December must be the cruelest of months for Takeo Spikes. All those years, playing all those meaningless games, while so many other players around the NFL are in the midst of exciting playoff races with must-win showdowns just ahead, and Super Bowl dreams still alive and well.
In January, Spikes can at least get away from it all if he wants, choosing to watch or not watch as another postseason unfolds. But in December, the regular season's final month, Spikes is still obliged to get up every day and go to work, preparing for games that grow less important every week, all the while knowing he won't be playing once again when the stakes are the highest.
Spikes, the San Diego Chargers inside linebacker, has the most mind-boggling streak in NFL history going, and yet it is rarely spoken of, other than being quietly noted whenever he joins a new team. Now in his 14th NFL season, just days shy of his 35th birthday, Spikes has never been on a playoff team. He's not just one of the many still chasing a Super Bowl ring or at least an appearance in the league's ultimate game.
Though now on his fifth team, having played on both coasts and points in between, Spikes has yet to suit up in a single playoff game. His 198 career regular-season games without a playoff trip rank first in that dubious category among active players, as the wild-card round, divisional round and conference title game have all been beyond Spikes' grasp, year after frustrating year.
"It's been an emotional rollercoaster,'' said Spikes, speaking of a Chargers season that continues to spiral out of control, but sounding as if he was summing up his painful NFL experience in its entirety. "I love this game so much, and I give it my all. The only thing I ever felt like is if you treat it right, it will treat you right, and it's always truthful. That aspect is what keeps me coming back.''
Spikes has been to the Pro Bowl twice and been named All-Pro once. He went 13th overall -- maybe the unlucky 13th -- to Cincinnati in the 1998 draft, and he has beaten long odds just to last as a starter and key contributor into a 14th NFL season. But the longer odds? Five teams, in both conferences, and never even backing into so much as one lousy wild-card berth? Even a one-and-done playoff trip for a No. 6 seed would represent a career mountaintop experience for Spikes, but it continues to elude him in the most heart-wrenching of ways.
Try wrapping your mind around what had to happen to the law of averages for "the Curse of Takeo Spikes'' to unfold:
• Drafted in the same first round that saw talents like Randy Moss, Peyton Manning, Fred Taylor and Charles Woodson selected, Spikes played his first five seasons for the downtrodden Bengals, who finished in last place three times and never fared better than 6-10 while he was in Cincinnati.
• Joining Buffalo from 2003-06, Spikes played on three more losing teams, with the only exception being the 2004 Mike Mularkey-coached third-place Bills who finished 9-7 and missed the playoffs on the last day of the season, being knocked off at home by a Pittsburgh team that had already clinched its playoff seed and started backup quarterback Tommy Maddox in place of injured rookie Ben Roethlisberger, as well as resting several other key starters.
• Then came 2007, and a season in Philadelphia, with the perennial playoff-qualifying Eagles. Except that Andy Reid's club, having made the postseason in six of the past seven years, winning at least 10 games every time, slipped to 8-8 and last place in the NFC East that season. That's when Spikes first had to suspect what he might be up against with this playoff drought. And did we mention Philadelphia made the playoffs in 2008, 2009 and 2010, the three seasons that followed Spikes' lone year in town?
• In 2008-2010, Spikes played and played well for San Francisco, but the once-proud 49ers were in the midst of a playoff-less streak of their own, and those teams, coached by the defensive-minded Mike Nolan and Mike Singletary, went 7-9, 8-8 and 6-10, missing the postseason each time and costing both men their jobs.
• Which brings us to this year's excruciating turn of events, with Spikes having signed a three-year deal with the Chargers. San Diego started 4-1 this season, finally getting off to the fast start that has been lacking almost the whole of the Norv Turner coaching era. But cruelly, at least for Spikes' sake, the Chargers' playoff dreams have all but died with their current six-game losing streak, the franchise's longest in 10 years. San Diego (4-7) trails first-place Oakland (7-4) by three games with five to play, and has sunk to last place in the AFC West.
