- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 6, 2014

With less than half an hour remaining before his team was set to play the Dallas Cowboys on “Monday Night Football,” Washington Redskins offensive lineman Tevita Stevens carried an orange hamper overflowing with dirty clothes up the stairs and into the laundry room.

Stevens plays for the Redskins — but he doesn’t actually play for the Redskins. In his second season on the team’s practice squad, Stevens‘ routine that October evening wasn’t too dissimilar from any of the millions of Americans who were settling in to watch the game at their own homes.

He ate dinner, bantered with family members and tidied the house. Before the game broadcast began, he tuned the high-definition flat-screen television to ESPN, parking himself in a black leather loveseat in the living room. And when the Redskins rushed for a touchdown or sacked Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo, he cheered for his team — except, unlike almost everyone else watching, it actually was his team.

Such is life for those on a practice squad, a group of up to 10 players who frequently find themselves on the outside looking in. Though they’re part of the team, their benefits are limited. They earn significantly less money than their counterparts on the active 53-man roster, have by far the least job security and, in addition to not being allowed to play in games, normally do not even attend them in person.

What draws them in, then, is that the long-harbored dream of playing professional football is within reach. Stevens was a four-year starter at Utah, where he played in all 51 games and went undrafted in 2013 before signing as a free agent with the Redskins. Though his professional resume covers just 174 preseason snaps on offense, all Stevens needs is one opportunity, one opening, to step onto the field.

“All that stuff is kind of right there at your front door, but you can’t go out to get it,” Stevens said. “It’s kind of hard just to stay in the right mindset, but you just work hard so that you can get those things.”

SEE ALSO: For the Redskins, bye week is a long-awaited chance to recharge

Life in ‘The Metal Jungle’

With one glance inside the Redskins‘ dated locker room, it’s easy to distinguish the players on the practice squad from those on the 53-man roster.

In the middle of the room, far from the doorways, is an unsightly mass of steel — a cluster of gray lockers that sits isolated, warped from use over the years. Players who have moved on from the practice squad have referred to the area as “The Metal Jungle.”

Such accommodations are a reflection of life on the practice squad. While players who occupy the less-cramped stalls on the periphery of the locker room make, at the minimum, $24,700 per game this season, those hanging their clothes in cramped quarters take home $6,300 for every week they remain on the team.

The financial stratification doesn’t stop there. A player needs to be on the 53-man roster for at least three games to qualify for having what is known as a credited season, and the number of credited seasons determines a player’s eligibility for a variety of savings and retirement plans.

Players on the practice squad also need to be on the 53-man roster for at least six games to earn something different, an accrued season. Once a player has three accrued seasons, he is ineligible to be on a practice squad. Once he has four accrued seasons, he qualifies for unrestricted free agency.

A player also cannot be on a practice squad for more than three separate seasons. If he hasn’t found his way onto a 53-man roster by that point, his NFL career is almost certainly over.

Stevens, a native of Hemet, California, a city two hours east of Los Angeles, is fortunate to have his uncle and aunt, Ron and Vanessa Fieeiki, living a 15-minute drive from Redskins Park in nearby Sterling. For the better part of the past two years, he has lived with them — and paid rent — to have a sense of home while also keeping his costs down.

Jason Bernstein, a Bethesda-based agent for XAM Sports, represents 26 players, including 12 on 53-man rosters and two on practice squads. Not only does he have to reinforce the idea to some players that contracts are not guaranteed, but he emphasizes the need to be frugal.

That may mean accepting less-than-ideal living conditions, and certainly means putting the brakes to moving one’s entire family to a new city.

“When you’re on a practice squad, it’s either room with somebody else so you can get out and you don’t have to pay a penalty of $2,000 or $3,000 because you have to break the lease, or find a place where it’s a month-to-month or week-to-week [lease] or extended stay where you’re paying by the night,” Bernstein said.

Being on a team’s practice squad doesn’t insulate that player from other opportunities. Earlier this season, the Redskins signed cornerback Greg Ducre off San Diego’s practice squad, added him to their 53-man roster and played him in two games.

Two years ago, right tackle Tom Compton rejected such overtures from other teams, and the Redskins responded by granting him the rookie minimum salary for a 53-man roster player while he was still on the practice squad. He then was signed off the practice squad for the final four regular-season games, but never played.

Jackson Jeffcoat, an outside linebacker, has seen how volatile the consistency of a practice squad can be. He joined the Redskins prior to the season opener after spending training camp and the preseason in Seattle, and after five weeks on the practice squad, was signed to the active roster on Oct. 7.

“I still feel like they’re my brothers over there,” Jeffcoat said, speaking from his new locker while gesturing toward his old one. “I go over there and hang out with most of them. We talk. Like some of the guys said, ‘Shoot, I’ve been pulled up and brought back down. I’m gonna get back up there.’ They’re staying confident, too.”

