Learning a Lesson from LeGarrette (part five): Other Victims? - the final chapter

Hannah Foslien

Yes, after a long laborious journey (more on the reader's part than mine), I finally conclude this series by applying the factors of coaching staff and the psychological effects they can have on a player that were discussed in relation to Blount in part four, and apply them to other Buccaneers, before concluding with a plea to Coach Schiano, to reconsider whether he needs to address the unbalance of coaching styles in his staff.

I ended part four of this series with something of a plot twist: these articles are written from a post-Blount perspective, from the notion that Blount is as good as gone; yet, his time with the team does teach us something about coaching, and about Schiano specifically - and now, in the very final entry, I'll be looking at what we learnt from Blount could mean for some of the players still on the roster, and why it could spell bad things for those players.

In part four, I named two reasons why Blount was not a larger part of the offense, even when Martin did start to slump a wee bit towards the end of the season: Blount's play didn't truly warrant it (though as explained previously, I put that down to psychology more than anything else), and schematic & philosophical stubbornness on Schiano's part - and the two are not unrelated. Blount's confidence appeared to be more and more shot as the season continued, leading to dwindling meaningful carries to the point where he only received one meaningful carry the entire of December (against the Eagles, a two-yarder).Schiano was insistent on a bell-cow back; Schiano did not appear during 2012 to be the type of coach who is great at adapting his schemes to the reality of the situation - it was clear that Blount would not get a great deal of meaningful snaps on offense, which in turn naturally puts more pressure to do well with what little gametime he got. It's a vicious cycle that requires patience and a cool-head - and with all the best will in the world towards Blount, if his pre-NFL history is anything to go by, he is not the calmest and most zen-like person on god's green earth.

This is what I have meant by a Victim of Schiano; of course Schiano doesn't have a personal vendetta against Blount, or harbours some malice against him. Victim of Schiano is, to an extent, intended as being analogous to 'victim of circumstance' - I have no doubt that Schiano is doing what he thinks is best for the Bucs, by creating a hardline culture that either forces discipline into players, or forces players out the building. And yet, the desire to enforce that discipline, that way of thinking, that culture universally on all players in the building presupposes that all players will react in universal fashion to those changes - and that the reaction will be a positive one. This is not the case at all.

Coincidentally (and thankfully!), as I was writing this final part of the series, the Anthony Davis comments broke about Schiano. Now, some may argue that, for all that Davis clearly resents Schiano deeply for those comments, it may have driven Davis to prove Schiano wrong, and it was that motivation that led to Davis becoming the player he is today. I won't disagree with that notion; but not all players have the confidence, or just the psychological makeup to respond in the same way. Some will take those words to heart, have it prey on their minds as they struggled to carve out a role on the team. Some may react so badly, they change everything about the way they play football to try and keep their coach happy - even if it means ignoring their most valuable natural attribute, and playing much worse as a result.

There may not be as many, or any, players who showed as drastic and complete a change in their playing style, so often irreconcilable with the player they were just a season before, as Blount did; but he was far from the only player effected by Schiano's schematic stubbornness. Let's start with the most-closely-watched player going into 2013 - Josh Freeman. In many ways, Freeman benefited from the new coaching staff (hell, the fact that he broke as many Bucs records as he did last season is testament enough to that), but he likewise is a candidate to be labelled a 'Victim of Schiano'. Not only is Schiano reportedly the only person at One Buc Place who is not in love with Freeman (and presumably the only factor potentially preventing the team making a long-term commitment to #5 at some point in the future), but Freeman, for all that he did carve his name into the Bucs' record books, did have a significant mental collapse towards the end of the season, as we all know.

Many theories have been floated around as to why Josh played considerably worse for the final portion of the season (the final game aside); here's one I'm going to posit: Freeman is simply not yet at the stage where he can handle a great deal of pressure. In 2010, yes, he was the king of the comeback, but those are smaller windows of pressure (even if more intensely applied); but to use a very, very lame analogy, you can strike a rock and it will not be effected, but leave it in the sea and over time it will erode. Yup, really, really lame; but applicable. Those small windows that open up in the fourth quarter of games are not as mentally pervasive as sustained pressure over a long period of time. Schiano's schematic stubbornness on defense (more of which later) meant that it was increasingly on #5's shoulders, and #5 alone, to win the game. Over a season, you don't think that pressure builds up? Three times, the Buccaneer offense walked off the field either with the lead or at least a tie; three times, the Buccaneer defense, still playing rigidly to Schiano's unbending and unadapting scheme, allowed the Giants, Redskins and Eagles to snatch victory away.

