By Lisa Zimmerman, Player Engagement Insider
The impact a coach can make on a player is often difficult to quantify. That holds true for NFL players and that’s why many players, once they have completed their professional playing careers, transition into becoming coaches – to give back what they were given and help impart their knowledge on the next generation.
Ike Hilliard spent 12 years in the NFL after being selected by the New York Giants in the first round of the 1997 NFL Draft. A wide receiver, Hilliard played eight years for the Giants, including in 2000 as part of their Super Bowl XXXVII team. After playing his final four seasons for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Hilliard already knew he wanted to enter the coaching ranks.
Hilliard recalled what first inspired him. “A lot of it came about because of (former Giants offensive coordinator) Sean Payton and what we were able to do for a couple of years. It was intriguing to me how Sean implemented the offense, created the match-ups, distributed the ball, and I wanted to find a way to get involved in the chess match when I was done.”
Now the Washington Redskins wide receivers coach, Hilliard described how his experience as a player – what he calls the “in-helmet experience” – offers him a different perspective as a coach.
“I’ve had a coach tell me that be able to put on a helmet is like dog years to coaches. You’re in situations that a player’s going to be in that requires more feel than a line drawn on paper. It’s something that the players can get, and hopefully use, and put in their tool boxes as personal experience perspective.
“With certain situations, concepts, and the different teachings I had to go through as a player. I can take all that information and lean on my personal experience and my film study, and look at it from a different angle, and put a spin on it to get the player to understand how to bridge the gap.”
Hilliard is one of many now utilizing his playing experience. For as long as he can remember, Jerricho Cotchery knew two things – that he wanted to play in the NFL and that he then wanted to be a coach. For 12 years, Cotchery, a fourth-round NFL Draft pick by the New York Jets in 2004, played. After seven years in New York, he subsequently spent three seasons with the Pittsburgh Steelers and two with the Carolina Panthers before retiring following 2015. In 2017, Cotchery took the first step in his second career when the Panthers hired him to be their assistant wide receivers coach.
An important trait coaches all look for in their players is the ability to be coachable. That was always Cotchery’s goal as a player and something he now tries to impress upon his players.
“As a player, I always tried to see it from a coach’s side,” Cotchery said. “I wanted to make the coach’s job easier and be player that was prepared, and handled his responsibilities on a weekly basis so coach wouldn’t have to lose sleep over me. Over the years I formulated my own philosophical approach on how I would get better.
“Once you get to [the NFL] you have guys who have been stars on the collegiate level, and you see guys with incredible talent. Guys willing to receive the coaching are the ones who develop; the ones who don’t, it catches up to them. A lot of guys can get by on physical gifts but it catches up because other guys are studying. It’s tough to see that. And, I’ve always been a guy who wanted to see other guys develop and grow, but also in their personal life as well.”
Then there’s Rod Woodson, who capped his 17-year playing career with a 2009 induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Now the cornerbacks coach for the Oakland Raiders, the team he ended his playing career with, the Pittsburgh Steelers 1987 first-round Draft pick was out of football for a few years after retiring in 2003. He had a brief foray into television broadcasting, but it didn’t fulfill him in the way he was looking for and in 2011 he re-joined the Raiders as a coach.
Woodson enjoys the process of taking his knowledge and experience and watching it play out at the hands of others.
“A coach is really a teacher,” he said. “I think there’s a two-fold aspect to coaching. There’s a systematic aspect, teach them the system, the language, what’s inside that system. Secondly you really have to see the game differently than you see it on the lack board. Those xs and os don’t move on the field, you have to have an answer for it.”
“At the end of the day you can talk about football on TV or you can get your hands dirty,” Woodson said.
“The long hours in the facility are giving back what was given to you. During 17 years in the league I had some great coaches. It’s adapting some of the things I learned and give that back to players. I see the light turn green and they go on the field to be great players. I’m also here to inspire them to be greater men off the field.”
Lisa Zimmerman is a long-time NFL writer and reporter. She was the Jets correspondent for CBSSports.com, SportsNet New York’s TheJetsBlog.com and Sirius NFL Radio. She has also written for NFL.com.