Sifting through NFL’s leftovers

In four years under former coach Mike Shanahan, the Redskins had 72 players join their practice squad for at least one day — and of the 24 who were signed to the 53-man roster at some point, only 18 played in a game that season.

This season, new coach Jay Gruden has used his practice squad more liberally, viewing it almost as a Triple-A baseball team — a place to stash players who can be ready to contribute when needed. Twenty players have already spent time on the Redskins‘ practice squad this season, with seven making the 53-man roster at one point.

“You target guys you think have something to them,” said Redskins director of pro personnel Alex Santos, who is among those responsible for identifying practice squad candidates. “We have a lot of dialogue between our scouts. I may like a player more than one of my scouts, or one of the other scouts, and vice-versa, and at the end of the day, you try to find the best fit, the best practice squad candidate, in the hopes that he can continue to develop as a player.”

Jeffcoat, undrafted out of Texas, was the Hendricks Award winner last season as the best collegiate defensive end. Strong safety Akeem Davis, a graduate assistant coach at Memphis last season, has bounced between the active roster and practice squad over the first nine games, playing in six.

On Sept. 25, with the Redskins‘ defensive line beat up and entering a Thursday night game against the New York Giants, nose tackle Robert Thomas was signed to the 53-man roster — only to wind up inactive and unable to play. He was waived and then re-signed to the practice squad over the next two days.

“The role, for them, is to give us good looks in practice,” Gruden said. “They’ve done that. They did a good job of that. That’s the most important thing. And, while they’re doing that, it’s important for them to show what they can do — even though that may be not what we do offensively or defensively, but still running around, making plays and competing, so if we do have somebody that goes down or somebody that’s not getting it done, we feel good about pulling them up.”

When practice squad players arrive at the team facility each morning, they attend a separate workout specifically for their unit that often begins at 7 a.m. That’s because the amount of work they’re asked to do to prepare those on the active roster for the upcoming game can be burdensome.

Often, those who are on the practice squad are charged with learning facets of the opponent’s offense or defense as part of the scout team. Any time spent learning the Redskins‘ schemes happens in positional meetings or comes during a player’s free time; those who join the roster after training camp and the preseason face nearly impossible odds to learn their own team’s scheme.

“This is my game day every day, so when I’m on the scout team, I’m running, throw me the ball. I’m trying to score,” said wide receiver Rashad Ross, who, in his second NFL season, is on his fourth practice squad. “I don’t care who’s guarding me. I’m going to beat them. That’s my mindset when I come to practice. It ain’t ever, ‘Oh, yeah. I’m just going through it just for the look.’ No, I’m not here for the look. I’m going to beat you. I’m gonna make them tell me, ‘Stop going hard.’”

Hungry for a shot

Last year, the Redskins hosted a dinner near the end of the season for the players that were, at the time, members of the practice squad. The goal was to reward them for their hard work, reinforcing the idea that what they do and the sacrifices they make do not go unnoticed.

After the conclusion of one training camp practice in August, inside linebacker Will Compton approached Santos. Compton — no relation to the offensive lineman — spent all but one week on the practice squad last season and made it perfectly clear he would not be joining team brass for a meal again in 2014.

“I kind of got the message,” Santos said. “He played well. He had a shot and he put himself in position to make the 53-man roster, and for him — you certainly root for guys like that. He’s doing well.”

Compton, undrafted out of Nebraska in 2013, made the Redskins‘ initial roster this season and even started two games in place of an injured Perry Riley. It’s a vastly different situation for him than a year ago, when he suffered from a lack of motivation after seeing a variety of different players, many from outside the organization, join the team.

“The mindset I ended up taking on wasn’t good at first,” Compton said. “I was bitter. I was angry sometimes. You’d get lazy, and you come to a point where you realize you’ve gotten away from everything you’ve done that got you to this point. Once you realize that, you’ve got to find inspiration and motivation to bring you to work every day.”

If that doesn’t happen, players can find themselves back on the streets. Earlier this season, the Redskins released Stevens because they wanted to audition another offensive lineman, former Notre Dame center Braxston Cave, and could only keep one player at the position on the practice squad. They told Stevens that if things didn’t work out with Cave, he’d get his job back.

As it turned out, Cave was not the right fit. After three weeks of couch-surfing in California, Utah and Oregon, Stevens returned to Redskins Park on Sept. 23, where he happily put his belongings back in his narrow, spartan locker.

“You start to wonder — like, is anybody else going to pick me up? Are they going to bring me back? Was that the last part of my football career? Those sorts of things start to go through your mind,” Stevens said. “It’s definitely one of those things that you’ve just got to hope. There’s nothing in your control. It’s all in their hands.”

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