UCLA's Josh Rosen hardly first Millennial who could challenge NFL coaches
Ex-UCLA coach Jim Mora has kept the internet humming in recent weeks by labeling his former quarterback, Josh Rosen, as a Millennial who requires extra work to help him focus and perform at his best.
“He needs to be challenged intellectually so he doesn’t get bored," Mora told The MMQB this week. “He wants to know why. Millennials, once they know why, they’re good. Josh has a lot of interests in life. If you can hold his concentration level and focus only on football for a few years, he will set the world on fire. He has so much ability, and he’s a really good kid.”
Because Rosen could conceivably be the first player drafted, and because most coaches gush excessively about their former players this time of year, Mora’s remarks raised eyebrows.
“Man,” a buddy at the gym said to me. “Mora did his boy wrong. He was calling him out, right?”
I shared what I’ll explain here: Mora’s assessment of Rosen didn’t come from a place of malice.
The NFL’s players are changing. The evaluation Mora offered reflects today’s locker room climate. As society and culture evolve, so too do the mindsets of football players. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it does further challenge coaches to adapt and connect with their players while trying to maximize their abilities.
“There are just so many outside influences. Dudes have the ability to be more than football players, so who doesn’t want that?” DeAngelo Hall, a veteran of 14 NFL seasons, told USA TODAY Sports. “Ten years ago, that wasn’t the case. It’s really about having coaches that understand the new-age athletes. That’s why some coaches can’t get through to these guys, and others can.”
Athletes dabbling in the worlds of entertainment, business or fashion isn't a new concept. But ever-expanding technology makes it easier to diversify. That doesn’t mean players can’t still achieve greatness, or that a team should drop eclectic prospects like Rosen on their draft boards. But it does force coaches to have more understanding of unique personalities.
“The emphasis on being able to authentically connect with each player is the most important thing,” Los Angeles Rams coach Sean McVay, a Millennial himself at age 32, told USA TODAY Sports in a phone interview.
“The challenge as a coach is to be intentional and provide a why you’re doing it for your players. Because if your guys understand the why, then they can at least understand everything has a purpose, and that opens up the lines of communication. So if you explain the why, and they have a different viewpoint — and you’re open to the point where you think it might give you a chance to do something in a more efficient manner — then it’s good for us to be coachable as a coach because you’re held accountable by conscientious players.”
McVay also offered this: “There’s a lot of merit to being balanced. You want your guys to understand that whatever time commitment they have (while at the facility), we need their complete focus. Otherwise, I understand that there are a lot of outside interests. For some guys, that helps them keep from getting burnt out.”
McVay is the youngest coach in the league. Last season, he won coach of the year honors after leading the Rams to a seven-game improvement and the NFC West crown while developing Jared Goff from potential first-round bust into a Pro Bowl quarterback.
But McVay is hardly the only coach who's figured out how to connect with Millennials.
The Patriots’ Bill Belichick, 65, continues to succeed despite ruling with an iron fist. The oldest coach in the league, Seattle's 66-year-old Pete Carroll, actually prefers working with younger players than crusty veterans. He and his staff emphasize a streamlined approach and simplistic mission statement to better equip young players while encouraging healthy dialogue to cultivate a feeling of ownership.
McVay mentioned the need to “provide a why” for players. Mora said Rosen “wants to know why.” Like teachers and some parents, coaches can view frequent questions as an annoyance or a challenge to authority. But a player’s refusal to accept “because I said so,” as an answer doesn’t mean he doesn’t want to learn and excel.
“They’ll work, they’ll still go hard for you,” former NFL linebacker-turned-Titans-coach Mike Vrabel told USA TODAY Sports' Jarrett Bell when asked about current players.
“They learn differently. It’s not always just sitting in a classroom at a desk. So you have a lot of teaching that takes place in the walk-throughs and up on the board.”
Two other former head coaches agreed with Vrabel’s assessment while speaking to USA TODAY Sports on condition of anonymity because they currently work as assistants and didn't want to speak publicly about draft-eligible players.
As one said, “We live more in the presentation era. Information is presented with all kinds of different teaching styles. There’s way more class participation than back in the day. Has to be.”
The second believes lengthy classroom sessions no longer work well, maintaining players' attention spans don’t allow for effective learning under those setups. After 30 minutes, they receive a short break — go ahead, check your phone — before film study resumes. Once players have gone home, coaches know individual and group text messages are their best bets for reaching them.
The NFL’s collective bargaining agreement limits the amount of practice time teams can demand of their players. But many coaches also structure their practices to feature a quicker pace and a variety of segments because they often observe sloppy performance in long, repetitive sessions.
Yes, there are questions about Rosen's focus and ability to lead. But if he lands with a coaching staff that taps into his intellectual curiosity, one of this draft's most gifted passers could quickly shine. As is the case with many of his peers, connecting with Rosen the individual may be just as crucial as connecting with Rosen the player.
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