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Falcons’ ping pong battles are more important than you may think

The ping pong competition helps Dan Quinn establish his culture of winning.

NFL: NFC Divisional-Seattle Seahawks at Atlanta Falcons Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

For the Atlanta Falcons, the ping pong battles in the locker room are bigger than just something fun for me to watch and tweet about. Those competitions between teammates have fostered camaraderie and the competitive spirit Quinn wants to instill in this team.

Over the course of the offseason, the team redesigned the locker room. Rows of lockers down the center of the room were removed, and instead of being arranged by position groups, players were situated next to guys they might not talk to if they weren’t their locker neighbor.

That was all part of Quinn’s grand plan.

“Our locker room changed, number one,” Quinn said. “So we’re not as connected as we could be, so it was just one more avenue for our team to see how close we could get.”

The team replaced that row of lockers in the center of the room with three ping pong tables and some nice leather recliners to facilitate interaction. It worked.

“Not only do they want to spend time together out of the building, but in the building too,” Quinn said. “Having that competition is something as small as ping pong, just to go battle for it. We’ve got three minutes until the next meeting, we’re going to play a game for three.”

They do battle for it. When you talk to players about it, they light up, and their competitive spirits are on display.

Tight end D.J. Tialavea told me on the record this week that he’s the best ping pong player in the locker room.

“And put this on record. D.J. Tialavea is the best ping pong player in this locker room,” Tialavea said. “You’ve got to go ask around. My ping pong game is on another level right now.”

I’ve watched quite a bit of ping pong this season, and Tialavea is good. His teammates, however, disagree about whether or not he sits atop the ping pong power rankings heading into the NFC Championship game.

Cornerback Jalen Collins narrowed it down to a top three, and Tialavea didn’t make the cut.

“Yeah, it’s got to be between Ju, Matt Ryan or Weems,” Collins said. “That’s who I would say.”

Who does wide receiver Nick Williams think is the best at ping pong? Well, Nick Williams is at the top of his own personal power rankings. Interestingly enough, it’s the same story for cornerback Brian Poole.

“Poole, Poole and Poole,” Poole said. “The top three spots. I’m taking them.”

Linebacker Philip Wheeler didn’t want to commit to naming any of his teammates the top ping pong player in the locker room. His perspective certainly fits with Dan Quinn’s competitive spirit.

“I’ve got the potential to be the best. I can’t say (someone else would be the best) knowing that I have the potential to be the best,” Wheeler said. “I can’t crown nobody else when I know that I’d try to end up beating them.”

I spoke with the team’s starting safeties, Ricardo Allen and Keanu Neal, and they gave me some insight into the best ping pong competitors in the locker room.

Allen said Julio Jones is the team’s best at ping pong. Keanu didn’t care for that perspective.

Who’s the best, according to Neal?

“Name starts with a Ke, end with an anu,” Neal said. Well, that’s pretty clear.

Neal went on to say, though, that Julio Jones, Josh Harris, Patrick DiMarco, Tialavea and then Williams are the top ping pong competitors this season.

“Let them know,” Tialavea yelled as he walked through the locker room.

Long snapper Josh Harris was more than happy to fill me in on the ping pong hierarchy in the locker room.

“Julio and I have gone back and forth. The series is tied one to one,” Harris said. “But neither one of those games have been to 21. They’ve been serve every two to 11, which I understand is traditional, but you wouldn’t just play one to 11. You could play a series of them for a full regulation table tennis match. So I prefer a game to 21, serve every five. That gives you a little more. It’s a full game.”

Still, Harris has Jones in his top five.

“So Julio — myself, Julio, Matt Ryan, and then the next two — the next two, I would probably go with — I haven’t seen some of the other receivers play recently,” Harris said. “I think Aldrick’s kind of turned a corner in his game. So I may have to throw him in there, but I’ll be honest with you, I’m going to have to throw Bosher in there as well. I may hold the series over all. Bosher and I, we have some matchups every week. We go back and forth.”

Matt Ryan has made his way into players’ top five ping pong players lists a few times, and right tackle Ryan Schraeder confirmed it.

“I played against him, and I only scored like two points, and he just disgraced me,” Schraeder said. “So I’m sure he felt good about that. I thought I was good up until that point. Obviously not. I’ve played Julio, Patrick, and they’re pretty good, and I’ve kept up with them.”

Quinn’s plan to foster connection and healthy competition in the locker room is working, and ping pong is a big part of it.