Every NFL season, when the holidays begin to roll around, I get asked routinely if teams — the ones that aren’t playing for the postseason — ever decide to “pack it in” and get ready for exotic vacations, golf courses in the south and fishing trips.
And I always pause and answer that it depends on the situation, the coach and where that franchise is heading the next season.
For both of these teams, the problem isn’t the physical talent at all times; it’s more the execution, the mental part of the game and the accountably that’s required to win on Sundays in this league.
Think about it: two franchises that are going through major adjustments. The Redskins might as well get that office ready for Mike Shanahan. Bruce Allen was just brought in as the general manager. And they all know that the coach they’re playing for — Jim Zorn — has zero chance of standing on that same sideline next season.
In Chicago, what was once considered a sure thing -- the return of coach Lovie Smith -- is now starting to come into question. Offensive coordinator Ron Turner has been on the hot seat since October, and Lovie’s own defense is a shell of what it was just years ago. Change coming? For sure. Management knows it, the coaches know it and we, the fans, know it.
And, more important for both of these franchises, the players know it.
I was in one of these exact situations during my career in my first year as a Redskin in 2003. Playing for Steve Spurrier, we lost three consecutive games to close out the season. What was once a promising start at 3-1 with a win over New England, ended up at 5-11, with a finish that was so awful, so dreadful to watch, that we should have been embarrassed. We knew that the Ball Coach was probably not going to return in 2004, and we responded at times like junior high kids — when a substitute teacher was filling in. Study habits dropped, the intensity fell during the week of practice, and it became so obvious that we were going down like a sinking ship that coach Spurrier pulled out all the stops — even offering something that has never been matched from the players I’ve talked to over my career.
Spurrier told us: Win in Week 16 at Chicago and we would essentially have the week off until we hosted Donovan McNabb and the Eagles to close it out. Desperate? Of course, but at that point, the writing was on the wall that the Ball Coach wasn’t going to come back. And Spurrier (who is still my all-time favorite) pulled out all of his tricks that Sunday.
Double reverses, halfback passes, exotic plays when the wide receiver would somehow end up with the ball and throw it down the field to our quarterback — Tim Hasselbeck — who somehow ended up running a go-route on the play. It was all set up for a week of luxury, with a few walk-throughs sprinkled in before we took the field one more time.
We lost on a field goal in the final seconds.
Defeated, on the field and mentally, we went back to practice for the last week and played so poorly against Philly that we could have lost by 60.
That was a team that packed it in, and to be honest, I saw some of the same issues watching the Bears and the Redskins this week -- missed assignments, blown coverages, mistakes, fundamental breakdowns, poor tackling.
Overall, a sense of confusion, and that confusion comes with the little things that win, or at least keep you in ballgames at this level. Everything and anything we don’t see from the Colts, the Chargers, the Saints, etc.
However, that’s the result of losing in the NFL. Like a structure that loses its foundation over four long months, it always seems to come crashing down at this point in the season.
If that is “packing it in,” then yes, it happens every year.
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