Wednesday, June 16, 2010

The Player-Coach

One of Kansas City's most decorated players leads by more than example

By Josh Looney

June 14, 2010

Definition: A player-coach, in sports, is a member of a sports team who simultaneously holds both playing and coaching duties. (Wikipedia)

The page goes on to note that “virtually no professional sports teams have head coaches who are also players.” That’s true, and having assistant coaches who are also players is a rarity as well.

The last time there was an official player-coach in the league was in 2003, when Broncos CB Jimmy Spencer both prepared and executed defensive game plans under head coach Mike Shanahan. Thirty two years before that, in 1971, former Broncos head coach Dan Reeves pulled doubled duty as a running back and an assistant coach for the Cowboys.

In 2010, Chiefs OLB Mike Vrabel doesn’t meet official qualification requirements to the join the list. Technically, he’s just a player. But in Vrabel’s case, technicalities should be thrown out the window. When it comes to coaching, all he’s missing is the title.

Last season, just a few days before Cleveland visited town, Browns defensive coordinator Rob Ryan called Vrabel the smartest player that he’s ever coached. The two were together when Ryan served as Vrabel’s position coach from 2001-03 in New England.

Others have insisted that Vrabel would make the perfect coach following his playing career, should he choose to take that route. On the Chiefs practice field, Vrabel is just trying to make his teammates better.

Vrabel has always been regarded across the NFL as a leader by example,
but this off-season it looks like he’s becoming a much more vocal leader on the field for Kansas City.

A few weeks ago, you might remember a note in this blog about Vrabel reminding DB Maurice Leggett to make a “China call,” signaling the actions of an outside receiver. Instances like that have become quite frequent from Vrabel in and around OTA/mini-camp workouts. Earlier this week, he joined linebackers coach Gary Gibbs in helping to instruct Tamba Hali with his zone drops.

“The more that you talk, the more that you can give someone a subtle reminder as to what their job is,” OLB Andy Studebaker said. “It enables everybody to play faster. When you can play fast and be in the right place, great things are going to happen.”

An unrestricted free agent to be, Vrabel agreed to a contract extension in Kansas City shortly before the gates of free agency opened. For most, another year of Vrabel pointed to increased mentoring for one of the Chiefs most promising developmental players – Andy Studebaker.

In his first year playing the outside linebacker position, Studebaker saw limited action behind Vrabel. But when Vrabel suffered a mid-season knee injury, it became Studebaker’s time to shine…and shine he did with two INTs that led to scores vs. Pittsburgh.

Before the game, exactly what we could expect was up to debate, but after Studebaker’s breakout showing his name was immediately thrust into the mix as a future defensive difference maker. The general assumption was that Studebaker was still raw and just needed a bit more fine-tuning from someone like Vrabel.

“We all have to understand where each and every person fits in the defense,” Chiefs head coach Todd Haley said. “Say for example LB Mike Vrabel who has been playing in a similar defense this whole time, for the other guys it is relatively new. It is a learning curve, they must improve run-fit wise across the board and then you get into coverage, man and drops.”

The entire defense benefits from Vrabel’s wealth of experience over 13 NFL seasons and four Super Bowl appearances, but it’s Studebaker who is expected to be a primary beneficiary of the teachings. The promising youngster is in the same position meetings, film sessions and individual drills as the respected veteran.

Ironically, if Vrabel performs the teaching aspect of his job perfectly, it could one day be Studebaker who replaces him on the field.

“(Andy) has put himself in a position through work to give himself an opportunity to push the guys ahead of him,” Haley said. “I have told Andy a bunch of times, ‘don’t you assume that you can’t be number one. You need to be pushing because who is to say that you can’t do it?’ That is his mindset and he has a great mentor in Mike (Vrabel) that he follows around non-stop.”

On the surface, these types of relationships seem like they have the potential to get awkward. The whole idea of grooming someone to eventually take your job isn’t for everyone, but it’s what makes the best organizations the best (sport or non-sport).

“When you are a coach and you see those kinds of things happening, they are working and talking all the time not just out on the field,” Haley said of the pair. “You can catch them walking through the locker room talking about something. That means teaching is going on and older guys are trying to get younger guys that may even be their replacement potentially, they could beat them out and they are still working with them. That is when you know you have a chance to be a team and a team that can continually develop.”

Time will tell if Studebaker will one day become an every-down player for the Chiefs defense. As his development continues to progress while playing behind Vrabel, others are reaping the benefits of Kansas City’s unofficial player-coach as well.

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