Game of Survival

Aug. 14, 2006
Aug. 14, 2006

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Aug. 14, 2006

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Game of Survival

Tom Brady is secure; so is Reggie Bush. But in 32 camps across the country, hundreds of lesser-known players are fighting for their football lives. Over the next three weeks jobs will be won or lost, careers will be made or broken. It's the unforgiving law of the NFL jungle

The day before hereported to training camp in late July, Philadelphia Eagles center Hank Fraleyand his wife, Danielle, stopped at a convenience store near their home in SouthJersey. Fraley is a recognizable guy, a 305-pound bulldog who has endearedhimself to Philly fans by anchoring the offensive line since 2001--71 grittystarts--and queuing up for cheesesteaks at Pat's or Geno's like a native son.But Fraley missed the final eight games of 2005 with a torn shoulder tendon,and his backup, Jamaal Jackson, played so well that the coaches told the twothis spring they'd be competing for the starting job in camp. ¶ A man in thestore stopped Fraley to say hello, then added, "I just heard about Jamaal'scontract extension. Sorry about that." ¶ Fraley was stunned. The Eagles hadtold him there would be a fair competition for the center job, and now theygive the kid a contract extension? The next day, when Fraley reported to campat Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa., he learned it was true: Jackson hadsigned an incentive-laden, six-year deal that, if he beat out Fraley for thestarting job, would be worth about $14.9 million. Most significantly, the dealincluded a $1.75 million bonus, and the frugal club doesn't give bonuses toplayers they don't intend to keep. The 28-year-old Fraley was coming off eightmonths of grueling rehab and entering the final year of his contract, and theEagles had said nothing to him about an extension. He was further shaken whenPhiladelphia offensive line coach Juan Castillo announced practice assignmentsat the unit's first meeting: Jackson would get most of the snaps with the No. 1team. For the first time in five years Fraley would be practicing with thebackups. When he called home that night he told Danielle, "I am so pissedoff right now."

This is an article from the Aug. 14, 2006 issue Original Layout

Dramas likethese--the battles for jobs among the NFL's middle class, conducted for themost part far from the public eye--are playing out this month at 32 trainingcamps. At least 80 players at each site are sweating through drills, hoping tobe among the fortunate 53 to survive the final cutdown date, Sept. 2. Betweennow and then, 600 to 700 players will walk out of locker rooms jobless. Somewill be re-signed to eight-man practice squads, but the majority, fromlong-shot rookies to aging veterans trying to hang on, will see their NFLdreams die at camps from Cheney, Wash. (Seattle Seahawks), to Davie, Fla.(Miami Dolphins).

At New York Jetscamp on Long Island four quarterbacks are competing for three roster spots, andpart-time 2005 starter Brooks Bollinger may be the odd man out. In Jacksonvilletwo failed first-round tackles, Stockar McDougle and Mike Williams, are vyingfor one backup slot with the Jaguars. The Dallas Cowboys' top pick this year,Bobby Carpenter, is pushing veteran Al Singleton for the strongside linebackerjob; if Singleton loses, he might be cut. Whittling down a football roster islike making sausage: The final product might look good, but the process isn'tpretty.

"We all knowevery practice out here is nut-cutting time," eight-year veteran linebackerHannibal Navies said last Friday night following a Cincinnati Bengalsintrasquad scrimmage in Georgetown, Ky. Navies had been shown the door by theCarolina Panthers and the Green Bay Packers before he landed in Cincinnati lastyear, appearing in 15 games and making one start. He's trying to stick with theBengals as a backup linebacker and special teams player. "The tough part ofthis game is the part people don't see," he said. "When the ax startsswinging, a lot of these guys won't be playing football anymore."

Says Marv Levy,the former Buffalo Bills coach who is now the team's general manager,"Cutting players was by far the most distasteful part of my job. When Icoached under George Allen in Washington, he made getting cut sound like thebest thing that ever happened to a player. He'd say, 'We're going to put you onwaivers, but that means 27 other teams will have a chance to compete to signyou. Who knows how high the bidding will go?' It wasn't that way for me.Especially with the vets, it was a job that always hurt me--even though I'd say80 percent of the guys you cut can see it coming."

If there's abright side to the Fraley-Jackson competition, it's that neither man will beout of work on Sept. 2. The loser will back up the winner this season inPhilly. But if Fraley, who'll earn $656,000 this season, doesn't become thestarter, he'll likely end up somewhere else next year; a smart, feisty, healthy29-year-old center with 10 playoff starts is worth as much as $2.5 million ayear to a line-needy team.

