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Tuesday, November 22, 2011
Updated: November 23, 8:40 AM ET
Meaningless games? No such thing

By Ross Tucker
ESPN.com

Every game changes lives. That may sound like an overstatement, but it isn't. That's the reality of life as an NFL player.

Think about Vince Young. After a series of issues both on and off the field in Tennessee, the Titans released him. His reputation in NFL circles was sullied -- so much so that even though he has a winning record as a starting quarterback in the NFL, he didn't have any suitors.

Young eventually signed a one-year deal with the Eagles as a backup, not sure whether he would get an opportunity to show what he can do. Well, he got a chance Sunday night on national television with the Eagles' backs against the wall. He made the most of it. He wasn't perfect, throwing three interceptions in his first and, quite possibly, only start of the season. He did, however, make all the critical plays that needed to be made as he led the Eagles on an 18-play, 80-yard drive in which he converted a whopping six third downs. He capped the drive with a touchdown pass to Riley Cooper that proved to be the final margin in a 17-10 road win over the Giants.

Talk about one game making a difference. Before Sunday night, Young's season was known mostly for his ill-advised "Dream Team" comment. Before Sunday night, Young's chances of getting a starting job next year were slim and none. Now? It's far from a sure thing, but it looks a lot more promising than it was. That's how much one game can change things.

And it is not just Vince Young. Consider what quarterback Matt Moore has accomplished for the Dolphins. He went from being a guy trying to ensure his spot on an NFL roster to a player some now consider a potential starter. At a minimum, his play has solidified his roster spot somewhere for years to come. That's what happens when a guy makes the most of a limited opportunity.

Just ask Billy Volek.

Volek has not started since he started 10 games over the course of three seasons from 2003 to 2005 with the Titans. The Titans went 3-7, but Volek put up some good numbers, signed a contract with San Diego and has been there since. Sure, he has had to play well enough in practice and the preseason to keep his job, but the main reason he is there is that he has some experience and played fairly well in that limited opportunity.

That's why the next time you watch a game like Monday night's contest between the Patriots and Chiefs and think that it might be "meaningless" for the Chiefs because it's unlikely they will be able to win their division, think again. Tyler Palko's first NFL start, which had highs and lows, was a huge opportunity for him to change the course of his career. Is that meaningful enough?

From the inbox

Q: I hear a lot of people say that this college style of offense won't work for Tim Tebow and the Denver Broncos, at least in the long term. But I disagree, making me in the minority. OK, eventually the Broncos will have to develop a better passing game. But for right now, this will have to do until Denver can make it to the offseason where Tebow can work on his mechanics, he and the receivers can demonstrate a better chemistry with one another and work on perfecting that offensive playbook. Thoughts?

Ryan from Fort Worth, Texas

A: The experiment playing out right now in Denver is fascinating. In a pass-happy league, it is really interesting to see a team that is so run heavy. I think Tebow can improve as a passer, but how much? And will it be enough? There is a limit to how much any player can improve, and for Tebow it is difficult to imagine his ever becoming a consistent thrower. Can this run-heavy offense succeed over the long haul? Can Tebow stay healthy over the course of a full season? Those are questions that will be answered in large part over the next six games.

Q: During halftime of the recent Packers-Vikings "Monday Night Football" game on ESPN, I saw Aaron Rodgers and Jared Allen speaking and it appeared to be very friendly. Also, from what I can see on TV, it looks like the Jets and Patriots genuinely dislike each other, as do the Ravens and Steelers. Why the difference?

Jason from Fayetteville, N.C.

A: I think it is dangerous to try to generalize anything based upon one conversation that the TV cameras happened to show. Just because Jared Allen and Aaron Rodgers were talking after the clock ran out doesn't mean that every Viking is as cordial to every Packer. For all we know, Rodgers and Allen went out to dinner a couple of times together at the Pro Bowl one year and are friends. Of course, the opposite holds true as well. Just because you may see one Steeler talking trash toward a Raven, that doesn't mean every player feels that way. There could be other players who are former college teammates talking to each other about their families during a TV timeout, but we just aren't shown that.

Q: Interesting comments about Leon Hall. Do teams typically carry insurance to hedge against having to pay out guaranteed money to a player who suffers a career-ending injury?

Jim from Dickinson, N.D.

A: Unlike baseball, where teams take out insurance policies to safeguard the long-term guaranteed contracts signed by marquee players, such policies are not allowed in the NFL. The hedge in the NFL is really two-fold. For one, contracts are not fully guaranteed. The Bengals could release Hall just one year into his new contract. The same is true for the Colts and Peyton Manning. The other hedge is that some of the "guaranteed" money that is reported is actually guaranteed only for performance. Like a lot of things in life, it is all about the fine print. There are some players, however, who take out their own insurance policies to account for the possibility of a career-ending injury.

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