I thought you might want a nice long interview to help transition you from the weekend mindset to the reading-the-internet-at-work mindset. This is the latest in a series of interviews with the coaching staff; if you haven’t seen them, check out the previous entries here.
Secondary coach Jerry Gray is one of those people who has excelled at each stage of his career, and he’s got the accolades to prove it. As a player, he performed at a higher level than most — a four-time All-Pro, a Pro Bowl MVP, and the 1989 Defensive Back of the Year — and, as a coach, he’s been impressive enough that he’s been named a number of times as a candidate in head coaching searches.
It’s that second thing that fascinated me most, I think. Every year after the season, a bunch of coaching positions open, and we all watch as the usual names are trotted out and “longshot” assistants fly around to interview. It’s the kind of thing that turns up as one line in a longer article — “Assistant Coach X is scheduled to interview for the Dolphins job opening,” or whatever — but it’s obviously a lot more than that for Assistant Coach X.
Luckily for me, Coach Gray was generous with his time, so we managed to discuss what that process is like from the inside (intense, as you’d expect), as well as how his ability as a player has influenced his coaching (less than I’d expected), and what he thinks of his current crop of cornerbacks.
But I started by asking him about the overall hierarchy of the defensive coaching staff.
Let’s start with some of the behind-the-scenes basics. How does the defensive game-planning go? Coach Blache puts in the system, but how much input — if any — do you have in that sort of thing? How does that break down?
Gray: “Basically, the schematics part of the game can be credited to Coach Blache because he’s the Coordinator. He’s a guy that says, ‘This is what I’m comfortable with, this is what I’ve been doing, and this is what I’ve done.’ It’s our job as position coaches to take that and put our guys into technique positions to win within the defensive call.
“To me, that’s the right way to do it because I’ve been at other places and I’ve heard other things to where their coordinator tries to appease people. If you don’t call what you like and what you know, you’re not really going to be good at it.
“I like the way Coach Blache does things. He’ll say, “Hey, I’m the coordinator. Here are the things I like to do. Let’s all talk about it and get on the same page, and let’s go out there and have you [the coaches] teach the technique, and I’ll call the defense.’”
Makes sense. Do you view teaching technique as the more important part of your job, or is there something else to it? How do you approach it?
Gray: “To me, I think that technique is the biggest part of the job. When you get out on the football field, you have to know how to do what you want to do.
“I was fortunate enough to play QB on the offense during junior high and high school. Then I moved to safety in college and then they moved me to corner [in the pros]. So the biggest things I’ve learned is that all of those positions are moving, and you have to be able to adjust, find your way, feel out what’s comfortable for you, and if you can’t master the technique, you can’t be the best at that position. I think that’s what I try to get a lot of young guys to understand.
“It’s not about 40 times, or about how big and tall you are. If you understand what you can do within the defensive scheme, in terms of technique, and if you’re good at that, you can make a lot of plays. A lot of guys go out there and they play by chance. When they get past that idea, the younger guys can become much better players. Hopefully, you don’t have a lot of veterans playing by chance because if you do, you’re not going to be good.”
When I spoke with [safeties Coach Steve Jackson], he said the two of you were like brothers; you finish each others sentences and that he has sort of followed you over the years. How do you view the division of labor between the two of you? Is it as simple as you’re cornerbacks and he’s safeties?
Gray: “What we do is, during the course of practice, he handles the safeties and I handle the cornerbacks. But in the meeting room, I think it’s more equal. It kind of goes back to when I first got to Houston, after leaving the Rams, and Steve Jackson was in his 2nd year as a player. Basically, they told me my role was to come in, play, do a good job, but that you have to teach the young guys. They had drafted four guys the year before, and they were all four DBs. It’s more like that.
“To me, I think it’s prepping Steve to get ready to take over a room by himself and I think that’s what he should be getting ready to do. He knows how I like to do things, and I know how he likes to do things, but I also know that he wants to be a secondary coach by himself, and I think he is ready for that.”
Let me go back to the idea of technique for a second. Are there certain techniques, certain basics with defensive backs, that a fan can easily look for and judge? I guess, ways to tell just how well a guy has taken to coaching?
Gray: Not really. It really just depends on an individual guy. If you look at a guy like the cornerback on the Raiders [Nnamdi Asomugha], he is a really good press corner. He always puts his hands out on the receiver and runs with him. He does a really good job, but their defense is, ‘lets him do that type of defensive technique.’
“We are somewhere in between; we can play up, we can play off, but the first thing you have do as cornerback is backpedal.
