Competing for their attention
The biggest challenge for Super Bowl teams is avoiding the distractions
Jim Fassel waited patiently as the cavernous auditorium filled, just to make sure everybody was present. He was the New York Giants' coach at the time -- a man whose team had won the 2001 NFC Championship Game over the Minnesota Vikings just two days earlier -- and he wanted to establish his strategy for Super Bowl week.
But it wasn't only players and assistants who had arrived for this meeting at team headquarters. Wives, girlfriends and even a couple of mothers had been asked to attend, as well.
What Fassel understood was that the days leading up to Super Bowl XXXV would be rife with the kind of distractions that can cripple a team's focus. And the last thing he needed was to face the Baltimore Ravens with even one player not having had a great week of practice.
"I told everybody in that room that I didn't care what happened that week," Fassel said in a recent interview. "If it was tickets or travel plans or parties, whatever. I told them all to keep the players out of it. The only thing they needed to be worried about was the game."
Fassel ultimately wound up losing that game, but his message is one many coaches have uttered over the years. In fact, you can bet the Indianapolis Colts' Jim Caldwell and the New Orleans Saints' Sean Payton have delivered similar speeches as their teams prepare for Super Bowl XLIV in Miami. As everyone knows, this game is the dream that occupies the mind of every player in the NFL. What those same players sometimes don't realize is how easily the opportunity of a lifetime could be ruined by poor decisions.
Consider the plight of former Cincinnati Bengals fullback Stanley Wilson. He went on a cocaine binge the night before his team met the San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl XXIII and didn't even play in the game. Former Atlanta Falcons safety Eugene Robinson also fell into Super Bowl infamy a decade later. He approached a prostitute on the night before Super Bowl XXXIII and wound up arrested by a woman who turned out to be an undercover cop.
Then there's the case of former Oakland Raiders center Barret Robbins. He turned up in Tijuana two nights before Super Bowl XXXVII and never played in a 48-21 loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. It was later discovered that he had gone on a drinking binge and was struggling with bipolar disorder. Like Wilson -- whose drug problems led to a lifetime ban from the league after that Super Bowl -- Robbins essentially killed his career that day.
Even players on teams that end up winning the Super Bowl have been known to struggle with distractions. When former Raiders defensive lineman John Matuszak arrived in New Orleans before his team's Super Bowl XV victory over the Philadelphia Eagles, he publicly claimed that he wanted to keep younger players from finding trouble. By Thursday morning of that week, he was waking up with a strange woman in his bed after a long night on Bourbon Street. When reporters asked Matuszak about his plan to protect his teammates from temptations, the well-known partyer said, "That's why I was out on the streets. To make sure no one else was."
Of course, these are some of the more noteworthy moments in Super Bowl week history. What's just as much of a concern to coaches are the less controversial issues that can easily affect preparation. Said former Ravens coach Brian Billick: "You don't need to motivate any player to play in the Super Bowl. But you do need to make sure their focus is always sharp."
The first thing players realize after making the Super Bowl is that they have far more relatives and friends than they ever knew. Everybody wants tickets, even though the NFL only allots 14 to 15 tickets for players on participating teams to purchase. When the Chicago Bears prepared to meet Indianapolis in Super Bowl XLI, middle linebacker Brian Urlacher had nearly 100 people ask him for a seat at the big game. He eventually used his connections to buy 20 tickets and left everybody else to use other resources.
Former Arizona Cardinals running back Edgerrin James faced a similar problem in last year's Super Bowl meeting with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Because he grew up in Immokalee, Fla. -- about 160 miles from Tampa, the site of the game -- James had more than 200 requests. Although he ultimately bought 59 tickets with the help of friends around the league, he did create a system to deal with any disappointed loved ones.
"I have a big family, so I told them that seniority rules," James said. "My mother automatically got in, and after that I told everybody exactly what I could do. I could see where it becomes a distraction when guys are going back and forth [to find more tickets]. But I let everybody know what I could do from the start."
As much as tickets can be a major hassle for players, so too can their travel plans. "We have a schedule to stick to, so it's no big deal for the players," said Eagles cornerback Sheldon Brown. "But where it gets hard is when you're trying to find places for your family to stay. It can be tough because everything is sold out and you don't want to pay crazy money to put people up."
