On October 30, 2002, New York Jets head coach Herman Edwards took the podium for his usual mid-week press conference with the media, perhaps unaware that he was about to unleash the soundbite that would forever define him. Edwards' team was in a bad way, a season was going down the drain, and it was up to the coach to deliver a message.
Boy, did he ever.
"You PLAY to WIN the GAME" would define Edwards more than anything else -- more than a 10-year career as a defensive back that included a Super Bowl appearance and the fumble recovery that sparked the "Miracle at the Meadowlands," more than a combined eight years as the head coach of the Jets and Kansas City Chiefs, and more than his current position as an analyst for ESPN.
"It was said and intended this way, and it wasn't intended for a commercial," Edwards told a Houston radio station in February about the meaning of the phrase. "You have an obligation as a player -- as an athlete at any level -- and it doesn't matter what sport it is. When you sign on, you sign on. You prepare that week to go win. I don't care about your schedule, or how many people got hurt -- it doesn't matter. You owe it to the people in the building and guys in the huddle to prepare yourself to win. That's the most important thing that week. My dad was in the service for 27 years. He used to tell me, 'It's not about tomorrow -- it's about today. What are you going to do today a little bit better than what you did yesterday?'
"Don't tell me about tomorrow! I don't want to hear about tomorrow!"
Edwards' voice rose in volume and inflection, just as it did at the podium that day a decade ago. Judy Battista of the New York Times was the reporter whose question prompted Herm's most famous soundbite. 10 years ago, Battista was a determined sports reporter for the Times. She's now the NFL writer for the paper, and she remembered that day as if it just happened.
"The Jets were 2-5 at the time, and they had just lost to Cleveland. I mean, it was bad. And it was the Wednesday after that game, during his regular press conference. We were asking questions, and my question that sort of set him off was, 'Do you have to talk to your team about not giving up on the season?' And he took it from there," she recalled with a laugh.
"I have always wondered, and I've never talked to Herm about this, but how much of it was spontaneous, and how much of it did he come into the room knowing he was going to deliver a message to the team? I don't know how much of that was sort of measured and contemplated before, and how much of it was spontaneously reacting to the question."
I asked Battista if this was similar to what former New York Giants head coach Jim Fassel did when he delivered his famous "shoving my chips to the center of the table" speech, and she concurred. Fassel said that in November of 2000, and the Giants went to the Super Bowl that year.
"Exactly -- where it was clear that he was coming in with a predetermined message. I assume that he knew he had to deliver some sort of message, and he was waiting for an opening."
The quote didn't seem like a big deal at the time -- at least not to the reporters on duty. It was just one more day with a highly quotable coach.
"We were just sitting there, and I was a regular beat writer then, so he was interacting with all of us, as he always did. Herm's press conferences were not just Herm standing up there, delivering the address --they were pretty interactive. Honestly, I don't even remember what the next question was; I just remember that the press conference wound up, and we all said, 'Okay -- I guess we have our story today!'"
Interestingly enough, Battista didn't even use the famous quote in her story, which ran the next day -- "You PLAY to WIN the GAME!!!" didn't really catch fire until it hit the airwaves, What Battista caught, however, was a coach very much compelled to tell his players that they were not out of the race, no matter how dismal things may have looked at the time.
"There is no situation so dire it would make Jets Coach Herman Edwards curse," she wrote. "But to Edwards, 'quit' is a four-letter word, and when he was asked today if there were any risk of the Jets giving up as the season spirals toward disaster, he reacted with more anger than he had previously displayed publicly in his season and a half as head coach."
''Oh no, they're not going to do that,'' [Edwards] said. ''Not on my watch. It's inexcusable. Don't even think about it. It's called being a professional. They're going to do that.''
If they are not professional, Edwards said, ''coaches, players, management, anybody, then they need to go somewhere else.''
He added: ''They're going to conduct themselves that way. When I see they don't, everybody will know about that. I will make that decision. That's unthinkable for me to even think that.''
''That's unthinkable to me, that you have an opportunity in your lifetime to be a professional, that you would think about quitting. You don't quit in sports. You retire. You don't get to quit. It's not an option. I don't need to relay it to them. They know who their coach is. They know they've got no choice. When you lose, people start assuming they quit. This team ain't doing that. Retirement? Yes. Quitting? No. You don't do that in sports. It's ridiculous.''
Those who thought it was ridiculous that the Jets could somehow rebound from that terrible start were about to get an education in the value of Edwards' motivation. The Jets finished the 2002 season with a 7-2 run, beat the Indianapolis Colts in the wild-card round of the playoffs, and lost to the Oakland Raiders in the divisional frame. It was one of the few cases in recent memory where a team's drastic turnaround can be tied to one specific quote -- whether intended or not.
Despite what the tone of the quote may have some thinking, Battista told me that Edwards always got along well with the media covering the Jets, and went out of his way to make their jobs easier.
"The whole time he was there, he and his staff were really open and accessible to us," she said. "To their credit, they always tried to educate us on football. When things went wrong, the coordinators would come in and explain things. We were allowed to watch entire practices when Herm was there, which as you know, is completely foreign [these days]. His relationship with the media was always really good, and very open. They would do things like come in and show us film -- not from that game week, but before the season -- and educate us about the Cover-2 defense, and things like that.
"Their attitude seemed to be that the more we knew about football, the more accurately we could cover the team, which is true. I wish more people thought that way."
Battista remembers no specific response from her colleagues after the presser, but she recalled that Edwards did receive a bit of fallout from his most important boss.
"Herm told me much later that when he got home that day, his wife asked him, 'Were you yelling at Judy?' And his response was, "Oh, Judy knew what i was doing.'"
Did she expect the quote to have the legs it's had?
"No! How could you expect that? Just sitting there, you certainly didn't expect that they were going to the playoffs that year. And that's what gave it more life. If they'd finished 7-9 and not gone to the playoffs, would he have ever heard of this again? I think not -- it would have been a one-time thing. You could have never imagined that it would be on a beer commercial and all that. No way."
Edwards and Battista still converse quite frequently, and the former coach is still a compelling source of football information.
"I talked to him this week, for a story I'm working on -- nothing to do with this. I talk to him every few weeks, probably. Because as you know, he does the whole analyst thing, so he's really up on the game. I always like that he can give you a perspective not just as a former coach, but as a former player -- he still has insight into how players think.
"And as you have seen, he's very quotable."
There's no doubt about that. And from that day forward, the chances were good that any team looking to go from worst to first would hear "You PLAY to WIN the GAME!!!" at some point in time.
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