Editor's note: Before last year's Hall of Fame Game between the Green Bay Packers and Indianapolis Colts, Matt Bowen wrote this story about the importance of the game for fringe players trying to earn their way onto NFL rosters . But the game never happened. We're republishing this story ahead of the 2017 game, which is Thursday night at 8 p.m. ET on NBC.
The Hall of Fame Game is a chore for veterans. A nuisance. Just get through a series or two without busting up a knee or ankle, then head back to camp. That's the drill. But for the rookies and bubble guys on the roster, this extra preseason game creates an ideal stage to showcase something, anything, in the eyes of coaches and management.
After playing in the Hall of Fame Game twice -- at different stages of my career -- I know firsthand that there are positives in Thursday night's matchup between the Arizona Cardinals and Dallas Cowboys. Think about reps and opportunity for the guys trying to earn a job -- any job -- in the league. Hey, go make a play when the film is rolling. Here are a few reasons why the game is vital for young players.
Live reps are important
The established players for the Cowboys might get a handful of plays Thursday night. Maybe fewer. And Bruce Arians doesn't plan to play his starters at all. Hey, it's not worth the risk with four more preseason games to go. They will get get enough work in August.
But once the vets shut it down for the night, it's time for the backups and roster hopefuls to get on the field. And these game reps are going to carry much more weight in the evaluation process.
Yes, guys can impress the coaching staff when they show up during one-on-one drills or team periods in training-camp practice. Given the shortened offseason schedule, the elimination of two-a-days and the reduction in padded practices, however, there are only so many opportunities to move up the depth chart in camp. Plus, when the uniform goes on in the preseason, the speed of the game increases dramatically and so does the competition. And every play is graded.
Think about it. These cats are fighting for a job -- and money. They are going to get hit.
Sure, that applies to every preseason game, but the amount of reps in Canton is the key for the rookies and bubble guys. They are going to play almost the entire game. That's a ton of film. And a ton of opportunity to audition for more reps in practice and more playing time in the next game.
Remember, this is a process, and some seventh-round pick isn't going to make the team based on his film from Canton. But it allows those guys to start building a résumé throughout the preseason. And game reps count. That's critical when it comes time to trim the roster.
Playmakers are noticed
Yeah, every coach wants to see the roster hopefuls play within the scheme. I get that. That means alignment and assignment and using the coached techniques on the field. Wide receivers running their routes at the proper depth. Footwork along the offensive line. Safeties reading their keys in Cover 2. But, really, that's just the cover charge to get in the door on an NFL team. And it's expected from pro ballplayers.
You want to stand out? Make a big play. Do something that excites the room when the film is turned on. Maybe that's a pick on defense, a physical run by a back in a short-yardage situation, a quarterback being aggressive and taking a shot, or an offensive lineman blasting a linebacker on a power play. Pancake that dude. And walk right over him.
These impact plays resonate with the coaching staff when the film is graded. They stick in the coaches' memory. And they also stand out for the rest of the league that will grade this film. As a bubble guy, you are not only trying to make this team, but the 31 other squads that are looking to upgrade their roster as well.
And everyone is watching.
Special teams is vital
I love watching special teams during the Hall of Fame Game because this is how the bubble guys are going to earn a roster spot. It's that simple. Can you cover kicks, make tackles inside the 20-yard line on kickoffs or bring down a returner in the open field on the punt team?
Yes, there are valuable roles blocking on the front line of kickoff return or playing the wing position on the punt team. And the return game creates opportunities for a guy to make a big play. Take one back to the house and people will start talking.
But the NFL is always looking for guys who can cover kicks with speed and toughness. That's the game. And with the league implementing a new touchback rule and the ball coming out to the 25-yard line, cover guys are going to once again be a priority on game days. I'm talking about players who can get down the field, defeat blocks, play with vision and tackle in space.
This is dirty work. And it's hard. But it's also a way to move up the depth chart. If you can impact the kicking game, the club will find a spot for you. And this game provides the bubble guys with more chances to pop the ball out on kickoff, light up someone or show their ability to tackle. Want more reps in practice and on the game field next weekend?? Then do something in the kicking game out in Canton.
The true conditioning test
Plenty of teams still have a conditioning test when players report to camp (300-yard shuttles, for example), but that's nothing compared to this game. There will be some puke on the sidelines, and maybe even in the huddle.
Remember, with the established vets calling it quits early, the backups, bubble guys and rookies have to take all the reps. That means offense, defense and special teams.
As a second-year player with the Rams, I had to make the team. No guarantees there. None. So the game in Canton was a great opportunity to get on tape and showcase something on special teams. Plus, with Lovie Smith running our defense in his first year as coordinator, it was all about speed. You better run to the ball on defense and play fast with Lovie watching. Then go cover a kick. Grab a juice on the sideline, then go back out again for special teams and another series of defense. Yikes.
If anything, the second half of the Hall of Fame Game shows us who can survive the night. Rookies aren't used to the pace (or speed) of an NFL game, and the reps start to add up for everyone playing late into the fourth quarter. Again, it's another part of the evaluation process. Can you line up, read your keys and make plays while wearing the pregame meal on the front of your jersey? Good times.