AFC East: Tom Zbikowski

Green-Ellis trains on Ali's hallowed ground

April, 12, 2011
Float like a butterfly, sting like a Law Firm.

Boston Herald reporter Ian R. Rapoport has revealed one of the more interesting conditioning stories of the lockout.

BenJarvus Green-Ellis has been working out at the historic 5th Street Gym in Miami Beach. That's the workshop where Muhammad Ali honed his craft under trainer Angelo Dundee.

"There's a lot of great tradition at the gym," Green-Ellis told Rapoport. "You really have to check it out. And when I leave there, I'm drenched from head to toe like I hopped out of the swimming pool."

All boxers need a nickname, and Green-Ellis already has one of the NFL's best: the Law Firm because of the way his name reads.

Patriots fans with an affinity for the Sweet Science will get a jolt out of seeing the photos of Green-Ellis that ran with the story.

Green-Ellis works out at the 5th Street Gym five days a week on top of his regular football training. He decided to try boxing as a way to push himself beyond and to improve his footwork.

"They really put me through it," Green-Ellis said of the 5th Street Gym staff. "There's no sitting down. I like it, and it's especially good for my core. That's where it starts. Working on hand-eye coordination, my footwork in there, keeping up my good cardio, different things for my shoulders -- it helps out. And I like being able to hit the pads. They push me to my limits and past my limits."

He hasn't sparred yet, and might not ever. He said he doesn't have dreams of being a prizefighter like Baltimore Ravens safety Tom Zbikowski.

Dundee's head trainer, Matt Baiamonte, noted Green-Ellis is a dedicated student of the sport, a trait Bill Belichick certainly recognized with football. Green-Ellis overcame not being drafted and waived multiple times to become the AFC East's only 1,000-yard rusher last season.

"He picks it up really quick," Baiamonte said, mentioning the pros who train at the gym. "David Haye, Andre and Anthony Dirrell, they're amazed with his progress.

"What I really like about Ben is, if I mention a fighter's name, he actually goes home and finds stuff on YouTube and studies the fighters. He'll say, 'In this fight, he did this,' and 'I've been practicing this.'

"If only I could get some of my fighters to do that."

With NFL season on ice, here's some advice

March, 14, 2011
For the next few weeks -- and possibly months -- NFL players won't have much to do. The work stoppage could turn insufferable.

Players will work out while they're motivated. Some will assemble in groups for informal practices. But without coaches or contract incentives to motivate them, enthusiasm will be difficult to uphold.

Boredom will be an issue. Athletes, used to being told where to go, when to be there and what to do, will be on their own. It could feel like an interminable period until they put on their practice uniforms and take orders from their head coaches again.

This in uncharted territory for NFL players, but those around the NHL know all about the lamentable process that's about to unfold.

[+] EnlargeBob Batterman
AP Photo/Alex BrandonNFL outside labor counsel Bob Batterman, left, and Carolina Panthers owner Jerry Richardson arrive at labor negotiations. Batterman also orchestrated the NHL owners' strategy during their lockout.
The NHL became the first major North American sports league to wipe out a full season with their 2004-05 lockout. The man who oversaw the NHL owners' strategy, Bob Batterman, now is helping NFL owners get what they want.

What advice do NHL players have for their football counterparts to endure purgatory?

"Know what the plan is going to be, not only with your money, but physically and emotionally," New York Rangers goaltender Martin Biron said. "Keep yourself ready. But if you're in March and thinking about all that right now, you're probably too late and you're going to be scrambling."

From this point forward, NHL players insist diversions are crucial. Group workout sessions, travel, hobbies, college courses ... Whatever it takes to keep your mind off being out of work.

"You've got to find a way to stay busy," Philadelphia Flyers center Daniel Briere said. "Staying at home, waiting by the phone for something to happen, probably is the worst thing. You'll drive yourself crazy.

"That's also easier said than done when you have a career and you're used to going to the field or the rink."

Practically the moment Biron stepped out of bed, he logged online in search of the latest labor developments. He scrolled through his e-mail for official union updates. Biron visited the NHL Players Association site. He checked legitimate news sources for rare developments. He'd even settle for rumors, searching through fishy blogs and message boards.

Biron went through this maddening cycle several times each day until he went back to bed.

"That, for a while, drove me absolutely bonkers," said Biron, a Buffalo Sabres teammate of Briere's during the lockout. "My everyday life was consumed, which I regret. I wasn't able to step away."

Union solidarity will be imperative for NFL players. The rank and file must make worthwhile use of their time to maintain an overall well-being.

