It's the one thing all NFL players crave no matter how much money they make or what round they were drafted in. Unlike money and draft status, it is something that has to be earned every step of a player's career.
Professional football is not easy. It is especially difficult during a long, drawn-out season for a subpar team. You're hurting, you're tired, and no matter how well you play, the team isn't going to the playoffs and might not even have a great chance to win any particular Sunday. Some guys just play out the string. The really tough guys, physically and, more importantly, mentally, are able to block out the negative vibe and prepare in the same manner each week.
Allen finished the season with 22 sacks, including 3.5 in the finale against Chicago. It's arguably the most impressive season a pass-rusher has ever had and makes him the single-season sack king in my book. Sure, former Giants DE Michael Strahan holds the record with 22.5 sacks in 2001, but he was handed a free sack in the season finale that season by Packers quarterback Brett Favre, a move that still bothers the offensive lineman in me. Allen wasn't given anything. He earned every single sack -- the hard way.
It was the hard way because he was on a 3-13 team that rarely played with a lead. That makes his consistent effort and performance all the more impressive. Pass-rushers usually feast on teams that have to throw the ball to get back into the game when trailing, especially late in games. It gives them the chance to tee off on the quarterback without having to worry about defending the run. More pass attempts by the opposition equals more sack opportunities for the pass-rushers. It's simple math. Allen had no such luxury and still thrived.
As with Allen, the odds were stacked firmly against Jones-Drew. The Jags had no real passing game to speak of, so he had to run into eight- and sometimes even nine-man defensive fronts. That's like running into a brick wall. Yet he still averaged an amazing 4.7 yards per carry, a testament to not only his ability to gain yards after contact and absorb punishment but also his offensive line.
The focus this week will be on the wild-card round matchups and all of the coaching and front-office firings, and that's understandable. But it shouldn't overshadow the amazing performances of Allen and MJD. Fans want their professional athletes to be accountable and to play hard no matter what the circumstances, and there are no better recent examples than the 2011 seasons of Allen and Jones-Drew.
From the inbox
Q: Two things I've heard about Tim Tebow since at least his senior year at Florida: (1) he is an exceptionally hard worker, but (2) he needs to fix his slow windup and poor mechanics if he wants to be a successful NFL QB. If the first statement is true, shouldn't the second statement have been addressed by now? His mechanical issues (which contribute to high sack totals and accuracy problems) are well-documented, long-standing and correctable, right? Why so little progress from someone with his reputed work ethic?
Eric from Washington, D.C.
A: Fair question, though I think Tebow has made more progress than you give him credit for. I still think he can improve further, but the bigger question is, how much? There is a ceiling on what every player can accomplish based on his physical gifts. No matter how much I improved as a player, I never would have been a Pro Bowl offensive tackle, for example, because my arms weren't long enough and my feet weren't quick enough. Just as importantly, old habits are hard to break. It is not as easy to revamp one's techniques as you might think, no matter how much time you put in. I never became as good with my hands and footwork as I wanted to.
Q: How much money do players make from each playoff game? Is it possible that for many players, the additional money is not worth the added wear-and-tear and injury risk? We have heard many players over the summer openly opposed to an extended regular season because of the risk, but if you make the playoffs, you are playing additional games for relatively low compensation. I hate to be cynical, but players with big contracts might rather not expose their bodies to risk in playoff games where the monetary compensation was relatively small compared with their regular season salary. Especially at injury-prone positions like RB, they might secretly hope to not make the playoffs or at least be an early exit. If a player were nursing an injury, he might play it safe and sit out rather than risk himself in a poorly compensated playoff game. From a career earnings standpoint, a player might prefer to protect his health rather than possibly sustain a serious injury that could impact his ability to get that new contract and play in future seasons -- a business decision, if you will. I'd love to hear your candid thoughts.
Jim from Vancouver, Wash.
A: I don't think many players verbalize it as effectively as you just laid it out, but there is no question that some players are privately dubious about the playoffs. The first round of the playoffs is worth $18,000 per player, which is about $182,000 less than a starter making $3.4 million for a season gets per week. On the flip side: It is extra money that they weren't planning to receive, the playoffs are where you can really make a name for yourself, and pretty much every team that makes the postseason believes it could go on a magical run and make it to the Super Bowl. That's the dream.
Q: When a team visits an NFL city, does it have the opportunity to conduct a practice or walk-through at the host team's stadium, or is the first opportunity to be on the field on game day? I am a Packers fan, and I know that the visiting teams fly in to and stay in Appleton, Wis., so I am curious if they make two trips to Green Bay.
Tom from Brookings, S.D.
A: No. Visiting NFL teams generally do not conduct walk-throughs in the home team's stadium the day before the game. There's really no reason to, and the day's walk-through is generally conducted in the team's home city in the morning before the team even gets on the airplane. In fact, teams generally don't get into the game city until 3-5 p.m. local time the day before. Although a West Coast team traveling east or an East Coast team going west might do it on a Saturday after a Friday arrival, I'm not aware of teams ever doing that.
Q: I've always wondered how much NFL players buy into the team mentality of football. In your experience as a player, would you say that the average player prefers to play well in a loss or the opposite?
Michael from New Jersey
A: It really depends on the player. It is a team sport, and players know that mistakes are more easily forgiven when your team wins. But ultimately it is an individual profession, and every player knows that he is being judged primarily on his individual performance. It's a unique dichotomy, that's for sure.
Ross Tucker, who played on the offensive line for five teams in a seven-year NFL career, writes regularly for ESPN.com.