For some NFL teammates, the bonds of unity and trust are formed in training camp. For others, these things develop over the course of a grueling autumn.
And then there are those who arrive in January, a few days before the playoffs begin. Forget about forming the bonds of unity and trust; Cary Williams just wants to know how to get back and forth from Redskins Park to his hotel.
“Shoot, I don’t even have a car,” said Washington’s newest cornerback, who signed with the team Tuesday, all of five days before the Redskins will host the Packers in the NFL’s first-round playoff series. “I’ve been taking a shuttle to work, and I’ve been walking to the little restaurants right there around” his hotel.
Why no rental?
“It doesn’t make any sense right now for me to go into that,” Williams said. “I don’t know how long it’s going to be, and I don’t know necessarily how long the season’s going to go. If we win this weekend, I may get a rental car. Or I may just Uber everywhere.”
Starting a new job stinks: there’s job-performance stress, and dozens of new faces, and trying to figure out the office Keurig. Starting a new job in a new city stinks more; in addition to the above, you’re navigating a strange place while living out of boxes or bags. And starting a new job in a new city a few days or weeks before millions will watch your work? Well, I’m not jealous, anyhow.
The Redskins have added five players to their active roster who were not in Washington on Thanksgiving. That’s a full 10 percent of the active roster that missed the Code Red game, missed the endless Kirk Cousins debates, missed the loss in Carolina and missed the home win against the Giants that set the stage for a division title. How do you adapt to a new city and team on the fly? Here are five challenges.
Many of those five players — Williams, fellow defensive back Jeremy Harris, tight ends Alex Smith and Marcel Jensen and running back Pierre Thomas — didn’t know if they would be in Washington for days or weeks when they came for a tryout. So they packed modestly.
“I didn’t know how [long] they were gonna have me work out, if they were gonna fly me back out, if they wouldn’t necessarily like me, or whatever the case was gonna be,” Williams said. “So I just brought an overnight bag and I told my wife you might have to send me a suit, or some dress clothes so I can wear to the game.”
Well, he made the team. So what’s he been wearing after practice this week?
“Mostly sweats,” Williams said with a smile. “I’ve probably got three pairs of sweats, something like that, for the week. And I’m just alternating tops and bottoms.”
He isn’t the only one.
“I’m living out of a bag,” Smith said. “My wife brought a few things, but for the most part when I came I brought maybe three things to wear, and whatever would fit in a duffel bag. My wife brought a couple suits, just for away games and what not, but I’m pretty limited on clothing right now.”
Williams is in the team-paid hotel for now; his wife and kids are still back in Nashville, where his daughter is in school. For players whose families travel with them, a hotel isn’t an ideal solution.
Smith was lucky enough to have a college buddy — former Redskins safety O.J. Atogwe — living in the area, so the tight end, his wife and their twin boys moved into Otogwe’s Leesburg home. (The boys have been on winter break from school, which was perfectly timed with his mid-December arrival.)
Otogwe was out of town for much of late December, “so we really had the house to ourselves,” Smith said. “I’m going to stay as long as we’re here. He gave me an open invitation, so that was definitely helpful.”
Harris stayed in the team-provided hotel until he found his own furnished apartment. But again, these things get more complicated when you have a family. Will Blackmon — who arrived in September — had moved his family into a new house in Seattle the day before he lost his job there.
“We’ve got our stuff in storage,” the cornerback said this week. “That’s the hard thing. I’ve had one-year deals the past four years. It’s tough to move around, and play for minimum, and the uncertainty. It’s difficult when you’re by yourself, but then when you have a family, it’s tenfold [more difficult]. My son just turned 5. He starts kindergarten next year. He can’t miss school. When he’s in school next year, wherever that is, he has to be there.”
And even for Williams, life in the hotel isn’t exactly glamorous.
“You spend a lot of time on the phone trying to find things to talk about with people,” he said. “Nobody wants to hear about practice, so you just try to find something to talk about, especially with your wife. It’s easy to talk to her face-to-face when you’re doing stuff around the house or talking about what’s happening in the neighborhood, what our friends are talking about. But she’s not here now.”
The newest Redskins haven’t had a ton of free time to explore the city, what with traveling to the two season-ending road games, and practicing, and cramming with their new playbooks.
