The harsh truth about cutdown day
First, a comment on the opening salvos in the pending negotiations between the NFL and the NFL Players Association on a new collective bargaining agreement: Pay no attention to the rhetoric.
We’re in a full-on posturing phase as the two sides present their cases to the media and public. On the union side, executive director DeMaurice Smith has harped on the “show us your books” argument, to which the league has responded that it has shown enough. On the league side, senior executives have said that they are not only expecting but are comfortable with an uncapped year in 2010, figuring it will hurt the players more than it will help them. The recent Forbes value rankings for all clubs – which I’ll address in detail next week -- will be a new subject for both sides to put their spin on. The bottom line is that both sides are not negotiating yet; they are still posturing.
On to cutdown day….
Unless they have no heart and have become immune to emotion through the cold business of the National Football League, this weekend is the hardest weekend of the year for front offices and coaches to manage from a personal as well as professional stance. Approximately 25 percent of the players who have been working for them for months will now be pushed into a flooded market with hundreds of other players looking for a handful of open NFL jobs. By Labor Day, the labor force in the NFL will have shrunk by a quarter.
Being on the Same Page
Cutdown day also shows the symmetry, or lack thereof, of teams’ front offices. Every team tries to have the three areas of the football operation – coaching, personnel and contract/cap management – on the same page, but inevitably one of the three prongs wields more influence. The makeup of the final roster is a defining moment for the power source of the team because these decisions can have lasting effects for years.
Coaches tend to favor older players familiar with their systems and more dependable in tense situations. They will sacrifice higher upside to have a better insurance policy in place.
Personnel staffs tend to prefer young players they have brought in to develop. They fear the prospect of those players playing for someone else after the investment made in them. They advocate patience with draft choices, even from previous years, rather than pushing them farther down the depth chart or off the team. Also, younger players usually play special teams; veteran players are more reluctant to do so.
Cap and contract managers play advisory roles in the process, mapping out scenarios of cap room and cash commitments with different rosters. I would often have up to 10 roster scenarios and the cap and cash commitments associated with each. Cap/contract managers are also responsible for monitoring the risk on vested players, for whom the team is fully responsible for the year’s salary if the player is on the roster the first weekend of the season. And, of course, cap/contract managers have to allow for budgets for practice squad, injured players, injury settlements, injury replacements, planned contract extensions, planned earned incentives, etc. With the rules changing this year due to no cap in 2010, these forecasts are more important than ever.
The Bane of Teams’ Existence: Injuries
Injury discussions are the most vital conversations of the weekend. The type and length of injuries of players on the roster bubble are debated intensely as roster decisions have to be made that affect whether these players will be kept on the roster, released, released with an injury settlement or placed on season-ending injured reserve. For players with four-to-six week injuries, such as MCL strains, high-ankle sprains and hamstring injuries, these decisions are especially difficult.
This is also the time when players are placed on reserve/injured with injuries that are, uh, season-ending. Officially, the team doctor has to certify that the injury is “major,” which qualifies it for a minimum six-week time frame and can leave the upper time limit indefinite. As to confirming the veracity of such injuries, the league has spot-checkers who appear at team headquarters to check on them. However, this seldom happens; in my nine years with the Packers, I encountered one spot-checker.
As to the underbelly/unknown side of what really happens with injuries, there are situations that no one would believe unless they were there. I was always amazed that on the morning after the last preseason game, there would suddenly be a couple of injuries to players who were about to be released. These players checked out fine after the game but had mysteriously developed injuries that would require them to receive their pay over the coming weeks or months (teams can’t release injured players; if they do, they’re subject to grievances). Tim Couch, the former top pick in the 1999 NFL Draft, was a player who never solicited treatment in his time in Green Bay but ended up filing a grievance for his elbow. I always wondered what happened to these players between the last preseason game and cutdown time that would eventually earn them tens, even hundreds, of thousands of dollars? I’m not saying…I’m just saying...
Cutting Down to 53 and 45 -- and adding and cutting again
After all the debates and harangues in cutting the roster to 53, which usually include a more detailed discussion of what the game-day roster of 45 will look like, a team’s front office and coaches take a deep breath -- and then it’s time to scour the league waiver wire for players who are better than the ones they have, sparking more debate about the 45- and 53-man rosters.
A staple of cutdown weekend is trade talk. The usual conversation between teams involves which players may be available and the bluffing about how many teams may be interested if the team were to release the player. The good personnel staffs are able to sift through the posturing and have conviction about the players they want and what they are willing to do to acquire them. The vast majority of players who are discussed are eventually released, and the majority of trades that occur are in exchange for the minimum allowable trade compensation, a “seventh if” pick – the trading team gets a seventh rounder if the traded player is on the 45 or 53-man roster for a certain number of games – in a future year.
Dreams Deferred and Dashed
This is a tough weekend. Hundreds of players have been working intensely for months, many since January, doing everything the team has asked them to do. Many of them had little or no chance of making the team from the moment they signed but clung to dreams of turning enough heads to get a shot. Now a member of the personnel staff is calling them, asking them to come by and start the process of handing in playbooks and taking exit physicals with trainers.
Almost half the group that assembled five weeks ago for training camp in any NFL city is gone. Although around 250 of those players will come back Monday as practice squad players, there is no time in the NFL calendar that displays the true cold, hard nature of the business than this one. As I’ve said to dozens of players, it’s the numbers; there just aren’t enough spots. It’s not personal. Even when I said it, I knew it was a clich