The playoff push will come to a screeching halt this Sunday as teams that have fought furiously down the stretch find out whether they have a spot in the 12-team tournament. Some teams' Super Bowl hopes are about to vanish. Coaches' livelihoods will be at stake. Yet there's one surprising thing about some NFL players this time of year that fans and media alike are unaware of: Not all of the players really care if their team makes the playoffs.
It is strange, but true, and one of the secrets of the NFL I learned firsthand. It happened my rookie year, in 2001, under Redskins head coach Marty Schottenheimer. We were in the thick of the wild-card race coming down the stretch and I remarked to one of the veteran players about how awesome it would be if we could get in. He just shrugged.
"Don't you want to make the playoffs?" I asked.
"Nah, not really," he replied.
I was floored. I was a bright-eyed youngster loving every second of the NFL and his response brought me back to the harsh reality of the business. He went on to say he just wanted the season to be over so that he could head down to Florida for New Year's Eve. He showed up to the last game with a packed-to-the-gills U-Haul attached to his SUV. He was leaving right from the stadium, right after the game.
Granted, players like this are the exception and not the rule, but they do exist. Like their peers, they're mentally and physically exhausted from a marathon season that starts in late July with training camp. They just want to go home, and the playoffs aren't motivation enough for them. Some doubt their team would even get very far even if it did make the postseason.
These players are almost always motivated solely by money, and they look at playoff income as a pay cut rather than a bonus. Case in point, most people know that NFL players get paid their entire salary during the regular season. That means a guy making $1.7 million, a fairly common salary in the NFL, gets $100,000 every week of the season. Every player on a playoff team will receive an $18,000 check, which is why some players feel as if they are performing at a lower rate of pay.
Sounds ridiculous to most people, I'm sure, but the truth is the playoffs are simply not as important to some players as they are to the fans of that team. Those players aren't fans of that team. They probably didn't grow up in that city. They may or may not be in the last year of their contract. For them, this is just a high-paying and extremely physical mode of employment.
These type of players are usually former high-round picks who have already made a lot of money during their career and are jaded by the business. Obviously, players like this are not the type any fan, coach or teammate wants on their team. Franchises must find a way to weed out players like this. Can you imagine a player with that kind of attitude lasting very long in Indianapolis or New England?
Believe me, players in the middle and back-end of a roster would never have this mentality. They know how important it is to their future to make the playoffs. The $18,000 is a welcomed bonus, sure, but a bigger motivation comes from knowing that the only constant in the NFL is the change on every team from one season to the next. That change is amplified when a team fails to make the tournament; it is minimized if a team exceeds expectations and makes the playoffs. I know that all too well.
I started 12 games for the Buffalo Bills in 2004. We won six in a row heading into the season finale. Alas, we didn't beat the Steelers to make the playoffs, and the first change came in February, when the team released Drew Bledsoe and handed over the reins to J.P. Losman. We all know how that turned out. I was eventually released as well. There is no telling what personnel decisions would have been made had we secured a postseason spot. That is why most coaches and players realize how valuable those opportunities really are.
Even higher profile players can comprehend the tremendous increase in exposure they receive for being a top player on a playoff-bound team. Even that, however, is not what the playoffs is really about. For most NFL personnel, at least I hope, the biggest motivation comes from having the opportunity to win a championship and being able to say that you were a part of something special. Every organization should strive to have people in place that wholeheartedly believe that at their very core.
And isn't that what makes the NFL playoffs so special in the first place? That it really isn't about the money. It is about the pursuit of a title, the chance for a ring, and the glory and lifelong memories that come as a result of it.
For the vast majority of NFL players, the answer is yes. For a select few, sadly, the answer is no.