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The Games People Play

As we wind down the preseason in the National Football League, the job of constructing a roster is 80% complete for most teams. The last few spots will be determined by several things — a late surge in third game production, injuries, practice squad composition and massaging a salary cap in order to construct the best team for the grind of a 17-game regular season.

With all of those considerations, NFL General Managers will now shuffle players at the end of their roster building process. Very similar to playing cards at the poker table, these NFL GMs accomplish this task by using deception, anticipation, their instincts, and in some cases, flat out gamesmanship in order to secure the 53 guys that fit best for them, along with 16 more on a practice squad, and even to have a separate ready list of players on the street, just in case a “Plan-B” is needed.

Deception starts with the manipulation of player participation in the preseason by teams. For example, maybe one team has a few young players that have showed some promise throughout organized team activities and summer camp. Maybe they played in the first preseason game and also impressed. At that point, a confident roster builder might choose to shut these players down and not play them at all in Week 2 or 3. Maybe it is just one particular player?

Their reasoning is “Why put their skills on film for others to see when our team already knows what they can do? A lack of exposure could indeed be the best way to get a player thru the waiver wire and allow the team to resign the player to the practice squad. Every player on the PS has had to clear waivers first. When I was a general manager, I would gladly give up a 20-play exercise in developing a players skills in a preseason game to secure his employment on our practice squad for an entire 18 weeks of practice development.

There are other elements of deciding who plays in a final preseason game as well, such as salary. Any preseason game participation by a player who sits on the outside of a projected roster and who has a higher salary (for a backup position) has to be thought thru thoroughly. An injury to that player that might cause him to miss an extended amount of playing time, or even worse, a season ending injury, would compromise a team’s salary cap space and hamper a team’s planning going forward.

Salaries of injured players count fully against a team’s salary cap. For example, a veteran with a $5 million cap charge that is probably going to be released represents a risk that some teams who are tight against the cap, can’t take by playing him in a preseason game.

An example of this is the Philadelphia Eagles and their handling of TE Zach Ertz. The GM of the Eagles, Howie Rossman, is probably nervous about playing him at all during the preseason. With a cap number of $12.7M, and his status on the depth chart being unclear, an injury to Ertz could be disastrous to an already messed up (because of the Wentz trade) salary cap situation.

Another question teams have to consider is whether to keep a vested (4 or more years in the NFL) veteran on the roster starting with Week 1. Being dressed and participating in the opening game of the regular season guarantees a player’s contract and his salary for the year. Some teams will gamble and release that player only to resign him in Week 2, which reduces the guaranteed portion of his contract to 35% (known as termination pay). This can be risky because it allows other organizations to “have a word” with that particular player who is now completely free to sign with any team. Just another illustration of the game within a game.

At this point in the preseason, teams have also identified the weak spots on their team and, to that end, have had their scouts in the weeds for weeks now looking for players that might help fill holes. These scouts are monitoring other teams’ depth charts and identifying players at positions where another team may have an excess.

For example, one team is looking for a fourth corner and that team’s scouts have identified another team as having perhaps five or maybe even six talented players at the position.

When that happens, the scouts will evaluate, then project a certain player to their team’s scheme, and then sequence that player into a teams’ depth chart at a particular position.

When I was the GM, I would have conversations with certain teams throughout the preseason, just setting the table that “we may have an interest” if they are willing to move certain players. Sure, one organization might just sit tight and claim a player once they get cut. But the thinking is, if our team is down the priority list in waiver claims (determined by last year’s record until three games are played in the current year), it’s still risky because said player may get claimed before our bid can be honored. Many cut players get claimed by multiple teams. They then get awarded based on the drafting order from the previous year. Offering a conditional 7th round pick (if a player is active after three games) might make sense in order to “jump the shark”.

The reason for sequencing another team’s players is because they may see their own players differently. I might see a corner on another roster as their fourth best at that position while their team might see a guy as that team’s sixth best player at a that position.

It is a fact that people in different organizations evaluate differently. I’d go as far as to say that some do it better than others. It could also be as simple as a particular player might just fit a certain coverage scheme or philosophy better. As a GM, I was always willing to give other teams a “cup of coffee” for a player I thought could help our team and bypass the waiver claim process in order to secure that player.

It’s also very important for teams to monitor the injury situations of other teams. Information is king and the timeliness of this info is important. I would have our scouts updating injury information in our scouting system almost 24-7. You might be able to sell to another team a player who happens to be outside the 53 of your roster. My point is that tons of conversation happens around the league. As a GM, having built relationships with players, their agents, and other teams is critical. All kinds of scenarios are played out and presented and part of the process is sometimes calling other teams bluffs or trying to figure out their motives when it comes to manipulating the bottom of a roster.

