Skip to main content


I was there when Vince Lombardi said it, back in the early '60s.
He said it came from Red Grange's old coach Bob Zuppke, who
probably got it from Amos Alonzo Stagg. The quote was "Winning
is not the most important thing, it's the only thing." But a
wire-service reporter got it wrong, and it went out, nationwide,
as "Winning isn't everything, it's the only thing." Which, when
you think about it, doesn't make much sense. You could turn it
around and say that winning isn't the only thing, it's
everything, and it would mean about the same.

But it remains pro football's most famous quote anyway, right in
line with the other cherished myths of the game that come
marching at you like a battalion in formation.


On Wednesday that's all coaches say. Then the first time they
face second-and-six, here come the wideouts. You establish the
run by the players you draft. You establish it in training camp
by the coaches you hire and their willingness and ability to
spend the hours teaching drive-block techniques. "You establish
it with your philosophy," Tampa Bay coach Tony Dungy says, "not
your game plan."

But every Wednesday they say it: This week we have to run the
ball. And it's just so much nonsense. "That's why I hate
coaches' interviews," Giants general manager George Young says.
"What they say and what you see are not the same. Part of
coaching is selling."

Oh, there are still plenty of running-game coaches in the
NFL--at least half a dozen. But to play that way requires that
you keep coming back to the same thing over and over again, that
you "keep making a redundant statement," Giants tight end Howard
Cross says.

"What stops a running game," former Giants quarterback Phil
Simms says, "is that the coaches don't have the guts to stay
with it. You're going to get a lot of ugly plays, maybe four or
five no-gainers or one-yarders in a row. Do you have the guts to
come back to it? [Jets offensive coordinator] Ron Erhardt is a
great teacher of run techniques. He has millions of different
blocking schemes, and those techniques are so much harder to
teach. But few other people put the time and effort into it.
It's just, 'O.K., go out and get him blocked,' just big guys
moving straight ahead and falling forward. Did someone pass a
rule: You can't teach blocking techniques anymore? Five years
from now the only runs you'll see will be draw plays."


In l986 the Colts brought in Gary Hogeboom to quarterback a team
that had suffered through eight straight losing seasons. "He can
provide leadership" was the message from management.

Huh? Leadership? For six years Hogeboom had ridden the bench in
Dallas, and now Indy was expecting him to come waltzing in from
a fancy team and lead a bunch of guys who had regularly gotten
the hell beaten out of them? Get serious. In his third year with
the Colts, Hogeboom was backing up Jack Trudeau and a rookie,
Chris Chandler, and then he was gone.

"Do something on the field first," says Dallas quarterback Troy
Aikman, "and then you can think about being a leader--whatever
that really means. But if it's not in your makeup, then it's

Rookie quarterbacks are drafted for "leadership ability." What
teams have they led? Pacific Lutheran? NFL vets are a hard
bunch, especially linemen. Their leaders are the guys who have
bled beside them for five or l0 years, not some rookie.
Leadership is naturally attached to the guy who's consistently
performing well, especially if he's playing hurt. When a QB does
that, then he qualifies--sometimes. "When Joe Theismann was our
quarterback," ex-Redskins safety Ken Houston says, "the players
didn't believe in him as a leader. But he went on to win a Super

"Put 'em in the end zone," Jets offensive line coach Bill Muir
says, "and you're the leader."


"If a player comes out of the tunnel on a Sunday afternoon,
playing at the highest level of football with 80,000 people
screaming, and he needs to be motivated by a guy who's not
playing," says Buffalo wide receiver Steve Tasker, a special
teams ace, "then he's in the wrong business."

Oakland wideout Tim Brown has a harder evaluation: "Coaches'
motivating you is the Number 1 myth in football. At this level,
most of the time guys don't pay any attention to them."

Well, that's a little rough. But generally the vets who win for
you are self-motivated. High school players might need a jump
start, maybe a few collegians, even an NFL rookie or two. But
veterans only want to get the right plays and formations, then
be left alone. "I am motivated by fear," says Redskins safety
James Washington. "Fear of not being able to play anymore as I
get older. It's always been like that. That's what does it for

Confidence in a head coach is the important thing--confidence
that he knows what he's doing, that he's well organized, that
he has the right assistants working for him. But if the players
know he has screwed up the two-minute drill, all the
motivational weapons in his arsenal will be just so many popguns.

"The head coach at this level is an organizer," Oakland
assistant head coach Joe Bugel says. "That's his motivation.
It's preparing the team, rather than Knute Rockne speeches.
Those days are over."

Even Rockne didn't have to rely on motivational hype. "Once I
saw a training film done by Rockne in 1926," Young says. "He
demonstrated every technique on offense and defense. I remember
saying to myself, He didn't do it with speeches; he did it
because he was a better teacher and better organized."


