Players-only meetings a big risk

Group sessions rarely work, can add to problems

December 25, 2010|By Sam Farmer

Less than a day after his team's epic collapse Sunday — blowing a three-touchdown lead to the Eagles in the last half-quarter — Giants quarterback Eli Manning called a rare players-only meeting to regroup his squad for a run at the playoffs. That starts with a huge game Sunday at Green Bay.

The typically soft-spoken Manning (Eli doesn't have the commanding presence of his big brother, Peyton) didn't reveal to reporters what he said to his teammates, but explained it this way:

"A lot of it is you just man up for your mistakes, you take responsibility, you put it behind you and you look forward to the situation. … It's not the time to start going in the tank or being in a bad mood. Now's the time to look at the bright side of things and be optimistic that we've got a great opportunity to make the playoffs. We're the ones to decide what happens."

A quarterback spends his career as a public speaker, talking to a group of 10 men every time he ducks his head into the huddle. But standing up at his locker (or in an auditorium), clearing his throat and talking to the team as a whole can be a dicey proposition, one that can just as easily implode as inspire.

To find out just how effective these players-only meetings are, I went to a few respected players from years past — all team leaders — and asked about the peaks and pitfalls of addressing the entire group and, when necessary, calling out underperforming teammates.

Hall of Fame quarterback Troy Aikman, who will be in the booth for Fox at Giants-Packers, said he never liked to conduct team meetings when he played for the Cowboys.

"Usually when team meetings take place, they're when a team's really spiraling out of control," he said, noting that's not the case with the Giants. (If they win, the Giants clinch a playoff spot and eliminate the Packers from playoff contention.) "To me, they're not very productive, especially when you give too many people a platform to speak.

"You end up coming out of those meetings feeling like you've got a heck of a lot more problems than you ever thought going into them. And usually football players aren't the best at delicately saying various things without offending anyone or stepping on toes."

Aikman said, however, that Manning's positive, one-voice approach was a good thing, and called it a plus that the quarterback didn't open the floor to make it a public forum.

"It's not that players don't understand what needs to be done," Aikman said, "but oftentimes when a player says it rather than a coach, it's more impactful and more effective."

Tim Brown, the perennial Pro Bowl receiver for the Raiders, said those meetings were seldom effective in his organization, especially because they usually happened when everything was going haywire.

"Once we had one guy stand up who was barely a special-teams player, and he decided he wanted to talk in a meeting," recalled Brown, now an ESPN analyst. "He just went on and on and on. Finally, people had to talk over him just to get him to shut up."

Although Brown was considered a rock-steady fixture for that franchise, he can recall calling only one team meeting. It came at training camp in 2002, the summer after the "Tuck Rule" game at New England, when the Raiders felt they got cheated on an apparent fumble by Patriots quarterback Tom Brady.

"The referees came into camp after that game," Brown said. "I called a team meeting and told the boys we were going to walk out of that meeting once they started to give their presentation. And that's what we did; everybody got up and walked out of the meeting.

"That was very effective because it (ticked) off the referees. But at the same time, they got our message."

A few years earlier, in quarterback Rich Gannon's first season with the Raiders, he, too, felt compelled to call a team meeting. It came after a critical Thursday night loss at Tennessee.

Why the need for a meeting? Rewind to the days leading up to that game, when coach Jon Gruden and his quarterbacks were furiously devising an offensive strategy. They were spending late nights in a meeting next to a players' lounge outfitted with a pool table, dartboard and video games.

"I'll never forget how we were in that room looking at film and a bunch of defensive guys were in the lounge making a bunch of noise," Gannon recalled. "Gruden went ballistic. He was like, 'Shut up! We're trying to work in here!'"

The players piped down for a couple of minutes or so, but soon were back at it, just as raucous as they had been. Gannon, known for his meticulous preparation, was so enraged that he removed the pool balls from the lounge and put them in a rack above his locker.

After the loss to the Titans, one that torpedoed the Raiders' playoff hopes, the quarterback called a team meeting. He first apologized to his teammates who were equally devoted to their jobs, telling them the meeting wasn't intended for them, and then he tore into the team's slackers.

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