Dallas Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett has been known a time or two to refer to the "Process." He is a man who sees the job of an NFL coach as one that never really stops. It is not just about game day, or draft day, or any other day. It is about every day. It is about identifying, acquiring, training, coaching, teaching, selecting, and motivating NFL players.
After what seemed like the longest wait ever for the NFL Draft - oh, wait, it was the longest ever (thank you so much
Sith Lord NFL Commisioner Roger Goodell) - we now know who the Cowboys have chosen in the draft. And, after a hectic few hours after the Draft shut down, we also have a list of the team's UDFA signings. For the scouting department, the focus is now going to be on the next crop of college talent and who might be picked up from other NFL teams.
But for the coaches, the real work is just now getting started. The team has acquired a bunch of former college stars. Most of them, even top picks Zack Martin and Demarcus Lawrence, are a long way from being even minimally competent NFL players.
One of the most thought-provoking commentators on the league is NFL Philosophy. If you do Twitter, he is one of my must-follows. He has often maintained that the most underappreciated roles of NFL coaches is the development of the talent on their teams. The most successful NFL coaches are not the ones that are brilliant at Xs and Os. It is the ones that know how to properly mold and inspire the raw material they acquire every year.
Being able to identify talent coming out of college is something that is best done by the scouts. They are at their most prominent in the weeks leading up to the draft, when their evaluations are all important.
Coaches, however, should mostly be concerned with making sure the scouting department finds players with skill sets and abilities that match what the team want to do. The role that plays in the Dallas draft process was illustrated in very different ways in the 2013 and 2014 drafts. Last year, the now-infamous Shariff Floyd kerfuffle showed that the different parts of the staff had not figured out how to meld the draft board, which was built with more of a 3-4 defensive mindset, with the new defensive coaches, who were pretty much the embodiment of the 4-3 set. 2014 saw a much superior approach under recently promoted Will McClay. The decision making process was much more orderly, and there were no signs of the disagreement and frustration that appeared to be on the faces of some last year. But once the selections are made and the UDFAs brought on board, the scouting department moves on.
Now the new players are in the hands of the coaching staff, and in some ways they are at least as responsible for the success of these prospective Cowboys as the players themselves. They have to change and hone technique, improve physical conditioning, quickness, and strength, and teach them how to do their jobs the way the team needs them to. The NFL is even more dependent on all eleven players doing their job than is the college game. At the NCAA level, you can still see a few outstanding talents carry an otherwise mediocre team to some degree of success (see: Texas A&M the past couple of years). In the NFL, that doesn't work nearly as well (see: The Dallas Cowboys the past three years).
In almost all cases, college players have to learn a new and usually much more complex playbook when they arrive at their new job after the draft. They have to adjust to no longer being one of the best players on the field almost all the time. The speed of the game is greater (almost always something rookies remark on). And the game is harsh. You make the grade, or you are suddenly unemployed.
To be truly honest, college coaches don't have enough time to really teach many of the players as much as they need, and wind up relying more on athleticism and talent. With the best of that talent leaving college after three years, often with the first being a redshirt season, the average draftee or UDFA is still very raw at the business of football. Even the best still have a tremendous amount to learn to become professional football players.
How well the coaches can teach these new players to deal with all that will be one of the chief determinants of the success of the 53-man roster when it plays this fall. Even though most of the group of nine draftees and 24 UDFA/rookie minicamp invitees will not make that roster, the coaches have to try to get the most out of every one, because you never know when an undrafted kid from a small school will turn out to be the next Tony Romo. This is the time that Rod Marinelli, Scott Linehan, Monte Kiffin, Bill Callahan, Rich Bisaccia, and all the other assistants will be depended on to turn this bunch of players into a winning organization. First they start with the rookies, then they have to expand to the veterans, all of whom must also be coached and taught to get them closer to their maximum potential.
The draft is over. For the coaches, the slack time of year is done, too. It is time to get back to the real work.