One-on-One With Jim Caldwell: Coaching is About Expertise, Empathy

Jim Caldwell is the former head coach of the Indianapolis Colts (2009-2011) and Detroit Lions (2014-2017). He was a part of a pair of Super Bowl-winning teams and has had a hand in coaching four Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks: Peyton Manning, Joe FlaccoMatthew Stafford and Brad Johnson. Caldwell, 67, has coached at the college and pro levels for 43 seasons. He last worked in the NFL in 2019 as assistant head coach and quarterbacks coach for the Miami Dolphins.

I’ve been fortunate enough to have a setup at my home in Lewisville, N.C., where I can watch as many games as possible on Sunday. With picture-in-picture, I can break the screen into quarters and watch four different telecasts. Typically, I’ll put the Red Zone Channel on one of those, and then on the other three I go by divisions that I’m interested in watching, which I’ll do with my son, who played for me at Wake Forest. My wife, who is a big football fan, strictly watches from her office; you can hear her screaming at the television from upstairs.

I can only watch games from a technical standpoint. It’s hard for me to look at games any other way. I can’t watch a game for enjoyment. That’s how it is with coaches. It’s in our DNA.

I look for different things. Perhaps it’s something that someone’s doing that I think is innovative, and I want to really study and take a look at it from that vantage point. Most often, it’s some team that’s asked me a few questions that I want to give them an answer to in the coming weeks. Or I’m looking at players who have played for me, like Matthew Stafford of the Rams, and different teams or coaches that have also been on my staff.

I’m usually able to back up each one of those games I’m watching with a previous one, and I’ll link it to another team in a division. So, if the Colts are playing Jacksonville, maybe I’ll have Tennessee on the backside of that so I can flip it back and forth and kind of take a look and see what they’re doing and what’s happened in those particular games. I’ll watch as closely as I can and take some notes as I go. Usually, the thing that I’m looking for is studying what people are doing in key situations — end of half, end of game. Things that they’re doing positively, things that I have questions about or things where I say, “You know what? That’s a pretty good idea.”

Typically, I’m looking at games from a global standpoint. I’m looking at it as if I’m the CEO running an operation because this stage of the game for me is where my interests lie. But I’m also intricately focusing on the quarterback position, the most important position on the team. I look at that position in the utmost detail – fundamentals, technique, where they’re looking, how they’re calling audibles. All the little things that I can kind of pick up on television. I also have access to all-22 film, so I can go back and look at a particular player and make some recommendations. Every once in a while, I’ll send out a text, saying, “This is what I’m seeing. What do you think? Is that close to being accurate?”

One of the things that a few people know about me, but not that many, is that every place I’ve gone, I would look at every single throw that the quarterback ever made in his career. If I could find his college film, I’d do the same with that. I’d watch them and catalog them. One thing I would do with those cutups is create a series of drills that made a huge difference just in terms of fundamental effectiveness in the pocket, outside the pocket, making throws under duress, and getting to the point where the uncomfortable becomes comfortable. I took different throws and would slide them into categories where I would say, “Okay, here’s a drill that we use for this particular throw that you made here.” Or, “Here’s an example of you using a drill that we have in place. These are the things that we use to get you better.”

Everything we used, you could actually look at the tape and find an instance where that occurred. For example, I would throw blocking bags at the quarterback’s feet while he was in the pocket. You can see a number of different occasions where the guard has a hold of a defensive tackle and they’re going to the ground and you have to move or slide, reset right or left, to get out of the way from the bodies at your feet. Or a defender comes around the horn right at the end and he’s swiping at your legs and you’ve got to move away and make certain you keep your eyes downfield.

One of my very first coaching jobs, at Southern Illinois, I worked with a guy named Rey Dempsey and he would always ask guys on the staff about a particular drill they were using with their position group: “Show me where that happens in a game on film. If it happens in a game and you can demonstrate that it happens on film, let’s use that drill. If it doesn’t, let’s not use that drill.”

I started having quarterbacks filmed from behind in practice with what was called the “ladder cam” in 1983 when I was coaching the quarterbacks at the University of Colorado. Every film had been taken from the end zone or the sideline, but it never gave the quarterback’s perspective. Nor could I see his fundamentals and techniques up close. The ladder cam was set back far enough where I could see his entire body – his footwork, his release points, where he’s looking. I should be able to tell what a quarterback’s progression is by his feet. His feet and eyes work together.

I wanted to be able to show those things to the quarterbacks as we developed along the way to make certain that they understood how important they were. Not only that, but we can also read coverage from that vantage point. You can see linebackers. If linebackers are flat, it’s man-to-man. If linebackers drop, it’s zone. If a linebacker’s rushing, it’s obviously some sort of stunt. You can also see the two safeties from that vantage point. So, we would use that vantage point as we took our drop to determine the coverage. Back in the old days, we had that 16-millimeter film, so you actually had to splice it with the old hot splicers, which would give us three views: from the sideline, from the end zone and from the ladder cam for the quarterbacks. I carried that over to the pros and later on in college as well.

I think with coaches, oftentimes, it’s more about them than it is about the organization. I think that’s where we can make a difference, because it boils down to two things in coaching: empathy and expertise. The empathy part comes in where you understand who your players are, what they’re all about, and you know how to push the buttons just in terms of getting them to turn it up a notch or turn it down a notch. It’s the same thing with your staff. You have to be able to put yourself in their shoes.

The expertise, I think, is quite obvious. Competence is extremely important because they’ll run you out of a meeting room if you don’t know exactly what you’re talking about. These guys have been around football a long time. When they get to the professional ranks, they can tell quickly when there’s a phony standing in front of them.

Empathy and expertise are really what the coaching ranks are all about.

As told to Vic Carucci

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