Jeff Hanisch/USA TODAY

Dreams at Stake on Thursday

The message needn't be said: “I don’t think you have to tell them,” offensive line coach James Campen said. “You just have to turn it loose. It’s your final exam. Turn it loose and go get it.”

Thursday’s preseason finale could mean do-or-die for the playing careers of the players standing on the Green Bay Packers’ roster bubble.

“They know what’s coming up,” tight ends coach Jerry Fontenot said on Tuesday. “It’s not going to do them any good to reiterate the negatives. It’s an opportunity to instill the positives. We all want to be a part of this team moving forward into the regular season and be an integral part of our development and, ultimately, our success as a team.”

No matter how many times he goes through it, this is the most difficult time of the year for general manager Ted Thompson. The cut to 75 players on Tuesday was bad enough. It will be much more difficult to get down 53 players on Saturday.

Three weeks of organized team activities. A one-week minicamp. Five weeks of training camp. It all culminates with Thursday’s fourth and final preseason game against the Saints. One big performance could mean the difference between finding a “real job” or living the dream as part of an NFL roster.

“Talent is talent and if someone shows us something that’s remarkable in that regard, I think even if it’s in the last preseason game, I think we should pay attention to it. And we do,” Thompson said on Wednesday.

Thompson took two trips down memory lane. In 1975, Thompson was bypassed in the 16-round draft and signed with the Houston Oilers as an undrafted free agent linebacker. He called himself “gung-ho” and a “psycho,” hoping that mentality would catch the eyes of the coaches. It did. On the way back from Chicago following the sixth preseason game, Thompson recalled, defensive coordinator Ed Biles asked him if he had an apartment. Thompson said no; Biles said, “Well, you need to get one.”

The second was in 1996, as Thompson told a story that gets better with time. 

“There have been dramatic times when it’s happened,” Thompson said of a player winning a job in the final preseason game. “I think I’ve discussed Desmond Howard. At this time the Super Bowl year when Ron (Wolf) was doing his press conference, he wasn’t on our team. And then we played in the last game and I think he ran two punts back and maybe a kickoff back for a touchdown or something and, all of a sudden, he was on our team. During camp, he had been injured all the time so he hadn’t been able to go. It wasn’t he just became a good player all of a sudden. He showed us what he could do.”

In reality, Howard’s punt-return touchdown came in the second preseason game. Still, Thompson’s point remains the same. One preseason game can make all the difference.

Roster spots are undecided at almost every position group. At running back, Rajion Neal is the front-runner for a third spot but it’s not too late for Alonzo Harris or John Crockett. At receiver, can a healthy Jared Abbrederis force his way onto the roster after missing 15 of 17 practices and the first three games with a concussion? Will the Packers keep eight or nine offensive linemen? The final spot or two at tight end is completely undecided. Who takes advantage of the suspensions on the defensive line? Can Carl Bradford, Joe Thomas, James Vaughters or Jermauria Rasco win a spot at linebacker? Can special teams get cornerback Demetri Goodson onto the roster?

This game, obviously, will be tailored for those players fighting for roster spots. That was apparent on Tuesday, when Aaron Rodgers and every other starter was playing on the scout team. These young, on-the-fringe players have poured their hearts and souls into reaching the NFL. Thursday’s game could decide if those dreams come true or those dreams are over.

“It’s a little stressful, to be honest,” said guard Matt Rotheram, who has made a late push but remains a long shot. “You go out and practice and do all you can and leave it all out on the field — and then you did the best you possibly could. It’s one thing if you have a bunch of bad plays. This is a bad time to make mistakes.”

Nothing needs to be said. As much as the players say they don’t crunch the numbers or analyze the depth chart, they crunch the numbers and analyze the depth chart. Some players on Thursday will be playing for a role on the roster. Others will be playing simply to get on the roster. For 22 players, disappointment awaits.

“I don’t think you have to tell them,” offensive line coach James Campen said. “You just have to turn it loose. It’s your final exam. Turn it loose and go get it.”

Bill Huber is publisher of PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at packwriter2002@yahoo.com or leave him a question in Packer Report’s subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at www.twitter.com/PackerReport.


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