Matt Hasselbeck rarely is at a loss for words.
The veteran quarterback is well-spoken and engaging by any standard. He has a rare ability to provide perspective through specific examples and to illuminate with humor and insight.
Yet three months ago, shortly before the Tennessee Titans opened the preseason at his former home city of Seattle, with the eyes and ears of every teammate trained on him … nothing.
“I wasn’t really planning on speaking,” he said. “No one spoke. I just kind of got shoved in the middle and it was like, ‘Oh you should have something to say, you used to play here.’ I don’t know. I got a little emotional or something, and I just had nothing.
“Then someone was just like, ‘Whatever, on three. One. Two. Three. Break.’ ”
Take any NFL stadium on a Sunday afternoon, any college stadium on Saturday, any high school stadium on Friday, or anytime, anyplace two teams get together in helmets and shoulder pads — and it will happen.
Shortly before the contest starts the team gathers in a circle and someone speaks up. It’s called the breakdown, and Hasselbeck’s experience in Seattle, where he was a starter for 10 seasons, was typical in many ways except, of course, his silence.
Players agree that the whole thing is unplanned and unscripted. Players don’t pick someone days in advance to seize that moment, thus the one who ends up front and center does not have time to write a proper speech. Hasselbeck, in fact, compared it to a dance circle at a wedding reception — somebody gets shoved into the middle and it’s time to do your thing.
The idea, though, is for someone to provide motivation and focus with a brief, heartfelt pep talk.
“Even from Pee Wees you kind of have a breakdown and try to get yourself going, get up for the game,” wide receiver Nate Washington said. “I definitely think it’s important for that to happen. …
“At the time, I think you can sort of feel the mood of the guys and what’s going on in their heads. I really think it’s just saying what they might feel or you might feel at the time. It’s really not scripted. It’s just whatever is on your heart at that time that you feel would be best for the guys to hear.”
Apparently experience helps.
Washington, an eighth-year veteran, consistently was named as one of the best breakdown speakers among the Titans in a small, unscientific locker-room poll. Others whose name came up regularly were ninth-year safety Jordan Babineaux, 11th-year linebacker Will Witherspoon and 12th year offensive lineman Steve Hutchinson. Hasselbeck certainly has done his share.
Second-year quarterback Jake Locker apparently showed promise early this season before a shoulder injury sent him to the sideline for more than a month.
“I think it’s kind of the last time the team gets together and kind of makes sure everybody’s mind is in the right place, makes sure we’re all on the same page and everybody is ready to go,” Hutchinson said. “Football is a game of habits. You do the same thing at the same time, and it’s kind of the last little thing on the checklist that you do before you get ready to play the game.
“Somebody usually says something and gets everybody wired in and ready for the game.”
The specific words don’t always matter. Often it is the attitude that speaks volumes.
“[Babineaux] will be in there barking,” cornerback Jason McCourty said.
Then again, the breakdown speech often includes words not everyone likes to hear.
“Some guys just come in there and just drop curse words, and it sounds tough, but it’s not tough,” Hasselbeck said. “It’s hard to do it without cursing, and I almost never swear.”
A lot of times, the circumstances surrounding the game will dictate the intensity of the moment. A prime-time contest, such as the Titans’ 26-23 victory over Pittsburgh on a Thursday night, is different from a typical Sunday game. The history with a particular opponent and even extraneous factors all can play a part as well.
“Sometimes it’s awesome and valuable, and something needs to be said,” Hasselbeck said. “Other times words don’t need to be said. When it’s a great atmosphere like it was against Pittsburgh this year, it just feels natural and fun and exciting. Other times, where the stands aren’t really full yet, they’re playing something like Jimmy Buffett, ‘Margaritaville,’ it’s sort of forced, maybe and it’s not as awesome.
“There’s been times I’ve been really pleased with what I’ve said, and how I’ve said it. There have also been some major fails. The biggest fail was this year at Seattle.”
Granted, it was just a preseason game — the first one, at that — but the Titans lost 27-17 that day.
It is impossible to say whether a really effective breakdown speech can mean the difference between winning and losing or if it is worth anything in terms of the final score or what happens during the course of play.
It is, however, as much a part of the game day ritual as the coin toss. Typically, position groups will conduct a brief, low-impact breakdown before they begin pregame drills. Others might form as the team continues to come together throughout warm-ups.
The moment of truth occurs after the coin toss, shortly before the action begins in earnest. That’s when all the players come together and try to achieve a like mindset for what is to come over the four quarters that follow.
“I think there’s value in it,” Washington said. “I think it’s good for a guy who has some respect around the room to get the guys going. I think it’s really just speaking your heart.”
Regardless of what is said, how it is said or who says it, the best ones make the same point.
“When you’re really, really invested, and you’ve given a lot to it, and you’ve really put so much into being successful and winning a game and fighting through injury or whatever, you’re not going home with a loss,” Hasselbeck said. “You’re refusing to lose. That happens sometimes where you basically want to grab everybody by the throat and bring them with you in that mindset.
“I think our team does a nice job of having the right amount of real authentic enthusiasm with a little false enthusiasm. At the end of the day it’s all about the noise you make with your pads hitting guys, not the talking.”