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September 3, 2009At the age of 32, most young men in the United States are progressively working their way into their chosen fields, slowly but surely climbing up the ladder of professional success.
While men of this age are more than capable of holding leadership positions at work, rarely do you see them making critical decisions that impact the fate of billion-dollar companies.
For John Shoop, however, that's exactly where he found himself at the age of 32, serving as offensive coordinator of one of the oldest and most successful franchises in the National Football League, the Chicago Bears.
One of the youngest coordinators in league history at that time, Shoop helped lead the Bears to a NFC Central Division championship in 2001, but things didn't work out very well from there in Chicago, as he was terminated following the 2003 season.
Having been in the NFL since his mid-twenties, Shoop was able to land other positions in Tampa Bay and Oakland after leaving the Bears before he accepted the offensive coordinator position at North Carolina in the fall of 2006.
Having just turned 40 earlier this summer, Shoop has already put together a full decade of experience in the NFL, and is now entering his third season at North Carolina.
Now that he's had two full seasons at UNC, Shoop has a frame of reference in terms of talking about the differences between coaching in college compared to the pros.
"In the NFL there's so little room for error," he said. "The NFL is kind of like a symphony. You've got to hit these notes right on---bam, bam, bam---and you can't have any mistakes."
"College is a little bit more like jazz. You can kind of feel it a little bit more," he continued. "The windows aren't quite as tight. We can draw things up in the middle of the game and stuff like that."
Shoop says he likes that in college he can sometimes improvise and occasionally escape the fundamental norms of play-calling.
"I kind of like that jazz aspect of it, you know what I mean? You feel it a little bit more," he said. "I think players kind of feel how we put things together and everything like that, too."
The one other big difference between coaching in college and the NFL is the distance between the hash marks.
The hashes are closer to the middle of the field in the NFL, which means that the ball stays more centrally-located compared to college, with its wider margins.
"I think the hashes have something to do with that (the differences between college and the NFL)," Shoop said. "In the NFL there's a lot of 'fire zones', and a lot of teams will blitz your formations because the ball is always in the middle of the field."
"In college, a lot of the fire zones are boundary or field fire-zones, and so they're a little bit easier to identify and you don't have to quite motion and shift as much as you maybe do in the pros," he added.
One of the things that goes hand-in-hand with improvising as a play-caller is the willingness to be versatile and attempt to utilize all options at one's disposal, and Shoop says that he's been exploring all of North Carolina's potential options of distributing the football around the field.
"For us to take the next step offensively, we've got to do a better job distributing the ball," Shoop said. "74 percent of the passes went to the wide receivers last year, and the year before that 75 percent did, and with good reason---I understand."
"But all of us---and when I say all of us, the play-caller, the staff in the game planning, the quarterback in distributing it, the tight end, the position players themselves, the running back position players---all of us have got to step up to the table and we've got to distribute the ball a little bit better," Shoop added.
Late in the 2008 season the Tar Heels did a significantly better job of dishing the ball around to the backs and tight ends than they did earlier in the year, and the result was that it opened things up even more for the running game and getting the ball downfield to the wide receivers.
"I'd like to think the last two games of the year against Duke and against West Virginia you did see us distribute the ball a little bit better," Shoop said. "Richard Quinn really stepped up, and Shaun Draughn had a lot of catches as well."
"We know for us to be the offense that we can be, we're going to have to do a better job of that, and we've been working really hard on it," he added.
One of the things that Shoop says will help this season in terms of the offense being more versatile is the addition of new tight ends coach Allen Mogridge, who has been instrumental in developing new ways to get the tight ends the ball.
Mogridge, along with running backs coach Ken Browning, have both been working closely with Shoop to develop more weapons to use on game days.
"I think having Coach Mogridge here helping game plan passes to the tight ends has really helped me, and of course Coach Browning is a Hall of Fame coach, and he's really helped us game plan some passes to the running backs as well," Shoop said. "It's my job to help T.J. (Yates) distribute it, and get the plays called where we can, but that's something that we really hope we do a better job of."