For NFL coaches, navigating anthem debate could create defining moments - The Buffalo News

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For NFL coaches, navigating anthem debate could create defining moments

As a rookie head coach for the New York Jets, while his dazed city and a nation recovered from the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Herm Edwards would stand at the 50-yard line for "The Star-Spangled Banner" and remember his late father.

Master Sgt. Herm Edwards Sr. spent 27 years in the Army, fought in World War II and the Korean War and raised his children for a while on military bases.

His son had heard the national anthem every day at 8 a.m. when the flag was raised over Fort Ord in California and again at 5 p.m. when the flag was lowered. No matter where you were on the base, standing at attention for the anthem was mandatory, even if the flag wasn't in view.

Herm Sr. was known to pull his white-and-green, 1960-something Chrysler sedan to the curb and order his 7-year-old son from the car to face northeast and salute the horizon.

"You couldn't even see the flag!" Herm Jr. said, trying to contain his laughter. "It was five miles away!"

Edwards, the fifth black head coach in NFL history, understands what's happening around the league today perhaps better than anybody. He has coped with uncontrollable outside forces while trying to galvanize a locker room and prepare to win the next game.

A child of the 1960s who attended Cal Berkeley when students there burned the flag, Edwards navigated the emotions of 9/11, stood up to the commissioner alongside his players by threatening to forfeit a game the NFL planned to play that next Sunday and guided his unified Jets to the playoffs.

Edwards loves the flag yet respects any player who's compelled to kneel during the national anthem for awareness of racial oppression in America.

Amid heightened sociopolitical anxieties and anthem protests, teams that effectively manage potential volatilities and crisis will improve their chances to win against opponents who might not be as unified.

"If you're a coach," Edwards said this week, "you have to figure out, 'Now where do we go?' You must have a conversation with the owner and then meet with the team and have some kind of answer between now and Sunday.

"Regardless of how we feel about players taking a knee or standing or whatever, we have to have solidarity as a league, owners, coaches and players. Now you've had a week to think about it."

The Buffalo Bills have drawn praise for identifying the need to gather as an organization swifter than most teams, delivering a statement last Saturday before two-thirds of the league and writing the sharpest rebuke of provocative comments President Trump made the night before at a rally in Alabama.

Trump said he wished an NFL owner, "when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, 'Get that son of a b---- off the field right now. Out. He's fired. He's fired!" The week before Trump made that statement, six NFL players protested during the anthem. More than 200 protested after.

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A few clubs already have announced they are moving on from last week's demonstrations and will resume standing as a team. Others still are deliberating how to proceed. Both the Chicago Bears and the Green Bay Packers linked arms for the anthem before Thursday night's game; the Packers had urged fans in the stands to do the same.

But a movement that began last year, when former 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick sat for and then, to be more respectful, knelt during "The Star-Spangled Banner" won't simply end.

And who knows what Trump will say or tweet to stoke the flames again?

"There are going to be more unknowns," Bills rookie head coach Sean McDermott said. "What is going to be the next thing to distract us or try to tears us apart? That takes steady leadership."

Bills coach Sean McDermott says he's aware some of the team's moves might not be popular with fans. (Harry Scull Jr./Buffalo News)

The Buffalo News this week spoke to five coaches with a combined 105 seasons of experience, 15 world championships and nine coach or manager of the year awards among them.

Former NFL coaches Bill Parcells, Dick Vermeil and Edwards, baseball Hall of Fame manager Tony La Russa and Hockey Hall of Fame coach Scotty Bowman were asked what guidance they would provide a current NFL coach in these turbulent times.

"Many people don't know how critical it is," Vermeil said, "to be 100 percent focused each week on the challenge at hand to win another football game on Sunday.

"I don't see how what's going on with certain teams can help that focus in any way. And if it doesn't help, it hurts."

La Russa stressed the protests are bigger than winning a game, bigger than sports. The three-time World Series winner is more interested in seeing players move on from the awareness phase to the activism phase.

That said, anthem demonstrations are going to continue and likely spread to other sports. Oakland A's catcher Bruce Maxwell last Saturday became the first Major League Baseball player to kneel during the national anthem.

