MIAMI– Few reporters talk to offensive linemen. They are big, thick-necked creatures who toil anonymously in the mud and muck, so that a flashy, famous running back can zip through the holes they open and score touchdowns.
Running backs, we want to talk to. Quarterbacks, we want to talk to. Receivers, we want to talk to.
Offensive linemen? It’s like interviewing Madonna’s limo driver.
The only thing you might ask a lineman is, “Pardon me, did you see the running back?”
So it surprised me to learn here at Super Bowl XXXIII that on the defending champion Denver Broncos, the offensive linemen have a policy: No talking to the media. I kid you not. They have had this policy for at least three years.
(To be honest, they might have had it for a decade, but nobody noticed until three years ago.)
Now, offensive linemen declaring they’re not talking to the media is like Pauley Shore boycotting the Oscars. Who’s gonna notice?
But this “no-talk” policy is not some loose guideline. This is a hard and fast code. No offensive lineman talks to the media — under penalty of a fine. It’s not a coach’s rule, or a team rule. (That would be against NFL policy.) It’s a players’ rule. The linemen made it up. And they police the fines, which vary greatly, depending on what mood they’re in.
For example, fines can range from $50 for a quote that appears in a newspaper, to $500 for being heard on a radio talk show.
“And if you get caught talking on ‘Monday Night Football,’ ” said tackle Tony Jones, “it could be, like, $1,000.”
Wait. He’s talking! That means he gets fined, right? Wrong. The penalty system has been waived for the Super Bowl, partly because, with 2,000 reporters around here, it’s almost impossible not to be interviewed. (You don’t even have to be a player. Just stand around a lobby long enough, someone will ask you something.)
Besides, if they didn’t talk down here, how else would we know that the Denver linemen have a “fine board” that hangs in the meeting room, and listed on the board are all sorts of penalties, such as “a prima donna” fine (usually $500) and a “local TV” fine (also $500). Recently, one guy got fined $100 because his wife appeared in a game-day program.
There is even a fine for bad gas, which refers to — how do we put this? — passing gas.
I’m not kidding. Bad gas. It’s $5 per violation. (I’m not sure this should be considered interviewing, but it can break a code of silence.)
Anyhow, seeing that I had this unique chance, I immediately abandoned plans to talk to superstar Terrell Davis, and instead ran to the mysterious left tackle Tony Jones, the reclusive center Tom Nalen, the elusive right tackle Harry Swayne, the secretive back-up Matt Lepsis, and the Garbo-like K. C. Jones.
OK. So I never heard of any of these guys before. Someone sets up a cash punishment for talking, I want to talk to them.
“I got caught a few weeks ago,” admitted Lepsis, shrugging his thick neck muscles. “I did an early-morning radio interview. I didn’t think anyone would hear it. But it turned out they had that station on in the training room. When I got to work, they nailed me.”
“I did an interview with my hometown paper,” said Nalen, the beefy center. “It has a tiny circulation. But someone found out. I think they set me up.”
Now, seeing as this penalty system flies in the face of free speech, I’m not sure what the framers of our Constitution would say. Probably they would say,
“What’s a football?”
But the fine system isn’t limited to interviews. One player got fined more than $1,000 this year — by his teammates, remember — for running outside the numbers on a play that required him to stay inside the numbers. Nalen said he got fined for being “too sensitive.”
Assistant coaches get fined. The head coach, Mike Shanahan, gets fined. Heck, former lineman Brian Habib got fined for talking about the Broncos after he was traded to another team.
“How do you know what’s a violation?” I asked Swayne.
“You check the board,” he said.
“But what if someone sneaks in early and writes a new one on the board?”
“That would be a ‘board-tampering’ fine,” he said.
A board-tampering fine?
Words, wind break vow
Now, the Broncos all smile when they talk about this thing. Each year, they pool the fine money and throw a big bash for the offenders. Last year they rented out a restaurant in San Diego at the Super Bowl and spent nearly $5,000 in penalty cash on a night’s worth of food and drink.
This year, they stampeded into Joe’s Stone Crabs Monday night and rang up a rather mild $1,896 tab. Which means there’s money left for another bash.
“The biggest plus of the whole thing is that it relieves the monotony of a long season,” said Swayne. “Over 18 or 20 games, you lose focus, you forget plays. This gives us a chance to joke around. It helps with team unity.
“Besides, usually if reporters talk to us it’s, ‘How come you missed that block?’ Or, ‘Why did you allow that sack?’ And outside of pregame introductions, the only time an offensive lineman hears his name called is on a holding penalty.”
So the system will continue. And — who knows? — maybe they’re right. Maybe banding together in a no-talk policy helps build team spirit.
“Isn’t it ironic that by declaring your silence, suddenly people want to talk to you?” I asked Nalen.
He rolled his shoulders and grinned.
“We’re geniuses,” he said.
Then again, someone still has to be the bad-gas judge.
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