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Malice aforethought not unusual

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Since the release last week of the audio tape of former Saints' defensive co-ordinator Gregg Williams -- caught trying to inspire his defence before a playoff game with instructions to maim opposing players -- there has been mixed reaction from current and former pro football players on both sides of the border.

Warren Sapp was quoted as calling this the most, "heinous, egregious thing in the history of this game," just weeks after he called a suspected whistle blower in the bounty-hunting scandal a "snitch."

I find it strange that Warren Sapp, a veteran of 13 years on the defensive side of the ball and having been subjected to about 200 pep talk type sermons before games in the NFL, claims he has never heard a speech of this nature, or of opponents being targeted before.

Then again, with recent reports of Sapp filing for bankruptcy, with the trouble he got into accusing Jeremy Shockey of being the player who outed this entire bounty-hunting scandal, and the rumors that the NFL network will not be renewing his contract as an analyst for next season, his words right now may be more measured than his weight was when he was at his best knocking quarterbacks silly. So it's not surprising that he has fallen in line with the NFL party line for the time being.

I found another former all-pro, Michael Irvin, online, who was, "disgusted by the notion that a coach could target the ACL of an opponent." I've always been disgusted anytime Michael Irvin condemns and passes judgement on others, based on his own sordid past and personal history in and outside pro football, but that's not the point of today's rant.

While I was shocked by the specificity of Gregg William's pre-game talk -- it almost sounded like he spent more time that week studying the 49er injury report than their offensive tendencies (which was evident during the game) -- at the same time, having had 10 different defensive co-ordinators in my professional career, I can't tell you that conversations of this nature are unusual.

While I most certainly don't condone or endorse what Gregg Williams said -- the only remorse I feel for him and the New Orleans Saints is that they are the sacrificial lambs for conduct and behavior that is commonplace -- I am aware of why some coaches feel compelled to address their players this way. With the win-at-all-costs mentality that is pervasive in both leagues, many coaches feel they need to use every tactic at their disposal, legal or otherwise, to get that W. While I can't recall ever hearing of specific ligaments being targeted, if I had a dollar every time I was part of a defensive group that was told to "test out" a player's readiness to return to the football field, I would be retired from more than just playing pigskin.

If receivers are considered soft and thought to shy away from contact, we are instructed to bring a level of physical play to them so they develop "crocodile arms" -- the shortened arms that suddenly appear when receivers are frightened to reach out or fully extend themselves to corral a football. If offensive players are nursing an injury or are potentially vulnerable in an area, we are told to "put a helmet on it" or to "give it a squeeze." The defensive mentality in pro football is to identify weakness and exploit it, and we aren't just talking schematically.

I've had a defensive line coach tell me that to deter an offensive lineman from holding you, you simply have to punch him, "up under the facemask, in his throat." I've spent hours being taught how to counter out of a rip move that was locked down, that will either force the offensive lineman to relinquish his hold or potentially have his arm broken. I've had defensive coordinators ask us to "test" the ankle or shoulder of an offensive player that they feel hasn't fully healed yet, and to study the tendencies of the No. 2 quarterback because there was "no way" that the starter would finish the game (he was right).

As this giant onion is being peeled back and the under-layers of the game exposed by an unending appetite for access, dark cultures that were once entirely inaccessible are now being subject to mainstream Googling and codes of conduct are being rewritten as we speak.

Because of this entire exposé, the days of athletes hearing unfiltered, unedited speeches from coaches are now over, regardless of the environment. With the levels of access the media now has to locker- and meeting rooms, and the increased number of social media tools the players have at their disposal, like Twitter, and video cameras and microphones on their smart phones, we will no longer see the unscripted versions of the men that lead and instruct these players.

Whether this will change the style of play and idioms of defensive football, however, remains to be seen.

Doug Brown, once a hard-hitting defensive lineman and frequently a hard-hitting columnist, appears Tuesdays in the Free Press.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 10, 2012 D4

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