By Les Carpenter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 20, 2009
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Around Lambeau Field they call it the Green Mile, an oblong alcove tucked off the main locker room of the Green Bay Packers. At training camp, it is where the team relegates its undrafted players, its longest of shots, those with only the faintest of hope of making the final roster.
If nothing else, the title has a metaphorical relevance. For while it is only a few steps across the green carpet to the football-shaped cathedral where the Packers' veterans and draft picks dress, the distance must seem like a mile indeed.
Sitting at his locker inside the Green Mile, former University of Maryland right tackle Dane Randolph can barely see a sliver of the main room; such is the geometry of the alcove's oddly cut corners. His world is instead filled with the other giant men of second-tier stature who cram into the tiny space, pulling on pads and cleats -- sometimes bumping elbows -- before tromping outside to the practice fields across the street.
After the euphoria of surviving a 22-player tryout in May just to land one of four final spots on the Packers' training camp roster, Randolph's current challenge is even more daunting.
Of the 80 players currently in camp, only 53 will be on the Packers roster when their season starts Sept. 13. This means almost everybody inside the Green Mile is going to be cut. On the offensive line, where Randolph plays, there are 14 players fighting for probably just nine spots. To get one of them, he will undoubtedly have to beat out a player who was on the team last season. And in the hierarchy of NFL camps, those players usually get the bulk of the plays in practice and in preseason games, leaving Randolph with few chances to impress.
For a few days he tried to compute these odds before giving up. What was the point? He decided he would simply practice as hard as he could and absorb everything taught to him in the drone of the daily position meetings. This is his nature, cheerful and optimistic; too positive to dread the cutdowns looming in the first week of September. The way he sees it, if he's impressive enough, maybe they'll just have to keep him.
Plus, he's having so much fun.
It is odd to find a player who can find joy in an NFL training camp. Even the most dedicated athletes, those for whom the game is all-consuming, hate the monotony of these weeks with their twice-daily practices under the summer sun. And yet two days before the Packers' first exhibition game, the first real test of his camp, Randolph laughed as he sat in the Green Mile.
"It is strange," he agreed. "The more [plays] I get, the tireder I get and yet the more happy I am."
Everything is exciting. Last week, when offensive line coach James Campen told the five undrafted offensive linemen they were going to be part of the "look" or scout team, running the offensive plays of the preseason's first opponent -- Cleveland -- Randolph was thrilled. While the look team is the lowest stratum in an NFL camp, it also means extra chances to play in practice. And when Campen had the five of them run 32 plays in the scorching summer heat that first day, Randolph wanted more.
His barren dormitory room at St. Norbert College in nearby De Pere doesn't even have a television, leaving him and his assigned roommate, left tackle Jamon Meredith, to study their playbooks together. One night, Meredith explained some of the pass-blocking principles to Randolph and Randolph helped Meredith with the run plays.
What they don't talk about is the obvious fact that if one somehow makes the team, the other is all but certain to be cut.
Not that being cut would be unexpected. Randolph's journey to this point has been a constant long shot. He only generated moderate interest from NFL teams before the draft despite running the 40-yard dash in 4.9 seconds and lifting 225 pounds 29 times on his pro day. Hoping to be picked in the draft's sixth round, he instead went unselected and a possible free agent deal with the Redskins fell through an hour after the draft. He seemed without many viable options until the following weekend, when he tried out with the Packers and was signed on the last day.
So on he pushes. Because he plays right tackle, Randolph is often matched up against the team's top pass-rusher and best defensive player, Aaron Kampman. As far as learning experiences go, playing against Kampman has been a good one. Kampman brings a mix of power and quick moves that Randolph had never experienced before and, as a result, he has beaten Randolph many times. But there are other moments when Randolph has managed to hold his own, briefly negating Kampman's surge, filling Randolph with the hope that maybe he does belong in the NFL after all.
It is easy to tell that Campen, the line coach, likes Randolph. The player always seems to listen. And because he is strong and fast, Campen has noticed he has the ability to overcome mistakes in the middle of plays.
