Long days, big dreams: The grind of a quality-control coach

Cannon Matthews arrives at Redskins headquarters as the sun rises. The team's defensive quality-control coach is ready to dive into more film study and scouting work, often a week or two ahead of creating the game plan. John Keim/ESPN

ASHBURN, Va. -- At 5:15 a.m., the temptation to hit the snooze button often grabs Chris O'Hara.

It's likely that he just got home less than six hours earlier. One push of the button could give him an extra 15 minutes of sleep that would help him push through another 18-hour day as the Washington Redskins' offensive quality-control coach.

But he doesn't, because there's the carrot that dangles out there for every NFL quality-control coach: the chance to become an NFL head coach. Sean McVay, Kyle Shanahan, Jon Gruden, Mike McCarthy -- all were in this position once.

It's a constant thought.

"Every night for sure," O'Hara said. "Those are your dreams."

That's why O'Hara and his Redskins counterpart on the defensive side, Cannon Matthews, drive themselves in a job that requires a lot of time by themselves watching film, one in which they receive little public praise and no guarantee it will pay off.

"You give up a lot of other stuff in life," O'Hara said. "It's a passion. It's not easy to do."

To get there, they must grind, starting at the bottom of the coaching ladder.

"As soon as anyone asks what I do and I tell them quality control, they're like, 'What is that?'" Matthews said.

"I don't know who named it or who came up with it," O'Hara said. "It's not a great name. It doesn't really describe it in much detail. Quality control is vague."

In a nutshell: They're responsible for writing scouting reports on future opponents, often working a game or two ahead. They draw up the plays the coaches want in the game plan that week. They put together the practice scripts. They assist in the coaches' booth on game day.

They work long hours every day, but especially Sunday through Thursday. On Friday? It's a relative day off, considering they work around only 10 hours. Then again, sometimes it's more. They're in the NFL and making good money compared to the general population -- one coach for another team estimated the average quality-control coach makes between $100,000 to $150,000. They don't always get credit, but Philadelphia Eagles coach Doug Pederson gave his offensive quality-control coach credit for the "Philly Special" play in the Super Bowl. He requested some trick plays; the QC delivered.

"Oh, man, it's critical," Redskins coach Jay Gruden said of the quality-control coaches. "That role is to help the position coaches and head coaches with whatever data they need. In the process, learn as much as you can and help out with an idea or whatever you’ve been asked."

They are respected in the building. Redskins running backs coach Randy Jordan said he often tells Matthews to "remember him when." Gruden has praised O'Hara. Still, it's a long journey.

Here's a look at a typical Tuesday for both coaches:

5:45 a.m.: Arrival/film breakdowns. Even Matthews acknowledged a quality-control coach on offense has more to do than the defense for a simple fact: The offense runs more plays. There are fewer defensive formations, especially on certain downs. And considering a big part of their job is to compile the playbook for the week, O'Hara arrives earlier -- sometimes less than six hours after he left.

When Matthews enters his office, he's greeted by a small banner with Roc Nation's signature saying, "Greatness is a process." It's part motivation, part reminder.

"You never know when that chance may come," Matthews said.

Matthews, 33, has taken a long road to reach Washington. He earned a degree in sports management at Ohio University and became a personnel intern in the Arena Football League. There were stops with the Buffalo Bills as a coaching assistant, a trip to Kentucky Christian to coach running backs and stints in Cleveland (defensive coaching intern), Tennessee (quality-control coach), back to Cleveland (assistant defensive backs coach) and he's now in his second season with Washington.

His first task on this Tuesday morning: clean up plays that involved gray areas while watching earlier film. For example, if a receiver got jammed at the line and the route didn't fully develop, he'll look back through other games and look for a situation and formation that lines up to determine what the receiver was trying to run.

The quality-control coaches are always a game ahead at this point in the week. On the Tuesday before the Tampa Bay game in Week 10, for example, these coaches were breaking down film of the Week 11 opponent: the Houston Texans.

O'Hara watched six Texans games and his report included information on defensive formations, blitz coverages, third downs and red zone. Because the Texans had a bye this past week, whatever they turned in last week didn't need to be updated. That's not always the case, which is why they sometimes return to Redskins Park after games to finish a report on the next opponent.

9:30 a.m.: Staff meetings. Sometimes the defensive staff might meet a half-hour after the offensive group begins. But in both cases the quality-control coaches provide the first set of eyes on the upcoming opponent. They've already broken down the film in minute detail as the position coaches and coordinators are just getting started.

These meetings take up the bulk of their days. Because the Redskins don't practice on this Tuesday, the meetings will last until around 4:30 p.m or a little longer. On days when they do practice, Matthews works with the inside linebackers while O'Hara sticks with the receivers. Later in the week, they'll run some scout-team work.

In meetings, they sit quietly until addressed. On the offensive side, they spend two hours going over the run game followed by a lunch break (salad for O'Hara). Then it's on to the passing game for the duration.

