Ill-advised gimmicks don't work

Toward the end of his first practice as the Atlanta Falcons interim head coach late in the 1989 season, Jim Hanifan summoned his rag-tag team together at midfield, reached into an equipment bag that had mysteriously appeared during the final drill of the afternoon, and whipped out four sticks of dynamite.

Brandishing the dynamite above his head, Hanifan demanded each player come forward, and touch one of the sticks.

"This is what we're going to do to San Francisco on Sunday," Hanifan shouted, as the players roared. "Men, we're going to explode on them, right?"

And for the first half of the game, the 3-9 Falcons, so shabby an assemblage that coach Marion Campbell resigned with four contests on the schedule just to maintain his sanity, indeed, exploded on the superior 49ers. The Falcons led 10-6 at halftime, until order was restored in the San Francisco locker room, and Atlanta suddenly morphed back into the equivalent of Hanifan's ersatz dynamite, outscored 17-0 in the final two quarters.

The Falcons, alas, were again a dud that day. And, of course, so was the dynamite, four sticks of neutered explosives, containing not even a smidgeon of powder. The next week, outside the door of the Falcons' locker room, stood a vintage World War II bomb. The message from Hanifan was the same. So were the results. And that bright orange bomb, neither meaningful nor menacing, had long before been stripped of its innards.

By the third week of Hanifan's brief and ill-fated tenure, word came down from league headquarters in New York, strongly suggesting the colorful coach eliminate his phony motivational props. For the final two games of a grotesque season, Hanifan got through practices without producing so much as a firecracker.

So why dredge up this bit of ancient history?

Because two decades after the league quashed Hanifan's hokey theatrics, which were about as harmless as could be imagined, you've got to wonder how Jacksonville rookie coach Jack Del Rio got away with having an ax in his locker room. Yeah, the same ax that Chris Hanson clumsily wielded on Thursday morning, producing a gash that likely will end the season for the Jaguars punter.

We'll make you this bet right now: When you go to your local NFL game this weekend, pack an ax among the items you are taking into the stadium, and see how far you get with it. The guess here is, not very far, given that the league has dramatically increased its diligence since the terrorist events of two years ago. League and team officials are to be lauded for the ramped up security at every stadium, where fans are searched, and even the media has to go through a screening process.

But a coach brings an ax into the middle of the locker room, urges his players to hack away at an accompanying stump of oak as the tangible symbol of his slogan to "keep choppin' wood," and there are no repercussions? It was an accident (or, more precisely, an ax-ident) waiting to happen. And only when it did happen did Jaguars management decide that, hey, this might have been a mistake, huh?

At that point, it was a little too little, and a lot too late.

There had been, over the two weeks that the ax and block of wood were around in the Jaguars locker room, dozens of media reports detailing Del Rio's motivational gimmick. Some players have commented about how malodorous the block of freshly-hewn oak was and complained about the chopped-up wooden chunks on the floor. You'd think a red light would have gone on somewhere, either with the team's attorneys, or league officials who are generally sensitive to such things.

This is a league, after all, that goes to great lengths to avoid any kind of legal exposure in an accident. Given the NFL's track record in lawsuits, the courtroom is probably the last place team counsel wants to be, one might surmise. In the Jaguars case, some common sense should have prevailed.

One league official noted that the NFL has a stringent policy against guns and weapons in its locker rooms. Memo to commissioner Paul Tagliabue: An ax is considered, in some quarters, to be weapon. After the events of Thursday, you can bet it'll be viewed as such now by the NFL, as well.

As a football purist, you hate to see the bureaucracy continue to mushroom, dread another incident that leads to even tighter controls. But, may we remind, this is a league in which players are summarily fined for wearing their uniform socks an inch too low, an NFL that has grown increasingly sanitized over the past decade. There are worse things, for sure, than tightening the restrictions on the locker room. That's not to suggest that players and the media be daily stripped searched.

Common sense, it seems, should be fair enough arbitration. And common sense certainly was not the order of the day in the Jacksonville locker room. Most of the Jaguars players, especially the veterans, viewed Del Rio's actions as sophomoric. When it was suggested to one veteran that the ax and chopping block represented a college-type motivating tool, the player responded that it was "more like high school stuff."

There is even some question now as to whether Hanson, a Pro Bowl performer who has experienced more than his share of dubious incidents (he was one of the Jaguars players burned in a fondue accident last year), could sue the team or the league. The attorneys to whom we spoke offered mixed opinions. Certainly the wound was self-inflicted but it was the team, not the player, who introduced the ax into the locker room. And it was the Jaguars coach who encouraged his charges to whack away at the tree stump.

