BEREA, Ohio — The temporary lockers are about go back into storage. Tuesday, the maximum roster size across the NFL went from 80 to 75. Saturday, it’s going to 53.
Yes, lots of players are. Lots of them are going to at least temporarily unemployed in the aftermath of Thursday night’s 16 preseason finales. They’re games each team will handle differently and approach with different objectives, but at least a few things are the same across the board.
Every team still has at least a few roster spots unsettled. Some have lots of holes and will be watching other games closely, too, for potential trade and waiver-wire targets. Some decisions will be made more complicated based on what happens Thursday night. Some decisions involve off-the-field factors, too. Honestly, more than a few have already been made.
The one thing that’s for sure? Coaches hate this weekend as much as the players do. And all the players can do is conduct business as usual.
“There are a lot of things going on right now that make me unsure of my position,” Browns linebacker David Bowens said Tuesday. “One thing I will do is play my tail off on Thursday. We’ll see what happens.”
During last December’s four-game win streak, Bowens was a Browns captain and arguably the team’s best defensive player. Now he’s one of a bunch of Browns’ linebackers fighting for a job and role. And he’s 33. And he’s due to make a bunch more money than lots of the guys he’s competing with, some 10 years his junior.
He’s not the only recognizable name who seems to be on the Browns’ roster bubble. Eric Barton, who’s four weeks from turning 33, was a starter and captain before he got hurt last season. James Davis was the star skill player of the preseason as a rookie in 2009. That was before Jerome Harrison’s December to Remember. And before Peyton Hillis. And Montario Hardesty.
John St. Clair started most of last season at right tackle. With Tony Pashos now in the mix, he could be looking for a job come the weekend. Blake Costanzo is one of the NFL’s best special teams players, but his job isn’t guaranteed with this many linebackers competing for spots. Injuries to D’Qwell Jackson, Shaun Rogers and Floyd Womack complicate matters further.
So, too, does the arrival of Mike Holmgren as team president and Tom Heckert as general manager. Eric Mangini is undoubtedly going to have input on the tough cuts, but he’s not going to have all the final calls.
As Bowens put it Tuesday, “He’s not the boss anymore.”
Back in 2001, Bowens’ third year in the NFL, he was traded twice in six months, waived twice in three weeks following the second trade and spent four weeks out of the league before being signed by the Dolphins. He knows the ropes. He knows he’s far from the first guy who’s taught the ropes to the guy who’s eventually going to take his job. How soon? He’ll find out Saturday.
Bowens’ story of making it this far is a good one, but it’s not as unique as one might think. Kurt Warner was bagging groceries after being cut by the Packers in 1994; in 1999, he was the NFL’s MVP with the Rams. Jeff Saturday didn’t become the linchpin of Peyton Manning’s offensive line until after the Ravens’ scouting staff, one of the best in the business, decided Saturday would never play on Sundays. The Steelers cut James Harrison three times and the Ravens cut him once early in the decade; in 2008, he was the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year.
In the Browns’ locker room, those long-term success stories take a backseat this week to short-term goals. Like being around for Sunday’s team meeting.
“Everyone’s fighting for a position,” said Jason Trusnik, who, like Bowens, is a versatile and current backup linebacker who also played for Mangini with the Jets. “Some guys have jobs locked up. Some surprises are going to happen. It’s part of the job. I think when I was younger I’d sit in the meeting room counting heads and wondering how I was going to stick. Now I know all I can do is perform and leave those decisions to the guys who get paid to make them.”
Defensive end Brian Schaefering has been to the coach’s office a few times, too. He was cut by Romeo Crennel when Crennel coached the Browns. He was cut last summer by Rex Ryan’s Jets, then again by Mangini’s Browns. Then he made the practice squad, got called to the active roster and accounted for 1.5 sacks of Ben Roethlisberger in a Browns upset last December. And this summer he’s fighting for a job again.
“This waiting game, it’s not fun,” Schaefering said. “You sign with a team and you want to stick. Finding a home is the name of the game. You better have the urgency in every preseason game, every practice, because this preseason ends quicker than guys realize.”
Schaefering helped his cause last week in Detroit when he forced an early Kevin Smith fumble and was active on several other plays. With Rogers, Robaire Smith and Kenyon Coleman in their 30’s, the Browns have to keep a couple young defensive linemen. Schaefering just turned 27. He knows the rookies are 21 or 22. And he knows what they’re thinking.
“You try to avoid thinking about it as much as possible,” Schaefering said. “But it looms. Guys know time’s running out.”