PHOENIX – Kevin Faulk sat in an interview room at the NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis in late February 1999, telling yet another team why they should take him over hundreds of other players hoping to get into the NFL.
During one interview, Faulk was casually asked about another current running back prospect. Cecil Collins was a troubled but talented player who briefly shared time in the same LSU backfield with Faulk, the latter usually shifting to slot receiver when they were paired.
"He's a lot better than me," Faulk said when asked about Collins. The interviewer at the time was a bit startled by such a frank response from a fellow player. Normally, even the most limited players are reluctant to admit another guy at their position is better.
And while those who saw Collins' snapshot career might tend to agree that the back possessed some rare skills, here's the bottom line to a much bigger discussion:
On Sunday, Faulk will try to help the New England Patriots win their fourth Super Bowl title in his nine years since the team selected him in the second round of the NFL draft. Conversely, Collins will be in the Moore Haven Correctional Facility in the middle of nowhere Florida, starting his ninth year of incarceration.
Collins, kicked out of LSU after just four games and drafted by the Miami Dolphins as a fifth-round pick from McNeese State in 1999, didn't even finish his first pro season before being arrested and eventually sentenced to 15 years on felony burglary charges. Ultimately, Collins' missteps serve as a cautionary tale for teams willing to risk draft picks or free-agency dollars on players with red flags.
In today's NFL, the balance between talent and the focus to take advantage of those gifts has shifted. Unlike decades ago, when all that often mattered was showing up on Sunday, the ability to make it through Monday to Saturday has become nearly as important.
Want proof? When New England and the New York Giants battle for the title Sunday, it will also be a matchup of teams that reportedly haven't had a single player arrested over the past year. Blogger Mike Florio of profootballtalk.com has tracked statistics over the past three years for the "Turd Watch," assigning points to a team each time one of its players or any other team employee is arrested or convicted of a crime. Coming into this week, the Giants and Patriots were among five teams to go unscathed (Dallas was also in that group).
While it's difficult to draw a direct correlation between winning and off-field issues (Jacksonville had the second-worst score in the NFL and a total of four playoff teams were in the bottom seven), there's no doubt a loud message is being sent that troubled players are just not worth the agony. Furthermore, they now stand to pay a heavy price for bad behavior.
The subject of trouble vs. talent reached an apex last offseason when NFL commissioner Roger Goodell reacted strongly to numerous incidents involving players, including Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick, Tennessee Titans cornerback Pacman Jones, Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver Chris Henry and then-Chicago Bears defensive tackle Tank Johnson. With the cooperation of the NFL Players Association, Goodell put together a harsh personal conduct policy. All of the aforementioned were or still are suspended.
"You can't be a babysitter in this league," said Giants center Grey Ruegamer, a member of the 1999 Dolphins. "When you get to this level, the NFL does its best to educate us and tell us what to avoid. But any time you are a young man with a lot of money and you have a big ego, it's a bad mix. You can't control them."
Former defensive end Trace Armstrong, who spent 15 years in the NFL and was president of the NFL Players Association for eight years, put it this way: "If you're a problem guy, you better be productive and you better be consistent. Guys who are real problems, it comes up in the locker room, in practice, what they do in the training room, meetings, on the team bus.
"In meetings, you can't get anything done because you end up with one coach who ends up managing one player and it destroys the whole room."
Armstrong was on that '99 Miami team that featured Collins and defensive end Dimitrius Underwood. Collins, arrested three times between college and the NFL, was accused of sexual misconduct during at least two of the incidents. At the time of the Florida burglary, Collins was on probation for an earlier incident in Louisiana.
Underwood was far more tragic. He suffered from manic depression, which manifested itself in fits of paranoia. He exhibited significant signs of trouble in college, but that didn't prevent Minnesota Vikings coach Dennis Green from taking him in the first round in '99. When Underwood bolted the Vikings on the first day of training camp, Green had to cut him.
The Dolphins claimed Underwood on waivers. As stunning as his talent was to players such as Armstrong, he didn't have the tools to focus on his craft. He showed up at his first two positional meetings without a pen or notepad. When he did bring writing material, he eventually started jotting down scripture proclaiming the coming of the apocalypse.