You jell your defense, we'll bring in Deion, and let's see who

In 1994 the 49ers brought in linebackers Gary Plummer, Rickey
Jackson and Ken Norton, and, of course, Sanders at the corner to
fortify a defense that had finished l5th in the league. Presto,
Super Bowl title. Dallas's defense, built from within, was
jelling nicely--it ranked first in the NFL in '94--but San
Francisco beat the Cowboys in the NFC Championship Game. Last
year the Niners were first in defense--but minus Deion. Sanders
went to Dallas, and so did the Super Bowl trophy.

Overstated? One guy doesn't make all that much difference, does
he? But in the era of the salary cap and free agency, a minute
power shift, perhaps one or two superstars, can undo years of
hard work. "It's exactly like college," Giants defensive line
coach Earl Leggett says. "Plug 'em in for a couple of years,
then they're gone. Cap football creates haves and have-nots. It
doesn't get you together as a team."


Everyone accords them up to 30% importance in the outcome of a
game. But then how come kickers and punters are never drafted?
Miami coach Jimmy Johnson says you can pick 'em up off the
street. "Some coaches would rather have a kicker who's been cut
by a few teams, who understands the pressure involved," Redskins
defensive coordinator Ron Lynn says.

And why don't teams draft pure special-teamers--a sensational
wedge buster or a "bullet," an outside guy to rush downfield
under punts? "When you're fighting for someone in the draft
room, you'll say, 'My guy can play special teams,'" Giants
defensive coordinator Mike Nolan says. "But they always feel you
can get him as a free agent."

"Special teams are like the weird uncle you keep locked in the
basement," former Bears defensive tackle Dan Hampton says. "They
can really embarrass you if you're not in control of them. There
isn't as much commitment to them. Players don't make their money
playing special teams."

And kicking and punting coaches are practically nonexistent.
There are a few consultants--Buffalo punter Chris Mohr says the
only coaching he got was from ex-Giant Dave Jennings one spring
at Alabama--but no full-timers. "Special teams coaches handle
it," Mohr says, "and for what we're doing, they can't coach a

"What would I tell a punter or kicker who's in a slump?" Dungy
says. "I wouldn't have the faintest idea."


It's like playing tennis and facing a guy with a devastating
serve and saying, Well, I've got to have a long service game to
keep him from serving to me. Uh-uh, doesn't work. Control the
clock and you might cut the game down to eight series apiece,
instead of the normal 10 or 12. But each team gets the ball for
roughly the same number of possessions, and the idea is to score
more on yours than the other guys do on theirs.

O.K., let's throw in a disclaimer here. If your defense is
banged up or thin or simply worn out going in, then it makes
sense that you don't want it on the field too long. It's also
true that on some occasions, a long drive can have a
demoralizing effect on the opponent: Simms mentions a game
against Miami in which the Giants' opening drive lasted more
than 10 minutes, and he could look over to the Dolphins'
sideline and see Dan Marino and the boys all antsy to get their
high-powered offense going. But ball control is less effective
once you get into the heart of the game. And the psychology can
turn against you as well.

"We played the Bills in 1990," Simms says, "and we took the
opening kickoff and put together a seven-minute drive to score.
They came back and scored in a minute and a half. And I thought,
Damn, do we have to go back out there already? I mean, I'd
practically used up my bag of tricks--quick count to draw 'em
offside, all that stuff. Now they'd seen it. It was like putting
whipped cream on horse manure. They won the game."

"Can you believe that in Detroit we were criticized for scoring
too quickly?" tackle Lomas Brown says. "What the hell's the
difference how fast you score your 30 or 40?"

"If you want to win time of possession each week, just keep
giving up the big play," former noseguard Fred Smerlas says,
"because then they'll just need 30 seconds to score."

Ball control is nice to have at the end of the game to protect a
lead. That has been one of Emmitt Smith's great values to the
Cowboys. But at the beginning, who cares? There's this goofy
idea that if you control the clock long enough, the other guys
will just pack it in.

"Year in and year out, the top five teams in time of possession
are usually in the playoffs," Houston coach Jeff Fisher says.
Well, last year three of the top five didn't make it. The
Steelers won the possession-time Super Bowl, 33:49 minutes to
26:11, and they're still looking for their trophy.

THREE COLOR ILLUSTRATIONS: ILLUSTRATIONS BY SCOTT MENCHIN [Drawings of a man's face with treadmill for a mouth and three football players running around inside; man wearing skirt and headset and shaking cheerleader's pom-poms with two football players on bench; football player holding the arm of large clock]

Every Wednesday coaches say, "We have to run the ball." It's

There's this goofy idea that if you control the clock long
enough, the other guys will just pack it in.