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Julio Jones finally humbled by pingpong that has bonded Falcons' locker room

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- The two pingpong tables behind the throng of reporters surrounding Julio Jones’ locker were quiet Thursday.

And strangely, so was the Atlanta Falcons Pro Bowl wide receiver when asked whether he was the best table tennis player on the team.

“I’m OK,” Jones said softly. “I got humbled a little bit yesterday.”

Jones appeared embarrassed, particularly when asked who beat him.

“I can’t tell you all that,” he said. “I can’t tell you.”

But Jones, who has spent the Falcons’ two playoff games humbling defenders with 15 catches for 247 yards and three touchdowns, can tell you how “great” it has been for the NFC champions to have pingpong tables in the locker room.

“It’s helped on hand-eye coordination and just always competing ... every day,” Jones said. “It doesn’t matter what it is. You get the blood going.”

The tables also have fostered the camaraderie and brotherhood that coach Dan Quinn often stresses as important to the team’s success.

Quinn actually had that in mind when he added pingpong to the locker room culture after the room was remodeled before the season. It started with one table and leather couches to encourage players to spend more time interacting.

The lines became so long for pingpong that a second table was added.

“Then it grew to three,” Quinn said. “So, honestly, it’s just been a fun thing for the guys to connect. It goes on all sides of the ball, all different groups competing against one another. So we have a lot of fun with it.”

The competition off the field is just an extension of the competition on the field.

“Usually, when you’re really good on the field, it starts in the locker room first,” Quinn said. “Those are the moments where the guys spend the time on and off the field to grow their relationship, to get it stronger.

“The best teams I’ve been a part of were good in the locker room. You can feel how tight these guys are. They have a real connection to one another, and they take that responsibility seriously.”

As far as running back Tevin Coleman is concerned, the tables indeed played an important role.

“Last year, it was just guys on their phones,” he said. “Nobody was talking, communicating, nothing like that. The tables helped a lot. It got players like me who had never played pingpong involved.”

Defensive end Dwight Freeney wasn’t around last season, but he has noticed the bonding.

“Some guys play cards, some guys play dominoes, some guys play pingpong,” he said. “You’re jelling with people that you probably normally wouldn’t.

“Like defensive linemen and the special-teams snapper. It gives you an opportunity to sit there and talk crap back and forth.”

The reconfiguration of the locker room also included spreading players around so they weren’t lumped together by position, as they previously were.

But the tables get the most attention from media, particularly this week as many from around the country converged on this suburban campus before Atlanta leaves Sunday for Houston to face New England in Super Bowl LI.

The media have learned that, beyond competition, players use the tables to stay loose between meetings and practice, as linebacker Josh Harris and offensive guard Andy Levitre were doing Thursday.

“One of the central themes of our organization is competition, and you see it come to life on the pingpong table, that’s for sure,” quarterback Matt Ryan said.

Asked to evaluate his game, ranked among the better ones on the team, Ryan laughed and said, “Like our team, I think my pingpong game has been improving throughout the year.”

But ask most players, and they’ll tell you that Jones – who had nine catches for 180 yards and two touchdowns In the NFC Championship Game against Green Bay -- rules with the paddle.

Some even suggest Jones has his own paddle, a clear sign that he isn’t a novice.

“He’s just good,” Coleman said. “I don’t play much because I suck, honestly. But every time I see him on the table, he’s winning.

“And he’s always spiking it. That’s all he does is spike it [Coleman makes a few grunts like ones you’d expect to hear on the tennis court]. Nobody can return it.”

Well, somebody did Wednesday.

Jones just isn’t saying who.