Jeff Fisher knows it sounds like coach-speak, and it probably is, but in his experience, there’s only one way to survive a brutal season as a head coach.
“You have to go one day at a time,” Fisher said.
If a coach gets caught up thinking about his own future, about what could come to pass months down the road, that’s when he can get into trouble.
A Super Bowl winner first as a player in 1985 for the Chicago Bears, Fisher spent two decades as a head coach in the NFL, first with the Oilers/Titans and then the Rams. He oversaw two franchise moves (Houston to Tennessee and St. Louis to Los Angeles) as a coach and led the 1999 Titans to a Super Bowl appearance along with five other playoff berths.
While Fisher enjoyed plenty of success, he also knows what’s it like to be on the other side. Toward the end of his coaching career, he acquired a reputation as a .500 coach, with his team’s average records becoming a punch line. With so many years in the profession, he’s experienced just about everything an NFL coach can go through, including seasons where nothing seems to go right.
That feeling is something New York Giants coach Brian Daboll is experiencing for the first time as a head coach. After a fairytale first season in New York that ended with the franchise’s first playoff win in more than a decade, the Giants are off to a dreadful 2-8 start with injuries — including quarterback Daniel Jones’ season-ending ACL tear — decimating the roster. With blowout losses piling up and outside noise dialing up, Daboll’s ability to manage a locker room has come into focus. Especially after the Giants sideline became a bigger story than the game during New York’s 49-17 loss to the Cowboys.
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While Daboll’s job doesn’t appear to be in jeopardy, the Giants’ recent history suggests otherwise. Not since Tom Coughlin left in 2015 has a Giants coach lasted more than two seasons in New York. So Daboll’s ability to keep a disappointing season from becoming a full-on embarrassment is worth watching for the final seven games of the season.
“I’ve done that since last year,” Daboll said when asked this week if he’s gotten ahead of potential splintering within the locker room by preaching unity in the face of adversity. “I think you’re always coaching different things, not just the X’s and O’s but plenty of other things that go along with it in our meetings.”
But as losses and frustration mount, how difficult is it for a coach to keep a team unified? With the common goal of a playoff berth all but gone, what can a coach do to keep a team filled with different personalities and different motivations on the same page?
“You’ve got to plan,” Fisher said. “You got to show hope. You got to have expectations on the practice field, (and) you got to make it fun,” Fisher said. “Players know what’s going on. They understand there’s injuries that they just can’t overcome, but practices have to be fun, meetings have to be fun. You got to be professional about what you do. The head coach’s responsibility should be to make sure that every day they’re emotionally, physically, mentally, spiritually ready for the day and go tackle the day. And then you do it.”
Fisher recalled one of his former assistant coaches who overworked in the face of adversity. He became the last one to leave the building and the first one in the next morning. There were times he’d even sleep in his office. While Fisher appreciated the work, he recommended to the assistant that he still get enough rest to have the energy to actually teach his players during the week.
“If you live like that Monday and Tuesday … and then you’re dragging your ass up on Wednesday trying to sell a game plan, it just doesn’t work. You’re just too tired.
“When losses and injuries mount, they kind of … drain you,” Fisher said. “When you get up there, players know if you’re acting like you’re beat up and you’re caught up in everything, then they’re gonna act that way. But they’re all looking (at you) for some guidance and some leadership.”
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Sitting at 2-8, the Giants are the current owners of the No. 2 overall pick in the upcoming NFL Draft. With big names like USC’s Caleb Williams, North Carolina’s Drake Maye and Ohio State’s Marvin Harrison Jr. to fantasize over, conversations around the Giants has shifted toward the coming offseason and what the Giants could do the rest of the year to ensure they land a top pick.
But Daboll refuted the idea of tanking this week, simply saying his goal is always to “compete.”
That’s the right message, Fisher said.
“If you don’t stress the right things and emphasize the right things, you never come out of it,” Fisher said of the Giants’ current funk. “What this is about is finding a way, one way or another, just to win the next game. Period. That’s the approach.”
Fisher added that it’s critical to know where the leadership is coming from in the locker room. If it’s a younger locker room, then the coach might need to take on a bigger role, but if it’s veteran-heavy, a good coach will lean on his veterans.
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“The guys must look forward to coming to work every day, and that’s easier said than done, because some of the Mondays are really hard,” Fisher explained. “But you gotta keep wins and losses in perspective, create an environment where they pull in the parking lot, they get out of the car and they run in the building because they can’t wait to get to work. If you can create that environment, then you can pull out anything.”
(Photo: Ron Jenkins / Getty Images)
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