When Herm Edwards was the head coach of the Jets and Chiefs for eight years last decade, his football facility resembled a Las Vegas casino.
“When you walk in the casino there’s no clock, and the same thing when you walk in the [football] building,” Edwards, now an ESPN analyst, said last week. “There’s just no such thing as time. You never look at your watch.”
Player safety has become the No. 1 topic in the NFL over the last four years, with important attention being given to head injuries, proper tackling form, and dirty hits from defenders.
But the grind of the NFL season can be hazardous to the health of the coaches, too, as the scary situations in Denver and Houston reminded us. Broncos coach John Fox, 58, was forced to step away from his team after undergoing an aortic heart valve replacement, which he had tried to delay until after the season. And Texans coach Gary Kubiak, 52, collapsed while jogging off the field at halftime Sunday after suffering a transient ischemic attack, or what the team is calling a “mini-stroke.”
The 100-hour work weeks, the pressures of winning, and the stress that comes from having to worry about every facet of the organization can lead to some very unhealthy lifestyles, Edwards said.
“You generally arrive when it’s dark and you generally leave when it’s dark,” said Edwards, 59. “And when you’re a coach your main concern is the players and the coaches. The last concern you have is really about yourself.”
Coaches working long hours and deemphasizing their health is nothing new. Dick Vermeil quit as the Eagles’ head coach after the 1982 season because of “burnout.” Colts coach Chuck Pagano only went to the doctor last year during the bye week at the urging of his wife, and he was diagnosed with leukemia. Joe Gibbs popularized the practice of sleeping in his office when he guided the Redskins to three Super Bowl titles in the 1980s and ’90s.
“Come on, getting seven hours of sleep? That’s for the offseason,” former Washington offensive line coach Joe Bugel said when he and Gibbs returned to the Redskins in 2004. “We’re back to working the same way: Monday through Thursday till 3 or 4 in the morning, then home for dinner with the wives on Friday. We get our two or three hours of sleep during the week, and we’re happy.”
The Kubiak and Fox situations affected Broncos president John Elway in a profound way. Fox is his head coach, Kubiak his longtime former backup quarterback in Denver. And Elway’s father, Jack — a longtime college football coach and NFL evaluator — died in 2001 of a heart attack at age 69.
Kubiak hopes to be back on the sideline Nov. 17, while the Broncos haven’t put a timetable on Fox’s return, saying only he will be out several weeks.
“I’m going to speak for my dad, they don’t take very good care of themselves,’’ Elway said last week. “And so the idea is to keep getting them to take care of themselves. I’m talking just for my dad . . . the last person on the totem pole they take care of is themselves.”
Edwards said he only needs about five hours of sleep each night, and he would arrive at the team facility sometime after 4 a.m. to get in a workout.
“I was a guy that worked out early in the morning. That was my quiet time,” he said. “By 6:30 you’re done, then the staff starts coming in around 7 before players come in, and that’s kind of the way it goes.
“Mondays and Tuesdays are tough because you’re game-planning, and Wednesdays you present it to the players. So, that’s three days a week you’re there until midnight or so.”
The Broncos’ coaches and scouts, like the players, are given “extensive” physicals each year, Elway said. But the Lions’ Jim Schwartz said there is too much work to be done during the season to worry about himself.
“Honestly, from a coaching standpoint, you don’t have time to think about your own health,” Schwartz said last week.
“Coaches don’t work 100 hours a week because that’s healthy. They do it because the job requires it. That’s what it is. We’re worried about getting the job done, getting wins on Sunday.”
Bill Belichick, an NFL coach since 1975 and a head coach since 1991, said he’s naturally worn down right now, 15 weeks since the start of training camp, but nothing to complain about.
“I feel about what I feel normally at this time of the season, which is good. But it’s not like you feel on July 28 when you start the year,” he said. “I don’t really plan on doing anything differently.”
Former Ravens coach Brian Billick wrote last week on FoxSports.com that “we’ve all felt worn down to nothing at one point or another.
“You spend massive amounts of time away from your family, you push yourself to extreme exhaustion and beyond — the drug of choice among most football coaches is Diet Coke, consumed in copious amounts — and you compete in an unforgiving forum, with a rapt public hanging on the outcome of each game. As head coach, you have to answer for each and every organizational misstep.”
NBC commentator Cris Collinsworth said he hopes the Fox and Kubiak situations will help coaches assess their nutrition and change the football culture of “coffee and Red Bull.” The relative young ages of Kubiak and Fox made the news of their medical issues even more jarring.
“It really is an eye-opener,” said Patriots offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia, who looks like he’s in great shape at 65. “We’re all sleep-deprived at this point. This is a demanding job, and I think anyone who’s the head of an organization feels a lot of the stress and pressures that go along with it. You’ve got to eat right and take care of yourself and try to avoid those things.
“I don’t know how to explain any of it. We’re just a microcosm of all society, and you’ve got to take care of yourself and try to stay ahead of that stuff.”
More former players diagnosed with CTE
Speaking of scary health problems, our most heartfelt wishes of support go out to former All-Pros Tony Dorsett, Leonard Marshall, and Joe DeLameilleure, who were notified last week by UCLA researchers that they were each diagnosed as having signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), the degenerative brain condition that may be caused by head trauma and potentially linked to depression and dementia.
Signs of CTE were spotted in the brains of former NFL players such as Mike Webster, Junior Seau, and Dave Duerson, who each struggled with depression and died tragically young. Researchers are trying to determine if repeated hits to the head — such as those suffered while playing football — could lead to the onset of CTE, or whether it is a genetic condition.
