In nine seasons with the Jacksonville Jaguars, inside linebacker Daryl Smith only made it to the playoffs twice. And after joining the defending Super Bowl champion Ravens before last season, he missed the postseason again.
For a veteran like Smith, the Januarys spent watching other teams' hard work rewarded instead of your own served as a reminder of how much it takes to get there.
The Ravens have made the playoffs in six of the last seven seasons, with a core of players like quarterback Joe Flacco, guard Marshal Yanda and outside linebacker Terrell Suggs around for each appearance.
To those players, it's almost expected that they'll play two or three playoff games every year. But as the Ravens prepare to play the Pittsburgh Steelers on Saturday night in the AFC wild-card round at Heinz Field, other veterans joining them this postseason haven't been so fortunate.
For most of the years that Smith's Jaguars were out of the playoff picture, the Ravens were in it. Seven seasons after his last playoff game, he finally has received another chance to play in the postseason.
Smith, who served as a focal point in the league's eighth-ranked defense on the field and a rallying point off it, showed his teammates a new side of himself after the Ravens clinched the final AFC playoff spot Sunday.
"He's not a dude that shows a lot of emotion, but after the game, you could definitely see how grateful he was to finally get back to the postseason," Ravens rookie linebacker Zachary Orr said. "I didn't see any tears or anything roll down, but he had this look on his face of gratefulness, just thanking everybody for all the hard work we put in. He's glad to be back in the postseason."
Ravens rookie linebacker C.J. Mosley added that inside linebackers coach Don "Wink" Martindale "always says that [Smith] has been in the league a long time. We wanted to get him in the playoffs."
Saturday will be the first chance at the playoffs for center Jeremy Zuttah and left tackle Eugene Monroe. For veterans like tight end Owen Daniels and wide receiver Steve Smith, the playoff berth represents their best chance in several years to win a Super Bowl. For Daryl Smith, it could be his last opportunity. All relish it equally.
"That would be one of the things that I say to the young guys, you can't take these [playoff] opportunities for granted," Daryl Smith said. "I went to two early in my career, and it took me seven years later to get back to another one. ... You really can't take it for granted."
Smith had to reach back several years to recall a celebration like the one Sunday after the Ravens beat the Cleveland Browns to advance to the postseason. Others experienced it for the first time.
Zuttah's phone lit up Sunday evening with messages, mostly congratulatory but some acknowledging that it was, as he said, "about [darn] time."
The seven-year veteran spent the first six years of his career with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. In his time there, the Buccaneers twice finished above .500 and missed the playoffs at 10-6 in 2010. He has been a stabilizing force in the offensive line that helped to improve the Ravens' run offense from 32nd in the NFL last year to eighth in 2014.
With 106 NFL games under his belt, he's the most experienced Ravens player to have never appeared in a playoff game. And even as the Ravens led by 10 points Sunday and Lardarius Webb's interception all but sealed the victory, Zuttah said his playoff fate was still in doubt.
Then he mauled Browns defensive lineman John Hughes to spring Justin Forsett's game-sealing 26-yard run immediately after the two-minute warning. Hughes hit the dirt, Forsett leapt through the lane Zuttah sealed and the center threw his arms into the sky in celebration.
"You've just got to experience it," Daryl Smith said. "We've talked before about the playoffs, but now, he'll get to live it and experience it. I think that'll be the best thing."
Daniels, who had a pair of playoff appearances in his eight-year stint with the Houston Texans, already can sense the difference between the postseason there and with the Ravens.
"With the past teams I've played on that have gone to the playoffs, it was the first time for a lot of those guys," Daniels said. "We had good leadership, but it wasn't guys with playoff experience, for the most part.
"In this locker room, a lot of guys have been there, done that, won the Super Bowl. And that's the reason you play, to play in the playoffs. … It's almost not worth playing the season if you're not playing in the playoffs."
As an organization, the Ravens have found that those type of free agents fit into their winning culture.
"They're the kind of guys that have been looking for that [organizational value] and appreciate those particular values and really want to be a part of something like that," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "When you've been in another organization or team where that's not quite the way it is and you come back to a situation that you can really appreciate, you want to make the most of that."
Few embody that description more than Steve Smith.
After 13 years with the Carolina Panthers, the veteran wide receiver spent his first season with the Ravens trying to prove to his former team that its assumption of his demise came too early. He accomplished that with a team-leading 79 receptions and 1,065 yards, and now hopes to spend the next month winning the Super Bowl ring that eluded him with the Panthers.
"I came here for something more than just those [accolades]," Steve Smith said. "I came here for the ultimate prize."