TheFraley-Jackson battle is a perfect example of the NFL's circle of life. Bothplayers were undrafted free agents out of small colleges--Fraley from RobertMorris and Jackson from Delaware State--and both took advantage of breaks earlyin their pro careers. Fraley was signed by the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2000 andwas picked up by Philadelphia in August of that year. He won the Eagles'starting center job the following year after incumbent Bubba Miller suffered aseason-ending leg injury in the final preseason game.

Fraley kept thejob until last November, when he stuck out his left arm to stop a blitzingWashington Redskins defender and tore his shoulder tendon. He was stillrehabbing in March when he reported for off-season workouts and heard he wouldhave to compete for the starting role. "I was in a little bit ofshock," he said. "I sat there and thought, Wow. I'm not getting my jobback. This is one brutal game, on and off the field."

Jackson spent the2003 season on the practice squad and didn't play in '04, but he made the mostof his opportunity when Fraley went down. Over the final eight games of '05,Jackson impressed coaches not only with his strength but also with hisathleticism. At 6'4", 330 pounds, the 26-year-old Jackson is bigger thanFraley, and his arms are several inches longer--a plus for a center, who mustlock onto defensive tackles and middle linebackers and not let them loose."Most centers are short, squatty guys," says offensive coordinatorMarty Mornhinweg. "A strong, long-armed kid is an advantageinside."

Fraley must relyon experience. A critical responsibility of the position is to quickly analyzethe defense after breaking the huddle and make the blocking assignments foreach of the five positions based on where the rush is coming from. For fiveyears Fraley and quarterback Donovan McNabb spent three or four hours a weekwatching tape of opponents to get the line calls straight. "A quarterbackhas to trust his center to make the right calls," McNabb says. "Hank isas good as anybody I've seen at it."

Jackson's biggesttest this summer will be to reach that level. "I know what I have todo," he says. "I've got to be as mistake-free as I can be. I've got toread every blitz. Hank's been the centerpiece of the line for so long.Everybody's going to be looking at me to see if I can read the defense like hedoes."

Before practicesbegan on July 25, coach Andy Reid told his offensive staff, "I want Jamaalto take the first-team snaps. I want to see if he can take the heat. I want tosee if he's tough enough." On the second day of practice, when Jackson'sright ankle was trampled, Reid got his first look. Jackson hobbled to thetraining tent, and Reid wondered if that would be it for the young center thatday. "But he got it taped up and came right back," Reid said later."Which is exactly what I wanted to see."

Though Fraley'snickname is Honey Buns--at a team photo shoot one year a pesky bee wouldn'tleave him alone--his toughness is unquestioned. He offered to play through hisinjury last year, and during his recovery he had to sleep in a chair for sixweeks to avoid putting pressure on the shoulder. "Hank's one of my favoriteplayers I've ever coached," Reid says. "But every year there'scompetition for jobs. That's football."

On day 3 of campthe battle was joined. In a live scrimmage in full pads Jackson jogged to theline, saw that the defense was strong right and adjusted the guards'assignments. McNabb called for a reverse to wideout Reggie Brown, and on thesnap Jackson deked to his right then sprinted left, leading the play. SafetySean Considine was the only defender between Brown and daylight, and Jackson,running at full speed, leveled him. Oohs and aahs rose from the crowd in thebleachers. "Uh-oh," yelled one fan, obviously tuned in to the centerbattle, "it don't look good for Honey Buns."

Fraley had adisappointing effort near the end of the 2 1/2-hour morning workout. Forone-on-one blocking drills, coaches place an orange disk seven yards behind theline of scrimmage, simulate the cadence and hike the ball. Two players go at itfor two plays, the offensive man trying to prevent the defender from reachingthe disk until the coaches call a halt. Jackson had two snaps against 303-pounddefensive tackle Sam Rayburn and wrestled Rayburn to a draw. Fraley, pittedagainst 291-pound rookie tackle LaJuan Ramsey, lost his balance and wasoverpowered.

The occasionalloss in one-on-one drills isn't a big deal for Fraley. From experience, coachesknow he'll hold his own in the trenches on game day. But they also know Jacksonmight turn into a road-grader.

Even when Jacksonmessed up, the coaches didn't come down hard on him. In one practice he sawpotential blitzers come up over right and left tackle. Figuring the pressurewould come from his right, he called for the line to shift in that direction atthe snap. Wrong. An outside linebacker came from the left and bore down onMcNabb, forcing him to dump the ball off. When the play was shown on tape atthe offensive line meeting, Jackson feared the reaction from the line coach,Castillo. There was none. "He just said, 'That's a tough one,'" Jacksonrecalled. "I think I'd read it a little differently next time, but thedefense is getting paid, too." In fact, the Philly defense shifts anddisguises coverages and rushers as well as any team in football, and sometimesa center just has to make his best guess. What the coaches liked about Jacksonin that practice was that he only made one mistake on line calls--a mistakethat a 10-year vet might have made.

