Ohio State defensive coordinator Jim Knowles wants everyone to know that it’s all his fault. That’s not to say he is apologetic, but rather matter-of-fact. Mistakes in a game happen, and when they do, you can just go ahead and put those on him. He takes complete responsibility for the failings of his defense. If you want to get mad at somebody, get mad at him.
Now, to be fair, the Buckeyes have actually been quite good on defense this season, so there haven’t been many reasons to get mad. There have been some mistakes, however, and Knowles accepts the blame for each bad read, false step, and missed tackle.
But he does it for a reason. And that reason has been showing up every single Saturday for the Buckeyes.
“He takes blame for our mistakes and not a lot of coaches do that,” senior defensive end Zach Harrison said early this season. “So it lets us just go out there and just play free and just go play football and go play fast and physical, and that’s what you need to do on a defense to be elite.”
A clear mind is much more capable of success than one that is overly concerned about not screwing up. If that concern is taken away, it’s almost like removing a phobia from someone.
That roadblock is gone. Only green lights ahead. And it has allowed this defense to play faster than they did a year ago.
“Yeah, yeah. Because really what coach Knowles has done for us is just let us play ball,” sophomore linebacker Steele Chambers said after Saturday’s win over Rutgers. “He always says that all of the mistakes on Saturdays are on him, so it just lets us really play free.”
Buckeye defenders have spoken almost each week about the freedom they feel in this defense. But it’s not because they are free to do whatever they want. It’s the freedom of not being burdened by the weight of mistakes.
Don’t take that to mean mistakes are acceptable, because they aren’t. But the blame for those mistakes goes to Jim Knowles, and it becomes his problem to fix.
It’s a philosophy that began over a decade ago as defensive coordinator at Duke under head coach David Cutcliffe.
“We had a lot of great future doctors and lawyers, but not necessarily professional football players,” Knowles said. “Coach Cutcliffe taught me a lot of things, but one of his things was a good carpenter never complains about his tools. So then when you go into the game, you need those guys just playing freely if you’re going to have any chance, if you’re overmatched skill wise. Those were guys that tend to overthink things. So you’re just trying to free their mind of that, to go out and play and not worry about making mistakes.”
Just like Monopoly has “Get Out Of Jail Free” cards, the Ohio State defense has “Hey, That’s On Me” cards.
Knowles acknowledges that the level of talent at Ohio State is a step up from his time at Duke, but the philosophy doesn’t change.
“We have great tools, but now in order to allow those guys to perform, I think it frees them mentally, and it’s just a good thing,” he explained. “It was a good thing for me to put in their mind as they go out to the field, ‘Hey, guys, there’s a sale that today I bought all you guys a free pass on any mistakes you make today.’ You know? That’s like the last thing I say to them. To me that kind of fires me up. ‘Okay, yeah, just go out and play. Just go out and play.’”
Players who think about making mistakes will undoubtedly make them, and the slower mental processing only makes things worse. If that’s where their mind is, that’s where their feet will be as well. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. The same can be said for players who are thinking about making plays. If the focus is on making plays instead of making mistakes, you’ll end up getting more of what you emphasize and less of what you don’t.
“I have to look at myself first all the time, and if it’s great, then the players should get the accolades. If it’s not, then I should be the one who figures out why it isn’t,” Knowles said. “Because in the end, ultimately all we are is a product of our habits and our training, right? That’s it. We’re a product of our habits and training. So if it doesn’t show up on the field, then it’s up to me to look at where it went.”
The tension of worry can rot a gut over time. And in the moment, it can be the lost split second that was needed to make a game-saving play. If that worry is removed, then so is the tension. The slowness is gone, and the play to save the game can still be made.
That’s the entire purpose for blaming Jim Knowles. He just wants his guys to play. He’ll worry about the worry.
“I think we all worry about making mistakes,” he said. “And these are young men who get a lot of pressure from social media, or their parents, or everybody’s looking at them, every single thing they do. So I want them just to play when it comes to gameday. I’ll stay on them pretty hard during the week, but game day, let them play.”