"Distractions are a humongous issue," La Russa said. "A distraction, by definition, is something that affects the frame of mind. So you always deal with them because when you get into your competition, the closer to 100 percent committed you are, the better you will be.

"If part of your mind is someplace else, it'll affect your performance, your practice, your learning and the actual game. What you need to do is recognize those distractions are there and address them, fight through them."

Crossroads moment

Demonstrations, however, are not necessarily distractions. The way each team handles chaos can morph a pressing issue into an opportunity to come together.

McDermott has experienced the Bills' nascent culture evolution through free agency, the draft, rookie camp, voluntary workouts, minicamp, training camp, the preseason and then three regular-season games.

McDermott acknowledged Thursday he has noticed a spike in team unity since the organization met at One Bills Drive last Saturday.

"It's the coming together of a team," McDermott said. "You go through adversity as a family, trials and tribulations, but you make it through stronger.

"We went through it. Whether we won or lost — maybe in this case a little more because we won (against Denver) — we came through with a feeling that 'We can do this.' It brought us closer together, and it all started with a healthy amount of respect from the start."

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Bills linebacker Lorenzo Alexander, a member of the NFL Players Association's executive committee, could sense uneasiness among his teammates when they gathered that day on the practice field for their annual team photo.

The Bills then held their usual Saturday walkthrough to prepare for the Broncos, but Alexander called an unusual meeting for players to discuss Trump's comments and how they should respond.

Crucial to the discourse was having owners Terry and Kim Pegula, General Manager Brandon Beane and McDermott also in attendance.

"This is an organizational decision, not a coach's decision," said Parcells, a two-time Super Bowl champ with the New York Giants who also dealt with replacement players in 1987. "It's private enterprise. The owners own the teams."

Bills coaches and players alike admitted they felt unburdened when the received the Pegulas' blessing to express themselves.

"A coach should not be hung out to dry," said Vermeil, who took the Philadelphia Eagles to a Super Bowl and won one with the St. Louis Rams. "I think coaches are more apt to be reactionary because they're held responsible for winning. The owners should be totally included.

"You ought to present yourself as one and come up with a combined approach of dealing with it."

McDermott is in his first year as a head coach, but so was Edwards with the Jets in 2001.

The Jets opened Sept. 9 with a loss to the Indianapolis Colts, then a member of the AFC East. The Jets were scheduled to play Sept. 16 at the Oakland Raiders, and NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue intended to play on. This is the league, after all, that played games two days after President Kennedy was assassinated.

The Jets, led by quarterback Vinny Testaverde from Long Island, voted not to play and to forfeit if they had to. The Jets were willing to drop to 0-2 in the AFC.

Edwards earned his players' admiration when he backed them to Jets owner Woody Johnson (coincidentally a close Trump ally appointed to ambassador to the United Kingdom). Tagliabue postponed all the games.

"The stronger the leader," Vermeil said, "the deeper the trust, the more the credibility, the better job he'll be able to keep doing.

"And if you've got a great, working coach-owner relationship you can resolve things together without allowing division to occur down into the team."

A dozen Bills players kneeled during the national anthem Sunday at New Era Field. (James P. McCoy/Buffalo News)

For the national anthem, the Bills walked from their sideline and out onto turf. Each player and coach was allowed to do whatever he felt was proper. A dozen knelt. Many locked arms. Some stood as they normally would with hands over their hearts.

The Bills encouraged independent expression. Doing your own thing would be supported by ownership and the coach, which turned individuality into team acceptance.

"Those players who feel compelled to take a knee should stand up in front of other men in a meeting and tell them why," said Edwards, who also coached the Kansas City Chiefs. "If they do, 99 percent of all the guys will get it.

"Then those who say, 'I want to stand for the national anthem,' their teammates will be fine with that. We can be OK to disagree. As long as we know why, we're OK with it.

"You can respect the guy because he's your brother who works hard for the common cause of the team, and you discussed what happens when you walk out into that stadium."

McDermott has cultivated family bonds by asking players to stand up in the locker room and share their NFL journeys with the group.

