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You Gotta Have The Horses

By: Mike Toth

Most coaches aren't as bright as they'd like you to believe.

Take the NFL play-offs as a prime example.

Matt LaFleur, the head coach of the Green Bay Packers, is considered to own one of the smartest young minds in all of football. But in last Sunday's NFC title game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, LaFleur looked like he should be sitting up with the fans at Lambeau Field - wearing a dunce cap instead of the traditional cheese head.

LaFleur's goofy failure to "go for it" on a late-game fourth down, ripping the ball right out of the hands of his MVP quarterback Aaron Rodgers, was the back-breaking play in the Packers painful loss to Tom Brady's Bucs.

Speaking of Brady, a lot of experts were wondering how the ancient QB could possibly survive without the steely-eyed brilliance of Bill Belichick.

But how did that work out?

Brady is heading to his tenth SuperBowl - and make sure to say that slowly so the enormity of it sinks in. The Hoodie, meanwhile, found out what life A.B. (After Brady) is really all about, as the New England Patriots missed the play-offs after finishing with a pedestrian 7-9 record.

In the years B.B. (Before Brady) the Patriots were even worse. In 1973, for example, the pathetic Pats were 5-9 and the Boston media wanted to know how the coach at the time, Chuck Fairbanks, was going to turn things around.

"What am I supposed to do?," Fairbanks asked the assembled reporters. "I can't just open up a can and pour out a bunch of new players."

These days, Andy Reid is the guy who stirs the soup - the NFL's most popular coaching wizard. No question, the affable Reid definitely knows a thing or two about a thing or two - especially when it comes to designing a flashy offensive system.

But until a young superstar named Patrick Mahomes arrived on the scene, Reid was best known as the coach who couldn't win the big game. With Mahomes in his gun belt, however, Reid is suddenly shooting for his second straight Super Bowl ring, as the Kansas City Chiefs are solid favorites to roll over Brady's bunch in this year's big tilt.

It's pretty simple.

To be a great coach at the professional level, you need great players - and, deep down, even the coaches with the extra-sized egos understand that fact.

Former Toronto Maple Leafs coach Mike Babcock falls into that category. With all of his success at every level of the game, there's no question Babcock is a confident dude with a healthy opinion of his own ability to direct a team.

But even Babcock knows that, at the end of the day, you've "gotta have the horses" if you're going to win the race.

I got to know Babcock when he was a young coach and I was a young broadcaster, covering his teams at the University of Lethbridge and when he was with the Western Hockey League Spokane Chiefs. I ran into Mike at a local Toronto rink back in 2017, his second season with the Leafs, and congratulated him on turning the beleaguered squad around after they finished last overall the previous year.

"Thanks Tother," Babcock said. "But I'm the same guy who finished in the cellar last year. The only difference? Now I've got good players."

It's funny how finishing in last place, winning the draft lottery and getting Auston Matthews can completely turn things around. Of course, as Babcock discovered a few years later, it's also important to actually get along with your franchise player. Babcock's inability to get a full buy-in from Matthews was one of the big reasons he's now the ex-coach of the Leafs and it's now Sheldon Keefe's job to get the absolute best out of the moustachioed marksman.

But the success of the Keefe-Matthews partnership won't have anything to do with X's and O's.

Let's get real.

At this stage of his career, what can Matthews possibly learn from Keefe or anybody else with a whistle?

This isn't minor hockey filled with orange pylons and juice boxes. In pro sports, it's all about putting your best players on the field of battle and then staying out of their way while they do their thing.

Keefe's only real job?

Give Matthews a pat on the back when he needs it, open the gate and give the big guy all the ice time he can humanly handle.

And if Coach Keefe has any doubts about that strategy, he should touch base with his coaching counterpart in Green Bay, Wisconsin.

Just ask Matt Lafleur what happens when you bust out your fancy coach's manual, overthink things and take the ball out of the hands of your best player.

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