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Q&A with Ravens Special Teams Coordinator Jerry Rosburg

Special teams, football’s evolution, kickoff rule changes and more

Super Bowl XLVII - Baltimore Ravens v San Francisco 49ers

Today, I had the incredible opportunity to speak with Ravens’ Special Teams Coordinator and Associate Head Coach Jerry Rosburg. Throughout the interview, Jerry and I discuss his lengthy coaching career, the evolution of football, his highly successful special teams program with the Baltimore Ravens and how the recent rule changes surrounding the kickoff is attempting to save the play, not end it. Also, Jerry defines his title of, ‘Associate Head Coach.’

Kyle Barber: “You actually began coaching back in 1979 with Fargo Shanley High School in North Dakota.”

Jerry Rosburg: “Home of Roger Maris. That’s Roger Maris’ high school.”

KB: “Oh, I didn’t know that.”

JR: “Yeah, and the Cichy family. An amazing football family. Sid Cichy retired right before I got there but I was a teammate of Nick Cichy and Joe Cichy – he’s in the college football hall of fame. His younger brother, Steve, was at Shanley while I was at college and he went to Notre Dame and started as a freshman. And, his son, Jack Cichy, was a linebacker at Wisconsin last year that was coming out, if you recall. So, its got a lot of great, rich football history at Fargo Shanley High School.”

KB: “No kidding. I’m learning already about that.”

JR: “There it is. 1979. Throwbacks.”

KB: “Now, in your last 39, 40 years [coaching], I’m focusing on the evolution of football. What to you has been the greatest or most substantial change to the sport itself that you’ve seen throughout your coaching career.”

JR: “Oh man, that’s a wide-ranging question. Well, obviously the way I entered the game as a coach was at a high school level and now, being at this level, its been a journey just in that regard. Not just the level of football you’re at but the game itself. At this point in time, we’re all looking to make our game [safer], to reduce the risk of the players, the new helmet rule. I am now and I have been concerned about the participation rates from high school football because I love this game and I think there are so many benefits for youngsters that can get out there and apart of a team sport such as this. Just the nature of football itself I think lends it to the development of young men.

I have been, in my opportunities to speak at youth groups or high school coaches or clinics and what have you, I’ve always been a strong advocate of youth participation. I’ve said that youth coaches should be evaluated on their return percentage. Participation, rather than their winning percentage. We’ve got to keep the game fun and engaging for the young players, because if we don’t get them to the point of where the game is a full contact sport in high school and so-forth and they’ll never have an opportunity to enjoy that part of the game. Football’s still, obviously, a tremendously popular sport. The Hall of Fame Game is an example of that, which we’ll be playing this week. The TV ratings that Kevin [Byrne] shared with me are just mind-blowing, how popular the game of football is, relative to other sports and ratings. We’re coaching and playing the greatest game there is, and we just have to protect our game and protect our players and take care of one another.”

KB: “Now, kind of narrowing down that broad question I gave you, you joined the Cleveland Browns back in 2001 and you’ve been in the NFL ever since. What has been the change at the professional level, specifically, that you’ve witnessed, throughout the years?”

JR: “Well, the sport has grown. It was tremendously popular when I got into the game but some of the same things I talked about with regard to the rule changes and trying to make the game – reduce the risk for the players. The continued great exposure that we get both in our country and abroad now. The media is, because the game is so popular, the media exposure has expanded and now players, who, the ‘new media’, which we used to call back in the day which is a relative term that’s no longer new. Social media and everything, exposure is just incredible. Guys can just go in the locker room and it starts. We all have to be mindful of that because we need, those of us that are coaching and playing, the number one objective is still to win. Our guys are great at that; understanding how we can use the exposure and the media we have as a platform for good and still create the team environment that we need to be successful.”

KB: “Back in 2008 you joined the Ravens and in this last decade you’ve actually produced six All-Pro nominations in four different aspects of special teams: returning, recovering, kicking, and punting. What’s been the main proponent of your success in this program over the past decade?”

JR: “Special teams is important for the Ravens and a Head Coach like John Harbaugh, who values the role of special teams on the team. We’re always going to have enough practice time and access to players, active rosters that don’t put guys on the 46 on gameday, that can’t contribute in some way. The management, Ozzie and all of his staff, the scouts, we scout and go forth. Speaking of Ozzie.”

