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Q&A: Pat Kirwan Keeps His Eyes On The NFL

Pat Kirwan began his NFL career in 1972 after coaching high school and college football. He was an area scout for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (1983-86) and Phoenix Cardinals (1989).

He then spent eight years (1989-97) with the New York Jets, beginning as a defensive assistant coach and advancing to director of player administration, where he negotiated contracts and managed the team’s salary cap.

Kirwan is now covering the NFL for a host of outlets, including NFL.com, Sirius NFL Radio and The NFL Today on CBS.

His book, Take Your Eye Off the Ball: How to Watch Football by Knowing Where to Look (Triumph Books) was published last year. To coincide with the 2011 season, Kirwan has created a playbook edition of the book, including a DVD on what to watch.

Big Lead Sports: The new edition of the book adds several new features. Is there anything you have seen in the game from your first writing that is the biggest change fans should note?

Pat Kirwan: Probably the biggest thing for fans to look for – especially in the first month of the 2011 season – is how effectively coaches have been able to install their systems in the lockout-shortened preseason. We devote an entire chapter in Take Your Eye Off The Ball to explain how game plans are developed, revised, refined and ultimately installed.

BLS: Where do you see the lockout having the biggest impacts?
PK: When you understand how coaches are used to doing things, you’ll appreciate how big a challenge they’ve had getting ready for this season. Usually, that process begins as soon as a team’s season ends and evolves through free agency and the draft, through OTAs and mini-camps. Coaches didn’t have any of that this year. They all had to hit the ground running in late July. I was impressed by the installation process pretty much everywhere I visited on my two-week tour of training camps.

BLS: Did some teams have it tougher than others?
PK: Not everyone was able to get done everything they would have liked to. Ray Horton told me when he became Arizona Cardinals’ defensive coordinator that he wanted to overhaul the Cardinals defense and start fresh with everything right down to the terminology. But the teaching window was so limited this year, he had to adapt his scheme to match the existing terminology and didn’t have the time to change as much as he originally planned. That’s the reality all over the league, and I think fans will notice early on which teams are ahead of others in terms of the variety of things they’re able to do.

BLS: Which teams do you think will take best advantage of the shortened time from an execution standpoint?

PK: This is a year where the gap between the haves and the have hots is going to be significant. Only 12 teams in the league return their head coach, both coordinators and quarterback. Turnover at any of those spots always requires an adjustment period; that adjustment will be magnified this year, and teams that have continuity and familiarity have a head start other teams might not be able to catch up to.

Look at a team like Pittsburgh – by far the most impressive team I saw on my camp tour. They have everything back in place, looked like they were in unbelievable shape, and losing the Super Bowl put an emotional chip on their shoulder. James Farrior put it best when he told me that they’re all veterans on that team, they know what Dick LeBeau wants to do, they really needed the time off that they got after the long grind last year. They are recharged and mad as hell that they lost the Super Bowl. No one I saw on the camp tour was doing the amount of things the Steelers were – and I saw them the first week of camp.

Another team that looked sharp to me was San Diego. Last season was the first time they didn’t win the division in five years, and they have that same nasty attitude that the Steelers had. They’re not as good across the board as Pittsburgh, but Philip Rivers and his receivers looked phenomenal.

BLS: Where will the NFL’s new rules have an impact?
PK: We added a chapter that focuses on the importance of special teams, and I think the new kickoff rule [moving kickoffs from the 30- to the 35-yard line] will have a big impact. That’s not just in terms of the number of kicks we’ll see returned for touchdowns but also in the number of returns that flip the field.

BLS: Of all the coaches you talked to, who is the most innovative and why?

PK: The easy answer is Bill Belichick, of course. I love the way he handles personnel, and how he always finds a way to stay ahead of everybody else. He’s moving more toward a 4-3 defensive front when the whole world is going to a 3-4 – following his lead after winning all those championships with a 3-4.

But I also look at a guy like Steve Spagnuolo. I stopped in St. Louis on my camp tour, and I saw a lot of athletes on defense who can rush the quarterback and drop into coverage. It looks like he’s got the parts to fit the kind of defense he understands and wants to play. He’s going to be very aggressive, and I think the Rams defense has a chance to be spectacular this year.

BLS: Vince Lombardi was a master motivator. What coaches today can take the most complex of plays and break them down to their simplest execution for success?

PK: Again, Belichick is a master of teaching. He runs the most efficient practices, and there’s no down time, not even during special teams segments.

John Harbaugh in Baltimore is another really good teacher. He pays more attention than most head coaches to his coaches being great teachers. He used to be a special teams coach, so he understands how to coach 11 guys by himself. And he’s sensitive to various effective teaching styles – we devote an entire chapter in the book to the importance of coaching staffs understanding how to most effectively teach their players and maximize their FBI (football intelligence).

I think Redskins defensive coordinator Jimmy Haslett is a tremendous defensive coach, and it’s amazing to see the difference in him this year now that he doesn’t have to deal with the distraction of Albert Haynesworth. He’s got a group of players ready and willing to learn, without having someone sticking a mic in their face after practice asking about Albert. This is refreshing for him, and I think he’ll get back to being the coach I knew at Pittsburgh and New Orleans.

BLS: Much has been made about the left tackle position and its value to protect the QB’s blind side.  In your book what will fans discover about other positions that are underrated? And who plays them best?

PK: The NFL is a game of match-ups. And every positional battle is important. Whether it’s a cornerback on a wideout, a safety on a tight end, a linebacker on a running back, a tackle on a pass rusher, every matchup on the field factors into the outcome of a play. If you have one weak link, the NFL will find it and wear you out at that spot. In the book, we give fans a clearer sense of the job descriptions and demands unique to every position, and explain what it takes to be successful at each position. There are different skills needed to play left tackle vs. right tackle, different prototypes for a defensive tackle vs. a nose tackle. Certain corners are better suited to play in zone coverage than man-to-man. Yes, it’s true that if you don’t have a great quarterback, you’re not going to the Super Bowl. But there are critical contributions made by every position on the field, and I think fans will appreciate those challenges after reading this book.

BLS: What was the biggest surprise to you

PK: How fans have taken the book, gone to the TV and started breaking down NFL games in-depth. The goal of doing the book in the first place was to take fans deeper into the game, but a lot of people have taken it upon themselves to learn the game way past my expectations. I have guys emailing me that they’re watching a game two or three times so they can break down personnel groupings. And not just to the point where they recognize 12 personnel when it’s on the field but understanding what teams are doing out of that personnel package.

I heard from someone who broke down Kevin Boss according to field zones. He tracked Boss’ catches and targets in each half, on different down-and-distance situations, in different personnel packages – the same kind of data that coaching staffs compile when looking for a team’s tendencies. I knew people would enjoy the game more once they had a better understanding of what was going on, but I’m amazed where fans are going with this.

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