In the wake of the Hanson incident, it's a good bet the commissioner's office will soon dispatch a note to all 32 teams, reminding them of the weapons embargo and perhaps even strengthening it. Next time you see an ax in a locker room, it's apt to be one of those foam tomahawks that have become famous at Atlanta Braves games, and nothing sharper.

Around the league

  • The NFL trade deadline arrives next Tuesday and, as usual, don't expect any really meaningful player movement. Over the last 10 years, there have been only nine "deadline day" deals, the lone swap in 2002 being the trade that sent Dallas guard Kelvin Garmon to San Diego for a seventh-round draft choice. It is chic to blame the salary cap for the dearth of trade action but, truth be told, the NFL was never much of a wheeling-and-dealing league even before the spending limit was enacted. So not surprisingly, the trade talk this year has been typically slow, and pretty much limited to role players. The Denver Broncos dangled veteran safety Lee Flowers last week, found no interest, and released him. There were reports that demoted Jacksonville quarterback Mark Brunell might be open to a trade, but no team is willing to make him financially "whole" for 2003, and few clubs are ever interested in adding a quarterback after the season starts. So who are the few players being discussed? Well, once again, Minnesota is willing to part with No. 3 tailback Doug Chapman, who will be fourth on the depth chart once Michael Bennett returns to the field next month, and who clearly was being "showcased" late in last Sunday's victory over the Atlanta Falcons. San Diego punter Darren Bennett, a two-time Pro Bowl performer and a member of the league's "team of the '90s," can be had as well. Bennett is 38 years old now and has lost some leg strength. The Chargers drafted a punter, Mike Scifres, in the fifth round this year, have been using him on kickoff duty, and wouldn't mind having him supplant Bennett. And, of course, expect some rumors surrounding New York Giants tailback Ron Dayne. The former Heisman Trophy winner and first-round draft choice in 2000, has been reduced to "scout team" chores and hasn't played in a game yet in 2003. There could be a couple teams interested in snatching up Dayne for a low-round draft pick. Beyond that, there are some ongoing talks about deals involving backup offensive and defensive linemen, but certainly no blockbusters.

  • Two members of the league's influential competition committee to whom we spoke earlier in the week strongly suggested the language in the "leaping" rule, the infraction called against Tampa Bay defensive end Simeon Rice in the Monday night game, will almost certainly be altered (i.e., clarified) next spring. "The rule, in essence, is a good one because it (addresses) a safety issue," said one committee member. "And the call in the Monday game was absolutely following the letter of the law. But we need to take a hard look at the wording of the rule. I mean, (Rice) didn't put anyone in jeopardy. You don't want to force the officials into parsing things even further, you know, interpreting the chances a leaping player could injure someone, but we've got to clean (the rule) up." It should be noted that one guy who has remained silent on the call -- not too surprising, given his class -- is Tampa Bay general manager Rich McKay, who is co-chairman of the competition committee. For McKay to have said anything in the wake of his team's overtime loss might have been construed as self-serving, and the Bucs general manager is way too smart to be drawn into that trap. It could be a busy session for the committee, which typically meets two weeks prior to the start of the March league meetings, since it figures to also be considering a number of key proposals. There is a group in the league that wants the committee to look at changing the rule for catching a pass at the back of the end zone. And, of course, the move to alter the overtime rules definitely will be revisited.

  • Speaking of overtime, there have been seven extra session contests so far in 2003, the third-most at this point of the season since the rule was adopted in 1974. In five of the seven games, each team had at least one possession, and the team that won the toss prevailed four times. In fact, what proponents of changing the rules don't seem to realize is that both teams got at least one possession in 71.6 percent of the 349 overtime games played in league history. And only 51.8 percent of the teams that won the toss won the game.

  • When the Carolina Panthers signed Stephen Davis in the spring, after the tailback had been cast off by Washington for salary cap considerations, his new five-year contract was widely reported as being worth $35.5 million. In fact, the deal was essentially a contract worth $15.5 million, with the opportunity to earn an additional $4 million annually in an incentives and bonus package. Many skeptics, including yours truly, suggested that Davis could have problems capitalizing on the incentives, because the thresholds were set so high. But the resurrected Davis, certainly the centerpiece of the offense for the unbeaten Panthers, now stands to cash in handsomely, it seems. Davis will earn an additional $1.5 million if he rushes for 1,500 yards and he's currently on pace for a 2,200-yard season. He pockets another $500,000 if he is among the NFL's top three rushers, and currently he is second in the league. Davis, who is set to earn $4.1 million from the total of his initial signing bonus, base salary and workout bonus, doesn't figure to "max" out on all of his incentives. But it's realistic to expect he will bank an extra $2 million-$2.5 million this year. And the stakes will go higher the more Davis produces and, just as important, the deeper Carolina advances in the playoffs.

