There are many myths about what happens inside and outside locker rooms in the NFL. As Super Bowl LII approaches, The Times will examine some of these assumptions over five days. Part 5: Rousing half-time speeches make a difference in a game’s outcome.
The famous coach paces at one wall of the locker room, and his football players sit quietly, awaiting his sermon. Cameras capture it all.
“You’ll find out, life’s a game of inches — so is football,” the coach says in his familiar raspy voice. “Because in either game, life or football, the margin for error is so small. I mean, one half a step too late or too early, and you don’t quite make it. One half-step too slow or too fast, and you don’t quite catch it. The inches we need are everywhere around us. They’re in every break in the game, every minute, every second …”
The congregation is coming to a boil, with a “Hell, yeah!” here and an “Amen!” there.
“On this team,” the coach says, building to a crescendo, “we fight for that inch.”
It’s not Vince Lombardi or Bill Walsh or Bill Belichick. The coach is Al Pacino, and it’s a scene from “Any Given Sunday,” one that seems so realistic to the outside world.
And the NFL rolls its eyes.
It’s not that coaches don’t deliver inspirational speeches once in a while; some of them do. But the idea that all of these guys are whistle-wearing Winston Churchills is simply a myth — and especially the thought of them coming up with stirring words of wisdom at halftime.
“In all my years in the NFL, I can’t think of a single ‘Let’s go win one for the Gipper’ halftime speech,” said Super Bowl-winning coach Brian Billick, among the more eloquent speakers in the game. “It’s certainly more about, ‘Here’s what happened. Here’s what we’re going to start out doing in the second half.’
A typical NFL halftime is 13 minutes. That’s enough time for, well, not a lot.
“You’ll use the bathroom,” former All-Pro center Matt Birk said. “Some guys will retape their hands. Some guys will grab a protein bar or orange slices or whatever. The coaches have a five-minute meeting on the fly, then come out and say, ‘OK guys, here’s what we like.’ It’s not like it’s specific, like, ‘Here’s the three plays that are going to win the game.’ But it’s like, ‘We like this formation. We like to run it out of this. Be alert for these calls.’ Then your head coach calls you up [in a team huddle] and you’re gone.”
In the Super Bowl, however, halftime is 30 minutes, and some type of grand production is happening on the field. That actually can present problems for the players.
“At the Super Bowl, the entertainment has taken over to the point where it’s like you’re starting the game all over,” said Hall of Fame safety Ronnie Lott, who said the 49ers would take off their pads and restretch before heading back out. “You’re playing really two games.”
Birk, whose Baltimore Ravens beat the 49ers in Super Bowl XLVII in New Orleans, remembers that some of his teammates didn’t want to miss the halftime show.
“We were in the Superdome, so there was a disjointed locker room configuration,” he said. “There was this room with a TV, and guys were going in there because they wanted to watch Beyoncé. It’s the polar opposite of a regular halftime. You have more time than you know what to do with.”
Some guys will take all the time they can get. Kevin Byrne, a Ravens executive, remembers that Brian Kinchen, a long snapper and reserve tight end, would actually take a shower at halftime then scramble to put his sweaty uniform back on. No one could quite understand that routine.
Former coach Steve Mariucci, who like Billick is now an NFL Network analyst, noted halftime becomes even shorter when coaches are stopped for those fleeting TV interviews on the way to the locker room.
“They’re the last thing you want to do,” Mariucci said. “ ‘Coach, your team just got 14 points scored on you in two minutes. Your thoughts?’ Well, what do you think I’m thinking? We suck.
“If you ever put a montage of all the interviews ever done at halftime, they’re all pretty much the same. They’re cliches: ‘We’ve got to take better care of the ball … We’re going to change a few things … We’ve got to tackle better … We can’t have all those penalties.’ It’s all the same basic non-information. But it’s an obligation.”
That’s not to say there haven’t been memorable locker-room speeches, halftime or otherwise. Former Chargers linebacker Gary Plummer remembers one from coach Bobby Ross.
“We were 0-4, and he came in at halftime and said, matter-of-factly: ‘Men, I’ve won every place I’ve ever been because I try to do things the right way. I only know how to do that. I’m not going to change. So either get on board, or you’re gone.’ ”
Said Plummer: “We came back and we were 1-4, and it’s the only team to go to the playoffs after starting 0-4.”
Hall of Fame quarterback Troy Aikman said Dallas coach Jimmy Johnson gave “phenomenal” talks to the team in the week leading up to Super Bowl XXVII against Buffalo; a different theme each day.
In one, Johnson asked his players who could walk across the locker room on an imaginary two-by-four. They all raised their hands. Then he asked who could walk across that board if it were suspended between two skyscrapers. This time, the players were more hesitant to raise their hands.
His point: The Super Bowl is the same game, and it’s just the environment that’s different.
Then, there was the time Pacino and director Oliver Stone visited the 49ers to gather information for “Any Given Sunday.” They spent the day with Mariucci.
Recalled the coach: “We were standing on the practice field, we were watching practice, and Al Pacino goes, ‘Coach, do you ever start just going crazy on somebody? Just kind of going craaazy?’ And I went, ‘Not really.’ You might correct a mistake or you might raise your voice once in a while. But their perception was that everybody is Woody Hayes.
“In the movie, you saw one of the great locker-room speeches to his players. But that stuff never happens. You don’t have that kind of time.”
But it sure makes for an entertaining myth.
Follow Sam Farmer on Twitter @LATimesfarmer