EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- In a preseason finale in which most of the New England Patriots starters were rested, Dan Koppen was not. The team's starting center since 2003, he was part of a four-man rotation that reflected his uncertain status on the roster.
As he walked out of the visitors' locker room at MetLife Stadium on Wednesday night, Koppen passed on a reporter's request for comment. There was nothing to say.
These are challenging times for many players, and Koppen, one of only three players on the roster to have started in Super Bowls XXXVIII and XXXIX (Tom Brady and Deion Branch the others), finds himself in a tenuous spot for the first time in his 10-year career.
Roster cuts are never easy, but as the Patriots capped off their preseason with a hard-to-watch 6-3 loss to the New York Giants, the reality was setting in.
"They work hard and some of them have been with us [a long time] and they have done what we have asked them to do, and unfortunately, it's a tough part of the business," coach Bill Belichick said of Friday's roster cut-down to 53 players (9 p.m. ET deadline). "It's still hard to tell some guys they're not going to make it after they have worked so hard."
The 6-foot-2, 300-pound Koppen isn't alone on the roster bubble, but given what he has contributed to the franchise, his presence in Wednesday's game was notable because most of the backups played.
As for the game, it was a clunker, tough to watch on many levels, and that included replacement officials struggling while attempting to explain two penalties on the Giants on a second-quarter punt play (it's not the officials' fault that some are overmatched; it's on the league for putting them in a tough spot). The best part of this one was that it's over and there were no major injuries like there were in 1989 -- when starters Andre Tippett, Ronnie Lippett and Garin Veris went down in the preseason finale.
That's not to say that there weren't some key developments, perhaps none more important than along the offensive line, where right tackle Sebastian Vollmer started and played midway through the third series. He reported afterward that he felt good in testing his injured back, and looked forward to doing it again Sept. 9 in the season opener at Tennessee. The line needs him.
"I think it was a good way to do it. Obviously, I missed a lot of camp," said Vollmer, who enters his fourth NFL season. "The game-time experience was good for me. I'm glad I got it. I'm excited to be out there. Whenever you can play football with your teammates, it's always a good thing."
Elsewhere, rookie free agent running back Brandon Bolden seemed to strengthen his case for a roster spot with some hard-charging running. Maybe sensing that he's on the bubble, he took down his nameplate from his locker for a keepsake.
"I felt like I left it all out there on the field," said Bolden, who played most of the snaps at running back and led the team with 59 yards on 15 carries. "I tried not to think about it as much as possible. It hinders your game if you let that float in the back of your mind."
Belichick doesn't have that luxury as he starts to formulate the 53-man roster, while at the same time preparing the team for the Sept. 9 season-opener at Tennessee.
"We are ready to turn the page and start playing them for real," Belichick said Wednesday night, before pointing out the roster must be trimmed before those plans shift into higher gear.
"We have known it was coming; it's not like it sprung up on us. We'll have to make final decisions," he said. "We will take all the information that we have, whether it's performance, injuries and whatever other opportunities there are in the league. There is always a lot of player movement this time of year.
"Right now, we are just trying to take care of the Patriots. We know Tennessee will be tough on opening day, but right now we have to do what's best for the Patriots and that is where our focus is."
For players on the bubble like Koppen, it's naturally an uneasy time. As he walked out of the locker room, one couldn't help but wonder if it would be his last time.
The final cuts can be the deepest.