"If you're bored and sitting at home, those were the guys that put the pressure on, were calling their union reps constantly," Briere said. "That's when things turn ugly."

Said Biron: "It became very negative and frustrating for a lot players because we were all told to be stay prepared and be educated, but you had a lot of guys who are between 20 and 30 years old and were having a good old time."

Retired forward Kevyn Adams, the Carolina Hurricanes' union representative during the lockout, emphasized ongoing communication will be important for NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith.

"Make sure you know exactly what the pulse of the league is," Adams said. "Don't let a few players' voices be the ones that carry everyone.

"It's very, very important that the director goes around and is talking to every player -- 'How are you feeling?' -- not just in front of a group where players are nervous to say things. Make sure you take the pulse of all the players."

Granted, it was much easier for NHL players to occupy themselves during their lockout than it will be for NFL players this year.

Unlike football, hockey is an established international sport with a minor league system. Unemployed NHLers could go off to Russia, Czech Republic, Finland, Switzerland or myriad other destinations to play. Some dropped down to the minors and skated in the American Hockey League.

NFL players have three possible options: the United Football League, Arena Football League and the Canadian Football League. None of them are too viable, though.

Playing in another league comes with significant risk. An NFL player under contract who suffers a serious injury elsewhere could get cut, be forced to repay bonus money or not get paid while on the physically unable to perform list.

The same would go for Miami Dolphins receiver Brandon Marshall, who said last summer if the 2011 lockout lasted long enough he would try the NBA.

Another issue would be negotiating individual walkout clauses to leave an alternative league and rejoin the NFL once the lockout ends. Players could be stuck once the NFL starts up again.

CFL and UFL schedules overlap with the NFL. The CFL doesn't offer walkout clauses and probably wouldn't make exceptions because of its working affiliation with the NFL. The UFL might be reluctant to cater to players in light of ESPN reporter Chris Mortensen's story the financially troubled league is seeking investment dollars from the NFL.

The most likely football defectors would be free agents at the bottom of an NFL roster or practice squad players. They have no guarantees of making a team in 2011 anyway and need paychecks the most.

Like the NHL players who went overseas, however, injuries always are possible.

"When I evaluated the pros and cons I found it was better for my game to keep playing," Briere said. "I was willing to risk an injury to come back and be in hockey shape. But everybody has a different decision to make. It might be safer not to play for some."

Biron decided not to play. He still bemoans that decision because it would have kept his mind focused on the next game, training, fixing competitive flaws and not lockout minutiae.

Instead, Biron worked out with a group of players at a rink in suburban Buffalo.

"The first month, we were on the ice five days a week," Biron said. "The second month, four days. The third month, three. After Christmas it was a couple times to make an appearance.

"You saw a lot of the guys who kept themselves in the game and played in the American Hockey League or even Europe were some of the stronger players coming out of the lockout."

Adams' trick to prevent slacking was teaming up with workout warriors. Adams couldn't play in Europe because of his role with the union. But he didn't have trouble staying in hockey shape -- not even in Raleigh, N.C. -- because one of the NHL's legendary training fiends.

"The secret weapon I had was Rod Brind'Amour," Adams said. "He was one of the guys I'd meet every day to stay ready. You don't take days off when you're working out with Rod.

"If you have trouble working out or staying self-motivated, then you better get around people. It doesn't take much to get passed by. There's such a fine line between being an elite level athlete at the highest level and not playing. If you let your conditioning slip or don't work as hard as the guys trying to take your job you'll be out of the league."

Perhaps it's no coincidence Adams and the Hurricanes emerged from the lockout and hoisted the next Stanley Cup.

In the NFL, players are entering the great unknown. Some will work on finishing their degrees. Baltimore Ravens safety Tom Zbikowski boxed on the undercard of a big Las Vegas show over the weekend. New York Jets inside linebacker Bart Scott participated in a pro wrestling event.

Again, whatever it takes to cope.

"My goal," Briere said, "was to be able to look back at it and say 'At least I didn't waste it. At least I did something good with the wasted year.' "

Dolphins at Ravens inactives

November, 7, 2010
BALTIMORE -- Inactives for Sunday's game between the Miami Dolphins and Baltimore Ravens in M&T Bank Stadium:

Miami Dolphins
Baltimore Ravens

Minus Moss, Brady still wears down Ravens

October, 17, 2010
Tom BradyJim Rogash/Getty ImagesAfter a slow start, New England's Tom Brady threw for 292 yards against the Ravens.
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Baltimore Ravens safety Tom Zbikowski is a former prizefighter and looked like he'd just climbed into a ring. A black, hooded sweatshirt obscured his face while he meandered aimlessly in a corner of the Gillette Stadium visitors locker room, talking out loud to nobody after playing the New England Patriots on Sunday.

