It’s been nearly two decades since I put on an NFL uniform. But 18 years later, I can assure you that football players haven’t changed much. They have short memories, are supremely focused on their jobs (with or without chemical enhancement) and will forge ahead to the next game with or without the best players on the team.
The rest of us who are not preparing to play the Chicago Bears on Sunday at Soldier Field are plenty distracted by the pending suspensions of Richard Sherman and Brandon Browner for violating the NFL’s drug policy. In the meantime, Sherman and Browner will be available on Sunday but there’s a great deal of speculation and hand wringing over what the Hawks will do without two of their best players as they mount their final charge for the playoffs.
While those two may be slightly distracted by all of this, you can expect that the rest of the team is preparing for the Bears with a distraction level of zero.
It’s not that Browner’s and Sherman’s teammates don’t care about them and it’s not that they’re selfish. It’s the nature of football. For several reasons, players do not and cannot lose focus over any form of distraction during the season.
Every player eventually comes to the sad realization that the game will go on with or without you. Whether you retire, get hurt, lose your job because of a lack of performance or are suspended, the sun rises the next day and the team prepares the next-best guy to take over your job.
Remember, the average lifespan of an NFL player is just over three years. A player like 10-year veteran Marcus Trufant, who may end up replacing Sherman, has seen a lot of teammates come and go throughout his career. We used to joke that you never want to get too close to your teammates because they might be gone the next day.
When I signed with the Denver Broncos in 1993, the nameplate over my locker was attached with Velcro for easy removal. On the backside of the nameplate was the name of the guy I replaced.
Cliché alert – it’s a team game
Football is the ultimate team game. You can have the best receiver in the world but without a quarterback to throw him the ball, he’s worthless. The best quarterback in the league can’t throw touchdowns without a solid offensive line to block for him. An all-pro defensive back can’t cover receivers without an effective pass rush. And so on. For that reason, no one player (or two) ever becomes that important in football.
You’re too focused on your job and your career to worry about someone else. This may sound selfish but the atmosphere in the NFL requires a certain level of self-absorption. It’s more self-preservation that anything.
I was a starter for eight of my nine years in the NFL and there was never a time that I felt secure in my job. Every team has a band of scouts scouring the country for your eventual replacement. For me, it was Darrin Miller in 1988, Ned Bolcar in 1990, Bob Spitulski in 1992 and Jeff Mills in 1993. They were younger, healthier and some form of what I was early in my career before the shoulder and knee surgeries started to pile up.
On top of that I was facing opponents week after week that were in many cases bigger, faster and stronger than me. I was trying to execute an ever-changing game plan each week that needed to be implemented against a myriad of offensive sets and personnel groupings and do so with near perfection.
Did I have time to worry about anyone else? Not really.
I understand that none of this fixes the problem that the Seahawks may eventually be without two very good players. But the notion that this is a distraction to the rest of the team is a fantasy.
I understand what a rare commodity cornerbacks are. But I’ve heard some pretty crazy over-reactions this week in anticipation of the Browner/Sherman suspensions. There’s no need for the Hawks to entirely change their offensive or defensive schemes. There’s no need to start switching players around to different positions. Browner and Sherman have backups that are professionals. There’s no need to panic.
My old Seahawks coach Chuck Knox would play this situation exactly the way I think Pete Carroll will. Like Pete, Chuck always made it about the guys who are playing rather than the guys who aren’t. Chuck would say very matter-of-factly, “Next man up.” His tempo of speech and manner of delivery sent the following message: We will survive without you no matter who you are.