It takes a certain grace. Watching Roddy White at Atlanta Falcons practice, you realize this isn't only a physically gifted athlete. You're looking at a person who's good at navigating people, not just football players.
He pops in and out of stations, shows up in a punt receiving drill to offer loud critique and trots through a walkthrough rendition just to slip through traffic and reappear with the linebackers. Feet away, a coach loudly questions an undrafted free agent defensive lineman's ability to count to one. White's hugging Kroy Biermann.
Mike Smith calls for starters to huddle up. A smiling -- always, always smiling -- White is the last to reach on the offensive side. The huddle breaks, and he helps alight Julio Jones. At the snap, he deploys a gratuitous, against-the-grain spin move on Dominique Franks. After practice, he emerges behind Peria Jerry, who's answering serious questions from serious media, to reel off a series of mock gang signs. All without missing a step.
Steve Harvey had a bit about old soul groups with seven members who shared one mic, each man sprawling through elaborate dance moves before winding up back in place to harmonize. He compared it to rap groups with an equal mic-per-person ratio. White is the former. "Controlled chaos" is the football cliche.
He listens to his coaches, but you get the sense his coaches have accepted White's style of practice just isn't going to resemble that of any other player on the team, save Sean Weatherspoon's most expressive moments. The team has personalities, including Thomas DeCoud, Coy Wire, Michael Turner and so on, but White stands apart.
None of which is to say Roddy fits in the '00s mold of the helpless attention whore wide receiver. He's proud of his blocking, which he honed as a champion wrestler in South Carolina. He big ups Michael Jenkins, Brian Finneran and Paul Petrino for teaching him how to be a pro when he, quote, "wasn't that good." Jim Mora tried to buddy up to him, but he responded better to straight-up, tough-love assessments from Joe Horn.
Forcing a fumble isn't a diva move (though doing it two years in a row against the same team, a team that daddied the Falcons for at least a couple decades in the NFC West, is a little fancy), nor was his postgame crediting of Harvey Dahl for being there to scoop that ball up.
Looks like a teammate to me. One of the only times I recall seeing him being corralled by Smith was after he fired back at some Ravens players following a cheap shot on a sliding Matt Ryan. Roddy was furious. His most controversial move ever, revealing a "FREE MIKE VICK" shirt after scoring a touchdown, was, again, in defense of his quarterback.
By comparison, a dustup with Aqib Talib had Buccaneers players cussing the grinning White. He gave Talib the same trollface he served reporters who asked whether he really did push off Josh Wilson on that game-winning touchdown catch. We all like to push buttons.
Meanwhile, the coach questioning that one player's mathematical talents: defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder. The loudest voice in Flowery Branch and the crispest mustache for miles. The best defensive coordinator in Falcons history, and maybe the second-best behind Erk Russell in Georgia Bulldogs history. Part of U.S. Route 29 should be named after him. Whichever part takes the least crap.
His mustache extends beyond the corners of his upper lip, but don't let that touch of recklessness fool you. He sees everything, correcting his players before the offense even breaks huddle and repeatedly eying through cop shades a media member who had a camera by his side during a no-photos walkthrough. Nobody else seemed to notice that camera.
His system is intricate, always among the league leaders in zone blitzes. Blitzing a safety while dropping John Abraham into coverage? Yes, and repeat it until it's perfect. New guy Ray Edwards called Minnesota's scheme "vanilla" by comparison. Again, football people might call it "controlled chaos."
When I think Atlanta Falcons, I sort of think of Andre Rison's impression of James Brown, the James Brown, taking a handoff during a 1991 Jerry Glanville practice as MC Hammer shared moves and Scott Case called for a black Georgia Dome field, all of which Glanville would've happily tried in 1977 too. But I sort of think of Thomas Dimitroff's coiled-cobra roster management, Smith's pokerfaced injury reports and Norm Van Brocklin accusing opponents of Communism. It's one part Deion Sanders' Jheri curl, one part Matt Ryan's Airtran commercial. It's Ray Buchanan's Super Bowl guarantee, Ray Buchanan's desperate pass coverage, Ray Buchanan's gospel rap album and Ray Buchanan renting out his house for a banned Nelly video.
There's Roddy White having as much fun as hard work allows while Brian VanGorder gnaws an inattentive defensive back alive before a play's even begun. We wonder what would happen if BVG were asked to coach someone like Deion, whether White would get national attention if the other Pro Bowlers on this roster did too.
The Falcons have a historic identity beyond just the Dimitroff era, and in VanGorder and White it's easy to see strains of the franchise's best elements. In 1998, the Falcons won the NFC by giving the same guy the ball on every play and then dancing about it. How can a team this boring be this fun?