In baseball, it’s the catcher. In basketball, it’s the point guard.
Seemingly every sport has that one position that demands more mentally of those who play it. Often, a byproduct of those who excel in such spots is such a thorough understanding of the sport, its strategies and nuances, that they become managers or coaches once their playing careers conclude.
In football, quarterback is most often thought of as filling that role, but the Titans offer compelling evidence that safety is at least as much of a training ground — if not more so — than that spot.
The top two people in the Titans’ football operations department, coach Jeff Fisher and General Manager Mike Reinfeldt, both were safeties in their playing days. So was defensive coordinator Chuck Cecil. All three extended their NFL careers into coaching.
The only current assistant coach who has been a head coach in the NFL is assistant head coach/linebackers Dave McGinnis, whose time as a defensive back ended with college. Secondary coach Marcus Robertson and assistant secondary coach Tim Hauck have a combined 25 years as NFL safeties.
“Especially at the safety position, it’s such a big-picture thing,” Cecil said. “Everything you do, you have to see it all and kind of know everything that’s going on. Coaching’s kind of the same way sometimes.”
It makes sense.
Like a quarterback, a safety watches all the action take place in front of him. Unlike the quarterback, though, the safety can be 20 yards or more from the line of scrimmage when the play starts, whereas the quarterback takes the snap from center and expands his view as the play develops.
Contrast that to a lineman, whose focus is rarely more than a foot or two in front of his face, or a wide receiver, who often is asked to run a specific route that requires minimal analysis.
“Here’s the deal: From the back end, there’s so much going on with cover schemes and stuff like that,” McGinnis said. “[But] I think no matter what position you play, it’s just love of the game.”
The local franchise is not unique in its reliance on those who played at the back of the defense.
Of the 32 current NFL head coaches, nine were defensive backs during their playing days and eight were quarterbacks. It should be noted that two of those, Cincinnati’s Marvin Lewis and Washington’s Mike Shanahan, played both positions.
Five of those nine (Fisher, Shanahan, Chicago’s Lovie Smith, Indianapolis’ Jim Caldwell and Carolina’s John Fox) have taken teams to the Super Bowl, although Shanahan is the only one who actually won the big game.
One of the most successful NFL coaches in recent history, Tony Dungy, was a college quarterback who played safety in the NFL. One of the most successful college coaches in recent history, Pete Carroll (now the Seattle Seahawks’ coach) was a safety in his college days.
It’s a safe bet that with the makeup of the Titans’ staff, the big picture is pretty well in focus from week to week.
“You think about the years in the secondary here in this organization, particularly at the safety position — with Reinfeldt and to a much lesser degree me,” Fisher said. “Then you have Marcus and you’ve got Chuck and you’ve got Tim.
“There’s 50 years or so playing the position.”
That’s just the NFL playing experience of that group. The number only grows when college playing days — and so forth — are considered.
“I think a lot of people who play that position enjoy the Xs and Os part of it,” Cecil said. “They enjoy the coaching standpoint of watching film and doing those things. I guess that translates into becoming a coach.”