The arrival of the fourth and final NFL preseason games this week also means that final cuts are on the horizon as teams must finalize their 53-man rosters Saturday by 4 p.m. EST. If there were five to eight roster spots that were legitimately available when training camp began, there is likely only one or two still up for grabs in the final preseason contest.
What makes this week so unique is that for the most part the players don't know which positions have already been filled and which ones are still there for the taking. They don't know whether or not the coaching staff has already made their determinations about the depth at each position. As a result, the bottom 30 players on these rosters right now are running through an emotional gamut.
I know. I have been there several times and each experience was truly unique unto itself. Depending on the circumstances of that training camp and that particular situation, my feelings over the years during this week varied greatly. Most of the guys on the bubble will at different points in the week have different thoughts about their personal situation. In general, players usually tend to adopt one of the following mindsets as the days slowly count down to cut-down Saturday.
• The Dead Man Walking. You never want to be this guy, but it happens fairly often. Some players get to the point where they have convinced themselves they are destined to get cut, whether that is true or not. There is an inevitability in their minds about what is going to unfold in the coming days and nothing anyone else says can either cheer them up or convince them they still have a chance. Most of the time players like this end up getting released even if an opportunity still existed because they had already resigned themselves to a certain fate. They basically cut themselves.
• The Jokester. There is always at least one bubble guy on each team who is constantly making light of the fact he is probably going to get released. I guess it is just an aspect of human nature and a coping mechanism of sorts, but I never really understood it. What's funny about getting fired after putting in eight months of hard work? Ultimately I think joking around about the situation acts as a stress reliever of sorts and allows the player to talk openly about his impending fate in a non-threatening or serious manner. Whatever works, I guess.
• The Pressure Cooker. I saw at least one player like this every year and I could usually tell which player this was going to be early in camp because they were constantly worrying about what the front office might do or what their position coach thought of them. Pressure cooker players spend so much time thinking about the different scenarios and trying to count the numbers at their position that they are literally relieved when final cut day comes, no matter the end result. For them, the unknown or the uncertainty is the hardest part. There is a great sense of relief that is associated with the release of the tremendous buildup of stress once their fate has been decided.
• The Sad Reflector. This was me my final year in Washington in 2007 as final cuts approached. I knew there was a chance I was going to be released and my career would likely be over. I ended up getting hurt and landing on IR instead but I was correct in that there would be no more football for me. Ever. Though I focused every day on the task at hand, I couldn't help but think at night about how much this game had meant to me over the years. I thought about my first memory as a child of going to a Penn State game and knowing right then and there that I wanted to be a football player some day. Then I reminisced about all of the different highs and lows playing the game growing up in Little League and high school all the way to college and the pros. I thought about all the people I had met over the years through the game and the many different unique and cool experiences I would cherish forever.
I think there are several guys on each team each year that fall into this category, knowing the end may be near. It's hard not to considering the time and effort that most of these players have put into a sport that has defined them for the majority of their life.
• The Anger Maven. One of the more common mindsets adopted is one of pure rage and is certainly understandable. They are, after all, football players. These guys are typically steaming mad and want someone to blame. They feel as if they didn't get a real opportunity, either because their repetitions were limited or because the coaching staff decided who they wanted and manipulated the situation to get the desired result. Depending on the level of hostility, these players can potentially cause a ruckus when they are called in to hand in their playbook and follow the checkout procedures.
• The Pragmatist. These players know the reality of their situation. They know they can only control their performance on the football field. They may spend a little time taking stock of the different players at their position but ultimately they realize that is fruitless. These guys are straight businessmen and they realize they need to put forth their best effort in case other teams are watching. They have already mapped out a plan of attack in terms of contacting other teams or trying to schedule workouts if they are released and want to continue to play football.
I was like this in Buffalo in 2005. I saw the writing on the wall by the way the coaches were talking to me after I got hurt during camp following off-season back surgery. So I met with the GM at the time, Tom Donahoe, to see if they could potentially trade me and get some value in return. I spent time looking at depth charts around the league and talking with my agent about possible good fits for a guy who had started 12 games at both center and guard the year before. In fact, I think both the Bills and my representation spent most of the final week trying to get me into a better situation elsewhere.
• The Eternal Optimist. This is probably one of the best mindsets to take but unfortunately can lead to a tough realization if that call comes. These guys feel as if they are going to make the team no matter what evidence there may be to the contrary. In their mind, it is just a matter of time before they begin to play at a high level or start making plays, even if they have struggled to that point. Most of them have never been cut before and have always been among the best players on the field, so the thought of them not being good enough to make a team, any team, is unfathomable.
• The King Of Denial. These players never acknowledge, even during the final week, they are or could possibly be on the bubble. In their mind, they are already on the team and it is an open and shut case. It is a different mindset than the optimist because the optimist realizes guys are going to be released and that they could be one of them, they just don't think it will be them. Denial kings aren't optimists because their status is not up for debate. It is just reality.
Unfortunately, it is not always reality and can lead to tremendous shock once that call is received. Even though I should have known better, this was my mentality in Cleveland in 2006. The Browns had traded for me during camp and I started the final three preseason games. I was sure I was going to start the regular season opener but instead they released me because they traded for Hank Fraley from the Eagles on final cut-down day. Needless to say, I was floored. I had my cell phone on silent and slept in because there was no way that I was going to be released that day. Yet it indeed happened, and it is still to this day one of the bitterest pills I have ever had to swallow and one of the worst days of my life.