Well, gosh darn it, what are we talking about here? This is a football coach? Darryl Rogers, the guy in the blue shorts and the bony legs and the voice that sometimes sounds disturbingly like Kermit the Frog?
Come on. Jiminy Crickets! He looks like the same guy they brought in here last year — the guy who never coached an NFL game in his life. OK. Skinny and green you can understand at that point. But he has had a year to learn the ropes, this Rogers guy. Where’s the muscle-flexing? Where’s the cursing? Where’s the new deep voice, the swagger, the strut, the Lombardi quotations, the iron jaw, the “I’m-in-charge” bark that sends terror down a rookie’s spine?
Where’s the . . .
Where . . .
Where are you going, Darryl?
“Over here,” he said, walking to the far end of his office to start an interview. “I never sit behind a desk when I’m talking to someone. Makes them feel uncomfortable, so I don’t do it. Let’s just sit in these chairs here across from one another. Now, then. What are we going to talk about?”
Uh . . .
Well, let’s start with last season. Rogers arrived from Arizona State, still damp from the college showers. Everything was new. NFL schedules. NFL personnel. NFL pressure. When reporters cornered Rogers early on, he’d simply shrug and say things like, “I don’t know. I’m new around here.”
People had a hard time believing an NFL coach could be so unassuming, so goodness-gracious. Or so naive.
“Was that just an act?” he was asked in his office last week.
“Not really,” he said. “We honestly didn’t know a lot of things when we got
started last year. (“We” being Rogers’ way of saying “I.”) Then when we got into it, we found out we knew more than we thought we did. Then again, when we got further into it, we found the things we thought we knew, we didn’t always know.”
What all that translates to, basically, is the Lions’ 1985 season: Beat the teams no one expects you to beat — Miami, San Francisco, the New York Jets, Dallas — then crumble like corn flakes against such chest-beaters as Tampa Bay and Indianapolis.
Where was the sense in that 7-9 record? Where was the pattern? Who were the
“real” Lions? The team that showed up at the Silverdome? Or the team that took its plane tickets and compiled one of the worst road records in the NFL?
With the 1986 season about to began, it is clear the so- called experts believe the real Lions were the ones that whimpered, not the ones that roared. They are predicting mediocre results for Detroit, at best. Fourth place in the NFC Central.
To which Rogers replies:
“I can understand that position. It’s logical, when you look at our numbers from last season.
“Hey. We don’t have any great offensive statistics. We don’t have any great defensive statistics. We don’t have an all-pro player. We don’t have anyone we can hang our hat on since Billy Sims retired. Let’s face it. We’re sitting here with a team of a lot of just no-name people.”
Great. Glad to hear it. Thanks for coming by and brightening Detroit’s day. And what, pray tell, Darryl Rogers, do you expect to do with a team like that?
“Oh, I expect to win,” he said, quite naturally. “Every time we go out there.”
Confused? It is understandable. The genius who coined the phrase, “Grin, it’ll make people wonder,” never met Darryl Rogers. Or he might have written:
“Don’t react at all. It’ll drive ’em crazy.”
Rogers is, at 51, so laid-back he challenges gravity. After victories he is calm, analytical, liable to crack a joke. After losses he is calm, analytical, liable to crack a joke.
So it’s no surprise he can predict big things from a football team most everyone already is writing off, and do so without a megaphone or a brass band.
“I have just always been this way,” he said, shrugging. “You don’t need to scream at people to get things done. Anyhow, it won’t work, unless you’re a screamer. Intimidating people won’t work, unless you’re an intimidator. The only thing that will work for you is to be the way you are naturally. So I am.
“When I was younger, as a quarterback in college (a brief stint at Fresno State), I tried being something I wasn’t. I thought it would make me lead the other guys better. Finally one of them came up to me and said, ‘Darryl. Stop it. Just be yourself, OK?’ He was right.”
Since then, Rogers has been so true to his nature it is hard to even picture him any other way. You can, for example, imagine — and let’s emphasize the word imagine here — coaches like the Chicago Bears’ Mike Ditka soulfully drunk in a Rush Street tavern. Or Don Shula so angry that smoke comes out of his ears, instead of just his nostrils.
But Rogers? Singing in the rain? Posing as a drill sergeant? Crooning a nightclub number? Nah. It doesn’t work. Even his misbehaving has to make sense.
“Did you ever get in fights when you were younger?” he was asked.
“Oh, sure,” he said.
“When we played football.”
“The ball, mostly,” he said.
OK. This much Rogers will admit about last year. He was impressed by the specimens. College bulk is one thing. But you talk NFL, you talk behemoth, ugly, mean, strong, fast. And those are the guys you cut.
“At first I couldn’t get over how fast these guys were, how powerful,” he said. “It’s a whole different breed.”
It took Rogers a little while before he adjusted his standards upward. When players he recognized from college became available, he quickly found he needed a second opinion. A typical conversation would go like this:
ROGERS: How about this guy? I remember him.
ASSISTANT: But look at his times.
ROGERS: Really? These are his times? But he was so fast in college.
ASSISTANT: Look at his strength.
ROGERS: Really? These are his numbers? But he was —
ASSISTANT: He’s no good, coach.
