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Singletary v. Madden on Management

2010 October 18
by Brian Goff

The San Francisco 49ers won their first game yesterday, beating their even more hapless cross-Bay rivals, the Oakland Raiders.   The Niners’ head coach, Mike Singletary, took over from Mike Nolan in 2008 amid much media buzz.  Some immediately expect any “fiery” coach’s intensity to be the wonder drug.  Early on, this piece by SFGate’s Scott McCloughan questioned the certainty of this result, noting the implosions of the intensity-is-everything coaches like Mike Ditka in New Orleans or Rod Marinelli in Detroit and the success of Tom Coughlin after ditching the “Colonel Coughlin” routine in New York.   From an economic, strip-things-down-to-their-essence perspective, McCloughan goes right to the key variable in the coach’s management style and the likely source of his downfall — player effort:

Like many Hall of Fame players who have become head coaches, Singletary’s pedigree doesn’t mean he’ll be good at this new job. In most cases, Hall of Fame players fail miserably as coaches. Why? Because their players’ effort and intensity will never match their own.

Where, in my view, McCloughlan along with admirers of Singletary (when he took the job) miss it is that the focus on effort is Singletary’s problem, not the player’s.  Effort matters.  It matters a lot.  In every workplace I’ve experienced, from concrete construction to higher ed, effort mattered and differed among employees.  The whole team production story of management’s role (Alchian & Demsetz, 1972 American Economic Review) focuses on the solution to the effort problem.   Most any coach with a long record of success has effective means of maintaining  high effort levels.   Some may do so out of fear and intimidation.  Others (e.g. Bill Belichick) do it by casting off players who aren’t rowing hard enough.  Some use player-leaders to promote a high-effort culture, or some combination of these methods.

Effort management is not the end of the story, however.  One could view almost everything that Mike Singletary does as tilted toward a myopic fixation on effort and “sending signals” to team members along these lines.  In his first game he sends talented but immature tight end Vernon Davis to the showers for a silly unsportsmanlike penalty.  Ok, message sent.  Then, he drops his pants in the locker room to crudely illustrate how the team was “getting it tail whipped.”  Yes, coach, we get it.  In a later game, he used up timeouts to pull his defense over and lecture them.  Now, it’s getting silly and actually costly for the team (they needed those timeouts later).  This season, the “it’s all about effort” business has continued, most recently with the tongue-lashing of QB Alex Smith on the sideline.  Here’s John Madden’s commentary:

“That’s really not part of coaching, that’s sometimes I worry about that. I see youth football and I see high school football and coaches yelling at players and I cringe when I see it. I think people get the picture that’s what coaching is and believe me, that’s not what coaching is … “You have to coach, you have to teach, you have to strategize, you have to encourage.  “That’s what coaching is, not the opposite.”

Madden gives a nice synopsis of the varied elements that go into coaching/managing.  My guess is that while each team needs some ongoing “effort management,” only a small number of teams have real problems in this regard, and among those, problems arise as losses mount.  Given the near equal talent distribution in the NFL and a high level of effort across the board, the items highlighted by Madden become the discriminating managerial traits.

Of course, all the maniacal activity by some coaches may speak more to indulgence of their own personalities (a type of effort or “shirking” problem on its own) that I discussed in my 2007 X & Y Management post and how screaming managers could learn a lot from Tony Dungy.

6 Responses
  1. October 18, 2010

    Whether it’s coaching or managing a team in the business world – effort management isn’t just making sure everyone is putting forth their full effort, but rather are they putting forth the right effort. A defensive lineman go toe-to-toe with his offensive counterpart and not accomplish anything, or he can shift his opponents effort by “swimming” past him and getting into the backfield to disrupt a play or sack the quarterback. “Swimming” takes less effort, but more skill than brute force – so technically the player is putting forth less effort overall, but the effort that is utilized is more effective.

    Too many hall-of-fame athletes turned coaches in any sport neglect to realize that part of the reason they were successful as players was that they understood the game intuitively, and it wasn’t just how much effort they put forth or how hard they worked. Translating and transferring that inherent knowledge and vision throughout the team and the organization is what makes a successful coach or organization. That and a whole lot of effort of course.