Freeman mentally flubbed throughout the season, yes, and he needs to grow his confidence more to make sure that doesn't happen in future, but he's not there yet; I remember the first time I realised Freeman was not a quarterback who could truly put a team on his shoulders and drag them to victory. It was at Wembley, against the Bears, and Earnest Graham tore his Achilles. Freeman proceeded to have a terrible, terrible game, with no run game to support him or take the pressure off, and Matt Forte gashing to Buccaneer D something terrible. This is not a strike against Freeman; no, he's not an elite quarterback - but neither is Eli Manning and neither is Ben Roethlisberger, but both have more rings than Peyton, Rodgers or Brees; and even two of Brady's rings came more from a strong defense and Adam Vinatieri's leg than they did from Brady's arm. Elite quarterbacks are no guarantee of Super Bowls - but quarterbacks with good support on both sides of the ball can get to the promise land just easily as having an elite signal caller can. To Schiano's (and Mark Dominik's) credit, Freeman is being given the support on the offensive side of the ball; but without the defense doing their part, Freeman will only ever get so far.

Yet Freeman is also a player who has been playing against himself, ignoring his physical talents, forcing himself to fight against his instincts. Schiano said recently that he recognised that the Bucs didn't take advantage of Freeman's mobility - anyone watching tape of him from 2010 would know that his legs could and should be a huge part of his game. Yet, the Bucs were content to force their quarterback to fit into their scheme, and not the other way round, and another losing season was the result.

And what about that defense? First against the run, last against the pass, not a great mix - being so good against the run should (and often did) equate to plenty of third-and-long situations for the defense to face, which should give them the advantage. Yet, time after time, we saw the same defensive coverages and plays used fruitlessly - typically either three-man-rush, or heavy and constant blitzting while leaving routinely over-matched corners on islands. What marks out the greatest coaches is the ability to adapt the situation: Bill Walsh dropping a guard down deep into pass-protection to block Lawrence Taylor; Dungy and Kiffin turning the Steel Curtain into the Tampa Two to shut down the West Coast Offense; Bill Belichick constantly trying to adapt his defense, even putting in receivers, to try and get an advantage.

Schiano, though, stuck to the same defense, with the same results each time. Well, almost each time. I'm sure some of you will point out that the Bucs did take a zone-heavy, trust-the-front-four approach to the Week 17 Falcons game as evidence that Schiano has adapted. The thing about truly stubborn coaches, though, is that they will tend to trust their scheme (typically drawn up a priori, so that the roster & talent available barely comes into it) over reality when things go wrong, preferring to ram their head up against a brick wall than adapt, because when the chips are down, it's natural to reach for what you're comfortable with, even if it doing so is repeatedly unsuccessful. Could Schiano change? Sure. But he didn't last time the issue of defensive scheme was brought up, and temporarily tested - he went back to what he knew before, why would you be confident he doesn't do so again if the Bucs don't get off to a hot start in 2013? And yes, players being forced to play against themselves absolutely comes into the conversation here too - everyone knows the corners we had in 2012 did not have the talent (or at least had nowhere near developed the techniques) to pull off Schiano's scheme.

Even now, the Bucs are driven so utterly to trading for Darrelle Revis that they've actively held off on signing other corners. Why would a team literally put all their eggs in one player's basket? Unless, of course, there are elements within One Buc Place that would prefer to get Revis so that the team would be able to execute the same defensive scheme the team played under for almost all last season, than to sign two corners for less than the same price and adapt to what worked so well the few times it was tried in 2012 - playing zone and trusting the front four to get heat on the QB (which may or may not have played a role in the Bucs letting their best defensive end walk in free agency, only to sign for a pittance elsewhere). And if the Bucs should fail to get Revis? Either you rely on the same bunch of corners as past season, forced into schemes they were unable to play in, or you draft a lot of rookies and throw them right into the fire, where the odds of them being able to be successful straight out of college are very small indeed.

Forcing corners to play far above what they are capable of, with the shaking of confidence that comes with it; the subsequent added pressure placed on Freeman, knowing that he is yet to win the true support of his coach, having to put the whole team on a pair of shoulders not yet developed enough to carry them; players whose play is negatively effected by an unbending scheme and a coach seemingly refusing to adapt; victims of the circumstances forced upon the Buccaneer roster by their head coach; Victims of Schiano.

Still, Schiano is who is he is; he was successful in Rutgers by being the coach he was born to be, and he should not have to stop playing the enforcer role which he clearly is naturally suited for. But please, Coach Schiano, take heed of your predecessor: a coaching staff made up of only one of the two types of coach does not work. Winning is a cure-all, and you may be able to artificially sustain your regime if the Bucs do win some games - but it does not fix the culture or the systemic issues of a team, it merely papers over cracks (as the Jets have found out). When the winning stops, the reality of the environment you have created will come home to roost - and those players who are not naturally spurned on by enforcers, but rather encouragers, may act out the predictions Anthony Davis inferred.