  • Wonder why so much is expected from Chicago middle linebacker Brian Urlacher, who has come under fire in some quarters, and viewed as having underachieved to this point of the season? One reason might be that Urlacher, who signed a pricey contract extension in the spring, is the NFL's highest paid player for 2003. According to salary documents obtained by ESPN.com, Urlacher has a total salary for this year of $15.055 million. That includes a $13 million signing bonus, $1 million roster bonus, $1.05 million base salary and workout bonus of $5,600. There are 15 players who are earning $10 million or more in total compensation for 2003.Thirty-two players will make $7 million or more.

  • Look for the Philadelphia Eagles, who still have $4.048 million in remaining salary cap room for this season, to accelerate efforts to sign standout defensive tackle Corey Simon to a contract extension before the end of the year. ESPN.com has confirmed the Eagles, in the wake of lucrative extensions recently awarded Anthony McFarland of Tampa Bay and Carolina's Kris Jenkins, have approached agent Roosevelt Barnes about an expanded deal for Simon. The fourth-year veteran and 2000 first-round pick is under contract through the 2004 campaign. He will make just $646,250 this season and $700,000 in '04 between his base salaries and roster bonuses, and that makes Simon a real steal. Team president Joe Banner has always demonstrated a priority for extending nucleus veterans before their contracts are close to lapsing and Simon has become the team's No. 1 target among its young core players.

  • The early-season success of Quincy Carter might validate Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones in his role of general manager, and enhance his reputation as a pseudo-talent scout. Remember, it was Jones who took full responsibility for selecting Carter in the second round of the 2001 draft, even though most teams had the former University of Georgia star appraised as a third- or fourth-round prospect at best. Jones cited Carter's potential for the deep ball as one reason he chose him and, three seasons later, that potential is now turning into production. Carter will likely never be a high-percentage passer. He looks like a guy who will be in the 55- or 56-percent range for his career. In some systems, of course, that would be a huge liability. But the Cowboys, especially under Bill Parcells, want the ball going vertically upfield and Carter certainly provides that dimension. The Cowboys are averaging 14.5 yards per completion in 2003, and have 21 pass plays of 20 yards or more, and both those numbers are second-best in the league. Each of the team's top three wide receivers is averaging at least 18 yards per catch. Despite his stretches of poor marksmanship, Carter throws a precise deep ball and, with the speed the Cowboys possess on the outside, don't expect Dallas to ever be reduced to a dink-and-dunk attack. Notable, too, is the production Parcells is getting from Joey Galloway and Terry Glenn, a pair of wide receivers some considered past their primes. The two are starting ahead of second-year veteran Antonio Bryant, a youngster with a big-play mentality, but who has problems sometimes working against "Cover 2" packages and who often struggles to fight through double teams.

  • We're not going to get into the complexities of re-writing a story on deadline, as most scribes at the Monday night Indianapolis-Tampa Bay thriller were forced to do, but the exercise in frenetic hacking did produce a problem for which we apologize. In the game story on this site, it noted that "several" Bucs players had declined to speak to ESPN and ESPN.com because of their personal views regarding Rush Limbaugh's remarks and the Playmakers series. Not true. For the most part, Bucs player were cooperative, even in the wake of a devastating collapse. For the record, only two Tampa Bay players declined interviews and just one (you figure the identity) is a player of consequence.

  • After last weekend, when Kansas City Chiefs special teams ace Dante Hall scored on a 93-yard punt return that included at least one clip that wasn't called and one block in the back that escaped the officials' notice, you can't bet against the guy bringing back another kick for a fifth game in a row. But the Green Bay Packers, dramatically improved on special teams in the first year under assistant coach John Bonamego, might be able to corral Hall on Sunday afternoon. The Packers, particularly woeful in the kicking game last year, are first in the NFL in lowest average punt return allowed and third in covering kickoffs. The clever Bonamego has added better special teams players and also a few wrinkles to the Green Bay coverage units. The Packers now use a variety of kickoffs, and sometimes employ a sort of "muddle huddle," in which the coverage players stay in a bunch until kicker Ryan Longwell approaches the ball. The technique is designed to confuse blocking assignments and has been effective. And look for punter Josh Bidwell, not a very good directional kicker, to sacrifice yardage for hang time against Hall. The Packers have made it a rallying cry all week to keep Hall out of the end zone. They realize how significant he is, especially given that the Chiefs offense has been unable to date to elicit much output from the passing game.

