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Saints, other playoff teams know how to handle problem players

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NEW ORLEANS -- With so many New York Jets players calling out receiver Santonio Holmes for his boorish antics since Sunday's season-ending loss at Miami, I have to wonder: Why did they wait until the season was over? If he was such a "cancer," as one teammate supposedly called him, why didn't they intervene and get him with the program when they still had a chance at success?

Why wait until the scab is fully off to realize the wound is bleeding?

NFL locker rooms are cauldrons of combustion, where hurt feelings and attitudes are constantly on the verge of boiling over. Yet look at the teams in the playoffs this season and those on the outside looking in, like the Jets and Buccaneers. The 12 playoff teams are mostly drama-free, because when players step out of line, other players get them back on point. If that doesn't work, the coach intervenes. It's what accountability and leadership are all about.

I've spent a lot of time around the New Orleans Saints over the past few years, and while the Saints have had their share of personnel changes, there hasn't been much turnover in persona. The Saints have a ton of ego, for sure, but not egos. Every player wants to shine but every player knows his role. I talked to New Orleans running back Pierre Thomas on Tuesday about his team's chemistry.

"We're unselfish," Thomas said. "This organization has done a good job of bringing the right people here and [Coach] Sean Payton and his staff have made sure we all know we're in this together."

The cog in all of this is quarterback Drew Brees. Brees sets the tone around the clock. He's the best player but also the hardest working one. He never tries to upstage his teammates, although outside of New Orleans, most people couldn't name five other Saints' players besides Brees.

When he broke Dan Marino's passing record a couple weeks ago, Brees paid respect to the linemen who kept him upright, the running backs who block and gain yardage on the ground to set up the play-action passing game and the receivers who catch the ball. He showed gratitude to everyone down to the equipment guys.

Brees also suspended contract talks until after the season. He's taking a risk that an injury in the playoffs could fiscally devalue his MVP-caliber season, but he put his team before himself. It hasn't gone unnoticed by teammates, either.

"Drew has our back like we have his," Thomas said. "Once you see something like that and know he's a guy who's not afraid to take on challenges and then, when he makes a mistake, he tells guys, 'Don't be afraid to tell me: I'm not perfect.' He owns up to it all. He's not afraid to admit when he makes a mistake and he won't blame anybody else. That's a true leader and that's the example we follow."

Should a teammate get wayward, Saints players bring him back in, usually without much consultation, Thomas said. I'm sure the same thing happens in Pittsburgh and Baltimore and New England and Houston and San Francisco and Atlanta and other places where pride and professionalism outweigh individuality.

It's why some teams, when it comes to player acquisition, seek out guys who were team captains in high school and college and had more merit to the rite than just being the best player on his team. Every team wants players with high character, but it's easy to sell out if a guy is an athletic freak with enough charm to convince even the most strident cynic that there's some good inside. That's OK if you have a model in place and enough veterans in-house who won't tolerate too much nonsense.

It's not OK when guys of questionable character are thrown into a locker room where nobody holds them accountable until it's too late. That's an atmosphere that's just as rotten as the bad apple, and it's why there are 12 teams still playing while others are in a state of chaos.

Follow Steve Wyche on Twitter @wyche89.

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