The Practice Squad: The NFL's Unsung Mystery Men
By: Clint Oldenburg
Having spent the better part of three seasons on NFL practice squads. I feel the need to educate the fans about the eight players every team has who you don't see on Sundays. Even more than educate, I also want give a shout out and publicize these guys, some of the hardest working and most under-appreciated players in the NFL. But my main goal is to alleviate the #1 question I, and any other players who ever spent time on a practice squad, gets numerous times: "So, are you on the team or just the practice squad?"
The answer is yes. These guys are just as much a part of the team as Chris Johnson, Clinton Portis and Kyle Orton. These guys work just as hard as everybody else all week, if not harder. The only catch is the practice squad players don’t get the pay-off on Sundays for all the hard work. But they still have to always stay ready and be prepared to play.
The practice squad guys go to every meeting the active players attend have the same, if not a more difficult, workout regiment and they get just as many practice repetitions. But, there are two differences: when these guys practice, they do it on the scout team to give the starters the look they need at the opponent; and they don't strap on the helmet come Sunday... unless they get activated, of course.
Thepractice squad is an integral part of each and every team. Teams use their eight spots for a number of different reasons. The top use is to develop young talent. For whatever the reason, some young players are not quite ready to contribute to their team but the scouting staff and coaches see potential and don't want to lose a guy. And playing day in and day out against the starters will sure promote speedy improvement. Development has always been a point of emphasis within the league, especially since NFL Europe, he primary development league from 1991-2004 ceased to exist The practice squad gives teams the opportunity to keep these types of players in the organization, to get bigger and faster and to obviously learn the system.
I was in this category to begin my career. I had to develop more strength and get accustomed to the pro game when I was a rookie, but I ended up getting activated and playing the final two games of my rookie season.
Another use of the practice squad is to stash a player who the coach believes can help the team win at some point in the season. Remember, the NFL roster is a numbers game and with the delicate few spots available to coaches, they've got to have players ready to go when in need, such as when injuries occur or when the roster needs a shakeup. These guys on practice squads are not "scrubs" or "slappies" as some media like to refer to them. A lot of the players on the practice squads are ready to contribute to their team, or any other team, when called upon, but there is simply not a spot for them on the roster at the current time. A great example of this is my teammate, running back Ryan Torain. He began the season on our practice squad and is now getting considerable playing time in our backfield and playing well.
Organizations sometimes also see the practice squad as way to tinker with the bottom of their roster and take looks at players they may not otherwise have had an opportunity to see. I can't say for sure how much this technique is used, as I am just a player and don't claim to know about the front office, but it does happen from time to time. I'm often asked why you see certain teams making practice squad transactions every single week. It’s a completely legal way to expand your roster in a sense. They can get a feel for what not only eight guys have to offer, but maybe have one or two other players who you can take a close look at during a week of practice.
Every player on each practice squad has one thing in common: they all are chomping at the bit to get that call up. And for most of them, at some point this year, or in the future, they will get the opportunity to help the team win. There are numerous great players who began their careers on practice squads. Among them are former quarterback Kurt Warner, Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker James Harrison and Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo. As the coaches always say, "You're just one play away..."
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