You play to win the game. Those words echo among players and fans alike. And while that phrase created from vented frustration is well known, it merely presents itself as a small picture of the man responsible for it. Jets’ fans should be the most familiar with that message, as it came directly from the team’s head coach.
Herm Edwards is a former NFL player and coach, a former broadcaster for ESPN, and is currently the head coach of Arizona State University’s football program. He was coach of the New York Jets from 2001-2005. I got the opportunity to speak with the man responsible for the Miracle at the Meadowlands as we discussed his time with the Jets, football, and life. Below is the transcript of the interview that took place, and I hope you all enjoy it as much as I did.
Thomas Christopher: The Jets were your first head coaching job in 2001. Were you surprised that they called you - and what were your thoughts as that was playing out?
Herm Edwards: Well, I was in line for five interviews that year. The Jets were the first interview and it was fairly thorough. Mr. Johnson was in there along with Terry Bradway who was the GM at that time. I thought it went well. I was actually going to head out the next day and go to Detroit, but the Jets got back to me by the end of the day and kind of offered me the job. It was one of those deals where I could continue to go on interviews or accept the job - and I accepted the job. I felt that it was a good fit knowing I had a good relationship with the GM. Terry Bradway and I worked together in Kansas City. I thought that it was very important that there was a connection between the head coach and the GM. We had the same kind of philosophy on how to build a football team, so it was a good fit for me. Mr. Johnson was great, so I elected not to go on those other interviews and I took the job.
TC: What was your defining moment during your time as the Jets’ head coach?
HE: I think the defining moment for me was 9/11. The league was in a situation where they weren’t quite sure whether they were going to play or not; they were kind of waiting. We came together as a football team and decided not to play. We were going to forfeit if the league decided to play that week. That was probably the defining moment for me. As a young head coach losing your first game against Peyton Manning, and then the next week knowing that you’re going to be declining to play. Eventually the league made the decision that they weren’t going to play. But it showed that I had the players back, and I wasn’t going to back down. At that point in time we weren’t mentally ready to play at all. The biggest thing that we accomplished as a team was to go down to the site and load up trucks for the first responders. That was a magical moment for me, that’s one of those things that you never forget.
TC: Was there a player on the team that really surprised you with their work ethic?
HE: From afar it was Curtis Martin. You knew what kind of player he was; but just to be around him. How professional he was when he came to work, to be on the field, how dedicated he was to be the best player he could be. That’s why he’s in the Hall of Fame. When you watched him play, he kind of fooled you; because he never really had a lot of explosive runs. I use to say ‘he’s not a highlight guy’. You wouldn’t see him on SportsCenter making a big run. He just slowly, methodically, beat you up. At the end of the day he’d have 30 carries, 150 yards and that’s kind of how he ran himself into the Hall of Fame. He was meticulous, he was a tough guy. He wasn’t a 240 pound runner but he had great eyes, great balance, could run after contact, was a great pass-catcher, a good protector; he was a complete running back.
TC: Was there ever a specific thing you saw from an opposing coach where you thought you needed to add that to your playbook, or to add that wrinkle into your gameplan?
HE: I don’t know about that so much. The league is gifted with a lot of talented coaches on both sides of the ball. The thing I learned most about football in general is that you lose more games than you win; by not being disciplined, by doing foolish things. I think if you can understand the details of every position is important, and one play is important. That one play’s important because you never know what play will turn the momentum of the game. It’s the little things you’ve got to be able to do. To be organized, to have a regimen of how you prepare players so they’re ready to play. I think that’s the thing you learn in that league, because there’s so many talented and gifted players. When you play in a league like that, you want to play mistake-free, because every mistake is magnified.
TC: Right. I remember seeing you speak to the students at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Communication, and saying how you were more likely to lose a game than win one; and how critical it is to knock out those mental errors to stop yourself from losing a game.
HE: It is, and you see it every week. In college football, pro football. There’s a mistake here or there and it comes back to bite you at the end of the game. We’ve lost games this year (at ASU) by some things we didn’t do correctly.
