After a 10-win regular season and a postseason berth in the first year of the New York Jets' new regime, Teddy Atlas was asked to participate in the team's off-season strength and conditioning program. How will the acquisition of boxing skills, coming from a renowned boxing trainer and ESPN color analyst, help football players?
"We do basic drills to improve hand speed, foot speed, endurance, calmness and mental awareness," Atlas said this week following a morning workout inside the Jets' practice bubble. "If you are not aware of everything in the ring, you get knocked out. Take that philosophy here and make them more aware of things they need to be aware of."
On Monday, the morning session of 12 included the likes of defensive end Shaun Ellis, linebacker Victor Hobson, kickers Mike Nugent and Ben Graham, versatile Brad Smith and crafty vet Bobby Hamilton.
Atlas, not a yeller but the owner of a direct style, had everyone's attention as he demonstrated combinations and defensive techniques. After each mini-lesson, he moved about the bubble and worked individually with each player. Atlas, who caught punches with his bare hands and was clad in a gray Jets sweatsuit, meticulously reviewed everything from hooks to slips to footwork.
In some of the lighter moments, Ellis, a defensive co-captain, immediately squared off with either Hobson or Smith after he had completed his individual instruction. Atlas, while he sipped a Gatorade, explained how some boxing skills could help a lineman.
"When you throw the punches the right way, you don't raise your elbow," he said while snapping his right hand. "If you raise your elbow, you waste time and you lose power. When a lineman has to keep a guy from coming onto him, he goes straight out and gets more power. He doesn't lose a tenth of a second warning the guy that his arm is coming out because of his elbow. He can take that drill and use it specifically to his position."
Head coach Eric Mangini, a creative mind who is always looking to find an extra edge, has developed a good relationship with Atlas. During a brief afternoon conversation with GM Mike Tannenbaum, Atlas actually paused when he saw Mangini and hugged his friend.
"We talk about a lot of things and I like him," he had said of Mangini, moments before he talked with the top brass about last weekend's mega-fight between Floyd Mayweather and Oscar de la Hoya. "He understands that it's not just about 300-pound guys throwing their weight around. He understands it's about a muscle that weighs about 16 ounces – your brain — and it's about emotion and controlling things."
Control can come in many forms. On this day, Atlas spoke to a linebacker about the importance of where he places the weight on his feet.
"That split-second of changing your weight back to your left might as well be an hour in your business, so keep the weight on both feet."
Close to a year ago, Atlas was on the way to a gym in Germany for a session with Henry Maske. Atlas, an expert commentator drawn out of training retirement for Maske's rematch with Virgil Hill, picked up his phone and Tannenbaum was on the other end.
"I was actually in the gym doing something I don't do anymore – training fighters," he said. "I like the microphone. Nobody can talk back when I'm on ESPN. I am tired of telling men to behave like men. I was a trainer for 30 years, so I got away from it."
Tannenbaum started a friendly overseas conversation, telling the instructor of how former Jets head coach Bill Parcells periodically referred to Atlas in his stories. The Jets were familiar with Atlas' résumé and Mangini, their new head coach, was a fan of the sport.
"Eric is a big fight fan and he is also, more importantly, familiar with your philosophy of being responsible for yourself and making hard choices under pressure," Tannenbaum told Atlas.
An engaged Mangini asked Atlas, a Staten Island, N.Y., native and former Jets season ticket holder, if he could speak to Mangini's players. Atlas was eventually brought to Weeb Ewbank Hall for a Saturday morning visit and opened some eyes with his message.
"The greatest strength you can have is being able to control yourself and make the proper choices under pressure," he told the players. "That is the greatest power anybody can have. That is something that can be obviously developed and needs to be developed, but first it must be understood as an asset."
Then the former mentor of world heavyweight champion Michael Moorer talked to the Jets about the stark differences between winning and survival.
"What is natural — one thing that bonds us and makes us all brothers — is we have a natural instinct to survive," he said. "That has nothing to do with winning. The desire to win is something that is formed, is developed, and it grows. It is something you are always striving for, but it is not natural. It is something that has to be thought of, it is something that has to be disciplined, and it has to be embraced."
In fact, the survival instinct can sometimes obstruct reaching a favorable outcome.
"Surviving is always there and it gets in the way of winning. Surviving doesn't care about whether you are the NFL's leading passer or rusher, or your contract is renewed, or if you are driving a Toyota or a Mercedes," Atlas said. "All it cares about is doing its job, making sure you live, not for today, but for the next minute and then the minute after that and the minute after that."
Atlas looked out into his audience and said that the "Mr. Survival" inside always looked to avoid danger and sidestepped the problem instead of facing it.
"As great as survival is and as important as it is to our existence, it can get in the way of things if we only let it help us exist," he said. "Let's let it help us do more than exist and help us win."
And that is why Atlas is here. He has become part of the spring program, a regimen that features strength coach Sal Alosi's workouts.
"Teddy is a boxing legend," Alosi said. "For us to have the ability to bring him in and train our players with the same techniques and methods that he used to train heavyweight champions, that is just an added benefit for us."
Atlas, co-author of the captivating "From the Streets to the Ring: A Son's Struggle to Become a Man,"said the players have been gentlemen and he's joked with a few that he'll set them up with four-round fights in Detroit. But perhaps the key in all of his messages is that to be productive and effective, you have to be aware.
"A fighter has to be calm enough so he can see things," he said. "Even though he knows to do things — he knows how to throw a hook and he knows how to throw an uppercut — if he's not calm enough to see the openings for it, it's not useful to him. It is not effective to him.
"If I can use that high degree of boxing discipline to help them be a little calmer, a little bit more cognizant and recognize more things going on, then they can take that to their position."