“Every drill I start with is going to be backpedaling. If you don’t do that when you play off, something is wrong. If you’re not taking at least a three-step read off the quarterback, you’re telling me that you are in that chance mode. When you are in a chance mode, that’s something that we don’t teach. To me, backpedaling is what you have to be able to do, and from there you master other things: am I inside leverage or am I outside leverage, am I reading the quarterback or is it time for me to get my eyes off the quarterback to the receiver. All those things start coming and they happen fast.
“If you can’t do that on a consistent basis … well, that’s why every day we go through those. To me, I think you are building a habit. You are either building a good habit or a bad habit, but you are building something. That’s really where guys don’t understand that they can actually go to the Pro Bowl in March, April, May and June. They have three to four months to build good technique, a good foundation, so once the season starts, they are ready to go play.
“What a lot of guys want to do is run track in March, April, May and June, and then go work on cutting and twisting and turning in July, August and September. And then they are caught up until November or December. And guess what, if you don’t cut, turn and twist while you’re in the offseason, how are you going to master it?”
So far this offseason, it looks like you have a group of guys that are coming in and participating.
Gray: “Yeah, the guys I have here are excellent guys. DeAngelo [Hall] has done a fantastic job; I remember looking at him when he was at Virginia Tech and he did an excellent job there. He also did an excellent job in Atlanta, and hopefully I can get him to do the things that he did in Atlanta: to go back to Pro Bowl and be one of the premier corner
backs in this league.
“I think it’s time for Carlos Rogers to have a breakout year. This is my fourth year with Carlos, and unfortunately for me, is that I hadn’t ever been with a team for four years and not had a Pro Bowl cornerback. So hopefully, it’s time. I put time in to get Pro Bowl corners, and I want those guys to do the same thing.
“I think Fred Smoot is doing an excellent job, technique-wise, getting back to where he was when he was drafted out of Mississippi State.
“Another guy I think is going to surprise a lot of people is going to be Justin Tryon. I’m gonna tell you, he is going to be really, really good in this league. And I think he is going to be good for a long time.
“I tell him to not lose hope because when you look at the depth chart and see yourself at 3 or 4, he doesn’t need to worry about that. Trust me, there are things you can’t control and if you control what you can control, you’ll eventually get to where you want to go. That’s where I think a lot of guys, looking at the depth chart, get uneasy and then they stop working, but you can’t stop working. You always have to be working on just you.”
[Note: I wish I had had that information when I wrote about Tryon last week. If you reread that, mentally add Coach Gray's comments in somewhere toward the middle.]
Now, you did lose Shawn Springs this offseason, and — in addition to being very talented on the field — I always saw him in practice acting almost as another assistant coach. Is that something you’re going to miss? Can one of these guys replace that? Or is that something you can’t control?
Gray: “The thing you do is, I think you are going to miss it initially, because guys are going to be looking to say, ‘who is going to be the next guy in the meeting room, talking, communicating?’ Someone is going to step up.
“To me, when you have good teams, you have a good secondary. The guys I’ve been around, when one guy leaves another guy accepts that role. To me, I don’t appoint that role. I think you wait and see who is going to do that. That role is real transparent. You have to be open. You have to be upfront. You got to be willing to take the ups and downs. When you do that you become a better player, because that trust goes along with that.”
The fans only really saw Tryon in preseason last year, and he seemed to struggle a little bit. What have you seen in him that leads you to believe people will be surprised?
Gray: “I think when a rookie comes into the NFL as a defensive back, the biggest thing they struggle with is the speed of the game, and how guys can actually beat you. When you come in as a rookie, you think, ‘I can go around and cover everyone.’ Next thing you know, you don’t know why you are doing what you’re doing. You try to cover every route. You don’t understand that they can only run so many routes from this position, so many routes from this other position.
“When you understand that, you slow the game way down. Now you don’t cover the go when they can’t run the go. To me that is where a lot of guys struggle in this league.
“They come in and they run 4.4, and they may be 5-9, they may be 6-3, but they don’t understand the middle part of the game. That’s where it gets rookies. Rookies think, ‘I’m big and fast and have all these times,’ but they don’t realize that if you can keep your physical part and catch up mentally, you are going to be really good. Tryon this off-season is catching up mentally. I’ve seen it in the first OTAs, I saw it in the first minicamp. You can tell by the way he is backpedaling, he is breaking, he is always close to receivers, and he is not out of position a lot. When you get it, all I need is time to coach. To me that is what I’ve seen from him the first six days.”
[Note: See previous note.]
A few question about you. You had a decorated career as a player, including NFL Defensive Back of the Year in 1989. Do you think that makes you a better coach, or do you say to yourself, ‘maybe they don’t have the same ability that I did’? Is that something that feeds you in any way?
