NFL tries to make Reaper less grim

May 30, 2013

It’s the most dramatic part of any episode of HBO’s “Hard Knocks” series. After weeks of July two-a-days in the heat and a slew of NFL Films-produced slow-motion replays of beads of sweat forming on his brow, the wide-eyed rookie or the veteran journeyman is tapped on the shoulder by “the Turk” and is asked to bring his playbook with him.

His fate is sealed. He has been released. A short conversation occurs, and minutes later, he’s in a logo-less van driven by a stranger, on his way to the airport with a one-way ticket back home.

It’s a harsh reality, but one that has been in place for several decades. In cutting a team down from 90 to 75 to eventually 53 players, the Turk’s tap on the shoulder and the playbook request is as much a part of NFL training camp as ankle wraps and rookies singing their college fight songs in the cafeteria.

No player is immune from getting released in August. It's a way of life in the NFL.

But are player cuts handled the right way? Furthermore, is it right for the league to not only endorse, but glamorize, a show that brings the process into everyone’s living room? Is that humane?

The recent off-field troubles suffered by Titus Young, a former second-round pick who was cut by the Lions and the Rams in the past year, gave reason for NFL commissioner Roger Goodell to address the topic at the owners meetings last week in Boston.

"We look at our players from a total wellness standpoint,” Goodell said. “It's not just a physical wellness, it's a mental wellness. And what can we do to try and make sure that we're helping our players make the transitions through life and to make sure they're getting the kind of help they need at any point.

"Today, one of the focuses was the cutdown process, as an example. How do we make the process more dignified? It is, in some cases, the last experience a player has with a team or any team in the NFL. So we have to do a better job of doing that in a humane way and a way that will make sure they understand the respect we have for them and the pride we have in what they accomplished.

"Make sure they understand what they'll be experiencing as they separate from an NFL team and make sure they have the services that are available to them, which we provide and we think can be incredibly valuable to them."

Brendon Ayanbadejo spent 14 years in the NFL and was released three times. He was most recently let go by the Baltimore Ravens in April. He still vividly recalls the first time he was handed his walking papers.

“It was 1999,” he said. “Training camp with the Atlanta Falcons. The Turk tapped me on the shoulder and led me into Dan Reeves’ office. I knew the deal. Everyone knows the deal when you’re told to go meet with the coach. It doesn’t mean you’re ever ready for it.

“Coach Reeves told me he was letting me go and to hand over my playbook. I told him I’d be back. He wished me all the best, and we kind of just parted ways. It’s a pretty straightforward process. No young guy should ever be too surprised when he’s getting released in training camp, but it’s still not an enjoyable experience. If anything, it fuels you to prove that team wrong down the road.”

As general manager of the Denver Broncos from 2002-08, Ted Sundquist cut hundreds of players, both in training camp and during the regular season.

“It’s never fun. Whether it’s an undrafted rookie or a 10-year veteran, telling a guy he’s no longer employed or that his dream of being in the NFL won’t be realized is a very difficult thing to do,” Sundquist said. “But it’s part of the game. Unfortunately, there’s such a time crunch during training camp that you really can’t throw a farewell party or give each released player a parting gift on his way out.”

The “time crunch” of the NFL preseason is something multiple NFL sources have pointed to as the main reason for the perceived “inhumane” nature of player cuts. Rosters are usually cut from 90 to 75 to 53 in a matter of 14 days. The league mandates these cutdowns with strict deadlines.

“You’ve got to get down to a certain number after the second preseason game, Sundquist said. “So, you’ve got to release 15 guys or so in a single morning, because you also have to make sure they’re out of the building by 4 p.m. And then you’ve got a short week to prepare for the third preseason game. Same thing happens the following Monday. The whole thing may seem rushed, but it’s because there’s really not enough time to do it any other way."

“I’ve been a part of different organizations, and the processes may differ a little bit from team to team, from coach to coach, but for the most part it’s pretty much the same,” says a current NFC front office executive who asked to go unnamed for this article. “Everyone in the organization has a role when a player is let go. Someone’s grabbing him, someone’s walking him to the doctor for a proper physical, someone’s taking the playbook and someone’s walking him into the coach’s office.

"I hate to use the word assembly line, but that’s pretty much what it is. You have to be efficient because there’s a lot going on at once. It’s more than just the player and the head coach. Letting a player go is really a complete team effort.”

Detroit Lions wide receiver Nate Burleson, a 10-year veteran, has been fortunate enough to never have the Turk tap him on the shoulder. But Burleson has seen plenty of guys come and go over the course of his NFL career.

“It happened today,” Burleson said by telephone from the Lions' organized team activities on Wednesday. “I was walking and talking with one of the younger wide receivers when ‘the Reaper’ tapped him on the shoulder and asked him to bring his iPad with him. We both knew what that meant. When the rest of the guys came jogging out to practice, he wasn’t one of them.”

