Coaches must find balance in off week

Earning a first-round bye and home-field advantage does no good if a coach mismanages the off week.

Updated: January 7, 2004, 3:03 PM ET
By John Clayton | ESPN.com

The goal of every team is to have home-field advantage during the playoffs.

Home field provides the support of the fans. It can provide as much as a seven-point aide because of the crowd noise and excitement. Players sleep in their own town the night before a game. In the NFC since 1990, home-field in the divisional playoffs has translated into a ticket to the NFC title game 24 out of 26 times.

The only caveat that comes with the home-field advantage is making sure the week off of playing doesn't become a problem. Teams get into a groove toward the end of the season. Momentum builds because often the best teams peak during late November and December.

Which is why the coaches for teams with playoff byes have to be careful not to let their teams relax too much. Most playoff teams with bye weeks take three or four days off. The Rams got almost a week off.

Former Bills coach Marv Levy was one of the masters at figuring out the balancing act of rest and timing. Levy had the pulse of a team that went to four consecutive Super Bowls. For any playoff coach, understanding the health of the team is the most important thing.

Not only would Levy try to use the bye week to rest his players, but he also made sure key players didn't get overused down the stretch.

"Every coach has to monitor the health of his team," said Colts general manager Bill Polian, who was the Bills general manager at the time. "Marv was always trying to find the right balance heading into the playoffs. He would joke around and say how he was going to take the temperature of the team."

Obviously, most coaches do a good job of using the bye week. One home team might lose during the divisional playoff round, but three usually win. Rarely is a divisional loss the byproduct of a coach who squandered a week off. But it does happen.

Mike Shanahan might be the league's best coach for preparing a team for a game. But his 1996 Broncos were well rested and overconfident heading into a playoff game against Jacksonville, a second-year expansion team. They lost, 30-27.

Shanahan, being the coach that he is, turned that negative into two consecutive Super Bowl victories, but the week off may have hurt the Broncos in 1996 because it took away their edge.

The decision for a coach during the bye week is to either let the players get away from the practice field and football for close to a week or split the time. If a team is banged up, the bye week vacation is good. For the healthy team, it's usually better to spread the days off, having the team practice during mid-week of the bye week and having a long weekend to rest.

"You lose some timing during the bye week," Falcons interim head coach Wade Phillips said. "The hardest thing to get back is the timing on the passing game. That's the thing you have to work on the hardest once you get back."

Every coach has to monitor the health of his team. Marv (Levy) was always trying to find the right balance heading into the playoffs. He would joke around and say how he was going to take the temperature of the team.
Colts and former Bills GM Bill Polian

Some coaches may decide to put the players in pads after a layoff just to get their bodies back in a groove. As the regular season wears on, coaches are forced to have less padded, less physical practices. With only 53 players on rosters, players can't keep hitting for 17 consecutive weeks. Injuries dwindle the numbers. The worst thing a coach can do is wear down his team during the week to a point where they are too fatigued.

Dick Vermeil had his Chiefs do less padded practices over the final month of the season because of injuries on defense and some age on his offensive line.

But the positive thing of a bye week is what is does to an injury list. Most playoff teams have a very small injury list after a bye.

"It's like I told our players on Monday; this is the first time since we reported to camp I think, that we've had everybody," Rams coach Mike Martz said. "That's a really good feeling. It's exciting to have everybody recuperated more or less. But it doesn't mean anything unless you take advantage of it, as you know well."

Naturally, the Rams will work on the timing of their passing game this week, but the Panthers could have an early edge in the game Saturday. They are a running team and their running game was fresh last week against the Cowboys.

The Rams might have to overcome a slow start, but they will have the advantage of the home crowd and the additional week of rest. That's what home field is all about.

John Clayton is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.

John Clayton

NFL senior writer

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