Gray: “I was really humbled by having the accolades as a player. When I come to coach, I don’t coach my players to play like I played. What really helped me understand that … well, it’s funny. I got to coach my son’s little league basketball team in Tennessee. You can’t coach and teach them everything.
“I had to teach them fundamentals. I had to teach them how to dribble around chairs, because they didn’t know how to do that. That taught me to appreciate guys who didn’t know the game, so when I come at the guys who do know the game, there are levels of experience.
“When I see a guy like [rookie Kevin] Barnes, I know he doesn’t know as much as DeAngelo. My job is to make sure Barnes catches up with DeAngelo, and keep the talent level.
“I know that now. So instead of saying, ‘ Barnes, you should be like DeAngelo when you first walk in the door,’ I know how it is. I think that’s where a lot of fans struggle, because they think, ‘Well, the guy was drafted in the third round, he should be ready to go.’
“Let me tell you, talent level may be the same, but mentally, its probably about 80% with DeAngelo, and 10% with Barnes. It’s not a knock on Barnes, its just that’s what happens when you get drafted to this league.”
Speaking of next steps, you’ve been mentioned as a head coaching candidate at times, you’ve had interviews. What’s that like? Is it just a normal job interview, even though it is for one of the most exclusive jobs in the world?
Gray: “When I first went to Houston and I interviewed for the job, it was a lot of work. You have to take what you have and what you are good at, and you have to put it in a form of paperwork. You have to take the ideas in my head, and put them on paper, and say this is how I would actually coach and run your team.
“I’ve been around a lot of great coaches. Jim [Zorn] is one of them, Coach Gibbs, I’ve been around Jeff Fisher, Gregg Williams. They have taught me what used to be called ‘The 49er Way,’ in taking the whole year and putting it on the calendar. When you interview for a head coach, you have to have that, and it has to be current and up to date.
“If they call you in three days and say, ‘Hey, Jerry, I want to interview you,’ you have to take all the information you have and tailor it to their team. Then you have to watch film, and look at their offense, defense, and look at their special teams, and think to yourself, who are the guys I need to replace, the guys I need to keep. What their scheme looks like. You have to do that in a matter of three days.
“As you are talking to them, you have to actually explain it to them. I don’t mind leaving my book behind with those guys. When I leave, this is who I am in this book. I put time in. You probably get little sleep before an interview, but you get the chance to learn what it takes to be a head coach. There are probably some things you don’t know, and hopefully you get a chance to adjust. To me that is where the challenge is, and I’m interested in hav
ing the chance to be a head coach in the NFL”
You’ve gotten to see first-time head coaches, you’ve gotten to see Hall of Fame head coaches — both in just the last two years. What can you take from those experiences that you can then apply next time?
Gray: “To me, just going through last season, with the ups and downs we went through. You go 6-2 and then you go 2-6, and you say, ‘How would I do that different?’
“How would you handle situations that come out in the paper that are negatives. How do you deal with the positives. You have to take the experiences from all your coaches, and I was fortunate enough to be around Jeff Fisher when he was young. He had Eddie George and Steve McNair, and he was successful.
“Then we got a chance to go with Gregg, where we started 3-13 in Buffalo. I’ve learned how he dealt with those things, where he built to a 7-9, 8-8 team.
“Then I think the biggest thing in my career was being with Joe Gibbs, who is a Hall of Famer, and who — number one — doesn’t act like that at all. He walks around just like a normal coach, he treats you like a normal coach. The thing is, when you get to wins and Super Bowls, it doesn’t change you. I think he was like this before. Then you have the Sean Taylor situation, how can we go from 6-and-whatever to making the playoffs.
“I know there is a distinction between last year and Coach Gibbs and Gregg Williams and Jeff Fisher. What I’ve learned is you take the things that you want and you keep them. If something comes up, you now have something to rely on.
“And the biggest thing, I think, is honesty. If you can be honest … well, what I saw from Coach Gibbs is when they asked him [after Sean Taylor's death], ‘What are you going to do?’
“And he said, ‘I don’t know. I’ve never been in a situation like Sean Taylor.’
“People appreciate that because they know you are not trying to be all-knowing and all that stuff. To me that is where you get players to rally behind you, when they know the honesty is there, and it’s not like, ‘I’m going to put you here and me over there.’ We’re all in this thing together, and, to me, that’s what rallied us.”
Thanks to Interns Ryan and Max for transcription work.
Tags: jerry gray, JerryGray, meeting the coaches, MeetingTheCoaches
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