The phrase “off the street” has no eloquence to it. Those are the words strapped to football’s free agents, the wayward players recovering from roster cuts during the season. Some head home, others find new places to workout, all wait by the phone for the random chance to re-enter the NFL.
They can be crucial. The Washington Redskins move toward Sunday’s wild-card round playoff game against the Green Bay Packers with a handful of such players on the roster. They’re guys who were jettisoned by others but became necessities to them following injuries, then were immediately placed on the field.
For the Redskins, the process of summoning a free agent for a chance involves three key elements: First is a call from director of pro personnel Alex Santos, second is a workout and last is the packing. There are different ways to do it. In the case of cornerback Will Blackmon, he was convinced he would make the team if provided a chance, so he packed heavy. Blackmon filled a big bag and left Seattle.
Inside linebacker Mason Foster wasn’t as sure. He packed a small duffel bag and a backpack and had to find a flight from South Dakota that would land him in Washington.
Running back Pierre Thomas traveled light, but was prepared at home. He had packed enough to bridge the three days between his workout and returning to Chicago, where he would play his first game, if signed, that Sunday.
All were seeking to end their unemployment. They ended up in the playoffs.
Foster: A pick-me-up
Foster spent three productive years with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, but his fourth was middling. He tried to work through an elbow injury and adapt to new coach Lovie Smith’s change in defenses. It didn’t work.
He was signed by the Chicago Bears in March 2015, then was waived on Sept. 5 after training camp. Not sure what to do, he called his best friend, Matt Houston, who played with him in college at Washington. Foster explained he was considering various athletic centers to train at while waiting for another shot. Houston, the assistant strength coach at South Dakota, told him to forget the other places. Come to Vermillion, crash on his couch just like college when they were frat brothers and work out there.
“We’ll make it happen,” Houston said.
Foster thought about it. A couple hours later, he called Houston to say he was driving his Ford F-150 Raptor, named Monique, from Chicago. He’d see him in about seven hours.
Houston tightened the frame of his sagging “Wal-Mart special” couch for the arrival of the 240-pound Foster. He put together a workout plan focused not just on strength, but also on loosening his hips. They pulled another friend into the mix to act as a running back. On South Dakota’s turf field, Foster worked on dropbacks, different rushes and every other scenario they could come up with. After receiving clearance from strength coach Jevon Bowman, Foster would use the weight room on his own.
The call from Santos came. Foster packed his small bags, flew out, then called Houston when the workout was over. After being even-keeled about being cut, Houston could tell Foster was excited about his chance with the Redskins. He was prepared to play any spot on special teams or even scout team. Instead, injuries and his ability have made him a starter.
He needed his big bag. Foster’s family helped organize his stuff and ship Monique. He’s settled off. His mom is pleased he’s no longer living out of a bag and from hotel to hotel.
“She wasn’t going to have that at all,” Foster said.
Thomas: Ready to stay home
When Santos called Thomas in Chicago, Thomas was convinced his year was over. He had worked out for several teams — the Houston Texans, New England Patriots and others — prior to and during the season after being released by the New Orleans Saints. The San Francisco 49ers signed him on Nov. 3, then cut him a week later. Now, it was late in the season and the Redskins wanted him to work out.
Thomas wasn’t sure. In fact, when Santos told him he would be doing combine-style drills, Thomas told the Redskins no thanks. These were the drills that caused him to not be drafted out of Illinois in 2007, forcing him to sign as an undrafted free agent. He became a starter and steady player for the Saints during his eight years there. Thomas thought there was sufficient film for him to not have to hop over bags or bounce around cones again. He was willing to run routes or take handoffs. He had fatigued of performing drills, especially ones that he felt did not highlight his ability.
“I’m not a drill guy,” Thomas said. “You ask me to play the game? Yes, I can play the game. I can go out there, perform well.”
After telling Santos no, Thomas’ phone rang again about 10 minutes later. It was coach Jay Gruden. He asked Thomas why he didn’t want to work out, Thomas explained his situation and Gruden sided with him. He told Thomas that he would ask if he could only pass the physical and avoid the drills.
“I said, ‘All right,’ but I knew that wasn’t going to fly,” Thomas said. “But for him just to say that — he could have gone a totally different direction, like, ‘Who does this guy think he is? Forget him. We don’t need him if he has an attitude like that.’”
Instead, Gruden’s willingness to listen to Thomas’ argument changed his mind. Gruden called back, and said that they, unfortunately, would like Thomas to go through the drills. Thomas stopped him. He told Gruden that he changed his mind because of their first talk. Thomas went through the drills and signed.
Not long after, he was retrieving his big bag from Chicago.
Blackmon: Not going back
Another call from Santos. Blackmon figured he would hear from a team after being cut by the Seattle Seahawks at the end of training camp, though he concedes he wasn’t positive something would work out.
“When stuff like that happens, you’re like, ‘Man, am I going to get another shot?’” Blackmon said. “Got released from Jacksonville, got released from Seattle. I knew I had plenty of football left to play still.”
Santos said the Redskins wanted to host Blackmon for a workout. He packed a bunch of stuff, convinced that if he worked out, he would be signed.
“I packed a giant bag, knowing I was going to kill my workout,” Blackmon said.
He went through his positional drills. Blackmon needed to show the Redskins he was healthy. He did that. They quickly discussed where he would play.
“They told me sub packages, so dime, nickel, stuff like that,” Blackmon said. “They asked me if I had played special teams. I didn’t know really what to expect. I didn’t even know I was going to play that week. They were like, ‘Oh, yeah, you’re going to play that week.’”
He and his big bag stayed, becoming the first of the guys off the street and into the Redskins’ locker room.