Offensive coaches that reach the NFL level frequently toil on that side of the ball from the time they were graduate assistants, position coaches and coordinators. It’s usually no different for defensive coaches. Gaining as much experience as possible on the side of the ball where they see their coaching future is a logical career path to take. Bills offensive coordinator/running backs coach Curtis Modkins took the road less traveled.
Though he was an accomplished running back at TCU (1990-92), where he still ranks as one of the school’s top 10 all-time rushers, Modkins’ prospects for a pro career were compromised when an Achilles injury prevented him from preparing for pre-draft workouts. After training for another full calendar year he knew it was time to move into coaching.
“I didn’t want to be a coach while still dreaming of being a player also,” said Modkins. “So I was making sure I had exhausted my desire to play football and once I did I got into coaching.”
He began as a grad assistant at his alma mater, but after assisting the offensive line coach and running backs coach Modkins was promoted to secondary coach on the defensive side of the ball. The former running back jumped at the opportunity being that it was part of his coaching road map all along.
“I always wanted to get some experience on the defensive side of the ball,” he said. “It was a priority of mine. I didn’t know how I was going to do it, but it played out well for me. I wanted to see the game from a different perspective, and they are two totally different perspectives. It was an adjustment. It was a mental adjustment. I probably had more of a defensive mentality to begin with from an aggressiveness standpoint.”
Modkins would spend four more years on the defensive side of the ball coaching cornerbacks at New Mexico. For a time he openly wondered if his coaching future would remain on defense.
“I was still at the point where I wanted more of a defensive foundation,” said Modkins. “If I had stayed out there then I probably would’ve had a chance to be a coordinator at that level defensively. But I knew eventually that I wanted to end up back on offense. Still, I think that helped me more than anything as a coach. I feel I see things from a bit wider angle than guys that have only been on one side of the ball.”
During his college coaching days Modkins also took advantage of the NFL coaching internship program working training camps under the likes of Ray Rhodes, Bill Cowher and Chan Gailey. Though Modkins took something away from each of those experiences, he found his football philosophy ran parallel to that of Gailey the most.
“Chan’s personality is very similar to mine,” Modkins said. “I saw you could be a class guy and treat people right, while also being demanding and expecting a certain level of performance. And that can work at a level where you can be head coach of the Dallas Cowboys if you’re organized and you know what you’re doing.”
Gailey apparently recognized their common approach as well when he brought Modkins to Georgia Tech to interview for a role on his staff in 2002.
Initially hired to coach running backs there was a last minute shuffling of Gailey’s staff his first season with the Yellow Jackets, which had Modkins coaching defensive backs before becoming running backs coach the following season. He had the opportunity to coach future NFL draft choices P.J. Daniels and Tashard Choice, but Modkins as a young coach already knew quality talent had no bearing on how to coach.
“It’s good to have talent, but coaching is teaching,” he said. “Whether they’re talented or not you have to teach them. It’s not so much what you know, it’s what you know that you can teach them because you can’t teach them everything.
“A lot of it is based on what they can absorb and how much they can handle out there on the field. If you have them look at too much some guys short circuit. You have to get a baseline on how much they can handle and they all learn differently. The guys here will all learn differently and it’s our job to figure out how they learn, how much they can absorb and get the necessary information to them to put us in the position to win games.”
Modkins succeeded in that regard at Tech as both Daniels and Choice led the ACC in rushing during their careers with the Yellow Jackets, with the offense averaging almost 200 rushing yards per game.
When Gailey left Tech for the offensive coordinator position in Kansas City, he brought Modkins with him. Again coaching running backs, Modkins had quite the odd couple in the Chiefs offensive backfield with bruising runner Larry Johnson and the lightning-quick Jamaal Charles.
Making use of the two very different backs without tipping off the opposing defense was a constant balance.
“There are obvious strengths and weaknesses of each player you’re going to coach,” he said. “Formationally and schematically you can hide things so that you’re not tipping your hand every time this player is in the game. So you have to put him in some when he’s not running the plays he normally runs and that can offset your tendencies.”
The challenge was much different a year later when he coached the Arizona Cardinals running backs. With the Cardinals passing game the meal ticket for their offense, Modkins was in the uncommon position of motivating his backs despite the fact that they were not option ‘A’ in Arizona’s offense.
“My approach with them was they’re professionals and whatever they’re asked to do they’re going to do it and be good at it,” he said. “If it meant protecting, then we’re going to protect and be good at it. If we’re asked to run it more than we have in the past then we’re going to be good at it. I think those guys ultimately helped to put their team in a position to win.”
In the end Arizona’s backs contributed more rushing touchdowns in 2009 than the franchise had seen in 25 years (16), while also setting a five-year high in rushing yards for a single season.
Now reunited with Gailey in Buffalo, not much has changed in his approach to football and coaching, and it’s an approach that largely resembles Gailey’s.
“I think he knows our football viewpoints are very similar. It’s not his job to make his views my views. It’s the assistant’s job to be on the same page as the head coach. For me that’s very natural with coach Gailey because I believe in the same things he believes in,” said Modkins. “When there’s game planning I know what he’s thinking and I’m sure he knows what I’m thinking at times. Not that there haven't been times I've been told 'no,' but what's most important is I know what he wants.”
And what Gailey wants is his coaches to adapt their schemes to the strength of the players they have on the roster. For Modkins it’s common practice.
“We have to make it fit the guys we have,” said Modkins. “So each year it’s been different. And I’m better as a coach because I’ve seen that work and I’ve learned that. It’s easy to have a book of plays and try to make these guys run these plays no matter what. It’s harder for coaches to be flexible and adapt. His strength is we’re going to make it work to fit the guys we have.
“Even if it puts more on us as coaches, even if we have to think outside the box a little, even if we have to do something different from the way we did it last year. Whatever we have to do to make each guy successful that’s what we’re going to do.”