So, how do you make such a process — one that requires an “assembly line” and an individual known as “the Reaper” — any softer or more humane?

Sundquist offered a suggestion based on his military background with the United States Air Force Academy.

In training camps, the rule has long been, “no communication is a good thing.” In other words, if you don’t hear from the coaches or the front office, it means you won’t be cut.

“No news is good news,” said one NFL player when asked about player-team communication during training camp. “If they’re calling you in the coach’s office during the preseason to have a one-on-one chat, especially on an off-day, you know something’s up.”

Said Sundquist: “Why should that be the case? The NFL should take a page from the military and install regular training camp ‘performance reviews,’ so players can at least have an idea of why they’re being released and what they can work on before they are let go.

“The first time you speak to the head coach and general manager shouldn’t be when you’re being told you’re out of work. I know it’d have to be an accelerated process due to the timing, but even if it’s a five-minute conversation once a week throughout training camp, that goes a long way in helping the young man know what he needs to work on and helps him understand why he’s being let go.”

Indeed, the military has regular review periods, and performances are graded over an extended period time. If you’re an officer and you’re not promoted to major, you usually have an idea why that’s the case before the day any decisions are made. The same can be said for a vice president at a bank or an assistant to the regional manager at a paper company. The review process is a regular part of most American workplaces. Then again, the NFL isn’t most American workplaces.

“After a long day of practice, I’m not sure how feasible it is to get 90 different guys in for weekly five-minute conversations,” said the current NFC front office executive. “Look, in an ideal world, these guys would all get face time with the scouts, the team doctors, the position coaches, the head coach, the general manager and whoever else they wanted to speak with on a regular basis both before and after they’re cut. But there’s not much more we can do than what’s being done now.

"If there was an easier, more humane way, trust me — it would have been implemented a long time ago. There’s no joy in cutting a player. Teams don't get any sort of kick out of letting guys go.”

Burleson says team-to-player communication efforts could be increased but also noted that every player in the game knows it’s all part of the NFL experience going in.

“When it happens, you’ll hear a small murmur and the news spreads across the rest of the team,” he said. “Even with the younger cats, it’s always unfortunate to see a guy get sent home. That's part of it, though.”

Ayanbadejo spoke with multiple Ravens coaches, as well as GM Ozzie Newsome, when they let him go in April.

“I’m not sure how you could make it any easier on the player,” Ayanbadejo said. “It’s a part of the business, right? As long as there’s communication, I think it’s handled right.

"I’ve had teammates find out they’ve been released from watching ‘SportsCenter.' That’s not good. When a guy’s watching a basketball game and sees his name on the bottom line ticker, that’s a problem. That, to me, can be considered inhumane.”

Sundquist insisted he never treated one player any differently than another — whether it was a longtime veteran or an undrafted rookie — when releasing them.

“That’s nothing against the veteran,” he said. “It just was as important to respect and value the undrafted guy as the veteran. We took the time to scout and sign undrafted guys and wanted to treat them the same as the veterans. We wanted everyone in training camp to succeed, so it was never easy letting anyone go, regardless of their NFL resumes.”

When he released Denver's third-round pick Maurice Clarett in 2005, before the former Heisman finalist even took an NFL snap, Sundquist handled the situation delicately.

“We wanted it to work with Maurice. Unfortunately, it didn’t. But we made sure we handled it the best way we could. There were open lines of communication throughout training camp.”

Sure enough, Clarrett and Sundquist would cross paths again, when the former NFL GM signed Clarett in 2010 to the now-defunct Omaha Nighthawks of the United Football League. “Maurice and I are still friendly today. It’s not that big of a world. No one wants to disrespect the players they're releasing.”

Neither Sundquist nor the NFC front office executive said they ever thought to contact or have seen a licensed psychologist brought in the room while a player was released.

“I’ve never had anything close to a physical altercation or anything like that,” Sundquist said. “Some guys take it harder than others, though, sure.”

One players' agent said Goodell’s comments, though noble, could be hard to execute.

“There’s no real possible way to make cuts more humane,” said the agent. “Football isn't a humane sport. It's a sport of battered will and triumph over another man. Getting released and being cut is a part of the business. Players understand it. Players respect honesty and know eventually almost every player gets cut in their career. A part of me wonders if this is just the league looking to establish a positive PR stance.”

It remains to be seen how exactly the league softens its cut-down process, but the wheels do appear to be in motion. Turks, Reapers and organizational assembly lines could all be changed or removed for the better of the game’s players.

The biggest loser in all of this? It would be the league-endorsed, NFL Films-produced “Hard Knocks” series.

After all, the cuts are always the best part.