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Poll shows importance of reputation

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- He said it with a smile, with no malice directed toward either of his former teams. But New York Giants running back Rashad Jennings was speaking from the heart.

"From my experience, going from Jacksonville to Oakland to now being here?" Jennings said. "I feel like I just got in the NFL."

It may not be fair, but this is the way it is. NFL players talk to each other, and teams get reputations -- good and bad. And if you have a bad one, it's pretty tough to shake.

Today's featured NFL Nation Confidential question asked players which team they'd play for only if it doubled their salary, and you don't see the Giants or the Steelers or the Patriots or the Broncos or the Seahawks topping the list. The five most common answers included both of Jennings' former teams. In order, the top five were the Raiders, Bills, Browns, Jaguars and Packers.

The Packers are the ones that don't appear to belong on the list because, unlike the first four, they've been consistent contenders and even champions in recent years. But one of the players I polled picked Green Bay and said (jokingly, I think) that it was because he feared his wife would leave him before she would move to a place that cold.

So you see what this is about, right? Players want to be comfortable. In many cases, the answer to a question like this has more to do with what their day-to-day life will be like than it does with whether we think the team in question would be a fun one for which to play.

Take Oakland, for example. Jennings said he very much enjoyed his season there.

"The organization is lovely," Jennings said. "The fans are great. The people are great. The weather's awesome. I don't really know why anybody would not ... well, if they've been other places before, the facilities there are not the best."

The facilities?

"Yeah, have you seen their weight room?" Jennings asked. "My high school's was better, and I'm not kidding about that."

And you don't have to be on the inside for this to be a factor. Players work out together in the offseason, and they talk. Players know which teams' weight rooms and cafeterias and training camp hotels are better than others, and when it comes time to pick a team in free agency, a player brings that bias with him.

How does an NFL team get on a list like this? Well, again, other than the Packers, the teams on this list have struggled to contend. They have changed coaches, GMs, even owners in recent seasons, in some cases more than once, creating a feeling of instability. That can be forgiven if there are other factors at play. For instance, no team has been a bigger mess over the past year than the Dolphins, but you don't see them on the list because Miami's a pretty sweet place to live in the winter. But if you're an organization that doesn't appear from the outside to have its act together and you play in frigid Buffalo? That's a big "no thanks" for an NFL player looking for a team.

The lesson for the teams that got these votes is pretty simple: You can't control the weather, but you have to do what you can to control the way people on the outside perceive you. You have to create a winning culture. A feeling that the people in charge are going to stay in charge, that their vision and their plan is part of what defines the place. Changing coaches and staff willy-nilly is a big turnoff, and, by the way, it tends not to work. Teams that look like messes on the outside can do anything they want to do on the inside, but it's not going to help them lure players there if they don't start to project something more desirable.

"I loved my time in Oakland," Jennings said. "So I think it's just a perception, and the whole stigma of it. Once you get into the organization, you like it there. It's pretty nice."

Sure, but the question wasn't, "Which team is probably not as bad as its reputation suggests?" It was, "Which team would you play for only if it doubled your salary?" And the winner was the Oakland Raiders. Their fans and the people inside the organization may not think that's fair, but a reputation is what a reputation is. And it doesn't much matter how great your organization is on the inside if you can't convince people to come find out.