A good old-fashioned ribbing from a former teammate, however vile, tawdry or unsophisticated, hits home in a different way than your average pre-game trash-talking opponent or fan critic. It stings, and not just because you played together, but because you spent hours, days, sometimes years eating, training, even living with each other. There’s no understating the strength of the bonds formed in NFL locker rooms, the relationships that, theoretically at least, transcend football and last far longer than NFL careers.
This isn’t always the case, though. Locker room relationships fluctuate on a wide spectrum, from sincere to cordial to combative, and everything in between. In a heated, competitive environment consisting of more than 50 players fighting for playing time and depth chart supremacy, naturally, things get contentious, cooperation wanes and fraternization grows sporadic. It’s an interesting dynamic, and perhaps what makes team interactions so enthralling. Just ask HBO’s “Hard Knocks”, whose popularity is based almost entirely on these developments. In some cases, players form strong friendships with other players whose single outstanding purpose is ensuring their new cohorts’ demise. This is the sort of unhealthy partnership that intuitively shouldn’t work, and the best example is the classic quarterback-in-waiting scenario, where a starting, veteran quarterback is charged with mentoring, nurturing and preparing a younger quarterback until he’s ready to take over. The process is never frowned upon, because, well, the younger quarterback is the future! Never mind the veteran quarterback who still, contrary to popular belief, wants to continue his career and would rather not lose his job, much less to a player he’s being asked to tutor in the first place.
And yet, most teams figure out how to make it work. The calculus is never easy, but in most cases even conflicting personalities and minor feuds have a way of resolving themselves. Locker room infighting is far from the norm, and players have a way of minimizing controversy when there are games to be played, non-guaranteed contracts to be earned. When players retire or switch teams—whether by trade, free agency or one’s own volition—things change. Sometimes guys leave teams on a poor note, bridges burned, while others depart with a greater appreciation for their former teammates.
At this point, you’re probably wondering when this boring, drawn-out monologue on life in the NFL will end and how it relates to Amani Toomer’s recent comments about Giants quarterback Eli Manning. If you haven’t already heard Toomer’s notorious radio interview, here are two of the more interesting morsels generating quite a bit of discussion:
“Tony Romo is probably, if you look at it statistically, he’s probably the best quarterback in the NFC East,” Toomer said while co-hosting Movin’ the Chains on SiriusXM NFL Radio. “You look at Eli Manning and what he does in the fourth quarter, but you talk about consistency, talking about 31 touchdowns and 10 interceptions, that guy can play.”As heretical as it may seem, there’s nothing wrong with Toomer’s statement. Everybody is subject to their own opinion, and if Toomer truly believes Romo is a better quarterback than Eli Manning, he is completely within his rights to say so. No harm done. A couple of Cowboys fans I go to school with make this argument time and again, even after the events of last season, and I normally just brush it off and chalk it up to “America’s team-delusion”, or something like that. Toomer is not—unless I’m missing something—a Cowboys fan, not in the least bit. He spent nearly his entire NFL career with one of Dallas’ main rivals and almost certainly factored largely into the Cowboys’ declining success over the past decade. He played a key role in Big Blue’s upset victory over the one-seeded Cowboys in the divisional round of the 2007 playoffs. He watched as Manning morphed from an insecure, gun-shy rookie to a Super Bowl winning quarterback, even partook in that development and maturation. He witnessed Manning outduel Romo on numerous occasions, in the regular season and postseason. And after all of that, his opinion—even as Co-host Tim Ryan pushed him to the pro-Manning consenses—was firm, unwavering: Romo > Manning.
“I’m talking about, for me, if I wanted a guy that is going to throw less interceptions and be more productive, higher completion percentage, I’m going to go with Tony Romo.”
This brings me back to my rant on the NFL team dynamic, and the relationships that either last, fracture or are slightly altered after a player switches teams or leaves the game. Toomer doesn’t owe Eli, a former teammate, much of anything at all. His job as an NFL analyst requires objectivity and a detached, unbiased view of the league, past team affiliations be damned. But as a player whose individual and team success is grounded so strongly in Manning’s accomplishments, you’d think Toomer would side with his former quarterback, rather than endorse a rival qb in his stead. NFL player relationships are tricky and rarely predictable, and Toomer’s comments are the latest confirmation of the fact. Not that Manning will care, not the quarterback that, after entering last season amid a cloud of controversy for thinking he was an “elite” quarterback, silenced his detractors with a Super Bowl ring.