Jay Gruden was more stubborn than most former college quarterbacks about surrendering his dream of playing pro football. Passed over in the NFL draft, he labored on a practice squad for three seasons, then slogged away in second-tier leagues stateside and abroad hoping to win a bona fide NFL roster spot — to no avail.
So it was understandable that the first-year Washington Redskins coach who knows what it’s like to be discarded took a ginger approach to the final round of roster cuts. In all, 22 players must be pared from Washington’s 75-man by 4 p.m. on Saturday.
On Friday, a day after the team’s preseason finale at Tampa Bay, the bad news was given to eight — most of them mired deep on the depth chart.
Third-year cornerback Richard Crawford, safety Da’Mon Cromartie-Smith and nose tackle Robert Thomas were released on defense.
On offense, tight end Ted Bolser, wide receiver Lee Doss and linemen Tevita Stevens and Kevin Kowalski were let go.
And punter Robert Malone was cut after being outperformed in Thursday’s 24-10 victory by recently signed Tress Way, whose two punts averaged 51.5 yards to Malone’s lone 31-yard effort.
“I’m a sensitive guy, and I’ve been cut before and I hate it,” Gruden told reporters earlier in the week. “It’s just part of the business, though, and they understand that. It’s never going to be easy when you have guys that work extremely hard to get to this point and they’ve busted their butt for you at training camp, [organized team activities], and been in the weight room, been on time to meetings and really done nothing wrong.”
Gruden and his staff deferred the most difficult decisions, which revolve around the running game, for roughly 24 hours. How many backs should they keep as a change-up and insurance policy to Pro Bowl running back Alfred Morris, reserve Roy Helu Jr. and fullback Darrel Young? And who has proved most deserving among the intense, four-way battle of ball carriers with different strengths and styles?
With Gruden’s decision not coming until Saturday, that means another anxious night for fourth-year veteran back Evan Royster, second-year back Chris Thompson and rookies Lache Seastrunk and Silas Redd.
The latter three were particularly impressive in Thursday’s preseason finale.
Redd, an undrafted free agent from Southern Cal, ran behind the left guard for an 11-yard gain to open the third quarter, then streaked 20 yards behind the right guard two plays later. He tried vaulting over a defender for one gain and lost his helmet on another play.
There was no route Redd didn’t attack during his final audition for a spot on the Redskins’ 53-man roster. All around him, he saw his fellow backs showing the same athleticism and zeal.
“Every time we all get in there, we make something happen — top to bottom,” said Redd, who gained a game-high 79 yards on 14 carries, including a one-yard touchdown rumble. “You want that competition. Along with the competition, there’s no animosity. We feed off each other and make each other better.”
Seastrunk, a sixth-round draft pick from Baylor, exploded for an 80-yard touchdown reception while rushing six times for 23 yards.
Thompson, a fifth-round pick in the 2013 draft, missed the previous two preseasons games with a sprained ankle. Thursday was his lifeline, one last chance to prove he could produce while withstanding the game-day pounding. So he said a prayer, stepped on the field, caught all four passes thrown his way and gained 18 yards on eight carries.
Afterward, he said he wished Gruden would keep all six running backs, even though he knew it would be impossible.
“We played well tonight,” Thompson said. “I hope I [showed enough], but all I can do is control what I do on the field. Now it’s in the coaches’ hands.”
Seastrunk echoed the thought.
“We all made plays,” Seastrunk said. “We’re all great backs. It’s gonna be really, really hard. And may the best man get the job.”
Earlier this month Seastrunk lost his beloved grandmother. He said he felt her presence Thursday as he ran nearly the full length of the field for the score.
“It was coolest feeling in the world,” he said. “I had to wave at her and say thank you.”
Seastrunk acknowledged the wait for Gruden’s final decision would be difficult but added he would be at peace with the outcome.
“What God makes for you, he can take from you,” Seastrunk said. “God has me in His hands. My grandmother’s looking out for me. So it’s whatever He wants. It’s already written already. I can’t fight what happened. I only can control what I can control.”
Malone’s release was perhaps the most surprising of Friday’s moves.
Malone, who had punted for three teams over the past four seasons, had outperformed first-year punter Blake Clingan, whom Washington released two weeks ago. He had averaged 41.6 yards on his previous five attempts of the preseason before Thursday.
Way averaged 42.9 yards per punt in the preseason, but he had sent three out of bounds with Chicago, which played a factor in his release by the Bears.
Washington still might bring in additional punters to audition for the job.
Crawford had seemed like a long shot to make the roster at a crowded position led by starters DeAngelo Hall and David Amerson, top nickelback E.J. Biggers, veteran Tracy Porter and promising rookie Bashaud Breeland.
A seventh-round pick in the 2012 draft, Crawford excelled as a punt returner his rookie year but missed his second season after tearing multiple knee ligaments during the preseason. He had struggled to make an impact this preseason.
More on the Redskins:
The Insider: Projecting the 53-man roster
The Insider: Quiz: Make the call on the Redskins’ roster
The Insider: Malone among eight cuts
The Insider: Redskins release Crawford
D.C. Sports Bog: Jon Gruden predicts Jay Gruden’s play-call
D.C. Sports Bog: Here’s the new Redskins Fact ad