Any coach worth the dried spit on their whistle knows player-coach relationships hinge on communication and expectations.
An avalanche of instruction is actually counterproductive if the coach doesn’t know what a player already knows or how he learns or what motivates him.
Early in any coach-player relationship, the simple phrase, “Help me help you,” has to be said.
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Josh McDaniels said on Friday that he and Cam Newton are already well down that road.
"I think he's a really good communicator,” McDaniels said when asked how the interpersonal fit with Newton has been. “He tells you when he when he feels comfortable with something and he tells you when he doesn't, and I think at the beginning of any relationship, I think that's a really good place to start (by saying), 'Hey, I'm going to be trying to move at a pace that suits you. Just be honest and tell me what I need to do better in terms of trying to communicate it to you.'
Care-and-feeding protocols for every player are a little bit different. And, if we’re being honest, the more talented and important the player is to the team’s success, the more important it becomes to make sure he’s comfortable.
Coaches aren’t lying awake at night worried that a practice squad player was sad after getting yanked out of a rep. A quarterback? A veteran quarterback? A veteran quarterback just getting to know new teammates? Different equation.
"The process of learning how to communicate and … coach and motivate each player comes with more experience and exposure to him on the field,” said McDaniels. “What happens when we make mistakes? When we correct them? Those opportunities, I think, we're all looking forward to going through them together that's how you build a good relationship."
Newton and the Patriots are in the honeymoon phase. It's running and stretching on the field with the strength coaches and studying in the meeting rooms with the coaches and teammates.
What can go wrong?
It’s well-established, the approach of the Patriots coaching staff is unique. There aren’t lobbing bouquets and high praise when a guy does, basically, what everyone expects him to.
Some veteran players have a hard time adjusting to that. Jerod Mayo told me once of a veteran Pro Bowler who wondered during his first training camp with the team why he never even got told, “Nice play…” by Bill Belichick.
McDaniels indicated that Newton doesn’t need a steady stream of positivity. And Newton himself said the pressure he puts on himself to perform means he’s right there with the coaching staff in being hard on himself.
“I've talked to some people that have been with them in the past and he's a very coachable guy,” said McDaniels. “This guy wants to work and he's worked really hard since since we signed him, and he's trying to gain every day, which is really all we can ask of him.”
After a week of spitballing about how Newton will respond to the Patriots’ style – first by me, and then (and more importantly) by former teammate Kyle Love -- this angle has been pretty well covered. So far.
But it’s an ongoing and fascinating subplot to the 2020 season.
Newton’s a once-brilliant quarterback trying to prove he’s still brilliant by going to a team that’s played a style completely different from what he’s used to.
Belichick nudged and cajoled Tom Brady toward the door and, now that the New England portion of one of the great rags-to-riches stories in sports history is over, the Patriots coach is turning to a guy who won the Heisman, went first overall and has always been The Man. And he’s telling him to compete for the job.
Can these two men share an NFL sideline without driving each other crazy?
As weary as people may get by body-language interpretations and lip readings, how it works between Newton, Belichick and McDaniels will go a long way toward determining how well it works in general.