“I still have no clue where I am,” Smith said. “I know how to get to the house and to the facility right now. Everything else, I’ll just MapQuest it and try to figure it out from there. But for the most part, I’m spending my time here. I might go out to get something to eat, but there’s not really a whole lot of time to be doing a whole lot of other stuff.”
Does the team hand out a starter pack with directions to local landmarks and discounted tickets to the National Building Museum? Well, not exactly.
“Your starter pack is your playbook, because you’ve got to play now,” Blackmon said. “I mean, you take an off day and figure it out. My wife, that’s what she would do. When we go somewhere new, she’ll take the car and she’ll just drive around and obviously get stuff set up for the kids, find things for them to do.”
Some of the newcomers didn’t even know that the team practiced in Virginia, nor that it played games in Maryland.
“Honestly, growing up, I always thought it was in D.C. until I got here,” Harris said. “I got off the plane, and I was like Virginia? I was kind of confused. Dulles? Then I realized we were out here.”
“I had no idea about anything in Washington,” Smith said. “I was learning it all on the fly. I came out here for my workout, and before the game that’s when they told me, ‘Oh yeah, [the stadium is] about an hour and a half away from here, so you might want to catch a ride or take the team bus out there.’ ”
Harris still hasn’t visited the District in the five weeks he’s been here; Top Golf is about the only tourist site he’s visited. Smith thought about going into D.C. for a Wizards game, but the drive scared him off.
“I think Tysons Corner is about as far as I’ve actually driven on my own,” he said, recounting his Christmas shopping trip. “It was definitely a beautiful place, but I know there’s plenty more to see.”
4) Names and Faces
Think about how long it takes to meet everyone around the office? Sure, NFL players wear numbers, but that’s different than name tags.
“It’s definitely difficult when you’re coming to another team and you’ve got to learn everybody’s names,” Harris said. “Being a defensive back, you never really encounter the o-linemen. I know everybody on defense pretty much, the receivers, running backs. I would say the o-linemen are the ones I don’t know really well.”
Even Smith, who has been here for several weeks, said there are a handful of players he doesn’t know yet.
“And guys have still been coming in even after me, so there’s still some more new faces in here,” he pointed out.
Williams, who has been here less than a week, knows many of the team’s stars from his years in the league. This probably isn’t the time to figure out everyone on the practice squad.
“I know faces, but I don’t necessarily know names,” he said. “It’s just one of those things. Depending on how things go this offseason, I could get to know people.”
5) The Playbook
This, of course, is the most important thing for fans: how quickly the new guys can fit in on the field. Even with that, though, time sometimes dictates an impossibly fast transition.
“I came in here not knowing anything or any of their defensive schemes,” Blackmon said. “They were like, ‘Here’s your playbook, you’re playing Sunday. Alright,’ you know? I studied what I could, but at the same time, I had to get [myself] in gear.”
Smith was largely familiar with the team’s offense from his previous time with Coach Jay Gruden. Harris has spent extra time working with defensive quality control coach Aubrey Pleasant; he said learning the team’s terminology was the hardest part of his transition to Washington.
“When you first get here, you can’t learn the whole playbook,” he said. “You kind of go through the game plan for each week, and go through [the season] like that.”
Williams didn’t get a single regular-season game to ease his way in.
“It’s a good thing for me that I’ve been a lot of places and I’ve heard a lot of different terminology,” he said. “Some of the terminology here sticks and it works well with the terminology I’ve learned in other places. It’s not necessarily all the same, but it’s somewhat familiar, so I can pick it up.”
Somewhat amazingly, Washington’s never-ending assembly line of new bodies has produced one contributor after another. Forget about the housing and the clothes and the geography; GM Scot McCloughan has landed guys who can play.
“Credit to the man upstairs, literally,” Blackmon said, gesturing not to the heavens but to the Redskins Park front office. “Guys have come in and actually made a difference. It’s important to have that short list of guys just in case, that emergency list. That’s the thing people don’t see. Yeah, you see the draft picks and the free agent signings, you see that stuff, but it’s the bottom of the depth chart, which is unseen, that’s so important.”
And as for the whirlwind?
“I mean, I guess that’s part of it, so you kind of just embrace it,” Harris said. “It is a little different at first, but after a while you know that’s part of the business.”