The ring can be a burden.
With both of last year's Super Bowl participants eliminated from the playoffs this past weekend, it rekindles the question of why it is so difficult to return to the big game, especially as the defending champion. Many of you still may be wondering how last year's champ, the New Orleans Saints, lost to the sub-.500 Seattle Seahawks on Saturday.
The ring might have had something to do with it.
It's beautiful, something you've wanted your entire life. But in its immediacy, it can be extremely heavy. You've never had your mental toughness tested until you live the challenge of trying to repeat as a world champion.
There are many tests of mental toughness, such as surviving training camp or coming back after a devastating loss or performing better after a game in which you played terribly. But trying to repeat as a world champion is like living with a gorilla riding on your shoulders. Playing every week against an opponent who wants to prove a point by beating the defending world champion is extremely draining.
You can deny it all you want, but you don't realize how much pressure it is until the next season is over. The next training camp, it might not be said, but you feel relieved. The feeling of a fresh start and a clean slate is welcomed.
Beating a former champion during the regular season has tremendous benefits. An argument can be made that even if a team plays a former champion close, it sees even a loss as a victory. For example, when the Patriots lost to the Kurt Warner-led St. Louis Rams 24-17 in 2001, we saw it as a game that gave us tremendous confidence. If we could play with the former champion Rams, we could play with anybody. We rode the momentum that we gained from that experience all the way to winning the Super Bowl that season by beating those very Rams.
We weren't able to repeat after that championship. We fell into the familiar trap the next season by concerning ourselves with things that had little to do with the game. Players were worried about contracts and endorsements and even uniform colors. We learned from that, and luckily, we got a second chance.
The idea of "defending the world championship" has many layers. This isn't boxing, so when you lose your first game the season after winning the Super Bowl, they don't take your title away from you. Anyone who has won a Super Bowl knows it's something that can never be taken away.
Unfortunately, your opponents think very differently, and that's part of the burden of having that ring -- from the first game to the last. Pete Carroll said it after his Seahawks defeated the Saints. In his words, they defeated "the defending world champions."
When I see a group of kids, I will wear one of my rings and reflect on when I put it on. It has taken retirement for me to reach this point. I see the rings, and they remind me of special years of my career played with special teammates and coaches. They are now shiny and weightless when I put them on my hands, but at times, the weight was more than we could handle.
The New Orleans Saints now know this.