The obvious connection between Jim Mora and Greg Knapp is rooted in the fact that both are sons of football coaches.
Growing up around the game has just as obviously influenced Mora, the Seahawks’ new head coach, and Knapp, Mora’s handpicked choice to be the team’s offensive coordinator.
Mora’s father, Jim, was an assistant with the University of Washington and Seahawks before becoming an NFL head coach with the New Orleans Saints and Indianapolis Colts. Knapp’s father, Mike, coached the offensive line at La Mirada High School in Southern California for almost 25 years.
“It’s a culture,” Knapp said. “You learn the culture of the game – getting up at 6 to 6:30 in the morning with your dad and going to practice when no one else is on the road on a Saturday morning and during the middle of summer.
Greg Knapp (O. Coordinator)
Tim Lewis (DB Coach)
“You just learn that’s the way it is. So it makes for an easier transition in the profession because you’ve been around ball all your life.”
But the bond that ties these coach’s kids who have gained control of the Seahawks’ football fortunes goes beyond growing up discussing blitz pickups over breakfast and breaking down film after dinner.
“We do come from the same background, but I don’t know that that’s tied into it all,” Knapp said with a smile when asked about the undeniable connection with Mora.
Much more significant in their relationship is the fact that starting in 1997 they lived on the same street for six years while assistant coaches with the San Francisco 49ers and commuted to work together. Knapp’s wife, Starla, became friends with Mora’s, Shannon. The Knapp’s daughter – Jordan, now 13 – grew up with the Mora’s older children.
So when Mora got his first head coaching job with the Atlanta Falcons in 2004, Knapp was the choice for offensive coordinator.
Their days together in the Bay Area is where this bond that not only ties, but seemingly cannot be untied, was formed.
“In those commute times, we really talked a lot of philosophy – ‘Why do you do this? Why do you do that?’ ” Knapp said. “We’d counter each other and challenge each other. We learned about ball together in that environment because we were always around each other.”
So when Mora stepped in after Mike Holmgren stepped aside in January, hiring Knapp to once again be his offensive coordinator was a no-brainer.
“I just trust Greg,” Mora said. “I know what type of man he is, No. 1. I know what type of coach he is, No. 2.”
Mora could have stopped there. But he didn’t.
“Greg strives to be the best in everything he does,” he said. “He’s trustworthy. He’ll tell me the truth, and you need that. I just feel comfortable with him, and I think he’s damn good.”
Not to mention adaptable.
With the 49ers, there was the transition from Steve Young to Jeff Garcia, when no one was expecting much only to have Garcia develop into a Pro Bowl quarterback. There also was dealing with mercurial wide receiver Terrell Owens in San Francisco. In Atlanta, Knapp had to tweak his offense to deal with Michael Vick, who was a better athlete than he was a quarterback. There were two difficult seasons with the Oakland Raiders, where Knapp found ways to have an offense that was more productive than it should have been considering the talent at his disposal.
Despite all the tweaks and transitions, Knapp’s offenses have ranked among the Top 10 in rushing in each of the past eight seasons.
“Like I’ve told him, ‘I don’t even recognize this offense,’ ” Mora said. “It’s nothing like what he did in San Francisco or even Atlanta. It doesn’t sound the same. It doesn’t look the same. And yet it’s got the same components in it.”
Like the other new assistants on Mora’s staff, Knapp is one of those overnight success stories that has been decades in the making.
Being a quarterback at Sacramento State was Knapp’s path to the NFL, even if his entry came through a side door. Signed as a free agent by the Kansas City Chiefs, it quickly became apparent to Knapp that his future in the NFL – if there even were to be one – would come as a coach and not a player.
“At the end of my first training camp, we had a scrimmage before the preseason games began,” Knapp recalled. “When I got in there, we had a 10-play drive and we scored.”
Success, but only to a point, because none of the10 plays called was a pass.
“That’s when I knew I was near the end of my playing career,” Knapp said with a laugh. “It was one of those, ‘All right, here’s reality (moments).’ ”
That reality check sent Knapp back to Sacramento State, as a graduate assistant. But the next summer, the Raiders called, which led Knapp to what he still calls “training camp QB mode.”
You know, with the Raiders for four summers – first with Tom Flores as coach, then Mike Shanahan and finally Art Shell – but never a fall. Once cut, again, Knapp would head back to Sacramento State to coach.
Same scenario, different team, from 1992-94. Knapp went to camp with the 49ers, throwing a little during practice, but learning a lot during the meetings – when he was free to roam from position meeting to position meeting.
The connections he made, and the lessons he learned, in those summers proved to be invaluable. Just check the Who’s Who of coaches he came in contact with: George Seifert, Steve Mariucci, Bob McKittrick, Bill McPherson, Shanahan and Mora while with the 49ers; Flores, Shanahan and Shell while with the Raiders.
“I was able to coach at Sac State for nine years and to build this foundation of knowledge of football through these camps,” Knapp said. “I ended up going to eight training camps when it was all said and done.”
That, however, was just a very large foot in the side door when it came to making the transition from college coach to NFL assistant. When Shanahan became the head coach with the Denver Broncos, he took two of his 49er assistants with him. That led to Knapp being hired as a quality control coach with the 49ers. Which led to him meeting Mora. Which led to the bond that took both coaches first to the Falcons and now the Seahawks.
But the best example for Knapp remained his father.
“My dad was always happy when he went to work,” Knapp said. “No matter how bad or tough the season might be, he enjoyed going to work everyday. That really in itself was a great lesson taught to me, without even being told that.
“I just noticed my dad enjoyed going to work everyday.”
Not surprisingly, the best advice Knapp ever received came not from one of the big-time NFL coaches he worked for, but that same offensive line coach at La Mirada High.
“The best lesson I’ve learned is, be a teacher first,” Knapp said. “And that came from my dad.”
It’s way Knapp runs his meetings like TV talk show host Phil Donahue. Phil Donahue?
“He actually circles the room like Phil Donahue or somebody, just walking around, asking questions, putting you on the spot,” quarterback Matt Hasselbeck said.
It’s also why you’ll see Knapp, 45, running from drill to drill with his players when training camp practices start July 31.
It’s his love of the game, and the lesson he learned all those years ago from his father.
“The rah-rah, the yelling and screaming only goes so far. And it wears out fast,” Knapp said. “If you approach this profession as a teacher, not so much as a screamer coach-type, you’ll develop more relationships with the players and your colleagues and you’ll probably be more successful.”