Allen Park — The games all matter, like it or not. The mind games matter, too. And how well you play them surely counts for something this time of year, as the NFL preseason ends and the real drama begins.
Final roster decisions are looming, and when you do the math, it’s staggering. Nearly 1,200 players will be let go this weekend as teams reduce their camp numbers from 90 to 53. And while a few hundred younger players quickly will find a home on a practice squad — many of them won’t even have to change uniforms — more than 800 will be out of work. Some will be out of the league for good.
“It’s not a pleasant time of year,” Lions coach Jim Caldwell said Monday. “But it has to be done.”
Yet as bad as that sounds, learning to live on that razor’s edge — and trying avoid to the sharpest cut — is simply part of the job, one that linebacker Nick Bellore, a former Central Michigan standout, knows all too well as he nears the end of his seventh NFL preseason.
“We’ve put so much effort into what we do, all of us do,” said Bellore, 28, who signed with Detroit in free agency after previous stints with the Jets and 49ers. “These are our lives we’re talking about, you know? And for the guys who really care about what they do and their job, it means so much to them … and that causes stress.”
Part of the game
How a player handles this stress test goes a long way in determining his fate, though. Maybe it’s not as important as learning the playbook or managing to stay healthy in a game where the injury rate, as players often say, is 100 percent. (Since the start of training camp, 24 NFL players have suffered a torn ACL, for example.)
But when players talk about the “grind,” they’re talking about more than the endless film sessions in meeting rooms or the grueling practices in 90-degree August heat. They’re also talking about the six-month apartment leases or the rented furniture or the cash advances from agents and the uneasy feelings triggered every time the cell phone rings.
Players generally don’t talk about it, “but you don’t really have to,” says Jace Billingsley, who is fighting for one of the Lions’ final roster spots at receiver, “because everyone knows what’s going on.” And besides, he adds, playing the numbers game doesn’t do you any good.
That’s something Billingsley says he learned as a rookie last year, when the 5-foot-9 converted running back out of Eastern Oregon was among the Lions’ September cuts.
“I think this year I’ve learned not to stress out about it so much,” said Billingsley, whose versatility —both as a receiver and particularly as a returner — might give him a leg up on Jared Abbrederis, among others.
Instead, he prefers to keep it all in perspective. To remember he’s one of the chosen few, relatively speaking, with a chance to make an NFL team.
“So that’s something to cherish,” he said. “Just enjoy it.”
Walking a fine line
Bellore has been there, and done just that. Like Billingsley, he went undrafted out of college. But he made the Jets’ roster as a surprising rookie and has since carved out a nice career for himself as one of the league’s more reliable special-teams performers. In fact, he ranks No. 2 in the league with 81 special-teams tackles since 2011. Yet it might not be enough to land a job in Detroit, where Bellore likely is competing for the final roster spot at linebacker with Steve Longa, a second-year pro who spent the bulk of last season on the Lions’ practice squad.
Bellore, who finished last season on injured reserve in San Francisco because of an elbow injury, signed with the Lions as a free agent in early April. That deal for the veteran-minimum salary — $775,000 for a six-year vet like Bellore — included an $80,000 bonus. But nothing else in that contract is guaranteed. And while he insists there’ll be no regrets if he’s cut — “You want to go to a place where you feel wanted and I felt it here,” he said — Bellore admits it can be frustrating for players trying to explain to family and friends the true insecurity that comes with the territory in the NFL.
“Some people don’t understand how it all works,” he said.
But the players do, once they’ve gone through it, as Billingsley did last summer or as Bellore has a half-dozen times now. You learn to keep looking over your shoulder, on the field and off it.
“Just because they’re always looking to get rid of you, no matter who you are,” Bellore said, chuckling at how harsh the reality sounds.
“Maybe that’s just something that I make up in my own mind — sometimes it’s reality and sometimes it’s not,” he added. “But to me, it always feels the same and I always treat it the same. And it probably helps me in the long run. You can torture yourself thinking about it, but you just gotta go play.”
So that’s what they’ll all do Thursday night in Buffalo. While most of the projected starters sit out to avoid injury in a game most of us view as meaningless, the rest of the roster will try to make one final impression. Billingsley says he’ll try not to put too much pressure on himself — “I think that’s when you get in trouble — it doesn’t all come down to this one game,” he said – but he knows that’s easier said than done.
Likewise, he knows what to do if he gets the call they all dread this weekend. The one where a team employee says, “Coach wants to see you. Bring your playbook.”
“That’s part of the game — you never know what can happen,” Bellore said. “Some guys, they’re locked in. and we all know who they are. But the rest of the guys, it’s always a fight. That’s how it always has been, and how it always will be.”