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Re-defining the Free Safety Position – Part 2

Here’s Real-life Lesson #3,204 that I’ve taught football players for 40 years: How much ground you cover determines how far you go.

Higher learning is found at low points – dual meaning. My best higher-learning experience was:  (i) the low point of getting slaughtered during my winless rookie season as a 26-year-old high school head coach in 1984, and (ii) scoring the lowest points in the league while allowing the highest points.

Enlightenment is found in darkness. I had no defense for our embarrassing lack of defense. Then, I became offensive to the program by using ‘Football Poverty’ as an excuse during an end-of-the-year newspaper interview. It was the last time I used this excuse because I later realized that ‘Football Poverty’ had become a blessing. Having the least, taught us the most. Being poor taught us how to fight the rich. Football Poverty taught us how to make the most with the least. When you don’t have the best of everything, you have to make the best of it. You have to build the best instead of trying to find the best.

Allowing 6X more points than we scored in 1984 was the deepest lesson I have ever learned. Studying film of every play of every loss gave us deep insights about: (i) how to defend deep; (ii) how to go deep on the field; (iii) how to go deep physically; (iv) how to go deep psychologically, and; (v) how to go deep into the investigation of a losing program in order to turn weakness to strength.

The Top Three Changes we made as the result of going deep in film study investigation were:

  1. I banned shoulder tackling and tackling below the waist;
  2. Pursuit angles. I tripled the amount of pursuit angle reps during every practice, and;
  3. Free Safety was no longer free. There was a higher cost to playing free safety. We re-defined the free safety role not by locking him up but by structuring his freelancing. The higher cost of playing free safety paid off.

Our investigation of the 1984 winless season resulted in the following conclusion: To survive in Football Poverty, we needed a backup plan – triple meaning. We redefined the role of:

  1. Backups;
  2. How the free safety backs up, and;
  3. How the free safety provides back-up support to defend both pass and run.

Our 1984 opponents generally looked the same – double tight-end, QB under center, unbalanced run-pass ratio tilted toward the ground attack. Our free safety assignments caused us to play short-handed during the majority of the game. We anticipated the uncommon deep threat instead of anticipating the common running attacks. This meant that we took the free safety out of most plays by defending the areas least attacked. After the season, we calculated two distances through film study: (i) the total distance covered by the free safety in every game, and (ii) the total distance that should have been covered by the free safety versus both run and pass. We discovered that not enough ground was covered by the free safety. There ground that needed to be covered and the ground actually covered did not match.

In 1985, we changed our focus. Instead of anticipating the uncommon, we decided to focus on the common. Instead of anticipating deep threats, we taught the free safety to react to what actually happens, not what might happen. Consequently, the free safety no longer automatically covered deep. He covered ground instead – dual meaning. He backed up on the more common ground attack and he had to cover more ground than he did the previous year.

Defending what might happen and what does happen are two different concepts.

We junked our 1984 defensive playbook and replaced it with my ‘SWAT System’ that includes four, 45-degree X Pursuit Angles for the free safety. Regardless of what coverage we were in, instead of a predetermined fixed first step backward, a discretionary first step in one of four directions on the X Pursuit Angle model is made. The direction is determined by a rapid decision-making formula governed by a structured set of pre-snap and post-snap reads.

Our free safety changed into a long distance runner. The X Pursuit Angles changed him into a run-stopper first and pass defender second. His role was determined by actual need, not by anticipated need. No player on defense or offense was required to run longer distances in every game and season that our free safety. The transformation to a long distance runner changed our strength and conditioning program. The free safety became a different player in body, mind, and soul.

Next, we changed the position name of free safety to a code-word, emphasizing the change from defensive back to ‘backup.’ The free safety became a ‘backup’ linebacker versus the ground attack. The free safety was assigned dual responsibility from a depth determined by a rapid-decision-making model in my SWAT System.

In Football Poverty, our free safety is required to be a backup for roster-depth purposes. He has to learn another defensive position, two offensive positions, and four special teams positions. We no longer relied on an offensive playbook. My SWAT System connected our defense to offense and special teams. The key was pedagogical creativity – connect as many learning outcomes as possible to defense, offense, and special teams.

There is a direct relationship between total ground covered by our free safety per game/season and points scored/allowed differential. For the past 40 years, the amount of ground our free safety covers versus run and pass determines how far we go in the playoffs.  As offenses evolved from double tight-end, QB-under-center, ground & pound to spread air-strike attacks, the X Pursuit Angle long-distance running approach has remained our main defensive priority because it allows us to ‘change without changing the system.’

Starting in 1985, we built our defense from the top down. The value of a long-distance running free safety increased exponentially. It changed the production of every defensive player at level one and level two. No position is more important in our program, on defense, offense, or special teams, but developing a long-distance runner at free safety doesn’t just happen. It requires year-round strength and conditioning to develop an extraordinary level of strength-endurance to not run out of gas. Our defenses are built from the inside-out – starting inside the gym, then out on the field. Mediocre strength & condition training won’t work out, literally and figuratively. Extraordinary strength & conditioning is the number one element that builds a championship defense in Football Poverty. David beats Goliath by lifting and running more. Underdogs don’t just show up and win randomly or by accident. Upsets are made of iron.

The role of defensive coordinator has never been easy at any level. The challenges facing defensive coordinators in the post-modern era are unprecedented. No sport on Earth is more complicated than football – physically, intellectually, psychologically, and spiritually. The job of Defensive Coordinator has never been more challenging. If you don’t catch up, you will be left behind. It is easy today for defenses to get scores run up on them. It’s easy for defenses to get embarrassed by giving up obscene amounts of points and yards until your defense does the unthinkable and gives up in the fourth quarter or worse – before the fourth quarter.

Be more or be less – it’s your biggest decision today. Football coaching requires life-long learning. You have to be obsessed with learning more, to be more. When you stop learning, you stop earning. Read, listen, and watch as much as you possibly can. The survival of football is in your hands and in your mind, literally. The key for career survival is continuing education. Coaching football is a Sacred Profession. It’s a calling.

My gym, X Fitness, is committed to help coaches and players by sponsoring Blunt Talk Podcast. Blunt Talk Podcast has included a number of football coaches and ex-football players who have shared powerful insights guaranteed to provide optimal learning experience. Every guest lifts. Please visit Blunt Talk Podcast. All 136 episodes are free, permanently archived, compliments of my gym, X Fitness Welland Inc.  Here is the link:

#MUCHLOVE #soulofalifter

Blessings and all good things.


Gino Arcaro M.Ed., B.Sc., Level 3 NCCP (Nat’l Coaching Certification Program)

Football Head coach – Niagara X-Men Football

Gym Owner – X Fitness Welland Inc.


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