For Matthews, his role is to discuss when the opposing offense has the ball inside its own 20-yard line. On Tuesdays, the primary topic is first and second downs, with perhaps some third-down talk. At this point, the quality-control coaches are helping the coordinators formulate their game plan.

Some coordinators don't want input from the quality-control coaches beyond their primary role. Matthews said Redskins defensive coordinator Greg Manusky seeks feedback from all. Before facing the New York Giants three weeks ago, Matthews, based on how receiver Odell Beckham Jr. was used on first and second down, suggested shifting a particular coverage. Other teams had done something similar.

"It's not that the other guys hadn't seen it," Matthews said. "I'm breaking down games a week or two before and writing down these notes, so this is the first time we're all talking about it. I have to bring it up first and now it's something they're looking for."

Matthews also pays attention to how Manusky presents a game plan, focusing on what he might have missed in his film study and listening to the rationale behind Manusky's decisions. After all, he might someday be in that position.

In these meetings, Matthews presents personnel groupings for his topic. During games, that personnel-grouping knowledge gets put to more use. On game days, O'Hara is responsible for tracking coverage tendencies by down and distance and he charts the offensive plays. Matthews relays the personnel groupings to Manusky. Matthews must be precise.

He prepares every Friday by studying film of the upcoming opponent, seeing if he can detect substitution patterns based on the first 15 scripted plays. Before the game, "I like to see what players are wearing so if they have a certain type of gloves," Matthews said. That knowledge might help him identify a grouping faster.

5 p.m.: More film. Both rely on youthful energy, with an occasional sugar boost. At least that used to be the case for Matthews, who said he used to favor Sour Patch Kids -- until a trip to the dentist after last season changed his habits. O'Hara prefers Laffy Taffy.

But, he added, "I get the energy I have from the passion I've got for the job."

That might sound sappy, but it's the best way to survive in this business. Both know that doing a good job for a team that wins can help them advance. That can be a knockout punch for fatigue.

After dinner around 6 p.m. -- Matthews sometimes leaves to pick up some food, just to get some fresh air -- they stick around another five hours or so.

Their jobs are clear: get the scripts ready for practice the next day. For O'Hara, that means drawing up all the pass plays on Microsoft Visio. Back in the day, quality-control coaches drew these plays by hand, but it's still a lot of mouse work, O'Hara joked.

He must fit four plays on a standard piece of paper. In the end, he'll type in 50 pass plays for first and second down and another 20 for third down and 20 more for fourth down. Sometimes he can snag a pass play from a previous week. Phil Rauscher, the assistant offensive line coach, handles the run-game duties.

They finish the plays and get it printed out for the coaches for practice the next day. On a typical morning walk-through, the Redskins will go over 30-40 plays; they'll go over that same amount in practice. The quality-control coaches must have this done before they leave Tuesday night. They then must have them ready for a PowerPoint presentation Wednesday morning.

O'Hara also prepares a PowerPoint presentation on the strengths and weaknesses of the defensive backs they'll face that week and a breakdown of the coverages that team likes to play on first and second down. He presents that information to the skill group Wednesday morning.

11 p.m.: Quitting time. Sometimes it comes a half-hour later. The hard part for young coaches in this role is trying to find any sort of work-life balance. It really doesn't exist.

O'Hara, 28, is engaged, but their only real date night would be Friday. On those days he'll leave the facility around 4:30 p.m. As he said, sometimes it's as basic as catching up on his fiancée's favorite TV shows: "Grey's Anatomy," "The Good Doctor."

"I'm usually dead by 11," he said.

Like Matthews, O'Hara did not play college football. He started as a student assistant for two years at Temple University before going to the University of Miami, where he was a student assistant, then a graduate assistant during his three years. He turned that into a three-year stint as an offensive coaching associate in Jacksonville before joining the Redskins in 2017.

When O'Hara first started in the NFL, he sometimes slept in his office. No more. The value of sleeping in his own bed is too great. But the hard part is finding time for any exercise or a way to relieve the stress of the job. Early in the season, these coaches can get worn down; by midseason, they've hit a stride and are used to the pace.

But, O'Hara said, he could work out if he wanted to -- at a cost.

"You're either giving up work or sleep," he said. "So you either work out 20 minutes or that's 20 minutes you could be breaking down film for the next opponent or 20 minutes you could be sleeping. I haven't found that balance yet."

Matthews, in his ninth NFL season and second with Washington, says it helps that he's single and doesn't have a family.

"The motivation comes from winning," Matthews said. "As long as I do my part to ensure that, the rest will take care of itself."

It's hard not to think about the future.

"My fiancée used to always say, 'You're living your dream right now,'" O'Hara said. "I am. If you told me when I was 12 years old I'd be doing this, I'd say no way. But now that I am here, I am living my dream, but at the same time I'm chasing a bigger dream."

Then he goes home and sets his alarm for 5:15 a.m.