How to Coach an Undefeated Football Team

David Cowles

Jul 13, 2022

If football is nothing else, it is a metaphor for life. The values of determination, responsibility, teamwork, flexibility, and focus apply to every aspect of life, not just football. This is a formula for success on a football field, but it is also a formula for success in life.

(Dedicated to my grandfather, J. Leo Foley)


My grandfather, J. Leo Foley, was the athletic director and head football coach at The Roxbury Latin School for over 40 years where he led his football team to four consecutive undefeated seasons. He was nicknamed “the fox,” allegedly because of his stealth play designs and unexpected play calls. He was recruited for a college coaching job by none other than Hall of Fame Head Coach Robert Zuppke (University of Illinois, 1913 – 1941).

Whatever I know about football, I learned from my grandfather. What I don’t know, he didn’t teach me; or rather, he taught me, but it went in one ear and out the other. Imagine if I had known at age 10 that I would be writing this article at, well, let’s just say ‘a considerably more advanced age;’ perhaps I wouldn’t have thought that running after the ice cream truck was more important.

The ethos my grandfather taught produced winning football teams. But it occurred to me later on that this same ethos is a prescription for winning in all facets of life. Here are a few of his guiding principles. If you’re a head football coach, you may find them helpful; if you’re not, you may find them indispensable!


  • Every play should score a touchdown.


If properly designed and flawlessly executed, every offensive play should result in six points.


  • Every team should be undefeated.


It takes just as much energy to lose as to win…so why not win? To paraphrase the Old Testament Book of Deuteronomy, “I set before you winning and losing. Therefore, choose winning.”


  • “Do your Job!” (Bill Belichick)


A successful football play is not about 11 players performing at the peak of their abilities; it’s about 11 players doing their assigned jobs.

(I can’t recall whether my grandfather used these exact words, but he certainly had the concept down pat.)


  • Don’t just do your Job!


A player who repeatedly fails to do his job is not a good player, but neither is a player who only does his job. On every snap from center, each player has a primary responsibility, but once that responsibility has been met (or not), a good player immediately begins to look for other ways to be productive.


Good players can complete at least two tasks on every play – one scripted, one improvised. Great players can often complete three.


The two biggest causes of failure on a football field are (1) players who don’t do their jobs and (2) players who only do their jobs.


  • “Everything Flows.” (Heraclitus c. 450 B.C.)


Of course, Heraclitus was referring to the cosmos, not the football field. And yet, there is no better illustration of his principle than what happens between snap and whistle.


A football play is more like an organism than a mechanism. Sure, football begins with designed plays and set formations; this is a play’s DNA.


But like snowflakes, no two plays ever turn out the same. Even if you ran the same plan on every snap, no two plays would ever be identical.


Because every play unfolds in a unique way, every player not only needs to do his job, and not just his job, but he also needs to react to the play itself as it evolves.


  • Don’t be Square!


Most of the time we think in straight lines…and that’s a good thing when we’re trying to build a skyscraper. (A, then B, then C.) We need straight lines.


But in real life, a straight line is the exception, not the rule, and whether you’re coaching or playing, you know that there are no straight lines in football (except the yard lines).


A football play is just like any other ‘event’ (or ‘actual entity’). Each play starts from a unique ‘actual world:’ the position of the ball, the score, the time remaining, the X’s and O’s.


The ‘actual world’ of a football play is everything that happens before the ball is snapped. Actual worlds are linear: A then B then C.


But the ‘actual world’ of a football play is not the play itself. The play itself is radically ‘non-linear.’ Once the ball is snapped, everything, literally everything, impacts everything else. (A, then B, then C, then B, then A, then C.) So don’t be square, be non-linear!


  • “Stayin’ Alive.” (The Bee Gees)


What is the goal of a football play? For the offense, it is to score a touchdown. But as with all living things, achieving its goal is not its primary motivation. Its primary motivation is survival – keeping the play alive.


You can’t achieve your goal (touchdown) once your play has been whistled dead. The longer the ball is in play, the better your chances of scoring. So, keep the play going (without taking any foolish risks of course) for as long as it takes to reach your goal.


Ultimately, you are not playing against your opponent’s defense; you are playing against the referee’s whistle. The longer the ball is in play, the more likely it is to result in six points.


  • We not me!


The 2021 University of Pittsburgh football team won 11 games, earning themselves a #12 national ranking and an invitation to the Peach Bowl.


Their secret sauce: a new slogan, ‘We not Me,’ and a new team ethic to back it up. A team is never just the sum of its parts (i.e., its individual players): it may be more than the sum…but more often it is less.


  • “Be all that you can be.” (U.S. Army)


‘Synergy’ is a buzzword these days. It refers to a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. But that’s not what we’re talking about here!


We’re not only talking about a ‘team’ playing better than the sum of its players; we’re talking about each player playing better than he otherwise would have.


With my team behind me, I should be able to play better than I could play on my own, and when I play better, I enable the other players around me to play better too. That is what’s called a ‘Virtuous Circle.’ In football at least, I am my brother’s keeper.


  • When in doubt, help out!


They say two heads are better than one. If so, then four arms should be better than two, two shoulders better than one, etc. If it is not immediately obvious what you need to do next, help a teammate. Assume that the players around you need your help: blocking, tackling, covering a receiver, etc. They do!