  2. Frank permalink
    October 18, 2010

    Is Madden’s point all that different from Singletary’s view. His final point is “You have to encourage”. Is that not pretty much the same idea as developing “effort”? Clearly he disagrees with the effectiveness of screaming and yelling as a tactic for improving performance, but increasing effort is clearly something that Madden seems to agree with.

    I don’t think Singletary discounts strategy and teaching as part of the role of head coach, he clearly did a lot of that when he was a defensive coordinator. I think his belief is that now as the head coach, his responsibilities must now shift to “effort management” as that is something that other coaches and coordinators cannot do as effectively.

    Also, I think you and McCoughan miss one aspect of gifted players as coaches. No doubt Hall of Fame types all had the “effort & intensity” that allowed them to succeed, but they also had unique talent. I assume that some part of their talent set was innate and that things “came naturally” to them. Thus, they are unable to teach the game, because they understand it in a unique ways (“How do you effectively cover a tight end going across the middle, Coach Singletary? “I don’t know, you just do it”)

  3. A. G. Dube permalink
    October 18, 2010

    Yes, Frank, I have heard that too about hall of fame type talents. They don’t make good coaches, supposedly, because of their immense talent. Lesser talented players had to learn the finer points of the game in order to make or stay in the big leagues. Talented players could rely on their natural talent. I cannot think of many super talented NFL football players who were also great NFL head coaches. The closest I can think of might be Forrest Gregg, but calling Gregg a great NFL coach might be a stretch. Perhaps someone can think of other examples that are escaping me at the moment.

    Singletary seems to be the anti-Ray Handley. Handley was the Giants coach for the two years following their Super Bowl XXV victory when Bill Parcells “retired.” I believe Handley was quoted as saying that his job as the head coach was to be a teacher, not a motivator. Of course, Handley’s teams were quite horrible given the Super Bowl winning talent he had. He was the head coach for two years and did not make the playoffs in either year. Dan Reeves replaced Handley and had a great first season with the Giants. That season, 1993, was Phil Simms and Lawrence Taylor’s final year. The team went into a mini tailspin after that as the Giants GM George Young seemingly became senile.

    I’m not sure how much teaching a NFL head coach does given all the specialization and assistant coaches in the game, but it does seem that the good coaches are both motivators and are very knowledgeable about the game. They are probably also good communicators. From what I can see, I don’t think Singletary is a good communicator. Knowing something is useless as a coach if they can’t communicate their knowledge. I don’t imagine that the great professors, for example, pull their pants down as a teaching technique. Maybe the instructors with chili peppers ratings on ratemyprofessors.com can use that to their advantage!

  4. Duane Rockerbie permalink
    October 18, 2010

    Motivating effort was Madden’s edge over coaches like Singletary. This came about due to his extensive knowledge of the game and the strategy the team was trying to use. Singletary knows nothing about the X’s and O’s of the game – often he even seems confused about what players are supposed to be on the field and what play is being run. Madden didn’t need to yell at his players, although he probably did yell at a few. His leadership came from the quiet respect he earned from his players – his knowledge capital.

    By the way Brian, the Raiders have a better record than the hapless 49er’s.

  5. Dan permalink
    October 19, 2010

    With only 16 regular season games, it seems NFL players should have no trouble getting up for a game and going all out. I’ve never been to a football game where the players didn’t gather together in the end zone and amp up before a game and they don’t just jog onto the field like baseball players do when they take the field. So I’m not sure how much a football coach can do to get his players to give the players more effort. You’d have them flying down the field on a kickoff and zipping right past the ball carrier.

    But with 22 players on the field there has to be a lot of coordination to get the results you want. If a coach has players that hesitate because they weren’t coached properly all the effort in the world won’t get you a first down. And if your team is not prepared for what the other team is scheming, more effort will still result in a loss.

    Superstar players that were superstar coaches are rare. Larry Bird was a pretty good coach even though he never won a championship. And I remember Frank Howard talking about how good Ted Williams was as a manager helping both the hitters and pitchers. But I don’t think Yogi Berra was ever considered Earl Weaver’s equal as a manager.

  6. Patrick permalink
    October 19, 2010

    Only commenting on this site because it was linked to ESPN. Just wanted to point out that Scot McCloughan was the former Niner GM and had nothing to do with the SFGate article.

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