Why NFL teams don’t quit

It’s a late-December tradition on par with crowded malls, feigned excitement about presents you already have and a soon-to-be unrealized expectation that this New Year’s Eve might not be horrible: NFL fans and analysts declaring that certain teams have packed it in for the season and will roll over in Week 16 or 17 games, allowing opponents with playoff hopes to steamroll them en route to a victory that’s long been guaranteed. Under this theory: The reeling, eliminated Chargers won’t put up a fight this Sunday as Kansas City tries to improve its playoff seed, Cleveland will do the same against Pittsburgh and then the Giants, because they’re expected to rest some of their starters, will be easy pickings for a Redskins team in a win-and-in scenario.

It’s all nonsense — understandable nonsense, but nonsense nonetheless. The beliefs are NFL fans projecting rational thought (why would San Diego possibly play hard when they can get a better draft pick with a loss?!) onto teams that have no such feelings.

Team don’t quit because teams are comprised of players in a league so ruthless that they’re constantly having to prove themselves in order to stay on a roster for the next game, the next game after that and the next game beyond that. For much of the NFL, football is week-to-week work. For the rest (with the exception of a very few) it’s year-to-year.  Nothing is assured in the NFL, most notably the contracts. Players have to prove their worth every week because they’re constantly battling to stay in a league where the average career lifespan is a paltry 2.66 years. Lay down for one game and it might be your last.

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Why? Teams are always looking to both improve their roster and keep costs down. Older guys are the first to go. Why give a mediocre sixth-year veteran a new contract for $1.4 million a year when you can sign a guy with three years experience for the league minimum of $585,000. (Rookie salaries have a floor of $435K, second-year vets are at $510K.) Coaches believe in their schemes and figure they can plug in any player into one of those replacement-level roles. As such, NFL players are being forced out of the game earlier while the game is getting younger.

That’s why these players — young and old — never quit and, by extension, their teams don’t either. Once the offseason begins in four days, everything a player does throughout the year is cut into film by video assistants all around the league, tape that’s soon watched by NFL general managers and coaches who are looking at who to cut, who to keep, who to pursue and who might be that proverbial diamond in the rough — the player another team didn’t appreciate and can star for you. These players have allegiances to themselves, not the team that can cut them whenever they want thanks to the worst labor agreement in sports. They need to play hard or else their butts are competing for practice-squad spots or trying to convince the Alouettes that they can help them win a Grey Cup.

It’s a delicate balance in football, the ultimate team game that relies on cohesive 11-man units all working within a system toward a common goal. Though you’re looking out for No. 1, doing so means looking out for Nos. 2-11 too. You can’t succeed outside the framework of the team. Freelancing does nobody any good.

Thus there’s far too much on the line for individuals to quit in Weeks 15, 16 or 17 because they’re tired after a long year, want a coach fired or to help the team get a better draft pick the following year. Why? Play poorly and you won’t be around to enjoy the fruits of your deficiencies.

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In the NBA, where a starting five — which can be both a commodity and burden with those locked-in guaranteed contracts — has more power than the coach (unless that coach is Gregg Popovich or Steve Kerr, maybe), tanking a few games to make a point and bring about a change is feasible. The NFL is not the NBA.

Though we talk about it every year (“Team X is going to make the playoffs because Team Y has nothing to play for”) the reality is that this rarely happens. The few times it does is when teams are so broken it’s obvious to every talent evaluator, who can put aside the final two games and instead look at the first 14. This is invariably done when a coach is trying to blow up bridges like they’re coaching on the River Kwai or a coach has departed in a way that’s so absurd the chaos can be ignored.

The 2013 Washington Redskins, which Mike Shanahan tried to firebomb with leaks to the media and the undermining of anyone with which he came in contact, was the most recent example of the former. The latter is rarer. It’s not as if the Jaguars or Bills are going to lay down because their coaches were fired over the past week. When the classy Bobby Petrino bailed on the Falcons in 2007, the team was unprepared for its first game without him, losing by 34, but in the final two weeks the team played some of its best football of the year. After Nick Saban’s infamous “I’m not going to be the Alabama coach” press conference, the Dolphins played hard in Weeks 16 and 17 and lost by a combined eight points, including a close one to the eventual Super Bowl champion Colts, who were fighting for a playoff bye.

For NFL players, it can all go away so quickly. There are only 16 games per year. They have to make every one count, even the ones that don’t.

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