TAMPA — Twenty-one years later, Larry Foote still remembers his worst game in the NFL. He was a rookie linebacker for the Steelers in 2002 when they played the Saints at the Superdome in what became a see-saw battle.
With just more than 13 minutes remaining in the third quarter, Pittsburgh had climbed back into the game and trailed 19-14. But New Orleans running back Deuce McAllister took a handoff, made a cut to his right and ran through a gap vacated by Foote, the over-pursuing young linebacker, and raced 52 yards for a touchdown.
The Steelers lost the game 32-29, and Foote lost his starting job.
“I got benched,” said Foote, now the Bucs’ co-defensive coordinator.“ ... Back in those days, it was a little more brutal. We had vets on the sideline saying, ‘Get Foote out of the game!’ Right in front of me. It was rough.”
Bad plays, and bad games, can happen to even the best NFL players. Bucs cornerback Carlton Davis was beaten for three touchdown passes in last Sunday’s 39-37 loss at Houston, including the winner with six seconds remaining. The “nightmare,” as Davis called it, occurred the same week Bengals receiver Ja’Marr Chase named him the best cornerback he’d faced in three pro seasons.
Because of the popularity of the NFL, Davis’ game-losing play has been replayed hundreds — if not thousands — of times since Sunday with the same crestfallen result for the Bucs.
“It’s one of the worst things that can happen,” Davis said. “It’s the brutal truth of playing (cornerback). Whenever you’re not on point, it’s for the whole world to see. It can be for all the marbles. That’s just the position that I play. I take it with pride, and I love what I do”
What does an NFL player do after one of the worst performances of his career? How does he reset and focus on the next practice or game? Of course, you hear things like “the 24-hour rule,” where teams vow to move on to the next opponent a day later. The process of “flushing” a bad game can take on many manifestations.
Almost always, however, it involves rewatching the video of the game, no matter how unpleasant it may be, to determine the mistakes that can be fixed to prevent such a calamity from occurring again.
Receiver Chris Godwin was inflicted with a case of the yips in his first postseason game at Washington in January 2021. He dropped four passes in a 31-23 wild-card win. Not only did it equal the number of drops Godwin had over his first four seasons, it was the most of any player in the postseason since 2007.
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“That was a big moment for me,” Godwin said. “I had to really reset myself. Look at yourself in the mirror and understand who you are. You’re here for a reason. People that are in this position, they don’t get multiple chances for messing up.
“It’s going back to the player you know you are. You’ve worked your a-- off to get to this point, and it’s just a matter of trusting yourself.”
Quarterback Baker Mayfield has endured an uneven career, with some rollercoaster swings of emotions and performances. After having a beer or two, he said he dives right back into the film to correct mistakes.
“It’s a fine line for both,” Mayfield said, smiling. “Talking about our offense, for me, I look at what went wrong in the game. Is it a fundamental thing? Was it just a guy got beat on this? Was I messed up in the assignment? Did I not do it correctly?
“So, there’s things that you can look at and see where exactly it went wrong. For me, a lot of it is, ‘Why did I miss that throw?’ The first thing I look at is my feet. At that point, you can’t wait to get back on the field and get it corrected.”
Mayfield isn’t alone. Many players spoke about going back to the basics of their position. Tight end Cade Otton remembers a particularly bad game he had as a redshirt freshman at the University of Washington.
“We played at Cal, and I remember we lost the game and I was just not happy with my performance,” Otton said. “That’s always tough, but something I always try to tell myself is to recenter after a play or after a game. It’s eyes, hands, feet. Just the most basic fundamentals to get the best out of yourself.
“No matter what, I give myself the rest of the day before I look at the film to decompress and think about it. I usually talk to my wife and my dad and see my dog.”
Offensive coordinator Dave Canales said when he was with the Seahawks, head coach Pete Carroll asked All-Pro cornerback Richard Sherman what made him produce in the biggest games.
“He always played so well in the critical moments,” Canales said. “So Coach asked him in a team meeting one time, ‘Talk to us Richard, especially talk to the young guys about what it’s like in these prime-time games.’ He was like, ‘The bigger the moment, the smaller my focus. I’m just focusing on that first kick. Punching my hands up.’
“I can’t remember all the techniques he talked about, but it was about the most basic, fundamental part of his play. Then, just finish the play like you know how, and that always settled him.”
The mental aspect is something else to address. Davis said he’d likely seek out veteran linebacker Lavonte David for a conversation. Leaning on teammates and coaches for support is part of the plan.
Then, you just have to go back out there and play.
“I like to think of myself as a manly man, but when I’ve been in those situations I need somebody to pick me up,” Foote said. “It’s a tough game. This league will humble you, but the main thing is you’ve got to respond. And those guys have dealt with adversity through life.
“If you get to this point, you’ve been through some ups and downs. As coaches and mentors, you expect those guys to have each other’s backs and respond. Everybody is going to have that day.”
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