The only thing flying around more frequently than Tavon Austin at Rams Park back in August were the pies. Veteran defensive end Chris Long led a small cell of players sneaking through the building and around the practice field, one with a camera another with a creme pie, to produce a highlight reel of SmackCam takes.
It was all part of the lighter atmosphere that defined the franchise under head coach Jeff Fisher. It was fun. But there's a fine line between fun and harassment or hazing, now the topic du jour in the NFL.
"You guys witnessed firsthand the pie thing with ‘Cort' and Chris and stuff like that," Fisher said earlier this week. "It's OK to have fun."
Eventually SmackCam got to a point where Fisher stepped in and shut it down. Not because he doesn't like fun, but because it's his job to police that border between fun and too far.
"It's my job to make sure that you keep a lid on things," Fisher said. "The pie thing got to the point where it's probably enough now because someone's going to scheme something else up."
The league's culture of hazing has never been a real secret. Fans heard stories of rookies being humiliated at lunch, stuck buying surf and turf dinners or lugging a veteran's pads around in the summer heat. Richie Incognito's pernicious pursuit of Dolphins teammate Jonathan Martin thrust the league's culture of hazing into the spotlight.
As ugly as that incident is, a number of former players have come out in defense of hazing rookies as a right of passage.
Vikings defensive end Jared Allen explained his stance on hazing as a practice of indoctrination, a necessary step for rookies acclimatizing to professional football.
"From a player's standpoint, I think some of the younger guys come in and there's a sense of entitlement, and you lose that work ethic, you lose that true veteran-led locker room sometimes," Allen said. "You got to know who you're dealing with. You can't treat everyone the same. You can't treat every rookie the same. Some guys are more sensitive than others, but it's a sign of respect."
Jeff Fisher disagrees.
"We make it clear to the rookies and the veterans that this is a business environment and the rookies are here to help us win and everyone here is treated with respect," he said when asked about hazing in his locker room.
Fisher's stance is a reminder of the coach's role in leading a team. Dolphins head coach and parade of pundits have taken a different stance, one where the players run the locker room more directly. That ignorance of what goes has Philbin's Dolphins, already short on offensive linemen, left without two Week 1 starters.
"I go through the locker room," Fisher said. "I talk to the players individually and walk through stretch and have got coaches and equipment guys. There's nothing that's going on that we don't know about."
Based on the public conversations in the wake of the Dolphins incident, Fisher's in the minority, but he's clearly doing the right thing.
The media and players refer to Fisher as a "players coach" all the time. He played in the NFL and understands the realities of what it's like for current players. You see that reflected in his handling of injured players, not pushing them through sore hamstrings in August. He's also made it clear that he doesn't tolerate hazing, save for a supervised bat relay at the end of training camp and the occasional rookie carrying an extra helmet off the field.
Despite the insistence from Allen and others, hazing doesn't bring a team together or make players better. Practice does that. Games do that. The shared experience of training for and playing football games is what makes a team and its players better and more cohesive. As Matt Ufford pointed out at SB Nation on Tuesday, the Marine Corps figured that out a lot sooner than the NFL did. And this was a branch of the service where hazing was an excepted and accepted part of the culture.
Fisher deserves credit for understanding that too.
"I think it's important to come in here and look forward to coming to work and have fun," Fisher said. "But, respect factors are the things we preach here."