TC: What was the typical off-season like during your time with the Jets; and what input, if any, did you have in the draft process?
HE: The good thing is that when you have a GM that you trust, and he trusts the head coach; there’s a lot that goes into that. The preparation of the draft, working players out, going to the combine. But I think that finding out what your DNA is; our message was real simple. You have to draft the players that will help you win your division. The first thing you need to realize is what kind of division you’re in, and what type of players do I need to win my division. Winning your division has to be your goal. If I can win my division, then I’ve got a shot. I think when you look at the division, you’ve got to compare how you look talent-wise and the DNA of the players that are within your division. That was how we felt as an organization when it came towards the draft and free agency.
TC: Was there a person in the building that made your time with the team easier?
HE: My guy that I have here; who’s been with me ever since I became a head coach. His name is Nate Wainwright. He’s my right hand guy. He did everything for me in terms of organization; when I want to present things, he kept my calendar in check. He wasn’t a coach, he wasn’t a GM, a scout, he was my confidant. Things I wanted to say or present to the team; I would run it past him first. He knows me very well, he knows my personality. He’s actually the first guy I hired when I took this job (at ASU). He’s been with me ever since I became a head coach. When I got traded to Kansis City he came with me and when I took this job I brought him back.
TC: Did you always plan on getting into coaching or was there a person who influenced you to do so?
HE: You know as a player and when you play for Dick Vermeil, I kind of knew when my career ended that I wanted to get back into football. I actually didn’t have any aspirations on being a head coach. I Just wanted to coach the position that I played. I was able to do that in college, then went into Kansas City during my first time there as a scout. I learned the scouting aspect of it and that’s actually where I met Terry (Bradway) and then became the secondary coach. Then I went to Tampa with Tony (Dungy) and he really groomed me to be a head coach. I just kind of methodically went through the business on learning how to coach. Eventually I got an opportunity and I’ve been very fortunate because a lot of people don’t get that opportunity.
TC: Currently you’re coaching the program at ASU. What’s the biggest difference, in your opinion, on being a head coach in college compared to the NFL?
HE: The big difference at the college level is that they’re student athletes, and you’ve got to remember that. You have time constraints here. You can only be in the building for so long, there’s only so many things you can do. They’re students as well as compared to pro football where it’s there job. So you’re trying to develop young men. That’s part of the job too. We have a saying around here that we want to make these young men the best version that they can be, on and off the field. In pro football it’s a little different because that’s their occupation. That’s what they do for a living. These guys are trying to get themselves into a position to try and be a part of the NFL. It’s hard, because they all think they’re going to the league. I have to remind them that only two percent make it into the league, and the life expectancy isn’t very long; it’s about 3.7 years you actually get to play. And that’s a reality, it isn’t something that I’m making up. So you have to make sure that they’re well-rounded when they leave you because if they don’t have an NFL career you don’t want them to feel like they wasted four years in college; of not learning a degree or learning other things in life other than football.
TC: That actually ties into my next question. Is there anything specifically that you do to help your student athletes prepare for their next walk in life?
HE: We teach them the life lessons you learn in football and we make that a part of their program. I think the way we coach them; you know we live in a very competitive world. It’s all about competition no matter what you do. They have to learn how to compete. They’ve got to enjoy the competition. They have to wake up every morning wanting to compete, because that’s the world we live in. I think the life lessons we take from football we use them in life to make them better husbands, fathers, community service; all those things apply. The great thing about it is you see a guy come in at 18 years old as a freshman. You watch him graduate as a senior; and you’ve been a part of this young man’s life for four years and hopefully you’ve made an impact in his life. You know, it’s a wonderful thing to watch.
TC: What do you thing is the biggest transition for student athletes from college to the NFL, and what was the most challenging aspect for you?
