Ross Tucker
Wednesday August 27th, 2008

There are very few phone calls during our existence that are truly life-altering. For no fewer than 1,000 players on the cut line, one of those calls could be coming on Saturday, when NFL teams have to cut their rosters to 53 players. Take it from a guy who's been there, it is utterly amazing how disappointing a two-minute conversation can be.

Once you get the call and realize your fate is sealed, the rest of the process is just a formality. There is typically a check-out procedure, during which you hand in your equipment and playbook and sign-off on your health status with the trainers. The only thing left after that is the conversation.

There is a certain indignity to sitting in a room with a dozen other guys, waiting to speak with the head coach. It feels as if you are on death row, just biding your time before meeting the executioner.

I was so caught off guard by my 2006 release in Cleveland that I couldn't bear to wait in that room. I strolled the hallways looking for someone, anyone, to give me an explanation. I finally found Jeff Davidson, the offensive line coach.

"You guys are cutting me?" I asked.

"Yes, we are," he replied.

"Why?"

I should have known that the answer wouldn't matter. There is no explanation at that point that makes getting cut any better. I had thought I would be starting in the season opener against New Orleans. Instead, I was soon in my car, heading home to Pennsylvania, trying to stay focused on the road as my mind raced.

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The sleepless nights for this year's prospects began in earnest days ago, and while some hope they can make one final strong impression in the last preseason game, the reality is the decision likely has already been made. Six teams play games on Friday night, the day before having to submit their cuts to the league office. You think the Broncos, Cardinals, Chargers, Niners, Raiders and Seahawks don't already know what they are doing personnel-wise before those games?

Most of the players who will receive that dreaded phone call this week fall into three distinct categories. I've been in each of those scenarios and know exactly how it feels.

First, there are the walking dead -- those players who know they are getting cut and just want to stop delaying the inevitable.

"It feels like you wasted six weeks of your life ... if not more," says former quarterback Jim Miller, twice a final cut casualty. "But you can handle it as long as you have been told the truth up to that point. If they have been lying to you, then there can be problems."

I found myself in this predicament with the Buffalo Bills in 2005. Even though I had performed well in 12 starts the previous season, the combination of my back surgery in April and two other injuries during training camp had sealed my fate.

I could tell by the coaches' interaction with me, or lack thereof, that I was getting released. It was different than it had been the previous season and earlier in training camp. More distant. I even asked the Bills general manager at the time, Tom Donahoe, if he could try to find a trade partner for me. It was that obvious that my time in Buffalo had come to an end and I was hoping to find a new home. More than a new home, I needed a job.

The second category is players who aren't quite sure what's going to happen. Those players nerves will be tested the most as Saturday draws near.

I experienced that while with the Bills in 2003. I had performed pretty well in camp and in the preseason; I knew the staff liked me. But I still wasn't sure how the situation would play out. There are so many moving parts, including injuries at other positions, that a player can feel like he's on a roulette wheel, uncertain of where his candicacy will land.

Finally, there are the players who are totally shocked they are being released. This really shouldn't happen to anyone who has been in the league for awhile, but it still does. Though the anticipation isn't difficult for a player in this situation, the event itself becomes a nightmare.

That's what happened to me with the Browns in 2006. I had been traded to Cleveland from New England after LeCharles Bentley tore his patella tendon, and I started the final three preseason games. I distinctly remember having a sick feeling in my stomach during dinner the night before final cuts as I talked with my family about "all of the poor guys" who would be released the next day.

Little did I know I would be one of them.

The funny thing about final cut day is that some teams don't call if you actually make the team. I found that out my rookie season in 2001 with the Washington Redskins.

Coach Marty Schottenheimer had told us to stay in our hotel rooms and that they would call us to let us know by noon. So I waited ... and waited ... for a call that never came.

That's the same day I scared current Bengals running back Kenny Watson to death when I phoned him at 11:45 a.m. to ask if he had gotten a call yet. (Uh, sorry about that, Kenny.)

I finally called my agent, Joe Linta, at 12:15 p.m., frantic for some clarity to my situation. He told me that I had likely made it but he would call to confirm.

"Congratulations," he said after talking with someone in the Skins personnel department, "you made it."

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Why me? What happened? What's next?

I estimate that 75 percent of those who get cut on Saturday will feel as if they got a raw deal and they either should have made the team or were never given a real opportunity. The cold truth is it doesn't matter; their teams decided that keeping them was not in the best interests of the organization. A large percentage, maybe 90 percent of the cut players, will stay in shape in case a team wants to sign them later or bring them in for a workout.

For close to 99 percent of those players, that call will never come.

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