Don’t let the fact they get paid millions of dollars to play a game for a living fool you: Being a professional athlete is an extremely relative experience, and how satisfied any of them really are with their job is largely dependent on circumstances beyond their control.
Never has this reality been any clearer than in today’s NFL, where the pressures that stem by definition from its role as the most popular (and therefore most heavily-scrutinized) sporting league in America ensure every play of every game is an opportunity both for glory and spectacular, cringe-worthy failure on the most epic of possible scales.
Win a championship and you’re a hero for life. Parades will run. Statues will rise. ESPN will give you your own channel. Lose, underachieve, hell just make one bad play at one ill-advised moment for all it matters these days and suddenly you’re Ray Finkle. It’s a brutal world for NFL players right now, and if this sad state of affairs wasn’t already obvious to you long before rumors about Tim Tebow potentially retiring at the age of 25 completely epitomized it back in May, maybe you haven’t been paying attention.
For most NFL players, the approaching 2013 season is a dream come true and, just like the legions of fans who’ve been staving off dementia ever since Super Bowl XLVII commenced back in February, the sooner it gets here, the happier they’ll be. But for others, let’s face it: Unless your team contends for a title or you find a way to distinguish yourself as an elite performer, you’ve got a long eight months ahead of you, friend, and the longer those circumstances remain, the worse it’s going to get.
Just which NFL players find themselves knee-deep in the latter camp heading into this season, you ask?
Let’s find out.
Let’s start by listing all the things Bills running back Fred Jackson has to look forward to this season.
Now that that’s out of the way, let’s look at the things he doesn’t.
He’s probably not looking forward to learning a new offense now that his team just brought in a new coaching staff, general manager and starting quarterback all in one fell swoop this offseason, nor is he likely too thrilled about waiting for that new regime to find its footing, which usually takes more time than a 32-year-old running back has to spare.
That learning process will take place in a division Buffalo hasn’t won since 1995—and which still includes, in case Jackson by some miracle has forgotten, one of the most dominant teams in NFL history, the New England Patriots—and it will inevitably play out with poor old Fred serving in a visibly reduced role thanks to the breakout year fellow back C.J. Spiller had last season in which he rushed for more yards through 15 games than Jackson has during any of his six career seasons.
Add to that heaping dose of reality the fact he hasn’t made it through a whole season without landing on injured reserve since 2010 and it’s pretty clear the biggest goal Jackson can realistically hope to achieve in 2013 is to merely escape it with his limbs still attached.
Not exactly the ideal scenario for what promises to be the beloved veteran’s emotional last hurrah, but hopefully Jackson can find comfort in knowing he went from undrafted Division III prospect to one of the better backs in the league during his heyday, and in the process outlasted almost every other running back in his class (2003).
Oh yeah, and the $2.8 million he’s set to earn this year probably won’t hurt either.
If all Robert Griffin III had to do this season was continue to develop—all that’s usually expected of a 23-year-old starting quarterback in his second year in the league—2013 might have been a fun little adventure. He’d break off a couple big plays, sell a few jerseys, maybe even engineer an upset or two, but as long as he didn’t steer the ship so far off course fans started questioning his status as the future of the Redskins franchise, well, mission accomplished.
Alas, RG3 is not just any old second-year quarterback, however, and 2013, given the unique set of circumstances Griffin finds himself in, is no average year.
This season RG3 not only needs to prove the ridiculous performances that won him the 2012 Offensive Rookie of the Year award were no fluke. He has to do it while simultaneously trying to recover from offseason surgery on both his ACL and LCL and, because the universe clearly holds some sort of vendetta against the Baylor alum, he has to do it just one year after Adrian “All Day” Peterson made coming back from the exact same surgery look about as complicated as waking up from a nap.
There was a time in the NFL when an ACL injury meant a free pass to completely phone it in for a year with no threat of backlash from even your harshest critics. Well those days are over. We’re living in a post-Adrian Peterson world now, folks, and from this point forward unless your organs burst or your kneecap gets ripped completely out of its socket, you’ve got no excuse but to fully recover from any setback your body may experience in 10 months’ time. And no matter how unreasonable it sounds, you're expected to come back from the injury even better than you were before it happened.
That’s the lesson Peterson taught us all in 2012, and it’s the lesson RG3 will unfortunately have to learn firsthand this season. Granted, you’d be crazy to count the phenom out after what we’ve seen so far and sure, there’s probably a part of him that’s actually pretty fired up about the opportunity to prove his doubters wrong once again. But do you really think if RG3 had the option to just fast forward right past the 2013 season and the glaring obstacles it represents and move on to next year now, he wouldn’t take it?
