The NFL doesn’t publish an instruction manual for being outspoken.
There is, however, an etiquette players are supposed to maintain when talking about themselves, their teammates, their opponents or fans. When they don’t abide, there’s usually trouble.
“You better make sure you’re right, No. 1, and that it’s not just you spouting off as a hothead or a smart---,” said former Buffalo Bills linebacker Darryl Talley, one of the most expressive players of the 1990s.
“You better have some sort of concrete evidence of what’s going on. If you don’t, shut your mouth. More times than not, you’ll get your [butt] whupped talking about something you have no business saying.”
Each day around the league, players and coaches are expected to follow a set of unwritten rules when it comes to private locker-room conversations, expressing themselves publicly, delivering bulletin-board material for the next opponent or talking trash on the field.
Twice in recent weeks, Bills receiver Stevie Johnson has suggested coach Chan Gailey isn’t doing a good enough job.
New York Jets coach Rex Ryan last month delivered an open statement that any players making anonymous comments about quarterback Tim Tebow were “cowardly.” This week, Ryan had to meet with Jets linebacker Bart Scott, who publicly belittled their fans for hurling insults.
In speaking about Detroit Lions receiver Titus Young,
who returned to the team Friday after being kicked off, captain Dominic Raiola told the Detroit News “We’ve moved on from him. If he wants to be an a------, let him be an a------. It’s not my problem.”
Front offices, coaches and many players would prefer everyone keep quiet and maintain a low profile. Head coaches such as Bill Belichick and Tom Coughlin closely monitor every word their players utter and will come down on them for straying outside the organizational construct.
But there are too many personalities to control in today’s NFL. So many players feed off fiery pregame speeches and trash talk. And there are some who simply have trouble keeping their opinions to themselves when talking to reporters.
To better understand some of those unwritten rules, The Buffalo News contacted two leaders who played on the 1989 Bickering Bills and all four Super Bowl teams – Steve Tasker and Talley – and current defensive captain George Wilson, known in the locker room as The Senator.
The general commandments for being outspoken:
• Look in the mirror before you open your mouth.
• Have credibility through your role, performance and preparation.
• Don’t call out your teammates or coaches publicly.
• What happens in the locker room stays in the locker room.
• Be accountable when times are bad, not just when they’re good.
“Don’t ask anybody to do anything that you wouldn’t do yourself,” Talley said. “If you can walk the walk, you can say anything you want to.
“We had a group of players that would tell you about yourself in a heartbeat. They didn’t care who you were. If you weren’t playing well, they’d tell you ‘You’re playing like [crap]. You need to get your head out of your [butt].’
“That’s why they called us the Bickering Bills in ‘89. We argued with each other worse than anybody, but we would not let anybody else argue with us.”
Johnson’s recent comments about the Bills’ play-calling chapped Talley and Tasker.
Johnson publicly suggested Gailey made the wrong call on Ryan Fitzpatrick’s fateful interception against the New England Patriots in Week 10. Fitzpatrick tried to connect with rookie T.J. Graham for what would have been the winning touchdown. Johnson disclosed Graham never had run that route in practice.
After last Sunday’s loss to the Indianapolis Colts, Johnson declared Fitzpatrick should be given more control of the offense. Johnson backpedaled from the controversy a day later, claiming he meant the ability to audible more at the line of scrimmage.
“If you want to be outspoken,” Tasker said, “include yourself in all criticism. If you can’t include yourself in the criticism, then don’t say anything.
“It’s group dynamics. If you want to say something about somebody and how they’re performing, the last person you should tell is anybody other than that person – not the media, not your wife, not your barber.
“If you have a problem with a guy – particularly the coaches and what they’re calling – you need to talk to them. You don’t talk to some third party, publicly or privately.”
Tasker lauded Gailey, Fitzpatrick and Graham for how they handled the situation after the New England game. Each accepted responsibility for the interception, which demonstrated accountability. Johnson likely thought he was supporting Graham by defending the rookie.
Tasker and Talley also were in agreement that Graham truly was the one at fault on the interception in Foxborough. They claimed any player in uniform needs to know all the plays in that week’s game plan.
“Stevie went a little too far and didn’t think through what he was saying,” Tasker said. “I think he did T.J. a disservice for not letting him take responsibility for running the wrong route. I think T.J. handled it better than Stevie did.”
Not everyone can be an outspoken leader. Status is an important factor.
While any member of the roster has the right to speak up, it matters how much he plays, whether he starts, if he’s a captain or a superstar.
“You got to have walked it before you talk it to have the credibility and respect of the men you’re addressing,” said Wilson, an undrafted receiver who converted to safety and is in his seventh NFL season. “You can’t be one of these guys that aren’t playing or performing if you expect your words to carry some weight.
“If you’re not playing or not dressed up, then you should be what we call ‘Seen and not heard.’ ”
Injured players, even future Hall of Famers, aren’t supposed to speak if they can’t suit up. Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis, the preeminent outspoken leader of his generation, has declined all interview requests until he returns from his torn triceps.
Tasker, Talley and Wilson each stressed the importance of keeping all internal communications private and out of the media.
“When it starts coming out of my locker room, then me and you have a problem,” Talley said. “What I say to you in there is for the 53 guys, the coaching staff and the trainers. I don’t give a flying fart about what anybody else thinks or says.
“What I say in there should stay in there, and if it gets out, then you’ve breached the trust of a brotherhood. I find it very hard to forgive folks for doing stuff like that.”
Talley laughed when asked if dissension ever could be helpful to a team.
He recalled how tumultuous the 1986 Bills were under coach Hank Bullough. Talley said the players were fed up heading into a game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Week Nine.
“As a head coach nobody could play for him,” Talley said. “He didn’t have what it took. You could see it on his face. You couldn’t believe him and what he said.”
During the game, a 34-28 Buccaneers victory that dropped the Bills to 2-7, Talley claimed it was defensive tackle Fred Smerlas who implored his mates to ease up in order to get Bullough fired.
“In his book, Freddy tries to put it on Bruce Smith,” Talley said. “It was actually Freddy because I was there. He said, ‘Don’t tackle the quarterback like that. Let him get a few more yards so we can get rid of the One Brain Cell.’ That’s what he called Bullough.”
The game would be Bullough’s last. The Bills replaced him with Marv Levy.
“In times like that, dissension was good because we knew everybody felt the same way about that particular person,” Talley said. “Mr. Wilson listened.”
Tasker stressed it’s important for players to watch their mouths when it comes to motivating an opponent.
Bulletin-board material is no locker-room myth.
“Anything you say that can be bent or misconstrued or even taken out of context that another team can put up on their bulletin board will lose you football games,” Tasker said. “Plain and simple. There’s no getting around it.
“If you have one player on your team come out and say a player on the other team stinks, particularly if you pick a beloved member of that other team, that team will rise up and cave your head in. I’ve seen it happen time and again.”
Tasker, without mentioning him by name, still sounds amazed when discussing how much Bills defensive line coach Chuck Dickerson riled up the Washington Redskins before Super Bowl XXVI. Dickerson poked fun of the Redskins’ famed Hogs offensive line.
“I’ve never seen or played against a team or covered a team that would’ve beaten the Washington Redskins after our assistant coach said what he said,” said Tasker, now an analyst for CBS Sports. “They’ll tell you that was hugely inspiring for them. Believe me, I’ve asked them.”
Being an outspoken NFL player involves more than merely being a passionate orator.
There are guidelines players must follow to be effective, vocal leaders. Words come with responsibility.
“I’m not saying these guys have to all give each other feet massages,” Tasker said, “but they should have a level of respect for each other.”