The phone calls start coming this time of year. You know, the ones that NFL veterans don't want to answer. Let it go to voicemail? I've done that. Deal with it later, I guess. But once you see the area code on the caller ID, you know: Dang, they got me.
That call from the head coach's office at the team facility is always the same. He tells you how much you meant to the squad, how much he enjoyed working with you. You know, do the dance a little bit. And I don't blame him. But the message essentially boils down to: Time's up, pal. You've just been cut.
We are watching this play out now, in real time, with veterans such as New Orleans Saints guard Jahri Evans and Tennessee Titans safety Michael Griffin. Those guys are true pros, vets who have played a lot of good football in this league. And now they're out of jobs.
Many vets can see the writing on the wall during the season. Maybe it's injuries that have piled up over time, a slight dip in production and playing time, or a brash, young cat being developed to take your spot. Whatever the reason, a ton of players head into every offseason with the understanding that they could be the next veteran to get whacked.
Joe Gibbs called me when I had just landed in Las Vegas -- I was literally still on the tarmac. I let that one go to voicemail and called the Hall of Fame coach back once I had a couple beers in me and settled into a room at the MGM. I knew I was cut. What's another hour going to change?
When the Bills called, my wife and I were having dinner with my grandmother at her house in Tampa, Florida. Rotisserie chicken, vegetables. A big spread on the table. I couldn't answer that call from head coach Dick Jauron either. Nah, I wasn't going to do that to Grandma. Let it go. Deal with it later. Coach had other calls to make anyway.
After the initial shock of being cut, reality starts to set in. And it happens fast. Your gear, the contents of your locker? That stuff is all boxed up, and it shows up at your front door about two weeks later. There are no formal goodbyes or any of that nonsense for the common men of the NFL.
Just boxes. And uncertainty.
Call your agent? Sure. Every guy does. But this isn't a league in which jobs exist at every corner. And for journeymen like myself -- a guy entering his 30s with a reconstructed right knee and a rap sheet of injuries starting to pile up -- the idea that teams will be waiting with open arms at the start of free agency is false reality.
The players who get cut now aren't the top-priority free agents we will talk about next month. Those guys get paid. The second- and third-tier free agents wait and hope a small deal presents itself.
So while your agent starts selling your skill set to folks around the league, you kind of float. And life doesn't stop when you get cut.
Own a house? Better call a Realtor, regardless of the housing market. Even if you rent a place by the facility, you need to start packing up and calling around to find some storage. Heck, if you do get signed, you could be living in a hotel for a while in a new city. Married? If your wife works, well, it's time for her to change jobs too.
My wife taught high school science in northern Virginia when I got cut by the Redskins. It was the middle of the third quarter. What do we do now? Should she finish the year? I didn't know the answer. This was all new.
While that's being sorted, players also have to continue to train. No one is going to sign a guy who's out of shape, right? But without an NFL home -- one that includes a pro weight room, a strength coach, athletic trainers and a rehab center for offseason maintenance -- you are on your own.
"Once you see the area code on the caller ID, you know: Dang, they got me."
Some guys go down to training facilities in Florida or Arizona. Others skip back to their college towns and train on campus. Me? I hit up the local gym in the D.C. suburbs. And those gyms look and feel nothing like what pro players are accustomed to in terms of the equipment and the atmosphere.
There were no platforms or power racks. Just moms who drove minivans and yoked-up guys walking around with protein shakes. I must have looked like a clown show, some kind of freak, doing hang-cleans and trying to make box jump platforms out of whatever I could find.
And I hated it. Where was that pro feel to the weight room? Your teammates, the sounds of guys working? I love that stuff, and I missed it.
Running, speed training, conditioning, defensive back drills ... I wasn't going to get that done with spin classes going on in that gym. So I just went over to a local park in Ashburn, Virginia.
Put on some sweats, cleats and try to find some grass that wasn't littered with holes. (Don't want to blow out your knee.) There I was, running speed drills and backpedaling while little kids played on the swings. They all looked at me like I was crazy or something. And now that I think about it, I probably should've asked if any of those kids could throw to make my drills more realistic.
But throughout my makeshift training, I kept waiting for a call from my agent. Just give me something, anything. I'm desperate here. There has to be one team that's willing to bring me in for a visit.
Finally, my agent told me there was some interest from the Oakland Raiders. California? Why not? But it came with a catch. You see, this was back in 2005, when Al Davis was still running the show. And if you wanted to play for Al, then you better be able to run fast. How fast? Somewhere around a 4.5 40, my agent told me.
That worried me a bit. Man, I hadn't run a 40 since the combine. What if I ran a 4.6?
So, I went back to the park and started more speed training. I had no one to time me, and I couldn't trust the kids on the swings to give me a legit number on a stopwatch, so I just ran. Every day. I'd go to the gym, look like a circus act, and then head back to the park for more speed work. And it started to wear me down mentally. I was lost.
Luckily another call came. It was the Bills. There was some familiarity up there with the coaching staff and no 40s to run. Just a visit and a two-year deal to play in the AFC East. I flew up on a Wednesday, got home for the weekend, drank some champagne with my wife to celebrate and then drove back up north on Sunday to start offseason training.
We sold the house, eventually, and my wife left her teaching job at the end of the third quarter to join me in New York. A new town, a new team, a new adventure. And some relief. No more parks or local gyms. Time to get back in a pro facility.
Ah, the life of a journeyman, right? Yeah, but there's also a human element here for these guys, the ones getting those phone calls right now. I know they get paid good money. But it's about more than the loot for these players. It really is. They want to continue living that dream before the NFL pushes them out the backdoor for good.
That's the final call, the one I got after a year with the Bills. Close the curtains and turn out the lights. Show's over.
That one hurt. It still does. I wish the ending was better, just like the majority of players in this game. And it was the same drill. Look down at the phone, see the caller ID and let out a long, slow sigh.
They got me -- again.
ESPN.com NFL analyst Matt Bowen played seven seasons as a defensive back in the NFL.