I want to be in the movies. Not the blockbuster you check out at the multiplex on Friday night, not an Adam Sandler comedy where he wears a wig for 90 minutes. Not even a cameo on a Hard Knocks segment. The movies you never get to see. The movies my head coach watches in his office after we’ve all gone home from a grueling two-a-day.
The movie entitled “Training Camp.”
I want the coaches to have a solid reminder of why they need me on the roster. The Head Coach has an endless number of distractions beyond the work on the field, the media, the front office, the inner politics between different assistant coordinators, without even mentioning his personal life, it’s easy for my performance to slip his mind.
I need to be on film.
OTAs are “voluntary” – they’re really mandatory, but some veterans get a bit of leeway. Phillip Rivers doesn’t have to be there. Antonio Gates doesn’t have to be there. I have to be there. Fighting for a roster spot, I am one of 16 Wide Receivers. As they say, sometimes you don’t get a second chance to make a first impression. Even worse, sometimes you get only one chance to make the only impression.
The preseason games are important, but 75% of their decisions can be pre-determined as to who’s gonna go and who’s gonna stay. At training camp, you have your own in-house scouts, some watch defense, some focus on us, the wide receivers, some on special teams. When it’s time to cut the roster from 83 to 75, it’s vital for me to make it into the preseason game just to get on the film. For some guys, it’s a numbers thing – there’s only so many reps to go around. There’s some days where you’re standing around for one-on-ones. You might only get one rep, and as a young player, you need as many reps as possible. Depending on the team’s depth at the position, there’s two types of players in training camp, the “leg-savers” and the “rep-wasters.” A leg-saver allows those veterans who want to take it easy to stay fresh, they’ll let you go and do all the work – they know they’re making the team. Greg Jennings knows he’s making the team. Every play – even in practice – is one less opportunity for injury. Then there's that other team, where there's no clear-cut starters, it’s like the Octagon, everyone’s fighting for attention. You could be known as a “rep-waster” – taking precious moments from someone else in the running for that roster spot. You need to make the most of the reps when you get them, even on special teams. I’ve seen guys go down the field in practice and nearly decapitate their own teammate just so the coaches would know they hit hard. Guys diving for balls and extending like Dwight Clark’s catch against the Cowboys. Vets are like, “Hey man, why you goin’ so hard,” and you come back with, “You’re already on the team. I’m trying to make the team.” This is my Championship game. This is my Catch. It’s funny, but you’d be surprised how many vets don’t get that.
It goes both ways, especially at linebacker – they’re only keeping six and there’s 13 in camp. There’s been two preseason games and you’re not on film yet. That does some crazy things to your psyche. You’re going into the classroom to watch film and you’re not on it. It’s like that feeling when everyone’s around the family TV watching home videos and you were the one holding the camera, it’s like you’re not in the family. You begin asking yourself , “Am I gonna get cut? I’m not on film.” That’s the tough part. Or if you’re a vet, like what T.O. went through in Seattle this summer or you’re in the last year of your contract, – you have to be productive, you’re fighting for reps, too. Some young 4th-rounder is showing something, gets on film, the coach praises him in the classroom, you’re thinking about all that. Heaven forbid someone gets cut in Buffalo or Arizona, it directly affects my job in Indianapolis. Guys watch that – especially in preseason. You’re chilling in the locker room, checking out Sportscenter in the morning and there’s a story on a guy getting cut as that same exact dude walks through the doorway directly under the TV set. You’re on the practice field and you look 100 yards down and there’s a new face coming out, chatting with the coaches. You’re like, “Is he a running back? Is he a DB? Do I have more competition for my job? “ As you’re thinking this, one of your teammates taps you on the shoulder, nodding to the other field, “Hey, that’s the cat the Rams just cut, right?” You’re all thinking the same thing. You check out their body type, you ask yourself, “Is that guy a receiver?” If the answer’s yes, then you look around the field, the players standing around you, catching their breath or laughing at a random joke. One of you won’t be having breakfast with the team tomorrow. They’re constantly working out guys, trying to improve the roster, they don’t tell you the grand plan, you’re not privy to the coaches’ conversations. So while I’m trying to remember an endless number of plays, while making sure I don’t fall on my ass, I have this in my mind now. That pressure mounts. Over and over, you’re thinking, “I‘ve had three balls thrown to me in the last two days, did I catch everything PROPERLY, the way the coaches want me to catch them? Did I run the route precisely? Did I have any assignment mistakes? Did I even get enough reps? Did that rookie free agent get more reps than me? Why did he get more reps than me? Wow, how big was that mistake I made yesterday?” This is all going through your head. In Philly, during a run on the 1st team in training camp, I got one rep. I missed the throw. The throw was low, the throw was behind me. Didn’t matter. That was the last throw I received with the 1st team.
I don’t need this in my head right now.
But it’s there.
You have to process all the mental gymnastics of where you think you exist in the food chain – where other receivers are getting reps, who are the coaches’ “guys,” and you’re not the only one thinking this. I’ve seen teammates go into a funk over these things, guys who felt no matter how well they achieved, they had no chance because they didn’t fit the system, as if they’re in camp just so the Head Coach can be sure he’s not missing something, rather than having a legitimate shot at making the team. If you’re a short receiver in Steelers’ camp, chances are you’re probably not gonna play that much at all, if you even make it– they like tall, large guys.
Some players outperform expectations, have the playbook down cold, but again, there’s no spot for them on the roster. Last thing the organization wants is this guy getting in the hands of another team, especially one in the same division. Don’t think the Patriots only picked up Danny Woodhead after the Jets cut him a couple years back for on-the-field performance reasons. He’s an outstanding player, but he also knew Gang Green’s playbook backwards and forwards. Sometimes the club will do what they can to keep you in the organization – that means the practice squad. This is where preseason games matter. Every team has scouts attending the other clubs’ preseason games, looking to find the 54th man who could help our organization, help the head coach and GM keep their jobs. This is why getting a video record of your performance is vital to survive at the other end of the roster.
If there’s another extremely important reason that film matters, it's that you are also potentially auditioning for other teams who have their scouts monitoring you, scouts that followed you in college, maybe you were someone they weren't able to draft or sign at another time, but they always liked you. Getting on film allows them to have life footage of you in action and aids in deciphering who to go after when cuts occur to help improve the team. Every rep counts and the more visible you are on film doing good things, the better chances you have of making a team or at least getting a workout that could lead to a signing.
You better be ready for your close-up. There’s only so much film in the camera to go around.
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