By the time Rex Grossman lined up to take a fake snap from a fake center in a version of a football game that only slightly resembled the real thing, three video cameras manned by three cameramen rose 60 feet in the air on three massive orange lifts at Redskins Park. This was a week ago Wednesday, but it could have been any Wednesday during any week of any NFL season. Grossman and his Washington Redskins teammates were going through what would seem, for an out-of-the-race football team, to be the most mundane tasks in a season defined by mundane tasks: running skeleton pass drills against faux defensive backs, simulating what they might — might — see that Sunday against the New York Giants.
The play Grossman ran — a short-yardage pass designed to go to wide receiver Jabar Gaffney — appeared on a white sheet of paper with burgundy headings that listed every play to be practiced that day. Anders Beutel, the assistant equipment manager and Grossman’s de facto center in such drills, held a copy of the practice script. High above the field, in the lift stationed along the sideline, Mike Bracken, the team’s video director, held another copy of the script, because every play of every practice is recorded from multiple angles.
And at the center of it all, Coach Mike Shanahan — part football philosopher, part schedule-maker, part job foreman — held yet another copy, which left nothing to chance. Each play would be run from a particular down and distance. Each would be run from a particular spot on the field — left hash mark, right hash mark or in the center. And each play would involve several of the 61 players that make up the active roster and the eight-man practice squad; the 20-man coaching staff; and at least a dozen support staff — equipment guys and videographers and athletic trainers and security and grounds crew and Director of Football Operations Paul Kelly, the man with his finger on the air horn that starts and stops each practice period.
“It’s kind of like a slow-moving train that ends up going 120 miles per hour,” said Brad Berlin, the Redskins’ equipment manager. “It evolves and builds into this huge thing.”
An NFL team has 48 true practices in a given season, three a week. Each lasts perhaps two hours — some more, many less — for maybe 100 hours of physical rehearsals for the 16 games of the season. The American workforce is trained to abhor Mondays. The first day of the NFL’s work week is Wednesday. And Wednesday is no different in Week 1 than in this, Week 16, with the Redskins in last place in the NFC East, with fans and players already wondering more about next season than the next game, this Saturday against the Minnesota Vikings.
“Everybody’s playing for their jobs,” Shanahan said.
Even in December, playing for jobs means preparing to execute against the various looks the next opponent will bring. So when Grossman dropped back to throw that little pass to Gaffney, he did so thinking not only about his own mechanics, but also about what the coaches who subbed as defensive backs were doing, where they were stationed, what the real opponent might do.