INDIANAPOLIS –Every NFL team made the cut from 90 to 75 players this past Monday. By late Friday, rosters must be down to the regular season-mandated size of 53.
The cutdowns mean there will be approximately 700 players released by the 32 NFL teams. Some may make it back to the practice squad with that respective club, or with one of the 31 other teams that sees a fit or likes the potential.
Regardless, is it a difficult time for all teams looking to field the best competitive squad possible.
Head Coach Chuck Pagano is like his 31 counterparts in knowing this Friday is a tough time. Most players have labored dutifully and selflessly since the spring and certainly through training camp.
Thursday is the last chance to catch a team's eye in competition since the entire league plays that night. Coaches value execution under the brightest of lights, and Thursday could be the last big stage for a number of players.
"You know every one (game) is as important. The last one is just as important as the first one," said Pagano. "I've been around the league 11 years now. I've seen guys come out of nowhere the last week and make a case for themselves, either from a special teams standpoint, or on offense and defense and make it really hard on the coaching staff and the personnel people to determine who is going to make that 53rd spot. It's really important for all those guys."
Every team has success stories of draft picks or undrafted free agents who make a splash in preseason play, thus avoided being released.
Some of the memorable names in club history – Eugene Daniel, Jeff Herrod, Justin Snow, Hunter Smith, Melvin Bullitt, Gary Brackett, Bill Brooks – were lower-round picks or free agents who went on to become household names.
There have been other players cast away by the Colts who made it elsewhere. Roster cutdowns are not a perfect science. One of the greatest examples of how inexact it is would be five-time Pro Bowl center Jeff Saturday. Saturday thrived with the Colts for 13 seasons after being dismissed from another AFC team. He never survived the 1998 training camp with that team.
Most coaches were players at some point, too. Pagano played safety at Wyoming from 1980-83 before embarking on a coaching career soon after his last game. He knows the emotional process of delivering tough news on cutdown day.
"It is the worst part of the business," said Pagano. "We build relationships with these guys. We watch how much time they put in, their effort and hard work. They are all great people on the personal side of it. This is the hard part.
"What we always tell them is, 'Every time you step on that football field, you are not only trying to make our team, you are trying to make another team. It's the resume that you put out there, so do the very best that you can.'
"They understand. We understand. We have to make some tough decisions. That's just the NFL. That's part of the game."
Offensive Coordinator Bruce Arians, like Pagano, played collegiately, but not beyond. After being the Virginia Tech team MVP as a senior quarterback in 1974, Arians started his coaching career there the next season.
Arians has coached every year since then, spending the 1983-88 seasons as head coach at Temple. Other than those years, he has tutored individual positions or coordinated an offense. It means that Arians and Pagano, now in his first head coaching stint after 28 seasons, have shaped the lives of many players and the bonds that form are very tight, sometimes life-long.
"To me it's the hardest part of football. It's the bad side of the business," said Arians. "You work with the guys for so long and normally the guys that get cut are the guys who are over-achievers. They are the easily-coached guys. Their ability isn't going to match up (to the NFL).
"You build a bond with them because they are smart, intelligent players. The guys that don't get it, they don't hurt you as bad. The ones that get it, work hard, are there every day, it's really a hard week when you cut these guys."
Pro Bowl linebacker Robert Mathis made the Colts from Alabama A&M, hardly an NFL road well-traveled. Mathis remembers his final preseason game in 2003 and the approach he took. Mathis says players need to capitalize on the opportunity.
"I played the whole game because it's make or break," said Mathis. "That's whether you make the team or not. You take any and every rep you can get in that last game.
"In a nutshell, you can't go out there and lay an egg because it could be the end. You want to go out there and (play well). It's really your resume, so you want to put good film out there. (The game film) goes to 31 other teams. If one team chooses not to keep you, there are 31 other teams that are looking at you. You want to put good film out."
Unlike Pagano and Arians, Mathis had the ability to make it as an NFL player. While his coaches see the tough side of cuts from one standpoint, Mathis can relate on a different level.
"It's hard because you build that relationship from OTAs to training camp to the last day of cut day," said Mathis. "It's always hard because blood, sweat and tears, you see these guys more than you see your own family. It's always hard, and it's unfortunate. I guess that's just the way the business runs."