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The Brock-Osweiler dilemma – NFL QBs, psychology & success

Currently, the Denver Broncos face a dilemma at quarterback: Brock Osweiler, their young back-up QB and Peyton Manning’s understudy for three years, is due for a contract renewal. In seven starts last year, Osweiler played well enough to garner significant interest on the free-agent market of a QB-thirsty league.

To decide whether to pay Osweiler a lot of money or to let him go, the Broncos must consider issues well beyond athletic performance. The NFL’s long list of once-great players who underperformed after receiving their first big contract shows that many players lose their motivation once they receive a big paycheck.

This is hardly a surprise. If your boss paid you $10 Million for a year’s work, would you still be motivated to become the best in your business? Or would you take the money and do all the things you always dreamed about? Most people would do the latter. They only want to become good at something to make money, and as soon as they make enough money to be set for life, this motivation is gone.

Nonetheless, some NFL players remain motivated past their big payday. What is the difference between both types of players? Can a team know which type of player they are dealing with? And how do the two types of motivation affect the player? Let’s answer these questions.

Aside from talent, what determines a player’s success in the NFL?

From an objective point of view, a professional football career is unattractive. The chance of making it to the NFL is preciously small, and even most players who make it are in and out of the league within two years, left with little more than a broken body and a bleak future.

Any person who is willing to spend a large part of their life in the pursuit of an, in all likelihood, unreachable goal must have a reason to neglect secure jobs. While the exact nature of these reasons can vary greatly, all can be subsumed under two main categories: Extrinsic reasons and intrinsic reasons.

Whether a player is in the NFL for extrinsic or for intrinsic reasons significantly influences what will happen after he receives a big contract. Let’s look at both types of reasons individually.

1. Extrinsic reasons

When a player uses the NFL to achieve something else, the NFL is extrinsic to him.

Some players want to become rich, and for some players football might be the only chance to escape a bad environment. These players are in it for the money, an extrinsic motivation. Once they get paid enough to be set for life, these players have achieved everything they wanted. This breaking point can be the players’ first NFL contract or their first big contract. Either way, at some point these players stop being motivated to perform. Consequently, giving them a big contract is a bad investment.

Some players want to be famous, hoping that fame will help them deal with psychological issues such as insecurity or feelings of worthlessness. Fame is also an extrinsic motivation. Depending on the exact nature of their issues, their other character traits, and their environment, some of these players are out of control for most of their lives and some enjoy long, successful careers, breaking down afterwards.

Paying any extrinsically motivated player is always risky. Often the pursuit of money and fame go hand in hand, and an extrinsic motivation means that a player has a breaking point at which he has fulfilled all his goals and loses motivation – the question is only whether he will reach this point sooner or later.

2. Intrinsic reasons

For some players football is about more than money and fame – it has some intrinsic value. While these players prefer to make more of money over making less, their paycheck has little influence on their performance. These players keep performing at their highest level for all of their careers, regardless of extrinsic factors such as money or fame. From a psychological standpoint, signing these players to high-paying contracts is a good idea. They will stay motivated regardless of who much money they make.

What does this mean for the Broncos?

For the Broncos, this dilemma means that they have to figure out why Brock Osweiler is in the NFL. Paying an extrinsically motivated player a lot of money would be a gamble. If Osweiler has some intrinsic reason to be in the NFL, however, the Broncos can expect him to stay as motivated as he was in the past, even if they pay him big.

I called this post The Brock-Osweiler dilemma because defining a person’s motivation is incredibly difficult. Even if Osweiler has done everything right with the Broncos so far, as long as these actions were extrinsically motivated, they are a separate issue from what Osweiler will do after he gets a big contract. Additionally, most people never think about why they want something, they only know that they want it, combining many different motivations to a tangled web that is hart to make sense of.

In this dilemma, the tragic is twofold:

  1. If a player is ignorant about why he pursued a career in professional football, how can a general manager find out? Consequentially, paying a player big money is more of an educated guess than of an exact science.
  2. While defining our motivation is important for our employers, it is even more important for ourselves. To understand why, let’s put ourselves in Brock Osweiler’s shoes.

