Good chemistry key to team's substance

NFL: The past two Super Bowl winners have shown that staying together during tough times might be the game's most important intangible.

September 05, 2002|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,SUN STAFF

Chemistry is no backroom science project when it comes to the NFL these days. It ranks right up there with post patterns and safety blitzes. It's as important as having a sound game plan or a good draft.

Bottom line is, team chemistry can mean the difference between winning and losing.

Just ask the Ravens of 2000 or the New England Patriots of 2001 about chemistry. They know. Without it, they were also-rans. With it, they were the past two Super Bowl champions.

The Patriots started the 2001 season with a 1-3 record, yet recovered to win the AFC East and upset the heavily favored St. Louis Rams in the Super Bowl.

"The thing I learned last year," said Patriots safety Lawyer Milloy, "is it's not what you've got on paper, but how you play together."

The Ravens went the entire month of October two years ago without scoring a touchdown. But a change of quarterbacks and the absence of malice sent the Ravens rolling through the playoffs to win the Super Bowl as a wild-card team.

The remarkable part of the Ravens' success wasn't their postseason domination, but the fact that push never came to shove during the touchdown drought in a locker room filled with great expectations and big egos. Peace was achieved largely through the vigilant effort of coach Brian Billick.

"I think Coach Billick did a good job of keeping us grounded," said Ravens tackle Edwin Mulitalo. "I think everyone bonded from that. ... I'm sure [the defense] felt some animosity, but it never leaked out."

Creating good chemistry on a football team is a delicate balance that involves selecting the right players, providing a positive work atmosphere and getting everyone to pull in the same direction.

It may be even more important in today's era of salary caps, free agency and revolving-door rosters. Talent is spread much more equally around the league, and intangibles can make a big difference.

A team that starts the season slowly isn't necessarily buried by that start, either, as the Patriots proved last year. They won their last nine games, including the postseason. The year before, the Ravens were 5-4 after their drought, but ran off 11 straight wins to finish the season.

Success always comes down to execution on the field, but it often starts with camaraderie in the locker room.

"It's real important," Ravens tackle Jonathan Ogden said of the role chemistry plays on a winning team. "If a team doesn't work well together, if things get tough -- and it's going to be tough every Sunday -- you're not going to respond the way you need to if you don't have team chemistry."

The bond of working through problems together is what counts.

"It's like your family to a degree," Billick said. "Nothing says you have to like your brothers and sisters. But they're still family. It doesn't mean you have to love one another, necessarily, but you have to respect one another. You have to deal with one another."

The NFL landscape is littered with examples of personal conflicts. Sometimes those conflicts grow into something bigger and divide a team.

A year ago, wide receiver Terrell Owens and coach Steve Mariucci of the San Francisco 49ers had a public falling out. It took Mariucci's visiting privately with Owens in the off-season to patch up the rift.

When the Tampa Bay Buccaneers lost in the first round of the playoffs for the second straight year, wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson criticized defensive tackle Warren Sapp, and the two have been less than cordial since.

This summer, the Miami Dolphins cut defensive tackle Daryl Gardener in the name of team chemistry after he failed to respond to any of coach Dave Wannstedt's inquires about his absence from the team's off-season conditioning program.

Billick says football is the ultimate team sport because of the numbers involved.

"In order to be champion, all 53 guys at some point are going to play a factor in your season," he said. "Just by those sheer numbers -- 53 guys -- that's a lot of people to orchestrate. That's a lot of personalities."

Billick was at his orchestrating best two years ago when the Ravens were locked out of the end zone. They went into October with a 3-1 record and won the first two games of the drought to go 5-1. But as the streak deepened and three losses followed, Billick took measures to preclude an incident that might disrupt locker room harmony and worsen the situation.

He talked endlessly about the importance of staying together. He peppered the team almost daily with examples of league-wide dissension, punctuating his lecture with the question, "Is this what you want to be?"

Billick also reinforced team leadership. A triumvirate of Ray Lewis and Rod Woodson, two defensive stars, and tight end Shannon Sharpe, a leader on offense, served to quell any potential problems.

Billick provided a commanding presence, but it would be up to the players in the end.

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