Brown spent part of his time the week of Super Bowl XXXIX trying to find lodging for his family. Although his wife and kids were staying 10 to 15 minutes from the team's hotel in Jacksonville, Brown's parents were about 35 miles away, which was just far enough for traffic to be a burden. Brown eventually located a condo in downtown Jacksonville with the help of a former college buddy. But that still was a task he didn't need to handle in the days leading up to the game.
Fassel added that the teams in this year's game would be wise to get as many of these issues as possible resolved before departing for Miami. Former Raiders running back Jon Ritchie agreed.
"When we played in that game [in 2003], we only had a week between the championship game and the Super Bowl, so everything was a blur," said Ritchie, who now works as an ESPN analyst. "These guys have had an extra week to prepare, so you know they've been watching tons of film and getting as much of the game plan in as they can. So when they get to Miami, they will be able to relax and prepare. They're also led by two great leaders [Colts quarterback Peyton Manning and Saints quarterback Drew Brees], so you can expect that the hatches will be battened down."
When the Colts met the Bears in Super Bowl XLI -- a game that also was played in Miami -- Manning actually demanded that players keep their families and children out of the team's hotel rooms. It was an unpopular idea but his teammates ultimately complied. It also might have been an unnecessary move, given how well players have behaved at this game in recent years. As much as the Super Bowl is about partying, Robbins was the last notable player who let such temptations get him into trouble.
Most players grasp the rare opportunity they have to win a championship. Even if they are too young to see that as a blessing, they usually have veterans hammering home the message. For example, the Eagles had running back Dorsey Levens -- who was nearing the end of his career -- address the team before they departed for Super Bowl XXXIX. Because he was the only player in the room with Super Bowl experience (he had made two trips with Green Bay), he implored his teammates to leave Jacksonville "knowing they did everything possible to help [the team] win."
There was at least one Eagle who didn't fully listen to Levens -- Brown said an unnamed teammate, a reserve player, slipped out to attend a party before returning just in time for curfew -- but most players can relate to that message. If they can't, they also should be aware of the other dangers involved in hitting the town.
"I really think the days of players abusing the privileges they get during that week are over," Ritchie said. "In today's world of instant messaging and video, everybody knows what everybody is doing. With that kind of technology, it's hard to think that guys are dumb enough to put themselves in bad positions."
What's more common is that players find ways to avoid all the monotony around them. For example, Urlacher took a fishing trip to Marco Island with then-Bears defensive tackle Tank Johnson and a few friends after media day ended for Super Bowl XLI. Urlacher also made sure he ate at Olive Garden on Friday night because it was the same routine he kept in the regular season. Ritchie, on the other hand, took a different route -- he didn't eat one meal with his family or his then-fiancée because he wanted his entire focus to be on the game.
Even for the players who do want to find some kind of fun at night, the constricting schedules they have to adhere to don't allow for much pleasure. They're usually talking to the media and seeking treatment in the mornings, then practicing and meeting in the afternoon. That type of itinerary put a major crimp in James' plans last year. He bought a Lamborghini with the idea that he could jet around town to parties and public appearances that could net him some nice paychecks. He ultimately used it only a couple of times that week.
Instead, James hung out with his children and relatives and made an occasional trip to the local Hard Rock Hotel and Casino.
"You go down there thinking that you'll have all this time to do all these things," James said. "But things don't start until late-night in Florida, and you don't want to be the guy who misses curfew. So the distractions really aren't there. They basically eliminate the distractions by eliminating your free time."
To ensure that the week goes smoothly, all teams have operations staff members who are prepared to handle potential problems. In fact, the Ravens' staff did such a good job before Super Bowl XXXV that Billick had no concerns all week. Every time Billick asked how the players were doing -- which he did daily -- the staff assured him that there were no problems. So by the time Baltimore won the game, Billick felt as if the week couldn't have gone any better.
That was before he learned the truth later. "I thought we'd had this flawless week because that's what I was always being told," said Billick, who is now a color analyst for Fox. "But I eventually found out that [former Ravens president] David Modell had told everybody that no matter what happened -- short of a body turning up in somebody's closet -- I wasn't supposed to be told anything. So here I am thinking that the week went well and there were probably all kinds of things happening that I never heard about."
That approach to Super Bowl week didn't hurt the Ravens' cause in the end. And this year's teams have to be hoping that nothing interferes with the focus of their players.
"You always have one knucklehead in every group, but you hope that the guys are trusting what you're telling them [about the week]," Fassel said. "That's all you can do in the end. You just have to hope they're listening."
Senior writer Jeffri Chadiha covers the NFL for ESPN.com.
SUPER BOWL XLIV