NFL players look for any edge they can get
If a player isn't looking for a way to gain an advantage in the NFL, he's courting plenty of heartache, Jeffri Chadiha writes.
Kansas City Chiefs coach Herm Edwards uses a familiar message to end the speech he gives his team on Saturday nights before games.
Although he can be notoriously loquacious, Edwards refrains from drawing upon predictable clichés or gimmicky references in such moments. Instead, he delivers a brief, pointed statement that leaves his players knowing exactly what their responsibilities are.
"I tell them to do whatever it takes to get ready to play," Edwards said. "As long as it's legal, I want them to do it."
It's a reality players and coaches all eventually learn. They might see offensive linemen tightening their jerseys so defenders can't grab their uniforms and create crucial leverage. They may hear about the manipulation of an injury report to hide a star player's health status. They also probably know about more covert behavior -- such as exotic cocktails that generate higher energy levels for players during games or coaches who scan reams of game film in search of information on an opponent's audibles.
As Tampa Bay quarterback Jeff Garcia said: "Everybody in this league is trying to find a way to get away with something that creates an advantage. If they get caught doing something, they'll get penalized. But if they don't, they'll keep doing it as long as they can."
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Former Minnesota Vikings defensive tackle John Randle also was fairly intuitive. He once heard an opposing quarterback call out "A-78" and yelled to his teammates that a three-step drop was coming. When the quarterback tried to throw, he just jumped into the air and nearly deflected the pass.
There are subtle tricks players use -- whether it's a cornerback holding a receiver on pass plays or an offensive lineman altering his stances so he doesn't tip off a run or a pass -- but the coaches are even more creative.
When Marty Schottenheimer coached the Cleveland Browns in the late 1980s, he routinely sent a scout to watch the signals opposing teams used to relay messages from coaches to players. When the scout returned, Schottenheimer's staff would watch the game film and match the signals to the plays that followed.
Edwards said the same is true today. It's common for coaches to watch standard game tapes (which include shots from the press box and end zone angles), sideline tapes (which usually wind up on highlight shows and include footage of players and coaches talking on the sidelines) and even the television shows of opposing coaches for tips.
These men then watch the footage with the same scrutiny FBI agents reserve for reviewing a wiretap recording.
"We want to hear what's being said in case you hear an audible or a [defensive] check," Edwards said. "Coaches have a saying: "Anything you say can and will be used against you.'"
Former Cleveland Browns owner Art Modell and Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis would support that notion. When their teams met in a 1980 AFC divisional playoff game, Modell thought he held the upper hand because he didn't use heated benches on the sidelines in Municipal Stadium, a place where frigid temperatures could torment opponents in the winter.
However, Davis countered with his own idea: He borrowed some heated benches from New York Giants owner Wellington Mara. The NFL eventually forced Davis to provide those benches to Cleveland, as well, but Davis didn't mind. His team won the game, 14-12.
Some people simply have ultracompetitive personalities, such as former Redskins coach George Allen. He once sent an equipment manager on a five-hour drive from Washington, D.C., to West Virginia to retrieve some spring water. He had read that it could help his players stay more energized.
Will Wolford, an offensive lineman who played 13 years in the NFL, once bragged on a radio show that a police officer gave him Kevlar that he used to line the padded gloves he wore in games.
The parity in the NFL leads to gamesmanship, as well.
"This is a strategic game, and there are no slouches out there playing," said Kansas City offensive tackle Kyle Turley, a nine-year veteran. "You're talking about the best coaches and players in the business. And when everything is that even, you have to use everything you have."
Turley actually taught this lesson to Houston Texans defensive end Mario Williams, the first pick in the 2006 draft, in a preseason game last season. Although Williams had 20 pounds on 275-pound Turley, Turley lured him into rushing at such a torrid pace that Williams eventually lost his leverage, allowing Turley to hurl the rookie onto his rump.
It turned out Turley had learned the technique by studying videotape of the man who created the "Hump" move, Hall of Fame defensive end Reggie White. "You could say I welcomed the kid to the NFL," Turley said.
"There really is an odd disparity when you start to divide up the eras," said ESPN television analyst Bill Curry, who played center for four teams from 1965 to 1974. "The guys from the 1940s and '50s pride themselves on knocking guys into the bench and gouging out eyes. There were only a couple guys in the league who were like that when I played. But we did have our codes. The most basic one was that we wouldn't do something that would end a career."