Veterans, rookies, superstars and journeymen have at least gotten more intimately familiar with each other's backgrounds, and at best allowed themselves to be vulnerable in front of their teammates.

McDermott claimed those talks fostered the openness, understanding and acceptance experienced in last Saturday's meeting.

"You're allowed as a leader to establish priorities, Nos. 1, 2, 3, 4 areas of attention that become part of who we are," said La Russa, who managed through three strikes and twice endured an in-season player death. "One of them is a non-fractured locker room.

"One of the first things you build — if not the first — is that we compete in a brotherhood as a family, and each person has to account for his contribution to that family. You've got to earn that respect and trust of your teammates and show that you care about what's going on in their lives."

Uncharted territory

There isn't a chapter in any coaching manual about how to handle what's happening in the NFL these days.

There is no precedent for what to do when a U.S. president condemns your game for not being violent enough or declares what your owner ought to do to a "son of a b----" player.

Even the coach with the most victories in NHL history admitted he wouldn't know where to start.

"I don't know how the hell to get into that," said Bowman, whose name is on the Stanley Cup 14 times, nine as a coach and five more as an executive. "So many incidents come up with coaching that you can't come up with a generic statement."

Bowman can appreciate the way McDermott quickly recognized a need to be flexible for unforeseen circumstances.

Josh McDaniels, the New England Patriots' offensive coordinator and ex-Broncos head coach, warned McDermott to set aside time every day for non-football issues. They are inevitable.

"So many things happen to a team," Bowman said. "When you're coaching, every day is different, and you've got to make decisions. I've seen all kinds of things. You go to the rink one day and a guy wants to retire.

"You have to expect the unexpected."

Here is a snapshot of how the Bills responded on the fly last Saturday compared to the rest of the NFL:

  • The Bills were the 10th NFL club to release a statement in response to Trump's comments.
  • The Bills were the first to mention Trump by name. Jacksonville Jaguars owner Shad Khan on Sunday became the only other owner to specifically call out Trump. Kim Pegula and Khan are the NFL's only two majority owners of color.
  • Eight teams referred to the "president," but the other 22 didn't associate him directly.
  • Twelve teams released statements Saturday night, and 26 had spoken up by Sunday's 1 p.m. kickoffs.
  • The Bills were among 17 teams with a mix of players who knelt, sat, raised a fist, stood and/or locked arms during the pregame national anthem. The Baltimore Ravens and Jaguars who knelt for "The Star-Spangled Banner" all stood for "God Save the Queen" in Wembley Stadium.
  • The Bills were the lone team that walked out onto the field for the national anthem.
  • Nine teams stood only.
  • Three teams didn't come onto the field, with Pittsburgh Steelers offensive lineman and former Army Ranger Alejandro Villanueva alone in the tunnel with a hand over his heart.
  • The Dallas Cowboys knelt together before the anthem then stood for it on "Monday Night Football."

Many found the Cowboys' approach a worthy compromise. They exhibited unity by kneeling, but couldn't be perceived as disrespecting the American flag or the national anthem.

New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees announced on Twitter they would adopt the same routine for Sunday's game against the Miami Dolphins.

That approach, however, denies players the ability to demonstrate if they wanted to. The Cowboys reportedly will not kneel anymore and will stand together before their first home game since Trump's comments.

"I respect the Dallas organization and everyone there," Bills defensive tackle Cedric Thornton said Friday at his locker stall, "but we have more say-so here."

Members of the Dallas Cowboys link arms and kneel during the National Anthem  on Monday. (Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

Thornton was with Dallas 18 months before Buffalo signed him Sept. 5.

"Dallas is more like a dictatorship," Thornton said. "They're going to come in and tell you what you should do.

"Being here and going through the meetings, they allowed us to do what we wanted to do, and they let us know they had our backs and were going to support everybody.

"They knew we were going to take some backlash. Our owners were willing to take that backlash, too."

Thornton is in his seventh NFL season. Two years ago, he donated $10,000 worth of books to the school library in his hometown of Star City, Ark.

