King Kaufman's Sports Daily

Can a dumb insult really inspire an NFL team to victory? Plus: An epidemic of wasted timeouts. And: Head injury? No problem!

By Salon Staff

Published September 9, 2003 7:00PM (EDT)

Want to know why the Houston Texans upset the Miami Dolphins on Sunday? Because they're sensitive.

The Texans, 14-point underdogs and playing on the road, got their chaps in a bunch over something a Dolphins player said during pregame warm-ups, so they figured they'd better go out and give Miami a beating, and sure enough they won the game on a last-minute field goal, 21-20.

Dolphins defensive end Jay Williams was talking to Texans linebacker Charlie Clemons, offensive tackle Zach Wiegert and defensive end Corey Sears before the game, according to newspaper reports. The four had been teammates in St. Louis. Williams ended the conversation by saying, "I'll see you guys after this practice."

Practice! The Dolphins were looking at this game as nothing more than a tune-up. Clemons reported the insult to the locker room, and the Texans saw red. "That upset us," wideout Jabar Gaffney said. "We went out with the thought to take it to them. We felt they'd have to play all four quarters if they wanted to beat us."

The Texans are a team of professional football players who get to ply their trade for keeps a mere 16 days out of the year, and most of them, statistically, will have careers of only a few years. Had they been planning to go out there without "the thought to take it to them"? Were they thinking, "If the Dolphins want to beat us, they're going to have play two, two and a half quarters tops, and that should do it"?

I mean, it's only opening day, the first real game in more than eight months, and unless somebody on the other team disses you during warm-ups, you can't get properly motivated?

"You're talking about human nature," says John Silva, a professor of sports psychology at the University of North Carolina. Even when athletes are intense and ready to play, he says, "sometimes when something is said in a disparaging manner, particularly fairly close to game time in eyeball-to-eyeball contact, I think it would be only human nature that it could create an increase in incentive to want to beat that team."

I think we've all experienced that feeling. Somebody puts you down, you get mad, you try all the harder to succeed. It used to happen to me in my musician days. In my last band, which played loud, fast music, we found that when we were good and pissed off about something, we played a whole lot better. There was a night in Portland when the hideous band that preceded us droned on and on, into our time, and a night in Bakersfield when this "alt-country" weenie did the same thing while also insulting our hometown, San Francisco. We kicked butt those nights.

But we were just a bunch of sorry clowns with day jobs slogging it out in the clubs night after night. How tough is it for an elite athlete with 16 keep-score days a year to motivate himself to a fever pitch for every game?

Silva says it can be pretty tough.

"You know, yeah, it's the NFL and yeah it's opening day," he says, "but you've also got to remember that some of these players who are eight-, 10-, 12-year veterans, they've been doing this for almost 20 years if you count college and high school. So sometimes there isn't that level of burning desire that you had when you were a rookie or your first couple of years in the league, and something like [Williams' insult] can trigger a kind of a response in a lot of players."

"You have something like that happen in baseball or basketball, the effect could even backfire, because there's so much fine-motor skills that are involved in those sports," Silva says. "But a lot of the players in football, especially the defensive players, sometimes that little bit of added incentive and desire is helpful."

This is the NFL, the very top of the profession, where all of the players have achieved a mastery of their physical and mental abilities that can scarcely be dreamed of even by the fine athletes who play college sports. It's amazing to me that on that level anyone leaves any scrap of desire or intensity in the locker room. Before Sunday's game, Jabar Gaffney had played 16 NFL games. Charlie Clemons had played 69. Corey Sears 37. Even working a five-day-a-week job without 70,000 people screaming for or against your every move, after 69 workdays you're still only in your fourth month. How can you be jaded already?

Williams is being portrayed as something of a goat for giving the Texans the motivational help they apparently needed to win the game. But the thing is, you only hear about insults like that when the insulted team wins. Nobody ever says, "They made us mad and we went out with the thought to take it to them" after a 37-0 loss. "It sounds like in this particular instance it hit a proper chord," Silva says, "but it doesn't always work like that."

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Is a timeout worth 5 yards? [PERMALINK]

Loose lips weren't the only reason the Dolphins lost on Sunday. They did have a chance to win, getting the ball at their own 45-yard line with 25 seconds to play and trailing by one. They needed about 25 yards to get into position for a game-winning field goal, but they had a big problem: no timeouts left. Jay Fiedler threw two incomplete passes and an interception to end the game.

It may have ended the same way if the Dolphins had their timeouts, but they would have been able to use the whole field, not having to worry about getting out of bounds, and they would have been able to discuss at least two of their plays before running them, and then give their kicking team time to set up properly.

When are NFL coaches going to learn that those three timeouts they get in each half are ridiculously valuable, and burning them is idiotic when they can just let the play clock expire and take a 5-yard delay-of-game penalty instead?

The Dolphins called time in the second minute of the third quarter, leading 14-6 and with a third and 8 on their own 14. By taking a penalty instead of calling time out, they'd have faced third and 13 at the 9. That's a little risky, potentially backing your punter into his own end zone if you don't gain anything on third down, but I don't think that's worth throwing away a timeout over. Miami got the first down, then called time again on the same drive with a second and 6 at their own 44. There's simply no arguing that that timeout was worth spending to avoid a second and 11 at the 39. The drive soon stalled anyway.

Their third timeout was spent on defense, where you don't have the choice of taking a delay penalty.

But teams blowing timeouts to avoid a 5-yard walk-off, then finding themselves sorely missing those timeouts at the end of the game is epidemic. The ability to stop the clock in the two-minute drill is like gold. NFL coaches treat it like Internet stock.

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Is there a doctor in the house? [PERMALINK]

Kurt Warner's disastrous performance -- six fumbles, three of them lost, plus an interception -- in the Rams' 23-13 loss to the Giants has the quarterback controversy at full boil in St. Louis, with fans wondering why coach Mike Martz didn't turn to able backup Marc Bulger.

What I'm wondering about is the NFL's handling of concussions. Warner was hospitalized with a "mild to moderate" concussion after the game, according to team doctors, and both he and Martz speculated that the injury might have happened in the first quarter. Martz said Warner seemed to have trouble understanding the plays Martz was sending in, though he thought the problem was with the walkie-talkie receiver in Warner's helmet.

But at halftime, Warner told team doctors he'd been hit on the side of the head and he had a sore neck and a headache. They checked him out and deemed him fit to play. It was only after the game that he complained of a more severe headache and nausea, and was taken to the hospital.

Team physician Bernard Garfinkel told reporters that the nausea was "a warning symptom that the concussion is a little more severe than we originally thought." He said if Warner had looked at halftime the way he did shortly after the game, he wouldn't have been allowed to play in the second half.

If the concussion was "a little more severe than we originally thought," they must have thought he had a concussion at halftime. In 2001, the first International Conference on Concussion in Sport, in Vienna, issued this statement, with the emphasis in the original: "When a player shows ANY symptoms or signs of a concussion, the player should not be allowed to return to play in the current game or practice ... A player should never return to play while symptomatic. 'When in doubt, sit them out!'"

A professional boxer who suffers a concussion, or even one who has what's judged to be a "hard fight," isn't even allowed back into the gym for at least a month and sometimes longer. Shouldn't the NFL at least live up to the low standards of that shoddy sport?

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