Teams that sit behind closed doors and cut off communication around the league are doing themselves and their teams a disservice. The late owner of the Seahawks, Paul Allen, used to tell me, “get us in the middle of every deal and everything that’s happening, we can always say NO”. I have found Allen’s words to be very good advice throughout my career.

There are always a few hurdles to jump in order to add players on deadline before the first regular season game. The timing part of this window used to make it somewhat more difficult to do at the late cut deadline. With only three preseason games and now two weeks before the opener, teams get a longer period to adjust their roster. In the past, a coaching staff used to be under the gun to not only put in a game plan but also at the same time, tech a new player your playbook.

It was both challenging and could be problematic. Coaches, more often than not, have some pushback to releasing a player who knows the system and has been with them all summer compared to a guy who knows nothing about a team’s system and is expected to play in a regular season game a week later, no matter the upgrade in pure talent. It’s a valid position and very understandable. A lack of system knowledge might cost a team a game early in the year. In some cases, a sighted view but that same player claimed at the deadline might win you a game or two later in the season when he has to play fulltime for an injured starter. So its always a long term vs short term play dilemma. Now with the two-week gap after the last preseason game, it’s the time crunch to learn is less of a factor.

Coaches and scouts have to trust that the process will not leave anyone with their proverbial “pants down”. Scouting departments have a much bigger perspective of what is out there and having the positions sequenced properly is very important, both on a team’s depth chart and on the street. A bird’s eye view with a complete library on the players as opposed to a coach’s opinion on a guy who he may have coached or had as a player before with a different team. A coach may know one player better, but he doesn’t know how he compares to others under consideration. It is a General Manager and Head Coaches job to bring all the information together and make the best decision for the team.

In those NFL buildings where the head coach is the last voice and final decision maker, adding a player who might be a temporary burden for his staff to teach and get up to speed is, by human nature, a struggle for that first week. The added work load for the coach is just an underlying factor for some and a legit concern.

I was on two staffs like this where the coach was in charge. One in Seattle when Mike Holmgren was in charge of all football operations and the other was in Miami with Nick Saban. I had two different personalities and both handled things much differently.

Holmgren deferred to the personnel department regularly. I remember us claiming three guys on one final cut because of it and the coaches were totally on board. It was much harder to move forward in a timely fashion in Miami. Saban relied on his coaches to have way more input. At the Dolphins, we might have two or three staff meetings before a decision was eventually made to claim a player or even add one to our practice squad. Not saying either was right or wrong, just different.

That’s how a college program is run (they have very few roster decisions to make and have 85 scholarships which makes managing the roster much easier) so having assistant coaches involved was Saban’s default mechanism. Coach Holmgren, being an experienced NFL guy, would not have a staff meeting, He just trusted that his scouting department had the players lined up correctly, reasoning those guys saw “all” the players and they did it 24-7, every day. The point is, each NFL team is set up differently and has their own process in making personnel decisions. Their methods factor into cuts, trades, and all aspects of final roster composition.

Another game that some teams are willing to play is what is known as “stashing”. As a GM, I was not afraid to bend the rules occasionally, but I can honestly say, I never went as far as stashing a player.

“Stashing” involves some player just mysteriously getting injured in the last preseason game. As a result, instead of having to make a tough roster cut, the team just puts a player on injured reserve, allowing them to retain his rights (but he does not practice until healthy). In recent times, the rules prohibited players returning to the active roster after being put on injured reserve earlier in the season, so they were out for the year. This discouraged teams from stashing.

Now, because of COVID and the league wanting to give teams more roster flexibility, unlimited players can return from injured reserve after missing a minimum of three weeks. My guess is this will employ many, league-mandated, independent, physician’s visits for players who go on IR to assess each and every injury, knowing that teams will push the envelope when left to their own devices.

There are multiple, required, cut-down dates as teams reduce rosters. Sometimes the timing of WHEN a player is released also presents an opening for gamesmanship. Some teams will release a player or two in an earlier window, hoping the competition will see this as “not valuing these players as much” and therefore considered less likely to return to that original team. The thinking on this is- a player who is cut this early, might be less likely to be claimed. As a GM, I remember releasing players on purpose in that early window, knowing that I was then going to make a deal with said player to return to the practice squad once he clears waivers and gets a week to catch his breath. All of this was mainly done just to throw other teams off the scent.

In fact, teams will make verbal agreements with players whom they desire to return, on their exit/release day, which technically is against the rules. That is when key relationships with agents again come into play because verbal agreements are all about trust. It’s a people business and front offices have to and should work WITH player representatives, not against them.

As these teams reduce their rosters, just know there is a lot of behind-the-scenes planning and orchestrating. Perception might not be reality.

Let the games begin.

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