Dorsett, 59, told ESPN that when he flew from Dallas to Los Angeles Oct. 21 for brain testing, he repeatedly couldn’t remember why he was aboard the plane and where he was going. Dorsett, a former star running back for the Cowboys who last played in 1988, said he sometimes gets lost when he drives his two daughters to their soccer and volleyball games.
Dorsett said he also has problems controlling his emotions, and that doctors have told him he is clinically depressed.
“It’s painful, man, for my daughters to say they’re scared of me,” Dorsett said. “I’ve thought about crazy stuff, sort of like, ‘Why do I need to continue going through this?’ I’m too smart of a person, I like to think, to take my life, but it’s crossed my mind.”
DeLamielleure, 62, said he never received a concussion examination during his 13-year career but estimates he had at least 100 concussions. Marshall, 52, said it was “very emotional” to hear the news that he has CTE.
“I’ve had short-term memory loss, erratic behavior where the least little thing would set me off, and I’ve experienced fogginess and even been in a daze at times,” Marshall said. “It’s been a rough road and hopefully now there will be a light at the end of the tunnel.”
FOUR’S A CROWD
Patriots prepared to welcome Vereen
The Patriots could have an interesting dilemma when they return to practice this week to start preparing for the Nov. 18 game against the Panthers.
The Patriots have a true three-headed running back committee this season, with Stevan Ridley playing 36 percent of the snaps as the primary ball carrier, Brandon Bolden playing 32 percent of snaps as the main pass-catching back, and LeGarrette Blount playing 21 percent of snaps mostly as the fourth-quarter back.
All three are playing well — each is averaging at least 4.4 yards per carry, they have combined for 10 rushing touchdowns, and Bolden has contributed 17 catches and solid pass protection.
Now the backfield gets even more crowded as Shane Vereen is eligible to come off short-term injured reserve and play for the first time since breaking his thumb in Week 1.
Vereen was supposed to play a big role this year and was phenomenal in his only action, rushing 14 times for 101 yards and adding seven catches for 58 yards in the season-opening win against Buffalo. Bolden has played well in Vereen’s absence, but running backs coach Ivan Fears said Bolden is still hampered by a knee injury that has bothered him all season, and that he “could use a little Shane relief.”
Still, Fears said, nothing has been promised to Vereen upon his return.
“They determine, by what they do and how productive they are, who’s going to be out there the most,” Fears said. “We’ll see how Shane fits when he gets a chance to get out there and do it.”
Fears, though, said he has been thrilled with the work of his running backs, who have combined for 1,133 yards and 4.7 yards per carry.
“I’m happy that when they come to play on Sunday they’re ready to go,” Fears said. “I don’t have to give them some pep talk to get them jacked up. Those guys are excited about playing, and that to me is what it’s all about.”
High-profile lawyers on the case for league
Two interesting names have surfaced as key players in the Jonathan Martin-Richie Incognito mess in Miami. Commissioner Roger Goodell appointed noted trial attorney Ted Wells, whose past clients include Lewis “Scooter” Libby and Eliot Spitzer, as the lead investigator who will compile a report on the Dolphins’ workplace conditions.
Wells, who has a law degree and MBA from Harvard, has dipped his toe into sports before, serving as the lead investigator into the Syracuse-Bernie Fine sexual abuse case.
And Martin has hired noted sports attorney David Cornwell, who unsuccessfully ran for NFL Players Association executive director in 2009 and has been an outspoken critic against the man who won the job, DeMaurice Smith.
The NFLPA is in a strange spot, potentially having to support the rights of both Martin and Incognito. It will be interesting to observe how Martin’s hiring of Cornwell will affect the NFLPA’s role.
The NFL lost a true original last week with the death of Ace Parker, a do-it-all player for the Brooklyn Dodgers, Boston Yanks, and New York Yankees from 1937-46, with a four-year break to serve in World War II. At 101, Parker was the first Pro Football Hall of Famer to reach age 100, before dying last Wednesday from a pulmonary ailment.
An outstanding athlete, Parker also briefly played major league baseball for the Philadelphia Athletics (he hit a pinch-hit home run in his first at-bat) and excelled at golf, basketball, and high jumping. Born with the name Clarence, he got his nickname while playing at Duke, when a sports writer called him the team’s “ace in the hole.”
A contemporary of legendary quarterbacks Sid Luckman and Sammy Baugh, Parker was the NFL’s MVP in 1940, leading the league in interceptions and serving as Brooklyn’s kicker and punter despite playing with a fractured ankle.
He served as a Duke baseball and football coach until 1966, where one of his protégés was Hall of Fame quarterback Sonny Jurgensen, and he was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1972.
“I’ll tell you the best I ever saw: Ace Parker,” Baugh said in 1994. “He could punt, he could pass, he could run, he could play defense. I mean, he could do it all.”
Playing defensive tackle hasn’t quite worked out as planned for Panthers third-year veteran Sione Fua, who has zero career sacks and has started one game the last two seasons after being drafted in the third round out of Stanford.
But Fua may win over some old-school fans Sunday when the Panthers face the 49ers. The Panthers are thin along the offensive line after guards Chris Scott and Jeff Byers went down with injuries, so Fua was told on Tuesday that he would switch to the offensive line, which he hasn’t played since high school. He swapped the No. 94 jersey for No. 72 and will be listed at guard.
This isn’t exactly Chuck Bednarik playing two ways, but it will be fun to see if Fua can make the quick transition.
“Just learning the playbook has been the hardest part so far,” he told the Charlotte Observer. “I’ve been in the playbook the past couple days, but there are so many calls, so many intricacies to the offense. Just trying to wrap my head around everything.”