GREEN BAY, Wis. — In his first two exhibition games with the Saints, linebacker Justin Anderson never got on the field, save for a handful of special-teams plays.
But Thursday night, Anderson, a second-year man from Louisiana-Lafayette, was starting against the Green Bay Packers.
Such is the norm for the final preseason tune ups around the NFL. Although folks are paying full price — and there weren’t that many empty seats in Lambeau Field Thursday — starters are far too valuable to risk in a meaningless game when the real ones are just a week away.
That’s especially true for the Saints, whose defense seemingly is being diminished daily by injuries both known (get well, soon, Keenan Lewis!) and unknown (when are you going to come out of hiding, Jairus Byrd?).
It’s gotten to the point where Delvin Breaux, whose NFL experience consists of two exhibition games, will be the starting cornerback in the Sept. 13 opener at Arizona.
Breaux was among those who were merely spectators Thursday.
Thursday certainly gave no more insight into what the Saints will when it counts.
But for guys like Anderson — who got a tryout after being cut by Dallas 10 days into training camp, thanks to James Willis, his position coach and defensive coordinator at UL-Lafayette, now being on the Saints’ staff — getting their shots at putting something meaningful on film, either for the Saints or the rest of the league meant everything.
“I got my chance tonight to get out there make a couple of plays and show what I could do,” said Anderson, who was active for two games with the New York Giants last season but who wound up on the practice squad of that team plus Minnesota before being waived and then picked up by the Cowboys in July.
“I felt like I did alright, but I always feel like I could have done more. There were a couple of plays I could have made and should have made.”
Saints coach Sean Payton didn’t single out anyone by name after the game, but he was clearly perturbed by mental mistakes and in some cases lack of effort — especially in the second half, by some who at least should have been playing like their careers were on the line.
Losing 38-10, even a game where the final score is instantly forgotten, doesn’t didn’t set well with him.
“I can’t say if it was mental assignments or effort,” he said, “But we say this ever year: For some guys it’s not important and for others it’s the most important game of their careers. They need to play that way.”
Anderson, who was credited with five tackles and a forced fumble, said he didn’t feel like he had made many mental mistakes, but in no way would he fault himself for effort.
“I felt like I as much as I had,” he said. “That’s the only way you can be.”
Effort or not, Anderson won’t be among those surviving the roster cutdown from 75 to 53 on Saturday, although it was a surprise that he made this week’s 90-to-75 cutdown.
But there’s always hope for guys like Anderson.
Guys like cornerback Kyle Wilson, a former first-round pick of the New York Jets who let him walk after five seasons and whose signing in April gained little notice.
Wilson had an interception Thursday, something that always gets noticed on a team that was minus-13 in takeaways a last season.
Guys like safety Jamarca Sanford, trying to extend his career to a seventh season, who lay still on the ground after laying out to stop Rajion Neal after a short gain.
The injury apparently wasn’t as bad as it looked because Sanford later reentered the game. But think of how tough it would be to see a veteran’s effort to hang on ended because of an effort play.
Guys like safety Damian Swann, the fifth-round draft pick who was already outplaying third-rounder P.J. Williams and second-year Vinnie Sunseri before both were declared out for the season this week. Swann was making the kind of plays which only solidified his roster spot Thursday.
And guys like cornerback Brian Dixon and linebacker Jerry Franklin whose names were called for making stops more than once.
All of them to one degree or the other will be sweating things out until 3 p.m. Saturday.
For those, like Anderson who have been through the process before, it’s perhaps easier to prepare for the news — which ever way it goes.
“I know what it feels like now,” he said. “Getting a chance like I did tonight is all you can ask for.
“Whatever happens, happens.”
Easier said that done, no doubt. That’s why for those who don’t make it — and even for their teammates who do — Saturday is the cruelest day of the season.