How does an NFL player get up to play in games that are meaningless? It's not easy, and it varies greatly depending on the leadership of the team in general and mindset of the individual player in particular.
I was unfortunately in this situation a few times, and there are several directions a player can take. So if you are a fan of the Carolina Panthers, Buffalo Bills and, yes, even those Dallas Cowboys, pay attention and try to identify which players on your team go in which direction.
Players take their cues from the leaders of the team, much more so than the coaches. If the leaders remain mentally focused, there is a much better chance more of the other individuals on the team will do the same. If not, look out.
The top five to 10 players on a team, the elite guys, are more disappointed than anything, but most of them still go about their business in the same way because they wouldn't have gotten to that status without having great discipline and great work ethic.
Then there are the guys like me who realize it is actually more important to play well when things are going poorly than it is when things are going well. If an average player has a couple of bad plays in a win, that usually is forgiven. In a loss? Could be grounds for a switch.
The only constant in the NFL is change, and everyone in the building should know, even though some inexplicably don't, that a horrendous season means a whole lot of change is ahead. I was always keenly aware of that, as my coach was fired at the end of my first three seasons in the NFL. As such, I would focus even more intently on my weekly preparation, knowing all too well that I needed to put my best foot forward so I wasn't part of the impending change. And even if I was going to be one of the ones shipped out the door, I had to put some good performances on tape so I might land a job elsewhere. A decent amount of players in the NFL are cognizant of this dynamic, especially the older guys who have been through it before.
Then there is the oblivious group -- usually young players who don't really pay attention to the media and fans and don't really think about the fact that they are out of the playoff race before it started. Even if they do realize it, they don't think about the consequences of such a disastrous season because they have never been through it before. For them, ignorance is bliss. Kind of.
And then there is the last group, the guys who realize they are just playing out the string and treat it as such. The more guys like this on your team, the worse off you are. They will let their preparation slide during the week both mentally and physically because they will wonder what the point is of putting in extra time. Like I wrote about last week, some of them will no longer be accountable because they feel like they no longer have anyone they need to be accountable to, especially if they believe the coach is on his way out and don't fear any type of discipline from management.
It will be very interesting over the next eight weeks to watch these teams, and others that soon will be in the same situation, to see which players step up their play and overcome the adversity, and which don't.
From the inbox
Q: What do you think of Rob Ryan as the head coach of Dallas next year?
Turbo Dean from Atlanta
A: That's an intriguing idea, especially with the amount of success and attention his brother Rex has brought to the New York Jets, but I don't see it happening. I think Jerry Jones would like the publicity that having an outspoken coach like Ryan in the fold would bring, but Jones knows he has to go with a proven winner, and likely a proven Super Bowl winner, from a credibility standpoint. As good a job as Ryan has done with the Browns' defense this season, he has never been a head coach in the NFL and I don't envision Jones giving him his first opportunity.
Q: I've always wondered what happens in the pig pile when there is a fumble. Do you have any stories about what you have experienced at the bottom of the pile or any stories you have heard that you would like to share?
Ryan from Laguna Beach, Calif.
A: In general, I think what happens in those scrums is a little overstated. Most guys are just trying to rip the ball out of your hands, although I have heard on a couple of occasions about the player in possession of the football at the bottom of the pile getting grabbed in a place no man wants to be grabbed. Then it's time for the player to decide what is more important to him at that point. Man, am I glad that never happened to me.
Q: I don't put much stock in NFL power rankings, because they really don't matter until the playoffs start. This is trivial, but in last week's top 10, you had Tampa above New Orleans. Since the Saints beat Tampa by 25 in Week 4, what criteria did you use? Was it strictly their records at the time, or do you see something that I am missing?
Bill from LaPlace, La.
A: I think power rankings are a fun thing to have because they are a debate nobody can win. The great thing about NFL power rankings, unlike the polls in college football, is that they are meaningless and nobody should get too worked up over them because everything is ultimately decided on the field, the way it should be. As for my top 10, I don't put a great deal of quantitative analysis into it. It is more of a gut reaction to what I have seen, and which team I think is playing better and would win on a neutral field at that time. Head-to-head play is certainly strongly considered, but that can't be the end all, because a team like New Orleans beats the Steelers and Bucs but loses to the Cardinals and Browns.
Q: How much is it permitted to use the QB helmet communication? Could a coach yell "cover the ball" when a LB is bearing down from the blind side completely unbeknownst to the QB?
David from Onchan, Isle of Man
A: Good question and one that I had first thought about when I was a player. The answer is that the coach-to-quarterback communication is shut off once the play clock gets down to 15 seconds, so it is impossible for a coach to communicate with his signal-caller once the ball has been snapped.
Ross Tucker, who played on the offensive line for five teams during his seven-year NFL career, writes regularly for ESPN.com.