How many players do you get a chance to meet with in your yearly exit interviews, like the ones you conducted today? Do you meet with every player?
"Yes, I try to meet with each one. I kind of take a different approach with some of the young guys collectively, and then single out the ones I need to grab individually, like the rookies. It's a lot of the same message for them, the rookies and practice squad guys, but I have to get some of them individually as well. And then the veteran guys, I grab them as they go. Unfortunately this last week, I had too much time on my hands, so we got started on it earlier in the week. I told guys to carve out time for me and come see me. 'You know where I am. I'm easy to find.' So it was a process that I started last Tuesday."
What's the biggest thing you want to get out of those meetings?
"I want to put something in their mind for the future, whether their future is here or maybe somewhere else. But it's just my summation of them, and my perception and view for them for the future. I put that on their mind, and I want to hear their thoughts. I want to know what's next in their life, what's going on with them and how they're going to get away from this emotionally. But you learn things, like how they thought things went for them personally, collectively, with the group, on offense or defense, or at their position."
If you started the process last week, your message must have been well-received since you won on Sunday ...
"Well that was part of it — I could reinforce some things (laughs). But that was part of it, just reinforcing what we wanted to see on Sunday. I think they came through."
Are you ever surprised at the things guys say to you, when they give their take on how they thought things went?
"We have enough contact throughout the season that there's usually updates as you go. A guy who's not getting to play earlier in the year, he comes to see me and says, 'Why am I not getting to play more? Why am I not getting to do this more?' And then things change one way or another, so we're able to have that back-and-forth feedback. That's important.
"It sometimes goes overlooked, the emotional stress these players go through throughout the season. Too many times, the common thing is that the only association they have with this is being on a team in high school, and not the emotional stress of a career that can be very short-lived. There are stresses that come upon it that way, based on play time, injury, perception and all of those things."
Where does that type of role fit in with the rest of your many duties as a head coach?
"It's very important. Look at Dre Kirkpatrick. He comes here with the expectations of Alabama and the great things he did there. He got injured as a rookie, and didn't get to play. He got to play some his second year. Every day he was up and down. We laugh about it now. He gave up a touchdown pass the first game of that year. To me, he's grown so much. He lives here, bought a house here. He's a guy who has grown up, and it's been so cool to be a part of and watch.
"He and I still have our moments every day, of course. He looks at me and knows I'm going to give him that look. He goes, 'All you have to do is give me that look, I know what you mean.' That works. (Laughs.) There's a number of guys like that, and it's been great. He's one that has a career here that didn't get started the way he, or we, wanted. Yet he's battled his way through it and come out the other side. As I tell him now, he's the guy that has to mentor the next group of young guys."
What do you tell the guys going into free agency? Are you honest with them about whether they're in your plans?
"Everybody is in our plans until they're not. That's the way it is. Conversely, we're in their plans until we're not. Early in the season, I said I liked our guys. We finished, and I still like them. We didn't get to where we needed to get to; we fell short. But there's more gas in the tank for a lot of these guys, and we'll see how it works out."
How much do you enjoy the personnel side of coaching?
"I enjoy the process of looking at players. I've been fortunate that when I was a young coach in Pittsburgh, I got the opportunity to pick some guys that worked out. I got the same thing as a coordinator in Baltimore. Coming in here and working alongside Mike (Brown) and Duke (Tobin), it's worked out great. I've enjoyed that. I'm not the end part of the financial side though, and that's the part that me as a coach I have to separate from them. It's their career, and what's best."
Do you enjoy the complexity of maximizing the players both on and off the field?
"That's all part of it. I think the more we can bring out of someone as a person, the more we'll get out of them as a player. That's part of our responsibility, to see them grow, because then they become guys of substance. Guys of substance win more football games for you. That's what we have to pull out of our players moving forward. We have to pull out of them an understanding of why and what in critical moments, and get it done."
How much different are the individual meetings this year, since you've had an extra week to do them?
"It's been more thorough today than it's been, I guess. l like the one when you do it in the locker room leaving the stadium in Houston, that's a really good one. I've been a part of a couple of those, and those are good. I was thinking about that. Those are the best kind. But it is where we are, and it's my job to get us back to have those, to be playing right now."
Do you feel like you guys have a lot of changes you need to make?
"I feel like there's a lot of change that happens every year, and I don't now that you can put a percentage on that or whatever. But we weren't good enough this year, so we have to revise and be better."
Do you see any changes to the coaching staff?
"That's never something I would talk about in here."
But is there a timeframe on that stuff?
"Well, yeah, there always becomes an urgency of things. We had a lot of changes last year for other reasons. We don't know what happens this year. Guys may get opportunity, we don't know that. So we'll have to adjust as we move."
You've developed players and coaches to move on better opportunities. Is that an under-appreciated skill?
