Cliff Avril will never take for granted the fact that, two days after the NFL regular season had come to an end, he was getting ready for another practice Tuesday afternoon.
This is Avril's fourth straight postseason with the Seahawks, but the defensive end also knows what it's like to be sitting at home this time of year. During the first five seasons of his career in Detroit—Seattle's opponent in Saturday's Wild Card game—Avril experienced an 0-16 season, a two-win season, and a total of one playoff game, which the Lions lost.
That's a stark contrast to what the Seahawks have experienced in recent years, qualifying for the postseason six times and winning four NFC West titles in seven years under Pete Carroll and John Schneider, winning at least one game in each of those trips to the playoffs. For players who joined the team in 2012 or later, that means they have known nothing but winning seasons and some degree of playoff success.
"For sure," Avril said when asked if he appreciates being in the playoffs more than a teammate who doesn't know anything different. "For sure. A lot of guys are spoiled here. A lot of these guys have been (to the playoffs) every year they've been in the league, so they may take it for granted from time to time, but I've been at the very bottom where you had no chance. You had already packed up and gone home at this point, so I definitely appreciate it for sure."
Playoff experience is, as Carroll put it, "real valuable" this time of year. It's one thing to preach treating every week the same, but that's a lot easier to accomplish when the majority of the players on Seattle's roster have played in multiple playoff games. But as important as that experience is for the Seahawks as they prepare for Saturday's game, it's also very valuable to have veterans like Avril, Ahtyba Rubin, Marcel Reece and Michael Bennett who know how fleeting success can be in the NFL.
As Carroll explains, it's only human nature that a player like Russell Wilson or Bobby Wagner or Richard Sherman might take it for granted at least a little bit that their team is again playoff bound. But when those players talk to someone like Rubin, who spent seven losing seasons in Cleveland, talks to his teammates about how special this is, they can't help but listen.
"To see Rube enjoy it like he does, and Marcel Reece to feel it and Cliff too—he was on one side of it, and now he's in a place where he's winning and having playoffs and stuff like that—those guys really understand it," Carroll said. "I don't know that Kam (Chancellor) and Sherm and those guys can sense it the same way. We try to overwhelm them with the understanding so that they never lose touch with it, and it's an ongoing process because it is so unique and special. We're so fortunate to have it.
"The messaging is strongest when it comes from the guys who have not had it before and now they feel it. They can tell you what it's like, and I want them to tell the young guys. The young guys don't know, the second and third-year guys, they don't understand sometimes, which is OK. Part of this is feeling comfortable in this setting, comfortable winning, comfortable with expectations, comfortable with division championships part of the mentality and playoff time, the way you perform in playoff time and the expectations of that. It needs to be normal if you're going to do it consistently. You've got to be comfortable with it, you have to understand it. It's this balancing act that we do. The part I love about the job is trying to help everybody understand how they can max their opportunities out and this is part of it. Those guys are the best messengers for us."
When the Seahawks and Lions face off Saturday night, it will be the first playoff game of Reece's nine-year NFL career. The former Husky was a four-time Pro Bowler with the Raiders, but he never enjoyed a winning record or playoff berth in eight seasons in Oakland, with the Raiders changing coaches five times while he was there.
"It's definitely exciting," Reece said. "I really can't put it into words. I'm not trying to savor it too much, because I know we're going to go on a special run here and it's going to extend deep into this postseason. That's what I'm excited for. I tell a lot of these young guys, 'Man, don't take it for granted. Let's put all the work in that we can to make it successful. Because I worked nine years to get to this first one.' A lot of guys who have been here for three years or four years or even five years, that's all they know. They expect to go to the postseason. I'm making sure they understand that's it's not easy, it's not a given, so be happy that you made it to this point, but let's make sure we take full advantage of it and get as far as we can."
Before Rubin signed with the Seahawks last season, he had played for teams that went 4-12 or 5-11 every season before the Browns managed a 7-9 record in 2014, and he played for five different head coaches during that time. So yes, it was a little bit different of a feeling for Rubin when he made the playoffs last year than it was for someone like Chancellor or Earl Thomas, who have appeared in at least two playoff games in five of the past six seasons.
"I was wigging out," Rubin said. "I was happy as hell. Everybody was like, 'What's this guy so excited for?' It's normal here, but it meant everything to me. It was indescribable. Then to get to this point this year and get a chance to be in the playoffs, it's just a blessing, and I'm not going to waste this opportunity."
Bennett, who endured four playoff-free seasons in Tampa Bay, three of them ending with losing records, before coming back to Seattle, says he doesn't like to remind players of how good they have it here.
"I don't remind guys of bad things, you want to remind them of great things," he said. "They've been great their whole careers, so why tell them about how bad mine was?"
But when players like Avril, Rubin and Reece do remind their teammates of how good they have it in Seattle, the message hits home.
"They definitely talk to us about it, tell us about how right now they'd be preparing for what they're going to do in the offseason," said Wagner, who has only experienced 10-plus-win seasons and playoff runs since coming to the NFL. "Sometimes we play even harder for those guys, because we want them to experience what we've experienced, we want them to experience that joy that we've had. When we hear stories like that, it makes us a little more hungry."
Team photographer Rod Mar shares exclusive behind-the-scenes images from the Seattle Seahawks' 2016 regular-season finale against the San Francisco 49ers at Santa Clara's Levi's Stadium.