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Is Toughness an NFL Prerequisite, and Can It Be Taught?

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USA TODAY
November 8, 2013 Friday
FA CHASE EDITION
SPORTS; Pg. 1C
650 words
Playing mind games in NFL
Christine Brennan,cbrennan@usatoday.com,USA TODAY SportsJarrett Bell,jbell@usatoday.com,USA TODAY Sports

The topic is toughness. It's one of the keywords in the case involving Miami Dolphins offensive tackle Jonathan Martin.

"Tough is not a physical state," former NFL defensive coordinator Greg Blache told USA TODAY Sports. "Football is such a mental game. The toughness is more mental.

"If you're confident in your techniques, you play faster. It looks more aggressive and physical, but it's really about mental toughness."

Blache's definition is intriguing, as it might run counter to first-glance intuitions about the violent sport.

With injuries occurring at a record pace and the post-career physical condition of retired players generating more awareness than ever, the toughness is more mental?

"You don't have to be a savage animal to play in the NFL," Blache said. "It's a misconception."

Martin filed a complaint contending that bullying from guard Richie Incognito -- at least some of which was captured on a racially charged and threatening voice mail -- contributed to him leaving the team last week. He has sought counseling.

Yet those actions, in the macho NFL culture, have in some arenas turned against Martin to fuel questions about his toughness.

Even his high school coach wondered whether Martin, a low-key Stanford grad, would fit in with more aggressive personalities in NFL locker rooms from different types of programs.

Vic Eumont, the coach at Harvard-Westlake in California, told The Palm Beach Post that because of Martin's academically rich background, he's the perfect target to be bullied.

"I just feel like you have to be mentally tough at some level to take jokes and stuff," Dolphins offensive tackle Bryant McKinnie told USA TODAY Sports on Thursday. "It wasn't like he was getting beat up."

The Sun Sentinel of South Florida reported this week, citing unnamed sources, that coaches asked Incognito to toughen up Martin after he missed two days of voluntary workouts last spring.

As the NFL investigation unfolds, confirming the facts related to the report -- which might ultimately cost jobs -- is essential.

One thing is certain: Incognito's tactics backfired.

Martin's camp, meanwhile, has counterattacked.

"Jonathan Martin's toughness is not at issue," attorney David Cornwell, representing Martin, said in a statement released Thursday. "Jonathan has started every game with the Miami Dolphins (before his departure) since he was drafted in 2012. At Stanford, he was the anchor for Jim Harbaugh's 'smash-mouth' brand of football and he protected Andrew Luck's blind side.

"The issue is Jonathan's treatment by his teammates. Jonathan endured harassment that went far beyond the traditional locker room hazing."

Although Dolphins coach Joe Philbin has maintained that he had no knowledge of issues between Martin and Incognito, it's not clear whether offensive line coach Jim Turner or other coaches had an inkling of problems -- or tactics.

That's of extreme interest to the NFL Players Association as it monitors the case.

I asked Blache how he would toughen up a player.

"I'd do it myself," he said. "You don't have other people doing it. That's what I got paid for."

Another former coach, Marty Schottenheimer, said he can't recall singling out a player to be toughened up. He struggled to define toughness in the NFL context, but like Blache separated the mental from the physical toughness.

"I'm not sure that you can toughen anybody up," Schottenheimer said. "You certainly can't do it by berating them. I don't know if that's what they did. I just know this has been very disappointing for the league."

Blache realizes there is an adjustment transitioning from college to the NFL. Not only are the players bigger, faster and stronger, but the experience and skill level also underscore the steep competitive curve.

In Martin's case, the Dolphins played him at right tackle as a rookie.

"It's a transition," Blache said, referring to the jump from college. "Everybody can't handle it."

November 8, 2013

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