September 08, 2020
No preseason games, expanded practice squads, more liberal injured-reserve rules, and a 41-year-old practice-squad quarterback who works virtually, like so many of us. In 2020, the cutdown to 53 and its wake was like no other in NFL history, and it may never be repeated again.
“It's dramatically different,” Eagles general manager Howie Roseman understated after PhillyVoice asked how things have changed this year moments after he cobbled together his initial 53-man roster.
Maybe that sentiment was best exemplified by Josh McCown returning to the fold as the oldest practice-squad player in NFL history and the first socially-distant quarterback who gets to live in East Texas while his teammates grind at the Novacare Complex, all as a $12,000-a-week insurance policy against COVID-19 positives.
I love everything about this!! Welcome “back” my brother https://t.co/wENvlIiMbj— Zach Ertz (@ZERTZ_86) September 6, 2020
The buck stops with Roseman when it comes to the 53 and now a 16-man practice squad in Philadelphia but it’s also a collaborative effort that Jeffrey Lurie insists upon with everyone having a voice, the loudest of which other than the GM are head coach Doug Pederson, personnel chief Andy Weidl, and defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz.
Judging by the initial product this season — which featured Craig James, Rudy Ford and Alex Singleton making the 53 — it seems like special teams coordinator Dave Fipp won a few battles as well.
“We haven't had any live special teams drills, so for us, special teams are going to be a big unknown as we get started here,” Roseman surmised.
The decision-making process as a whole shifted dramatically for the Eagles’ brass.
“For us there's so much preseason tape to watch and to not have that has given us extra time to really dive into our team and to dive into our team like we're bystanders, as opposed to guys who are just right next to it,” Rosman explained. “I think that's really helped us, because we have to evaluate our own team first and foremost.”
Schwartz also used the term “different” to describe things last week when asked about this year’s process vs. previous years.
"I think 'different' is the best adjective that you use there," Schwartz replied when queried by PhillyVoice about the unique environment. "I think there's still plenty of time to evaluate players."
The time has been used differently, however, with MS Teams and Zoom meetings in the spring replacing on-field walkthroughs and practices.
"In a normal year, you draft a guy or you have a guy that's left over from the year before, and you see him progress through the offseason program, whether he looks stronger, faster, better technique, those kind of things," the veteran DC explained. "Then you get him in the classroom. You're saying, 'Okay, his understanding is better.'”
The validation process then has a number of checks and balances.
"Then you validate that by going out to do position drills in Phase II, then validate that again with OTAs and mini-camp,” Schwartz continued. “And then you have a month off, then you come back and validate it again in training camp, then evaluate it again with your first scrimmage, then preseason games.”
Most of those rubber stamps were eliminated, however. According to Schwartz, the knowledge of his scheme has not necessarily been affected all that much, but the grass time (as Pederson has coined it) is irreplaceable and has created uncertainty.
"We didn't miss the knowledge of the scheme and things like that because we were able to evaluate that just doing things like we're doing right now [talking on Zoom], just going over Microsoft Teams,” Schwartz said. “You did see where guys were at the beginning of training camp. You did have a couple scrimmages you could see. We did miss out on those preseason games.
"We've had enough practice time, enough individual time, enough technique work and things like that, that we have a good evaluation of our guys."
At least some preseason games are preferable, however, according to Pederson.
“I tell you, from a coaching side of it, not having preseason games, I would tell you it's difficult to really evaluate these guys and really see them in game situations,” the head coach said. “It's probably been the hardest thing this camp."
When discussing undrafted free agent hybrid Adrian Killins, who was released Thursday and brought back to the practice squad Sunday, Pederson argued the offensive coaches had seen enough before contradicting himself.
“We've seen probably enough from him to understand who he is and the type of player he is,” Pederson surmised. “We like him. At the same time, it's just a matter of missing games. That evaluation process goes a long way.”
Schwartz also admitted that "nothing really replaces live game reps."
"I'll just tell a quick story," he said as reporters buckled in for the filibuster. "Whenever we have rookies in particular, they always start off, they're overwhelmed, and then they come back, they seem like they got it. Then we have the open practice at the Linc [Lincoln Financial Field] and there would be 40,000 people over there singing Fly Eagles Fly. Those guys would sort of go to pieces.
"Things that a couple days ago they had mastered, all of a sudden they would blow circuits because it was their first exposure to that kind of environment. Same as the first preseason game. Then you saw the players settle down, and they are like, 'Yeah, I got this.' They knew what to expect."
Schwartz believes he's got a beat on his players but admits there's an void there this season that maybe hasn't existed in prior years.
"There is that little bit of uncertainty because even when we did go over to Linc, and we did see some of that stuff that guys had stone cold a couple days before, we had some missed assignments over at the Linc," he explained. "Even when there were no fans, we saw that."
Last Thursday would have been the final preseason game against the New York Jets where the players fighting for back-end roster spots would have seen significant time.
"Now we don't have preseason games," Schwartz said. "Even though we had a lot of time to evaluate, you're still missing that, okay what about the real bullets flying and how is this player going to react to that? Is he ready for that? Those are things we're just going to have to go with practice film and instincts and experience to evaluate."
Roseman compared the cut to 53 to a “game of chicken.”
“Some of these guys [around the league] that are cut, and we don't know them as well as we would maybe by having some exposure to them,” he admitted. “It will be interesting to see what happens with claims, as opposed to in years past and what people are doing, because it's not like you can claim a guy and get him on a plane and he's in your building on Monday [due to COVID-19 testing].”
That showed up on the waiver wire Sunday when only 17 players were claimed with nearly 18 percent on that small sample size being Roseman cuts. The Carolina Panthers claimed cornerback Rasul Douglas and defensive end Shareef Miller, while the Indianapolis Colts and old friend Frank Reich swooped in to get undrafted rookie tight end Noah Togiai, a player the Eagles believed they could get through to the practice squad. Philadelphia, meanwhile, claimed speed running back Jason Huntley, a fifth-round pick of Detroit back in April.
To make room for Huntley, because waiver declarations and subsequent moves to make room had to be finalized before IR decisions, Roseman played chicken by letting vested veteran Cre’Von LeBlanc go, likely with a wink-wink deal to be back as he re-signed with the team on Sunday.
Continuity is always a path to success in the NFL. This season it may be a necessity.
“You really have to weigh all those things as you're going forward about what's going to happen if you switch out a guy, how long it will take that guy to be here, when will he be ready and things we've never really had to deal with,” the GM said.
For Roseman, though, everything is relative.
“It's okay. We'll adjust,” he insisted. “There are a lot of people dealing with a lot worse things than trying to put their football team together and we understand that.”
Perspective aside, though, 2020 is a year NFL decision-makers will never forget.
“It will be something that we remember for a long time in this business,” Roseman admitted.
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