Commentary

On the outside looking in -- again

While some veterans savor first shot at playoffs, Takeo Spikes waits for next year

Originally Published: December 27, 2011
By Ross Tucker | ESPN.com

"To be honest with you bro, I'm tired of talking about the Playoffs. Frustrating!"

That was the text message I received from former teammate and current San Diego Chargers linebacker Takeo Spikes when I texted him to ask about his unique NFL journey. Knowing how his professional career has unfolded, I could hardly blame him. In fact, his text message said it all.

Spikes has been a standout performer for five different organizations since 1998. Yet this season, like the other 13 before it, is going to end Sunday, in the final week of the regular season. His Chargers were eliminated from playoff contention in a loss to the Detroit Lions on Saturday.

Spikes has never made the playoffs. Never.

The odds of that are pretty small in today's NFL, considering how long Spikes has been playing and for how many different organizations. He is also one of the best players, and definitely one of the best leaders, that I ever came across during my five-team, seven-year NFL stint.

It's not just that he hasn't made the playoffs. It's also how close he's come and how many times he has just been in the wrong place at the wrong time. And even the right place at the wrong time. He played one year for the Eagles, a team that goes to the playoffs pretty much every year. Except, of course, the 2007 season, when Spikes was in Philadelphia. They made it the year before he arrived and the year after he left.

He was both a Pro Bowler and an All-Pro in 2004 with the Buffalo Bills when we were teammates and lost a Week 17 game to the Pittsburgh Steelers that would have punched our playoff ticket. He spent the past three seasons with the San Francisco 49ers before leaving this offseason in free agency. Those same 49ers are 12-3 and not only have won the NFC West but are closing in on a first-round bye. Spikes just missed it by a year. Again.

Our former Buffalo teammate Nate Clements, now a Cincinnati Bengals cornerback, can feel Spikes' pain. Clements had an interception return for a touchdown in that 2004 game when we lost to a Steelers squad that had already clinched home-field advantage and thus played mainly backups. He also was a teammate of Spikes' the past three seasons in San Francisco so, he too, is missing out on their fantastic season.

Unlike Spikes, however, Clements still has a shot. If his Bengals beat the Baltimore Ravens on Sunday, he will play in a postseason game for the first time in his outstanding 11-year career. It would mean more to Clements than you might think, even though many professional athletes are concerned about individual success first and team success second.

"Making the playoffs would be huge. At this point in my career -- and knowing Takeo, I know he feels the same way -- but we really don't play for the money. We play with the passion that we do because we play for the ultimate goal," said Clements, who, like Spikes, has made more than $20 million during his career.

How long has Clements been focused on the "ultimate goal"? How 'bout his entire career?

"My rookie year I actually used my tickets and went to the Super Bowl game," he said. "I wanted to feel it. I wanted to see the cameras and the atmosphere and then I got up out of my seat and left right after the opening kickoff because I wanted to be playing in the game so badly I couldn't take it."

So how will Clements feel if things don't go the Bengals' way this Sunday and he misses the playoffs for an 11th straight year? What if he never makes the playoffs?

"I try not to think about it too much, but there would definitely be a sense of unfinished business," said Clements, who also acknowledged that he is curious about the increased intensity that he has heard so much about.

Although Spikes will have to wait until next year, and the jury is still out on Clements, some of these stories do have a happy ending. Fellow draft class of 2001 offensive linemen Dominic Raiola and Jeff Backus have toiled in obscurity for 11 years in Detroit. Until now. Both will be making their first trip to the postseason and had a tough time coming to grips with it.

"I don't really know what to think," said Raiola. "I've never been here before."

Clements is hoping he can join Raiola in that feeling of unfamiliarity. As for Spikes, well, there's always next year.

From the inbox

Q. I feel the NFL has gone a bit overboard on "excessive celebration" penalties. Part of the charm of watching sports is seeing the pure joy that a great play brings to athletes. I don't condone taunting or personal insults on the field, but celebrations like Reggie Bush's slide in the snow surely didn't merit a flag! On top of that, it seems ridiculous that the penalty (15 yards) is the same as an illegal hit that could potentially be career-ending and even life-ruining! What are your thoughts on this?

Giri from Allen, Texas

A. I agree with your perspective, especially as it relates to spontaneous celebrations. I think that is natural and good for the game. I oppose all of the mocking of the opponent that has become so prevalent during celebrations. Buffalo Bills receiver Stevie Johnson's pantomiming shooting himself in the leg to mock the Plaxico Burress incident and Santonio Holmes' flying like an Eagle in Philadelphia are two of the most recent examples. Why can't it be about celebrating with teammates? Why does it have to be about making fun of someone else? I don't understand that. Maybe I'm just old. Regarding the Bush celebration, the NFL has tried to quell some of the premeditated stuff by implementing hard and fast rules concerning going to the ground and using props. In that case, Bush was deemed to have gone to the ground during the celebration.

Q. I admit I'm biased, but my goodness, I've never in my life heard a record-breaking performance talked about the way Drew Brees' single season pursuit has; always downplayed by the NFL now being a "pass-happy" league. It's true, but couldn't that have been said about Dan Marino's record breaking year compared to the league 30 years prior? And shouldn't other contrary aspects, such as superior athletes on defense and much more complex defenses/blitzes also be considered? I understand Marino's situation; he was never a champion so in order to validate his greatness and keep from disregarding him as much as we do other ringless players, we have to hang on to his records but … come on, man!

RJ from New Orleans

A. I understand where you are coming from -- Brees' record-breaking performance has perhaps been downplayed a bit -- but you have to acknowledge that the game has changed quite a bit, and look at Brees' season in context. I think your point about the 30 years before Marino is a good one, but the fact that the record stood for 27 years is a testament to what a tremendous, extraordinary season it was for him in 1984. Brees' record might not last even a week. Truly incredible records stick out like a sore thumb, and that is exactly what Marino's historic season has done for years. All of your points about more complex defenses and superior defensive athletes are well taken, but look at the seasons that Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady are having. That's proof positive that Brees' season is not as unique or special as what Marino accomplished, but I don't think that means it should be downplayed.

Q. I don't understand this so maybe you could help me out. I've noticed multiple players get placed on IR only to be released a few weeks later and then sign with a new team. How is this possible? I thought if you got put on IR you are done for the year and you most likely have a significant injury. Also why would you release a player on IR?

Steven from Brick, N.J.

A. If a team places you on Injured Reserve (IR) you can no longer play for that team that season. They can, however, release you from that list once you are deemed to be healthy. The advantage for the team is that they no longer have to pay you. The advantage for the player is that he is free to sign with a new team.

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

Ross Tucker, who played on the offensive line for five teams during his seven-year NFL career, writes regularly for ESPN.com. Tucker, who also hosts ESPN.com's Football Today podcast, graduated from Princeton.