There may be no player in the league facing a bigger career crossroads in 2013 than Titans running back Chris Johnson, and unless the Chris Johnson who shows up this year is the same one who embarrassed would-be tacklers with blazing speed so often from 2008-10, the results probably won’t be very pretty.
For what it’s worth, 2012 was actually a pretty decent year for the former All-Pro—over 1,200 yards including five trips over the 120-yard mark. It just fell painfully short of the lofty expectations Johnson set so early in his career and in the end only served to further separate the player he is now from the one we thought he was going to become.
Why the artist formerly known as CJ2K continues to struggle remains a mystery, as he’s never been seriously injured and has only missed a single game in his entire five-year career. What happens next if those struggles continue, however, is already painfully clear. And just in case it wasn’t, Tennessee went out and signed a relatively high profile running back in free agency this offseason, Shonn Greene, making the sense of urgency for Johnson to revive his career so palpable it’s now sitting in the locker room right next to him.
There’s nothing subtle about what the Titans expect from Chris Johnson this season, especially after giving the guy a contract worth over $50 million back in 2011.
It’s probably safe to assume Johnson won’t be rewarded nearly as handsomely the next time around if he fails to deliver this season.
That’s right—a monumental challenge is looming for the entire Ravens defense in 2013, and there’s no way any of them can be too eager to face it.
2013 will not only mark the first time in over a decade that the Ravens will be playing without perennial Pro Bowl safety and former Defensive Player of the Year Ed Reed, it will also be the first time the team has ever taken the field without linebacker Ray Lewis, as the emotional leader finally called it quits at the end of last season after 17 riveting years of screaming at grown men for a living (OK, so he did make 13 Pro Bowls and 10 All-Pro teams during that span too, but who’s counting?).
Yes, Baltimore does still have a defense chock full of studs—namely linebacker Terrell Suggs and nose tackle Haloti Ngata. And yes, it was recently blessed with an infusion of young talent, but replacing two surefire Hall of Famers at once is a frightening scenario under any circumstances. It's even worse considering there are six other starters the Ravens parted ways with this offseason.
Whether or not the Ravens defense struggles to adapt to life without Ray Lewis or Ed Reed remains to be seen.
Whether they’d prefer to have never had to find out what that life consists of in the first place, however, goes without saying.
Patriots quarterback Tom Brady has never experienced a season quite like 2013, and for a 35-year-old quarterback that’s used to competing for championships every year, that’s discouraging to say the least.
On the one hand, he is still Tom Brady. He’s still going to wake up every morning with a Brazilian supermodel at his side in a $20 million, moat-equipped dream castle from the future. He’s still going to play the hardest position in all of sports as well as anyone ever has. In that sense, the Tom Brady of 2013 will be completely unchanged and for Patriots fans, UGG enthusiasts, and most importantly Brady himself, that’s extremely good news.
On the other hand, however, New England is in the midst of perhaps its strangest offseason ever right now, and with so many off-field distractions and uncharacteristic roster moves sure to impact it, it’s entirely feasible the 2013 Patriots season is already so cursed even Tom Terrific won’t be able to reverse it.
The chaotic transition from 2012 to ’13 actually began on a positive note, or at least what seemed like one at the time: Brady restructured his contract back in February to free up the cap space he knew New England would need to sustain its winning program for years to come (hopefully). That’s when the roller coaster that is the Patriots’ offseason reached the top of the hill, however, and it’s been pretty much an all-out free fall ever since.
Gone is the team’s most prolific wide receiver of this era, Wes Welker, who’ll now be catching balls thrown by Brady’s biggest career rival, Peyton Manning. Perfect. Also gone are Danny Woodhead, Brandon Lloyd and Donald Thomas, who may not have been consistent contributors but were at least familiar with Bill Belichick’s role-centric system.
In their place, New England added two receivers through the draft and another in Danny Amendola, who showed plenty of potential during four seasons with St. Louis but has been plagued with several key injuries. Perhaps just because they’re anticipating the need for a miracle at some point later this season, the team signed quarterback Tim Tebow, who may never take the field but whose presence will at least ensure the entire year is accompanied by a media frenzy even more intense than it already would be.
Of course, none of this would matter if Brady still had his two most dangerous weapons to target this season, tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. Gronkowski has undergone five surgeries in the last eight months and Hernandez, well, let’s just say football is pretty low on his list of priorities right now.
