By TOM JAMES
TERRE HAUTE TRIBUNE-STAR
Final evaluations. That’s how Indianapolis Colts head coach Chuck Pagano views tonight’s preseason finale with the Cincinnati Bengals.
Veteran wide receiver Reggie Wayne, meanwhile, makes a more cultural comparison. “It’s like getting voted off the island,” Wayne joked recently.
Whatever the case, more in on the line this evening (7 p.m., Paul Brown Stadium) than just a simple win or a loss. Jobs are what’s important as National Football League teams must trim their rosters from 75 to a regular-season maximum of 53 by 6 p.m. on Saturday.
“We’ve got a bunch of guys that we talked about that still need to be evaluated, guys still trying to make a 53-man roster on both sides,” Pagano said this week as he previewed the Cincinnati matchup.
As to who will play tonight, the Colts figure to use their primary backups and rookies most of the game. Some regular starters may get a series in order to get some tune-up work in. Older veterans -- such as defensive end Cory Redding, outside linebacker Robert Mathis, Wayne -- will most likely be spectators and cheerleaders.
“You know, for starters, we might not play as much. But I was a young guy at one point in time and this is a very important game for some of those guys,” free safety Antoine Bethea admitted.
“They’re going to get a lot of reps on defense, offense, special teams. They’re going to be tired, but you know, you’re fighting for a job. Maybe not here, but somewhere else. Scouts going to be looking at the film, so it’s very important for these guys.”
Safety Delano Howell understands. The third-year defensive back has gotten more playing time than usual for a backup this pre-season due to injuries at the position.
But what he does tonight, against the Bengals, could very determine whether he’s going to be on the roster come this fall.
“It’s a big opportunity and I’m excited. The ultimate goal is to prove to your teammates and the coaches and everything your ability to contribute. I just plan on taking full advantage of this game and doing everything I can to prove to them what I can do,” he said.
One phrase that Pagano has used on a regular basis during training camp and the pre-season, when discussing players perceived to be on the roster bubble, is to find a way to “make yourself necessary.”
Howell has worked hard to do that.
So has wide receiver Griff Whalen and 27-year old rookie outside linebacker Caesar Rayford.
“I feel like it’s very difficult for me to answer that question. The coaches are definitely the ones who determine that but I’m trying to do everything I can to make myself necessary,” Howell voiced.
“My mentality is that you want to play to a certain level to where the coaches do not want to get rid of you. You want to make yourself valuable and that’s what I plan on doing.”
Mathis had a few nuggets of advice for some of the team’s younger players.
“Play every snap like it’s your last. Don’t take anything for granted. And make everything, put it on your resume,” he said.
Rayford has recorded five sacks in three pre-season games for the Colts, mostly playing in late-game situations against other backups.
He has impressive size (6-foot-7, 267-pounds), speed and range for a guy who bounced around the Canadian Football League and the Arena Football League before getting his chance with Indianapolis.
As good as he’s looked so far, what he does against the Bengals could very well seal the deal one way or another.
“My mindset is like it doesn’t matter what I did last game. I’m just going to go out and compete like nothing happened, make the best of every play, every opportunity I get. What I did last game doesn’t matter about this game. It’s all about Cincinnati and got to go out there and compete, because those guys, they ain’t worrying about what I did last game, it’s what I do now,” he said.
“Man, every opportunity in this league, every opportunity, every play is a blessing for me, because there’s a lot of guys that would love to be in this situation. I’m playing as every play is my last. I’m grateful for every opportunity, every game, no matter what it is, I’m going to enjoy it. It’s a blessing and I’m going to live it up.”
Some years, making the final cuts are relatively easy.
The disparities in talent are often readily apparent.
Other years, not so much. Pagano says that the talent added to the roster during the offseason and during the course of training camp has made his job, as well as the jobs of his coaching staff and the team’s player personnel department, that much more difficult.
“Yeah, when you look at our roster, we created so much competition and we’re deeper across the board at all positions. We’re going to have to let some really good football players go,” the Colts coach said. “And they’ll end up on other teams like everybody else’s guys. But it’s going to be tough.”
How important is the final pre-season game to a player’s chances of making the team?
Former Colts coach Tony Dungy likes to relate the story of undrafted wide receiver Brad Pyatt, who was trying to make the Indianapolis roster as a kickoff returner in 2003.
Pyatt had done okay during training camp but nothing out of the ordinary.
In the last pre-season game, at Cincinnati, he broke out with several impressive returns. He also played well as a backup receiver during the course of the evening. Dungy said later that it was that game that earned Pyatt a job with the team.