Sunday, December 9, 2012

Player-coaches, a Thing of the Past

The idea of the player-coach is dead. This should not be major news, Pete Rose was the last player coach in any of the big three sports back in 1986. The collective bargaining agreement in the NBA prevents the practice. Though it has been 26 years since the player-coach has been seen, it is an idea that refuses to die in the minds of fans. Amid the fallout of the New Orleans Saints Bounty Scandal was the notion of Drew Brees serving as coach for this season. The Chicago White Sox toyed with the idea of replacing Ozzie Guillen with first baseman Paul Konerko. Jason Giambi hinted at a desire to take the role early in the Colorado Rockies managerial search. He later announced that he would retire, if chosen as manager, but once again the idea sparked the imagination and left many wondering who the next player-coach could be. Aside from some fun speculation over beers with your friends, don't waste your time. The era of the player-coach is dead and it is not coming back.

Modern sports have devolved (or evolved depending on your view) from great all around players who could play any position to specialists. Pitchers are not just pitchers anymore, nor are they simply starters and relievers. Starters are "aces" "workhorses" and "back of the rotation arms". Relievers are "closers" "set-up men" "long relief" "middle relief" all the way down to "LOOGYs" (left-handed one out guys). Fielders are increasingly being labeled "platoon" players, benched against a right or left-hander based on advanced metrics designed to help give their team a competitive edge. Rare is the football player who plays offense and defense into college. Receivers are now "speed guys" "route runners" or "slot men." Most teams have a center, a backup center and a long-snapper. Is snapping the ball 10 yards so difficult that it requires a specialist? I would hope not, but the position exists. You can do this with just about every position on the field. The closest to a diverse talent you see anymore is a receiver/return man, but even then it is usually a mediocre receiver because if they are good receivers their return days are over.

In addition to the players, the duties of coaches have increased tremendously over the years. In baseball a staff will include the manager, a bench coach, a third base coach, a first base coach, a pitching coach, a bullpen coach and a hitting coach. Most recently a trend of hiring two hitting coaches has emerged and it wouldn't shock me to see a film coach added in the future. Managers no longer set a lineup and say "play ball," instead they have to study the lineups and tendencies not only of their roster, but the opposing pitchers as well. They have to manage egos and injuries and off field issues more than the game itself. Connie Mack has likely rolled over several times in his grave at how much players are catered to in the modern game.

Football is no better. There are head coaches, assistant coaches, offensive and defensive coordinators, not to mention line coaches, secondary coaches, quarterback coaches and on and on. The pace and scheme of the modern game demand the attention of such specialists and even then it might not be enough. Without Sean Payton, the Saints have been just 5-8 this season and have gone from potential Superbowl challengers to struggling to make the playoffs. Drew Brees is back, but the offense has struggled between stagnant and terrible all season. I doubt their record would improve if Drew Brees had more on his plate.

The largest factor in keeping the player-coach out of the game is the General Manager. General Managers are almost constantly on the hot seat. The wrong hire, the wrong personnel and they might not be around to fix the mistake. Increasingly these GMs are relying on advanced statistics and data to make their choices in their hires. They will compile reams of data on a player or a coach to fill one role. They are less informed about a players ability to handle coaching duties and increasingly less likely to take the risk.

While it may be fun to speculate Brees or Payton Manning or Ray Lewis or Alex Rodriguez coaching and playing their final season(s), keep in mind it will likely not come to pass. It is a notion that now belongs in sports history, but I doubt fans will ever stop speculating about it, and there is nothing wrong with that.