“Coach needs to see you—-and you’ll need to bring your playbook.”
If you are a professional football player that is the sentence you work, sacrifice, and fight like hell to avoid hearing. Anyone who is meet with those words is about to be fired. That means that the numbers aren’t working; that there is not enough room. It might be because the player did not perform well (more on that later) or because the system is not a great fit. But regardless of the specific reason, I cannot imagine how badly that sentence stings. It comes down to math and the math is frightening. Over past weekend all 32 NFL teams were required to trim their rosters to 53 players. With no adjustments that is more than 700 guys looking for work. Some players will find work, picked up by other teams who have a specific need, but many won’t. Making the final roster of any NFL team is about pressure, performance, and attrition. The pressure this year was even more significant due to the lockout and the lack of OTAs and mini-camps. Draft picks struggled (e.g., rookie members of Seattle’s O-Line) and as is usually the case, defenses around the league experienced unit cohesion much quicker than offenses.
The Seahawks did not escape a slow (and at times disorganized) start, and much has been written about our early preseason troubles. Only after the last preseason game against the Oakland Raiders (a game that saw our offensive line and starting quarterback enjoy some modest success) did some of the preseason angst dissipate, and then, only slightly. Although the game assuaged some of the more apocalyptic panic about the upcoming 16 games there is no doubt that this is going to be season with some growing pains; some steps forward, followed by some steps back. As the final seconds of the fourth quarter expired last Friday, like most, I spent some time speculating about which guys had made the team and which had just played their final game in a Seahawks uniform. We celebrate and look forward to watching those who made the cut. Our 53–our team is beginning to come into clearer focus. For an excellent analysis of both sides of the ball you’ll find some great reading here and here.
Through a long offseason and a hurried and intense training camp some key players made it through camp without the pressure of fate that the final cut-down day brings. Most players however experienced no such comfort. A fixture at middle linebacker for years in Seattle, Lofa Tatupu chose to walk away after he refused to restructure the remaining years of his contract. At this point it is unclear whether Tatupu will be suiting up anywhere this season.
Some (one could argue most) of the cuts Seattle settled on were fairly predictable. Some of the decisions coaches had to make involved guys like RB Thomas Clayton who at times flashed big but in the end was a victim of teams having to get to 53. But having tough decisions to make when it is time to cut players is the sign of a program getting stronger. If cuts were simple, if the choices were really obvious that would point to a team in some trouble. Pete Carroll practices and demands that the players live each of the slogans that now dominate camp, practices, and games. And that starts with competition. Competing has become the backdrop of the team mentality. And because of that, there are specific things that Carroll (and the front office) look for. Those guys who don’t have “it” don’t stay. That is the reality.
The reality for those who are cut is a tough one. Over the past week I lost count of how many Twitter messages I read from players who were released. When Seahawks OT Will Robinson Tweeted that he’d been released, I responded wishing him well. In the context of that day it meant next to nothing, but it was sincere. Some veteran players like former Seahawks quarterback Matt Hasselbeck sent out a few messages encouraging guys to hang in there. Matt knew what he was talking about; he’s been there.
That got me thinking about the guys who didn’t make it as part of the team. First, I would wager a significant amount that the vast majority of them would recoil angrily to being shown pity. Men who get to an NFL training camp don’t get there by feeling sorry for themselves when things don’t go right. Most are tough, dedicated, and special players–and that includes those who get cut.
Consider the road from high school to the NFL:
From the NCAA Web site:
*Approximately 5.8 percent, or less than one in 17 of all high school senior boys playing interscholastic football will go on to play football at a NCAA member institution.
*Approximately one in 50, or 1.8 percent of NCAA senior football players will get drafted by a National Football League (NFL) team.
*Eight in 10,000, or approximately 0.08 percent of high school senior boys playing interscholastic football will eventually be drafted by an NFL team.
Those statistics are pretty sobering and yet despite the odds (and despite a number of players not even falling into the category of being drafted) players leave home and family behind to show up in the heat and humidity of the summer to make a living out of a dream. Some players realize their goal of making the team. WR Doug Baldwin was an undrafted free agent out of Stanford who did not blink during training camp and the preseason and earned himself a spot on the 53 man roster.
But even the first guy let go–the first guy asked to leave camp is a phenomenal athlete and a remarkable football player. It is easy to forget that when they are coupled with and playing against the very best the NFL has to offer, but the result of the time they spend in camp does not change the fact that they are quite talented.
I suppose it would be easy to conclude that I’m making a sentimental argument out of a necessary business decision. But beyond being wrong, it would also miss the point. I am excited and ready for the start of the regular season. Soon, my gameday rituals will begin. I’ll be ready well before the game starts, talk with other 12s as we get closer to kickoff, and cheer like hell for us every time we take the field. In other words, I want the best players on this team, and I want the Seahawks to win; always. Letting guys go who are not as good as the ones you keep is the only way to win. I accept that, and I will always want what is best for the ‘Hawks as a team.
But before we kick off the regular season, our team here at The Match Ups Zone would like to extend a sincere thank you to those who came to camp and despite being let go, can walk away knowing that they gave it everything they had. If they are soon forgotten they should first be respected for competing and making us a better team. They should walk away proud, knowing that they crushed the odds and in so doing achieved (even if only temporarily) something that most will never realize.
Good luck to each of them.