Later that season, Underwood tried the first of at least two suicide attempts. While his situation was heart-wrenching, the bottom line is he was a distraction. And teams can't afford distractions these days.
"The way this league is right now, you can't have guys who are like that, where you don't know if they'll show up or not," said Jacksonville Jaguars assistant coach Dave Campo, who was an assistant with Dallas in the early 1990s when the Cowboys won three titles in four years. "The competition in this league is just too balanced right now. You have to have every single guy ready to play every week. When we had it going in Dallas, we were just way more talented than everybody. There were a few teams like that at the time. Now, it's so much different."
Perhaps Campo's most-telling reaction is the look on his face when asked if those great Dallas teams of the early 1990s would perform at such a high level today.
As talented as those teams were, they possessed a lawless quality with players such as Michael Irvin, Erik Williams and Nate Newton.
An uncomfortable smile crosses Campo's face when he considers his answer. Between drugs and women, the Cowboys had a seedy side.
"I think it would have been really hard," Campo said.
Kansas City Chiefs head coach Herm Edwards said the responsibility of handling problem players must fall directly on the head coach these days. In contrast, Edwards said that when he played in the 1970s, a lot of the issues that make headlines today "never even made it to the head coach or the owner's desk."
However, with the increase in media scrutiny, Edwards said that traffic tickets now become news. As a result, problem players are now on the head coach's daily agenda.
"If you're going to take on guys like that, the head coach has to handle it," Edwards said. "It's not the position coach who handles that guy … the head coach has to be the one who has a direct relationship with that guy."
In 1999, when the Dolphins took Underwood and Collins, Jimmy Johnson was in his final season as a head coach. By the end of the season, Johnson was leaving the building by 6 p.m., allowing little time to monitor guys like Collins.
In New England, players are constantly monitored, right down to the things they say to the press. Coach Bill Belichick has created an environment that leaves little to chance.
"We have a lot of guys here who take football really seriously," said special teams ace Larry Izzo, a 12-year veteran who began his career in Miami and was on the 1999 Dolphins team. "Guys here are really focused on what we're trying to do. To me, that's how you get the most of your talent.
"Yeah, some guys might run faster or jump higher, but what does it mean if you don't know what you're supposed to do? You have to be reliable."
Not that the Patriots haven't taken on some problem characters. Former running back Corey Dillon was considered a problem child in Cincinnati before coming to New England to help the team win two of its titles. This season, wide receiver Randy Moss was acquired in an offseason trade after wasting two years in Oakland as an injured malcontent.
The Patriots took defensive back Brandon Meriweather in the first round of last year's draft. Meriweather was involved in a shooting incident and a brawl during his final season at the University of Miami. Safety Rodney Harrison, suspended the first four games of the season after admitting to using human growth hormone, has had his character called in question as he's been repeatedly accused of being dirty on the field. However, that isn't a distraction. Moreover, the Patriots seem to realize that you can't afford to have too many problem guys at one time.
"Guys like that tend to run together," Armstrong said. "If they have a group, they find each other."
Or as Edwards said, "Especially when you lose, all of a sudden, they got a committee."
In New England, Moss is surrounded by serious people who have achieved great success. Unlike in Oakland, where Moss was a de facto leader and often undermined the coaches, he has no such power with the Patriots. There are too many guys with too many rings ahead of him.
Aside from an acquaintance of Moss' recently claiming he harassed her as grounds for a restraining order (Moss has not been arrested), his season with the Patriots has been a huge success. He set the NFL record for touchdown receptions (23) in a season.
"I told people when the Patriots got him that he would have a great year," Edwards said. "That was the kind of environment where he would be great … the Patriots have a great locker room. They have guys who will keep you in line."
That even includes the likes of Faulk, who has been a role player the entire time. Faulk has perfected his craft as a third-down back, serving as a reliable receiver for quarterback Tom Brady.
In short, Faulk has been everything that Edwards expected of him back in 1999. Edwards, then a member of the Tampa Bay coaching staff, worked with Faulk at the Senior Bowl that year.
"You knew right away this guy was a football player, just being around him," Edwards said. "He has great passion for the game. You knew he was going to find a niché and that you could count on him to get two or three plays a game. Maybe not a star, but just a good football player."
More often than not, just a good football player is enough.