The Blueprint for an NFL Comeback Attempt

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The Blueprint for an NFL Comeback Attempt
James Lang-USA TODAY Sports

The scale.

It remains JaMarcus Russell’s greatest enemy, as he attempts what would be one of the most unlikely comebacks in all of sports.

Russell’s “legacy” has been defined by his weight, as he managed to breach the 300-pound threshold— typically a problem reserved for lineman—after the Oakland Raiders finally released him after the 2009 season.

As far as Russell has fallen from being the top pick in the 2007 draft to wasting away on his couch with “purple drank,” he still has gotten as least one shot at a comeback after a recent workout with the Chicago Bears.

The odds of making a living as a professional football player are astronomically slim, never mind getting booted from an NFL roster and climbing back onto one.

Second chances are rare in all aspects of life and even more rare in the cutthroat environment of the NFL. Only a select few elite talents are ever given a shot at redemption.

For the elite few who are blessed with second opportunities to get back in the league, such as Russell, what will it take to re-enter the league that they once depended on for so much?

First, there must be an understanding of why certain teams are willing to bother giving these has-beens another shot at redemption.

 

The Payoff

Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images
Is JaMarcus Russell deserving of another chance?

The sole reason players like JaMarcus Russell are offered an opportunity at another career in the NFL, while thousands of young hopefuls never get much more than a few drills in camp, derives from one word:

Talent.

Is it fair that more naturally talented players are given more chances than the average camp body? Of course not.

The “Not For Long” league is no place for fairness. For general managers and coaches who make the personnel decisions, winning is the only priority. As long as the team is winning, no one is going to care about how “fair” they were in handing out jobs to the most deserving.

In order to beat the teams that are loaded with the best football players the planet has to offer on a weekly basis, trotting out a roster full of talentless hard workers is a good way to get fired.

Every team needs to find elite talent, and giving some bad apples a second chance could be a low-risk shortcut to success.

In 2009, the Eagles took a chance on one of the most polarizing players in the league (in the pre-Tebow era) in Michael Vick.

Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images

With Vick drawing an enormous amount of media attention and public backlash because of his recent dogfighting scandal in 2007, Vick had as much baggage as a “second-chance” player could possibly have. There were (and still are) protests in the streets over the fact that he was allowed to wear an NFL-issued helmet after what he had done.

As it turned out, the Eagles’ decision to bring in Michael Vick paid dividends, as Vick seized the starting job a year later.

While the Eagles had not been able to achieve the team success they had hoped for over the past three years, they were able to find a franchise-level quarterback off the street—while the rest of the league was throwing around an incredible amount of money and using high draft picks to find a franchise passer by more conventional means.

The Eagles’ calculated risk paid off because Vick was one of few troubled talents who was truly committed to turning his life around and staying out of trouble. Vick is now speaking out against dogfighting and has stayed clear of trouble since his release from prison.

Despite the Eagles’ struggles in recent seasons, Vick is a case study for the best-case scenario of the benefits of being truly committed to living a law-abiding lifestyle, while putting in the time and effort it takes to be a productive NFL player.

Before a man like Vick can change the league on the field, he must first find change within himself.

 

Making Connections

Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images

One of the amusing aspects of how jobs circulate in the NFL is that many of them are obtained through the same means as “regular” jobs.

Just like the average accountant or salesman, everyone from star players to field maintenance interns wind up where they are because of who they know within an organization as much as their ability to do their job.

Vick’s door into the league was opened by Donovan McNabb, who lobbied to bring Vick to the team as a multi-dimensional weapon to the offense.

Ronald Martinez/Getty Images
Johnson's relationship with Owens gave Owens another opportunity in the NFL.

At the time, McNabb was the unquestioned franchise quarterback of the team, making his opinion carry a tremendous amount of weight within the organization. Just like knowing the CEO can help land you a job out of college, Vick's connection with McNabb opened a door for him to get back in the NFL. 

Using off-field connections to land an NFL contract is hardly a rare occurrence. Few players have had less stability during a Hall of Fame career than Terrell Owens, and his league connections helped him extend his career. 

However, a connection he had formed with then-Bengals receiver Chad Johnson (they starred on the reality show The T.Ocho Show together) saved Owens’ career. Johnson lobbied for Owens to be brought on to the receiver-needy Bengals, and Owens was getting a NFL paycheck for at least one more season.

Had it not have been for Johnson’s influence in the decision, Owen’s career may very well have ended in Buffalo.

Players making a comeback can work as hard as they can, trying to get back into shape and becoming a more responsible person, but without a messenger to spread their message to the decision-makers, their cries for another opportunity fall on dead ears. 

After all, having a good network of connections in the NFL is just about the only advantage veterans have over the rookies they are competing against.

 

Beating Father Time

Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

NFL teams are constantly trying to get bigger, faster, more athletic, and most importantly, younger.