"What we have here is more like what we want the world to be like," Thornton said. "Dallas is more like what the world really is."

Not without flaws

That's not to say the way the Bills made it through Sunday's victory against the Broncos was perfect.

Running back LeSean McCoy made an unapologetic spectacle of himself, stretching theatrically while country-music artist Abby Anderson sang "The Star-Spangled Banner" in front of the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Field Operations color guard.

Hall of Fame quarterback Jim Kelly, in many ways the face of the franchise and still a Bills employee, was incensed by all the kneelers, McCoy in particular. Kelly vented in an Instagram post Sunday night and on his weekly 97 Rock radio show Monday morning.

Kelly put the Bills — from the front office down to the locker room — in a bad spot. Even Bills players who disagreed with demonstrations were in accord for the sake of team unity.

The Pegulas are understood to personally not be fans of kneeling during the anthem. Nevertheless, they released an organizational statement that Kelly contradicted.

Even a few of Kelly's Super Bowl teammates seethed over his misstep. The privately lamented Kelly should've known better than to rant publicly, although these teammates were afraid to create any more of a distraction by speaking out against Kelly on the record.

Bills pass-rusher Jerry Hughes blasted Kelly in a news conference Monday afternoon, and you didn't hear a peep from anybody in the Bills' organization about Hughes talking out of turn.

That's because, based on multiple interviews, Hughes was sticking up for the brotherhood forming at One Bills Drive, and that's what loyal brothers do.

Competitive edge

Owners have emerged to assert it's time to move on from the demonstrations, that sufficient fuss was made over Trump's comments last week.

Steelers President Art Rooney II told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, "It's over, as far as I'm concerned."

The players, though, might not be ready to move on.

We could be about witness the next awkward phase of this movement, with 32 possible ways for subsequent steps to be taken in NFL front offices and locker rooms.

"I'm going to give you a smart answer," Parcells said. "I really want to stay out of this, and I'll tell you why: I might say something that gets misinterpreted.

"I do have some strong opinions, but I don't want to get into it.

"I'll go with what [Jets coach Todd] Bowles said. We got devastation in Puerto Rico. We got a lot of issues in our cities. He said that's what's important, and I agree with him."

The games still will be played. A 2017 champion will be crowned.

Some attitudes toward anthem demonstrations will be healthier than others and could influence victories, defeats, postseason potential.

"There's no doubt if you have cohesiveness and compete against an organization that's not as cohesive," La Russa said, "then you're going to have an edge."

Edwards noted the Oakland Raiders were so confounded by their protest plans last week -- they initially were going to stay in the tunnel for the anthem, but at the last moment changed course, with a majority sitting on the bench -- they played like they were in a haze well into the second quarter.

Washington scored the first 21 points to breeze past Oakland.

"It's affecting a lot of players and coaches," Edwards said. "They are routine-oriented, and I don't know in the history I've been in the league since 1977 that an event like this would take place the day before a game and you have to come up with some kind of formula.

"Because this game is played with routines being so paramount, there were probably a lot of players uncomfortable with what was about to happen because how they approach the game."

"The Star-Spangled Banner" lasts about two minutes, but letting any detail turn into a colossal distraction can derail the next 60 minutes of game time.

La Russa said he wouldn't allow one of his players to protest during the anthem, but not because he's a curmudgeon.

He repeatedly emphasized the importance of addressing police brutality, oppression and social injustices, especially as they concern poor minorities.

La Russa suggested raising awareness has become wasted energy, that the public has gotten the point, that now it's time to take action and come up with better strategies to make a real difference.

"The significance of winning a game is important," La Russa said. "That's what your profession is. But this issue is greater that competing.

"Identifying a problem is the easy part. Proactively being a part of the solution is where the effort should go. The kneeling part, if it adds to something that's already recognized and subtracts from the institution of our country, you're really working against the cause."

Each franchise must decide how to proceed, how much the players will have a say, how deep into the season they're prepared to demonstrate — if at all anymore.

"The message has taken so many turns and twists that right now everyone's confused," Edwards said.

"If you're a coach today, you better figure it out fast."

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