Source: Chris Colston, USA TODAY [ Full Article ] For many sports fans, March is all about baseball spring training and March Madness provided by the NCAA basketball tournament and office pools. The NFL? Sure, free agents are moving about, but the draft is weeks away. It's the offseason, a time for coaches to recharge, right? Not exactly. When it comes to the NFL, there is no true offseason. For NFL front office personnel and coaches, March can be a hectic period. Preparing for free agency and the draft while drawing up next season's plan of attack it converges now. And since the early 1990s, with the implementation of the current free agency model and the salary cap, there are more good players spread throughout the league. That rampant parity means there is more pressure than ever for coaches to find an advantage. Former Houston Oilers and New Orleans Saints head coach Bum Phillips once said about trying to beat the legendary Don Shula: "He can take his'n and beat your'n, then turn around and take your'n and beat his'n." That might ring truer than ever in the NFL's current climate. "Bill Walsh told me this once: Nobody understands how hard it is to win games in this league," says CBS sideline reporter Steve Tasker, a former Pro Bowl special-teams ace for the 1990s Buffalo Bills. To illustrate the mentality of these men, Buffalo general manager Marv Levy relates a quip about a newly married NFL coach. "How was your honeymoon?" he was asked. "I don't know," the coach said. "I have to look at the tape first." In Atlanta, March has been an especially turbulent month. On top of the usual rigors, new head coach Bobby Petrino's recently constructed staff must spend time evaluating its players. What have the coaches inherited? Who fits into the new system? Who doesn't? Those questions require answers before free agents and the draft can be addressed. Petrino favors the passing game, so quarterback Michael Vick will have to hone his skills in the pocket and the line will have to focus more on pass blocking and less on the zone-blocking schemes that have made Atlanta's running attack so effective in recent seasons. The Falcons boasted the NFL's top ground game in 2006 but ranked last in passing that's bound to change under Petrino and a staff working to implement his philosophy. "It's a grind," Falcons offensive coordinator Hue Jackson says. "Not everybody can do it although some think they can." Falcons coaches are also in the midst of devising an all-new playbook while dealing with mundane chores football fans may forget about finding new homes, banks and dentists. The coaches' families must cope with new school systems, neighbors and support systems yet the grind goes on. "You sacrifice some time during the day to do those things," Jackson says. "So you have to catch up with the work on the back end. "If you're out looking for a house, it means you're losing three hours out of the day where you could be getting some work done. A lot of us return to the facility at 6 p.m. and don't leave 'til midnight." At least when they turn out the lights to their offices, they don't have far to go. Falcons owner Arthur Blank has constructed a campus in Flowery Branch, Ga., complete with dormitories. The coaches may live there until they find permanent residences. Jackson says the conditions are so nice "most of us wish we could live here year-round." Because they can walk to work, Atlanta coaches immediately save anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour on the commute, and most arrive at the football center at 6 a.m. ET. Jackson uses the early hours for exercise; once he gets on the job, it's too hard to push himself away. He gets to his office no later than 7:30 a.m., and, like most of the coaches, he doesn't leave until 9 p.m. He and the other coaches are inclined to stay later because most of their families haven't yet moved to the Atlanta area. Once families are in place, Jackson will tell his offensive coaches to get out of the office when they get the chance. "This is a marathon, not a sprint," he says. When the day is done, Jackson heads back to the dorm, where he might watch 30 minutes of television to unwind. "Any show that's on at that time is my favorite," he says. "I really don't know what comes on anymore." This month is a little more manageable for Baltimore receivers coach Mike Johnson. The Ravens know most of their personnel and have homes, and their dental appointments are scheduled. They're much further ahead in the game than their compatriots in Atlanta. Ravens head coach Brian Billick understands working long hours doesn't always lead to productivity. He's big on efficiency, and when the work is finished he tells his assistants to scram. "This place is better than most," says Johnson, who worked under Mike Riley in San Diego and Dan Reeves and Jim Mora in Atlanta. Last week Johnson arrived at the Ravens' Owings Mills, Md., facility by 8 a.m. and was usually finished by 5 p.m. But that's only because the team had finished up its free agent evaluations the week before. During those days, the staff didn't leave the building before 7:30 or 8 p.m. This is the time of the year when teams can become immersed in