Nothing is guaranteed in life, or in the NFL. The veterans who have been to this point before know this better than anyone.
And to be clear, nobody’s kicking them out the door just yet.
Veterans such as Green Bay Packers wide receiver Donald Driver, cornerback Charles Woodson, left tackle Chad Clifton and Chicago Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher will start Sunday’s NFC championship game as cornerstone players for their teams. They believe they have good years left.
Still, any player in his 30s without a Super Bowl ring doesn’t have to be told that such opportunities are hard to come by. While a rivalry game with a trip to the Super Bowl at stake doesn’t really need any extra juice, it’s even more urgent for veterans who might never get another shot this good.
“I’ve been once, and it was an incredible experience,” Woodson said of the Super Bowl. “It’s been a long time ago, though, now. The thing is, you never know when you’ll get back. You never know if you’ll get there. You never know if you’ll win one. But to have the opportunity, and again, to be one of the final teams trying to get to the Super Bowl, it means a lot.”
The 34-year-old Woodson played for the Oakland Raiders when they were beaten by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the January 2003 Super Bowl.
Urlacher and the Bears lost a Super Bowl to Indianapolis in February 2007. Even at age 32, he made it clear this week that he doesn’t think this will be his last shot.
“No,” Urlacher said. “I don’t see us getting any worse next year. I think we should get better. You don’t want to say this is your last shot and I’m not saying we should lose. We want to win this game, but I am not in any way thinking this is our last shot. I think we’re a talented football team. We’ll just get better every year.”
Even Bears linebacker Lance Briggs, who recently turned 30, was asked if his window might be closing.
“I’m 30, I’m not dead,” Briggs said. “I don’t see it that way. I don’t know how many years I’ll get to play, or all of us on the team will get to play, but we’re going to enjoy it. Obviously it’s not easy to get to the Super Bowl so I think that, more than anything else, it’s just not easy. So it’s hard-fought. We haven’t been there in years. It’s precious.”
Until now, Driver and Clifton haven’t been closer than the Packers’ January 2008 NFC championship loss to New York Giants.
“It’s always been a dream of mine to get to the Super Bowl,” Driver said. “It’s right in front of me right now, and I think everybody in this locker room believes that it’s right in front of us, and we’ve believed it since March.”
Packers coach Mike McCarthy said he sees a unique sense of urgency from Driver and his other veterans.
“It’s really Donald all the way down, particularly the players that were here in ’07,” McCarthy said. “You really have an understanding now of how hard it is to get to this game. I know my first year in the NFL in 1993, we went to the AFC championship game, and you kind of think, ‘Boy, this is great. This is not that big of a deal.’ But it’s such a hard game to get to.”
Packers defensive lineman Ryan Pickett was a member of the St. Louis Rams when they lost in the Super Bowl to New England in February 2002. He said younger players have asked him and Woodson about their experiences.
“We just tell them that it’s the greatest experience that you could ever have,” Pickett said. “It’s so hard to get to where we are right now. We want to keep them focused, but it’s so hard to get to where we are right now. So we have to take advantage of the opportunity.”
Greg Jennings said he and the other Packers receivers know how much it means to Driver.
“Obviously the window of opportunity, it opens and closes as it will, and you know, the window of opportunity isn’t getting any bigger,” Jennings said. “Donald has been around for a while, and I think he’s been in this position once, I believe, and we didn’t get it done that time, and now we have a second chance. You’re not afforded too many second chances in this game, so we have to make the best of it.”
And Driver appreciates the sentiment from his teammates.
“They’ve addressed it all this year, as well as the previous years that our whole receiver group has been together, is that they want to get me to the Super Bowl,” Driver said. “As bad as they want to get me to the Super Bowl, I want to get them to the Super Bowl. When it comes to their career, they don’t have to worry when they’re ever going to get there. So, if we can get there all together at one time, that’ll put a nice little icing on the cake.”