Yesterday, Brett Mock put up a story over on Coltzilla suggesting that an advantage the Colts will have this year is the motivation of the many players in the final year of their contract. His logic is reinforced by sports analysts and commentators who often remark on players in their contract years and the extra effort they put in during each game to show they're deserving of a big pay day. I've generally accepted the explanation, but after thinking about it from a behaviorist's point of view, offer a different perspective.
First, a bit of background - applied behavior theory suggests that when consequences are immediate and certain, the desired behavior can be trained or untrained. For example, if you put your hand on a hot stove, you will get burned - the consequence of getting burned is immediate and certain... so (sane) people don't put their hands on hot stoves. Similarly, as soon as I catch my dog doing a behavior I like (sit, shake) I will press a clicker and give her a treat - the connection of the treat with the click is immediate and certain so she repeats the desired behavior to get as many treats as she can. (Note that the consequence can be positive or negative.)
But when consequences are either delayed or uncertain, then the subject won't necessarily demonstrate the desired behavior. When I apply this theory to players in their contract year, I can see some reason to doubt whether a player will always go all out. First, the reward of a big pay day is definitely not immediate (unless you consider the history of the planet, in which case a year is a very short time indeed). But realistically, a player has to work and sweat through summer training camp, practices, and 16 hard-fought games... about 5-6 months... to build their final year's resume. This is a long time to sustain behavior, but if the reward is certain, not out of the question.
Which brings us to... certainty. There are many factors that impact the certainty of a big contract - the availability of new players (draftees, trades), the contract status of other players (the Colts will take care of Manning first, then turn their attention to the others), and even the team's game strategy (see: Lilja, Ryan). Injuries also come into play - if a player goes 100% every single day, he risks injury, which would likely and negatively impact his next contract. Imagine the contract Marlin Jackson could have earned - with the Colts - had he not torn his ACL last year.
The one thing that is most certain (though not guaranteed) is that players will say the right thing during their contract year, so that they mitigate the risk of not being considered due to character issues. Oops - despite his model citizen behavior with the Bills, Terrell Owens may have proven me wrong on that last assertion.