Whenever it is that the Steelers running backs gather in a meeting room where James Saxon is officiating, they will discover their new coach to be a man who believes in the simplicity of things.
"Number one, protect the football," said Saxon about what his players are going to be hearing from him. "Number two, when you have opportunities to make plays, make plays, and (with that) you have to be smart enough to know when to take a chance. Natural ability is a big part of being a good running back in this league, but I also believe you have to be able to have some sort of awareness of what you're doing with the football."
On Jan. 28, the Steelers hired Saxon to coach their running backs, and the 2014 season will be his 23rd in the league as either a player or a coach. Having an awareness of what he was supposed to be doing helped Saxon carve out an eight-year playing career for three different teams, a long time for a guy who had just 214 touches (145 rushes and 69 receptions) during that span.
"I prided myself as a player in being very intelligent in terms of what I had to do and what I was asked to do," said Saxon. "There was not going to be anybody tougher, there was not going to be anybody out there who was going to work harder, and at the end of the day, there were not going to be any regrets from whatever I brought to the table. That's the message I try to get across to my guys – very intense and I like to have a lot of fun."
That provides some insight into what Saxon will expect from his group, but he's not going to rely on nuance to get his message across. Over the course of 14 seasons coaching in Buffalo, Kansas City, Miami, and most recently in Minnesota, Saxon has come to understand the direct approach is the way to go.
"I think the No. 1 thing is the information these guys are going to take with them from the classroom onto the field," said Saxon. "Obviously if they're in this building, that means they're talented enough. So, the job I've been charged with is I want to make sure when a guy goes onto the field and there is a play called or a number of plays called, he's going to do his job very, very well. I take pride in that, and that's the conversation I have with each guy I coach."
Another conversation Saxon is certain to have will involve ball security. And he may even call it ball security, because he hates the f-word.
"Fumbling is something that – I don't even like the word," said Saxon. "The one thing I try to get across in terms of that is: when the ball gets stuck into your belly or you put it under your arm, you're taking a responsibility. First of all, the head coach is giving you the privilege, and you are carrying 52 other guys with you. The ball, when the play is over and when the whistle is blown, you have to have it and get up off the ground with it. Now, does (fumbling) happen? Sure, but we want to make sure, and there is a phrase that I use – paranoid awareness. I want you to be slightly paranoid but aware enough to understand that you have to protect the football. It's an honor and a privilege to carry the ball in the National Football League."
During his time as an NFL assistant coach, Saxon has worked with Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams in Miami, with Priest Holmes and Larry Johnson in Kansas City, and with Adrian Peterson in Minnesota. Working for teams that have had premier running backs such as the players on that list means Saxon has come to understand what is required to run the ball when the opponent knows you're going to run the ball.
"I just came from a place where we had a running back by the name of Adrian Peterson, and people put eight guys in the box," said Saxon. "That doesn't stop you from running the football. The beauty of being an offensive player is you know exactly where the ball is going at all times. So you've got 11 guys out there, and if you're one of the 11, you've got to trust the 10 other guys to do their job. By doing that, they have to be able to trust you that you're going to put the ball in the proper place each and every time. There can't be any guessing."