It began in the heat of summer, learning new pass routes in shorts and tee-shirts, then donning pads and absorbing the first bruises of another NFL season.
They played four exhibition games, sorting the men from the boys, then 16 regular-season games, adjusting for injuries, dealing with adversity, taking risks with lineup changes.
They kept their heads above water, won a division title along the way, qualified for the playoffs and won with a stirring comeback in the wild-card round.
They hit the road for a divisional playoff game, landed in a hostile environment, still managed to extend the game into overtime, then lost the coin toss. And never touched the ball. One possession and one win short of the Super Bowl, perhaps, and they never touched the ball. End of game, end of season.
It happened to the Pittsburgh Steelers last weekend. It happened to the Oakland Raiders last year in the snow at New England. It could happen to any of four teams this weekend.
Since the NFL adopted sudden-death overtime in 1974, nearly one of every three OT games has been decided by a single possession. In other words, the team that won the toss drove for the winning score without the opposing team ever touching the ball.
How such an inequitable rule has survived for so long is hard to understand, especially with high schools and colleges thriving from other formats.
If the outcome of the Fiesta Bowl, where Ohio State beat Miami for the major college national championship in two overtimes, proved nothing else, it emphatically showed that the NFL has an inferior overtime procedure.
Both teams must have an equal opportunity to win. Especially in the playoffs.
At this time of year, most players are in it for the glory. Rings and championships. But they are professionals, remember, so we must discuss money.
Each Pittsburgh player earned $17,000 in each of the team's playoff games. That adds up to $34,000, which isn't bad, but which is less than each Eagle, Buc, Raider and Titan will earn this weekend in conference title games. The difference between losing in the divisional round and winning the Super Bowl is about $100,000 per man.
And they didn't touch the ball in overtime.
High school and college OT rules assure each team equal chances, starting at the opponents' 25 yard line.
If the NFL wants to maintain its individuality, here's a format it could consider:
A coin is flipped. The winner chooses offense or defense. From that point on, the game is played in a regular manner. There is a kickoff and the receiving team (Team A) has a first down from the point of the return. The possession ends in a score, a punt, a turnover or on downs.
If Team A scores a touchdown or field goal on its first possession, it then kicks off and Team B gets its chance against the long field. If Team A doesn't score, Team B gains possession as it would under normal rules - a punt, an interception, etc. Any defensive touchdown scored during the first two possessions would, of course, end the game.
If Team A scores and then holds Team B scoreless or to fewer points, the game is over. If Team B uses its possession to outscore Team A, the game is over. If the score remains tied after each team has had one possession, the game continues under normal rules but reverts to a sudden-death format, with a coin flip determining which team gets the ball first. Each team has had one possession, one equal chance, and after that the first team to score in whatever manner would be the winner.
This format would not cater to television - so perhaps it is doomed - as it could cause overtimes to last longer and impact broadcast schedules. A college format would be more TV-friendly.
Fine. Whatever. Just change it. The NFL's overtime has been unfair for nearly three decades, and that's long enough.
My goodness, is Tampa Bay's offense suddenly that good, or were the 49ers just that putrid last weekend? It figures that the NFC title game is going to be all defense, with the yards surrendered grudgingly. Swami thinks that puts the ball in the hands of the Bucs' Mike Alstott, and the bruising back might be enough to put Jon Gruden in the Super Bowl against his former team. It will be a mild upset, especially in not-so-tropical Veterans Stadium, when the Bucs erase memories of last year's playoff bomb against the Eagles and edge Philadelphia, 13-10.
Earlier this season, Tennessee visited Oakland and lost by a whopping 52-25. Sure, the Titans are vastly improved, and Steve McNair is better than ever, but the Raiders haven't exactly gone backwards. Oakland has so many offensive weapons, led by NFL player of the year Rich Gannon, and a defense that can slam the door. Swami likes the Raiders to advance to the Super Bowl, 34-24.
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