Sometime before the start of the Chargers’ game with the Jaguars on Sunday in Jacksonville, defensive tackle Brandon Mebane will find a place in or near the visiting locker room.
The defensive players will gather around him, adrenaline saturating the blood pumping through their veins, as he begins to sermonize.
What he says, that’s confidential, but his teammates all swear he’s good at it. It’s why it’s a near impossibility that the Chargers or Mebane will find themselves as the punchline to a joke in the way the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and their leader, quarterback Jameis Winston, did one week ago.
Before the game against the New Orleans Saints, the Buccaneers gathered around the third-year quarterback as he began to preach. In a bizarre flurry of words and gyrations, Winston mimed as if he was eating corn on the cob, licking his fingers, leaving only a “W” — the letter he formed with three fingers.
“That’s a ‘W.’ Let’s eat one. That’s a ‘W.’ How many people want to eat a ‘W’ tonight?’ Winston shouted at his teammates repeatedly, with the “Yeahs!” giving way to an awkward confusion all while the TV cameras rolled.
“ ‘Eat the W. You want the W, eat this W,’ ” Chargers cornerback Casey Hayward imitated. “That … is hilarious.”
That’s not necessarily the intention of these pregame hype speeches, something football culture almost demands take place inside of every football locker room.
For the Chargers, Mebane is the main M.C. — defensive tackle Damion Square chips in. So do safeties Tre Boston and Jahleel Addae. On offense, it’s usually veteran tackle Russell Okung trying to light the fires.
“I keep mine simple and sweet,” Addae said. “I don’t try and do too much. I get straight to the point and keep it moving.”
That’s part of the genius in Mebane’s approach. He’s thoughtful, taking mental notes during the week about what he wants to say while sticking to a proven formula that resonates with teammates. And because he’s not asking teammates to “Eat a ‘W,’ ” he doesn’t have to worry too much about having to eat his words.
“I don’t try to create something. I’m just talking football,” Mebane said. “I’m not creative like that.”
He’s the most recent in a line of Chargers players to have this role in the locker room joining a lineage of guys such as Shawne Merriman, Takeo Spikes, Donald Butler and D.J. Fluker.
Fluker’s speeches, which Antonio Gates called “funny,” were so lively that his teammates would worry about his post-speech energy levels.
“Fluker talked so much, he’d be tired before the game started,” defensive end Chris McCain remembered. “He’d be doing so much talking and yelling before that when the game would start, he’d be tired.”
Winston isn’t the first to fail at this task.
“He’s probably at a 60% clip. That’s good for speeches,” Hayward said. “If you’re 60 or 70% with speeches, I think you’re doing pretty good.”
Veteran tackle Joe Barksdale remembered a pregame speech given by a veteran teammate while they were with the St. Louis Rams that went off the rails.
“He was calling us all up, we locked eyes and he just didn’t look away,” Barksdale said with a laugh. “He started stuttering and mumbling. I was like, ‘This is weird.’ Afterwards he came up to me and told me ‘I had a speech prepared but I just got lost in your eyes.’ That’s the awkward one I remember.”
It’s not an easy job — something everyone is willing to admit even if they’re chuckling at Winston’s speech last Sunday. Linebacker Kyle Emanuel is sure he’s given a bad speech before too, minus the finger-licking Ws.
“It happened to me in college. You’re getting hyped. You’re loud and yelling. And … you just forget where you’re going,” he said with an embarrassed grin. “It’s an awkward silence. You’re getting everyone hyped and you just ran out of things to say.”
Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers said the key, for him, is to pick his spots. He’s the quarterback, the one the team has to look to when things are going well and when things are going poorly.
“I think to me the best of those kinds of speeches, the ones you’ve been around, are authentic. They’re not pre-scripted. I pick and choose my times,” Rivers said. “If it’s just to talk ... I think it can wear thin if it’s all the time.”
As a leader, you can’t allow for your authenticity to come into question. It’s probably best to keep your linemen from being nauseated.
Nick Hardwick, who played 11 years as the Chargers’ center before moving to the team’s radio booth, said Winston’s speech plain grossed him out.
“You know what got me? It was seeing him lick his fingers and knowing his hands were just up a sweaty center’s ass in warmups,” Hardwick said. “I was thinking, ‘That is so nasty dude. …’ ”
If the speech had so inspired his team to go out on the Superdome turf and perform, maybe people would feel differently. Instead, the Saints marched down the field on the opening possession before forcing Tampa Bay into a three-and-out — and then a blocked punt for a touchdown.
By that time, no one is thinking about what was said pregame. No one is focused on the speeches, the dancing, the helmet slapping. After those first few snaps, it’s just business.
But before that reality sets in, if W-eating, finger licking, hallway yelling or anything else inspires a player to even be 1% better, then why not?