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No spin zone: How ping-pong annually impacts the NFL playoffs

Jacksonville Coach Doug Marrone and executive Tom Coughlin, happy in their ping-pong-free lives this month. (Bob Mack/Florida Times-Union/Associated Press)
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“It’s time for Pete Carroll to lock up the family room,” Ron Borges wrote in the Boston Globe 20 years ago. “It’s time to put away the pool table for a few weeks and fold up the ping-pong table and put the bowling tournament on hold. … To quote a famous football philosopher who once prowled their sideline, ‘In football season, football players play football,’ meaning they don’t play ping-pong in the player’s lounge.”

Thus (perhaps) began a 20-year NFL culture war centered around a 2.7-gram white ball and some probably torn-up paddles. NFL teams with ping-pong tables in their locker room are successful thanks to the camaraderie and fellowship engendered by the popular leisure activity, unless they are unsuccessful due to the excess laxity and distraction caused by such a heinous mind-melting goof. NFL teams that remove ping-pong tables are successful thanks to discipline, rigor and a focus on what’s truly important, provided they’re actually successful. Ping-pong tables drive playoff runs. So, too, does a lack of ping-pong tables.

And so back and forth we go. And back. And forth. And back. And forth. And back. And forth again. And now back. And forth. And back. It’s almost like … I dunno. Something that goes back and forth.

We’re talking about this now, of course, because the Jaguars’ surprising run to the AFC championship game came after the team’s new front-office leadership banished the locker-room ping-pong table during the offseason. Via the AP:

When [Doug] Marrone was hired to replace [Gus] Bradley last January, high on his to-do list was to change the culture in Jacksonville. His success is one reason the Jaguars (12-6) are in the AFC championship game against New England (14-3). The ping-pong table was the first to go. Dominoes followed.

Suitably inspired, the Jaguars won 10 games and stormed past the Buffalo Bills in the first round of the playoffs, the Bills having removed their locker-room pool table and video games during the offseason, but not their ping-pong table.

“Ball skills,” new Coach Sean McDermott explained, via the Buffalo News, when asked about keeping the ping-pong table. The other games were removed, McDermott said, because “this is a business,” and businesses pretty clearly don’t allow pool tables.

Washington has brushed up against this debate in the past couple years, after the Redskins added a ping-pong table, shuffleboard table and foosball table during the 2016 offseason, in a bid to encourage team-building.

“It’s awesome,” long snapper Nick Sundberg said at the time. “Nobody’s in the players’ lounge anymore; everyone’s in the locker room together, which is awesome.”

Turns out spending time together is great, except when it’s not. After that season didn’t go as planned, a local radio host fixated on these locker-room games as a potential culprit. And now Marrone and his boss, Tom Coughlin — plus two Jaguars playoff wins — have again elevated this issue into the national conversation. The lesson seems clear: Cut down on the frivolity, focus on the details, and prosper in the playoffs.

Unless that’s the wrong lesson! Because last year’s NFC finalists, the Atlanta Falcons, actually credited ping-pong with helping their rise. The New York Post was among the many outlets  that wrote last winter about how Atlanta Coach Dan Quinn discovered during a Navy SEAL visit how important “brotherhood” was to team success, then applied that to his facility:

The initial seed was a ping-pong table. Soon, players from offense and defense, stars to free agents, were lining up to compete and share something besides football. One ping-pong table soon became two, then three. Before long, the Falcons were doing a number of things on and off the field together. Now, coaches and players hardly can get through an interview without mentioning the word that now has its own hashtag. It was the first thing Quinn mentioned after the Falcons defeated the Packers in the NFC Championship. …
Quarterback Matt Ryan says his ping-pong skills have been improving throughout the year. He might eventually be the MVP of the NFL, but it seems like he would like to be the team’s ping-pong champ just as much.
“It gets competitive,” he said. “Dan mentions the brotherhood, and it’s tight and it’s real. But one of the central themes of our organization is competition, and it comes to life on the ping-pong table. It’s created relationships with guys that have been good.”