The Brock Osweiler dilemma from Brock Osweiler’s point of view

The Brock Osweiler dilemma also applies to our inner mental process. Depending on whether Osweiler is in the NFL for extrinsic or intrinsic reasons, his emotional experience will be very different:

1. Extrinsic reasons

If Osweiler is in the NFL for extrinsic reasons, he will fail to fulfill his goals – whatever they are. Nobody who tried to deal with personal issues by becoming rich or famous ever reached a point at which they felt they had enough money or enough fame.

Our personal problems are caused by experiences that often reach back to our childhood. Neither money nor fame caused these problems, and neither money nor fame can solve them. If Osweiler is extrinsically motivated, even winning a Super Bowl will be unable to fill the void inside him. So he will try to win another one, and then another one, wasting his live in the pursuit of empty achievements, constantly being disappointed and longing for more.

On the other hand, if Osweiler is out of the league in two years, he will spend the rest of his life dwelling on the missed opportunity, constantly comparing his life with his dreams of how perfect he thinks things would have been if he would have been more successful. He will regret every second and be unhappy every day.

Even if Osweiler only wants to make some money to get a big house, he will find that this big house will fail to make him as happy as he hoped. We all have the tendency to focus on single dreams such as buying a house and to think that once we achieve our dreams they will be all we feel. With this narrow focus, we ignore that a big house is incapable of solving any problems in our life – it is can’t make us more loveable, less insecure, or more intelligent. Whatever problems we have, buying something can’t solve them. Consequently, studies show that our happiness has a base level that it always returns to – even if we get significantly richer.

If Osweiler is only in the NFL to make money, he will spent his life in the pursuit of something that will fail to provide the emotional rewards he hoped for, leaving him feeling unfulfilled and empty inside. The long list of successful athletes who tried to deal with the everlasting emptiness by doing the stupidest things shows the tragic results an extrinsic career decision can have.

2. Intrinsic reasons

If Brock Osweiler is in the NFL for intrinsic reasons, he will enjoy his career regardless of the success he will have.

  • If Osweiler wins the Super Bowl he can enjoy his success for what it is. Any emotional rewards the win provides are a bonus to the rewards he already received from playing in the NFL. With no hopes of redemption tied to the win, he will not be disappointed.
  • If Osweiler underperforms and is out of the league within two years, he will be able to consider his time as a NFL QB a risk that was worth taking and that paid high emotional rewards, forever contributing to his happiness. Additionally, as someone who sees football as intrinsically valuable, Osweiler can use his NFL experience to keep working in a football related field, for example as a coach, a GM, or a media analyst, creating the foundation for an emotionally rewarding career.

Clearly, basing a career decision on intrinsic motivations would be better for Brock Osweiler than basing it on extrinsic motivations. Only intrinsic motivations can provide the emotional rewards that can lead to long-term happiness.

The Brock-Osweiler dilemma in our daily lives

We all face the Brock-Osweiler dilemma every day. Every single one of our actions is either extrinsically motivated or intrinsically motivated, and extrinsic activities will always fail to provide the emotional rewards that we hope to get from them.

  • When we choose a job for the money it provides, nothing we buy will make us feel as good as we hoped. We feel empty and often try to fight the emptiness by making more money and buying more, only making the problem worse.
  • When we choose a partner to impress others, the admiration we get for the beauty at our side will fail to provide the emotional rewards we hoped to get. We are left with a partner we have no intrinsic motivation to be with, adding to our unhappiness.
  • When we choose friends to gain an advantage or to develop our personality, none of these rewards will feel as good as we expected. Having spent our time with people we do not enjoy, we have wasted our time in an emotionally unrewarding pursuit.

Of course, we all have to do extrinsic activities once in a while – we all have to wash dishes, pay taxes, and run errands. Nonetheless, having overriding intrinsic motivations in our lives can lend unavoidable extrinsic activities intrinsic value, making them more enjoyable and increasing our overall happiness and quality of life. When our job helps us to contribute to intrinsically rewarding values, the commute to work will be less of a problem than if we only work to become rich and hate the job itself.


  1. Whether we do something for extrinsic or intrinsic reasons determines how well we do it and how much long-term success we can have.
  2. Even if we achieve an extrinsic goal, it will fail to provide us with the emotional rewards that we hoped to get from it.
  3. Only intrinsic goals provide the emotional rewards to create long term happiness.

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