Some guys have to wait for the right opportunity to present itself.
It’s hard to make the team as a veteran role player when fighting with established players and up-and-comers during training camp. There are different factors at play during that time of year. Potential in one area might outweigh a player who has proven he can fill a specific role but is ultimately limited in what he can do. It’s about adding the best 53 players, and sometimes the niches get squeezed out until later in the year.
“It’s like changing your search engine,” Saints coach Sean Payton said. “It’s this, this and this and you get a smaller sample size as opposed to we’re looking at everything (during camp), we’re trying to build a roster. At that time, you’re trying to develop young players.”
Teams are also still trying to figure out what they have with newcomers early in the season. Payton often talks about having a vision for each player he acquires. Often those match reality, but sometimes they go the way of Champ Bailey and Adrian Peterson and don't work out as planned.
It takes time to find out if the vision will come into focus, exceed it or create unexpected needs.
“I think Brandin Cooks has a lot of value, but what exactly is it? How it’s all going to turn out with him back in April, I don’t know,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said earlier this season. “You know, we haven’t even run a play yet (at that point), so that’s what the spring and that’s what training camp is for. Maybe it’s kind of, ‘Well, this is what I envision it being,’ but it turns out to be something different, like Randy Moss.
“You know, we got Randy Moss. We kind of, I would say, thought it would be one thing. Well, it was a lot more than that. … Sometimes it turns out to be a little less, but you know you’re going to go through that process with a player.”
Once all these things are sorted out, and the areas of need on the roster become evident, the journeymen or guys looking for another shot come into play. It can make it easier for teams to locate guys off the street who can help once everything gets sorted out because at this point in the season they are being asked to plug gaps instead of being part of the crew defining which ones exist.
The Saints call their roster of candidates for these jobs their “Tidewater” list. They update it with every transaction made across the league and keep an eye on who can fill specific roles. The process has paid some dividends this season. It already led New Orleans to veteran pass rusher George Johnson, who has 2½ sacks in two games. And it brought the Saints back to defensive tackle Tony McDaniel, who returned to New Orleans following an injury to John Hughes this week after failing to find a role within the defense during training camp.
Last year, the tide washed over the shore as New Orleans had its players miss 301 combined games because of injury, leading to players like cornerback B.W. Webb playing a pivotal role on defense. The number has already risen to more than 175 this year, which is still a little on the high side but is a more manageable.
Still, it has created leaks that need to be plugged, and the Saints have done a good job finding the right guys to come in and help in a pinch.
“That is what this ‘Tidewater’ list is all about,” Payton said. “You go to ‘Tidewater’ and get a second baseman for a month. You get someone that’s sitting there that can come in and help you right away and they’re not going to require a long learning process.”
That’s where acquiring players during camp is different from now. Johnson and McDaniel aren’t here to compete with anyone or steal a job. They’re here because a role no longer filled and they were chosen to do the job. Either they succeed and stick, or someone else will come in and get a shot.
“A guy that comes in here after missing all spring, all training camp and a few weeks of the regular-season game plans and adjustments and everything, I mean, there’s no way he can compete with players who have been through all that,” Belichick said. “But, usually you bring a guy in if you have a role for him. I mean, otherwise, why would you bring a guy in if you already have two guys that can do this job?”
Finding ones who can, regardless of how small the role, can be the difference between success and failure. If not, a team might just get caught in the tide and end up washed away.