Ill-advised gimmicks don't work
Jaguars coach Jack Del Rio's sophomoric attempt at promoting team unity led to an "ax-ident" that could have been avoided.
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?
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.
For three seasons as members of the Green Bay Packers, left offensive tackle Chad Clifton and defensive end Vonnie Holliday practiced together, one honing his pass-block skills and the other attempting to refine the mechanics that allow a sack threat to get to the quarterback. On Sunday afternoon at Lambeau Field, in one of the weekend's best contests, the two will renew their old one-on-one battles. The difference, of course, is that they will be in different uniforms. The Packers' first-round choice in 1998, Holliday signed this spring with the Chiefs as an unrestricted free agent. He has provided Kansas City with solid play against the run, as anticipated, and afforded the team a bonus by recapturing his ability to chase down the quarterback, as evidenced by four sacks. Having recovered from the hip injury inflicted on him by Warren Sapp last season, Clifton is enjoying a nice season, and the Green Bay line has permitted a league-low two sacks.
In his 11 previous seasons in Green Bay, quarterback Brett Favre averaged 11.58 yards per completion, and six times went over the 12.0-yard mark. But the team is averaging only 9.64 yards per completion through its first five games of this season and, if that number holds, it would be the lowest in franchise history. Here is a look at the Packers' yards per completion since Favre arrived via a trade in 1992: Year Avg. yards
Stat of the Week
Run to win? That certainly would seem to be the case. The top five rushing teams in the league through five weeks -- Baltimore, Carolina, Denver, Minnesota and Kansas City - have a combined record of 20-3.
Stat of the Weak
Tampa Bay defensive tackle Warren Sapp has now gone 12 straight regular-season games without a sack, the longest such streak of his career, and he hasn't corralled a quarterback, at least in a non-playoff game, since dumping Randy Fasani of Carolina last Oct. 27. Sapp did have 1½ sacks during the '02 postseason. The good news for Sapp is that the Bucs play at Washington on Sunday and, beyond the fact the Redskins guards are hurting, is the reality that quarterback Patrick Ramsey has been sacked a league-high 17 times.
The Last Word
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.
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