The better coach isn’t always the one who knows the most about football. Dan Henning knew tons more about X’s and O’s than Bill Parcells, but Parcells is in the Hall of Fame and Henning, successful as he was, failed in coaching stints with San Diego and Atlanta.
The better coach isn’t always the one with the most talent. Compare the Miami Dolphins roster to the Jacksonville Jaguars roster. Miami has more talent. The Jaguars beat the Dolphins this season.
Instead, the better coach is often — very often — the one who connects with his players and draws out performances that maximize their abilities. The better coach is often the one who can inspire and make his players believe in the program.
The better coach is often the one who can convince his players to win for themselves. And for him.
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Meet Dan Campbell, the Dolphins interim coach.
He follows Joe Philbin in the line of Miami coaches but isn’t likely to follow in Philbin’s footsteps.
Philbin was liked by players. He never lost the locker room. Players didn’t gave up on him. But neither did they raise their game for him. Neither did they love him. Neither did they win — for him.
Campbell, only five years removed from a 12-year playing career, is trying to change that. Miami’s coach is trying to connect with his players. He is trying to understand them and make them understand him so everyone can perform better on game day and maybe save this season.
“I think, first things first, you got to get to know these guys,” Campbell said. “You have to build your own relationship with them. You got 53 guys and a practice squad on one team, and I’ve tried to do my best to sit down with every one of them.
“And when I say, sit down, you don’t have time now to actually sit down. But I want a one-on-one relationship with all of them, so I’ll go up to guys pre-practice, I’ll go to them during the walk-through, I’ll go to them during special-teams period on the sideline, or maybe after practice. I may pull some of them up to my office and try to get to know these guys.”
Why? What is the goal?
“I get to know each guy, now he gets to know me and he knows what I’m thinking and how I feel,” Campbell said. “And I think you end up having a mutual understanding with each other, what both of you are kind of looking for.
“You talk to guys and you realize there are some big, tough guys but underneath they’re a little sensitive. Or vice versa, some guys that are quiet and timid, down deep they are ultimate competitors who will lay it on the line and what they really need is to be challenged and pushed and called out. But the other guys that are sensitive need a pat on the back and to be told how good they’re doing.
“I want to know which is which to deal with them as individuals.”
The Dolphins have both kinds of men on the roster and some who fall somewhere between. They have players who want to be great. They have players who take plays off. Campbell’s hope is to reach them all.
That’s why Campbell last week met with Ndamukong Suh, the team’s highest-paid player, twice in his office with each meeting lasting a minimum of 30 minutes.
“We just talked,” Campbell said. “I want to know where he grew up, how he grew up, how does he think, what are his aspirations, what kind of football player does he want to be, what does he want to be known as, what does he think about practice, what does he like, what does he not like?
“That’s really what it is. It’s getting to know these guys on a one-on-one level and bouncing things off each other. It’s not just going down a checklist and asking questions. I really want to get to know these guys and figure out what makes them tick.”
Campbell, an offensive coach before getting his new assignment, has had to catch up in learning the defensive players. But he hasn’t ignored the offensive players. Soon after getting his job, he had a heart-to-heart with quarterback Ryan Tannehill.
“What I’ve told Ryan is I don’t need Superman,” Campbell said. “I just need Ryan Tannehill to be Ryan Tannehill. I told him, ‘We’re going to keep you clean up front. We’re going to protect you. You make the throws that are there. Play ball.’
“I just want to make sure my message to him is don’t try to be someone you’re not. Just manage the game for us. Make the throws that are there, which he will. And we’ve got to keep him clean.”
The need to keep Tannehill protected necessitated a Campbell visit with center Mike Pouncey, because the coach calls the offensive line “Pouncey’s crew.”
“Pouncey is playing good football,” Campbell said. “But the message to him is bring [the rest of the offensive line] along with you. Let them see what you see. Let them see how you play the game. Make them a little tougher up front. Make them more aggressive. He’s been talking to them. I told him, ‘Find a way.’ ”
Campbell’s approach has caught the attention of Mike Tannenbaum. The Dolphins football czar helped pick Campbell as the interim coach and will be a key decision-maker in whether Campbell keeps the assignment permanently.
When Tannenbaum got wind of Campbell’s meetings with the players, it led him to say, “I’m more encouraged with our choice of Dan this week than when we picked him, and we were happy when we picked him.
“I think the part that’s most important is his relationship with the players; talking to players at practice and looking with a critical eye at lineup changes and [playing time] based on competition,” Tannenbaum said. “By no stretch is he giving those things mere lip service.
“Every day being around Dan you become more and more encouraged. Every day his vision for this team becomes more pronounced and clear. Every day you see his presence, and when you watch him he looks natural. It’s not contrived. It’s not too big for him.”