Zbikowski muttered a run-on sentence about the Patriots having two weeks to prepare with a bye week and still barely beat the Ravens at home and needed their best performance to do it and just wait until the playoffs, when the Ravens will roll them again, just like they did last year in the same building and ...

That's what Tom Brady can do to his opponents, leave them talking to themselves after a game they thought they should've won but didn't.

In boxing parlance, the Patriots outslugged the Ravens to eke out a 23-20 majority decision in overtime. The Ravens outfoxed the Patriots for much of the afternoon, but a late flurry from Brady and his menagerie of receivers put them over the top.

Zbikowski has a point about the Patriots benefiting from an extra week of prep for the Ravens, a team many considered the NFL's most complete.

But Brady went into Sunday without his haymaker for the first time in four seasons. Randy Moss, the powerhouse deep threat, was running fly patterns in the Metrodome instead.

Brady conceded in an interview that aired on the NFL Network before the game "It'd be foolish to think" the Patriots would be better without Moss, and early in the game it appeared they would miss him dearly.

The Patriots' offense couldn't find a rhythm. Through three quarters, Brady was 11-of-20 for 136 yards and no touchdowns with an interception for a 55.4 passer rating. The Ravens sacked him twice and drilled him on a couple plays and the Patriots found themselves down by 10 at the beginning of the fourth quarter.

Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis claimed a team should win 80 percent of the time when it plays as well as the Ravens did Sunday.

The problem was, a 20 percent chance for Brady might not be a bad bet.

In the fourth quarter and overtime, Brady strafed the Ravens. The Patriots went no huddle. In the fourth quarter and overtime Brady completed 16-of-24 for 156 yards and one touchdown with one interception on a Hail Mary attempt at the end of regulation time. The Ravens sacked him once.

"We did a good job of frenzying him," Ravens outside linebacker Terrell Suggs said, "but eventually he's going to make some plays."

In the first game since the Patriots reacquired Deion Branch in a trade with the Seattle Seahawks, he had nine receptions for 98 yards and a touchdown. Brady spread the ball around to slot receiver Wes Welker (seven catches, 53 yards), running back Danny Woodhead (five catches, 52 yards) and rookie tight end Aaron Hernandez (four catches, 61 yards).

Welker, Woodhead and Julian Edelman are among the interchangeable parts. The Patriots have gathered them like collectibles. Maybe that's because they're the size of action figures. No matter, they get the job done.

"You have those tight ends and those itty, bitty receivers running all over the place," Ravens linebacker Jarret Johnson said.

Ravens safety Dawan Landry chuckled when asked if the Patriots were any easier to defend without Moss on the field.

"They're still the Patriots," Landry said. "They got rid of [Moss] for a reason. They feel like the guys they have can get the job done. I think they can. They'll be OK."

New England couldn't blow the top off Baltimore's defense without Moss. Brady went deep just twice, a long incompletion to Brandon Tate and the 44-yard jump ball before overtime.

New England's game plan, however, wasn't much different.

[+] EnlargeDeion Branch
AP Photo/Winslow TownsonDeion Branch had a huge day in his return to the Patriots.
Receivers worked the sidelines, underneath crosses, screens. They're finely tuned that way, and even though Baltimore could stick an extra defender nearer the line of scrimmage without Moss to worry about (Welker didn't have a single third-down catch for the first time since opening night 2009), versatile receivers running precision routes with a quarterback who can throw darts will keep any offense dangerous.

Moss "is one of the greatest vertical guys in the game, but they're not going to adjust their game plan to one guy," Johnson said. "You'd have to account for him because he's so good, but they're just going to plug another guy in.

"When you got that scheme and Tom Brady, you're going to be good. They're a heady team. ... I'm not going to sit here and give some epic speech about how great he is, but it's easy. They're going to attack where you're vulnerable, and that's what they did."

The Patriots have been doing that since Brady took over for Drew Bledsoe nine years ago. Brady has been the common denominator, not Moss.

Defenses might have less to fear without Moss streaking up the field, leaping over a defender for a grab or making a one-handed stab in the end zone.

But if they don't stop Brady, then there's a good chance they'll be muttering to themselves about what they'll do next time in a rematch.




Sunday, 9/21
Monday, 9/22