Last preseason game 'not meaningless'

LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- On-the-bubble players pay attention to this.

It’s truly possible a breakout performance in the final preseason game could sway the staff into placing a player on the 53-man roster for the regular season, or at the very least, the eight-man practice squad.

Bears coach Lovie Smith and defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli -- who once served as the head coach of the Detroit Lions -- say they’ve seen it happen throughout their tenures, and stress that could occur again Thursday night when the Bears face the Cleveland Browns in the exhibition finale.

“It has happened,” Smith said. “We have an idea this late in the preseason. [But] I’d say in the last couple of games we’ve learned a lot about a few players. Every year there are a couple of surprises, and that’ll probably be the case this year, too.”

It’s unclear where the surprises for 2011 lie. But Marinelli recalled the story of former Detroit Lions defensive end Corey Smith, who was an on-the-bubble player with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and making that roster, before spending time at San Francisco and later rejoining Marinelli in Detroit.

Corey Smith died at sea in 2009, along with former NFL player Marquis Cooper.

“I had him in Tampa, and it was a deep group; a deep group,” Marinelli said. “In my opinion, just be tough. I don’t want a guy moping or quitting or pouting; [be] tough. I’ll say this right now: he was as tough a guy as I’ve ever coached. And that last preseason game, he had an ankle that big (Marinelli extends his hands to simulate the diameter of Smith’s ankle, which appeared to be the size of a small tree trunk). It was ugly. [He] strapped it up and he played great. He played like he wasn’t hurt, and he made our team. We cut a third- or fourth-round pick, [and Smith] made our team. And he was a heck of a player. He just refused [to give up].”

Marinelli doesn’t tell Smith’s story to players at the end of camp to boost morale. Instead, he calmly explains to the on-the-bubble players how much he values the final preseason game personally, while expressing the respect he has for the work they’ve put in throughout training camp.

Marinelli relishes the chance to see unheralded prospects compete in the final game for limited roster spots, given the pounding the players have subjected themselves to throughout training camp to reach that point.

“It’s not meaningless,” Marinelli said. “These men have worked for six weeks, and they’ve been beat up, and doing the dirty work, and fighting to get to camp. Now they’re getting an opportunity. They’re tired; they’re slow. We had two heavy practices Monday and Tuesday [in] pads. They did that, and they’ve got to go play. Guys can show what they can do. To me, it’s really exciting to get a chance to watch these men compete.”