Sylvester Croom has coached long enough to know what’s important.
That’s one reason the Jaguars’ new running backs coach wasn’t annoyed, bored or anything except very interested late last week when the team’s newly compiled offensive staff spent a few hours one morning on one page of the team’s evolving playbook.
Croom, 57, the former head coach at Mississippi State and a 20-year NFL assistant, said that morning was about details so small many might miss them. And that was fine, he said.
Because a morning such as that is where winning happens.
“That’s one of the great things about this game,” said Croom, one of 21 assistants hired in the last month by new Jaguars Head Coach Mike Mularkey.
“No matter how long you’ve been in it, there is always something else to learn. It’s exciting to learn a new system, to learn from other coaches who have had success in the league . . . There’s always some other little detail that can make you a better coach and help you be a better teacher.”
Croom talked a lot about details when he met with the Jacksonville media recently for the first time since joining the Jaguars’ staff. He said there’s a reason for that.
Not only is attention to detail critical for any player, and any coach, he said it’s one area on which he will focus when working with Jaguars running back
“There will be little things, things that sometimes the player himself may not notice because when you’re as good as he is at this point and a great player, it’s always the little things,” Croom said, adding that those likely will be in areas such as ball security, pass protection and route running.
“It’s not going to be anything major, I can assure you that, but it’s the details. Can you plant your foot a little bit better coming out of a route? Your hand placement in pass protection…? It just might be that one difference in allowing the quarterback another split second to get a pass off and that touchdown in the big game, the game that may get you to the playoffs. Eventually during the course of a game, it’s going to come down to one play and the thing that we don’t want to happen is something fundamental that we can work on in the offseason and during training camp to cause us not to make that play.”
Croom, who worked with Steven Jackson in St. Louis and Barry Sanders in Detroit, said elite-level backs are artists with unique abilities.
“What I’ve always tried to do is bring certain things to them and see what they do and if there’s something that I can bring to them to help them with the system, to be the absolute best that they can possibly be,” Croom said. “I never really try to change who they are. I appreciate that guys at those positions, the guys at the highest level at the running back position in the league, they have great gifts and special talents. . . .
“But it is a joy to work with a great back and watch the artistry of their performance. Sometimes I just sit there and I say, ‘Wow.’”
Croom said without question Jones-Drew is such a back.
Jones-Drew, a Pro Bowl selection the past three seasons, finished this past season as the NFL’s rushing leader and set a franchise record with 1,606 yards rushing. He is a player at the height of his skills, and Croom said personal experience has made him well aware of Jones-Drew’s strengths.
When speaking with the media, Croom talked of a Jaguars game against the Rams in 2009. In that game, Croom said what impressed him about Jones-Drew was the more he ran, the more effective he became.
“The first three quarters of the game you think you’ve sort of got it contained and then all of a sudden in the fourth quarter they just keep giving him the ball and it’s hot out there and he just keeps getting stronger and stronger and stronger in the fourth quarter,” Croom said.
Croom said his first impression of Jones-Drew has been supported by tape he has reviewed since joining the Jaguars’ staff.
“The good backs in this league . . . they always finish strong,” Croom said. “You rarely ever see him get knocked back and for sure no one individual is ever going to knock him back. So every time he goes down he’s going towards the goal line and I think that’s an important asset because every inch in this game is important.”
Croom said the majority of his work with a back involves film study, ensuring the player has an understanding of the scheme – and perhaps most importantly, an understanding of the offensive line.
“Those are the guys that are really doing the hard work and everything we do is to try to make their job easier,” he said. “The easier you make the big guys’ job, the easier the job is going to be for the running back.”
Croom said as much as a chance to work with Jones-Drew, it was a chance to work with Mularkey and the team’s staff that drew him to Jacksonville. While he didn’t know Mularkey until interviewing last month, Croom said Mularkey’s reputation “speaks for itself,” and that as much as Mularkey’s reputation is as an offensive coordinator, he was drawn to Mularkey as a leader.
“It was important to me to have an opportunity to work with somebody who’s a strong character person,” Croom said. “You’ve got a staff that is committed to winning a championship and putting that first rather than all personal agendas. I think the team will reflect that.”
Croom said it’s also a staff that understands that that commitment means an attention to detail, which he said is what the early weeks of February around EverBank are all about.
“All of our players are going to be rookies to this system,” Croom said, adding that that means the first time they read the playbook it must be clear and concise and easy to understand.
“You don’t want to get into the season and a guy lines up wrong, you get a five-yard penalty just because of something on page three of the playbook he misunderstood. . . . Just the way something is worded, it may be worded a little different than what you’re used to, but whatever you can do and whatever you can learn is to get better.
“At this stage of our career and at this level, it’s all in the little things.”