- Jordan Brenner, ESPN The Magazine contributing writer
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IT'S NO SECRET that the NFL is a copycat league. Yet as training camps open and teams put their best-laid plans in place, even the zaniest coaches wouldn't dare emulate the reigning champs. Last season, the Giants went from a 7-7 defensive mess to champions following a Super Bowl upset. Their turning point was a moment that seemed to violate the most cherished tenets of locker room protocol -- and that might have buried the season of any other team.
After a crushing Week 15 loss to Washington left New York on the playoff fringe, a Giants player publicly called out the team. It wasn't a superstar like Eli Manning or even a veteran mainstay like Chris Snee. It was safety Antrel Rolle, who in two seasons with the Giants had feuded with Tom Coughlin, ripped fans for booing and eschewed political correctness. At first it seemed nothing short of reckless when the seven-year vet criticized players for sitting out all week and then playing on Sunday. "This s-- starts in practice," he railed to the media. "If you're injured, so be it. We understand that. But nicks and bruises? Everyone needs to be on the field, because we're not getting better like this."
Calling out teammates usually ends one of two ways in the NFL. Sometimes a player's stature is so great that everyone accepts his words as constructive criticism. That was the story during last season's playoffs when respected Ravens safety Ed Reed questioned QB Joe Flacco's handle on the offense. The case of Santonio Holmes is much more typical, however. After the Jets co-captain ripped the offensive line last season, guard Brandon Moore shot back, saying that Holmes is "not being a leader" and that his criticism "fragments the locker room." The Jets finished the season in chaos, and Holmes is no longer a captain.
The bottom line: A player who speaks out usually is seen as a selfish distraction and faces serious blowback. Steelers corner Ike Taylor, for one, says Rolle's comments wouldn't have played well in his locker room. "Going out publicly can be a crapshoot," says Taylor, a seven-year starter. "It just so happened that it ended up on the good side for the Giants."
It didn't start that way. The New York media ripped Rolle, claiming he targeted star defensive end Justin Tuck, one of a handful of Giants who played against Washington despite sitting out during the week. Rolle denied it then and denies it now: "In order for us to be a championship-caliber team, we needed everyone," he says. "And that was the only reason I said what I said. It wasn't about calling anyone out." Still, after the story hit the back
pages, the safety contacted Tuck, a Giants captain and the perceived team leader, to say he wasn't singling him out, that he was simply voicing his overall frustration. Tuck said not to worry. "I've got your number, and I would have called you if there was a problem," Tuck told him. "But you're right; let's go out and get it."
No matter the aim, there's no denying that the incident lit a match under Tuck. Struggling with shoulder, groin and neck injuries, he had recorded just three sacks in 10 games and even talked to Coughlin about going on injured reserve. After Rolle's rant, though, Tuck looked re-energized. The result: 5.5 sacks in the final six games (including the playoffs), a huge reason the defense went from giving up 26.6 ppg to not allowing more than 20 in that season-ending stretch.
Two of Tuck's sacks came in the Super Bowl, and afterward, he targeted Rolle ... to thank him for igniting the locker room. "I wanted to say the same things he did," Tuck says. "But being injured at the time, I didn't feel okay standing in front of the team and talking about practicing. The fact was, if we were going to even make the playoffs, we had to get guys on the football field."
Why did Rolle's rant succeed when so many others fail? For starters, players respect his work ethic and toughness. Granted, he's not Reed, but the 29-year-old is a two-time Pro Bowler who played five positions last season for a ragtag Giants defense -- and did so with a pair of torn rotator cuffs that left him in agony every time he raised his arms. "He showed his commitment to winning before he said anything," Tuck says. It also helped that the rest of the Giants accept that silence just isn't in Rolle's DNA. After signing with New York in 2010, he questioned the team's leadership after a 38-14 Week 2 loss to the Colts. That didn't go over well in the locker room, but now most of the Giants see that it was just typical Rolle -- brutal, but necessary, honesty.
That trait emerged from growing up in Homestead, Fla., with a football family (his cousins include former NFL CB Samari Rolle and LB Brian Rolle) that prided itself on truth-telling. He continued his education in straight talk at Miami beginning in 2001. According to former NFL fullback Quadtrine Hill, Rolle's roommate at the U, "We took pride in hurting people's feelings with the truth."
No one knows Rolle's MO better than Hill. "A leader is somebody who's willing to say what needs to be said no matter how he's going to be portrayed," he says. "Antrel has always been that guy." The DB has also always tried to earn that right through his actions. In his time at Miami, he locked down the likes of Larry Fitzgerald and Calvin Johnson, but that's not what Hill remembers most about Rolle. He likes to tell the story of being told to run 20 extra 110-yard sprints after the team's conditioning test one summer as a form of punishment. Hill couldn't persuade his fellow running backs to join him, but five seconds into his first sprint, he turned and saw Rolle by his side.
Rolle says he spoke out less frequently during his five years in Arizona after the team took him with the No. 8 pick of the 2005 draft. And when he did, hardly anyone noticed due to the lack of media scrutiny. That changed dramatically in New York -- not that he's complaining.
Still, before another vet considers following Rolle's lead, he might want to consider that had the Giants finished the way the Jets did, Rolle might have been remembered as a troublemaker, not a spark plug. He seems to know it too: "I always tell myself, 'Antrel, just be quiet. Just let it go.'"
If he ever did, the silence might be deafening.