The Miami Dolphins this season lived through a well-publicized and much-discussed incident between players that saw tackle Jonathan Martin leave the team and guard Richie Incognito suspended indefinitely for alleged bullying.
The Cleveland Browns avoided that kind of problem this season and players said it happened in large part because the team's player engagement representative is Aaron Shea, a more than capable former player. Coach Rob Chudzinski even praised Shea's efforts one day during a weekly news conference without even being asked.
"He does an outstanding job," said left tackle Joe Thomas, a team captain. "He's got a number of years of experience playing in the NFL. He knows what it's like being in the locker room, going through a rookie season with all the stresses of family, football, a new team and a new city.
"He understands the pressure of going out on Sunday and succeeding. He understands all the offseason pressure. He understands all the things the players can get into. That's why he's so valuable."
Many teams don't use the word "engagement," but instead refer to Shea's role as player development or player relations. The job requires multitasking, from helping making sure players find housing to keeping a careful eye on the locker room culture to helping players deal with a sudden influx of money.
Shea was a fourth-round draft pick out of Michigan by the Browns in 2000, and he played for the Browns from 2000-2005. He went to San Diego as a free agent in 2006, but a back injury ended his career. Because he was in a locker room, he understands the locker room culture, and players said because of that he was able to avoid or defuse potentially difficult situations.
"He can lead guys and show guys the proper way to handle those stresses and pressures that you're going to go through, not only in your rookie season but throughout your entire career," Thomas said. "And on top of that, he understands what locker room culture is. And he understands how to tell guys how to back off, to say: ‘These are the things you're expected to do, these are things you don't have to do and you can stand up for yourself.'"
It's probably no coincidence that Garrett Gilkey -- a former victim of bullying -- did not have his long hair cut off in preseason the way many rookies do. Gilkey said there were few instances of hazing in the locker room that he saw, and he said very few players had their heads shaved -- one because he volunteered.
Shea took over for Jerry Butler, one of the better player engagement guys in the league. Safety T.J. Ward said Butler's departure raised his eyebrows, but added: "Shea's been great."
"He has that first-hand knowledge and experience [as an ex-player,]" Ward said. "We trust him. Shea, he does a great job with us. He speaks both sides. He balances himself equally with the [front office] and the players.
"I know everybody on this team loves what he does."