Commentary

Should NFL coaches move upstairs?

Updated: February 8, 2011, 5:38 PM ET
By Tim Keown | ESPN.com

Back in 2008, when Joe Paterno was coaching from the booth above the field because of health concerns, it was widely considered a hindrance to his game-day coaching. He was removed from the grit and sweat of the sidelines, unable to feel and hear his players as they worked. The booth was at an antiseptic remove, far above the real battle.

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A. Messerschmidt/Getty ImagesJoe Paterno coached from the press box because of his health but has since returned to the sideline.

But Paterno -- and we're using him because he's the only one other than Charlie Weis we can remember who had the experience -- said something interesting when he was asked to list the advantages and disadvantages of game-day coaching from high above the field. The booth, he said, provided a better location for the "technical analysis" of the game.

To which the question needs to be asked: Is there another human endeavor that has become defined by "technical analysis" more than football coaching?

In the NFL, especially, coaches are asked to make instant technical analysis of what they see. They have help, but in the end it's their reputations -- and their jobs -- on the line. By definition, NFL head coaches should be the best minds the franchise has to offer. So why aren't they positioned to benefit from the best vantage point the game has to offer?

I've been fortunate enough to watch football games from just about every vantage point -- from the press box (equivalent to coaches' booth), sideline (thanks, UFL) and just about every angle in the stands. By far the best place to watch -- the place that provides the best of all possible angles for technical analysis -- is the press box, with the combination of the aerial view and the access to network television replays. There's a reason radio and TV announcers sit up high, and there's also a reason sideline reporters add very little to your understanding of what happens on the field.

This is just a post-football rumination after watching a season that held more than its share of blunders in the area of "technical analysis." If I were an NFL head coach, I'd want to sit up there. If I were an NFL owner or general manager, I would suggest -- or at least raise the possibility -- of my head coach sitting in a booth, where the offensive coordinator generally sits.

[+] Enlarge Mike McCarthy
Mike Ehrmann/Getty ImagesMike McCarthy probably would have had a better idea whether to throw the challenge flag during the Super Bowl if he had been in the booth with access to replays.

There are two aspects of coaching that are botched more than any others: (1) clock management, and (2) replay decisions. In many cases, a mistake with a replay decision can have a significant effect on a coach's ability to manage the clock.

In both cases, being in the booth would help a head coach. The booth would create a level of emotional distance that would undoubtedly help a coach manage the clock. It seems impossible that someone like Colts coach Jim Caldwell would be as bad at clock management if he were able to see the game from a safe remove.

It's hard to understand when you're watching on television, but a coach standing on the field doesn't always have the same relationship with the clock as a guy sitting on his couch. It's not as prominent in real life, on the sideline, as it is to the viewer who watches it ticking down on his television screen. In the booth, that would change.

The benefit for replay is self-evident. Broadcasters and viewers know better than coaches when a challenge should be made, and when it will be successful. Since the head coach is presumably the best mind, he should be the one making the decision armed with the most knowledge. As it stands now, there are assistants in the booth above relaying the information to the head coach; on questionable calls, such as Mike McCarthy's decision on whether to challenge Brett Swain's near-catch, it's not hard to imagine the guy up above saying, "You could challenge it -- your call." No matter how the suggestions are sent down through the headset, the head coach is the guy shouldering the blame/credit. Oftentimes, he might be in the worst position to know.

There are benefits to being on the sideline. It's hard to motivate from a luxury box, obviously, and conversing with officials is no longer an option. There are also times when a head coach doesn't want to wait for halftime to discipline/calm/inspire in a man-to-man, face-to-face, eye-to-eye way. Beyond that, the sideline might be the absolute worst place to watch a game if your job description includes "technical analysis."

If it was a good place to watch a game, they wouldn't need the headset.


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Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesDallas Lauderdale dunks on Illinois. He's averaging 4.7 points, 3.8 rebounds and 1.8 blocks per game.

One other thing:

It's the opinion here that Ohio State is the most complete college basketball team since the 2001 Jay Williams-Shane Battier-Mike Dunleavy-Carlos Boozer-Chris Duhon Duke team. With a win this Saturday over Wisconsin -- no sure thing, but likely -- count on the Buckeyes entering the NCAA tournament undefeated. They're that good.

In the current college climate, with even the best teams fortunate to have two big-time players and a sufficient supporting cast, the Buckeyes are a rare collection. They don't have any glaring weaknesses. They can defend inside and out, shoot it outside, score from the post and rebound. And, obviously, Jared Sullinger is exactly the type of player who leads teams to titles.

But there's something else about this team that separates it from just about everybody else: They play the kind of physical game -- especially Dallas Lauderdale and Sullinger -- that referees allow. Put more accurately, it's the kind of style that referees grow to accept.

Don't discount this as a huge factor in the tournament. The Buckeyes have established this tough, physical style as their brand of play throughout the regular season, and their consistency will give them the benefit of the doubt in March.

ESPN The Magazine senior writer Tim Keown co-wrote Josh Hamilton's autobiography, "Beyond Belief: Finding the Strength to Come Back," which is available on Amazon.com. Sound off to Tim here.

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Senior writer, ESPN.com