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Inside the NFL | Sam Farmer ON THE NFL

Armchair Quarterbacks, Arise

October 04, 2003|Sam Farmer

I remember seeing a survey a few years ago that ranked jobs from the most respected to least. Doctors and firefighters were around the top, teachers were below them, politicians were way down the list. There was no mention of sportswriters, but I figured they'd rank somewhere between fortune tellers and guys who wash your windows at intersections.

It would have been interesting to see where NFL offensive coordinators would be listed, because those guys have to fight for every shred of respect they get. There are only 32 of them, and they're paid extremely well -- in most cases more than head coaches made during much of the 1990s -- but there are so many negatives to the job, they almost outweigh the plusses.

We've seen the sideline eruptions -- Rich Gannon chewing out Raider offensive coordinator Marc Trestman at Denver, Terrell Owens ranting at the 49ers' Greg Knapp at Minnesota -- but it's what we don't see that has to make some offensive coordinators dread showing up at the office each morning.

"It's a job that's impossible to do based on other people's standards," said Baltimore Coach Brian Billick, branded a "genius" in his days as offensive coordinator of the Vikings. "Particularly the offensive coordinator, because every fan, every media guy, thinks they know this game. When you make roughly 1,000-plus calls a year, that's a lot of second-guessing. 'You should have screened when you ran. You should have gone deep when you went short. You should have thrown to this guy; you should have thrown to that guy.' "

Defensive coordinators don't hear all that chatter. Yes, they get an earful when their defenses aren't stopping opposing offenses. But most outsiders can't fake it enough to go on and on about the nuances of a zone blitz or the virtues of a two-gapping scheme.

"I know my wife never sits in the stands and hears, 'Hey, why's the defense in two-deep?' " said Mike Heimerdinger, offensive coordinator for the Tennessee Titans. "The only time you ever hear a fan complain about a defense is when they're in the prevent, and that's probably because TV announcers are always talking about how they hate the prevent."

It's when their team is on offense that fans break out the imaginary chalkboards.

"If I call a run, half the stadium thinks I should be passing," Heimerdinger said. "If we throw an incomplete pass, people think I'm an idiot."

And those are just on run-of-the-mill plays. In crunch time, Joe Fan becomes Joe Gibbs.

"We have about 10 seconds to make a decision on fourth and one," Heimerdinger said. "It's not like a play just flew by my head in those 10 seconds and I grabbed it and said, 'Let's just run this.' Just for that one play, it took about 30 or 35 minutes of film work the week before."

Heimerdinger, who has two Super Bowl rings from his days as an assistant coach with Denver, loves his job and isn't deeply affected by fan criticism. But he can't listen to talk radio during the season. He did that once and got so angry he wound up calling the show's host and berating him on the air. Now, he just listens to his country CDs on the way to work.

Bob Bratkowski, Cincinnati's offensive coordinator, can't avoid the outside criticism by simply turning off the car radio. Win or lose -- and in Cincinnati it's almost always the latter -- Bratkowski has a few nasty messages from anonymous callers waiting for him every Monday morning.

"I wish I had star-69 so I could call them back," Bratkowski said. "I'd love to hear their reaction. It would be my personal satisfaction.... My assumption is they either lost money or their fantasy football player didn't have a big game."

He isn't kidding about that last part. Fantasy football has dramatically shaped how millions of fans view the game -- and how they view offensive coordinators. For lots of people, not only do their teams have to score, they have to score the right way.

"I remember in '98 when I was in Minnesota and we scored more points than any team in the history of this game," Billick said. "People were very complimentary....[But] once, we played New Orleans and we scored on just about every single possession. The last one was a little flare pass to the fullback and he went in untouched. The next day I did a radio show and some guy on the radio just was ripping me. 'Terrible play-caller. Doesn't know what he's doing. The last call you made was stupid.' I finally said, 'OK, wait a minute, time out. The last call was a flare pass to the fullback, he went in untouched, what's your problem with that?' " He said, 'Well, I've got Cris Carter in my fantasy league and you cost me the weekend.' "


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