FLOWERY BRANCH – The man whose behavior former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue once referred to as “unprofessional, offensive to NFL fans and unbecoming an NFL player,” was sitting at a table eating his soup.
Bryan Cox is 46 years old. His scalp and beard have specks of gray and he wakes up every morning with those middle age aches. When asked if he misses playing football, he responds, “No, because I know I’m old.”
But if there is one man who can help the Falcons in their need for a personality transplant, it’s probably Bryan Cox.
He was an NFL linebacker for 11 years. He won a Super Bowl near the end of his career in New England and played in three Pro Bowls during his younger-leg days in Miami. But he’s probably better known for tendency to play, and act, on the edge — a frequent football euphemism that possibly translates to crazy, depending on who’s doing the psychoanalysis.
“You have to play within the rules, but you also have to be your own referee,” said Cox, the Falcons’ new defensive line coach. “So if somebody’s out there doing something dirty, instead of crying to the referee about it, go take care of it. Handle it like a man.”
“Sometimes I went a little over the edge. I didn’t know where the edge was.”
“Off the field, nobody can say a bad thing about me. But on the field I was totally different. Once I suited up in that armor, I was the baddest son of a bitch out there.”
“I might have split personality disorder. I have like nine personalities.”
Most great athletes have a dual personality. NFL players can’t be completely sane or they wouldn’t survive. The game is four quarters of car crashes. Abnormal personalities like Cox often thrive in that chaos. He disrupted offenses. He rallied teammtes. He was smart. He was a leader. He played for three of the most respected head coaches in history — Don Shula, Bill Parcells, Bill Belichick — and was a team captain for all three.
“When I interviewed him he told me he was the captain of every team he was on, even going back to junior high,” Falcons coach Mike Smith said. “That says a lot about how people gravitate to him.”
Mike Nolan, the Falcons’ defensive coordinator, had Cox as a player with the New York Jets and an assistant coach with Miami. “He wasn’t our best player with the Jets but he was the leader,” Nolan said.
He’ll need to lead in Atlanta. The Falcons’ defense last season rarely pressured the quarterback, accounted for only 32 sacks (fourth worst in NFL), allowed a opponents’ quarterback efficiency rating of 102.4 (second worst) and 135.8 yards per game rushing (second worst).
The team has made some personnel changes up front, adding Paul Soliai and Tyson Jackson in free agency and Ra’Shede Hageman in the draft. But attitude will need to go a long way to make up for the seeming lack of pass rushers.
“You have to have a certain mindset when you step between the lines,” Cox said.
He wasn’t athletically superior as a player. He went to Western Illinois and was drafted in the fifth round. But he was tough. He grew up amid crime and poverty in East St. Louis (“I come from dirt. I from nothing.”) and often fought because, in his words: “You either had to be able to fight or run, and I couldn’t run.”
Cox estimates he had “60 or 70” street fights. He lost twice: to his older brother (“I didn’t want to hit him back.”) and to his best friend (“He took my little brother’s bike. My big brother told me to beat him up, but I let him hit me a few times.”)
So much for his rare episodes of restraint.
The NFL fined Cox multiple times for amounts totalling about $150,000 for fighting, spitting, cursing at officials, throwing his helmet, challenging the entire Cincinnati bench to a fight – actually, he wasn’t fined for that, it was just funny; well, not to the league –and giving the double-barrel middle-finger salute to fans in Buffalo.
He also sued the NFL for not providing a safe work environment — and succeeded in getting a $10,000 fine for his pre-game obscene gestures in Buffalo lowered to $3,000 because, he later explained, he had been taunted with racial slurs. And worse.
“I had the FBI sitting in front of my hotel room because I had death threats and they were throwing triple-a batteries at me,” Cox said. “People don’t talk about that. They just talk about the act itself. It was to the point where I couldn’t leave my room and go to dinner with my teammates because when I went to Buffalo people said they would kill me.
“At the end of the day, I probably shared some of the blame for what happened. But you live and you learn.”
In 1986, then commissioner Tagliabue fined him one game check ($82,352) for shouting obscenities and making an obscene gesture at an official. He then lined up for an extra point without his helmet. Tagliabue wasn’t amused. “Your misconduct in last Sunday’s game was again unprovoked, unprofessional, offensive to NFL fans and unbecoming an NFL player,” the commissioner said in a statement.
Cox said some of the Falcons’ players were joking with him the other day after watching a YouTube video of him challenging the Bengals – all of them – to a fight because he felt Miami’s kicker had been cheapshotted. “Honestly, I don’t remember most of the things I did,” he said, smiling.
He said he doesn’t have any regrets. He calls them “teaching moments.”
But he added, “The biggest thing I learned from my acts was that while they didn’t necessarily hurt me, they hurt my family. They had to listen to the questions, ‘Why’s he doing that?’”
Because in a strange way, that’s what worked for him. The Falcons would benefit from a little more time on the edge.
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