In the parity world of the National Football League, it’s nearly impossible to predict games anymore. Calling a game the “lock of the week” seems like an oxymoron. Different levels of play occur each week with very little consistency among teams. The Forty-Niners are playing at home against a Donovan McNabb-less Eagles squad and they get thrashed 38-17. Jacksonville beats Kansas City and Philadelphia, only to lose to the expansion Texans at home. The Packers are buzzing through the league about to clinch the division title, and lose two straight, including one to the lowly Vikings. Is there any fault in this kind of uncertainty or is this just the way it is?
Parity has come to the league through the salary cap and the draft, making the best teams just slightly better than the worst. “The margin for error is so small,” says Jaguars quarterback Mark Brunell, “that you can’t make a mistake in the game or it will cost you.”
Coaching styles throughout the league vary, but all with the same results: inconsistency. Do the coaches not know the right buttons to push? Actually, we have reached the era of the “button-less player.”
There were always two kinds of players in professional sports. The smart, motivated and skilled player who hated to lose, and the not-so-smart, mildly skilled player who needed motivation. The former showed up every week ready to play. The latter was alternately hit over the head with a sledgehammer one-week and stroked with a velvet glove the next as coaches and teammates looked for that delicate balance necessary to motivate this group of players. Coaches spent years pouring over x’s and o’s as well as learning the psychology of getting players ready to play.
Now, everything they’ve learned about off-the-field preparation is obsolete.
There are still two groups of players in pro sports. Everybody who reaches that level is highly skilled. The group of smart and motivated players emerges as stars, dominating games, winning acclaim and notoriety. They’ve never needed motivation, and they don’t now. The other group fills out the rosters of professional teams, playing great one week, and disappearing the next with no rhyme or reason. Coaches or teammates can’t influence their performance.
Those players either motivate themselves, or not at all. They’re not fueled by fear of losing their livelihood. They’ve made it to the top, and they’ll stay there. “If not on this team, then somewhere else,” one player recently told me, “somebody will sign me.” Money is not an issue because their bonuses are already banked. They’ve made it among the elite, and their peer group treats them with honor and respect. “I get a paycheck once every 17-weeks win or lose,” Tony Siragusa said during the Ravens’ Super Bowl run, reflecting the attitude of many modern day players. The distractions surrounding the game and the players pull away from the single-focus needed to play the game at a high level. That leaves the games as an inconsistent product, with teams emerging at the end of a season. The “hot” teams are the ones where the “button-less” players get swept up in the emotion of vying for “the ring.” This isn’t to say that they have no heart, or desire to play or compete. Quite the contrary, they all have that in order to have reached that level. It’s just finding it regularly that’s the problem.