As the Redskins face their final preseason opponent Thursday vs. the Jaguars, players hoping to make the final roster know this could be their last opportunity to prove themselves.
Just before the excitement and the anticipation of the NFL regular season begins its parade towards Sunday, carrying with it the pageantry of optimism that reminds players and coaches why they do this job for a living, there is the very grim reality of telling those that have suited up for the last grueling several months that they won't be experiencing any of it.
Redskins head coach Jay Gruden calls cut day – the inevitable and unenviable challenge of slimming the team's roster down to 53 men – a miserable experience. He also calls it the toughest part of his job, that he hates it, that it's heartbreaking, for everyone involved.
These words are not said lightly, because past this Thursday, 22 players that have become people to Gruden and the rest of the coaching staff will have conversations that end with handshakes, leading to empty lockers and the realization that the pursuit to play on Sundays will come on another team, or at least in another unforeseen role.
Traces of these images – a sullen consultation with the head coach, boxing up belongings -- go through the minds of players on the fringe of the roster. Earlier this week, 13 teammates-turned-acquaintances already went through it, presenting a reality check that isn't seen at the collegiate level.
"It's definitely different when you walk in the locker room and [lockers are] empty next to you," said cornerback Deshazor Everett, sitting in a row of stools that weren't being used anymore.
Now, of course, they serve as a constant reminder – that football is a business, quick and unforgiving, and that, most importantly, this fourth and final preseason game against Jacksonville is a last opportunity to demonstrate everything they believe about themselves to be true.
"There's a sense of urgency going in there," offensive lineman Takoby Cofield said. "It's like an audition or like another job interview each and every time you get in there. So this being the last one, so to speak, you try to leave a good impression in everybody's minds that may be watching you."
Of course, sometimes a good impression isn't enough. Cofield, undrafted out of Duke and one of many players feeling pressure on the bubble, also knows that factors like depth and injuries can sway a group of coaches in either direction. His talent might be good enough for an NFL team's final roster, but football is a numbers game, which is to say many roster decisions aren't an indictment of talent or skill level, just the system itself.
"We've got 90 guys in the offseason and we've got to get down to 53. Do the math," Gruden said. "We challenge them every day. That's why were so competitive out here every day. Guys are working so hard because they know they're fighting. Every rep is important. But it's never easy and it never changes."
Treating Every Day The Same
As is typically the case throughout the league, Redskins starters will sit against the Jaguars. That will allow backups more playing time without having to worry about their performance in just two or three drives. With greater visibility, however, most players don't feel the need to change anything in their routine from the past three weeks.
Check out these photos of the Redskins' offense preparing for their Week 4 preseason matchup against the Jacksonville Jaguars Tuesday, Sept. 1, 2015, at Redskins Park in Loudoun County, Va.
"It's not any different than the last game," running back Trey Williams said. "Every game's big for me. It's going to be like that even if I was playing in the regular season. All of it's new. Like I said, I'm just giving it my all. I can't get mad from that."
Everett, who went to Texas A&M with Williams, and linebacker Terrance Plummer, also undrafted, from the University of Central Florida, are approaching Thursday night in a similar fashion, focusing on the day-to-day, trying not to get caught up with the eventual uncertainty once the game finishes.
"You've just got to go out there and play football," Everett said. "I mean, you definitely know you've got to show up and perform, but at the end of the day it's something that you've been doing, a lot of us, since pee-wee football."
In a game like this, with a chance to stand out, there would seem to be a tendency to grab a coach's attention with a flashy play – a big hit, a jumped route, an antsy punt return. But those kinds of plays are just as likely to have the opposite effect on the people who matter.
"You definitely want to go out and make a play," Everett said. "But coach always tells us do your assignment, play within the defense and let the play come to you and when it's time to make a play, make the play. You can't just force something to happen out there. I've tried many times and it could end badly for you."
"You do that, you end up getting hurt, something crazy happens or you go out there wanting to do so good that you psyche yourself out," Plummer said.
Finding A Second Chance
For the entire month of August, Gruden has stressed how important special teams can be for players hoping to remain with the team. The extra reps outside of a player's natural position can be just as crucial for their survival, and not just with the Redskins.
Those that have the general sense their talents won't qualify for a team this September also know that their effort and skills are still under constant surveillance. Making sure of fundamentals and continuing to work hard still has merit for players who want to package together film and recommendations to send around the league.
Everett, for example, was grateful to be signed in early August, if only because he was able to accumulate enough film in training camp and three preseason games to promote himself elsewhere if needed. In many ways, it's the consolation prize for getting let go.
"I think we're going to get them enough work on tape where we're going to get them an opportunity somewhere else," Gruden said. "Last year, we went through a ton of injuries and we ended up bringing certain guys back. So it's not the end of the line for them."
Still, a lot of second chances come through chance itself, which is not exactly a financially viable way to live. It takes a quick look at the NFL landscape, though, to learn from other players' pasts and draw inspiration. For Plummer, all it took was a look across the locker room.
Linebacker Jackson Jeffcoat, who Plummer says has taken him under his wing, found himself in Plummer's situation a year ago. He was cut before the 53-man roster was announced and served time on the Redskins' practice squad throughout most of the season.
He capitalized on some opportunities during the final two 2014 regular season games and has continued to make strides this offseason, rotating in and out of the first-team defense.
"He just always encouraged me and motivated me," Plummer said. "The NFL is a crazy business. Injuries make the next guy come up. And he took that opportunity and ran with it. That just shows what type of guy Jackson Jeffcoat is. Some guys are going to fly or fall. I think he flew pretty well."
Stories like that provide safety nets for Plummer and his teammates, who know their first dream run in the NFL may soon be paused. The players that are smart – the ones that have an undeterred passion for the game and can see past some initial joy or disappointment – know Thursday is a big day, but not doomsday.
"Some people feel like it's just over with," Plummer said. "I've had a lot of teammates go from three or four teams and during their eighth year they finally found their spot. If you continue to work hard, and keep pushing and this is what you really want to do, there's going to be a spot for you if you have the talent and ability."