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From Player To Coach

Posted May 3, 2013

Ex-NFLers Buckner, Heiden use recent locker room experience in their new jobs

Assistant coaches Steve Heiden (left) and Brentson Buckner are each coaching players who were in the NFL when both coaches were still playing.

The first time Brentson Buckner was introduced to Darnell Dockett, the three-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle sounded like a football almanac.

Dockett didn’t need to look up who Buckner was. He instantly recalled the Carolina Panthers defensive line that Buckner helped anchor, alongside Julius Peppers, Kris Jenkins and Mike Rucker in the mid-2000s.

Buckner was impressed with Dockett’s knowledge, but he wasn’t surprised. It wasn’t that long ago that Buckner strapped on his pads and pulled on an NFL jersey.

Buckner and Steve Heiden, the Cardinals assistant tight end and assistant special teams coach, have the most recent NFL experience on the Cardinals’ coaching staff. Both are three months into their first NFL coaching jobs and they’re already seeing the benefits of having played in the league recently.

“The advantage I have is I know what some of these guys are going through in training camp, you know, on the field, trying to learn all this stuff,” said Heiden, who played tight end from 1999-2009. “I can relate in that way.”

Buckner has used his experience to try to earn his player’s trust.

He hasn’t shown game film of himself yet – he’s saving that for training camp – but he speaks on rushing the passer and deflecting blocks with an authority only a former defensive lineman can. And he can see the knowledge soaking in.

Buckner said players tend to ask three questions of coaches: Do they know what they’re talking about? Can they be trusted? And can they help him get better? He’s hoping the answer to all three is yes.

“I speak their language,” Buckner said. “It’s crazy to look around. I am one of the young guys (on the staff) out there and then coaching the position I actually played. It makes it easier for a player because now they trust what I say, because now I’m not talking about how somebody told me to play a block or how to play a technique.

“I can pull out film and say, ‘This is how I played and it kept me in the league for 12 years, so I know how it worked.’”

Heiden has subscribed to the same coaching philosophy as Buckner. He’s looked back on what worked on him and uses those methods on the tight ends: pushing them hard and being up front.

“It’s always interesting to figure out what he has to say, especially with his experience in the offense and everything like that,” tight end Rob Housler said. “It’s been good to lean on him for a lot of just little technique, fundamental kind of stuff that isn’t black and white. It’s not going to be written in your playbook. It’s not going to be coached to you on every play but it’s just little stuff that (he) can chime in on and (you) can get in his head and pick his brain on.”

Both coaches are connected to one of their players more than the others.

Buckner, 41, played in the NFL for the first two years of the 31-year-old Dockett’s NFL career. Heiden, 36, played for four years while Jeff King, 30, was in the league. The age difference hasn’t been an issue for Heiden, who used to watch film of King before injuries ended Heiden’s career.

Heiden said he’s still teaching the tight ends new things and helping them improve on their footwork and techniques.

Buckner, on the other hand, said it’s a fine line to walk between being a coach and one of the guys, especially being close to some experience-wise.

Buckner has also leaned on his playing days for reminders on how to teach.

He remembered what coaches said that bored him or when he’d start to zone out. He also looked back to remember what kinds of teaching methods worked on him – and what didn’t.

With “10 defensive linemen, you got to teach 10 different ways because guys learn differently,” Buckner said. “You got to treat them like they’re their own individual while still putting the whole package together.”

Both Buckner and Heiden landed jobs with the Cardinals after meeting coach Bruce Arians at previous training camps, albeit with two different teams. Buckner, who played for Pittsburgh from 1994-96, was a training camp intern with the Steelers for the past three years. Heiden met Arians at Colts training camp last year.

Each has had their own experience seeing it takes to be an NFL coach. Heiden has been impressed with how detail-oriented coaches are. Buckner couldn’t believe how much work the coaches actually did.

“As a player, you hear a coach say, ‘We work hard,’ and (you think) ‘Aw, you don’t work that hard,’” Buckner said. “It’s a lot of work because you got so much information that you got to digest and go through because you just want to get what’s important to the players. I never knew how much my position coach or my defensive coordinator went through before it finally got to me.

“I just thought, ‘Oh you’re working on the game plan or the play book.’ But they probably went through 2,000 pages to get it down to 50 pages.

“I have a newfound respect for the work those guys put in behind closed doors.”

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