Preparing to play in the Super Bowl sounds stressful enough, but if you ask me, the players on the Giants and Patriots have it easy. Try being a member of, say, the Atlanta Falcons or Miami Dolphins, two teams that didn't come close to making the playoffs and surely will undergo wholesale roster changes as they welcome their third new coach in as many years.
At least most of the Pats and Giants know they will have jobs next season. Why make wholesale roster changes on a team that reaches the Super Bowl? But the great majority of Falcons and Dolphins (and to a lesser degree the players under new regimes in Baltimore and Washington) don't have any such luxury as their very livelihood hangs in the balance.
Miami has hired Tony Sparano following the dismissal of one-and-done Cam Cameron, himself hired only a year ago to replace the well-traveled Nick Saban, who retreated back to the college game. Atlanta has yet to name a head coach after Bobby Petrino waved the white flag on his way to Arkansas. He was on the job even less than a year after being hired to replace Jim Mora.
What is it like to go through one regime change, let alone having a third head coach in three years? For the team's best 10 to 15 players, it represents a minor annoyance from their comfort zone regarding style and scheme and the possibility that they may be dealt elsewhere in a trade. For everybody else on the roster, a small hole has formed in the pit of their stomach and will continue to grow until they retain some level of job security by making the roster in September. Even then they will not feel safe.
Change is the only constant in the NFL. I should know. My first three years in the league my head coach was dismissed at the end of the season. Steve Spurrier replaced Marty Schottenheimer in Washington after 2001. Bill Parcells was the new sheriff in town in Dallas after Jerry Jones dismissed Dave Campo after 2002. Finally, the Bills hired Mike Mularkey to replace Gregg Williams at the end of 2003.
In every instance, I was eventually let go. It wasn't always immediate, but it always ended the same way. "Thanks, Ross, for everything you've done," they would say, "but we are going to go in another direction." Another direction is code language in the NFL for going with their guys, players that they brought into the fold. Why stick with a player brought in by the old coach when they can bring in a similar player of their own choosing?
This is not the rambling of a bitter player disappointed by getting released three times in my first five years in the league. This is a realistic look at what many of the 120-odd men on the rosters of the Falcons and Dolphins can expect over the next year or two. Truth be told, I don't blame those head coaches who gave me the ax. It is human nature to want to acquire someone that you are already familiar with or will have extreme loyalty to you because of the fact that you have given them a spot on your roster.
The players in Miami and Atlanta are well aware that they may reach the same fate that I did over the next year and a half. Parcells' track record indicates that many of the guys on the Dolphins roster might want to hold off on buying a residence in Miami. Fewer than 10 percent of the Dallas Cowboys who were on the roster for 2002 survived the Parcells cleansing. Offensive line stalwarts Flozell Adams and Andre Gurode, defensive playmakers Roy Williams and Greg Ellis, and special-teams standout Keith Davis are the only players who still wear the star on their helmets.
The Dolphins, coming off a 1-15 season, may feel an even deeper and quicker purge. You may want to be on a month-to-month lease down in Miami if you are anybody other than Jason Taylor, and even he might not be safe because Parcells has a penchant for getting rid of aging players; Taylor turns 34 in September.
The Falcons are perhaps equally angst-ridden given the fact that they don't even know who their head coach will be. Even if the coach does retain their services, players have to adjust to an entirely different system and language. Every coach has his own terminology and the players are the ones who must adjust, not him. It's akin to learning a foreign language -- numbers and letters take on entirely new meaning.
And that's just the playbook end of things. Most coaches have a prototype that they are looking for at certain positions and will either mold the already existing players to fit or find an alternative elsewhere who meshes in nicely. The Falcons' offensive line was, along with the Denver Broncos, among the lightest in the league during the Mora tenure in which zone-blocking whiz Alex Gibbs controlled the running game. Players were fined if they were over a certain weight and a premium was placed on speed and athleticism.
Enter Petrino, whose offensive line philosophy can best be explained as "bigger is better." Players who had spent years dieting to fit into the Gibbs scheme were told in no uncertain terms to bulk up if they wanted to remain in Atlanta. Any person with even a minute knowledge of offensive line play could have foretold that Atlanta was doomed the moment Petrino justified the acquisition of 370-pound guard Toniu Fonoti by noting that Fonoti's signing would "increase the average weight of our offensive line."
Now that Petrino is gone and a new coach has yet to be named, players such as Todd McClure, Kynan Forney and Tyson Clabo must have no idea what to buy when they go to the grocery store. Who knows what weight or body type the new coach may be looking for?
Even after a coach is hired and a schematic and strategic plan is implemented, there will be no rest among the weary for the Dolphins and Falcons. The front offices will scour the free-agent market to see if there are any spots that can be upgraded. Odds are some Cowboys and Patriots will eventually find themselves in the Deep South to reunite with Parcells and new Falcons GM Thomas Dimitroff, respectively. The draft will represent another tumultuous 48 hours.
So while many of the Giants and Patriots get ready for the biggest game of their lives, the Falcons and Dolphins begin what is certain to be several months of perpetual insecurity.