Again, these are still the New England Patriots we’re talking about here, and he’s still the amazing Tom Brady.
But even three-time Super Bowl champions like to start a season with some sense of stability, do they not?
Let’s pretend for a moment that being an NFL kicker isn’t the hands down best job in the world, all things considered, and that despite all evidence to the contrary, NFL kickers are indeed capable of feeling unsatisfied in their incredibly lucrative, laughably low-risk careers.
Assuming those things, Lions kicker David Akers is probably having trouble getting to sleep these days, because if such a thing exists, Akers just walked into a kicker’s worst nightmare in Detroit.
Akers is 38 years old and is coming off the worst season of his 15-year career. Two years ago, he underwent a double hernia surgery and in 2012, whether because of the injury or not, he made only 29 of 42 field goals playing for San Francisco.
This year, he’ll be attempting to replace the all-time leading scorer in Lions history, Jason Hanson, who’d been with the team his entire 21-year career before retiring at the end of last season. That’s right, Detroit will be fielding a new kicker for the first time since 1992 this year, and Akers is the poor soul expected to carry that torch.
Not that the job is officially his quite yet, however. Akers still needs to first beat out the other kicker Detroit signed this offseason, a 28-year-old Norwegian named Havard Rugland who’s never played professional football before but rose to fame through a trick-shot YouTube video so impressive he’s now known better by the nickname he created for the video, “Kickalicious,” than he is his actual name.
This means even if Akers does win the job, any missteps this season and he can expect an ample backlash from disappointed Lions fans who’ve been clamoring for the team to give the young gun a chance to show what’s he got, not to mention those who just plain miss the old guy. Early reports indicate Rugland has been impressive in his limited work thus far, and he’s apparently already planning another trick-kick video as we speak.
Even for a guy who’s almost 40 years old and still getting paid about $1 million a year just to kick a football 100 times, that’s one insanely disheartening way to start a season.
Hey, at least he’s not Billy Cundiff.
Another year, another season’s worth of brilliant, SportsCenter top ten highlights from Larry Fitzgerald to go completely to waste.
At this point, there’s no sadder story in the modern sports era—purely from a career perspective—than the tragedy now synonymous with Larry Darnell Fitzgerald, Jr.
In an age where the most recognized names at his position are petty, egotistical, loudmouth divas, Fitzgerald continues to astonish with his amazing combination of athleticism, discipline and an uncanny ability to not be a total jerk to everyone around him for no apparent reason. It’s only because of Fitzgerald that we know it’s even possible to be an extremely talented wide receiver these days and not simultaneously be a completely insufferable loudmouth, and it’s in part thanks to his humble demeanor that the nine-year veteran has been consistently recognized as one of the best receivers in the NFL throughout his entire career.
The punishment you just knew the universe would sentence to a sports figure as admirable as Fitzgerald? The guy’s had to spend his entire career in Arizona, which is traditionally one of the NFL’s worst franchises and has definitely lived up to that reputation during most of the receiver’s time there.
This season the Cardinals will be coming off a 5-11 record and hoping to notch just their fifth winning record in 29 years if everything goes to plan. They’ll be playing under a new coach for the third time since Fitzgerald joined the team, and will begin the year with their twelfth different starting quarterback over that same span.
It’s not all bad news, as the new coach and quarterback—Bruce Arians and Carson Palmer—both seem capable of improving the team, but the fresh start their hiring is supposed to represent simply has to feel like déjà vu at this point to a guy who’s already been through this vicious cycle several times before with little to show for it.
Larry Fitzgerald is tired. Cardinals fans are tired. It’s entirely possible the overhauled team turns a corner and 2013 winds up a massive success.
But why on earth would Fitzgerald, or anyone else for that matter, expect that to actually happen?
The highlight of the 2013 season for Vikings receiver Greg Jennings already happened: On March 15, he signed a five-year deal with $18 million in guaranteed money, potentially worth up to $48 million depending on how well he performs.
And therein lies the problem: At this stage in his career, even Jennings himself isn’t sure how good he actually is, and after signing with Minnesota, the clock is now ticking toward the day we all inevitably find out, for better or for worse.
For the first seven years of his career, Greg Jennings was living a wide receiver’s dream. The former Green Bay Packer cut his teeth playing with one of the best quarterbacks of all time in Brett Favre—who, in his late thirties at the time, was just as valuable a teammate as he was a mentor by default—then smoothly transitioned to spending the prime of his career playing with one of the best of the current generation, Aaron Rodgers.
