Cliff Avril: Don't Ever Be Satisfied

Posted Nov 30, 2013

Mere hours after the latest Seahawks’ win, Cliff Avril already is thinking ahead, discovering where he needs to improve during the next week’s practices.

After playing this most physically taxing game, after a quiet dinner with his fiancee, when he could just kick-back and luxuriate in a job well done, Cliff Avril starts thinking of ways to make himself better.

Before the next day’s official “film” session, he watches the TV copy of that day’s Seattle Seahawks’ game, watches it like a coach, studies it for flaws and harshly criticizes his performance. Mere hours after the latest Seahawks’ win, the defensive end already is thinking ahead, discovering where he needs to improve during the next week’s practices.

“I like to see what I could have done better,” Avril said. “Maybe I’ll look at the good plays, who knows? But I’m mostly looking to see what I need to work on.”

Avril is demanding. He’s his own drill sergeant. It’s his voice he hears in practice, growling at him like some moody Mike Ditka. It’s his heart that’s pushing him to get to the quarterback more often, to beat the lineman in front of him, to make even more plays.

In his first season as a Seahawk, his sixth season in the NFL, Avril is having another very good year and, almost certainly, the only person in the locker room who doesn’t believe that, is Cliff Avril.

“I think if you start feeling content, that’s when you stop getting better,” Avril said between practices this week before the mega-Monday night meeting with New Orleans. “My goals for myself are pretty high and if I can achieve them, which I haven’t yet, I’ll definitely be very happy with my season.”

Avril is hard on himself. After games fiancée, Tia, tells him, “You played a great game,” but Avril just gives her what he calls, “The Look.” She’ll ask something like, “Ok, what did you do wrong?” and his typical response will be, “I could have had one more sack,” or “I should have made that tackle.”

“I do have that problem,” Avril said. “It’s rare that I come home from a game here and I’m like, ‘Wow we dominated and I played great at the same time.’ There’s rarely a game where it’s like that. But that’s what drives me.”

Imagine how frustrated Avril was when he first came to the Seahawks as a free agent, after five seasons with the Detroit Lions. Like just about everybody on this team, he came to Seattle believing he had something more to prove. He told himself that all this team really knew about him were his numbers – 8.5 sacks in 2010, 11 in 2011, 9.5 last season.

Players and coaches didn’t know what was inside of him. They didn’t know if he worked hard. They didn’t know if he shared their hunger to get better. With his new team, this became a show-me season for Avril.

But after he signed, he battled plantar fasciitis in the spring and four days into training camp, he pulled his hamstring.

“It’s been pretty frustrating since I signed here, honestly,” he said. “Just battling through all the injuries and not being able to be out there with my teammates and being able to build that trust was difficult. When you come to a new team and you’re hurt. You definitely don’t feel like you’re part of the team.

“You’re not out there practicing. They don’t know what you can do. You might be a pass rusher, but you haven’t proven that to them. You’re still trying to get a feel for everything that’s going on. It’s still a growing process. Even 11-12 weeks in, we’re still trying to get to know each other. It’s a steady progression. I just continue to keep getting better and hopefully they’ll start having a little faith in me.”

Um, Cliff, your teammates know you now. They’ve seen the same game film you’ve seen. But they’ve seen it with different eyes. They have faith in you. In your 10 games, you are tied with Michael Bennett for the team in lead in sacks with 6.5. You’ve forced three fumbles and made 15 tackles. You’ve been part of a pass rush that has been one of the gems of this lockdown defense that is tied for second in the league in points allowed per game (16.3).

You’re a perfect fit for this team that is stocked with Pro Bowlers and veterans who are never satisfied and always feel they have to re-prove themselves every week, every practice, every game.

“Nobody has higher expectations for themselves that I do anyway,” Avril said. “If I can get anywhere near where my expectations for me are, then I’m pretty sure everybody else will be happy with me. I don’t like giving out my goals, but I can tell you I’m not there yet. Numbers are part of my goals because that’s what everybody sees. If I feel like I’m playing great, but the numbers aren’t there, the coaches see that. My goals are about sacks and just being productive.”

Asked to assess his first 10 games as a Seahawk (he missed the opener in Carolina because of his hamstring pull), Avril, as always, was his own worst critic.

“I’ve been Ok,” he said with a hard laugh. “You have to be hard on yourself. That’s the only way you get to six years in the NFL. I didn’t start off this season the way I wanted to. Honestly, I really just got the hamstring injury behind me a few weeks ago. But now I want to finish strong.”

In his five seasons with the Detroit, the Lions won only 22 of their 80 games. As a free agent this winter, Avril, 27, was looking for something much better. The Seahawks’ 10-1 start has been that something.

“It was definitely more than money,” Avril said of his free agent search. “With the DBs (defensive backs) we have here, any d-lineman would want to rush with those guys. They give you that much more time to get to the quarterback. We work hand in hand. If those guys can cover just a split longer, I can get sacks or maybe I can tip a ball to them and they can get an interception. Hand-in-hand.

“I like the way things are going here. The guys are definitely into it. They love what they do. Everybody plays for each other more so than just for money or whatever and that’s very unique, very unique, no doubt. This is a lot of fun. I’m having a blast.”

Athletes can learn from Cliff Avril’s harsh self-criticism. There’s a message in his madness.

Now that I’m retired from column writing at The Seattle Times, I’m helping out with Liberty High School’s boys’ basketball program. I’m finding there are messages I can pass on to the Liberty players from the interviews I’ve had with the Seahawks’ players.

The Hawks have lived the lessons that our coaching staff is teaching. The Seahawks don’t just talk about getting better, they work at it relentlessly. They don’t just talk about having something to prove. They go out and prove it.

I asked Avril what I should tell the team.

“One thing is, you have to have fun,” said Avril, who like many Seahawks played high school basketball. “But having fun for me means getting better than everyone else on your team and everyone else in your area,” he said. “Have fun playing the game, but have fun getting better. When you see the results of your hard work, that’s what’s going to make you happy.”
In his sixth year in the league, Cliff Avril continues to get better, even if he doesn’t always believe it.

“Don’t ever be satisfied,” he said.