There were still violent ideas in the minds of some players during the 1960s and '70s -- "I can remember when defensive linemen taped hockey pucks and ashtrays to their hands to use in a head slap," said Raymond Chester, a former tight end with the Colts and Raiders -- but the tactics certainly involved more thought.
Curry said his Baltimore Colts teammates actually studied the officials to the extent that they knew which referees would call certain penalties. "There was an umpire named Pat Harder who always called two penalties a game," Curry said. "And they were always on the same guy."
Of course, there were also more memorable tactics in those days. Billy Ray Smith Sr., a defensive end who played on three teams from 1957 to 1970, once chewed tobacco during a game and spit on the fingers of opposing linemen to provoke false starts.
Chicago Bears Hall of Fame linebacker Dick Butkus was so adept at learning his opponent's snap counts that he would yell it out as soon as the quarterback started his cadence. And when Edwards started his career as a Philadelphia Eagles cornerback in 1977, coaches warned players to watch their playbooks during walk-through sessions in opposing stadiums.
"Things had a way of disappearing back in those days," Edwards said.
Most of the retired players interviewed for this story agree it was easier to use tricks in their day. With fewer teams and less specialization, there were simply more opportunities to set up an opponent. The scrutiny also wasn't as high. As television became a more dominant presence in the NFL, so did the value of protecting the league's image.
Said San Diego Chargers offensive tackle Roman Oben: "There were teams that nobody ever saw on television in the 1970s because the marquee teams usually got a lot of exposure and they probably had the best officials, too. So guys could definitely get away with more stuff then."
The rules also are much tougher now, especially when it comes to another popular means of gaining an advantage: the use of banned substances. Most people think of steroids when cheating comes up, but the league's decision to ban the stimulant ephedra in 2001 had a major impact on players.
Before the rule, it was common for players to drink "party balls" before games -- a potion concocted from ephedra, Coca-Cola and Ultimate Orange (a drink used by weightlifters that is said to offer more explosive power than seven shots of espresso) -- to maintain a higher energy level throughout the contest. Unfortunately, the consequences of drinking those potions without properly hydrating were scary.
When Oben played for the Giants, he once drank a party ball before a 1999 game against Washington. After drinking a couple of beers in the parking lot after the loss, he cramped up so much later that night that his girlfriend nearly called an ambulance.
Even before that moment, the league had taken a harsher stance on governing the game. Currently, one violation of the NFL banned substance policy results in a four-game suspension.
On the field, officials scrutinize uniforms more closely than ever and vicious plays -- such as defenders launching themselves at helpless receivers -- produce exorbitant fines.
"I wouldn't have made any money in today's league," said former Raiders cornerback Lester Hayes, who played from 1977 to 1986 and roughed up plenty of receivers. "They fine people so much now that I would've had negative amounts in my paychecks."
The league also has sent a stronger message to coaches. In 1998, the NFL fined Broncos coach Mike Shanahan $15,000 for failing to list quarterback John Elway on the Denver injury report despite the fact that Elway had ribs so sore they eventually prevented him from starting that week's game (Shanahan responded by listing 22 players on the next week's report, 20 of whom were labeled "probable").
During 2005, the league also levied a $25,000 fine against then Atlanta Falcons coach Jim Mora for using his cell phone during a game. Mora had used the phone in an overtime loss to Tampa Bay to learn how a tie would affect Atlanta's playoff chances.
Mora's former boss, Falcons general manager Rich McKay, serves as co-chairman of the NFL's competition committee, and his group annually looks at ways to continue governing the game.
"It's not a hard job because the league regulates itself pretty well," McKay said. "If a team figures out [a way to gain an edge], then teams report it and we usually deal with it the next season. But everything has been tried. And we ultimately devote a couple pages in every report on how to address it."
McKay's committee has regulated plenty -- from kickers who used worn footballs because they produced longer kicks to defensive linemen who sprayed silicone on their jerseys to keep offensive linemen from holding -- but there is only so much the NFL can monitor.
Even Edwards admits he found his way around at least one rule in his playing days. When the NFL outlawed Stickum after the 1980 season, Edwards continued to dab a small amount on the inside of his cleats, just below his ankles. Whenever he faced obvious passing downs, he'd reach down and rub some on his fingers.
Of course, Edwards wasn't the only player using that trick. He just understood the necessity of using every advantage. And he believes that is one thing that will never change in the NFL.
"It's definitely a different league now," Edwards said. "People are concerned about the image more than ever. But I also know there'll always be some gamesmanship going on. That's just how this business works."
Jeffri Chadiha is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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