Last August, rookie wide receiver Preston Parker played in all four of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' preseason games but had zero catches through the first 230 minutes of game time. On the face of it, that might have seemed like a problem for an undrafted free agent trying to buck the odds and make the 53-man roster.
Then, with 10 minutes left in the Buccaneers preseason finale at Houston, Parker was suddenly very much in the spotlight. The Bucs were leading the Texans, 17-10, and looking to put the game away with Rudy Carpenter at the helm of the offense. Unfortunately, they were starting from their own 10-yard line.
On the first play, Carpenter looked for Parker deep down the left side and found him for a gain of 29 yards, and the Bucs were in business. Three plays later, Parker went deep on the opposite side but Carpenter just missed him. Facing a third-and-12 at the Houston 37 on the next snap, Carpenter found Parker over the middle for 16 yards and a first down, setting up Arrelious Benn's 21-yard touchdown catch moments later. Houston scored one more time but the Bucs held on for a 24-17 lead.
Two days later, the Buccaneers reduced their roster from 75 players to 53, and Parker was perhaps the longest shot to stick around. He would go on to play in nine games, catch four passes and return 10 kickoffs during the regular season.
So, did Parker make the team during the last 10 minutes of a 240-minute preseason? It might have played a part, but those two catches for 45 yards were just the culmination of a lot of hard work put in over the weeks and months that came before.
"That was probably part of it," Parker conceded, "plus all the preparations I made at practice, and how consistent I was."
Undrafted out of North Alabama, the 6-0, 200-pound Parker joined the Bucs at a time when the receiving corps was undergoing a massive overhaul. Fellow rookies Mike Williams and Arrelious Benn, both draft picks, would end up as the starters, and another rookie picked up in September, Dezmon Briscoe, would emerge by season's end. With Micheal Spurlock finally proving himself as an NFL receiver and Sammie Stroughter's spot secure, it's surprising that there was room for Parker, but the team simply found him too good to let go.
And they discovered this as much on the practice field as they did under the stadium lights.
That's a lesson for the many Buccaneer rookies going into a similar situation on Thursday night against the Washington Redskins. A fine performance to cap the preseason will certainly not help any young player's cause, but what they've already put on tape during dozens of practices will not be forgotten, one way or the other.
Parker knew that a year ago, and thus he prepared for the Houston game without putting too much added pressure on himself.
"I just went into it like I went into every other game," he said. "It's a football game and I've got to go out and make some plays when I have an opportunity to."
There is also this: Parker's zeroes in the receiving column through most of the preseason did not mean he was failing to make an impact on game day. The coaches liked his route-running and his understanding of the playbook even on passes that didn't come his way. They liked that he showed a spark in the return game. And they surely appreciated that he worked hard on special teams, contributing two kick-coverage tackles and a forced fumble.
Parker is doing the same thing this summer, balancing two catches for 43 yards on offense with three stops on special teams. If the coaches liked his consistency in 2010, he was determined to go about his business in the same manner in 2011.
"This year is just like last year," he said. "I've just got to go out there, prepare how I did last year and come out and make some plays, and come out with a 'W.' Yeah, it does help me a little bit having that year in the system, as far as confidence, and just knowing the plays."
Perhaps Ed Gant, who spent about a month on the Bucs' practice squad last season, will follow Parker's example from 2010 and earn a surprise roster spot this weekend. Maybe it will be recent addition Maurice Price. Of course, Parker is competing for those same roster spots, and he knows that he can't take a spot for granted. The competition is impossible to ignore.
"It's always good," said Parker. "Every year the competition is good. That's just how the NFL is – everyone is good."
Sometimes it just isn't obvious to the outside observer until the 11th hour of the preseason. That time arrives Thursday night at FedExField.