ROGERS: But he was a good player in —
ASSISTANT: Coach, he’s no good.
ROGERS: Well. . . . I’ll be darned.
The “I’ll be darned” is a direct quote, by the way. Rogers uses foul language about as often as he uses a triple-reverse.
Rogers knows personnel much better now, he said. “I was looking at our kickoff team from last year, and I realize eight of those guys are not even with us anymore. And at the time, I thought they were good.”
But then, there were players he just shook his head at in awe last season. James Lofton of the Packers. Walter Payton of the Bears.
“You know, in college, you very rarely match personnel to personnel,” Rogers said. “You match system to system. In the pros, there are times when their guy is just flat-out better than your guy. And you have to scramble so they don’t keep taking advantage of it.”
Rogers said the Lions made a mistake by acquiring certain players in the middle and end of last season. Without elaborating, he said, “We took some players out of desperation, and it turns out we weren’t as desperate as that. We would never pick up those players again.”
“How good was the team last year?” he was asked. “Was it good enough to beat all those top-ranked teams?”
“Well, let’s say when we played them, we were good enough to beat them,” he said. “That doesn’t mean they were necessarily at their best. But that’s not our responsibility. Our responsibility is to prepare our own team as best we can. And on those days, we played better.”
“How about the teams the Lions lost to?” he was asked.
“Well, in my mind the two worst losses were the ones to Washington (24-3) and to Green Bay (43-10). We were completely controlled in those games.”
“Whom do you blame for those losses?”
“After losses like that you tend to degrade everybody. In fact, after losses like that, you think about getting rid of your entire team.”
“You can’t do that, of course,” he added.
And how about the 1986 Lions? Rogers thinks this year’s team is “no doubt” better than last year’s. But there still is no one big name — no Top Gun character he can point to.
“That’s a big difference between us and a lot of teams,” he said. “A guy you can really hang your hat on. A guy you know, no matter what happens, he’s gonna come through for you. Most of the time that’s not a lineman or any defensive player or even a running back. Most of the time, that’s a quarterback.”
“Does Chuck Long fit the bill as a ‘guy you can hang your hat on’?” he was asked.
“We hope so,” Rogers said. “We hope that’s what he’ll become.”
In the meantime, Rogers is left with a continually sticky quarterback situation. Eric Hipple or Joe Ferguson? It’s a repeat of last season’s dilemma. But make no mistake. Rogers sees the selection as crucial for the team’s chances — although he kept the decision his own until naming Hipple this week.
But then, that, too, is a Darryl Rogers pattern: Avoid controversy if you can. There were whispers about the way Rogers left Michigan State for Arizona State back in 1980 and whispers about the way he left Arizona State for the Lions last year. There was talk that Rogers was less than candid with his soon-to-be former employers. But Rogers — who acknowledges that he was never fired from a football job; he initiated all his changes — remains entirely non-plussed.
“I don’t need to concern myself with what was said about what happened or what was written about what happened,” he said, “because I know what happened.”
Nothing, he said. At least nothing wrong or suspect. He said he had no jitters about coming back to Michigan last year because “Michigan State was a positive experience; so was Arizona State.”
End of subject.
So here, football fans, is the man you are dealing with, the thin guy with the Haggar slacks and slightly bemused expression. In a nutshell, he is not much of a nut. In fact, his call letters could be NTFN — No Time For Nonsense.
One of the few things Rogers will not tolerate — and he tolerates a lot — is mental errors. “I won’t be telling a player the same thing over and over,” he said. “You get it wrong, you’re gone.”
Another pet peeve? Reporters who ask him how he feels after a loss. “How the heck am I supposed to feel?” he said, in astonishment. “Why would anybody care how I feel, anyhow? That doesn’t change anything. It’s just not important.”
No Time For Nonsense.
Braggarts don’t impress him. Loudmouths don’t impress him. When asked why not, he replied, “I’ve seen a very big man brought down by a very small man with a gun.”
He said it again, but when asked to elaborate, he shook his head. His answer was enough to answer the question. The rest, as he determined it, was not important. Not for now.
You get the feeling there are a lot more of those sentences inside Darryl Rogers — a lot of complexly wired parts inside that second-year coach’s brain. But he keeps them to himself, because revealing them serves no purpose. He would just as soon shrug it all off with a self-deprecating remark and a squeaky laugh.
But Rogers is no foot-shuffling rube. He will answer almost any question, albeit safely. True, you are not likely to hear “Darrylisms,” the way you might hear “Sparkyisms.” But you won’t find Rogers having to take back half the things he has said, either.
So here he is, in his second pro season. Where is the swagger, the strut, the iron jaw? They never were there. They never will be.
“Not every coach is like that,” Rogers said, his voice rising into the range of that famous frog again. “Bill Walsh isn’t that macho type. Don Coryell isn’t that macho type. I don’t think Tom Landry is that macho type.
“So I’m in good company, right?”
He smiled from the chair, a half-room away from his desk. The 1986 season will begin in two days. Jiminy Crickets! Holy Moley! How will he take it?
He’ll take it as it comes.
“You don’t need to scream to get things done,” is Darryl Rogers’ personality, but a little body English helps. Darryl Rogers expects to win — “every time we go out there.”