By Zach Berman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 3, 2008
During a training camp in which Washington's injuries have accumulated almost daily and in a year in which the Redskins play an extra preseason game, it is either twisted fate or ill-timed luck that the NFL limited training camp rosters to 80 players this summer.
NFL owners did not expand training camp rosters beyond 80 after NFL Europe folded in 2007. NFL teams used to receive five to seven roster exemptions for players designated to play in NFL Europe. An eighth exemption was extended for an international player. This allowed franchises to bring in more free agents and give the starters rest in the wearying days of training camp.
The policy has left the Redskins and teams throughout the NFL thin on the depth chart for two-a-day practices. As the Redskins prepare for tonight's Hall of Fame game against the Indianapolis Colts, Coach Jim Zorn is forced to distribute playing time differently than he would with more players.
"All of them will get more reps," Zorn said. "There will be veterans who have been here who will get more reps, and there will be rookies who have to get a lot of reps as well."
Although Zorn will limit many of the marquee players, he acknowledged that older veterans must play more than they are used to in the preseason. Fred Smoot, who is entering his eighth season, might be one of the players whose role will differ.
"It ups the reps of the higher-end guys," Smoot said. "It's most definitely a big change. . . . You get the wrong person hurt, and you got to throw in a guy that's valuable to your team, and it can [affect] some people down the line."
Entering training camp, the Redskins knew the roster limit would create an issue. As a veteran-laden team, depth becomes a necessity to alleviate injury or fatigue. Having six or seven fewer bodies in camp leaves almost every position short-handed.
"It's harder with more veteran guys, because then you can have few extra guys who can take reps during practice that they didn't have to," said Vinny Cerrato, executive vice president of football operations. "That's kind of a hindrance. Same thing with playing in the games. You don't have seven or eight guys to take some reps from guys who are going to play only four to five plays, but now they're going to play more because we don't have the numbers. So it makes things a little more tricky because people have to take a lot more reps than they would."
Cerrato said the Redskins were left particularly thin on the offensive line, in the secondary and on the defensive line. Zorn, a former quarterback, said he wanted to enter training camp with five quarterbacks, but the roster limit held the Redskins to four.
Longtime offensive line coach Joe Bugel remembered when the Redskins used to have more than 100 players in training camp. He said the limited numbers affect his offensive line because he ordinarily would want a line that goes three deep at each position -- 15 players overall. The Redskins instead practice with 14 linemen.
"If you have any guys hurt at that position, it could be devastating," Bugel said. "That's a tough rule, 80. Especially when you have that extra game and you come to camp early, you have to be very careful how you practice."
Pete Kendall, a guard in his 13th season, recognized the limit is not ideal but acknowledged every team is facing the same predicament. Kendall said injuries might occur to a second-string player instead of third-stringers who end up playing a bulk of the preseason games.
"A guy who, say, you may project as a second-team guy, he will get an awful lot of work this preseason, and he might come into the season a little more worn out," Kendall said. "We'll see how it plays out. I don't know what our plan is yet. I don't know what the Colts' plan is, but I'm sure 32 teams will have 32 plans."
The Redskins needed to shrink the roster to 80 before camp opened July 20. The last players let go included former Maryland quarterback Sam Hollenbach, who would have entered training camp as the fifth quarterback.
Many of Zorn's offensive drills require the participation of the quarterbacks throwing the football. Without the fifth passer, Zorn has spent more time than planned monitoring his four quarterbacks.
"Their arms get a little bit tired," Zorn said. "If anyone went down with a very sore arm and had to rest a couple days, that puts extra pressure on the rest of the group."
Hollenbach said he was not aware of the roster limit until Zorn mentioned it in a team meeting during offseason training activities. Because of the physical nature of training camp, Hollenbach understood why a quarterback would be released before a position player. If Hollenbach knew he was going to be waived, he said he wished it was before the offseason so he could have found another team.
"If you get a chance to play a preseason game, [there are] 31 other teams that could see the film," Hollenbach said. "I would rather have been out of a job for a few months."
Rosters must be cut to 75 players by Aug. 26 and the final 53 by Aug. 30.
James Thrash, entering his 12th season and one of the Redskins' player representatives for the NFL Players Association, said the roster limit sneaked up on the players and expects that both players and teams will determine a better number in the future.
Thrash's concern was not as much with the veteran players who will need to play more reps, but with players such as Hollenbach who do not even reach training camp. Thrash said he did not like players participating in offseason training activities and workouts only to be released before camp opens.
"It's something in the offseason we're going to have to address," Smoot said. "Our player union has to get stronger and address it. We have to get stronger in the players' union. I'm sorry, but we have to speak for the players instead of let one person speak for all of us when that ain't how we feel."
The way teams deal with injuries also has changed. In the past, teams could be patient with a nagging injury that does not warrant injured reserve status. But with clubs pinched at nearly every position, Cerrato predicted more injury settlements.
"If a guy gets hurt and he's going to miss a couple weeks, you can't afford to keep him around because you need people for practice," Cerrato said.
The problem has spread around the league, with coaches griping in news reports about the limit. It presents one of the few issues where players, coaches and front-office executives all agree.
"The more opportunities guys have in terms of roster positions," Thrash said, "the better off we all are."