*Ozzie Newsome turns down the hallway and passes by*

JR: “When we go on the road, our guys go on the road and they’re scouting the whole player, not just what he does on offense and defense so we’re trying to build a roster that has depth and width that can do a lot of things. We value specialists. You can’t be good on special teams if you don’t have good specialists. That contributes a lot to it and our guys, now after being here so long, our guys who have worked through this program, guys like Albert McClellan and Anthony Levine now, there’s previous guys. Edgar Jones is helping us coach and Edgar was one of those guys who helped us before. Plus, our specialists Sam, Morgan, and Justin. We have a culture developed now where we have high expectations. The bar is high here. We practice hard, we expect a lot out of our guys and the players are the biggest advocate for that culture. They’re the ones that set it. I can say all I want, it doesn’t matter what I say, it matters what our guys do and our players have high expectations for each other, our practices, and our play.”

KB: “You mentioned the process where you evaluate players. I had the chance to speak with Trent Sieg a little bit ago during camp this year. How does the process of evaluating a long-snapper go and what about Trent caught your eye to where you’re on the phone with him during the draft, which is what he mentioned throughout his entire process and now he’s on the team and working with you and expected to, I assume, be on a roster somewhere by the end of camp.”

JR: “My job as a special teams coach is to evaluate special teams players, so I’m evaluating all the specialists, including the snappers that come out every year. Even though we have had Justin Tucker and Sam Koch and Morgan Cox here for a long-time, had a lot of success I’m still evaluating every year. I’m still evaluating every specialist that has the caliber to play in the NFL because I want to know them, if we have to play against them, it’s just a part of my job and as you know, our scouting department is going to look back at college reports to find out more about guys, so that’s my job. At that point, after we’ve done that, I’m trying to look for players that can come in and we can develop them. Try to make NFL players from college players.

The whole concept of, ‘camp leg’, which is a term or expression thrown out there. We don’t look at things that way. We’re not looking for a guy to just help us practice. We’re trying to develop players. When I go out and scout these players and talk to these players and work out these players, such as Trent Sieg as you mentioned, I want a guy that has the ability to play in the National Football League or else, then, we’re just wasting time. Same thing with Kaare Vedvik. That’s why he’s here. We believe he has NFL talent. Trent Sieg is here because we think he has NFL talent. Then, we’re going to try to develop them where they can compete with our guys in practice and make us better and who knows at that point. I mean Justin Tucker came in here, an undrafted free agent and he replaced a Pro-Bowl kicker. That’s always a part of the formula because it’s a competitive business. Nobody owns a position. The other part of it is you want to develop these guys if there’s ever a need and they’re available, we’ll know them and we have an idea who the good players are. The other part is we enjoy developing players. Our specialists, Sam and Morgan and Justin help do that. They coach these guys. They’re secure enough in their own makeup and their own skills that they can help someone, but they have to be worthy of the system because they have to be talented enough and be good people that want to get better, and if they do that, then we’ll work with them. We’re looking forward to them to getting signed at some point and we hope it’s soon.”

KB: “That actually kind of brings up my next point. It already feels like Kaare Vedvik is on deck to join an NFL roster. You’ve produced Graham Gano, Stephen Hauschka’s come through these doors. We actually talked about this when you were at the podium yesterday. But, you’re at the point where this team is picking up undrafted free agents and other franchises have gone as far as drafting up in the second round for kickers or punters in the fifth, ahead of quarterbacks. How is your program finding this talent? Is there something that is innovative that you’re going through? I don’t want to make you let loose the secrets, but there is clearly something different about the Ravens and your program and producing talent from undrafted free agents where players from other NFL teams aren’t.”

JR: “I take that as a high compliment. I appreciate your kind words. You’re right, there are certain things that I won’t share with you, but, I would just say it this way, we have a way that we think is the proper way to kick and to punt and to snap and we look for those traits. You mentioned Trent Sieg and I’ll just give you an example without going into the kickers and the punters. You asked me what I liked about Trent. There’s a lot of things I like about him. First of all, he’s a good-sized young man. He’s 6-foot-3 and 240-some pounds. He’s got good hands. The ball spins properly. He’s athletic enough to set and protect, even though most college snappers don’t do it anymore. That’s a part of the whole working out, testing system. He’s a good guy, he’s a brilliant young man. He’s an engineering student. He’s got so much more than just his athletic skills, but you need to have the talent level to work with and he has that. Those are some of the things, not all of the things, but some of the things we look for in a snapper. We have an idea of what we want snappers to look like. We have an idea of what we want kickers to—how they swing and what they’re technique is like. There are certain kickers that are maybe good enough to play in the NFL that we just don’t –that’s not how we teach kicking so we’re not going to go there, so to speak. Same thing with punting, certain punters that may have real strong legs that they’re just not what we believe in. We have an idea of what we want and we target those guys and we go from there. As you said, after you build up a program resume, other guys see the benefit.”

KB: “Back in May of 2015 was one of the biggest rule changes in recent NFL history. The kickoff* was moved back 13 yards. What were your initial thoughts and have you changed what you thought about the rule change in the last few years?”

