You can follow Charles Robinson on Twitter at @YahooSportsNFL.
When DeAngelo Hall(notes) first saw the video, he couldn't help but feel the pangs of familiarity. The Washington Redskins cornerback saw Brandon Marshall(notes) purposely knocking down passes in practice drills. He watched as the Denver Broncos wideout defiantly kicked the football away rather than handing it to a ball boy. But while the rest of the world clucked a tongue in disgust, Hall could only think to himself, "I know that kind of frustration."
"I can't scrutinize him for that, because there was a time when I did some stupid stuff like that, too," Hall said. "I've caught a ball in practice and then punted it, or when the ball boy was coming to get the football, I just threw it. We used to have the river behind our practice facility [in Atlanta] and some of us used to throw balls in the river. I've done some of the same stupid stuff. When you're disgruntled, sometimes it's hard to keep from doing stupid stuff."
With Marshall's situation still tenuous, two players who once wore the black hat for former organizations – Washington's Hall and Baltimore Ravens running back Willis McGahee(notes) – both have some uncommon insight. Both stood in Marshall's shoes not that long ago, and both learned three hard lessons:
1. When it comes to the fight of public perception, a player's reputation will always be left more damaged more than the team's.
2. Almost always, the most winnable course of action is to put your head down and move forward.
3. If there is more to a broken relationship than meets the eye, time will inevitably drag the truth out.
There may be no bigger example than Hall, who only two years ago was painted as one of the league's most selfish and combustible talents. This after video, much like the Marshall situation, framed Hall in a very unflattering moment – a sideline screaming match in 2007 with then-Atlanta Falcons coach Bobby Petrino. Looking back, Hall says that, in a way, he still hasn't fully recovered from that negative moment, which was further compounded by a contract dispute with the Falcons.
Now it's hard for him to look at Marshall and not wonder if he's seeing a guy taking the first few steps down that same treacherous road: a fight with a coach, a contract squabble and a career and life that will be drastically altered.
"I saw it first-hand with coach Petrino," said Hall, who had been penalized three times for 67 yards on the Carolina Panthers' game-winning drive during that Sept. 23 contest. "Now everyone is telling me after the fact, 'Hey, you were right.' Oh yeah? Well, that still cost me $100,000 for blowing up with him on the sideline. That cost me a start. That cost me a place in a city where I had built a life and a relationship with the fan base. And it cost me going through all that stuff in Oakland."
What hasn't been told is the aftermath. While Hall is busy repairing his image in Washington, Petrino has moved back to the college ranks, so few care about what really happened in Atlanta. We don't hear the stories about how absolutely reviled Petrino was by many players, coaches and support staff. We don't hear about the expletive-laced verbal lashings he delivered to a handful of players, including a few dealt to Hall. Or how one executive witnessed Petrino sneaking out of the practice facility one morning with his briefcase – a stealthy departure that was followed several hours later by his introduction as the head coach of the Arkansas Razorbacks.
Why is any of that important? Because it's a prime example of why damaged NFL reputations are not always what they seem. The world was left with a nasty video clip of Hall going after Petrino on the sidelines, but never given the context of the weeks and months of building tension that came before it. In that context, it leaves NFL players looking at Marshall, and even the departure of quarterback Jay Cutler(notes), and wondering if there are things going on behind the scenes that have yet to be revealed.
"You can't comment 100 percent on what Brandon has been going through because everyone doesn't know the whole extent of the situation yet," Hall said "People think I blew up on Coach Petrino for nothing. The truth is, that guy hated me from the second I told him I didn't want to play on offense. I had been practicing on both sides of the ball, and it got to the point where I told him that I just wanted to concentrate on defense. Then his whole attitude toward me changed. But nobody got to see all that. All they saw was me blowing up on him on the sideline. Nobody got to see him calling me a dumb [expletive]. All the stuff he was saying to me, it got to the point where he felt like he could just talk to me and say anything he wanted to."
Only now does Hall realize that firing back in a public setting was what lost him the battle. And he wonders if Marshall's practice tantrum might have ended the public debate for him, too. Because if there's one thing former villains realize, it's that once the scale tips away from them, it's nearly impossible to get it back.
"Once people see or hear something negative, they don't try to see how it could have happened," McGahee said.
He should know. He went through a very nasty public backlash in his final season with the Buffalo Bills. McGahee had taken some shots at the city's nightlife and its female contingent in a variety of interviews. But the unforgivable sin came when he suggested that the Bills relocating to Toronto could be a positive thing. McGahee says now that he was only sharing his view on how different the city was than his hometown of Miami, and that he never really meant any disrespect. But he accepts one undeniable truth: once public perception went against him, there was no getting it back.
"They blew it out of proportion and it just went downhill from there," McGahee said. "People take things and run with it. They took it and ran with it and made it out like I was a bad person."
And Marshall's battle with public perception?
"People are going to come down harder on the player," McGahee said. "People tend to think [players] are selfish."
Certainly a contingent of the media and public put Marshall in that category. The message emanating from the back channel of Denver's franchise has been that coach Josh McDaniels and the new staff are cleaning up the disciplinary mistakes of the past regime – that Marshall has needed to be put in check for a long time. And there is the undeniable aspect of money. Specifically, how Marshall wants a contract extension in the neighborhood of the league's best receivers, and how owner Pat Bowlen is reluctant to give it to him based on Marshall's past problems off the field.
But however the resolution comes, both Hall and McGahee say their own experiences taught them one incontrovertible fact: He'll get his shot at salvation one way or another.
"It was a couple games into my last season with the Falcons before I figured out, 'OK, this just isn't working,' " Hall said. "But I still had to go on with business as usual. I think that Brandon is going to open up his eyes and figure that out. Yeah, the situation might not work and you might not be there much longer, but for the present moment, you've got to protect your interests and your family's interests."
"A chance at redemption is going to come," McGahee added. "If you're a good enough player, regardless of what happens with a team, you'll get a shot. Like the situation with Michael Vick(notes), he's going to bounce back from that. It's just a matter of whether people will ever forgive him."
Sign up now for Fantasy Football '09 – now with free live scoring
- Bobby Petrino