  • Penalties = Turnovers.


Penalties are not nuisances; they are serious business. They are not ‘just’ about field position; in fact, they are not primarily about field position. Penalties are about possession…and possession is about scoring!


A penalty can make the difference between a very makeable 3rd and 2, and a much less makeable 3rd and 7, or 3rd and 12, or even 3rd and 17. A ‘nuisance penalty’ may well lead to a change of possession on the very next snap.


Myth: superior talent is sufficient to overcome penalties. Reality: no team is talented enough to win all its games if it is frequently penalized. Penalties ‘randomize’ the game: they give weaker teams a chance to out-perform…and win games!


The underdog’s prayer: “May the opposing team be penalized as deserved!”


  • Tackle!


Whenever possible, all tackling should be gang tackling. A player should never say, “Oh, he’s going down.” Every player should help make sure he is down (without drawing a penalty, of course).


Gang tackling prevents “second efforts.” It also increases the chances of a fumble…and the chances that your team will recover any such fumble.


  • Block!

You did your job. You threw a great block. Good work. Job done? Not a chance! There’s always another player, and yet another, who needs to be blocked as the play unfolds.


  • Run!


You’re not down until you’re down. This is not touch football. The play is not over when a defensive player touches you. As Yogi Berra might have reminded us, “The ball carrier is not down until he’s down.”


The proximity of an opposing player is not an invitation to take a ‘turf nap;’ it’s an opportunity to step up your game, literally.


Run harder, bring your knees up higher. The goal is to run through the tackle. (If your opponent is good, this may not always work; but hint, most football players are not very good tacklers.)


If the opposing player does not bring you down right away, firing the after burners upon contact can extend a gain by as much as 10 yards. Less frequently, you may even break free, adding further yards to your gain – and who knows, you might even score a touchdown.


  • Be the Ball!


When you’re lucky enough to have the football in your hands, you need to think of it as part of your body. Would you let a tackler remove your right arm? Then why allow him to remove the ball? You and the ball must become a single organism. Be bionic!


Suggestion: carry a regulation football around with you during the day and sleep with it at night. Who knows? The football might even replace the stuffed animal you still sleep with. Eventually, with any luck, you’ll start to feel weird and incomplete when you’re not carrying a football.


  • Catch the Ball!


Coach has designed a pass play and you have an assigned route. Run that route; it’s your job. But not all pass plays happen as designed. Receivers are covered; the QB is under pressure; the play must change on the fly.


Your job now? Get open! Alter your route to give your QB a better chance to see you. Or find an open space on the field and squat there; trust your QB.

“But I’m not the target on this play; I’m just a decoy.” No, you’re not! You’re never merely a decoy. You’re the target receiver on every pass play. Every eligible receiver is the QB’s “target.” He’s looking for you, so get open!


Once a ball is in the air, there are no receivers, there are no defenders. Every forward pass is a ‘jump ball.’ The offensive player and the defensive player have an equal right to that ball, so in truth, both are playing offense.


But both players are also responsible for making sure that their opponent does not make the catch. Therefore, they are both playing defense too.


  • Visualize


It’s off-season. Or you’re stuck in chemistry class. Or you’re in bed and can’t fall asleep. Or your parents bundled you off to overnight camp for the summer (and they don’t even have a football program there). Bummer!


Wherever you are now, you’d rather be honing your football skills…but you can’t. Ugly circumstances have gotten in the way! Or have they? The fact is, you can work on your game at any time, 24/7/52 – heck, maybe even in your sleep!


Right now, you can’t practice…or lift weights, but there is something you can do: you can visualize!


Depending on the position you play (or want to play), imagine yourself:

  • Blocking a defender to protect your QB

  • Creating a hole for your RB

  • Taking a hand-off from your QB and hitting a hole

  • Making cuts in open field to avoid defenders

  • Completing a forward pass

  • Or catching that same pass.

If defense is your thing, imagine yourself:

  • Tackling a ball carrier in the open field

  • Breaking a block to sack the QB

  • Busting up a double team

  • Covering a receiver; staying with him as he makes his cuts

  • Knocking down a pass

  • Intercepting a pass

When you visualize, it’s important to do so in slow motion. Slow it down! Fully experience every move your avatar makes. Create muscle memory…even in your sleep!


  • Final Thoughts


But what if you don’t play football, have never played football, don’t want to play football? What if, God forbid, you don’t even like football? Did you just waste 15 minutes of your life reading this ‘how to?’

Not necessarily! If football is nothing else, it is a metaphor for life. The values of determination, responsibility, teamwork, flexibility, and focus apply to every aspect of life, not just football. This is a formula for success on a football field, but it is also a formula for success in life.

Heck, you can visualize yourself performing in a concert or acing a math quiz or accepting a Nobel Prize. No matter what we do in life, we are responsible for being ‘all that we can be,’ and we are equally responsible for helping others ‘be all that they can be.’ We are all, always, in all things, our sisters’ keepers.


 

David Cowles is the founder and editor-in-chief of Aletheia Today Magazine. He lives with his family in Massachusetts where he studies and writes about philosophy, science, theology, and scripture. He can be reached at david@aletheiatoday.com.

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