- The Washington Times - Monday, October 1, 2007

They look and act like NFL players. They watch film, attend meetings and practice. They dress in the locker room, have their own assigned numbers and prepare each week for the upcoming game.

They are NFL players in all aspects — except one.

“We do everything they do,” linebacker Matt Sinclair said of his active teammates in front of his locker at Redskin Park. “We just don’t play on game day and get paid a whole lot less.”

Sinclair is in the NFL’s equivalent of the Witness Protection Program as a pro football player who works as a Washington Redskins player all week but is off on game days. Sinclair is a member of the practice squad, a group of as many as eight players whose prime purpose is to perform as scout team members and provide extra bodies to prepare the 53-man active roster for competition.

They are paid $4,700 a week — or $80,000 if they last the season. In contrast, the NFL rookie minimum salary is $285,000.

The practice squad players’ shoulder pads and cleats never leave Redskin Park. Instead, on game days they dress in sweat clothes and stand on the sideline for home games. At least they are in the stadium. But when the Redskins are away, they are banned from traveling with the team and watch the games on television.

“It is like surreal,” offensive lineman Kili Lefotu said. “It’s like, ‘Hey, I know everybody, but I’m not there.’ Sometimes I feel I should be there. I guess I have to wait my turn and keep working.”

What was Sinclair doing while the Redskins played in Philadelphia in Week 2 recently?

“I was in the hotel room watching the game and writing thank-you notes from my wedding,” he said.

Sinclair and Lefotu are among the fringe NFL players hoping to use Washington’s practice squad as a stepping stone to the big club. The Redskins’ list is similar to those of most other NFL teams: stocked with young players (practice squad players can have no more than eight games’ experience on an active roster) who were either late-round draft picks or undrafted. Many are from smaller college programs and have ties to the local area.

Lefotu, the only draft choice on the unit, was Washington’s seventh-round pick in 2006 out of Arizona. Two former DeMatha High School players are on the practice squad — fullback Brian Bell (Kent State) and cornerback Byron Westbrook. Running back Marcus Mason (Youngstown State) played at Georgetown Prep, and fullback Alex Buzbee played at Georgetown University.

Cornerback John Eubanks realized his dream of playing in the NFL after spending the first 16 weeks last season on the practice squad before getting promoted for the final game. The Southern Miss product was sent to the practice squad again this season.

“Any time any one of us can be called up,” said Lefotu, a 6-foot-5, 315-pounder who was cut in the 2006 preseason and out of football the rest of the year. “I am glad to be here. Believe me, things could be worse. A lot worse.”

The practice squad has been around in some fashion even before the current system was put in place as five-player units in 1989 and expanded to eight players in 2004. Previously, it was called the “taxi squad” for the job many players held in addition to being part-time players.

The squad is also a way to legitimize a developmental program rather than stash prospects on the injured list with minor or bogus ailments as the Redskins did with many players, including current Miami Dolphins quarterback Trent Green.

“The practice squad in reality is like the Injured Reserve [list] used to be,” said Redskins running back coach Earnest Byner, whose 14-year playing career ended in 1997. “Back in the day, the Injured Reserved guys were like the practice squad. Now you put a guy on IR and he is out for the year. So people don’t hide people the way they used to.”

There is one difference. Practice squad players are free agents even as they work and are paid by a particular team. Any other team can sign a team’s practice player at any point in the season. However, that rarely happens.

Byner remembers working with Priest Holmes on Baltimore’s practice unit before the running back went on to star for the Ravens and Kansas City Chiefs. Former Redskins receiver Leslie Shepherd began on the squad. Current defensive tackles Ryan Boschetti and Lorenzo Alexander started their careers as practice players.

“Some guys realize they could be on the street and look at it as a learning experience and an opportunity to make the team,” Byner said. “Some guys look at themselves as being too good for the [practice squad] and sometimes that gets them out of the game a lot faster than they would have otherwise.”

The current group seems to have the right attitude even if its members admit it can be a little frustrating. Mason made the regular roster out of training camp but was demoted after one game when the Redskins signed receiver Reche Caldwell.

Washington signed tackle Justin Geisinger to the practice squad as insurance after Jon Jansen was injured in the first week.

“Obviously, ideally, it is not where I want to be,” Geisinger said days after joining the Redskins. “But I can’t ask for anything more than the opportunity. I am back in the game at least. Hopefully, eventually, I will make my way to the roster.”

Geisinger watched the Eagles game with his wife and baby at a local hotel. He signed a month-to-month apartment lease, moved in two days later and seemed a candidate to be promoted after guard Randy Thomas suffered a torn triceps in the second week.

Rather, the team brought in veteran free agent Rick DeMulling, and Geisinger was given his outright release. At least Lefotu kept his job as the Redskins went outside the organization to help the line.

“It is a little disappointing, but I have to believe my time will come,” Lefotu said.

That’s the attitude that keeps practice players going.

“The hardest day is the day the team is leaving [for a game],” Mason said. “I am thinking, ‘Man, I should be going with them.’ ”

It is all part of a football life that could be called the NFL’s twilight zone.

“My friends back home really don’t understand the concept of the practice squad,” said Lefotu, from Riverside, Calif. “I say, ‘Yeah, I am on the team, but I don’t play.’ It’s a dicey situation. I don’t know what to tell them after that.”

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