If you play in the NFL long enough, you're eventually going to have a season that doesn't go your way. It doesn't matter if it's because of key injuries, bad coaching or bad players; losing seasons are always going to test everyone's character.
I didn't have to wait long at all to experience a losing season in the league. In 1996, as a rookie with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, we went 6-10, and for much of the season, I was miserable. This was so foreign to me that, at first, I really didn't know how to deal with it.
The first game of the year was at home against the Green Bay Packers, and not only were we blown out, but our stadium was full of green and gold. At the time, I was just on the practice squad and couldn't believe what I had just seen.
We went on to lose the next four games as well, and eventually, we were 1-8 heading into our 10th game of the year. The rest of my teammates and I were miserable at that point, and it was hard to stay motivated every week.
We kept the faith, however, and ended up winning five of our last seven games, which set us up for quite a bit of success over the course of the next five years.
The most important lesson I learned from that tough first year is that it takes strong coaching and strong leaders to bring you through the storm and turn things around.
It often irked me when some in the media portrayed our head coach, Tony Dungy, as being soft because he didn't curse or throw temper tantrums on the sideline every game.
Those things were all true, but what they didn't see was that behind closed doors, Coach Dungy was pushing us every day to be the best that we could be. He wasn't about to accept anything less, and that's why our team slogan was, "No excuses, no explanations."
As a result, that first year, our locker room kind of became a revolving door for players who weren't giving their all. Almost every week during that losing streak, you would see a prominent player being cut to make room for someone who's working harder, and the message came through loud and clear to the rest of the team.
I was one of the beneficiaries of these cuts. A backup who was getting a good amount of playing time got the boot so I could be brought up from the practice squad after the sixth game of the year.
There is no greater motivator in sports than the perception that your job is on the line every day. That was the kind of atmosphere Coach Dungy created during that first season, and it endured for the entirety of my time with the Bucs. And that's why, at the end of that year, there might have been teams with more talent, but you couldn't find one that played any harder than we did for 60 minutes.
Now, the fact that Coach Dungy and the rest of the coaching staff were still trying to get every ounce of talent out of us wouldn't have been enough by itself to get the team to finish strong. You also need strong leaders in the locker room to provide an example of what is required to be winners.
Guys like Hardy Nickerson and current Detroit Lions GM Martin Mayhew had been on winning teams before, and they knew what it took for us to become one. They went out every day at practice and went at it hard like it was game day, and that influenced the rest of us to do the same.
Sixteen games is a long season, especially when you aren't winning that much. It's very easy to question why you're still busting your tail at 1-8 if no one else on the field is doing the same. It's much harder to even consider loafing for one play when coaches are still yelling at you and the veterans are killing themselves to get better, however.
For the teams that have gotten off to a rough start this year, this is exactly what they need: coaches who are going to push them every day like they are getting ready for the Super Bowl and veterans who prepare for every game like it's their last.
If you have that combination, it won't matter what the game plan is or who the next opponent will be; the team will start moving in the right direction. One thing that's universal among football players is that no matter how the season starts, you definitely don't want to end it on a sour note.
It's never easy going through a disappointing season as a professional athlete, especially because, on the outside, nobody is going to give you a pass. You have to lean on your coaching staff and the players in the building if you ever want to get back on a winning track.
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