Which QB will be likewise responsible for Jennings’ production now that he’s a Viking? That would be Christian Ponder, a third-year Florida State grad who’s shown steady improvement but still has the occasional no-touchdown, 63-yard stinker every now and then.
Also consider the supporting cast Jennings is leaving behind in Green Bay, and what he’s getting in return. Clearly Jennings was Rodger’s No. 1 option when he was playing for the Packers, but that was No. 1 out of like…twenty. This is one of the most talented units in all of football we’re talking about here, a top ten passing team every year since 2003 that converted their dominance into annual playoff appearances, Pro Bowls and even a Lombardi trophy at one point along the way.
Minnesota? No one’s sure they even have a No. 2 option at this point, and that’s precisely why Jennings got paid what he did: The passing game is now expected to flow directly through Jennings’ hands, and if it continues to fluster the way it has in recent years (they haven’t finished higher than No. 26 in passing offense since 2009 when their quarterback was—who else?—Brett Favre), a fair share of the blame is bound to fall directly on his shoulders.
No doubt Greg Jennings will be happy to see all those zeros on his paychecks this season, but if things go as sour as they very well could, he might not be happy about much else.
Any rookie is going to be ecstatic about the chance to play in the NFL, that’s just a given. There must be some level of excitement so inherent in the opportunity that no set of circumstances, however severe, would be substantial enough to negate it altogether.
Be that as it may, timing is as important in football as it is in anything else, and for the chosen few that get to join the NFL’s ranks this year and play its most important position, there’s no denying they’ll enter the league with a uniquely unfortunate handicap just because they happened to start their careers at the moment that they did.
Being a rookie quarterback in 2013 is like going on stage after the Beatles in 1965. If the NFL were a drive-in, this year’s rookie quarterbacks would be the movie that comes on right after you just saw Star Wars for the first time. If it were HBO, they’d have the time slot right after Game of Thrones. Capisce?
How would you like your stats compared to Cam Newton’s and RG3’s your first time ever playing professional football? What would your record look like next to Andrew Luck’s, or Colin Kaepernick’s, if you were in their shoes? Russell Wilson? Andy Dalton? Hell, even Ryan Tannehill is starting to show some promise!
The reality young guns like E.J. Manuel and Geno Smith will have to come to terms with is that the learning curve for NFL quarterbacks is shrinking by the day. If they can’t find a way to quickly convince the people who hired them that they’re up to the job at hand, those people will get right back to searching for someone who is before they know what happened.
Clearly playing quarterback at the professional level is an amazing accomplishment that every rookie is justified in celebrating. Just don’t think for a moment that any of them are oblivious to how tough it is to sustain a career beyond that initial stage, or how fierce the competition to do just that has become in recent years.
It’s hard to imagine an NFL player feeling more pessimistic about the 2013 season than Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez, who must realize that by the time this season ends, his days in New York will probably be over and his career as a starter will officially be in jeopardy.
Not that any New York Jet should be very excited about the upcoming season in which the snake-bitten franchise will attempt to improve on last year’s 6-10 record minus its best player and a slew of other starters on both sides of the field. It’s just that Sanchez will have the most to lose when the season inevitably bursts into flames, unless of course you count head coaches.
Sanchez’s career started with a bang by reaching consecutive AFC championships in 2009 and 2010 but has been slowly unraveling ever since, no thanks to an organization that has expressed mediocre-at-best confidence in his ability to lead their team.
Those mixed signals were never more confusing than during last year’s bizarre offseason when New York tried to lure Peyton Manning, gave up and signed Sanchez to a three-year extension with over $20 million in guaranteed money, then promptly traded for the most polarizing quarterback in NFL history, Tim Tebow.
This offseason, they released Tebow, which would seem to bode well for Sanchez’s future with the team except for the fact that it happened right after the Jets used a second round draft pick to bring in another polarizing, high-profile quarterback, Geno Smith. Let’s not forget Sanchez is coming off the worst statistical season since his rookie year—one that just so happened to include maybe the most embarrassing highlight in the history of football—and that most of the team’s receiving corps is currently struggling with injuries.
There’s no point trying to sugarcoat it. Mark Sanchez: 2013 just isn’t your year.
On the bright side, though, everyone understands the tough spot you’re in, so if you play your cards right, there’s a good chance someone else will take a shot on you once this season passes.
Who knows? Next year the Jets might even end up continuing to pay you to play for one of their rivals instead.
Doesn’t that sound nice?