Playing for pride

For the Raiders, the final month of the 2005 season is about character, about pride, about redemption, about a lot of things. Unfortunately for Oakland, it's not about the playoffs. The Raiders' postseason hopes are done. A sloppy home performance against a weak Miami team back on Nov. 27 left the team with two options for the playoffs: Watch from a sports bar or follow the action from the easy chair in the den.

But before kicking back with the remote and a cold one, the Raiders have to play out the string, with obligations to show up for games against the Jets, Browns, Broncos and Giants.

What's to keep the players from mailing it in for the home stretch?

"I think first of all to me, to assume that our guys aren't going to be motivated and don't have anything to play for is not having a good understanding about what these guys do," coach Norv Turner said. "These guys if they went down the street and played a three-on-three pickup game, they'd be playing their hearts out to win the game."

Linebacker Kirk Morrison can't imagine coasting through the final games of the year. His approach is the same now as it was back in the first week of September, he said.

"My attitude is always going to stay the same," said Morrison. "My job is to go out and make plays.

"Regardless of our record, we still love this game and we love to play. I've played since Pop Warner, from high school to college. You're playing for free, so what changes anyway?"

Actually, the Raiders are playing for money, some of them for potentially a lot of it. Performance during the final four weeks of the year can do a lot for free agents, which is one reason Charles Woodson might be back on the field again this season despite suffering a broken leg back in October.

The All-Pro cornerback may or may not be interested in helping the Raiders finish strong, but surely he's interested in proving his market value.

It's not just the pending free agents who have built-in motivation, Turner said. "Every guy on this football team has a lot to play for," said Turner. "Every time you go out you get the to line up and put your hand in the ground and line up against another guy and compete. That's a heck of a lot to play for."

Morrison, a rookie, buys into that, but so does an established veteran like linebacker Danny Clark.

"I look at this as my playoff run," Clark said before the game at San Diego. "This is going to one our last fiver games of the season – if it's going to be that, and that's an definite if – I'm going to play it as if it's our last.

"We've got to raise the bar and play the best football possible and go out on a good note."

The note the Raiders struck in losing to the Dolphins was discordant. Some players in the aftermath of that dismal Sunday said it seemed like the team played with little energy.

"I don't understand it," Clark said "I was super jacked up. I think it was a huge game for us and some guys for whatever reason came out flat.

"We need to correct that and understand that we only get 16 Sundays and every time you get to Sunday, you have to cherish that moment and give your all."

Even in defeat, it's clear some Raiders have no trouble doing that. In the fourth quarter of the Miami loss, Tommy Kelly lined in the wrong spot, and the Dolphins Ricky Williams took advantage with a 34-yard TD run that broke Oakland's back. Immediately after the play, Ted Washington very visibly and energetically discussed the issue with Kelly on the sidelines.

To Clark, that just proved "there definitely isn't any quit in any of these guys and that's something I'm proud of and glad to be a part of."

Still, as a veteran, Clark made a point of talking to his teammates after that Dolphins debacle.

"That was more so keeping guys on board so that when we show up for work on Monday morning we make sure that we're prepared to go win a football game and nothing else," he said. "I don't want anybody messing around or thinking this is a lax attitude coming here.

"What I was speaking of is given that we lost a tough game, guys didn't fold the tent. I wanted to make sure that they understand this is our livelihood and this is what we live for and when you do anything, you gotta do it right."

That brings up another motivator for teams playing out the string: making sure players still develop.

"I believe there's a lot of pride in what they do," Turner said. "We have it from our young guys, young guys who are starting their careers and learning every week. They know there's something new next week."

"I think pretty much everybody knows their role on defense, we've just got to keep getting better," Morrison said "You have young guys who got a lot of experience, and that's something to build on."

Players and coaches on losing teams often talk about finishing strong to set foundation for the following year, which in Oakland's case recently hasn't really happened.

The Raiders last finished strong in 2002, winning four straight before falling in the Super Bowl, then began 2003 with seven losses in their first nine games.

In fact, a quick check of 2004 and 2005 shows just what a myth that is. There are six NFL teams that compiled losing records in 2004 and this year are legitimate playoff contenders, and only two of them finished last year on an upswing. The Panthers went 6-2 in the second of to close at 7-9, and the Chiefs ended with the same record after winning four of their last five.

The teams that are currently enjoying the biggest turnarounds were awful down the stretch in ‘04. Dallas went 1-3 in the last month to finish 6-10, and the New York Giants went 1-8 at the end to close that year tied with the Cowboys.

And the Bears and Bucs both went winless over the last month to finish ‘04 with identical 5-11 records.

So maybe it all does come down to pride and self-respect.

"You don't get too many opportunities and you don't want to look back at the end of your career and say ‘I remember when we weren't having such a great season and I didn't practice as hard and I didn't play as hard because we weren't playing for anything,'" Morrison said. "I want to make sure every play I'm giving my all regardless of the record, regardless of the score."

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