I’ve never been the coach that punishes a kid for missing practice, or for being late to a game, especially in the age groups where the players aren’t driving, where control over when and how they get to those sessions is out of their hands.
That goes for missing a practice because you’re sick or because you got sweet tickets to your favorite concert with your family or friends.
I often tell the player one of my favorite sports stories involving the beginning of New York Yankees great Lou Gehrig’s storied consecutive game streak.
Legend has it that Wally Pipp, New York’s starting first baseman, came to the park on that infamous date complaining of a severe headache. When manager Miller Huggins overheard Pipp asking the trainer for a couple of aspirin for his migraine, Huggins suggested made the decision to insert the young prospect named Lou Gehrig.
As I said, I don’t hold it against the players for transportation issues or missing practice due to a choice of priorities, but they do so at their own peril.
If another player steps up in their absence and does a better job, it’s possible that they could lose their starting job — not as a punishment, but because they opened the door for their competitors.
Making a change is never easy on the player. It’s even worse on the coach whose job it is to put the players on the field that gives his team the best chance of winning. It’s a difficult decision because of the relationships that we form with each player.
But good coaches don’t allow their personal relationships with players to interfere with their decision-making when it comes to putting the best players on the field.
As so many young boys in Baltimore growing up in the 1960s, I idolized the legendary Johnny Unitas. We were extremely lucky to be able to witness “The Golden Arm” work his magic right in front of us at Memorial Stadium. Arguably the greatest quarterback of all time, certainly the best of his era, we thought the great Johnny U was immortal and would never stand the chance of losing his job.
Despite all of his great performances and the accolades he received, his body let him down late in his career and his injuries forced him off the field creating opportunities for Earl Morrall to lead the Colts to a victory in Super Bowl V. That was my first introduction to the reality of professional sports.
The next great quarterback to fill the void was Notre Dame and San Francisco 49ers legend Joe Montana. After a dominating decade of football by the Pittsburgh Steelers, Montana came on the scene in the early 1980s and led his team to four Super Bowl titles during his tenure at starting quarterback.
But even talk of the “greatest quarterback of all time” didn’t stop the 49ers from trading for Steve Young from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers when the Bucs were looking to dump him and draft Vinny Testaverde.
Despite Young’s tremendous talent and Montana’s back injuries, Montana maintained his grasp on the starting position until further injuries forced him to the bench, giving the opportunity to Young to take over the role as the starting quarterback, eventually leading his team to another Super Bowl title and forcing a trade of Montana to the Chiefs.
At the beginning of this current run by the Ravens, when injuries to resident Super Bowl MVP Joe Flacco forced him to the bench, opening the door to Lamar Jackson, I argued with my sons that once Flacco was healthy again, Jackson would head back to the bench and continue his development to await the time when he would get his opportunity to reward the Ravens for making him their first-round pick in the NFL Draft.
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I wasn’t critical of Jackson, although I’m still not convinced that he can hit the broad side of a barn with a pass if his life depended on it. I am just a loyal fan of Flacco and what he’s accomplished as the leader of the Baltimore offense since entering the NFL.
So as Flacco began to heal and work his way back to being physically able to play again, Jackson has led the Ravens to a 3-1 record in Flacco’s absence and thrust them back into a position to earn a playoff spot, and potentially even a division title.
So, what do you do if you’re coach John Harbaugh and you have to choose between your $120 million Super Bowl MVP or the snot-nosed kid trying to make his way?
You have no choice but to ride the hot hand.
The great NFL linebacker Mike Singletary once said, “Do you know what my favorite part of the game is? The opportunity to play.”
Here’s hoping that Jackson makes the most of his opportunity.