HE: Your priorities change when it becomes your living. I think the work that has to be done, and to do on your own to prepare yourself for that league. The thing I tell people all the time is that it’s not your talent, it’s your availability. You’ve got to be available. So how do you do that? You make your living with your body, so you’ve got to prepare your body. And everyone’s good, they’re good players in that league. You’ve got to realize that your talent alone can get you an opportunity, but it’s how you work on your talent, skill, and all the preparation that goes into it. It’s your job and you’ve got to realize that. I make my living with my body; mind and body. You can’t be halfway in, you’ve got to be all in.
TC: You’re an example of a successful UDFA story. Do you have any advice for a player coming out of college in a similar situation?
HE: Well I tell all players, and people in life that you’ve got to be willing to bet on yourself. You don’t need confirmation from anybody to do that. You’ve got to put the work into whatever you’re trying to accomplish. But you’ve got to be able to bet on you; and that’s been me my whole life. All I wanted was a chance, and once I got a chance it became on me. When I got an opportunity I took advantage of it. I tell people all the time that my claim to fame is that I never missed a start and I never missed a practice, because I was available.
TC: What made you pursue a career in football instead of another sport?
HE: I just gravitated towards it. I was a pretty good basketball player as well and had some offers coming out of high school. But I just liked football, and I liked taking the ball away. I was primarily a wide receiver in high school but I liked taking the ball away. I liked change in the course of the game. I had pretty good hands, pretty good vision, and an awareness of where the ball was going to be. If you get 38 interceptions there’s a reason for that, you kind of have an instinct for the ball. That’s how I played, I Just could find the ball and I had pretty good hands to make the catch.
TC: How surreal was it when you intercepted Joe Namath?
HE: That was the turning moment in my life. I watched him on television and got my first NFL interception against Joe Namath. You can’t make that stuff up you know what I mean?
TC: There’s a lot of speculation among fans as to what goes on in an NFL team. What do you think the biggest misconception is?
HE: You know, when coaches build a gameplan on either side of the ball, you’re practicing things that you think are going to work. Some games when they’re over you’ll hear fans go, ‘well why did they do that?’; well because we think it would work. I think execution is a big part of it. No coach in his right mind is ever going to blame a player. Coaches don’t play, they formulate a gameplan and I think the key to that is being able to adjust. A plan that can’t be changed is a bad plan and you’ve got to be able to adjust along the way. For the most part, I think the hours that go into preparing to play a game; outside of the building, people don’t know what that looks like.
TC: I remember you saying - when speaking on being able being able to adapt your gameplan - that you’ve got to stay calm and look at every play in four to five second increments because that’s the typical length of a play.
HE: Yeah, and I think people don’t realize you’ve got to formulate a gameplan on the opponent you’re playing. What you can’t do when you formulate a gameplan is expose weaknesses of your players. So sometimes they’ll say, ‘well why didn’t he do that’; well because if you do that then you’re going to expose these two guys, and I’m not going to do that. So sometimes you’re hindered by the talent that you have and the team you’re playing against. There’s certain things you feel like you can do and not do because if I do this then it’ll probably expose these players.
TC: Last question for you, coach. Being involved in the sport for as long as you’ve been, you’ve seen plenty of changes. Is there a rule you feel has benefitted the players in the game? And on the flipside is there one you feel that has caused detriment?
HE: I think safety of the players now is important, and it should be. That’s a big concern for coaches on every level and I think we’ve done a nice job with that. I don’t know if there’s something I would change. I think this, and it’s kind of sad and I see it now but it used to be that if you were a player; if you’ve played for a team you played on that team. You know there was no free agency but that’s part of it now. There has to be free agency, but at this level free agency has hit the college level too with the ability to transfer. You know, fans have emotion and history built into the teams that they grew up watching, where it’s hard to get a player to stay on one team. I played with the Eagles most of my career but I’ve got one bubblegum card and it’s from one team; and that’s the Eagles. You see players now with three of four cards (from different teams). It’s okay and I understand it, but it’s hard to follow now.
TC: That’s it for me, thanks for your time coach I really appreciate it.