It's do or die in NFL's preseason

Sports Columnist Bryan Burwell
ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH
08/23/2009

Unlike baseball's spring training, which fancies itself as a charming and easygoing warm-up to its marathon regular season, the NFL's summer preseason is a far more pitiless and methodical environment that will never be the inspiration for football poets to wax on about its romantic and idyllic rhythms.

Life in the NFL in August is unforgiving and just a little cruel. It is a crucible designed to crank up the heat, not slow down the pace. In baseball, if you are a young, unpolished player still learning your craft, they quietly escort you to the minor-league fields and give you time to figure it out. There is little time and very little patience like that in NFL training camps.

If you are not ready, you are gone.

If you are still trying to find yourself, you will likely do it on your own time. There is no minor league here. There's only a waiver wire.
"In college, I made it a point of learning everyone's name and becoming familiar with all my teammates," Rams rookie middle linebacker James Laurinaitis said a few days ago. "I wanted to know where they were from, what their brothers or sisters names were, because in college, you started camp with 100 guys and you ended camp with 100 guys. But here, you look around and you realize that there will be a lot of empty lockers around here in a few weeks. We started with 80, but we'll end with 53. It makes you not want to get to know a lot of guys well because you never know if he's going to be here next week."

In minicamps and OTAs, it's all about learning the playbook and recognizing schemes. But as soon as training camp begins, it's about the tenuous state of employment in the NFL.

"From the moment you walk into the NFL, unless you are the big superstar, you need to understand that they are already trying to replace you," laughed Chris Draft, the Rams linebacker who has survived 11 pro football summers by understanding and thriving off such cold-blooded inspiration.

There's no better place to see this remorseless business plan on display than during the course of an NFL preseason game, where keeping score is not nearly as important as keeping tabs. From one game to the next — and often from one play to the next — an eager NFL neophyte or a struggling veteran journeyman can see his career rise dramatically or fall like a rock.

A week ago in the New Jersey Meadowlands, Rams running back Samkon Gado was the shining star of the night, having galloped for a 77-yard touchdown and 93 total yards in the Rams' 23-20 victory over the Jets. So on Friday night at the Edward Jones Dome, Gado was rewarded for last week's heroics in a 20-13 loss to the Atlanta Falcons by being handed the most carries of the night (12) of any St. Louis running back.

The bad news was, he also collected the fewest yards of any running back (five yards), not to mention losing a fumble in the red zone.

So now Gado must nervously sweat out the next few days until Thursday night's third preseason game in Cincinnati to get another shot at redemption. And he is not alone. Watching these preseason games and carefully scrutinizing the performance of each of these players as they fight to win a roster spot can at times almost feel like you're watching a volatile stock rise and fall.

For Gado, you had to feel as if his value dipped a bit. But for wide receivers Laurent Robinson and Derek Stanley, and reserve tight end Billy Bajema, theirs clearly are on the rise. Robinson looked like the best and most reliable receiver on the field with five catches for 65 yards. Stanley caught two passes for 32 yards, including a diving touchdown catch with a defender draped on his back and also made a nifty 5-yard run on a reverse. And Bajema continues to catch the attention of everyone with his in-line blocking and surprising ability to gain yards after the catch (three receptions, 42 yards).

In his postgame analysis of the game, coach Steve Spagnuolo didn't need to pore over hours of game tape to decide how well those three played. But he and his staff, not to mention the personnel department, will be the evaluators who matter most.

The cameras in the sky are recording every play, every catch, every run, every well-executed block and every missed attempt. The tape doesn't lie. It doesn't offer any romantic visions of training camp. It only offers the cold-hearted truth.

And in the unflinching world of the NFL, the truth that is on those game and practice tapes can either help you or make you unemployed.

First cut-down date is Sept. 1.

Are you ready for your close-up?