self-scouting breaking down their offense, defense and schemes; analyzing what worked, what failed and what they can adjust for the coming season. "The last thing you want to be," Johnson says, "is predictable." Baltimore got a little less predictable in March. In a trade with the Bills, it welcomed running back Willis McGahee into the fold after severing ties with Jamal Lewis, the Ravens' career rushing leader. Baltimore also lost all-pro linebacker Adalius Thomas (Patriots), starting tackle Tony Pashos (Jaguars) and fullback Ovie Mughelli to Petrino's Falcons amid free agency. It managed to keep Jarret Johnson, probably Thomas' replacement. Needless to say, change is as much a constant in the league as hard work. While these 8-to-5 days are de rigueur for much of America's working class, they're nothing compared to what the coaches experience during the season. "Mondays are the toughest," Johnson says. "You're exhausted from the previous day, and you have to start right in preparing for your next opponent." Mondays are tough, but Tuesdays and Wednesdays can sometimes seem interminable. By noon Tuesday, the Ravens offensive coaches will have their running game for the upcoming opponent in place; by 3 p.m. they'll finish working on the passing game. "Then you have to put together your playbook for the players," Johnson says. "You generally don't get out of the office until midnight." Other than game day, Friday is the best day of the workweek. "Any coach will tell you that," Johnson says. "The hay is in the barn, and you can go home by 2 p.m. and spend some time with your family." That's the biggest sacrifice these coaches make. The wives get lonely, and the children might not see their fathers for days. The job is stressful enough; it's tougher if the home life is frayed. "It is tough, but it's part of the job description," says Johnson, who is married and has two young children. "I try to involve my family whenever possible. We have a certain night where family can come in and have dinner. "You have to have family support. It's such a strain, if you don't watch out, they can feel left out. Coach Riley always told me, 'Make sure your family knows they're the most important thing in your life.' " March can be a dizzying time for coaches, but it's not the worst of months on the NFL calendar. Those would be November and December particularly if a given team is out of the playoff hunt. The constant grind that begins in July's training camps starts to hit, and without that postseason carrot dangling as motivation For Johnson, the best month is July and the onset of camp. "It's like the movie The Perfect Storm," he says. "You're at the dock, getting ready to go to sea, and you don't know what's ahead. It's an exciting time for me." Of course, things didn't turn out well for the fishermen in that movie. And seasons filled with optimism sometimes end in disaster. "This is the No. 1 stress job in the world," Jackson says. "Every week there is a winner and loser and your job depends on that. It's a lot of stress, and sometimes you're not in control of it. That's what makes it so hard." On the night his team won Super Bowl XLI, general manager Bill Polian ruminated on the Colts' glorious ride. He'd built a championship roster, and his players had performed. "But let's face it you have to have a little luck, too," he says. "If (tight end) Dallas (Clark, who suffered a knee injury in midseason) is gone for the season, we're probably not here. If (former Buccaneers defensive tackle) Anthony McFarland is not available in trade, we're probably not here. The football gods have to smile on you." But despite the long hours and the stress and the aggravation, these guys wouldn't have it any other way. "If you love your job, you don't really think about the time or the work that you're putting in," says Patriots coach Bill Belichick. "It's not like I come in here in the morning and say, 'Oh, man, I can't wait for this day to be over with.' I enjoy watching film and studying it, preparing a plan, working with the other coaches, coaching and teaching the players on the field and then seeing it happen on Sunday. That's invigorating. It's a rush. It's a huge rush. "Now, if you don't like it? (I remember) some of the classes that I took in college if you didn't like what you were working on, every minute seemed like an hour in that clbutt." Belichick is the only head coach to win three Super Bowls in a four-year span, so maybe that's his secret he revels in the grind. Or at least that's his story and he's sticking to it. "Nobody enjoys the number of hours," Jackson says. "It can get tedious. But we all get excited about putting the team together, throwing out different ideas what we want to accomplish, how to best utilize talent on our team. That's the part we enjoy." The money and rush of competition bring added appeal for coaches such as Johnson. "I feel blessed to have a job that pays well, and I absolutely love it," he says. "I know a lot of people who go to work and hate what they do. Sure, I always wondered what it would be like to tailgate with my family on Sundays. But I bet if you talked to any fan, he would cut off his pinkie finger to be in my shoes."