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Thursday 27th Apr 2017

Back in 1987 when there was a player walkout in the NFL, I was concerned that my then very favorite football show, "Inside the NFL," with Nick Buoniconti and Len Dawson, would go on hiatus. What that means is that back then I loved watching Sunday football as much as I do now.

What HBO did, to substitute for the weekly show, was to present NFL documentaries on coaches during the hiatus until the players returned, and well, sort of like I used to buy "The Sporting News" during the baseball off-season just to get a fix, I watched those biographies.

There was one on Don Shula, who, as I watched, gained even more respect from me as a fan. A week later, there was a similar show on Tom Landry, and again my respect grew.

The truth is, I had not paid a lot of attention to NFL coaches prior. I know Vince Lombardi was so well thought of, but he seemed a lot like my father in attitude and temperment and that pretty much just increased my disdain.

But, I have always been a sucker for intelligence, and these guys--who actually developed the zone defense together while playing in the secondary of the New York Giants in the 50's-were clearly a couple of very smart men.

Watching Landry and Shula talk, I realized that the coach of a football team is largely like the conductor of a symphony. Furthermore, Landry--who had an engineering degree--said something to the effect that he was able to "visualize three-dimensional planes interacting."

"Huh?" That skinny guy in the pork pie hat said that?

The more I thought about it, the more I realized football is really chess in motion, and that was the beauty--and difficulty-- of the game, for there are so many places for things to go wrong at every snap.

And, that--like playing Strat-O-Matic in baseball--changed how I saw and analyzed the game ever after.

So, in the wake of the Championship games this past weekend, I would like to offer a few words about the four coaches who succeeded or failed on Sunday, and what I see, alphabetically.

Bruce Arians (Cardinals): Among the final four, Arians has become my favorite. The former Temple coach was an offensive coordinator for the Steelers from 2007-11, and then moved to the same slot with the Colts in 2012, where he pushed the team to a 9-3 mark during the absence of Head Coach Chuck Pagano (he was ill with leukemia). That led to his tenure with the Cardinals, where he has been 34-14 over the past three years, making the playoffs the past two. Part of what I like is Arians clearly seems to understand what he has in players, and how to make them successful, but what I like most about him is that he seems like the most regular human being among all the NFL coaches. The story I liked was a player saying in the locker room that coach "does not see black or white, only red." Given the context of that statement, it was awesome. As for Sunday, it just wasn't his day.

Bill Belichick (Patriots): Love him or hate him, Belichick is clearly the smartest coach in the NFL, able to adjust to another team, and losses to his own, almost on the fly. And that is no easy task. Clearly, the Patriots brain trust's success speaks for itself, but he blew it big time Sunday, not taking a field goal on the first of his three fourth-and-goal fourth quarter opportunities. The Pats were clearly in two score mode (they needed a two-point conversion to tie, as we know) and taking the three right there was obvious to me. In fact, Coach had three separate chances, and, well, three field goals would have done it. He is a great coach, but he called a lousy game all around.

Gary Kubiak (Broncos): Kubiak was an OK NFL QB, in my opinion, but clearly one of those Dick Williams parallels when managing where a guy comes into his own. Last Sunday, a lot of the success does belong to another former head, Wade Phillips, and, well, like almost everyone, I had written Peyton Manning and his mates off. I could not have been more wrong. It is great to see the great Manning finish his career like this, and though I am not sure who I want to win SB50, I am fine with Manning leaving with a win.

Ron Rivera (Panthers): Hey, he went to Cal, so how could I not like Rivera? A former All-American there, and member of the Bears' Super Bowl XX squad, it was in Chicago that Rivera cut his coaching teeth as a defensive coordinator. Carolina hired him in 2011, and following a couple of sub-par (6-10, 7-9) seasons, Rivera now has made the post-season for the third time, coming close to running the table. His team played an almost perfect game on Sunday, and Kubiak and Manning will more than have their hands full on both sides of the ball.

In closing, if you play fantasy games, understanding why coaches do what they do, and when, like understanding how a general manager assembles a roster, or a manager figures out platoons and substitutions in baseball, are key to being successful. Don't ignore the all important cerebral aspects of the game (for it is indeed quite brainy at the head coach level).

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