Rahim Moore has kindly offered a preview for this weekend's activities. In the third quarter of the preseason game between Denver and Buffalo, the Broncos rookie safety closed on Bills receiver Donald Jones. The ball caromed off Jones' hands, but Moore had already committed to a particular task. That happened to be separating Jones from his senses, eliciting angry responses from the Bills sideline and garnering much love from his teammates. But the ultimate task, for Moore and everyone else, is to be in the team picture on opening day.
Watch closely this weekend. You may not recognize the names or the faces. But intensity will abound. It'll be most evident right after halftime. Some starters will remain, but most will have exchanged their shoulder pads and helmets for baseball caps. They'll stand near the bench and joke with one another or provide the sideline reporter with insight on some story line. Sure there's a few more exhibition quarters remaining, but for the most part those guys are looking ahead and taking one last deep breath before a long grueling season.
It's tradition that the first preseason game breaks the monotony of camp. The second game is bit more focused and involves some scripted plays and extended looks at certain players. By the fourth game the season opener is looming, and while coaches are loath to admit it, most personnel decisions have already been made. But in the second half of that third exhibition game, lots are cast. Players with the most to prove will fight to live another day. And they will fight. It may not be the best 'ball of the year, but refinement will come later. This game is about survival.
The method to the madness depends on one's tortured perspective. If you're an excitable rookie, you think that if you don't make the team, your career is over and you probably can't be convinced otherwise. But if you're a veteran whose been around the block, you're moved by reality. You know hard work will only get you so far. Sure, you can live in the team facility all winter long. You can lift weights until you're lightheaded, sprint until you drop, and you can break down more video footage than Ken Burns. When camp starts, you can go out to practice early and throw all yourself into every drill. But when late August comes and you're not running with the first or second team, you’re gonna get cut. Period.
Your position coach knows this too. He may like you, but he has little power. The best he can do is get you into the game during that all-important third week. The coach knows exactly what you're thinking: You're thinking it's not about making this particular team, it's your audition for the rest of the league.
See, representatives from other teams are watching. Perhaps there's some scout who wanted to draft you a couple of years back, but his input was ignored by the coach, G.M., or player personnel director. He knew you were a bad fit for the team that picked you and now he wants to see if you're that same guy he held in such high regard.
After the final exhibition game has been played, perhaps the position coach will make a call. The coach will say something like "Hey, I have a kid here who taught himself to play every position in the secondary, he covers kicks, he’s a fearless punt returner, and he’s as mentally tough as anyone you’ll meet. You should give him a look."
And if you're me, all of these things tell the story of your five years in the National Football League.
Whenever I take issue with any team's personnel decisions, a lot of fans like to remind me that professional football is a business. This always makes me laugh. But they’re absolutely right. There's a finite number of players on each team and an equally finite dollar amount that governs the payroll. Sometimes, decisions are rather strongly influenced by economic concerns. Rod Woodson, a year removed from the Baltimore Ravens victory in Super Bowl XXXV, was less than pleased with the team's effort to repeat. Said Woodson at the time: "We have a lot of young guys here now. I know they’re cheaper than the guys they got rid of, but I don’t know if they’re necessarily better."
That's the thing about business. It's not always about ability. Sometimes it’s a matter of type casting. A manager in the National Football League is really no different from a manager in your office. Both fall prey to the lazy principles of group think. Sometimes an employee gets assigned a certain role from which there is no escape.
Few understood this better than a guy named Cornell Holloway. He played cornerback and was my training camp roommate for two seasons in Indianapolis. He had been a late-round pick by the Bengals. And after being cut he had ended up with the Colts. To his chagrin, Holloway had been designated what he called the "move man"—the guy who gets sacraficed whenever a team makes a roster move.
Say a linebacker gets injured. It's not enough of an injury to place him on injured reserve, but the team needs another linebacker to replace him. So to make room for the new backer, a player from another position has to be released. Holloway was that guy, meaning he was released and resigned several times during the season.
The only exit from the carousel is a decision-maker with the stones to rise above the herd. Warren Sapp has summed this very nicely: "All you need is one person in this league to like you."
This weekend, those who take the field in that frantic third quarter are hoping to catch the eye of a would be admirer. Some, like Dallas running back Tashard Choice still have a shot to make the team that drafted him. But others, like Saints cornerback Leigh Torrence, in his sixth year, is on his third team, have no shot at sticking around. Torrence is hoping that some young, eager quarterback challenges him early and often and he’ll get to show he still has the skills to play. It’s the only way to stay in the picture.
Any team picture.