A year ago this coming week, across the 32 camps where NFL teams planned their assault on the regular-season schedule, it was a nervous time for many football players who were about to become former football players.
The NFL's first cutdown day, reducing the roster from the training-camp limit of 90 to 75, was always scheduled for the Tuesday after the third preseason game – deletions that would provide those unlucky 480 men with "a chance to get on with their life's work," as Buddy Ryan liked to say.
The next cutdown, to the active roster size of 53, would arrive on the Sunday after the fourth exhibition, and that was where the real meat was trimmed. After that, the race was on to scoop up someone else's good leftovers, or to hopefully place one's own onto the practice squad or various injury hiding places.
League owners changed the cutdown rules for this season during their May meetings and eliminated the two-step process in favor of one large cutdown just before the start of the regular season. The stated reason was to give the deep roster long shots another week to earn a job, but, as usual with the NFL, stated reasons are selected for their convenience and not necessarily their accuracy.
Keeping the bottom feeders around for another week provides a little more security for teams because it means that third- and fourth-stringers will be playing most of the final exhibition game instead of second- and third-stringers. That might not sound like much, but if Aaron Neary gets hurt snapping the ball this coming Thursday instead of Stefen Wisniewski, then the change pays off – except for the customers watching the game.
Even by the usual standards of the fourth NFL exhibition, Thursday's game in MetLife Stadium against the Jets will be particularly awful. Perhaps Penn State fans are looking forward to the showdown between Matt McGloin and Christian Hackenberg, but that excitement might be tempered by the fact they will be throwing the ball to Shelton Gibson and Kenbrell Thompkins, respectively. Truly, most of the entire preseason is unwatchable, but this game should require those solar-eclipse blackout glasses that make everything look as if viewed from the inside of Josh Huff's car.
That's what the owners want you to enjoy, as much as possible. Then, by 4 p.m. Sept. 3, there will be 1,184 players who hit either the open market or the injured lists. That's quite an unprecedented load for the transaction wire, and it will set off a brief period of chaos until all the leaves have fluttered to the ground.
At the moment, not knowing who else might become injured in the next week, or the extent, say, of the hamstring injury suffered by linebacker Nathan Gerry on Thursday, the Eagles could start with defensive tackle Beau Allen and rehabbing rookie cornerback Sidney Jones on the roster but not counting against it. That will still leave Howie Roseman, Doug Pederson, and the coaching staff with a number of very difficult choices.
If they had to make the usual cutdown Tuesday and remove the first 15 players, that wouldn't be so hard. It never really is. Just for argument's sake, let's play that game. If you really know half of these names, consider yourself a great fan. You should also consider finding a hobby or something.
The Eagles went from 90 to 87 players over the weekend when they cut Keevan Lucas, David Watford and Tay Glover-Wright. They could go quickly to 75 players by also cutting Gibson, Victor Salako, Neary, Tyler Orlosky, Darrell Greene, Anthony Denham, Adam Zaruba, Dane Evans, Gabe Wright, Winston Craig, Jomal Wiltz, Mitchell White and Tre Sullivan. No offense to any of those, but that's the truth, and if you want to disagree, you have to be able to assign them all to their correct positions without peeking.
That would still leave Rashard Davis, McGloin, and Don Cherry on the roster, along with backup punter Cameron Johnston and second-string long-snapper Rick Lovato. So, we're essentially down to around 70 players without breaking a sweat. And, stated reason or not, none of those deleted players is going to jump up in the coming week of practice or final exhibition and make the active roster. They are going to see a lot of time against the Jets, however, and heaven help those who choose to watch.
The real decisions will come when the team makes up its mind between running backs Corey Clement and Donnel Pumphrey, between offensive linemen Josh Andrews and Dillon Gordon, between safeties Terrence Brooks and Jaylen Watkins, between linebackers Najee Goode and Joe Walker, and between defensive ends Alex McCalister and Steven Means. There might be a dozen coin-flip decisions like that, and those tough calls, along with the ones made by the 31 other teams, are what will make Sept. 3 and 4 a free-for-all around the league.