand more about the all the aspects of the football team than the other positions. So I think yeah, former quarterbacks do make, usually, better coaches but not always. I mean, I don’t think Bill Belechick was- he wasn’t an NFL player and I think he’s the greatest coach of all time. So not necessarily but I do believe it definitely helps to have played the game and to go through what the players go through, mentally and physically.
A: And you can say the same about catchers in baseball. They’re considered the quarterback of the team, you know, when they’re playing because they have to call the pitches, they set the defense, and you see now that these catchers are managers now and they’re successful. Joe Girardi, for example.
S: Yeah, and Mike Scoscia. There’s been many documented stories about catchers being the best baseball managers. There’s a lot of baseball managers that were catchers. They have to understand- I mean, they do scouting reports on each individual hitter and what we should stay away from and what count we should throw what type of pitch on. That’s a very detailed- that’s very different than the center fielder that’s waiting out there for a ball to be hit to them.
A: And Curt Schilling, love him or hate him, was one of the most studious players I had ever read about He would sit there in game with an iPad or notebook and just skim every hitter he was about to face.
S: Yeah, information is very important. It is for football. It is for all sports. For golf, for baseball. The more information you have the better. But there was a common saying in football. I can’t remember exactly what it was. It was basically sometimes you would be frozen by too much information, that you would have so much running through your head, like, “Oh my god, they might do this splits” or “They might play this coverage” or “This is gonna-“ and all these negative things start popping up in your brain, if almost you have too much information sometimes. I always thought it was better to have too much information than not enough.
A: Alright. So last question and I’ll let you get on with your day. I’m sure you’re a busy guy. Do you have any tips or lessons or both as either a player or broadcaster about communication that you can share with grad students?
S: Well, I think not be scared of communicating. I think some people are concerned about not saying the right thing or possibly being wrong. You know, I have to go on the radio all the time and give my opinion about what’s going to happen in a football game and I’m sure I’m wrong all the time. I still can have an opinion about it based off the information I know and I understand. I can also change that opinion. That’s ok. You learn- you get new information, your opinion changes and I think that’s what a lot of times slows people down or intimidates people, is the possibility that they could be wrong and I think that’s- I think that should be let go and I think it’s important, if you feel strongly about what you have to say, people aren’t going to realize how important it is unless you communicate it strongly and sell it. Not in a fake way but in a genuine way that you really believe based off the information that you have acquired over the years or the project you’ve worked on, that you really feel strongly about the results that you’ve gotten.
A: That’s good advice. And being flexible, I think you mentioned that, being willing to change a mindset about something.
S: Oh, absolutely. Another reason Kubiak- Gary Kubiak, I liked so much was he also understood the NFL game was always changing. All sports- e verything is always changing. That’s one thing you can expect from game to game, year to year, in the NFL, was change. The only thing that always stayed the same was change, and always the ability to adapt, to learn more, change your opinion on how we’re going to win the next football game. Maybe it’s at halftime, you realize we can’t run the football, we thought that was going to be our way to victory today, it’s not going to happen, we’re going to have to throw it. So the ability to take in more information and possibly adapt to it.
A: I love that. “The only thing that stays the same is change.” That’s a bumper sticker right there.
S: It’s a good one.
A: It is, it is. Alright, Sage, I really appreciate you taking the time and doing this for me. I had a great time talking with you.
S: No problem. Thank you for having me on today.