This isn’t just the most hurried training camp in NFL history, it’s also the scariest. Why? Because when cuts are finally made, coaches will be deciding the fate of players — and, perhaps, franchises — based on only partial information.
The lockout, after all, wiped out minicamps, OTAs and every other kind of supervised work that goes on in the offseason. Heck, some veterans weren’t even allowed to begin practicing this summer until the seventh day of camp (thanks to the red tape that came with the new CBA). As a result, coaching staffs aren’t going to have nearly as much to go on when they start determining the final roster.
Let’s face it, the more you see of a player, the more comfortable you are with your assessment of him. You’re simply better able to judge his strengths, weaknesses and value to the team. This year, though, coaches will have only six weeks, at the most, to make up their minds on a player. That just raises the margin for error. And talent evaluation never has been an exact science, anyway.
The Washington Redskins will be one of the more interesting clubs to watch when the cuts come because they have a dozen draft picks in camp — five more than the norm — and are in major rebuilding mode. Will they get enough of a look at DeJon Gomes, Niles Paul, Evan Royster and other late-round selections (not to mention the undrafted free agents) to make intelligent decisions about them? Or will they be doing a lot of knee-jerking, taking the more-experienced player over the less-experienced one, just because they’re more familiar with him … and because he’s more familiar with the system?
“I think it’s tough on everybody,” coach Mike Shanahan said after Tuesday morning’s workout. “That was the big question going into the lockout situation. You’re going to miss all those OTA days of evaluations. Everybody’s under the gun. You have to make your decisions quicker. I think the big question mark a lot of people had was: Are they going to increase the squad size? Instead of 53, are they going to go up two or three? Obviously, that stayed the same. A lot of decisions are going to have to be made in the next few weeks.”
Those two or three extra roster spots would have made a big difference. Coaches would have been able to keep a few more “project” types and try to develop them. Now they’re going to have to cut them and hope they aren’t claimed so they can be put on the practice squad — which doesn’t always work out as planned. A year ago, you may recall, the Tennessee Titans lost rookie LeGarrette Blount that way, and he wound up rushing for 1,007 yards (and a 5-yard average) for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
That’s the “scary” part alluded to earlier. Every season, coaches mis-evaluate players and live to regret it. Why, the season before the Great Blount Giveaway, the Houston Texans cut Arian Foster (who like LeGarrette, was undrafted coming out of college). Fortunately for the Texans — and Redskins offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, who was with them at the time — nobody grabbed Foster off waivers, and he was reassigned to the practice squad. Last year, he became the only the third running back in NFL history to gain 1,600 yards rushing and 600 receiving in the same season. (The others: LaDainian Tomlinson and Priest Holmes.)
It’s mistakes like that that keep coaches up at night — and cost them their jobs. And there figure to be many more of them this year because the preseason is such a rush job. Six weeks of training camp may seem like a lot, but it’s just a snapshot of a player. Ask yourself: Would Antonio Pierce, who wasn’t drafted in 2001, have made the Redskins that year if there had been no offseason, if he had just shown up on the first day of camp?
Answer: It would have been much less likely. And Pierce, remember, turned out to be a very useful player, one who started at middle linebacker for the 2007 New York Giants who won the Super Bowl.
Jim Haslett, the Redskins’ defensive boss, is undaunted. “I still think you get a pretty good feel for them,” he said, “even if we haven’t had them on the field [as much]. We’ve seen them on film and have a pretty good idea of who they are and what they can do. “
Still, he added, “You’re never perfect as a coach. You never make all the right decisions. But we’re in the same situation as everybody else.”
That’s the only comforting aspect of all this: The Redskins are in the same boat as the rest of the league. Make no mistake, though, there are going to be plenty of young players that teams miss on this year. So it would behoove Bruce Allen and Mike Shanahan to peruse the waiver wire extra carefully.