While young players, especially rookies, are not finished products and lack the invaluable experience that only a seasoned veteran has at their disposal, they have much more potential to be valuable commodities over the long-term than a stopgap veteran free agent.

Working against veterans even further is the fact that their minimum salary is often more than double what a rookie would make under the new CBA:

Years Experience Minimum Salary
1 $375,000
2 $450,000
3 $525,000
4 $600,000
5 $685,000
6 $685,000
7 $810,000
8 $810,000
9 $810,000
       10 or more $910,000

The battle against age is, perhaps, the biggest obstacle that comeback players face, and there really is not much they can do about it.

If JaMarcus Russell were a 22-year-old, fresh out of college, he would be on an NFL roster by now. Even with his reputation of being a lazy person, there are few human beings walking this earth who can throw a football like Russell can. His upside is too great to pass up, and he would have time to mature in a professional environment.

However, now being 27 years old (he will be 28 before the season starts), the benefit of bringing in Russell is much more limited. As talented as he is, he will still need time to get used to playing football at the highest level, which could take years.

Russell’s best-case scenario (realistically) would be him starting within about two or three years—after he breaches the dreaded age of 30. If Russell is a starter at that age, his team is already looking for another long-term replacement rather than build around him.

How much age plays into getting a second chance is also dependent on how close a team is to contention.

When the Bengals brought in Terrell Owens for the 2010 season, they were coming off a playoff appearance with their franchise quarterback, Carson Palmer, finally back from injury. On the surface, it made sense as to why they believed a talent like Owens, could get them deeper into the playoffs, even with his reputation as a locker-room cancer.

Howard Smith-USA TODAY Sports
The Jets were in "win now" mode when they brought in Burress.

The New York Jets followed the same philosophy in 2011 when they brought in Plaxico Burress fresh out of jail. Coming off a second straight AFC Championship appearance, the Jets believed that a player of Burress’ caliber would get them over the proverbial “hump.”

Now, the Jets are in a full-blown rebuilding mode and would not be inclined to take on short-term solutions like Burress and the baggage that comes along with them. These teams need to develop their young talent, and adding older projects like Burress would only stunt their growth.

An older player can make a comeback attempt, but the sooner they do it, the better. The older players get, the more limited the market is for their services.

 

Erasing the Image

For NFL teams, taking on reclamation projects is a risky business. After all, these players are out of the league for a reason and are not always sincere in their promises to be true professionals on and off the field.

For players trying to make a comeback, there is no substitute for true internal change.

Adam “Pac-Man” Jones has turned out a solid career with the Bengals (despite a recent incident at a bar) after spending time with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers because his attitude was once too much for the NFL to handle. This humbling experience forced him to change the way he approached football (via Carly Szydlowski of ProPlayerInsiders.com)

If I could tell them anything, I just want them to realize this is a business. When you sign your contract, you are the head CEO of your company. The Adam Jones Company – whatever it is. We can’t go running down a field for the rest of our life. Every decision you make is critical. It might not get you now. But it will get you later.

Even if a player is able to make the right attitude adjustments on their way to a successful NFL career, the battle back onto an NFL roster is far from being won.

Players like JaMarcus Russell and Terrell Owens carry the heavy burden of a bad reputation wherever they go. Even if they are truly changed individuals, many teams are not going to want to hear about how much they promise to be model citizens. After all, they already had their chance, and giving them a second would take away an opportunity from a more deserving player.

Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images
JaMarcus Russell will always carry his reputation with him.

Not even the most advanced statistics can quantify the true effect that these unpleasant characters have inside of an NFL locker room, but it is tough to argue with the results many reclamation projects have had over the years.

In 2010. Burress’ Jets failed to reach the postseason that season, thanks to an epic late-season losing streak laced with locker-room turmoil and anonymous finger pointing.

A year prior, the Johnson (then Ochocinco) and Owens tandem yielded a dismal 4-12 season. Carson Palmer was so frustrated with the state of affairs in Cincinnati that he refused to play for the team, prompting a trade to Oakland.

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
Was Carson Palmer's departure to Oakland really just a coincidence?

On the surface, Owens was everything the Bengals could have expected out of an aging receiver, catching 72 balls for 983 yards—but is it really a coincidence that Palmer was willing to flush a multi-million dollar contract down the drain after spending a year with Owens?

In truth, there is no foolproof way to make a comeback in the NFL. Much of it depends on timing, relationships and a little luck.

However, players are not going to make the most out of any comeback attempt if they don’t change who they are as individuals first. These players need to identify why they wound up on the outside of the NFL fishbowl, outwork their competition to get a roster spot and remain committed to their new, productive lifestyle.

Otherwise, the NFL lifestyle they had become accustomed to will pass them by before they know it.

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