Where are the encouragers on the coaching staff, Coach? Your offensive co-ordinator, Mike Sullivan, is a West Point graduate and a former Army Ranger: enforcer. Sullivan's adviser, Jimmy Raye II, possesses a self-styled 'grunt' philosophy that he shared in common with Mike Singletary when they coached in San Francisco: enforcer. One of the more visible members of your defensive coaching staff was Bryan Cox; based on his reputation as a player, I would guess: enforcer. Your staff on both sides of the ball is peppered with coaches you brought in from your days at Rutgers (and please bear in mind that it is a different situation in college, where you can recruit only players who will respond to enforcers - transforming an entire NFL roster would take more time than a head coach is likely to receive if he doesn't win early and win often); just a hunch, but I don't think it'd be unfair to assume that they are mostly enforcers too. You need encouragers, not just one or two on staff but enough to balance out the enforcers, you need coaches who can tell a player to shake off a bad play, to not worry about it or let it fester but to go back out there and prove to themselves, and to their opponents, that they won't make the same mistake twice.

Assuming that Schiano is, at least ancestorally, of Italian stock, I would like to paraphrase a quote from one of his historical countrymen, Niccolo Machiavelli, specifically his guide on how to rule a city state, The Prince. Yes, it is better to be feared than loved - your 7-win season over Raheem Morris's all-encourager 4-win season proves that; but it is better yet to be both feared and loved. I have no doubt whatsoever that everything Schiano has done since joining the Bucs is, to his mind, for the good of the team and his players; that is not even a question in my mind. He is clearly a good man at heart - anyone who knows Eric LeGrand's story can vouch for that - just as a father who is a strict and stern with his child doesn't love that child any less. Still, his style of coaching is not going to be conducive to the betterment and improvement of every single player on the roster; it never could be. Those unwilling to deal with his coaching style should be kicked off the team, such as Winslow and Briscoe. Those who accept the harsh realities of the NFL recognise that those who were willing to follow Schiano, but didn't have the talent or potential to help the team, are likewise fair game to be cut or traded (see Brian Price or Arrelious Benn). It doesn't even matter if those players then go on to complain about Schiano's style of coaching; they're off the team, they're irrelevant.

But for those who have clearly tried (if Blount really was as lazy and devoid of work ethic as those rumours I referred to in the introduction of this series had much traction, would Blount really still be on the roster? Yes, you could argue he quickly changed his natural work habits, but if he was naturally such a lazy person and poor worker, the odds are the 'real' Blount would have shown himself eventually), and those who have the talent; for their sakes, Schiano needs to recognise that he cannot go all-enforcer and expect to get the best out of his roster from top to bottom. I know, I know, Schiano says he will ease up this year with the discipline, and the toes on the line, and the pasta and the temperature and the other eccentric rules he put in place, but it's easy to do that outside the season, and it's easy to do that when and as the team is winning. When things go badly, and people reach for that mental comfort zone, that's when someone's true nature is revealed. Schiano's true nature, and what appears to be the nature of many the coaches under him, is that of the enforcer.

Please, Coach, add encouragers, add coaches who will push the buttons of your other players, both those who make anonymous statements, and those who have abandoned what made them great players in order to try and do what they think you want them to do. LeGarrette Blount, actively on the tradeblock and unlikely to play another down as a Buccaneer, is a Victim of Schiano, a player who used to show a rare trait on every down, and the potential to be a starting running back in the NFL in the mould of a Michael Turner, now reduced to the caricature that once used to be so very inaccurate and incorrect, but now sadly has some truth to it for the first time in his professional career. Josh Freeman, who everyone agrees has all the physical tools to be a franchise quarterback but mentally collapsed for whatever reason towards the end of the year, who I suspect collapsed because he is not yet able to deal with the pressure that comes from knowing there is no support from a defensive scheme that remains constantly unadapted to a personnel struggling to execute, is someone I truly believe is in danger of being the next Victim.

Blount, I suspect, will appear to have a career resurgence whenever he joins his next team, and many will ask why it will happen: but I suspect it will be nothing more than having the presence of encouragers, willing to work with, not against the player to bring out 'his best self', that will lead to Blount having success somewhere else in 2013. I just hope that I won't be saying the same thing about Josh Freeman in 2014; I hope that Schiano will listen to his players, and will make an effort to construct an environment where all Buccaneers can thrive both physically and mentally; I hope that we don't find ourselves in just a few short seasons in need of another head coach, because the previous one didn't learn the lesson of the one that came before him. Encouragers and enforcers, together, make the most out of a roster; it's something Tony Dungy learnt from Chuck Noll and succeeded in implementing at the Bucs. It's something that Schiano has, from all external appearances, yet to learn; and I just hope he does so before any more Victims of Schiano play their way mentally out of Tampa Bay and into success on other teams.

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