Time was in the NFL, prior to the advent of free agency and the salary cap, when being cut from a team meant just that — a clean complete stroke and the player was severed from the ranks of the professionals forever. It was the rule and there were few exceptions. Once gone, never heard from again.
Today, players who are cut are usually asked to "keep in touch, we may be in need of your services (at the league's minimum salary) if we lose a player due to injury or some other calamity."
There's no arguing the fact that injuries are increasing at an accelerated rate in the NFL. For that reason, each team has established a separate pro personnel department designed specifically to keep tabs on every unsigned player with pro football experience. The on-going monitoring of free agents provides a ready list of players the coaches can call upon in an emergency.
The Vikings have led the way in scouting professional players who can be enlisted in a moment's notice. Coach Dennis Green makes it a practice of keeping the lines of communication open between the club and the players the Vikings are forced to cut in order to be within the league's player limit.
Following this year's first mandatory cutdown Green described all the players that were released as being potential NFLers.
"All of them are good guys. In fact, there wasn't one guy that I talked to of these six guys that really can't play in the National Football League," Green said. "It's just a matter of whether they come back here on the practice squad or they get picked up by somebody else. Or whether they go into the European League over the winter and come back next year. All of them have a legitimate chance of playing in the National Football League. I think it's one of the reasons that we've had such a successful training camp."
At the same time, Green concedes that there does eventually come a time when certain players are judged to be not ready for prime time NFL action. "We have to look at it and see realistically what their chances are," he said. "We try to keep guys here as long as they have a realistic chance. Once we decide that a guy has been beaten out and doesn't have a realistic chance, then we have to let him go."
Deciding which players to cut and which to keep has become more difficult, partly due to the fact that today's player coming out of the college ranks is bigger and stronger, and is a better player, according to veteran assistant coach Trent Walters.
"The caliber of player we're bringing in is much better," Walters said. "As a result, when it's time to get the number down, it's tougher to make the cuts because all the guys are very close. They're all pretty good players. Some of those we're cutting will probably be picked up (by other teams). So what you tell a player (who is released) is that it's a tough part of the business but, hopefully, someone else will pick you up. You're good enough to play. Or, if nobody picks you up, something might happen here and we might end up calling you back if somebody gets injured or something."
Coaches and players alike must labor within the league rules, which limit a team to 53 active players and five practice squad members.
Walters echoes the sentiments of other coaches who feel that the current player limit should be increased. "I don't think there's one coach who's satisfied (with the 53-man limit)," he declared. "It forces you to make tough cuts. The last cuts are the toughest because they are guys who could play on your team and do well. But you have to let them go in order to get down to that magical number."
Liking the aggressive approach
Vikings defensive back Keith Thibodeaux says the statistical improvement the Vikings defense showed in the preseason (seven interceptions in three games) is due partly to the new action defense that assistant head coach/defensive backs Willie Shaw has installed. And it is partly due to the fact that the players have bought into Shaw's philosophy of attacking the opposing offense rather than sitting back and reacting to what the offense does.
"As a defensive backs coach, he's one of the best I've ever been in contact with," Thibodeaux said. "The system we're playing, if everybody's on the same page, is basically a shutdown defense. If everybody's in the right spot, then we can dictate what goes on on the field. It's a new defense and everybody's still learning, but as long as we show improvement every week we're gong to be OK."
Count Vikings quarterback Daunte Culpepper among the professional athletes whose attitude helps greatly to make up for the negative images cast by some of the ill-advised actions of other pros.
Culpepper sees his off-the-field responsibilities in simple terms. He told VU: "I've got to remember that I'm almost under a microscope and that can be good and bad. But I try to make everything a good situation. I try to treat everybody like I'd like to be treated and try to set a good example for the younger generation. That's the most important thing." VU
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