VOL. 41 | NO. 16 | Friday, April 21, 2017
‘Good locker room’ doesn’t happen by accident
The first time I heard the term “good locker room” in relation to an NFL team, I figured it had something to do with TVs, air conditioning and nearby shower accommodations.
As usual, I was wrong.
I quickly came to discover it had nothing to do with the quality of the creature comforts and everything to do with the quality of the creatures that occupy the room.
Specifically, you want a collection of players with a shared vision and commitment, all of whom are willing to sacrifice for the good of the team. Yes, talent is very important, but we should never overlook the value of teamwork, especially in a league where every roster has considerable talent.
I’ll admit I was naïve. I didn’t know any better, in part because of my introduction to the inner workings of the NFL.
When the former Houston Oilers landed on Tennessee turf in 1996, the team was stocked with quality players and strong leadership.
Remember, the core of that group had gone through the Houston-to-Nashville move that included a makeshift practice compound in Bellevue and a one-year stopover for alleged home games in Memphis followed by a season in which Vanderbilt Stadium served as home.
If you could handle all that while forging three straight 8-8 records in three different “home” stadiums, you had some mental toughness and resolve.
Looking back at that era, there were players like Eddie George, Steve McNair, Bruce Matthews, Brad Hopkins, Frank Wycheck, Blaine Bishop and Eddie Robinson in the huddle. If anybody stepped out of line or failed to act like a pro, he had to answer to that leadership group. There was strong peer pressure. Anybody that didn’t pull his weight wasn’t going to be around long.
That was the essence of a “good locker room.” I just assumed every NFL team was like that.
In time, though, I discovered what it was like when a team lost its compass. That core group of Titans got older and began to fade away, either through retirement or end-of-the-line trades. And the players who replaced them did not have the same stature or leadership qualities. It showed – both in the locker room and on the field.
Instead of a one-for-all attitude, the Titans evolved into a collection of independent contractors.
Another way of looking at it: A malcontent like Pacman Jones would never have gotten away with his antics if there had been a Blaine Bishop at a nearby locker. Good teams police themselves. Bad teams allow foolishness to go on with no repercussions.
This is where Jon Robinson comes in. He gets it. In his 15 months as general manager of the Titans, he has stressed the importance of identifying and acquiring players that are willing to pull in the same direction, eschewing individual glory and acclaim.
Don’t get me wrong. Robinson knows the importance of talent. It’s just that he wants good players who also happen to be good people. In other words, he says he believes in the importance of building and maintaining a good locker room.
I was struck by something Robinson said in a recent interview with The Tennessean. In assessing players in free agency and in the draft, he said: “We’re not looking for a bunch of choir boys, but we’re looking for guys that can play football and act like mature adults.”
In short, he avoids problem children and head cases. Even if the Titans had a need at running back – which they definitely don’t – they would steer clear of Joe Mixon, the former Oklahoma star who was caught on a surveillance video punching a woman 2 and a half years ago.
It’s also why Laremy Tunsil was not seriously considered by the Titans in the 2016 draft. Shortly before the draft commenced, Tunsil’s Twitter account showed a video of him wearing a gasmask and smoking a substance from a bong. With an obvious need at offensive tackle, Robinson maneuvered into the No. 8 slot in the first round and drafted Jack Conklin of Michigan State.
Conklin has proven to be the kind of blue-collar player that Robinson covets. He also was named first-team All Pro by the Associated Press as a rookie.
Mixon and Tunsil are examples of players with considerable baggage. Media and fans are aware of it. But rest assured there are plenty of other talented players who have problems in their past or personality issues of which most of us are totally unaware. People like Robinson make it their jobs to be aware of such things.
NFL teams don’t miss much. In addition to information passed along by the security wing at NFL headquarters, individual franchises do their own footwork to uncover any dirt on players. With so much at stake, this kind of detective work cannot be overlooked.
I remember an exchange I had with Floyd Reese back when he was Oilers/Titans general manager in 1994-2006. One year, I asked Reese about a certain player who had an impressive body of work in college but whose draft stock did not appear to be as high as it should.
Reese’s response: “He has issues, and they are many.”
Point taken. The player in question wound up as a mid-round pick by another team. He didn’t make it out of his first training camp before getting cut. Although he clearly had NFL-caliber talent, he never played a down in the league.
As for Robinson, his job is to weigh all the factors and make the call on whether a particular player is a fit for the Titans organization. He calls the evaluation process “kind of all-encompassing.”
“There’s a mental component,” he said. “There’s a character component. There’s a psychological component. There’s the on-the-tape component. There’s just the overall interview piece: ‘Are we going to be able to work with this guy on a daily basis?’”
Sure, there will be mistakes along the way. Like Robinson said, the Titans are not in the business of acquiring “a bunch of choir boys.”
But they are in the business of populating a good locker room. And they appear headed in the right direction.
Reach David Climer at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @DavidClimer.