This is probably my least favorite week of the year.
First, it seems everyone outside the building underestimates the importance of the last preseason game.
Second, we have 75 players today. In 3 days, we'll have 53. That means 22 players will be waived, most having their longtime dream of playing in the NFL smashed.
That creates a lot of tension.
Tension – players doing everything they can to make one more impression to make the team. Some have been told that how they perform against the Falcons will determine if they make the Ravens. And, they only get paid if they make the regular season roster. (Players are paid 1/17th of their salaries each week of the regular season.)
Tension – coaches know certain players are now fully ready for the regular season. They don't want to expose these guys to injury in the game at Atlanta. But, if you sit one player, there's another player angry because he was picked to play. Coaches hear: "Haven't I proved I belong yet?"
Some of the most intense and most physical play I've ever witnessed has come in the final preseason game. Many of those plays have come on special teams, where young players trying to earn a roster spot command their bodies to run full speed into another large human wearing a different color jersey. They are looking to make an impression, one more affirmation that they belong.
Ten-year veteran Kelly Gregg, one of the best defensive tackles in the league, is driven in part by the insecurity of knowing that he can be cut. "I've been cut twice. I think about it a lot. I know they can always knock on my door," Gregg told me on Tuesday. "Even now?" I asked. "Yeah, I don't count on anything. We got a lot of good linemen here, and they're always bringing in more to work out," Gregg replied.
I asked Kelly to recount his rookie year and how nervous he felt about making the Bengals. (Gregg was picked in the 6th round by Cincinnati in 1999.)
Here's what Kelly told me:
"No doubt about it, I was nervous. One coach told me that I would make the team, but he wasn't the head coach so that didn't help too much. My family and friends were calling to see if I would make it, and I could only say, 'Hope so.' Then I made it, so I got an apartment, but I was still on edge.
"Then they cut me right after that. That was terrible. I cleared waivers, and they signed me to the practice squad, which paid about a fourth of what my salary was for being on the team…maybe even less. I worried every day that I'd get released from that. In December, the Eagles signed me to their roster. I trained with them all offseason, and then they cut me just before the start of the next season.
"That really hurt. Then you guys signed me to your practice squad in the Super Bowl season. And the rest, as they say, is history."
John Harbaugh sits on the other side of the roster challenge. He's helping pick the players. "How could you not feel for these players, especially the ones who know they're likely not going to make it?" Harbaugh said. "They're all world-class athletes competing at the highest level.
"You treat each player with respect. They deserve that," Harbaugh continued. "It's not pleasant. There's a basic human sympathy for the player who gave you everything, but you have to say, 'You're not quite good enough.' And then you want to add: 'But, that's our opinion. Maybe there's another team for you.' Is there a nice way to do this? You try not to make it so cold. You might say things like, 'Not everybody gets the job. Not everyone gets the promotion or the raise,' but it's hard."
I have my own sense of guilt about the roster. When I first came into the NFL, we would bring over 100 players to training camp. I would always learn to call every player by his first name. I would know something of each player's history. I had the ability and would try to initiate conversation with each, referring to something in their history.
They all deserved that respect. But, I didn't do that this year. I could claim I was too busy, my days too filled with the details of my job. That's a lame excuse. For those players I haven't taken the time to get to know, I apologize. It's my loss. I hope you make the Ravens, and I get to know you better.
For those 20 or so who will part from the team this Saturday, I wish you well. I hope you find great success in football or another field. You deserve so much credit for competing valiantly at the highest level of your sport. You're a winner. Make a statement in Atlanta if you get the chance to play. Go out with dignity and your head held high. You deserve much respect. Frankly, more than I gave some of you.
Talk with all of you fans next week.
Kevin Byrne is in his 31st NFL season and is the Ravens' senior vice president of public and community relations. He has worked in the NFL since 1977, when he was the then-youngest public relations director in the league (for the then-St. Louis Cardinals), except for the two years he was the Director of Public Affairs for TWA (Trans World Airlines). He has been with the Ravens since they began, and before that was a vice president with the Cleveland Browns. He has won a Super Bowl ring with the 2000 Ravens and an NCAA basketball championship with Al McGuire's Marquette team in '77. He was on the losing end of historic games known for the "Drive" and the "Fumble." He has worked closely and is friends with some of the best in the game: Ozzie Newsome, Brian Billick, Ray Lewis, Bill Cowher, Marvin Lewis, Mike Nolan, Marty Schottenheimer and Shannon Sharpe to name a few.