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It is an almost universal analogy: NFL quality control coaches are pro football's equivalent of the college game's graduate assistants. If true, Ben Bloom has been getting an advanced education inside the halls of Valley Ranch.
Bloom, the Cowboys' quality control coach for defense, is living a life that is part grad-student, part executive-trainee on head coach Jason Garrett's staff. Bloom beats most baristas to work, where he learns, studies, pulls the occasional all-nighter, and even coaches up players during daily practices.
"A lot of people ask what a quality control coach does," the 31-year-old says. "The best way I have heard it put is that you are partial coach, partial secretary/administrative assistant."
Mike Holmgren created the NFL quality control coach when he was a San Francisco 49ers assistant under Bill Walsh. Holmgren needed someone to take the rough etchings of plays he had scribbled onto notepads and enter them into a computer. To handle the task, he hired a young, aspiring coach named Jon Gruden. Gruden helped revolutionize the modern day coaching staff, then used the experience as a springboard to his own Super Bowl-winning career as a head coach.
Gruden was the first quality control coach to eventually run his own team, but was certainly not the last. Todd Haley, Steve Spagnuola, Brad Childress, Eric Mangini and Tony Sparano all started at the bottom before ascending to the top.
Those Horatio Alger stories have helped make a gig as quality control coach a sort of real world version of The Apprentice – perform well in a series of unpredictable, all-encompassing tasks and a long-term career with a prestigious employer could be yours.
"There are definitely pros and cons to the job," says Bloom. "You want to coach at the next step, but at the same time, when you are a quality control coach, you get to work with the coordinator and you get to learn a lot."
A quality control coach's education is hands-on, as most are also responsible for coaching a position. For his part, Bloom gets out on the field and helps linebackers coach Matt Eberflus with instruction.
"Sometimes we will split the linebackers in half, and I do drills with the outside linebackers, while he takes the inside linebackers," Bloom says. "In that sense, I am working on the field, I am coaching the position with him."
In addition to the on-field stuff, Bloom's two main responsibilities are preparing the playbook and handling preparation for upcoming opponents.
On this particular Thursday afternoon, the Cowboys are in the midst of preparations for a game against the Packers. Not Bloom. NFL teams love taking things one day at a time, but he is the only guy in the building who can be excused for looking down the road.
"I am always working a week ahead, preparing," he says. "When we finish a game on Sunday, we'll come in Monday morning, evaluate the game and then start on our next opponent immediately. I will have already done three games of work on our next opponent. On Monday morning, I will look at the last game, too, so that by Monday afternoon, we will have our upcoming opponent's last four games."
During the 2013 season, Bloom was charged with helping the Cowboys prepare for Peyton Manning and the Broncos one week, followed by Robert Griffin III and Washington the next. Despite the contrast in styles of players such as Manning and Griffin, Bloom says it all comes down to execution, and his job is to make sure Cowboys players and coaches are prepared to execute.
"At the end of the day," Bloom says, "once the ball is snapped, you have to read your keys and be a football player. You can study tape and try to anticipate things, what they do and what they don't do, and be ready to react. You know the style of the Broncos and the style of the Redskins. That's the NFL. You are prepared going into the season that you might have similar offenses and you might have back-to-back weeks of completely different offenses. You have got to line up and do your job. You can out-execute him just by working hard and doing your job, whether it is Peyton Manning or RGIII."
Bloom played his college football at Tufts University in Medford, Mass., where he also launched his coaching career.
"I was fortunate," he says. "I played at Tufts and I coached there. I was a graduate assistant, and I was the D-line coach."
No job was too small for Bloom then because he wanted to learn all aspects of a football team's operation.
"I helped out in the equipment room, I helped out in operations," he says. "I had an early, well-rounded experience as a coach, and I think that helped me. I didn't want to be at a D-3 school forever, but it was an unbelievable experience and I would go back and coach there potentially."
Bloom grew up in Wellesley, Mass., and like so many New Englanders, has an edge to him. Not surprisingly, he has always identified with players who are more about substance than style. Bloom was a huge Larry Bird fan, followed the Red Sox closely – especially catcher Tony Pena – and found role models in Bruce Armstrong and Tedy Bruschi of the Patriots.
"I think the New England mentality is a hard-working mentality," Bloom says. "Aggressive, not going to back down. Some people say I'm a loud talker. That's just who I am. I am a New England guy."
Changing over to a new system can be the bane of a quality control assistant, but Bloom says the arrival of defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin in 2013 and the installation a 4-3 defense was a fantastic opportunity to learn.
"It was definitely an adjustment. A different defense and a different terminology. But it is still football. It is still defensive football. There is still consistency in terms of, you have got to play physical, you have got to play aggressive, and you have got to play tough. Everyone has their responsibility in coverage and their responsibility in the run game."
The change in scheme exposed Bloom to one-on-one tutelage from a coaching master.
"I met with Coach Kiffin, learned his system and learned what he called things and then worked with him to translate it into the playbook," Bloom says. "It was as seamless as it could be, but it does take work."
One of the great blessings of a quality control coach is the opportunity to learn from a variety of mentors. In addition to Kiffin, Bloom has worked closely with former Cowboys defensive coordinator Rob Ryan and current defensive line coach Rod Marinelli, a one-time coordinator himself with the Bears.
"I have been fortunate to be around Coach Kiffin and Coach Marinelli," Bloom says. "I was lucky to work for Rob Ryan, who had a completely different system. To be around those people and learn from them is a blessing for a person starting his career."
Someday, Bloom hopes to repay the favor.
"I hope, as kind of a thank you to them, if I am lucky enough to be around long enough, I can teach others," Bloom says. "That's kind of what it's all about. You learn from people and advance the game and keep giving. Hopefully, if I am in this long enough, I am working with guys like myself and I can keep giving."
Until then, Bloom will keep giving at the office. The idea that NFL coaches practically live at the facility – working on the field, holding meetings, watching film – is no myth.
"It's busy," Bloom says. "You've got to come in early and you've got to make sure you are ready for the next day. But it's fun. Every day is a new day and it's a new test. When I leave the office, I want to make sure that I am ready to go for tomorrow. Whatever it takes, that's what it takes and that's OK. There is no place I would rather be. I am lucky to be here."
A quality control coach starts at the bottom, but as Gruden and a host of others have proven, the ceiling is high. There is no limit to what someone in such a position might be asked to do, but then again, there is no limit to what a quality coach can accomplish, either.
"If you work hard, push yourself and have the ability," Bloom says, "you can be whatever you want to be."