"He makes the corrections," Campen said, sitting in a Lambeau meeting room a couple of days before the first preseason game. "If he gets something wrong, he fixes it the next day. He's a very coachable kid."
Yet even Campen admits that attitude and effort will take Randolph only so far. He needs to show promise in the team's four exhibition games. Randolph and the other undrafted players already lost a great opportunity to impress when a full-team scrimmage was canceled because of lightning.
Without the scrimmage, last Saturday's first exhibition game against the Cleveland Browns became even more significant. Asked a few days before the game how much Randolph had improved, Campen smiled and said, "We'll see on Saturday."
Saturday evening came, bright and warm. As the sun set, the sky cast an almost ethereal glow as Randolph nervously paced the sideline. The coaches had told him he would play the fourth quarter, but as darkness finally fell and the fourth quarter began, backup Breno Giacomini was still in the game. Because Giacomini is in a fierce battle with Allen Barbre for the starting right tackle job, both Giacomini and Barbre were getting more plays than veterans normally receive. Yet their battle was taking time away from Randolph's opportunity.
As the final quarter wore on, Randolph kept positioning himself near either Campen or Coach Mike McCarthy, in hopes that one of them would see the 6-foot-5 figure looming, helmet on, itching to play.
Finally, after the Packers' third-team offense got a first down with 8 minutes 55 seconds left in the game, Campen shouted, "All right, Dane, get in there."
As Randolph sprinted onto the field he could hear the roar of the more than 69,000 fans in the stands, still cheering the first down. And right there on Lambeau Field, just before the first play of his first NFL game, Randolph said he felt a chill running up and down his arms. He leaned into the huddle and heard the call: a running play to his side. He walked to the line, crouched in his stance and as the ball was snapped, he threw all 310 of his pounds at the defensive end standing across from him.
Only he pushed too fast.
The sod beneath his cleats seemed to liquefy. He blocked the player, but it was more of a glancing blow. Then he tumbled to the ground.
"I just really wanted to hit somebody," Randolph said later, smiling. "I think I was too excited."
Four plays later, the Packers ran a pass play. Randolph leaped up out of his stance, backpedaling slightly to meet the rush of a linebacker named Marcus Benard. When he could see Benard coming, he squared up to meet him and once again lunged. Benard sidestepped the awkward shove, brushing past and leaving Randolph to watch in horror as Benard wrapped his arms around Packers quarterback Brian Brohm and threw him down for a sack.
Campen called to the team's center, giving the player instructions to tell Randolph not to push so much, that he didn't have to force his blocks. When the message was relayed to Randolph, he nodded. He relaxed. Suddenly, he said, things came more easily. The Packers kept running the same play, an inside zone run, and they kept getting yards. Randolph's blocks were cleaner, more powerful, and Green Bay moved forward. Three straight times the Packers ran to Randolph's side, for nine-, eight- and one-yard gains.
When the Packers went to pass again, and the rush came at Randolph, he was ready. He squared up, but instead of lunging forward, he relaxed. His block was solid.
Once again he had taken a mistake and adjusted.
A few minutes later, in the locker room, Campen approached the five undrafted linemen and told them how impressed he was. They had essentially run the same play again and again and shoved the Browns players back toward their goal line each time.
There was a euphoria among the linemen who sat together at their lockers in the Green Mile. For a night, at least, in this summer of the longest odds, they had been tested and they had passed. It might not be much. It might not turn into anything. But with their first game behind them, hope boomed again.
Randolph, draped in towels, smiled.
"The whole game flew by, really," he said.
Then he thought about his first play and the sack a few plays later and he shook his head.
"I think I need to relax a little more when I'm out there," he said. "I think I was forcing everything at first. I had a little too much excitement."
"It's one of the things Coach Campen talks about," he continued. "You have to have focus."
Then he paused, trying to remember one of the many dozens of things the coaches have thrown at them in the last few days. A slogan. One that seemed appropriate on this night.
"Focus, fundamentals, finish," Randolph finally said.
And he laughed again into his happiest night yet, when all his football dreams suddenly seemed possible.