GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Joe Callahan hasn’t forgotten the feeling. He’d spent the Green Bay Packers’ cut-down day last year trying to distract himself – although, he confessed, it didn’t really work. Then he remembers his iPhone vibrating and the familiar 920 area code appearing.
“And then,” Callahan recalled, “your stomach kind of drops.”
In Callahan’s case, the call actually brought good news. It was quarterbacks coach Alex Van Pelt, letting him know he’d made the Packers’ 53-man roster. But a year later, having battled rookie Taysom Hill for the No. 3 quarterback job throughout camp, Callahan is back on the bubble, back to spending his Saturday wondering what his fate will be.
“You kind of try to keep yourself busy,” Callahan said. “You keep your phone by you, and you wait for that call – good or bad.”
A number of Packers hopefuls, including Callahan, are steeling themselves against getting that bad call on Saturday. A few of them had received it last year and some of them actually got it on Friday, as the Packers got an early start on paring their roster to the NFL-mandated 53-man limit by the 4 p.m. ET deadline.
“I think I was one of the last ones to get cut,” recalled defensive tackle Christian Ringo, who was cut as a 2015 sixth-round draft pick, spending that season on the practice squad before playing in eight games last season. “I think the deadline was at like 3 [Central time], and everybody who got cut got cut in the morning. So I came in in the afternoon, thinking I made it. But I didn’t make it.
“It hurts. It hurts more than anything. It was two years ago and it still hurts. But I’m a firm believer that that fueled my fire.”
It did the same for outside linebacker Reggie Gilbert, who was cut at the end of camp last year. Gilbert spent last season on the practice squad and was one of the pleasant surprises of training camp. And yet, the roster bubble might burst on him again this year.
“Last year, it was devastating to me,” Gilbert said. “When you work so hard for something and you try to do all you can do and then you don’t accomplish that goal, it’s heartbreaking. But rather than moping around or saying, ‘I should be this, I should be that,’ all I know how to do is work. That’s the first thing I did.
“I feel like I’ve made the most of my opportunity. As far as the big picture ... we’ll see what happens.”
Like most teams, the Packers have an established process for cuts.
It begins with a phone call, during which the player is told his fate before being summoned to Lambeau Field. Historically, each released player is met by a member of the personnel staff, then talks with coach Mike McCarthy, general manager Ted Thompson and his position coach, although with the number of moves teams must make this year – after the league eliminated the intermediate cut to 75 players after the third preseason game – Thompson acknowledged that his personnel lieutenants (Eliot Wolf, Brian Gutekunst, Alonzo Highsmith) might have to divvy up the meetings.
At the end of the process, players meet with the team’s director of player engagement – a job now held by ex-offensive lineman Grey Ruegamer, after longtime director of player development Rob Davis left for a job in the private sector during the offseason – who helps them chart their post-football lives, whether it’s going back to school or entering the mainstream working world, if no other teams come calling.
“We have, I think, a fairly good system,” Thompson said. “If you can call it a good system.”
The meetings with the personnel staff and coaches are designed to be brief – not to be cold-hearted, Thompson said, but the opposite.
Among the reasons the Packers have steadfastly refused to appear on HBO’s “Hard Knocks” is because Thompson, who played 10 seasons in the NFL as a special-teams ace and nickel linebacker with the Houston Oilers, is philosophically opposed to making such private meetings available for public consumption. And, because he remembers the day his NFL career ended in 1985 – after he thought he’d already made the team.
“I had already made the final roster. I go through an entire practice on a Wednesday afternoon, and I come in and our head coach at the time was Hugh Campbell, and he's walking by my locker and he goes 'Ted, can I see you for a second?'” Thompson recalled a few years ago. “We had [a player] – I can't remember the guy's name – but he had been holding out all this time, and he had signed that day. So they released me to free up the roster spot for this new guy.”
The player was fullback Larry Moriarty, a third-year player who’d held out throughout camp, signing a three-year deal after camp ended – and sending Thompson into football unemployment.
“So [Campbell] gave me the speech, and then the defensive coordinator came in and gave me a speech, and the linebacker coach, and everybody else came in,” Thompson continued. “And by the time they got through talking to me, not only was I surprised I got cut, I was surprised I didn't get a raise, because everybody was saying what a great guy I was and all that."
Thompson said he and his staff strive to be honest and realistic with the players they release – from informing them of an opportunity to be on the Packers’ practice squad; to telling them they should keep pursuing their dream with another NFL team; to suggesting that their path might not include professional football.
“All those coaches that came and talked to me, I know now that it was a tough day for them. I didn’t realize that at the time,” Thompson said. “It’s a tough day for all of us that have to bear that burden of being the one to tell them that it’s not going to work out. And those visits and those times together with those players sometimes can take your breath away and bring you to tears.
“Sometimes the player’s in a good mood and he feels confident about his next step in life and that sort of thing and you think, ‘This is OK.’ ... We hope that it’s a good message that we’re passing on to them but we also know it’s a tough medicine to take.”
Added defensive coordinator Dom Capers, a head coach with the Carolina Panthers and Houston Texans earlier in his career: “I think you just have to be a man and look guys in the eye and be honest – in terms of your evaluation of them and what their opportunities [might be], whether it would be here down the road or with another team. But there’s no easy way about it because you’ve been with these guys and you get to know each other – in the meeting room, on the practice field. The hardest thing is when they’re giving you everything they have and yet it becomes a numbers game. And that’s the business side of things. That’s extremely difficult. To me, it’s the single most difficult thing in terms of being the head coach.”
For McCarthy, who delivered an unprompted soliloquy earlier in camp about how all players who make it this far deserve to be considered good players, the process is a deeply personal one – and one he said he keeps in mind throughout the preseason, long before final cuts begin.
“When you are in charge of telling a young man that his dream’s no longer going to take place here in Green Bay, it resonates with you more,” McCarthy said. “[In preseason games], my job’s to make sure that these guys are getting opportunities to not only to show that they can play here, but that they can play in the league. Because everything’s on video and everybody’s watching.
“So I’m just really focused on making sure they max out their opportunity here in Green Bay, regardless of how it shakes out. It’s difficult. I’m really not even comfortable talking about it, frankly. I don’t think there’s any coach that [is]. It’s a tough day.”
Editor’s note: Jason Wilde covers the Green Bay Packers for ESPN Wisconsin and hosts Wilde & Tausch with former Packers offensive lineman Mark Tauscher weekdays on ESPN Milwaukee and ESPN Madison.