Mental Makeup and Coaching

One thing that gets lost during the free-agency and pre-draft periods, when all the talk is of signing bonuses and "measurables" is the importance of the 'mental makeup' of the players that are being discussed. Perhaps because of the mercurial nature of players personalities, and the difficult task of distilling personal traits into written words, not much time is spent in this arena. (I hope to change that someday...) Looking back over past game film from two past Green Bay Packer games, something caught my eye in this regard. Two separate blitz's by the Green Bay defense helped lay bare my thinking about 'mental makeup', coaching, and their practical application in football terms.

The first was an opening drive 3rd down that faced the Detroit Lions. With over 8 yards to go, the Lions came out with 4 wide receivers. The Packers countered with their nickel defense and blitzed from quarterback Joey Harrington's left side using a corner, Joey Thomas, and middle linebacker Nick Barnett. The design of the blitz had Thomas occupying whoever ended up being the outside blocker, who in this instance ended up being the left tackle, while Barnett delayed and then shot inside the hole that should have been left open as Thomas took the tackle outside. Except for one problem.

Thomas decided to improvise.

Now, this may have been a case of poor coaching (and with the defensive coordinator in question being Bob Slowik, this is more possible than not) but more likely this was Thomas' 'mental makeup' showing through. He saw the opportunity, or so he thought, to sneak inside the block of the tackle and run at Harrington. Only the tackle was quicker than Thomas thought and pushed him right into Barnett. Luckily for the Packers, Barnett's quickness enabled him to fly around the 'trash' at the line and get in Harrington's face, causing him to scramble. With no one open down field, Barnett caught the quarterback for a sack and a punt ensued.

The second blitz came a season later, in what turned out to be Mike Sherman's last as head coach of the Packers, against the Atlanta Falcons. The defensive coordinator was now Jim Bates and the players on defense Al Harris, Aaron Kampman, and again, Nick Barnett. Again, it's third and long for the opposing offense. Kampman was lined up at left end, Harris was lined up in a Cover 2 zone look on the left side of the defense, but slowly crept in toward the line. The Falcons had a bunch formation to their left, the defenses' right. Quarterback Michael Vick thought he had a good play developing when he saw the supposed Cover 2, but the Packers brought the blitz from his unprotected right side, and a big part of Nick Barnett 'getting home' was due to the 'mental makeup' of Kampman and Harris (and no doubt better coaching from Bates).

Kampman's assignment was to smash down into the center of the line, hopefully occupying the Right Guard and the Center. He succeeded as the Center gave help to the Guard thinking Barnett was staying in coverage. But the key was Harris. His job was to take whomever came to block his blitz as wide to the left as possible, which he did perfectly, taking the left tackle far out of the play with him. This can be hard for players to do, especially with a clean look at the quarterback. But Harris' 'mental makeup' combined with good coaching and a well designed play, all helped Barnett as he shot around the left side of the pile Kampman had created, into the wide open area Harris had left, slamming into the left-handed Vick, who had his back to the play.

Most plays at the NFL level are well designed. Some are better than others, obviously, and everything from coaching to the players' execution on the field play into the success, or lack thereof, of any given play.But 'mental makeup' is too often overlooked as a reason for success or failure.

Thomas' scouting report coming out of college told you everything you needed to know. Selfish. Temperamental. Prone to free-lancing. Not only that, in his first training camp with the Packers, he had gotten in a fist fight in a meeting room with a fellow corner. Harris, on the other hand, is the kind of professional you want on your team. Yes, he has been prone to making noise about his contract, but he has been nothing but exemplary in his approach to the game. And in a sport where increasingly talent levels are evening out, and the mental chess game between coaches is becoming more and more important, having players of the right 'mental makeup' is more important than ever.

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