Antrel Rolle lets his inner dog out, and this time the Giants get mauled

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Antrel Rolle. (nfl.com)
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Each time the Giants or Jets play a football game, Capital will write about a home-team member who took part in it. This post is about Antrel Rolle, who played safety in the Giants’ 28-14 loss to the Washington Redskins.

“That dog.”

Giants safety Antrel Rolle thinks good teams need it. He thinks good players need it. It’s that nastiness. It’s that freewheeling abandon that makes football fun, at least for those who, like him, have the instincts and the aggressiveness to be good at it.

He said as much after an unsightly loss last year in Indianapolis, Rolle’s second game in a Giants uniform after signing a lucrative free-agent deal. It was a criticism of Giants coach Tom Coughlin, and not Rolle’s last, it turned out, about the regimented, old-fashioned way in which the NFL’s oldest head coach runs his football team.

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“Things have got to change,” he told reporters. “If you want a team that has a competitive attitude and to have that dog mentality, sometimes you have to let them be that dog. Everything can’t be controlled. And right now, everything is controlled within this organization.”

Antrel Rolle lets that dog loose on the field, and the results are generally very good. He made the Pro Bowl with the Giants last year, just as he did the year before as a member of the Arizona Cardinals. More impressively, he did this while essentially playing two positions, even though his position was listed simply as “safety” both years. With Arizona, he mostly patrolled the deep reaches of the field. With the Giants, he played along the line of scrimmage. He blitzed the quarterback more than all but several defensive backs, and, according to FootballOutsiders.com, led the league with 12.5 quarterback “hurries,” an unofficial stat not kept by the NFL.

But letting that dog loose has its consequences. Like in the fourth quarter of yesterday’s opening game against Washington, with the Giants down 7 points. Washington’s Fred Davis caught a pass on third down, but he fell to the ground, and was well short of the first down. All that was needed was for a Giant to touch Davis with his hand to register the tackle and end the play. But, well, see, that dog was loose, and everything can’t be controlled, so Rolle speared the defenseless Davis with his helmet, resulting in a 15-yard penalty and a first down. The Giants defense never recovered. Several plays later, Washington scored to clinch the game.

Antrel Rolle also lets that dog out with the media. It’s refreshing, actually, especially coming from a player on the Giants, who have made a tradition out of being buttoned up and boring with the press. The organization’s two front men—coach Tom Coughlin and quarterback Eli Manning—have, with respective grouchy and benign demeanors, been leaving reporters disappointed since coming to New York in 2004.

By contrast, Rolle is endearingly but recklessly chatty with the press. While most athletes walk a fine line between being as polite and as uninformative as possible, Rolle actually tries to relate, uninhibited and without a filter. He strives for the honest answer and not the elusive cliché.

This quality got Rolle in trouble last season, and resulted in his being slapped with that passive-aggressively pejorative tag, “controversial.” Rolle’s relationship with the press last year typified a tired and toxic dynamic between athletes and the media: Whenever athletes let their words get away from them, the media plays up the sensationalism to the hilt. This, in turn, reinforces the cycle in which players and coaches are paranoid about their words, and reporters desperately try to solicit from them a salacious soundbite around which to base their stories.

“The media is definitely …” Rolle paused during an interview with the NFL Network at the Pro Bowl last year. “They blow up a spot for me.”

He explained, “I’ve never been a part of something so huge for saying so little.”

Twice last season, Rolle criticized Coughlin, although both times, you got the sense that Rolle’s comments were more the product of excessive gabbiness and not the premeditated attempt to undermine the coach most media portrayed it as. (Later, Rolle tenderly called Coughlin “very honest," and a "caring guy.”)

Another time, while passionately making a case for why home fans shouldn’t boo their team’s players who are risking their bodies on the field, Rolle compared football players to soldiers in Iraq. He wasn’t the first athlete to do this, but he was the latest to reignite this flashpoint of exaggerated indignation, reinforcing the media punchline about how disconnected from reality pro athletes are.

(The radio interview, on WFAN’s Joe Beningo and Evan Roberts show, contained the following priceless exchange:

Rolle: [Repeatedly] You don’t boo your team. You don’t boo your team.

Benigno: But Antrel, it’s booing out of love.)

After a sit-down at the Pro Bowl with Justin Tuck, the upholder of the Giants’ Classy Guys self-image and the unofficial leader of the defense, Rolle has vowed to tone it down this year.

“I’m only answering questions that’s only gonna benefit the team and benefit myself,” he said. “I’m not gonna say anything that’s gonna cause any kind of controversy.”

Rolle’s plan to stay away from controversy hit a snag in August, when he was one of the most prominent players mentioned in a scandal about improper benefits scores of former University of Miami players were alleged to have received. To their credit, local reporters realized that some cash and trips to a strip club Rolle may or may not have gotten as a college kid wasn’t an especially worthwhile thing to talk about. They asked him the obligatory questions for a day and then moved on.

But yesterday, reporters were at his locker again, asking about the penalty. Perhaps that dog produces such an instinctive trance that a player who lets it loose isn’t qualified to render an objective assessment of the action.

“I definitely didn’t lead with my helmet,” Rolle said defiantly. “I have never led with my helmet on any tackle and to say that is crazy.”