Column: Raiders’ Sparano stages ball burial in latest in long line of ploys

Tony Sparano
Tony Sparano takes over as coach for a Raiders team that is 0-4 and has been outscored 103-51.
(Stephen Brashear / Associated Press)

A funeral doesn’t sound like a good way to motivate a losing football team.

Well, maybe if it’s the type of service Tony Sparano held this week as interim coach of the Oakland Raiders, burying a football at the practice facility of the 0-4 team to signify a fresh start. He put in the first shovelful of dirt, then let his players do the rest.

Sparano wasn’t the first to think of that motivational ploy. Rex Ryan did it with the New York Jets in 2010, a couple days after his team was demolished at New England, 45-3. And Patriots Coach Bill Belichick pulled the same stunt nine years earlier looking to turn around his 1-3 team — and, boy, did he. The Patriots lost only two more games that season, won the AFC East, and eventually their first Super Bowl.

Sometimes, those props do just the trick to get a team focused on the task at hand.


“If a coach thinks there’s something to help you play better, he’ll do just about anything,” said Tony Boselli, a former All-Pro tackle who recalls when he was at USC how then-coach Larry Smith gave tennis balls to his players, reminding them to bounce back after a loss. “Even if it moves the needle 1%, it’s worth it.”

Hall of Fame coach Bill Parcells used those tactics from time to time. When his Patriots were playing the Jets, he dangled toy airplanes in their lockers. When he was coaching in Dallas, he reminded his players not to buy into the hype being said about them — or, in his words, “eat the cheese” — so he put a giant blue mousetrap in the middle of the Cowboys locker room, and baited it with a piece of cheese.

Once, when he was coaching the Jets, Parcells left an empty gas can in the locker of linebacker Brian Cox, along with a question: “Do you have any left in the tank?”

Last season, before his Colts played 0-4 Jacksonville, Chuck Pagano placed a mousetrap in each player’s locker. The message: Don’t fall prey to a “trap” game. The Colts didn’t, posting a 37-3 victory.


Occasionally, the props backfire. Seldom do they go so spectacularly wrong as they did for Jacksonville’s Jack Del Rio in 2003. Looking to inspire his 0-3 team, the rookie coach placed the stump of an oak tree and an ax in the locker room, a reminder to his players to “keep choppin’ wood.”


That cost the Jaguars their Pro Bowl punter. Chris Hanson accidentally gashed his non-kicking foot while goofing around with the ax. He was done for the year.

Strange, you don’t hear much about the ax-and-stump gimmick in the NFL anymore.

Friendly skies

The Denver Broncos return to MetLife Stadium on Sunday, site of their Super Bowl mauling at the hands of the Seattle Seahawks. Thankfully for Peyton Manning & Co., the Broncos will be facing a far more welcoming defense in the New York Jets, a team coming off four consecutive losses in which they were strafed by Aaron Rodgers, Jay Cutler, Matthew Stafford and Philip Rivers.

The Jets are hurting at cornerback, in particular, with a pretty good one in Dee Milliner and a rotating cast at the other corner spot. That’s good news for Manning, of course.

Jets Coach Rex Ryan said his team has to “hope like heck it’s a 50-mph cross wind.”


Forecast at MetLife? Partly cloudy, 63 degrees … and almost no wind.

Cowboys not cowering

When Green Bay played at Seattle in the Kickoff Opener, Rodgers never threw in the direction of All-Pro cornerback Richard Sherman.

That’s not the approach Dallas plans to take against the Seahawks star, at least according to Cowboys owner Jerry Jones.

“We can’t run from him,” Jones said this week on 105.3 The Fan radio in Dallas. “That’s easy to say and hard to do. We’ve got to challenge him and make him at least cover us one-on-one.… I don’t see us compromising the rest of our offense by running from Sherman like that.”

Jones has seen teams do that to the Cowboys before, when Deion Sanders was the shut-down playmaker in their defense.

“People would run from him and it would play right into our hands,” Jones said. “We had 10 people on nine players a lot of time because of Deion Sanders.”

Oh, the drama


Back in Minnesota’s opener against St. Louis, Vikings receiver Cordarrelle Patterson looked virtually unstoppable. He ran for 102 yards in three carries, including a pitch he turned into a 67-yard touchdown.

“When I get the ball in my hands,” he said, “I expect great things.”

Yes, when he gets the ball in his hands. That’s the operative phrase. His role in Norv Turner’s offense isn’t anywhere close to what people projected after that first game. Through five games, he has 15 catches for 189 yards with no touchdowns.

Patterson, who in part has been bothered by a hip injury, joked this week he might have to take matters into his own hands.

“At junior college, I was a drama queen,” he said. “I demanded the ball, and it paid off for me. So if things keep going like this, I may have to be that drama queen one time.”

Fade pattern

Arizona’s Larry Fitzgerald has a $16.1-million salary, making him the 12th highest-paid NFL player and second among receivers to Detroit’s Calvin Johnson ($16.2 million).

That said, Fitzgerald is off to the worst statistical start of his 11-year career, with 13 catches for 164 yards and no touchdowns in four games. In the past three games, he has been targeted 24 times, more than any other Cardinals receiver. It probably doesn’t help that the team has cycled through three quarterbacks because of injuries.

At the moment, Fitzgerald doesn’t seem overly concerned.

“I just control the things I can control,” he told the Arizona Republic. “It is what it is. There’s no reason to complain about it or get down. I get my opportunities. I’ve just got to make the best of it.”

Whistle stop

Like most, if not all NFL teams, the Seahawks don’t just scout opposing players, they scout the officiating crews working games.

Seahawks Coach Pete Carroll knows, for instance, if one particular crew has made more pass-interference calls than most, or if a crew hasn’t called holding much. He also gets a scouting sheet on the individual officials, so he might know if one doubles as a high school history teacher. It gives the coach a tip about making small talk.

No cheat sheet is necessary for Sunday’s game against Dallas. Bill Leavy is the referee for the game, and he needs no introduction with most Seahawks fans.

Leavy was the referee for Super Bowl XL — Pittsburgh versus Seattle — and later conceded he “kicked two calls” in the 21-10 victory by the Steelers. The Seahawks and their fans were seething.

This isn’t the first time Leavy has worked a Seattle game in recent years. He has worked three since Carroll took over as coach, and the Seahawks went 2-1 in those games.


Philadelphia is 4-1 and atop the NFC East. But New York Giants defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul isn’t impressed.

“At the end of the day, yeah, they’re 4-1,” said Pierre-Paul, whose team plays at Philadelphia on Sunday Night Football. “But they could have easily been 0-4. The games were that close. You know it too. I watch TV. You watch TV. I feel like we should go out there and make it a close game.”

Bad math aside, what does he think of Philadelphia? Well, let Pierre-Paul tell you. Again and again.

“I don’t like Philly,” he said. “I don’t care at all about Philly. I don’t like Philly, you know what I’m saying?”

Message received.


Twitter: @LATimesfarmer