When a season starts to slip away, as it has for many teams around the league right now, it breaks your soul as a player. The energy level in the building dips, the attention to detail falls off, the game prep starts to feel like homework. You start looking toward the offseason, just hoping to make it through the rest of the games healthy.
I experienced it firsthand back in 2003 as a member of Steve Spurrier's Washington Redskins. After a 3-1 start that included a win over Tom Brady and the Patriots, we were talking big at the beginning of October: playoffs, Super Bowl, Pro Bowls. Hey, everyone wanted in on this thing. Jump on the train.
But success in the NFL can be so fleeting. We lost the next four games and never recovered. From 3-1 to 5-11. Brutal.
There's a reason coach Hue Jackson got visibly emotional while trying to describe how the Browns still haven't won a game this season. Remember, these dudes on bad football teams -- coaches, players, executives -- they're all human. And when the wheels start to loosen on a season and eventually fall off, there's nowhere to hide.
I still remember a Sunday night game down in Miami when we blew a big lead. It was our sixth loss in seven games. The winning touchdown? The Dolphins caught us in a blitz, and I was left to make the tackle on Ricky Williams. But that didn't happen. Nope. Instead, I took a stiff-arm to the face as Williams walked in for the score. Good-bye.
I still remember traveling to Chicago in Week 16, with Spurrier promising us an extended "Victory Monday" if we won that game -- three days off heading into the final week of the season. He threw a carrot out there for us, doing anything to buy a win. Didn't work. Paul Edinger kicked a game-winning field goal with five seconds left to beat us.
I still remember Week 17, when we got shredded in our final home game by the Eagles. 31-7. In my opinion, Andy Reid called off the dogs in that one. He took it easy on us. Philly could've scored 40 or maybe even 50 if they wanted to.
That Eagles team went to the NFC Championship Game. Our squad? We went home.
Yeah, we had some injuries. But so did everyone else. That's life in the league. Talent? There was enough in our locker room to win.
Coaching? I loved the defensive staff. And while Spurrier's stock as an NFL coach never recovered, I'm not going to blame him. No way. Sure, I didn't agree with some of the structure of his program or the style of practices we had late in the season, but Spurrier didn't get stiff-armed by Ricky or smoked by Keyshawn Johnson on a post route in a blowout loss to the Bucs. Nope. That was me.
"Remember, these dudes on bad football teams -- coaches, players, execs -- they're all human. And when the wheels start to loosen on a season and eventually fall off, there's nowhere to hide."
A lot of us had an idea that Spurrier wouldn't be back the next season once the calendar flipped to December. And a lot of us were right. Owner Dan Snyder replaced Spurrier with Joe Gibbs in the offseason. And I would say uncertainty surrounding the head coach had an impact on the locker room, practice and our overall game prep as we finished out the year.
Things just started to drag a bit. The pace of practice slowed down, the film study slipped and the game plans got lighter. We became that team sleepwalking through the daily routine. It was now "work" at the facility. That excitement of getting a fresh game plan? That's for the playoff teams, the contenders. I've experienced that excitement. And it's great.
But we didn't have that anymore. It was gone. Just like the energy in the building. That stuff quickly evaporated over the last month and a half of the season. Now we were just football zombies throughout the week. Clock in and clock out. Take some notes, and head home.
Game day? Yeah, we still played hard because you have to in order to survive an NFL Sunday. You go out there soft, and you'll probably end up on the cart with an injury. This game is too fast and too physical to walk around on that field like you don't care. Plus, we all knew we were basically auditioning for next season and the next head coach in Washington. Better put something good on tape, right?
I often say that NFL seasons are fragile. And when the team breaks -- or shatters into a thousand little pieces like it did in 2003 -- you don't recover as a player. You just try to survive.
ESPN.com NFL analyst Matt Bowen played seven seasons as a defensive back in the NFL.