The first week of the NFL playoff season is always interesting, because as the better teams gear up for their biggest game of the year, other organizations meltdown and people sling mud. At a time when proud and capable men are losing jobs and moving on, it’s always surprising to see who takes the blame and who points fingers. Take it from me, it’s rarely fair and never right.
Lovie Smith lost his job despite leading the Chicago Bears to a 10-6 record because they missed the playoffs. Another way to say it: Lovie Smith lost his job because he can’t play offensive line or shave ten years off most of his defensive stars. The reality is his time with the organization passed him by because it’s easier to fire a coach and change a few players than fire an entire roster. Did Chicago give up on Smith? It doesn’t matter, because even if they didn’t they weren’t good enough.
Regardless of what anyone tells you, players play for each other and work for their coaches. It’s why they get paid to practice and show up on game days for free. If they don’t trust their head coach and coaching staff they will play for themselves and bicker with teammates as the press and fans watch a season that gets flushed down the drain.
Just ask the Philadelphia Eagles. Andy Reid lost his job after 14 years because his team self destructed and under achieved. The firing came as no surprise, but Michael Vick blaming his teammates for it was sad.
During his 10 starts this year Vick’s TD-INT count was 12-10. Tom Brady (34-8), Peyton Manning (37-11), Aaron Rodgers (39-8), RGIII (20-5), Russell Wilson (26-10), and Andrew Luck (23-18) all had significantly better years with more games under their belts. The last three names on that list are rookies who led their teams to the playoffs after all of those teams finished below .500 and out of the playoffs last year. A year ago Vick started 13 games and had a ratio of 18-14 while Philly went 8-8 and missed the playoffs. This year they regressed and Vick blamed his teammates. He might have a point, but he underachieved as badly as anyone.
Sure, teammates deserve a share of the blame. But this is the same Vick who while playing for Atlanta admitted he watched such little film of opponents that if head coach Dan Reeves stuffed $1 million cash inside game tapes he wouldn’t have found it. It’s a good thing he has professionalism and understands commitment to his teammates so well he can now preach about it. Forget apologies, he owes Reeves and his Atlanta teammates a few Super Bowls. Vick’s best wasn’t good enough this year either, and unless he takes a pay cut he could very well end up somewhere like Jacksonville next year as Tebow’s main squeeze. I guess it’s easier to dump your purse and air dirty laundry in front of the media than lead by example, but it still ain’t right.
In the NFL only Super Bowl champs end the year on a positive note. Everyone else dumps their locker contents into a black garbage bag with stunned silence. I never won a league championship playing football and know the garbage bag feeling all too well. It’s already an uneasy time for the whole team, remembering long hot weeks of training camp, hundreds of drills, thousands of reps, and life long goals of winning it all. Why punch someone when their feelings are already bruised? In true poetic form, the last game of my final year playing football was a good example.
After the best season in Simon Fraser football history in 2003 that culminated in a conference championship and a trip to the national semi-finals, we entered 2004 after graduating five starters and two winners out of the four major national awards. Most of our starters returned, though, and we were expected to compete, if not repeat our success. We had more than enough talent and experience. Instead, we missed the playoffs.
It’s one thing to lose in the playoffs. It’s another when you miss them because you lost the final game of your season. Our last opponent that year was the University of Manitoba, a familiar rival for SFU. Cutting to the chase, we needed the W to make the playoffs, and Manitoba was already eliminated and looking to play the role of spoiler. SFU was in trouble after we drop two of our last three games to crosstown nemesis UBC, including a 42-23 loss after going up 21-0 in the first quarter. In the locker room after that game our head coach blamed the players and blasted us for ten minutes with threats like “I don’t care if we win or not because my job is guaranteed. The rest of you might want to think about your scholarships and pride!” If I wanted to point fingers that night, I would say it was easier to blame the players than admit his recruiting efforts produced pathetic results replacing all stars and our game strategy was suspect at best. Also, playing a soft prevent defense in the second quarter while leading your nemesis 21-0 on the road probably had something to do with it. Most players could already sense the wheels on the wagon starting to wobble, but we pressed on at full speed and came into the season finale needing a win to make the playoffs.
As usual with U of Manitoba, the game was a physical affair with plenty of firepower. Going into the fourth quarter the score was 27-23 for Manitoba. Midway through the quarter our head coach and special teams coordinator called for a reverse on a punt return. We had practiced the play for three weeks without success because no matter what someone always botched the handoff. This was our first time running it in a game and guess what? Someone messed up the handoff inside our own territory. Manitoba recovered and punched in a touchdown five plays later. That’s seven points. We wound up losing 41-36 ten minutes later.
The final garbage bag moment came 72 hours later.
My playing days were finished. I wasn’t involved in the botched return, but I didn’t blame the players. I knew they couldn’t execute the trick. I blamed the coaches for a horrible call at the worst moment possible. You could say we lost because Manitoba outscored us. You could also say we were out-coached, out-recruited, and our coaches cost us a trip to the playoffs.
My best that year certainly wasn’t good enough. The same could be said of everyone on the team and staff. In the days following that loss I sucked it up like a man, cried like a child when no one was watching, and thanked most of the players and coaches for the opportunities and five years of college football. Maybe if I was five inches taller and ran a faster forty I would have scored more touchdowns and saved the year. But no one blamed me publicly, and I returned the favor.
End of discussion.
The next year I watched as my beloved former team went 0-8 and the Athletic Department cleaned out the entire coaching staff while the program entered a dark four-year period. I’m guessing the coach blamed the same players he recruited in the first place. Doesn’t matter because his career was over and nobody cared anymore. At the end of the year when things haven’t turned out the way you want it’s time to be thankful, be frustrated, or just be quiet. Feel free to blame everyone else as long as you share it with yourself and nobody else. Sooner or later we all run out of seasons to play and teammates to blame. End of discussion.
Luke Purm is a freelance writer and former college football player (a wide receiver at Simon Fraser University) with an inside look at the sights and sounds from the huddle, down the field, through the air, in the endzone, under the pile, out of the locker room, on the scoreboard, and everywhere else football sweats, smells, yells, breathes and collides with life. Follow him on Twitter.