Over 95% of youth football leagues in the US have minimum play rules (MPR). These are Rules that require youth football coaches to play kids a certain number of snaps every game. It’s something most of us deal with. Personally I like minimum play rules, kids who consistently attend practice should be rewarded with some playing time on game days regardless of score.
This year’s Reno team was an interesting equation to say the least. Getting all of our kids their eight snaps while still being competitive was going to be a challenge. Remember, this team had won about six games over the last six years. Their best players had either been poached by other teams in the league or had quit playing altogether. Over the years the other teams had stripped this teams carcass of athletic skill players down to the bone. There were at least seven former players of my team playing for the top two teams in the league.
While we had several very able Linemen, we were short backs. The coaching staff was made up of very caring and supportive dads, who had been diligent about being inclusive and getting kids in games. Of course it’s easy to get a lot of kids in, when you are losing games by 40-50 points nearly every week. The end result was that most of their weaker players had stuck it out, they knew they would get to play if they stayed on this team.
In the meantime, the kids who were added to this team were often times out of district kids who were rejected by the teams in their own backyards. We had one player who lived just two blocks from the practice field of one of the league powers, yet drove 35 minutes every day to make our practices because his local team was “full.” The league also assigned us five new players from the league signups. Of the five, four were out of district kids from teams that were “full.” This included a rookie 66 lb player, a rookie 81 lb player and a rookie 89 lb player, all who were in the bottom 30% of our team speed wise. The other player was a rookie 120 lb player couldn’t bear crawl five yards or make a 100 yard jog without stopping. The last one was an in-district player who went to the local Jr High who had just moved here from Colorado. He was the only player out of the bunch that started. This is an unlimited weight league with lots of 200 lb plus players. The picture is of me and a couple of these smaller kids and mind you I’m only 5’9″. I was very proud of them all completing the season to the very last snap.
Please don’t get me wrong, I LOVE coaching kids who won’t be playing football past the youth level. From a life skills development perspective, most of those kids get more out of the experience than the starters. Those are my favorite kids, but unlike most coaches we don’t run those kids off. Running kids off is simple to do and lots of guys coaching youth football today will do just that, to gain an advantage. There are lots of ways to run kids off, but our goal has always been to retain 100% of the players, regardless of cost. There was one unnamed team in our league who started practice on day one with 36 kids, yet by the time they played us had just 22 on the roster. Unfortunately, it happens more often than many of us would like to admit.
Most years we are able to find a way to start about 18 of 25 kids. While that may not represent a completely optimized for wins team, by playing musical chairs and being creative we can usually start a few more kids and still compete. This would not be the case with the Reno team. Our team was going to be an extremely difficult equation to solve. I had the small unathletic rookie kids and the veteran MPRs which included a 76 lb back, who was consistently 0-10 in open field tackling drills, a 100 lb back who was terrified of contact, an unathletic 90 lb Tight End and an overweight lineman that couldn’t get out of a three point stance or frog hop.
There were eight kids that I had to find snaps for without seriously affecting the competitiveness of our team. We were desperately working to develop all of these kids, they were getting the exact same number of reps as the starters in individuals and group. At this early juncture everyone was getting about the same number of snaps in team and we were trying to find something every one of these players COULD do, to get them all on the field. Even our schemes on offense, defense and special teams were designed to accommodate weaker players in spots. These weren’t schemes that were optimal for our best eleven, they were schemes that were a compromise to allow us to play these eight players without putting our team at risk.
On this team we would start just thirteen different players. In twenty plus years of youth coaching that starting number was an all-time low. We were able to sub in just two kids who were several steps down, while not seriously affecting our ability to compete.
From a game play perspective, the given equation meant several things:
We wouldn’t be able to go rapid pace, our skill position kids were all going both ways. They would get gassed too easily.
We would be very vulnerable to Spread teams. We just didn’t have enough athletes to defend the entire field.
Against well coached teams our strategic substitutions would telegraph where we weren’t running or throwing. With eight kids, you can’t just split them out every play, not throw to them and hope the defense doesn’t ignore them and play 11 vs 10 football.
We had to cross train and remain injury free. One injured player would cause a domino effect and put our defense and offense into a very difficult spot.
We did our best to make the situation work. We worked our substituting, conditioned hard, frogged the “A” gaps and worked on crab blocking. We had a well-rehearsed game plan and substitution pattern to insure everyone got their snaps, but in a tight game we would be really cutting it close.
More in the next post about how game two ended up.