"I don't know if it's under-appreciated within what we do, because I think everybody takes notice of that. I think it's just part of what we do and the relationships you have with people. I've been fortunate to go out, and people want the opportunity to be here, and that's a good thing. So we've been able to attract good people, both players and coaches. So that's a positive. And that speaks to the organization, it speaks to the city, it speaks to the environment that we have."
There was a time when nobody wanted to be here, what part did you play in turning that around?
"Well, I don't know what part I played. I just think back in '03, when we began the discussion with Mike, my question was. 'Do we want to be great in the NFL? Do we want to be a winning franchise?' And that's what they told me. And that's what we've worked hard at being. And we fell short this year."
So you're not looking at a reboot, like in 2010?
"I don't have any cools words yet."
But you're not flipping the house, it's more like a paint job?
"I don't know, But we've got to be better, I just know that. That's what we'll spend the next couple weeks with the coaches and take a deep look at us."
When you meet with the coaches, do you really drill down into everything over the season?
"Well, we do. You look at things that have occurred and as you guys pointed out, you go seven weeks and lose five games by a total of 15 or 16 points, whatever it is. You go eight games and you have only one game where you give up two touchdowns, and the rest are ones that matter, and we're not scoring in the second half. Those are big things, and those are things we've got to figure out why.
"We didn't win the fourth quarter yesterday in a game that we played pretty well in it for most of it, but it was 7-7 in the fourth quarter, and it's frustrating. We come out in the third quarter and we make a first down and we get forced to punt. So it's not like we're getting stonewalled, but we're not finishing the execution of things.
"When I looked at the stat book yesterday and saw we were 1 of 13 or whatever we were on third down, I couldn't believe it. And it's just amazing. I knew they were pretty good in the first part of the first half. Stats aren't always the telling story, but there were a lot of positive things we did this year. We set out to improve in penalties. We did things like that. We didn't beat ourselves and those things are important. But we've got to improve in those other areas. At critical moments, we've got to be better."
*Are the fourth quarter struggles a matter of intangibles? Or is it competitiveness? *"It does. We have to figure out a way to get better at it."
Is it mental too?
* *"It may be a mental thing, it may be a repetition thing, a confidence thing, a poise thing, time on task thing. It's all those things."
*What about Xs and Os? *"It's not x's and o's."
*So you don't think teams are adjusting? *"No. If an offensive coordinator repeated a play, we would come in and pay him anyway. We have to see one of those guys repeat a play. So, the 'adjustment,' that's more journalism jargon than truth."
*So success has to be a habit? *"It's got to be a habit. It has to be where 'I have to expect it. I have to make sacks. I have to make turnovers and all those things in the fourth quarter to win games when you do it on defense.'
"You've got to do more of that. Then make explosive plays. We got to do more of that in the kicking game, downing a punt, whatever it may be. We just went through a whole season where we didn't have a return against us for a touchdown. That's hard to do and not be a winning team. The things we did, we had some Ripleys where you can't believe these things occurred, and we are where we are, but we are. And unfortunately we earned it."
*The 2014 season was similar in that regard ... *"We were better at the beginning maybe. I don't know what happened in 2014, I don't remember. Trying to remember what happened yesterday."
*This year in an eight game stretch, you gave up 15.4 points per game and went 3-5, that's crazy ... *"It is. Until you look at the converse of it. That's what gets you beat. If you don't score enough, you are going to get beat. It's not like we turned it over. We weren't foolish or careless with it. We didn't beat ourselves with penalties, we didn't beat ourselves with returns or gaffes on special teams or other things, field position … other than the fact we missed kicks. You miss kicks in critical moments, it gets you beat."
*Do you like what Randy Bullock did, or will there be open competition? *"I think we are up in the air right now. That's what I told Randy. I know where we are. I know Randy has ability and talent, but yes, we will have a competition. We cannot go through what we went through this year. Randy is someone who we identified early on who could replace Mike (Nugent) when we looked for a replacement. We didn't make the move one week, and Randy was unavailable for two weeks. Mike didn't come out of it, and we made the move."
*Is Mike Nugent a possibility to be part of the competition? *"No. I don't think so."
*So there will be training camp competition? *"I don't know that. We are going to have to look at all options, no question."
*Is there more value on the kicker now than previously? *"We've been fortunate to have good kickers. I fully expected Randy to make the kick in Houston."
How long do see yourself going? Is it a year to year thing?
* * "I haven't thought about how long I see myself going. So I don't know. Maybe you should ask Chris Cooley (laughs)."
