Tampa Bay Buccaneers Head Coach Raheem Morris used an interesting, glass-half-full type of term to describe the upcoming process of turning an 80-man preseason roster into a 53-man team.
The Buccaneers and Washington Redskins will play their shared preseason finale on Thursday night, and both teams are likely to devote 95% of the playing time to the second, third and fourth columns on their depth charts. That game falls just two days before both teams will have to slice their rosters by almost exactly one-third, and the 60 minutes inside FedExField will provide some invaluable evidence when it comes to decision-making time.
Morris, however, didn't say he was preparing to "cut" his roster to 53. Rather, he used the term "stack."
Morris has often said that he wants a bus that is driven from the ground up, a roster where it's the last 10 players who make the team to set the pace. Yes, a good portion of this weekend's 53-part decision has already been made, obviously, or there would be a lot fewer players expecting a night off on Thursday. But Morris is still looking for some bus drivers, and he obviously believes there are a lot of talented candidates.
Perhaps there are 38 depth chart spots already well locked up, maybe 43, maybe 48…only the coaches and General Manager Mark Dominik's staff know at this point. The rest of the roster-shaping process can be seen as addition, not subtraction. With those last five, 10 or 15 spots, Morris and the Buccaneers are prepared to stack the team with players who will help them win.
The thought of this final audition in Washington – with roster spots potentially on the line but so much talented competition all around – has the youngest players on an already young roster buzzing with excitement in the Buccaneers' locker room this week.
"I think it's going to change everybody's mental preparation, especially the young guys being able to know they're going to play," said rookie running back Allen Bradford. "Stretching beforehand, they know they don't have to wait a whole half or three quarters. Now you're just right off the bat and you can go out there and have fun and play football."
Some of the team's more established veterans, such as center Jeff Faine, are already turning their attention to the Detroit Lions, who come to town on September 11 for the regular-season opener. However, even the starters who see no action at all in Washington will stay tuned into the action, because they know it's serious business for their younger teammates, some of whom will soon be helping them compete on Sundays.
"Obviously, you've got to be respectful to the guys that are playing in this game," said Faine. "There's a lot at stake for those guys. It's their last audition before the last cut. For us, we're starting to prepare for Detroit and getting ready for the regular season, and making sure our conditioning is shape, taking steps forward to get ready."
Last year, the Buccaneers rested their entire starting offense for the preseason finale in Houston. Third-string quarterback Rudy Carpenter got the start under center and played almost the entire game, turning in a stellar performance that had to make the coaching staff feel more confident in the team's depth at the position. Carpenter completed 15 of 22 passes for 203 yards, two touchdowns, no interceptions and a passer rating of 127.7 to lead the Bucs to a 24-17 win.
"I got a chance to start this game last year, the fourth game, and I thought I played pretty well," said Carpenter. "So I'm just trying to carry that over once again and keep doing what I do."
Carpenter's second touchdown to wide receiver Arrelious Benn in that Houston game provided the winning points in the fourth quarter. Last Saturday against Miami, Carpenter threw a fourth-quarter TD pass to tight end Nathan Overbay to give the Bucs another preseason win. Such moments are a blast for a player who has yet to carve out any significant playing time in the regular season, and they could help him get that playing time in the future.
"It's fun because you don't get many opportunities when you're the third-string quarterback to get out and play. So when you do, you want to play well. But people understand situations, and when you get a chance to lead a game-winning drive it's a big deal. It's a big deal for me personally, but it's also fun.
"I think the preseason for the guys who have been here for awhile and have started is not as big of a deal, but for the majority of the guys in the locker room, it's the way that we keep a job, protect our job or gain a job somewhere else. I would say it's probably our whole life. It's important to me."
Kareem Huggins started at running back behind Carpenter in that Houston game and picked up 37 yards on just six carries. Huggins, originally an undrafted player out of Hofstra, made the 53-man roster that weekend and appeared to be the team's third-down back before he suffered a season-ending injury a few games into the regular season.
Not long after Huggins' injury, LeGarrette Blount emerged as the team's primary tailback, sliding former starter Cadillac Williams into the third-down role, which he handled well. However, Williams is now in St. Louis and the Buccaneers are looking for a new player for that role. That may well end up being not a new player at all – veteran Swiss Army knife Earnest Graham appears to be the leader – but Morris said the competition remains open. And even if Graham takes that spot to start the season, there appears to be at least one running back spot on the depth chart still open, with the likes of Bradford, Mossis Madu and Armando Allen all fighting for it.
That running back competition might be one of the most interesting things to watch on Thursday night, as the three rookies are likely to see plenty of playing time each.
"Obviously, we all know that this is a game where we're going to have a chance to showcase our talents," said Allen. "I think everybody in that room is pretty excited about that. I think the competition is very, very high right now. You look in our room and a lot of our guys have a lot of talent. For me, it's just being focused on what I've got to do and taking care of my assignments before I start looking at everybody else."
Bradford, Allen and Madu all clearly believe in their physical abilities and are putting more emphasis on being mentally prepared. For Bradford, that means excelling in one area he knows will get the coaches excited when they're watching game tape the next day.
"I've got to go out there and not try to do too much, not try to make too many big plays but let the big plays happen," he said. "I feel like I have [been getting better], as far as the pass protection and knowing who I'm going to block, being able to read the defense and know where the pressure's coming from. I feel like I've been doing that. As far as running, everybody can run. What they're looking for more than anything is to protect the quarterback."
Bradford also noted that the young players will see more special teams playing time on Thursday as well, and that they all understand how important that phase of the game is to their chances to make the roster. In the end, they won't be in the room with Morris and Dominik and their staffs when the roster decisions are made over the weekend. They can only make their final case for inclusion on Thursday night and hope they're a part of it when the roster gets stacked up.
"It's hard for everyone," said Carpenter. "There are only 53 spots on the roster. I think people try to act like they don't care but guys are definitely looking around and seeing who's getting cut, who's leaving. It is what it is. It's our livelihood and our job. So, yeah, there's a lot of anxiety and a lot of nervousness that comes with that but you've just got to control what you can control."