Shortly after NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue announced last Thursday that games were being canceled or postponed, Baltimore Ravens owner Art Modell went to his players to explain a few things.
Modell's speech to his players went something like this:
"First question you probably have is whether you'll get paid for 16 games instead
of 15, and I can tell you that there will be a favorable owners' response to that," the
|Brian Billick's Ravens got a big road win over the Broncos.|
"Second question, what is the practice schedule? The league has asked all teams
to observe a national day of mourning and prayer tomorrow [Friday], so I'm assuming
you won't practice..."
Ravens players got antsy and shook their heads in the negative, when coach Brian
Billick stepped up next to the owner.
"Oops," said Modell.
Billick began to explain his reasons for practicing Friday and Saturday to a group
of players that were not particularly thrilled with the plan.
"I have valid reasons," he told them.
Meanwhile, in New Orleans, Saints coach Jim Haslett hatched what he thought
was a terrific idea when he learned of the cancellation. His team already was facing a bye
in Week 3, and therefore would have 21 days off between games. Not ideal. Haslett
called Steelers coach Bill Cowher -- who faced an identical 21-day layoff -- and proposed
that the Steelers and Saints practice against each other this week for three days. Two old
linebackers who once coached together put the plan in action.
The Saints would travel to Pittsburgh under the plan, so Haslett put his
administrative staff to work on the details. The team would fly Monday for workouts
Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday against the Steelers. The league office gave an
A couple of major details remained. Getting a chartered jet was a problem because
major-league baseball had priority with the airlines. But the biggest detail came Friday
when Haslett tried to break the news to his team that it would hit the road. Oops again.
"It didn't go over very well," the coach admitted. "The guys had concerns. They
were scared to leave their kids, their family. They didn't want to fly. After taking it into
account, I figured we would do what was best for the players and called it off. To be
honest, my wife wasn't fired up about the idea, either."
Billick explained his reasons to his uneasy players about practicing Friday,
Saturday and Monday.
"I have a responsibility to get this team ready to play football, and I don't care
about anybody but us," he said. "I didn't want guys leaving town and traveling, or even
trying to get up to New York. I wanted the guys physically and mentally prepared to
resume our season."
||I have a responsibility to get this team ready to play football, and I don't care
about anybody but us. ”
||— Ravens coach Brian Billick
Billick may have been sending another message by conducting relatively intense
practices. He did not necessarily embrace the quotes of veteran Rod Woodson, who
referred to the Ravens as "Club Med" compared to Jacksonville under Tom Coughlin.
The comments were made when the Ravens signed their second ex-Jaguar, Carnell Lake,
after earlier doing a deal with Leon Searcy. Billick even made a sarcastic reference to the
"Club Med" quotes when he explained his plan to the players.
As for a level of grumbling among the players about their Super Bowl champion
coach, Billick shrugged it off.
"My players know me," he said. "There's no lack of communication here."
Coaches must know their players, too. They must communicate, especially in this
era with this generation.
Jeff Fisher understands this as well as anybody. His Tennessee Titans also
practiced Friday and Saturday, but not without first exercising a little common-sense
"What I did immediately was get three or four guys, our player representatives,
and a few other leaders, and sat them down to discuss what I thought was a fair
schedule," said Fisher. "We discussed what we wanted to get done on the field, and off
the field in the community, in light of this tragedy. In the end, we all concurred."
When the Titans returned Monday afternoon, Fisher's speech most likely touched
the same theme as many coaches across the NFL.
"We're back playing football and yet everybody wants to still help with the
tragedy," Fisher said. "Football has been a part of our culture for decades and decades. It
has permeated our society and has been part of our daily lives. Last week, it no longer
was. I believe on Sunday the country took the first big step when it was clear that
everyone was where they needed to be -- in church, turning toward their faith and toward
"I told the guys that the next step is getting back to sports. If you want to help,
then let's put on the best entertainment we possibly can. That's going to be our
contribution. In order to do that, it involves being extremely focused."
Fisher said he has had a great response from his players, but conceded, "This is a
completely different situation than anything a coach has had to deal with. To grow as
coaches, you have to be able to evaluate your players, know where their heads are at, read 'em and react. But this isn't easy. It is different. Last Tuesday, I felt like we were putting
a terrible start against the Dolphins behind us, and we were back on track, game planning
for the Bengals, when this thing hit. We lost our focus, and now we've got it back. "
The brutally honest Haslett did not call himself a hypocrite, but he was
transparent enough to admit he may have made a misstep by asking his players to travel
during this off week to Pittsburgh.
"I didn't really think of the whole situation -- I was thinking strictly football, and
what was best for the team," he said. "I always preach to the guys that our priorities
should be religious faith, whatever it may be, our family and then football. I didn't take
my own values into account, and it probably wasn't right."
||The guys had concerns. They
were scared to leave their kids, their family. They didn't want to fly. ”
||— Saints coach Jim Haslett on scuttling plans to practice against the Steelers this week
Yet the league is back to business, even if it isn't quite business as usual. The
Saints were back on the practice field Tuesday and Haslett, along with GM Randy
Mueller, thought of a way to get his players excited about working again. They moved
practice to late in the afternoon and invited the public to attend Tuesday and Wednesday.
There were a couple of thousand fans who showed up for a spirited practice.
"We wanted to accomplish two things, starting with giving something back to the
community and letting kids come and see their favorite team to ease their minds a little
bit," said Haslett. "The other thing it does, it picks up the energy for our practice. Our
players like that atmosphere. They practice harder. It's hard to describe, except that we
had the pads on [Tuesday] and it was very crisp. It's what we needed."
I take you back to 1987 during the players' strike that interrupted a season already
under way. One game was canceled, and then the owners did the unthinkable by hiring
replacement players to resume the season. The games would count in the standings.
Something very interesting happened that year.
Buddy Ryan of the Philadelphia Eagles refused to coach his replacement players
and made no bones about it. It was a very popular decision with his striking, veteran
Redskins coach Joe Gibbs took a different approach, knowing the games would
count. He and his staff coached the replacements with the same intensity -- which was
unparalleled -- that they coached the regulars. Not a very popular move with his guys.
For three weekends, the Eagles were miserable. They went 0-3. The Redskins
went 3-0. The strike ended and play resumed with the regular players. When the regular
season ended, the Redskins were 11-4 and won an NFC East division title. The Eagles
were 7-8 and out of the playoffs.
The Redskins went on to win the Super Bowl. The Eagles watched. Joe Gibbs was
revered by his players, and even more so by his owner, Jack Kent Cooke. Buddy Ryan
was still popular with his guys but he burned a bridge with owner Norman Braman that
he never rebuilt.
Coaches do what they have to do, and they live or die with the consequences. The
coach's lament and charge -- his primary and perhaps sole responsibility -- is to get his
football team ready to play and win games.
Sure, many people may now reason that "it's just a game." Somehow, even in this
fragile state in which our world currently resides, I have a feeling that a coach is still going to be
held accountable at the end of the season for the bottom line.