  • There are a lot of reasons for the improvement of the Minnesota defense this year, not the least of which is the input of coordinator George O'Leary, who is rehabilitating his career very nicely. Everything starts upfront, of course, where first-round draft pick Kevin Williams has performed well, even if the media hasn't noticed. But not to be overlooked is the play of the Vikings safeties, who have combined for nine interceptions already. The move of Corey Chavous to strong safety finally puts the veteran at his most natural spot in the secondary, after years of bouncing between cornerback and free safety. And the play of second-year pro Brian Russell, who has an interception in all five games, has been sensational. "He's a far better athlete than a lot of people think," said coach Mike Tice of Russell, a former practice squad player, who outworked every other candidate in camp to capture the wide-open competition at the free safety spot. Russell and Chavous are both good tacklers and each possesses solid "ball' skills. How significant are those nine interceptions for which the tandem has combined? There were only two safety duets in 2002 that had more than nine thefts. And there were just six safeties last season who had more than five interceptions for the year.

  • While on the subject of secondaries, Will Allen of the New York Giants has just one interception and five passes defensed, but some scouts who have seen him feel that the former first-rounder is now among the NFC's best cornerbacks. Allen has separated himself a bit from teammate Will Peterson, who is also very good, and is playing at a Champ Bailey-type level. And, oh, the next Bailey? One NFC personnel chief opined this week that Ohio State corner Chris Gamble might be considered in the Bailey class in the 2004 draft if he runs well in pre-lottery workouts. Gamble is a physical defender, fluid enough to also play some at wide receiver, and a natural ballhawk.

  • There have been some recent rumblings that the Cincinnati Bengals might consider releasing tailback Corey Dillon next spring, a move that would allow the club to realize between $1.3 million-$3.4 million, depending on when he was jettisoned. But don't count on Dillon, who turns 29 in two weeks and has started to miss time to injuries, being cut by the Bengals. Traded? Now that's another thing. There could be a team or two, even given Dillon's age, that might be interested in surrendering a middle-round choice for him. The Bengals, under such a scenario, would still get a cap break, realize an extra draft pick, and might be able to get by with Rudi Johnson as the starting tailback.

  • How testy have some Atlanta Falcons players become in the wake of the current four-game losing streak? In last Monday's editions of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, a photo on the front page of the sports showed a Randy Moss touchdown, with Falcons cornerback Ray Buchanan trailing the Minnesota star. On the play, it was cornerback Kevin Mathis who was beaten for the score, not Buchanan who was culpable. But the photo did make it appear that Buchanan, who was shadowing a receiver in the middle of the field, had been toasted. So Buchanan phoned one of the reporters who covers the club, as if the scribe had laid out the page, to complain about the photograph. Also notable was the Friday revelation by offensive tackle Bob Whitfield, who has played miserably over the last three games, that he underwent hypnotism this week in an effort to shake his slump. Notable because the 12-year veteran, for many years one of the NFL's premier pass protection tackles, has played like he's in a trance.

  • Punts: The Steelers' situation at tackle, because of injury and ineptitude, has gotten to the point where the team is working two-time Pro Bowl guard Alan Faneca at the outside position in practices. … Look for Baltimore Ravens coaches to begin using first-round linebacker Terrell Suggs, who has four sacks in just situational play so far, in the team's 3-4 "base' defense starting this weekend. … Houston coaches plan to increase playing time for rookie tailbacks Tony Hollings and Domanick Davis. … The New Orleans secondary has surrendered 10 touchdown passes and an opposition passer rating of 102.3 through five games. … Tampa Bay officials are all but prepared to accelerate talks aimed at a contract extension for defensive tackle Warren Sapp. … The New York Jets will substitute their three backup linebackers -- Jason Glenn, Kenyatta Wright and rookie Victor Hobson -- as a group this weekend for the starters. Look for the playing time of veterans Mo Lewis and Marvin Jones, in particular, to be increasingly reduced over the balance of the season. … There is a chance the Patriots will start Mike Cloud at tailback this weekend. Cloud, coming back from a four-game suspension and a calf injury, really provided the New England ground game a much-needed boost last week.
    Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.