You see a guy like (Gary) Kubiak step down, it's not an easy job…
"No, it's not an easy job. I appreciate that. Again, I know Gary's had some things he's been dealing with. I don't know the details. Obviously he's a fantastic football coach, but I think each guy, each person, has to evaluate their own situation, what's going on with them and so forth and their family and their opportunity and their life after this. I think we all are blessed to do this, and are blessed to do this that when you want to step away, you're good. And I think that's important."
So what do you like about it? What wakes you up in the morning?
"I know. At 4:50 this morning, it's like, 'What are you doing?' But it just drives you to be better. I mean, it's a competitive thing. Now we're in the competitive thing to be better, and we're getting a head start on 12 teams. Twelve of the 32 are still playing, and we're with the other 20, and we're all trying to get to the end next year. That's what we have to do. and it's important."
When was the last time you had multiple kickers/snappers in same season?
"I think 2003, when we changed kickers and punters before the first week. Then in 2008 we changed kickers. Then in 2010 we changed kickers. I guess we changed snappers after one of the seasons. But this year was different that way. We've been fortunate prior to that."
*Hindsight is 20/20, but do you look back and think maybe we should have made the move with Nugent sooner or maybe some of these younger guys should have been worked in sooner? *"It's way easier to look back. But again, the decision made with Mike was a tough a decision when it was made. It was discussed many other times. There was a lot of other input into it. We've got to do what's best.
"Unfortunately for the kicker, it's different than with the left guard. When the left guard gives up a sack in the first quarter, no one knows. Or seldom knows until you guys get the all-22 later today and then you hit me with it. It's different for the kicker, the quarterback, the cornerback. They're out there all by themselves all the time, so everybody sees.
"And then the young players. But to me, it's got to be a competitive thing. It's got to be what does he know, what does he not know. We struggled at the beginning of the season because we had a lot of guys not necessarily make the play we hoped they would make, because they weren't quite sure.
"I think that's the hard part, to put everybody in jeopardy. So you've got to prove it. It's harder this way in the NFL. Our time is constricted (more) than what it used to be. But we're going to find out a way to do it better, do it more competitive and make it better. As coaches, we have to be more responsible to pull it out of these guys and make sure they know. So it's got to be different and better."
*What is the biggest positive of this season in your mind? *"Some of the guys in here never experienced losing like this. So it's for them to tighten their resolve moving forward and know it's not taken for granted. I've had a bunch of talks with A.J. (Green) about that. That (playoffs) was all A.J. knew before this season. One of his best friends was Calvin Johnson, who went to the playoffs one time in his career, I think. Everybody wants to put numbers and everything at A.J.'s name, but A.J. wants one thing, and that's to be a world champion.
"And I think a big thing is driving A.J., Geno (Atkins), Andy (Dalton) -- our best players, our best young players -- driving them forward and them stepping up and becoming the new leaders of the football team. With the high degree of the ability and the professionalism that they show all the time, raising the level for everybody else. And these are guys that aren't loud by nature. They're pretty quiet. But we've got to bring it out of them. And we've got to put them in position to continue to pull forward, particularly A.J. and Geno. That's important. They're moving through their career, and let's go. Let's make the best of it."
*Have you talked with Mike Brown about an extension (beyond 2017)? *"Mike and I have not talked since Friday about my future. I've gone into the last year before and everything has worked out fine. We'll see what happens this year, I expect it will be fine. Either way, I'm not concerned about that. My biggest concern is me taking care of the football team."
*This draft is shaping up to be pretty intriguing – you've got a lot of picks – do you sense this draft will have a big impact on what you're doing? *"I think obviously it's important to the organization. I have no idea yet about the players or anything. I do think we should end up with some compensatory picks, which would aid what our other picks are, and that would be helpful. It will be an influx of new talent again and that's going to be important to us that we do a great job in this draft of evaluation and so forth and get guys that fit the mentality that we want and we need.
"Obviously the guys picked early in the draft have a great opportunity to come in and make substantial contributions early on, and that will be great for this team. As you talk about the free agency and things like that, free agency happens first. If it would be reversed it would have been really good. Have the draft first like the lockout year, it would really help us, but it's not going to be that way."
*Players from year one to year two, players' eyes really open in terms of their development ... *"I hope the eyes don't open as much and their mouths do, and they communicate better (laughs). It's to the point where I think when their eyes get big. their mouths shut and get stuck. I hope that there's a calmness, and I think that's what guys who have played for a while have. One of the things Dre (Kirkpatrick) said is, 'This game has slowed down for me.' That's what you want. You want it where the game has slowed down for them and they can just play relaxed, and they understand the opponent that much better, because they know what we're doing soup to nuts."
*Is it that way when there's an influx of a lot of new assistants, is there a big jump from year one to year two? *"We need to have a big jump. I think there is, because I do think the new people, the new coaches, the new personalities, game day, all of those things … there's something to that. I think that's important. From us as a standpoint as a staff, I take the responsibility that we have to do it better."