Reid was onJackson about the little things that a center must do, the same way he gotafter Fraley five years ago. When the coach thought Jackson was slow to returnto the huddle, he yelled, "Hey! Pick yourself up in a hurry! You've got tobe the first guy back." After a pileup on a running play, Jackson leftrunning back Brian Westbrook on the ground. Reid shouted, "Pick your backup! Never leave him down there!"

The battlebetween Fraley and Jackson hasn't affected their relationship. They remainfriendly and supportive. After plays, Jackson often walks up to Fraley andasks, "What'd you see?" Fraley tells him, "You had it" or"You missed the weakside backer's key." Fraley is honoring an NFL code:Help the other guy even if you're putting your job at risk. "I was raisedcompetitive, and I was raised that the team always comes first," he says."I like Jamaal. He works hard, plays the game right. I'm not used torunning with the [backups], and I'm not going to get used to it, but I willnever think, I hope Jamaal messes up." Says Jackson, "There's noholding back with Hank. He's been so great to me. He tells meeverything."

But Fraley hasseen which way the wind is blowing. When he telephoned Danielle, pregnant withtheir second child back in New Jersey, he talked about whether they'll have toput their house up for sale and wondered if the Steelers would be interested inhim next year, allowing them to live closer to his son from a previousmarriage, Trent, in Pittsburgh. Says Danielle, "The public never sees howthis stuff affects your life so much, every day."

Reid has notimetable for deciding who'll start at center when the Eagles face the Texansin Houston on Sept. 10. In the NFL preseason opener, the Hall of Fame game onSunday night in Canton, Ohio, Jackson helped his cause by leading thefirst-team line on an impressive, grinding 61-yard touchdown drive in its onlyseries against the Oakland Raiders. The Eagles struggled to run the ball lastyear, but on this night Westbrook found a couple of big holes in the middle andgained 32 yards on six carries. Fraley played nearly three quarters with thebackups, and through little fault of his own the line consistently caved underpressure from the Raiders, who won 16--10.

The sense is thatJackson will have to have a couple bad weeks for Fraley to get his job back.But Fraley isn't yielding. "We've got four games and lots of practices togo," he said. "I haven't been told the job is his."

Fraley may be thelast to know. It won't be easy for Reid to break the news to a guy who helpedhim win six playoff games. It's the kind of conversation coaches dread thistime of year. Levy, for one, is glad he's not the bearer of bad newsanymore--in Buffalo that task now falls to his coach, Dick Jauron. "Back in'88 we had a young safety from Princeton in camp that I had to cut," Levysays. "His name was Dean Cain. And you know what happened to him--he wenton to become Superman [in the Lois & Clark TV series]. A few years laterwe're getting ready to play Miami, and the media was treating the Dolphins likea bunch of supermen. So I told my team the night before the game, 'They'recalling the Dolphins supermen. Well, we cut Superman.'"

The moral: Lifegoes on. For Hank Fraley it may soon be in a different city, with a differentteam.

More Coverage

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PHOTOPhotographs by Al TielemansSYNC OR SWIM The form that the veteran Fraley (63) and the upstart Jackson (67) display in drills will help Eagles coaches determine who starts at center on Sept. 10.PHOTOPhotographs by Al TielemansTWO OF A KIND Small-school products, Fraley and Jackson worked their way up.TWO PHOTOSPhotographs by Al Tielemans FACE-OFFJackson's strength is his athleticism, Fraley's his experience.PHOTOPhotographs by Al TielemansCODE OF HONOR The two centers remain supportive, though fighting for the same job.FIFTY-THREE PHOTOSTODD BIGELOW/AURORA (BRONCOS); JOHN BIEVER (BROWNS, PACKERS); AL TIELEMANS (EAGLES); JOHN IACONO (GIANTS, JETS); DAMIAN STROHMEYER (PATRIOTS); DARREN CARROLL (TEXANS); BOB ROSATO (TEXANS, DOLPHINS); JOHN W. MCDONOUGH (CHARGERS); BILL FRAKES (JAGUARS); DAVID BERGMAN (STEELERS); SIMON BRUTY (RAVENS, REDSKINS); BRAD MANGIN (RAIDERS); PETER READ MILLER (COWBOYS); ROBERT BECK (CARDINALS); JEFF ROBERSON/AP (BEARS); JACK DEMPSEY/AP (MIKE BELL)