Super Bowl or Bust? For NFLers, Putting Winning Above Life Isn't Always so Easy

Mike Tanier@@miketanierNFL National Lead WriterJune 19, 2018

TAMPA, FL - FEBRUARY 01:  Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger #7 of the Pittsburgh Steelers celebrates with the Vince Lombardi trophy in the locker room after defeating the Arizona Cardinals during Super Bowl XLIII on February 1, 2009 at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida. The Steelers won the game by a score of 27-23.  (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)
Al Bello/Getty Images

What's the meaning of life?

[Editor's note: It appears as though our trusted NFL columnist, with no OTAs to occupy him nor any interest in golf or soccer, has gone slightly off the rails. We'll make sure he's nudged back on topic.]

What's the meaning of life in the NFL?

[That's better…for now. We'll continue monitoring.]

The answer is easy: The meaning of life in the NFL is to win Super Bowls.

Right?

Ben Roethlisberger said as much Sunday when asked if he would like to receive a record-breaking contract like the one Matt Ryan recently signed and Aaron Rodgers could soon sign.

"I care about record-breaking Super Bowl wins and things like that—that's more important to me," Roethlisberger told ESPN.com's Jeremy Fowler.

It's a good answer—an employer-and-fanbase-satisfying answer. Roethlisberger even generously suggested that any excess Steelers cash be spread among his offensive linemen, both for his personal protection and for the betterment of future Super Bowl opportunities. Big Ben is all about teammates and championships.

Of course, it's easy not to care about money when playing out the final two years of a four-year, $87.4 million contract. Still, what sort of NFL player would dare place anything above winning a championship?

A Super Bowl-winning Pro Bowl lineman, for one.

"All the media wants to talk about is rings," Eagles tackle Lane Johnson told SB Nation's Brandon Lee Gowton earlier this spring. "I'm going to get this ring and never wear it one day. I'm going to put it away in a box. The only thing you're going to remember from your playing days, you're not going to remember the scores. You're going to remember the people you played with and how you felt."

Gregory Payan/Associated Press

Johnson was reacting directly to questions about whether the Patriots' pursuit of championships took all of the fun out of football.

"All these guys talking about, 'I'll take the rings.' OK. You can have your rings," he said. "You can also have f--king 15 miserable years."

Johnson received his Super Bowl ring for helping to beat the Patriots at a ceremony Thursday night. Had he made remarks about valuing friends and feelings over rings after the Eagles lost a Super Bowl, his reputation in Philly would be finely chopped and served under Cheez Whiz on a torpedo roll. Just as it's easy for the wealthy and secure Roethlisberger to be all about championships, it's easy for the freshly championship-validated Johnson to be all about the camaraderie.

Most fans don't want to hear about a pro athlete's job-satisfaction level. We also don't have a lot of patience with contract demands in most cases. These guys are getting paid unimaginable sums of money to play a game. All we want to hear about is the desire, the competitiveness, the grit and the grind, so that's all most players are willing to talk about.

It's fun to shout, "All that matters is the rings!"—especially if you are from New England and have attended more championship parades than kids' birthday parties over the last 17 years. But that worldview isn't honest, and it isn't fair to the players.

Le'Veon Bell, Roethlisberger's teammate, held out through minicamp and is expected to hold out at the start of training camp if the Steelers do not replace his one-year franchise-tag tender (the second such tender in as many years) with a long-term contract. Bell is one of many veterans around the NFL—along with Aaron Donald, Khalil Mack, David Johnson and Julio Jones—who skipped mandatory practice sessions in pursuit of more money.

Does Bell care less about winning a championship than Big Ben because money is more of a priority for him right now? 

Omar Vega/Associated Press

Are other holdouts being selfish teammates or bad employees? Of course not, even though there's probably someone on your Facebook feed insisting otherwise.

NFL players face uncertain futures in a dangerous profession. They need to earn as much money as they can when they can. If all that mattered to them was the pursuit of a championship, none of them would miss a minicamp rep or a meeting. They would all also be risking tens of millions of dollars of future earning potential to gain some incremental competitive advantage and prove to their employers how extra-super dedicated they are.

The money-versus-rings debate is a hot topic in the NBA, where superstars receive massive guaranteed contracts and tend to cluster together on superteams so they can enjoy the best of both worlds. NBA stars can seek fun cities and likable teammates and championship opportunities and wealth, or mix and match their priorities, with no two or three goals being mutually exclusive.

But in the NFL, contracts and careers are short, and the salary cap is less elastic. Few NFL free agents can afford to take massive pay cuts to join the Patriots or Eagles, especially when the bottom-feeders have so much more money to spend in free agency.

So, big names end up with big contracts on bad teams. And what do they usually say? I'm here to help the Browns win a championship. What they are really saying is, I've traded a minuscule chance at a championship for maximum earning power, and so would you. Admitting as much wouldn't make the player less of a competitor or professional, but it would not play well on the local talk shows.

Sometimes, players who follow the money end up disillusioned by the experience. Most players would probably trade the "misery" of the Patriots environment (which probably isn't the medieval prison it's made out to be) for the high probability of a championship. But misery does not always equate with success, especially outside of Foxborough.

Johnson made his rings-aren't-everything remarks after teammate Brandon Brooks said that he nearly retired from the Texans, Bill O'Brien's knockoff Patriots, because it "was miserable, every day."

Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press

If you bristle under Bill Belichick, perhaps the NFL isn't right for you. But what if a player like Brooks is stuck on some Patriots cover band? Doesn't he owe it to himself to seek opportunities to become either richer or happier?

Conversely, what about the career special teamer or backup tight end who stays on one doomed team for years because he likes the city or his coaches or he doesn't want to force his wife and kids to keep moving? If that player retires without a ring, should he spend the rest of his life regretting that he did not tie his life in knots to earn a year or two on some contender's bench?

Money, happiness or acclaim: If you could only choose two, which ones would you select? It's a real philosophical dilemma, even for a professional athlete who is technically not paid to win championships, but to entertain fans by competing for them, and who faces the high probability of going through an entire NFL career without ever winning one.

Boiling everything in a football player's life down to the chase for more championships dehumanizes them. It makes us think of them as automatons performing for our entertainment pleasure. It tarnishes the legacies of great players who retired without winning Super Bowls. It encourages the Bentley-driving-zillionaire stereotype that's too often leveled at athletes when they do something other than amuse us with touchdowns.

The NFL is full of real human beings seeking not only championships, but money, security and the opportunity to roll out of bed in a decent mood. Admitting that doesn't make them bad players or selfish teammates. Realizing that can make you a better fan, one who is a little less likely to turn on some player who dares to hold out in June or emphasize fun over the grim business of winning.

It's OK for football players to expect more from their career than only rings. These are their lives, after all. They have the right to be content and fulfilled while earning every dime they deserve.

Winning a Super Bowl might be the best way to accomplish that. But it isn't the only way.

            

Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @MikeTanier.

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