Lessons from coaching: What I've learned that I never knew as a player

Matt Bowen coaches defensive backs at IC Catholic Prep. Courtesy Matt Bowen

This summer, I started my second season as the defensive backs coach at IC Catholic Prep in Elmhurst, Illinois. Through a run to the IHSA state semifinals last season and into fall camp this year, I've learned a ton about the game -- more than I ever learned as a player. Here's how my transition into coaching has impacted my view of game prep, scheme, technique, player development and more.

The spread offense is legit: Yeah, I was one of those guys who used to look down on the college and high school spread systems. I didn't see it much during my time in the Big Ten at Iowa or throughout my seven-year career in the NFL. It was pro-style or nothing. And I wouldn't budge.

But my view has completely changed at IC Catholic due to our offense -- an up-tempo, no-huddle spread system. We play fast, now. Super-fast. It's a two-minute drill for four quarters. And this is the same playbook you will see at UCLA or Oregon.

RPOs (run-pass options) are the future of football, but there are plenty of pro-style route concepts in our playbook. Think of Snag, Flood, Hi-Lo, Smash-7 (corner), etc. This is really the same stuff Tom Brady and the Patriots run on Sundays. Sure, there is more window dressing based on alignment, formation and pre-snap movement in the spread, but in my opinion, the quarterback reads and progressions aren't that different when compared to NFL offenses. And the same goes for the run game: zone, power, counter, zone-read. With the quarterback in the gun or the Pistol, there are a ton of ways to create advantageous angles in the run game. This stuff works -- and you'll only see more of it filter into the NFL in the coming seasons.

Conditioning at the start of practice is the key: My old coordinator, Gregg Williams, used to make us do 40 up-downs or gassers or something else horrible at the start of practice. And then we would go chase deep balls during individual period. That was vomit city during camp. And I hated it.

But we do the same thing with our team. Why? Because as coaches, we want to see which players can line up, execute and produce when they are tired. I know it's hot and nasty -- and I used to complain about it too -- but players need to get over it. I now understand why Gregg ran us at the start of practice: Conditioning tests -- and training camp in general -- sets the tone for the whole season.

Teaching terminology and technique: During the first week of camp last season, I told a sophomore safety to "play the pocket" (play through the hands of the wide receiver). The problem? He had no idea what I was talking about. Just a blank stare.

I preach technique every day. That's the lifeblood of a defensive back. But executing the technique on the field isn't the same as teaching it as a coach. I found that out quickly during my first season at IC.

So I start with the basic terminologies and build the proper technique from there. Stance. Alignment. Footwork. Eyes. Angle. And you've gotta rep it -- over and over -- for the technique to translate to production.

Calling plays is much harder than it looks: As a former NFL player, I thought calling plays -- on offense or defense -- would be simple. I know the game of football. How tough can this really be? Just blitz here, right? Hey, why not? Send the house.

Nah, man, it doesn't work that way. I've only called plays in a couple of scrimmage situations this summer, and I could feel my heartbeat. Stress? Yeah. A little panic? No doubt. There is an art to this, a practiced routine and a skill to calling plays on either side of the ball.

On Friday nights, I will flip over to the offensive headsets and listen to our coordinator, Tony Navigato, run our no-huddle system. It's amazing the way he navigates the chaos. No panic, no fear, just go. It's the same on defensive with coordinator Roger Kelley and linebacker coach Mike Calcagno. These guys are vets. They are relaxed, focused and ready to adjust.

Me? Forget about it. I expected to be like my old coordinator, Williams: mad scientist stuff with the game plan. But I'm a long way away from being able to call a game on defense without feeling like my heart is going to explode. Plus, I would probably blitz on every down.

Players need to be pushed: Current Titans safeties coach Steve Jackson was my position coach back in Washington. One of the best. And I loved playing for him, but he knew how to push his players. One day, after playing in the heat of Texas Stadium and arriving back in D.C. at 6 a.m., he made us do tackling drills.

Man, I was gassed, but that was the second game of the season, and Steve wasn't about to let us relax after a big win. No chance. Line up and tackle. Steve made me take four or five reps in a row until it was perfect. To be honest, I wanted him to pick up the rock so I could lay him out, but now I understand why he did it.

And I understand why the late Norm Parker -- my defensive coordinator at Iowa -- used to say to us: "I'll be your friend, but I won't be your buddy." There is a balance you have to find as a coach with your players. They want to be challenged. But that only works when you gain their trust and they believe in what you are teaching.

Tackling technique is more effective (and safer): The old-school tackling techniques that I used as a player? Those are outdated and dangerous. The facemask to the chest? No more. We teach and use the Hawk Tackle (or rugby tackle). It takes the head out of the play and is also very effective in getting the ball-carrier on the ground. There's a way to be ultra-physical on defense, while also using the proper tackling technique to keep players safe. That's a positive for our game.

Finding a practice plan: Should we drill more footwork today? Do we need to hit more? What about open-field tackling? Deep balls? Breaking downhill? It's tough to find the right balance -- and time -- with your players during individual periods at practice. I preach footwork all the time, but the secondary also needs to dictate the flow of the game with physicality.