And as you probably noticed by now, the Spikes-less 49ers have streaked to a 9-2 start in the NFC West under new head coach Jim Harbaugh, and are on the verge of clinching their first playoff berth since 2002. I would imagine it's all enough to make a guy crazy, and more than a little paranoid, to boot.
If you really believe the game will ultimately treat you right if you treat it right, and is always truthful, how then to avoid or explain the truth of Spikes' long and mostly unsuccessful career in the most team-oriented of games? Spikes has played very well for a long time, but he's the Ernie Banks of the NFL. His excellence has never made the difference for his teams, and in fact, he must now carry the unfair baggage of knowing that wherever he goes, losing ensues and coaches get fired. It's a legacy you wouldn't wish on anyone.
"I still believe in this team,'' said the ever-hopeful Spikes of the Chargers, after their Week 11 loss to the Bears, which dropped San Diego to 4-6 and into last place in their division. "I still believe in what we do have. Because you never know, you never do know what's going to happen. The main thing is you've got to be ready when it happens.''
For Spikes, what has always happened is unbelievably happening again. His Chargers will almost certainly miss the playoffs, and his streak of games played without a postseason appearance made will surpass the 200 mark and continue on. The Curse of Takeo Spikes is hardly the whole story of what befell San Diego this season, but the bewildering saga of the NFL's longest career without a playoff appearance will continue on nonetheless.
Juxtapose a career misfortune of that magnitude against a player who might be Spikes' mirror opposite in some ways. Colts defensive end Dwight Freeney is in his 10th NFL season, having been drafted in the first round by Indianapolis in 2002. In the first nine years of his career, Freeney never played on a team that didn't make the playoffs. That streak will obviously end this year, with the Colts 0-11 and headed perhaps for infamy. But imagine how different the NFL experience has been for Freeney compared to Spikes, with one knowing nothing but January football, season after season, and the other knowing nothing of it.
Freeney is not alone in his over-flowing fortuity. A number of fellow Colts, naturally, are right there in the same elite class when it comes to playoff appearances. No active player in the NFL has played in more career playoff games (24) or played for more playoff teams than Indy kicker Adam Vinatieri. The former longtime New England Patriot was on a playoff team in 12 of his first 15 NFL seasons, and owns four Super Bowl rings. Peyton Manning, Spikes' 1998 draft classmate, is right behind Vinatieri with 11 trips to the postseason in his first 13 seasons in the league, missing only in '98 and 2001.
But for every game there is a winner and a loser, of course, and thus a painful flip side. Besides Spikes, Buffalo kicker Rian Lindell is next on the wait list, having appeared in 180 career games (from 2000-on) without ever teeing a ball up in the playoffs. Then comes Buffalo punter Brian Moorman (171 games, 2001-on), and the Detroit offensive line tandem of tackle Jeff Backus (171 games, 2001-on) and center Dominic Raiola (167 games, 2001-on).
Spikes, of course, was a former teammate of both Lindell and Moorman in Buffalo. And this year, when Detroit and Buffalo stunned the NFL by getting off to matching 3-0 starts, inspiring turnaround-team attention, it appeared that the playoff-less odysseys of all those long-suffering Lions and Bills were finally coming to an end. They still might in Detroit (7-4), but Buffalo, alas, has faded once again and is on the furthest reaches of wild-card contention at 5-6.
For Spikes, the wait for his first taste of NFL playoff action continues. Unless the Chargers somehow rally to a miraculous finish, he must endure another agonizing January, the long offseason, and perhaps another coaching change before finding out if he's still in San Diego's plans for 2012. If he is, and he wants to continue his quest, a 15th try at ending his personal playoff drought will likely unfold. Maybe there's a happy ending in store somewhere, some day for this proud longtime pro.
But for now, it's the cruelest month of December, with San Diego's playoff dreams all but dead, and Spikes is playing out the string once more.