*I used an incorrect word here, which makes this question confusing. I said, ‘kickoff’ instead of ‘PAT.’ As a result, Jerry responds to the change in the kickoff rules, which was a five-yard shift in 2011.

JR: “We spent a lot of time going through this, obviously. It’s a very important thing. Our mantra is, ‘We have to keep the foot in football.’ The game of football wouldn’t be the same without kickoffs. This goes back a long way, even prior to 2015. Fortunately, John, because of his expertise in special teams, he’s been on the sub-committee with Coach John Madden. He’s had conversations. Because of my role with John Harbaugh, we’ve been involved in these conversations through the years with officials, with the NFL, management and so forth. Our goal is to reduce the risk on the play, keep the play and keep it exciting. There’s all kinds of things that were debated to reduce the risk. Some things that the college [level] is doing and different things. We as special teams coaches, at least the ones here, we want to keep the play. We still want to make it exciting. We still want this to be a part of the game. We think it is an important aspect of the game. If the goal is to just reduce kickoff returns, I don’t see that as the same goal that we have. We’re trying to reduce the risk of the play and keep an exciting play. I think what has happened as a result of all of this is, throughout the course of this, is this year, because of the radical change of the rules, I think we’ve gotten to a point in the play is actually going to be enhanced. Even though the rules are different, the alignments are different, the play is going to look different, we’re going to have more opportunities for returns, in my view.”

KB: “Really?”

JR: “Yeah. Absolutely. Because we’ve put restrictions on the kickoff team just as well as the kickoff return. And, as a result, I think we’re going to have—people are going to be more aggressive on kickoff return. Rather than just taking a knee in the end-zone, they think they can gain some yards. I think we’re going to have an increase in the number of kickoff returns, more exciting plays and, the primary goal, reduce the risk of the players involved. Then, as I’ve said before, then we’ve hit the sweet spot.”

KB: “That’s fairly answering what I already had lined up as my next question. The NFL adopted, I believe, seven new rules that has to do with the formation, positioning and I believe removing the entirety of wedge-blocks.”

JR: “Correct, entirely.”

KB: “So entirely? Perfect. Thank you. With these five preseason games, you’ll really be able to test how these will function. But, you’re saying you believe it will be a more exciting play?”

JR: “Yeah, I think it’s going to be more exciting because there is going to be more space and with the new rules you’re going to see new kinds of returns because the spacing is different and the rules are different. The alignments are different. I’m really looking forward to it. I’m excited with what’s about to happen. I got to compliment all the people involved in getting this to this point from the top down. There’s been a lot of people involved in this whole discussion. I’m excited to see the result of all that work.”

KB: “It comes with, as you mentioned, throughout these years there’s been so much discussion and process – these rule changes to some feel like it’s trying to slowly take down kickoffs and eliminating them. Do you think we’re going to get to this point?”

JR: “I think the opposite, Kyle. I think that we took this step to save the kickoff. We did it in a positive way that we’re not trying to slowly transition to elimination; we’re trying to raise this play up to where we keep it. That was the whole effort. We aren’t trying to water it down where it would be, then, dumbed down and we cut something else out and cut something else out and eventually eliminate it. Completely the opposite.

Our motivation was to make this play exciting and reduce the risk of the play. And if we can do that, then we’ve got what we’re looking for. Will it be tweaked? Perhaps. But, we’re not trying to tweak it to eliminate it. We’re trying to tweak it to make it more exciting and to reduce the risk. We’re trying to make it better, not to make it less of a factor. I firmly believe that everybody involved in this process has the same motivations.”

KB: “That sounds good. That’s good for football fans and good for the sport.”

JR: “Yeah. It’s a great play. I mean, it’s an exciting play. You don’t have to go to the pub room and get a drink, you can stay there and watch the kickoff.”

KB: “Exactly. Now, I have my final question. Along with the title of special teams coordinator, you also have had Assistant Head Coach and now you’re currently Associate Head Coach. What are those responsibilities? What does that title entail and how involved are you, then, in other aspects other than just special teams coordination?”

JR: “The easiest way to answer this question is this: Whatever John wants me to do (laughter).”

KB: “(laughing) Alright.”

JR: “I mean, that’s really what it is.”

KB: “Yeah?”

JR: “John is a busy man. There’s a lot of things that go across his desk. A lot of people knocking on his door. Whatever he wants me to take from him or whatever group of people he wants me to communicate with and however he wants me to help manage the organization, I’m there for him. That’s what I do.”

KB: “Is that any different than being the Assistant Head Coach, cause that moniker was traded off to Greg Roman and then you got Associate. Is there any difference?”

JR: “No, I don’t think so. In my mind I guess it’s not. Perhaps there is in the management of the organization.”

KB: “To you it’s no different?”

JR: “I’m just here to help. Whatever I can do.”