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Tuesday, January 11, 2011
Updated: January 13, 12:19 PM ET
It's not about the money, really

By Ross Tucker
ESPN.com

Forget what the greeting card companies tell you about the holidays. January is the most wonderful time of the year.

It's playoff time in the NFL, and the greatness is not merely confined to the fact that the best teams are going toe-to-toe with each other. The beauty of the NFL postseason goes much deeper than that.

It's not about the money this time of year. It really isn't. And that's a big reason why it is so awesome. Grown men, all highly paid professionals, are playing for pretty much one reason -- to win it all. It's like high school all over again and the goal is to win a state title.

Isn't that exactly the way you want it to be? That the players on the field care about reaching the ultimate goal as much as you and your buddies do?

Of course, that's not always the case in the regular season. For the vast majority of players, it is about making as much money as they possibly can during their typically short careers before their bodies betray them. Why else would elite players sign big-money deals with perennial also-rans like Detroit, Cleveland and Buffalo?

But the playoffs are different. The money is really just an afterthought. NFL players receive $21,000 for each of the first two rounds of the playoffs. It is a gigantic sum of money for 99.9 percent of the world's population for a week's wage, but not for most NFL starters.

Let's say that the average salary for a slightly above-average NFL starter is $3.4 million. That guy gets a check for $200,000 before taxes every single Monday of the season for 17 weeks. The playoff checks are peanuts compared to that and barely even worth it for some of the elite players, if you think about the injury risk and increased wear and tear involved.

In fact, one starter for a team still playing responded via text message that he "had no idea" what the compensation was during the playoffs when asked recently. How cool is that?

The other neat aspect of playoff compensation is that every player on the roster gets paid the exact same amount. That means Tom Brady's paycheck for this weekend's game against the Jets will be the exact same as that dude on the kickoff team whose name you can't remember.

It really is high school all over again, and all that matters is which guys get to say in February that they are on the best team around.

From the inbox

Q: Just a quick question on team attitudes toward GM and coaching salaries. With a salary cap keeping spending among teams for players at a level amount, it has been my contention for several years that the way a team can improve its odds of creating a consistent winner is through the hiring of GMs and coaching staffs. I mean, if leaguewide everyone has the same amount of money to spend, then it goes to figure that the salaries of the best GMs and coaches would skyrocket. But I don't see that happening. Instead, I see teams trying to cut coaching salaries. This seems odd to me. Could you give me your take on this?

Phil in Bali, Indonesia

A:
I have often espoused the same theory, and agree with you in principle, though it doesn't always seem to work that way in practice. Because there is no ceiling or cap on front office or coach spending, that is an area in which an aggressive owner can conceivably secure a competitive advantage by paying for elite-level talent, as Daniel Snyder and the Redskins did by hiring Mike Shanahan and Bruce Allen. Whether or not it ends up working in the Skins' favor, however, remains to be seen. With teams like the Atlanta Falcons, Baltimore Ravens and others having success in recent years with nondescript former assistants such as Mike Smith and John Harbaugh as their head coaches, it is no wonder why some NFL teams will elect to continue to go that route. It's a lot cheaper, that's for sure.

Q: When is Ben Roethlisberger ever gonna get the props he deserves? I realize he has some nice weapons, but his offensive line is far from stout.

Chad in Elkhart, Ind.

A:
Who doesn't give Big Ben the "props he deserves"? And how exactly does one determine whether or not he is getting enough praise? What constitutes that? Seems to me he is roundly praised for his playmaking ability as well as his two Super Bowl titles. Everyone generally acknowledges him as being one of the top-10 quarterbacks in the league and likely top five. What else are you looking for?

Q: Love your perspective on all things NFL. As you wrote about Andy Reid, he has made the Eagles into a winning franchise. I believe the same is true about Jeff Fisher. Before Fisher came along, the Tennessee Titans (then the Houston Oilers) were a team synonymous with losing. He has changed the culture of the team and made them contenders regularly. Only having Peyton Manning in the same division has kept them from being the dominant team. How is it that people think he should be on a hot seat? Even you have said that you think a change might be good. Surely coaching stability is more important than a crybaby QB.

Dan in Takamatsu, Japan

A:
Fisher is really an interesting case study because it doesn't really seem as if there is any middle ground in terms of how people feel about him. His supporters point out that he took the Titans to the playoffs six times in a 10-year period (1999-2008), including three seasons of 12-4 or better, despite being in the same division as Manning, and is therefore one of the best five coaches in the game today. His detractors talk about how he has only six winning seasons during his 16-plus years (five seasons with an 8-8 record) and is highly overrated. I am with you and lean toward the former, especially when you consider the transition that he took the organization through from Houston to Tennessee. Too often I think coaches these days are judged solely based upon whether they have a championship ring or a long history of postseason success. In the zero-sum game that is the NFL, only a couple of coaches will have those lofty credentials.

Ross Tucker, who played on the offensive line for five teams in his seven-year NFL career, writes regularly for ESPN.com.