By Rick Maese
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 3, 2009
One recent morning at Redskins Park, linebacker Robert Henson arrived early and spotted him in the lobby, the man known around NFL teams as the Turk. He held a clipboard but, as the person assigned to inform players of their release from the team, it might as well have been a scythe.
Quick smile. Eyes down. Keep walking.
"I was just thinking, 'Uh-oh,' " said Henson, a rookie out of Texas Christian. "He wasn't there for me. But that's when it really hit me, you know, that there are some good guys who aren't going to be a part of this team."
Thursday's game at Jacksonville provides a final opportunity for bubble players such as Henson to prove their worth to coaches. Seventy-five players will be on the roster at the start of the game. By Saturday night -- the deadline across the league for team's to shrink their rosters to 53 -- nearly one-third of them will be looking for work.
While coaches try to envision the regular season depth chart, they say several players' fates could swing on their performances against the Jaguars.
Henson is battling on the same bubble as Cody Glenn, Darrel Young and Chris Wilson for just one or two available linebacker spots. Colt Brennan and rookie Chase Daniel will split quarterback duties Thursday night, and only one likely will remain on the team through the weekend. Similarly, place kickers Dave Rayner and Shaun Suisham enter the final round of their five-week tug-of-war for a single roster spot.
And with Clinton Portis among several starters not expected to play, young running backs such as Marcus Mason, Anthony Alridge and Dominique Dorsey have a final opportunity to present their respective cases.
For the second preseason in a row, Mason has wowed fans. He leads the team with 87 yards on 25 carries through three preseason games. He scored the team's first touchdown of last week's game against the Patriots, and after the game said he had 15 missed calls from family and friends excited about his performance. While he didn't earn a roster spot a year ago, his best bet is if the Redskins choose to carry five running backs instead of four. Returning backs Portis, Ladell Betts, Rock Cartwright and Mike Sellers all have some job security.
"It's all on this one game," Mason said. "It's worse as a young guy because you know you'll be in the game all night. You have special teams, then you have offensive or defensive reps. So it's very tiring.
"But you know that every play is like a job interview. You have to ace every single one of them."
Most bubble players know the numbers. They realized there weren't 53 job openings at the start of camp. In truth, there were only a handful of open positions -- and three dozen players eager to show off their qualifications. If the team chooses to keep 25 offensive players and 25 defensive players (in addition to a punter, kicker and long snapper), that bodes well for a player such as Mason or Alridge. Twenty-five on offense likely means three quarterbacks, three tight ends, five wide receivers, nine linemen and five running backs .
Coaches say they enter the preseason finale with an open mind, hoping a player or two will make a convincing argument.
"Maybe you just get a confirmation: 'You know what? I was right about this guy.' Or, 'You know what? Now maybe he'll perform in a different way in a different level, high or low,' " Coach Jim Zorn said. "That will change the complexity of it as well."
It happened last year. Linebacker Alfred Fincher earned his way on the 53-man roster during the final preseason game a year ago, posting a game-high eight tackles against Jacksonville. (Fincher was among five Redskins who didn't survive the early round of cuts this week.)
"I can't tell you how many," Zorn said of guys earning a roster spot in the final preseason game, "but it will happen."
A season ago, Brennan saw his stock rise with each preseason game. This year, he entered camp poised to challenge for the backup quarterback job. Entering the preseason finale, he instead finds himself tap-dancing on the bubble, fighting for roster survival. It's a position with which Brennan says he's comfortable.
"Even after a lot of good preseason games, you don't know," Brennan said of the uncertainty that followed his rookie training camp. "It's the same as this year. No matter how good or bad you do, you really never know. You don't know how much they look into something, what they're really judging, the criteria they judge you by. So there's always pressure."
Alex Buzbee, a defensive end who entered this year's camp on the bubble, has no illusions about his status entering Thursday's game. He's battling Renaldo Wynn and Rob Jackson for a spot on a deep defensive line and knows he has to show coaches on every single down Thursday that he deserves a job.
Two years ago, he was in a similar situation. Buzbee spent the day after the final preseason sitting in a hotel room, "just waiting around to see what the verdict was going to be," he says. He was released but told if no other team signed him, he would be invited onto the Redskins' practice squad. Eventually, Buzbee was added to the 53-man roster late in the 2007 season.
"As a young kid, I was really excited about the practice squad," Buzbee said. "I really wanted to develop, and I thought it'd make me a better player. This year I feel a lot stronger, and I feel more confident in my game. I really think I can play in the league this year, so I hope it all works out."
For most of the bubble players, it won't. At least not by Saturday's deadline. With 10 scouts scheduled to be in attendance at Jacksonville Municipal Stadium and many more monitoring on television, fringe players know they aren't simply trying to impress Redskins' coaches.
"I love this organization; I'd love to be here," Buzbee said. "But if the numbers don't work out and there's not a spot, if I put out good film out on Thursday, hopefully there's another team that needs a D-end."
It's a heady task for Zorn, a former quarterback who knows what it's like to be released.
"It does change these young players' lives, but it also sends them to the next step in their lives as well," he said. "Some of them will not be good enough to make it with an NFL team, but there are other leagues and other opportunities to play. And some will go to another team to play, and some will go on with their lives' work. That's the nature of the game."
While some bubble players are trying to claw their way onto the roster, others seem to have already ingratiated themselves with coaches and simply need to avoid major mistakes as the preseason draws to a close. Five weeks ago, five wide receivers opened camp vying for one position. But with 61 yards and two touchdowns in the past two games, Marko Mitchell has already distinguished himself from the group.
In the days following the Patriots game, in which Mitchell not only had a touchdown but also set a key block on Chris Cooley's 73-yard catch, Mitchell checked his Facebook page and saw that many fans aren't waiting for coaches to determine the final roster. His profile page is peppered with postings, among them: "you are TAKING that spot, playa! Keep it up. We really have needed the tall, physical presence you provide," and "I'm really hopin' to see you in burgundy and gold this season!!! Seriously, you just hafta make the team. You already have a ton of fan support!"
For his part, Mitchell, a seventh-round draft pick out of Nevada, says he appreciates the kind words but knows the final verdict won't be delivered via some social networking site.
"I don't sit around and worry about that," Mitchell said. "You could easily let stuff like that fill up your head. I thank them for the support, but I still go out and play the same, and keep giving it my all every time we get on the field."
If Mitchell has secured that final spot, wideouts Trent Shelton, D.J. Hackett, Roydell Williams and Keith Eloi are likely auditioning for other teams Thursday. Eloi says he's enjoyed his time in Washington, made great friends and nearly wore out of the gift card players receive for free food at Johnny Rockets, the Daniel Snyder-owned restaurant chain.
"I want to be able to tell myself I did everything I could," Eloi said. "As long as I leave the field with no regrets, no matter how the cookie crumbles, I can't feel too bad."
Eloi said he's been watching "Hard Knocks," the HBO program that follows the Cincinnati Bengals through training camp. Other players, though, say they get enough roster drama each day at Redskins Park.
Henson had to adopt a new approach for the final week of the preseason. He said he has spent too much time thinking about the numbers and cuts and how his stock might be rising and falling at each practice. He'd hear something from family members or teammates in the locker room, and it would all fester.
"I was listening to everything. And I was feeding on everything they're saying, what they think is going to happen," Henson said. "To be honest, they're not in the meetings with the coaches, so nobody really knows.
"I just had to let it all go. The business aspect of it has been stressful. So this past week, I'm just running around, trying to do my job. I have to approach Thursday as a business trip. I don't want it to be my last one, so I just have to make sure I leave it all out there on the field."