One would think that there would be a palpable buzz in an NFL locker room before a prime time game on national TV. A heightened sense of anticipation, at the very least. Instead, our locker room was the flattest I had ever encountered in all my years of football, and everyone in there, from coaches to players to the equipment and training staffs, looked as if they had seen a ghost.
They hadn't, of course. All they had seen was the report several hours earlier that our owner, Jerry Jones, had discreetly met with Bill Parcells at an airport the week before. Everyone on that 2002 Dallas Cowboy team already knew head coach Dave Campo was on the hot seat that year. But the news of the secret rendezvous between Jones and Parcells essentially meant Campo's seat was no longer hot. It was burning.
Playing on a team with a coach on the hot seat isn't fun. My head coach was fired at the end of the year my first three seasons in the NFL, so I know what the players in Buffalo and Washington are going through. And, to a lesser extent, the guys in Dallas, Houston and Carolina, just to name a few.
But I can't remember being on a team in which there was as much heat so early in the season as there is with the Bills and Redskins. Given those teams' expectations coming into the year and the way they have fared so far, it's hard to imagine Buffalo head coach Dick Jauron and Washington coach Jim Zorn returning next season. In fact, barring a miracle, I'd be surprised if either man lasted the entire season.
It's difficult to watch these guys talk about their job status on a weekly basis. It's pretty obvious they're as good as gone, yet in this tough profession, nobody is going to allow them to exit gracefully, unfortunately.
It's not much easier on their players. The training facility becomes highly uncomfortable in such situations, and it starts with the assistant coaches, some of whom move around like the walking dead. They are, after all, the ones most directly affected because they are the least likely to stick around once a new coach comes in.
Sure, a handful of assistants handle it professionally enough that you can't sense much of a change. But they are the exceptions, not the rule. The others tend to go one of two ways. Some will have somewhat of a defeatist mentality and simply go through the motions, knowing their fate has already been sealed. That's bad. Others are so stressed out that all of the meetings with them are tense because no one knows when their frustrations are going to result in an angry tirade. That's worse.
The bottom line is that everyone in Buffalo and Washington is keenly aware of the situation, trust me. There's no way you can't be when it gets to this point.
"Everybody likes Coach Jauron, so we don't want this for him," said Bills running back Fred Jackson when I asked him about the atmosphere in Buffalo, "but we also don't want this for ourselves either, to always have to answer these questions."
Getting asked those questions becomes a distraction and it is the rare team that can rally at that point and turn the tide. Instead, players tend to react in any number of ways.
There are always some players who start to lose focus and almost begin to take on a "what is the point" mentality because of the inevitability that a new coach is going to come in for the next season anyway. Those guys don't really care much about the current coaching staff because they feel like those coaches will no longer determine their long-term fate.
I vividly remember being irate on the morning of our last game that 2002 season with the Cowboys when I found out a number of players had skipped curfew the night before. Some had stayed out so late they missed the team bus to FedEx Field and had to take a cab to the game. Talk about unprofessional. And I was supposed to count on them for that game?
But that's how some players are going to react once they realize the guy in charge isn't really going to be in charge much longer. And that's the thing owners like Ralph Wilson and Dan Snyder have to understand. Even though the players on the Bills and the Skins seem to respect Jauron and Zorn, respectively, the minute a decent amount of them begin to tune out the head man, there is a serious problem. And though hiring an interim head coach isn't a great solution, it at least provides the players with a different voice and potentially can turn the negative tide. Or at least stop the coaching status questions.
One would think more players would realize the inevitability of a coaching change would make it more important to play well, not less. I know I did. I realized that whoever was charged with heading up the new regime after the season was going to examine game film thoroughly to decide who would be staying and who would be going. At a minimum, that footage would be my first impression to my new bosses and I wanted to put my best foot forward.
Sure, I was anxious, not knowing who the new coach would be and facing the inevitability of a roster churning, especially among men occupying spots 25-50 on the roster, like I was. But I also realized that I couldn't control any of that. All I could control was what I put on that game tape. So I prepared even harder. Again, the exception, not the rule.
The reality for the players in Buffalo and Washington is they only have a couple of games left to get their teams turned around if they want their head coaches to have any hope of sticking around. But even if it gets to the point where their fates are sealed, if it hasn't already, those players are showing the next coaching staff exactly what they are made of based upon how they go about their business and perform over the next 11 weeks.
You can't fake football. If you have mailed it in and are just going through the motions, it shows. The next head coach will know that you are not somebody he can count on when the chips are down. The remainder of this season will be a great glimpse into the character of the players on the Bills and Redskins.