Putting All the Elements Together
By JOHN BRANCH
Published: September 15, 2006

Chemistry is the It word.

Kobe Bryant said the United States basketball team needed more of it. Winning next weekend’s Ryder Cup will depend on it. The front-running Yankees and Mets do not want to disrupt it. Tony Kornheiser and Joe Theismann hope to develop it.

Chemistry is applied to just about anything with more than one moving part, from Nascar crews to “Dancing With the Stars.” Actors and news anchors, rock bands and orchestras, offensive lines and power-play units all require chemistry.

A lack of it is blamed for failure. A wealth of it is credited for success. Chemistry has gone from high school subject to cultural cliché.

Good teams have chemistry. Bad teams do not. Behind every underdog’s upset is great chemistry. Behind every underachieving powerhouse is poor chemistry.

In recent years, championship teams like the New England Patriots, the Pittsburgh Steelers, the Detroit Pistons and the San Antonio Spurs were said to have great chemistry. Talent, sure, but mostly chemistry.

No one has ever said, “We finished last, but we had great chemistry.” But Jets quarterback Chad Pennington did say this week, “I hope we continue to take our chemistry to the next level,” suggesting that a chemistry scale may exist.

Many recent discussions of chemistry have focused on Philadelphia and the locker room of the Eagles.

The Eagles went to the N.F.C. championship game and lost three years in a row. Then, in 2004, they signed Terrell Owens, the famously disruptive receiver.

The Eagles reached the Super Bowl, but Owens soon went on a textbook team-wrecking binge. He wanted a new contract. He insulted quarterback Donovan McNabb. He stopped speaking to coaches. The Eagles suspended him after seven games last season. They were 4-3 at the time. Injuries and a locker room divided by Owens’s antics were blamed for a 6-10 season.

Now, the 1-0 Eagles, who play host to the 0-1 Giants on Sunday, believe they have repaired the fractures left by Owens, whose behavior is now a great curiosity in Dallas.

Whether the Eagles return to their perch at or near the top of the N.F.L. will go a long way toward validating the notion of chemistry.

“I’m not saying they all have to be best friends, but there just can’t be a rift in the locker room,” Eagles Coach Andy Reid said Wednesday in a conference call.

Across the N.F.L., chemistry has found a place in the lexicon. It is part of the analysis alongside blocking and tackling.

In New England, the Patriots wonder what the trade of the popular receiver Deion Branch will do to their chemistry, while the Seattle Seahawks’ president, Tim Ruskell, said that Branch “adds to our chemistry.”

In Green Bay, quarterback Brett Favre said the team’s hopes depended on “how we come together chemistry-wise.” In Minnesota, the owner, Zygi Wilf, said that character was “an important part of the chemistry makeup.”

There is so much chemistry talk that coaches might wear lab coats, not warm-up suits.

Jeff Janssen is a North Carolina-based leadership consultant for companies and sports teams. His “Seven C’s of Championship Team Building” are, basically, the components of team chemistry: common goal, commitment, complimentary roles, clear communication, constructive conflict, cohesion and credible leadership.

“There are examples of championship teams that didn’t have great chemistry,” Janssen said. “It’s not absolutely mandatory, but if you’re a coach, a general manager or a player, you’d certainly rather have it.”

That may be especially true in the N.F.L.

“I don’t think any of the teams in the N.F.L. now, with the parity that exists, are great,” Giants kicker Jay Feely said. “You don’t have dynasties. The majority of teams are at that good level, so you have to find that catalyst that will make them be great. A lot of teams sit on that teeter-totter, and one thing or another is going to make them lean one way or the other way.”

The Giants make little attempt at social engineering. There are no field trips to the bowling alley or the movie theater. In the locker room, little thought is given to the assignment of player stalls. They are loosely organized by position, but some, such as the linebackers and cornerbacks, are scattered.

“You can create false chemistry, and everybody can put on a good act, but I really think that good team chemistry comes through time,” center Shaun O’Hara said. “You can’t create it overnight by going bowling.”

Others say that chemistry can be manufactured. “When I was in Pittsburgh, we went to the movies, we went bowling, we did all types of stuff as a team,” receiver Plaxico Burress said. “Here, it’s just work. Maybe things like that would help. Over here, it’s a work, work, work atmosphere. Sometimes it’s a little uncomfortable, it’s just stress.”

But the issue is what helps a team win. Would McNabb and Owens still be teammates had they spent more time bowling?

Giants General Manager Ernie Accorsi said he believed the Giants had too many strong leaders to allow a one-person insurgency — or any players who would lead such a revolt. Players such as Tiki Barber, Michael Strahan and Jeremy Shockey, he said, would counter destructive attitudes.

“If you have leadership at the top, if one guy comes in with a funny attitude, he won’t last long,” Accorsi said. “The players would take care of that.”

Asked about the Giants’ chemistry, Feely paused and scanned the locker room.

“It’s growing; that’s the best way to describe it,” he said. “I think there are certain guys who can be a catalyst to more growth, quicker growth, or they could break it apart if they wanted to. Those are the guys that have to embrace that, and those are the guys that are going to swing the teeter-totter one way or the other.”

He did not mention names, but he did mention the unpredictable power of winning and losing. That comes with any discussion of chemistry in sports. Are teams good because they have chemistry, or do they have chemistry because they are good?

The Giants and the Eagles provide interesting test cases. The Eagles did not alter their roster much, banking mostly on addition by subtraction. The Giants play four of the next five games on the road, starting with trips to Philadelphia and Seattle. It does not take great imagination to see the possibility of more losses than wins.

The tests will come weekly. And, as it is for most teams, the most difficult subject just may be chemistry.