After 10 weeks of the NFL season, teams fit into two categories — teams making a playoff push and teams waiting for the offseason to get here as soon as possible.
The NFC is loaded, with up to 12 teams who genuinely feel they have a chance at the playoffs. The AFC might have as many as 10, even though it’s realistically closer to eight. That leaves anywhere between 10-12 teams playing out the season, just hoping for some wins to feel good.
Some of those poor teams are clearly in rebuilding mode, like the 49ers, Colts, and Browns. Other teams are having poor seasons based off preseason projections, like the Giants and Bucs. And the others are just blah. It doesn’t matter where your team fits in the poor team category, the coaching staff isn’t safe.
When underperforming teams are struggling this time of the year, it inevitably turns into a question about the coaching staffs and their job security. As much as teams claim they will allow coaches to rebuild, that’s never the case. They want results, and those results are better play, execution, and wins.
The best example of this is the Browns. Cleveland is rebuilding, but they haven’t shown any overall team improvement. In two years, Hue Jackson is now 1-24. The 2017 Browns have lost four games by three points, the product of a late score to narrow the margin of victory. Showing improvement, and winning some games, is paramount to keeping a job.
We always discuss potential coaching changes with the focus entirely on the coaches. But how do players deal with a potential coaching change and constant media whispers about their coaching staff? And how do the 53 players in the locker room play under a lame-duck head coach?
I’ve had plenty of experience, which isn’t something I’m bragging about, dealing with a lame-duck head coach and playing a season with nonstop media whispers about a coaching change. The lessons for players from both of those experiences are extremely similar.
In 2010, I played every snap for the 2-14 Carolina Panthers. We were set up for failure, and we failed. Going back to look at the stats, it’s even worse than I remembered. We averaged 12 points per game. Oh my. And we had talent. Jordan Gross, Ryan Kalil, Steve Smith, Jonathan Stewart, and DeAngelo Williams.
We had no chance with our quarterback. Around Week 7, John Fox called us into a team meeting and told us in not so many words that he was a lame-duck head coach. I distinctly remember coach telling us that “he will be fine and we should make sure to put out good film and play for ourselves.”
Later in the season, our offensive line coach basically told us the staff had been fired and gave us the same message. The staff was gone.
In 2015, I was a member of the New York Giants. Heading into week 12, we were 5-5 and atop the NFC East standings. We had our shortcomings, and the outside world let us know. We still had a great chance to win the division.
That didn’t happen. We lost all but one game to finish the season 6-10. Rumors had been swirling entering the season about Tom Coughlin’s job status, and the end of the season only had those rumors swirling even faster.
Lesson No. 1: The film is your résumé
If your team is playing poorly, you don’t like the system, don’t trust the head coach, whatever, you still need to put out good film.
When Ron Rivera was hired in 2011, the entire new staff put on the film from 2010 to see what they had in the current players. Their first impression of us was from that film. If you didn’t give it your all, took plays off, or whatever, it’s on the film. There are no excuses.
If you’re a free agent and a team is looking through the film, it’s hard to tell them “well, Schwartz wasn’t happy with the losing so that’s why he didn’t play well.” Nope. The film is your résumé. Keep playing hard, like we did in 2015 for Coughlin, and get your own.
Lesson No. 2: Find ways to manufacture enjoyment
Winning is the only thing that makes everyone in the facility happy. You spend the spring and summer and weeks upon weeks during the season grinding (I hate that word, but it’s appropriate here) all in the name of winning. When you don’t win, everyone in the facility is depressed. Ownership and the coaching staff becomes grumpy and that filters down into the locker room.
Trying to find ways to have fun, whether that’s in your meeting room, which we did in Carolina with pranks and jokes, or as a team in the locker room, is a must just to survive the season.
Lesson No. 3: Always keeping a straight face with the media
Whenever you get asked about a team’s effort, or if the coach has lost the locker room, just fake it. Don’t give the media anything to ride with, it only makes it worse. The media can tell what’s up with a team, and with the all-22 film available now, they can see what’s happening on the field. No need to give them more ammo. Also, trying to stay positive just generally helps with your mindset.
Playing for a lame-duck coach or a coaching staff that’s probably on the way out isn’t ideal. The players on the Giants, Browns, Colts, and others must try to find ways to put out good film, enjoy the process and stay away from the media.