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The high price of locker-room chemistry

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Recent posts by Nolan Nawrocki

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Posted Oct. 25, 2010 @ 10:56 a.m. ET
By Nolan Nawrocki

One of the trickiest parts of valuing talent is figuring out how one player might influence the other 52 on the team, and more specifically, how he could change the makeup of one side of the ball. How can one affect the culture of a locker room.

When Packers GM Ron Wolf signed Reggie White, the Minister of Defense was not quite the dominant player that he was his first eight years in Philadelphia and was already showing some signs of slowing down even if he was still regarded as one of the best at his position. But where he was as good as anyone in football was the way he changed the attitude in the locker room and altered the players' perception of the Packers across the National Football League.

He commanded respect from teammates, helped attract other talent to the farm town and united the locker room with his strong presence. He brought a professional approach to the game that set the tone for younger players. He was still very good on Sundays, but he was excellent setting a tone Monday through Saturday. He set a standard and his mere presence held the locker room accountable.

Wolf understood the power of the locker room the same way Bill Parcells and so many of his descendants have, from Bill Belichick to Sean Payton to Thomas Dimitroff and Scott Pioli.

Dimitroff traded for Tony Gonzalez, who did not fit the Chiefs' youth movement, and it was not until he joined the Falcons that Roddy White began to learn what it meant to be a professional and really emerged the past two seasons. Thomas Jones, known to have once coldcocked a disgruntled Cedric Benson in a Chicago practice, went to New York and instantly commanded the Jets' locker room with his work ethic. He has made even more of an impact alongside Jamaal Charles and Dexter McCluster in Kansas City. The Chiefs traded for Mike Vrabel for the same reason. And when they parted ways with Tony Richardson, it had a big effect on the difficult-to-manage Larry Johnson, who no longer had a strong-tempered leader to keep him in line. After Richardson left, Johnson's career tanked.

• Through seven weeks, the Chargers lead the NFL in both total offense with one of the game's top passing attacks and most brilliant offensive minds, piling up 422.7 yards per game, and they also sit atop the league in total defense, as Ron Rivera's stop unit is only allowing 244.3 yards per game. Despite outgaining opponents by a net 178 yards, the Chargers have only two wins to show for it, against what has been an average schedule. What has gone wrong? Penalties, turnovers and timely mistakes could be blamed, but not receiving a lot of attention is the state of the locker room. The fact that the Chargers had two offensive standouts holding out because of how they were unfairly classified by the changing CBA, and another Pro Bowl linebacker, Shawne Merriman, engaged in a battle of wills with the front office, did little to unite a locker room. Norv Turner has proven that he is a great offensive coordinator, but the question of whether there is a leadership void in San Diego remains to be addressed.

• Where Phil Savage perhaps slipped most in Cleveland with Romeo Crennel was in the type of players that were allowed to lead the team. Some of the best players — from Braylon Edwards to Kellen Winslow — set the worst examples, and it was not a surprise that Eric Mangini quickly parted ways with them upon his arrival as he tried to reshape the culture of the building.

• On the flip side, Josh McDaniels so highly valued character, especially at the QB position, that he chose to ship out a pouting Pro Bowl quarterback in his prime, a premier, prima donna receiver and a pass-catching tight end with loyalties to the old regime, not to mention FB Peyton Hillis. In exchange he has drafted a young nucleus of talent loaded with passion, including Tim Tebow, Demaryius Thomas and Knowshon Moreno, but it will take time for the group to develop, and seeking more change before McDaniels gets a chance to mold his hand-picked franchise quarterback may only set back the franchise further.

• One team that seems to thrive with renegades in the locker room is the Titans, who have sought hard-nosed, tough-minded, war daddies who are rough around the edges and play with a chip on their shoulder. It has backfired at times, as it did with Pacman Jones, but it also has worked quite well with many players, such as Albert Haynesworth, Stephen Tulloch and Kenny Britt.

• The Eagles were able to contain the explosiveness of Titans RB Chris Johnson by slamming the box, but they were not prepared to handle the big-play ability of WR Kenny Britt, who took over the game in the second half and overmatched the Eagles' secondary, running past Ellis Hobbs and Quintin Mikell with ease.

• The AFC clearly looks stronger than the NFC with three potentially dominant teams — the Jets, Patriots and Steelers. The unique characteristic of all three teams is the presence of a defensive coaching mastermind, with Rex Ryan, Bill Belichick and Dick LeBeau among the best in the league. Jeff Fisher of the Titans belongs in that category.

• Redskins DT Albert Haynesworth walked Bears OLG Chris Williams back to the quarterback like he was playing against a high school blocker. Williams entered the league with a bad back and little core anchor strength and some evaluators believe the fourth-round grades they had stamped on him in college were too generous with the way he has performed for the Bears. The play of his former Vandy teammate and that of the offensive line has left Jay Cutler looking as frustrated and disenchanted as he has ever been.

• Regardless of where Bears DL Israel Idonije was lining up, he was disruptive and leaving everything on the field, whether it was crashing past ORG Artis Hicks inside on the game's first snap or taking the inside on rookie OLT Trent Williams.

• The potential season-ending loss of Steelers DE Aaron Smith could turn out to be a more significant blow to overcome than the loss of Ben Roethislisberger was the first four games. Smith is so critical to setting the edge in Dick LeBeau's defense that most any replacement will result in a significant drop-off.

• The 49ers had a tough draw travelling across three time zones to face the Panthers and do not get a break this week as they fly to London after the game for a week of preparation before facing an embarrassed Broncos team that will be looking to make a statement. Once again, the Niners were in position to win late in the game against Carolina, up by a touchdown with less than five minutes to play, but could not preserve the lead as an inspired Matt Moore picked apart the defense by continually connecting with rookie WRs Brandon LaFell and David Gettis on two scoring drives.

• Few could have expected that the Buccaneers would be sitting near the top of the NFC standings with a 4-2 record, but they have pleasantly surprised this season in large part due to the comeback heroics of second-year QB Josh Freeman, who has led fourth-quarter comebacks in five of his seven career wins and has performed very well with a very young supporting cast of receivers.

• Underrated in the Seahawks NFC West-leading 4-2 start has been the aggressive play-calling of defensive coordinator Gus Bradley and the presence of the division's only experienced quarterback, Matt Hasselbeck.

• Jaguars ORT Eben Britton could not handle the speed of Chiefs OLB Tamba Hali ripping off the edge. Hali's effort has been very impressive this season, as he has screamed off the edge like his tail is on fire and continually disrupted the backfield. Glenn Dorsey has played with similar urgency.

Jack Del Rio and Mike Singletary ascended through the coaching ranks before they had paid their coaching dues, and they do not have enough quality on their coaching staffs to compensate for their Xs-and-Os shortcomings. Of the NFL's 32 skippers, the two former linebackers look the most overmatched and may have to drop down to the college ranks if they want to continue their careers as head coaches.

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