Others went even further. Here’s SB Nation’s Jeanna Thomas:

To suggest that ping-pong helped get the team to where it is today, its first Super Bowl berth since the 1998 season, may seem like an effort to oversimplify the situation.
But ping-pong had a role in building the bond between these players and instilling an unshakable sense of competition in a team that previously lacked it. Ping-pong did help shape the 2016 Falcons into the Super Bowl contenders they became.

“Quinn said the Falcons have even used ping-pong to break some ties … on matters of awards among players for effort and performance. Generally, the whole team will watch those throw-downs,” the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported. “The goal is to push one another and compel players to relate so as to connect with one another in ways that prompt them to strive for success and grow relationships that make them want to put in whatever extra to do their part so as not to let each other down all while busting it to get better at whatever they do.”

Quinn, of course, is a protege of Seahawks Coach Pete Carroll, whose locker-room ping-pong table so outraged Borges 20 years ago. Turns out Carroll didn’t leave the game behind when he left New England.

“The Seahawks moved two ping-pong tables into the locker room this season,” the Seattle Times reported in January 2016. “It has created intense rivalries, an important if debated hierarchy, trash talking and matchups between clashing styles.” That’s not all, either.

“Honestly, I think there could be a one-to-one correlation with the success on the team to when people started really getting into ping-pong,” offensive lineman Garry Gilliam said. “You’ve got to finish the games, so we learned how to finish. Hand-eye coordination, competitiveness, drive, team camaraderie. Some legit stuff comes from this ping-pong.”

Which all means this will be the third straight season ping-pong has been either a positive or a negative force for one of the NFL’s championship weekend participants: the pro-ping-pong Seahawks in 2016, the pro-ping-pong Falcons in 2017 and now anti-ping-pong Jacksonville. Incidentally, the Jaguars’ opponent this weekend has its own ping-pong past. Patriots Julian Edelman, Rob Gronkowski and Danny Amendola play ping-pong together. And Amendola said he was challenged by quarterback Tom Brady to a ping-pong game in the first days of his Patriots tenure.

Coughlin, of course, has gone after ping-pong tables before, with similar success. When he arrived in New York, running back Tiki Barber recently said, Coughlin removed the team’s ping-pong tables.

“It felt so drastic,” Barber acknowledged. “But all of those things that were loose, he did away with — in addition to all the other rules that he instituted.”

The ping-pong-pure Giants won two Super Bowls, although the ping-pong-pure Giants also later struggled and fired Coughlin, and all of these developments either did or did not have anything to do with ping-pong.

There is no end to these stories. When his team struggled to start the 2013 season, Pittsburgh Coach Mike Tomlin banned all locker-room games, including ping-pong. Before this year’s playoffs started, the Saints removed their ping-pong table, basketball hoop and video-game system. The “no-nonsense” Chan Gailey arrived in Dallas in the late 1990s and turned things serious, according to the AP:

How serious is Gailey? Out are locker- room foosball and ping-pong tables; in is a very thick playbook.

Gailey was fired two years later, but never mind that. This is bigger than the NFL. The Edmonton Oilers had a ping-pong table during their 1980s dynasty. Clayton Kershaw has helped the L.A. Dodgers get into ping-pong, and they went to the World Series. The Texas Rangers credited ping-pong with strengthening their clubhouse bond in 2016, when they finished with one of the AL’s best records.

There are enough examples on both sides that one might be tempted to spike this entire story, or to ask media members to stop spinning table-tennis tales, to serve us something different, to break us out of this loop. Out of curiosity, I reached out to Matt Hetherington of USA Table Tennis. He pointed out that crackdowns on table tennis in the workplace should not be seen strictly as a negative for his sport; the clear implication is that the game is so riotously enjoyable that it could interfere with work. The Jaguars’ table was too popular. That’s great for the game.

“Obviously there are some team-building benefits, but maybe they were enjoying their table tennis more than their football,” Hetherington wrote. “There is such a thing as too much of a good time. If it starts getting in the way of work, then it can become a distraction. If people can’t put work ahead of table tennis, maybe they can come and work for us.”

Of course, if Doug Marrone went to work for USATT, he’d probably try playing football in the break room. I hope someone would ban it.

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