Mon, Aug 08, 2005 - Page 20 News List

Tagliabue wants tense NFL coaches to loosen up a bit


The quickest way to get a rise out of a National Football League executive is to suggest that NFL stands for No Fun League. It's an old joke, but one that stills irks the league.

Last week, commissioner Paul Tagliabue discussed a wide range of issues with editors and reporters for the New York Times. When someone asked him to comment on the perception that the NFL -- for all its success -- was still the No Fun League, Tagliabue was short. "I don't think we would have the popularity we have had if it wasn't fun," he said.

The truth is that football is overcoached and the commissioner wants head coaches to loosen the reins. Last month, for the first time, he issued a directive aimed generally at the NFL's 32 head coaches. Tagliabue formally outlined head-coach behavior toward the news media. He effectively commanded teams to loosen the head coach's control over who speaks and who does not. In his directive, Tagliabue said that head coaches "are strongly encouraged to make assistant coaches, especially veteran assistant coaches, available."

By NFL standards, this was a remarkable document -- a concession, for one, that some of the head coaches in the league need to loosen their ties. The directive was also stunning because the NFL acknowledged it was being driven to compete by other leagues. Tagliabue wrote: "We must recognize that we are competing against sports leagues whose players and coaches are available to the media on almost a daily basis during their seasons because they play so many more games than we do."

He added, "Access to the players and the head coach is the No. 1 priority for producing media coverage that is in our best interest."

Let's be clear -- Tagliabue's action was not aimed at making the news media's job easier but at getting head coaches, who often take themselves too seriously, to understand that the pens, cameras and tape recorders are a bridge to the NFL's greatest treasure -- thefans.

He wrote, "In today's competitive media environment, gaining the public's trust and strengthening the connection between our fans and teams requires us to be accessible and open in our policies."

New York offers a sharp contrast of how two coaches deal with openness: Tom Coughlin, head coach of the Giants, and Herman Edwards, head coach of the Jets. Coughlin is not news-media friendly. He takes the grin-and-bear-it approach. But in the spirit of a new season of NFL openness, Coughlin, the Giants' second-year head coach, inaugurated evening practices during summer camp partly so fans could watch the team after work.

Tagliabue's insistence on an open NFL is tied to a larger idea of giving the game back to the players. You rarely hear that in football, because the player is overcoached. Tagliabue said he could see a day when wireless technology would allow a quarterback to have 50 plays programmed into the wristband for one series of downs: One huddle for every series rather than one huddle for every play.

Tagliabue wants a more open NFL, and that's great. The only problem is that some head coaches who insist on control and silence have enjoyed enormous success: the Cowboys' Bill Parcells, the Patriots' Bill Belichick and the Dolphins' Nick Saban, formerly of Louisiana State, have five Super Bowl rings and a college national title among them as head coaches.

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