A buddy of mine played football for the legendary John Gagliardi at St. John's University in Collegeville, Minn.
Those deeply rooted in the history of college football may know Gagliardi as the winningest coach of any level in NCAA history. One of the more memorable features of Gagliardi's career is he did not require stretching before practices or games.
He didn't forbid it, my friend was always quick to point out. He didn't require it. "He told us to do what we needed to do to get ready for the game."
That included offseason workouts as well. The players were instructed to take it upon themselves to work out and prepare themselves for the season. There wasn't mandatory weight room time or anything like that - St. John's is a Division III school. They practiced all season without pads. He didn't even cut people.
Even lowly Division III coaches and teams can make history through obscure tactics. There's a parallel between this and the comments made by ex-Steelers wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders, who, now with Denver, extolled the virtues of Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning.
Sanders said, on 104.3 The Fan in Denver:
I feel like Peyton is a far better leader, in terms of staying after practice, catching balls, wanting guys to get on the same page with him, things of that sort. This is the first time that I’ve had a quarterback that every single day after practice — no matter what his accolades, NFL MVP, Super Bowl ring — he keeps guys like me and [rookie receiver Cody] Latimer after practice. . . . He’s not one of those guys you’ve got to chase down. He’s going to be right in the same spot, ready to work, every single day. I just feel like that’s a difference from a mental standpoint.
Some might call Manning's level of dedication inspiring, and indicative of structured leadership. Others might call it narcissistic, and the actions of a pathological control freak.
To get it out of the way, I'm sure Sanders is aware Roethlisberger won two Super Bowls to Peyton's one. It doesn't take much effort to point out Roethlisberger defeated Manning in their lone playoff head-to-head encounter. Let's just entertain the notion for a brief second that Roethlisberger doesn't put in the time he needs to put in to be sucessful - as ridiculous and groundless as that statement appears to be.
How can a maniacal approach to mental domination that borders on tyrannical rule be seen as the only correct path to success, if Roethlisberger, as allergic to extra work as his former teammate suggests, is able to have similar (albeit less statistical) success?
How can Peyton's approach be considered the very definition of success in the NFL when workout-adverse Roethlisberger has led his franchise to at minimum as much success as Manning has had in his career?
Let's keep in mind, Ben isn't the quarterback who threw the game-clinching interception, sealing his team's first Super Bowl loss. He wasn't the guy tossing picks in his second Super Bowl loss, taking sacks like they were DirecTV commercial opportunities.
Gagliardi did things differently. He did not say stretching and padded practices were bad for his players, but he believed in putting the initiative on his players to prepare themselves for games in whatever manner they needed to. His success speaks for itself - it'll be a while until any coach at any level even sniffs 489 wins.
Maybe Ben doesn't put the same level of work Manning does. Watch Roethlisberger play, and try to make the argument he looks unprepared. This isn't being written in an effort to bash Manning and his amazing accomplishments. His way works for him. Perhaps that's more or less what Sanders is saying, but he's ill-equipped to say it in a clearer, less insulting manner. I can give him that. But it is obviously not the only way. There's plenty of evidence suggesting stretching properly improves one's ability to run, jump, change directions and drive an object forward. Gagliardi didn't force his players to do that, like a dictator stubbornly clinging onto the absurd notion all human bodies are made the same. He trusted his players to do what they needed to do.
Those results speak pretty highly for themselves. That also is not the only way, but it's one way with plenty of supporting evidence showing its link with success.
It doesn't take long to look back and see Sanders dropping multiple passes, including what would have been a game-tying two-point conversion in a critical game against Baltimore in Week 13.
Would Sanders have caught that perfect pass that bounced off his hands if Ben had drug him onto the field after practice to throw 100 more passes to him?
Or, should Ben have gone in front of the cameras and pinned the loss on "protection problems?"
Perhaps Sanders needs that level of coaching and practice time. There's no shame in that. But if the definition of "leadership" and "success" are so narrowly defined, as in, the quarterback who throws the most offseason passes and works the longest with receivers in training camp automatically wins the league's championship, Peyton Manning would be the combination of Bill Russell and Babe Ruth.
Roethlisberger is an in-the-moment quarterback, but he's often discredited for his level of intelligence. Whether the feel for the game just comes more naturally for Roethlisberger or whether he simply has supreme confidence when the ball is placed, he's going to win the game come hell or Manning interception, there's very little I'll listen to when it comes to criticism about his alleged work ethic. He's doing something right.
Manning has his way, and Ben has his. Let's not try to pretend Manning's greatness is due to the 4,000 extra passes he throws without at least bringing up the possibility his shortcomings in January may be the result of burning himself out early in the year.
At the very least, there's no point in comparing the work habits of two players who couldn't be more different in their style of play. Both clearly know what needs to be done in order to prepare themselves to succeed. If he's comfortable and his results continue to land in the positive category, I don't see why it matters.
As for Sanders, someone should remember to ask him in December, when he faces his inevitable soft tissue injury, how beneficial the 100 extra routes run a day in July were.
Gagliardi might blame over-exertion from early in the season. He's not Peyton Manning, though, so what does he know?