Just like the pro coaches I played for, I have the staple drills that I want to get in every time we practice: The W-Drill, open angle drill, drive the one-man tackling sled across the field (brutal). But I wish I had an hour, maybe an hour and a half, everyday to work with my defensive backs. There is just so much I want to do as a coach. And the planning part, the daily routine that needs to shift constantly to create new competition, isn't an easy as it might look. Yeah, I need to get better at this.

W Drill + "Roll Tackle" tonight at summer camp. Footwork + angle + tackle. @iccpfootball

A video posted by Matt Bowen (@mattbowen41) on

Game film: Guys should go into every game with four plays they can make based off film study. The rest of the time? Read your keys and play ball. That's it. Don't make this something bigger than it really is. But teaching it is tough. Whether you are looking at formations, alignments or splits, they all tell a story. I know that. But it takes time for younger players to see those keys on the film -- even at the NFL level. You can't assume players understand how to study tape. And it's now my job to get that information across, to break it down in a way that allows players to learn.

It takes work to build a game plan: Every Wednesday in the NFL, players are handed a fresh game plan. And that thing is deep. First and second down install, third down/nickel, backed-up, red zone, goal line, two-minute, four-minute, exotic plays, screens -- you name it, it's covered. Looking back on it, I took that stuff for granted. And some players would toss half of it in the trash can. But as a coach, these game plans require a ton of effort and study time from the staff. That means film work, formations, alignment, splits, down and distance, game situation and so on. Charting plays, tendencies, making practice scripts. Coaches at every level work overtime to get these game plans ready. I study more as a coach than I did as a player.

Every player is different: I can come down hard on some of my players. And there are others I have to whisper to. Some guys are visual learners. Chalkboard stuff. While others need to see it on the field in a practice setting. And skill sets are different. You can't coach in a box and expect to see your players develop. There is versatility in coaching too.

You have to hit in practice: At times, Joe Gibbs used to run 9-on-7 (inside run drill) without a running back. Huh? It was awful. Line up, come downhill and run into dudes. Over and over. But I now understand why he did it. The most physical teams still win. But to create that physical culture, you have to hit in camp and throughout the season. That doesn't mean live tackling in every drill or every team period, but you have to set your pads and compete. And my view on that will never change after seeing the results as a coach.

Everyone needs to hit the sled: When Joe Bugel returned to Washington with Joe Gibbs in the 2004 season, he had our O-line on the seven-man blocking sled every day. And it was consistent throughout two-a-days in the Virginia heat. I remember thinking how awful that looked during the second practice of the day. Beat up, tired and still pounding away at that sled. Nah, I'm good.

But what I've learned as a coach is that the sled isn't necessarily position specific. At our program, everyone hits that thing -- from the defensive backs to the kickers. It teaches footwork, hand placement, leg drive and the ability to convert speed to power.

DBs on the sled today. Need power to play press & defeat blocks. @lricobene putting in some work. @iccpfootball

A video posted by Matt Bowen (@mattbowen41) on

It all starts with the head coach: I played for five head coaches in the NFL. And four were offensive guys. So, I didn't really connect with them like I did with the defensive coordinator or my position coach. Defensive guys just think differently, I guess. And I viewed them as the boss during my career.

But now that I'm part of a coaching staff, my view has changed dramatically. Our head coach, Bill Krefft, is special. He gets it. A true teacher. And he has complete control of what happens in his program. You need to have that to win. I've had pro scouts tell me this repeatedly over the last year when talking about winning teams in the NFL. It starts and ends with the head coach. He is the most important man in the building, even if the players don't always realize it.

Kickoff coverage is the best developmental tool in football (at any level): Get rid of kickoffs? That's a terrible idea. Not only are you eliminating valuable roles for your football team, but covering kicks is the best developmental tool in the game. This is where you learn to play with vision, defeat blocks, use your hands, create angles and tackle in space. I see the development with our players on coverage units every Friday night.

Cold weather games: I played in my fair share of cold weather games -- from Illinois high school ball to Iowa to my various NFL stints. As a player, you can dress up the uniform on cold-weather days, and you are always moving around. In short, you can survive -- even during a playoff game in Green Bay. But as a coach? Forget about it. I was freezing in the state semifinal game on the sidelines when a snowstorm hit. But I was also a rookie this past season. I'll be more prepared the next time. Better socks, I guess.

Keep it simple on D: I loved deep game plans in the NFL. Tons of pressure and exotic packages. But now that I'm coaching, you really don't need a super complex game plan to win -- especially on defense. I would much rather keep it simple and allow my guys to play fast. The last thing you want is to see your players hesitate at the snap. That's trouble. Find three or four things you do great and roll with it. It's still about technique and toughness over scheme.

Life skills: Yeah, I want to win games as a coach. Who doesn't? But I'm more concerned with teaching my players how to deal with adversity. Growth and true development. My ultimate goal here? To see my players succeed in college and into the real world. That's coaching. And I've learned that quickly at the high school level. You can have a major impact on the development of young men. This game prepares you for life. It always has.

ESPN.com NFL analyst Matt Bowen played seven seasons as a defensive back in the NFL.