For key veterans like Drew Brees, Zach Strief and Kevin Williams, the fourth and final preseason game is nothing more than a formality, a night they’ll likely spend on the sidelines, a sign the regular season is on its way.
For a player like undrafted free agent Bobby Richardson, the fourth preseason game represents his whole world.
Few stars are expected to take the field for any length of time when New Orleans takes on Green Bay at 6 p.m. Thursday in legendary Lambeau Field, but that doesn’t mean the action is meaningless.
A job can be won Thursday night.
“I think it’s going to be everything,” Richardson said. “Everybody who’s still here is waiting for that first game.”
The Saints, along with the rest of the NFL, cut their roster down to 75 players on Tuesday, a sobering reminder of what lies just beyond this final tune-up in Green Bay.
Final cuts loom Saturday, when the entire league must cut down to the 53 teams carry during the regular season.
And there are plenty of players like Richardson who find themselves squarely on the bubble, battling head-to-head for a spot on the team’s 53-man roster.
New Orleans has neck-and-neck races at wide receiver, safety, kicker and the defensive line as this marathon heads to the home stretch.
“It would be probably eight to 10 players at different positions that we’re still evaluating and that will get a lot of playing time,” Saints coach Sean Payton said. “Many of them got a lot of snaps (against Houston), and there will be a number of these guys that’ll get a lot of snaps this upcoming Thursday.”
Brees likely won’t play. Neither will Strief, and the Packers will probably hold out stars like Aaron Rodgers and Clay Matthews as well.
At this point, the starters are getting anxious to open the real work.
“I think every team at this point in the year gets anxious to start the regular season schedule,” Payton said. “I think that same anxious feeling exists with how your team is going to be, how it is going to come together, how your 53 is going to shape up because some of those things still aren’t decided.”
Strief remembers what this fourth preseason game used to mean to him.
Before he’d become an established starter for the Saints, Strief often headed into the final game of training camp in a fight for a job, trying to prove himself in three quarters of action.
Navigating a tough turnaround is half the battle. After playing against the Texans on Sunday, the Saints had one day of practice on Tuesday, sandwiched around two days off, to get ready for their chance against the Packers.
By the time the guys on the bubble take the field, the experience can be surreal.
“It’s such a big game for you, and you’re almost rushed into it,” Strief said. “We play a game on Sunday, we come out, we practice against each other, tomorrow they hand you a list of plays and then the next day you go and play, and you’re playing for your career.”
Figuring out how to handle the pressure might be the hardest part.
It isn’t easy to accept anything less than perfection when a player knows he’s fighting for a dream spot.
“I try to keep my head down, try to keep pushing, I can’t have any errors, I’ve got to have minimal errors on the floor, I’ve got to know my playbook and I’ve just got to make plays,” Richardson said. “You’ve got to take advantage of every snap you get.”
What the veterans try to do is get the young guys out of their own heads.
Too much thinking on a football field can be a bad thing, slowing down a player’s movements in a league where everything moves at warp speed.
The key to the fourth preseason game is being able to understand the moment and forget about its magnitude at the same time.
“Just relax and play football,” Williams said. “Believe you belong in the NFL and go out and show it.”
With so much on the line, that’s easier said than done.