What it’s really like to be cut in the NFL

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When “The Turk” comes to get you, it means only one thing.

The script is largely the same: “Coach wants to see you … bring your playbook.”

For an NFL player, that means you won’t have a place on the roster.

Turk is the unofficial title for the staffer whose job it is to collect players and take them to the general managers and coaches to be cut.

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Jets GM Joe Douglas even gained some notoriety early in his career as the Baltimore Ravens‘ Turk in the inaugural season of HBO’s “Hard Knocks.”

According to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Los Angeles Rams players in the 1950s called this guy “squeaky shoes” because they could hear him coming down a dorm hallway to do his work.

No matter the job title, he’ll be busy this weekend. By 4 p.m. ET Saturday, more than 1,000 players will lose jobs.

“It’s the worst day of the year,” Tampa Bay Buccaneers director of player engagement Duke Preston said. “It’s just bad. Like even Thursday after the [final preseason] game, it’s like you’re on the plane and you know that there’s 37 guys whose dreams end … in a matter of hours.”

Here’s what it’s really like inside NFL cut-down day:

Delivering the bad news

Most rosters are at 90 this week and must be down to 53 by Saturday. If you’re going to be one of the Green Bay Packers‘ 37 roster moves, whether that’s injured reserve, practice squad, outright release or another option, general manager Brian Gutekunst wants to make it as humane as possible.

Gutekunst, the second-year GM and longtime Packers scout, said the team uses the process established by his predecessor, Ted Thompson.

“He demanded that this be done a certain way, and there’s no wiggle room there,” Gutekunst said.

Green Bay Packers general manager Brian Gutekunst, right, learned his method of cutting players from predecessor Ted Thompson (wearing hat). Larry Radloff/Icon Sportswire

“Ted, being a former player who was probably always on the bubble his entire career, he was very sensitive to that.”

That means no cryptic messages leaving players anxiously wondering what it might mean.

“We tell them, ‘We’re putting you on waivers and we’d like you to come up and discuss it,'” Gutekunst said. “And we lay out for them what that means because for a lot of these guys, it’s the first time going through this process. So we want them to understand and make sure that we talk to their agent — and any honest feedback about what they can improve on, we make sure we give that to them.”

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Minnesota Vikings general manager Rick Spielman calls the 72 hours following the final preseason game the most hectic time of the year next to the NFL draft and free agency.

In the days leading up to cut-down weekend, Spielman, Vikings coaches, scouts and others in the personnel department have already had upward of seven meetings going over various roster scenarios.

After the team returns from Buffalo on Friday, Minnesota will finalize decisions on the bottom eight to 10 players on the 90-man roster before releasing the first cuts that afternoon while practice squad candidates are being decided.

There are a lot of moving parts and Spielman is listening to a lot of voices.

“You’re trying to come up with a collective decision,” Spielman said. “There’s lobbying going on just like there is during the draft. We try to do things collectively, and the decision is going to come down collectively to what we think is best for the Minnesota Vikings. Ultimately, that’s my responsibility, but I always try to get it where we’re all on the same page.”

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From there, telling players becomes a combination of grace, tact and efficiency.

Shelton Quarles, Tampa Bay’s director of football operations, is the person charged with informing players they’ve been cut. He is particularly sensitive to the situation. As an undrafted free agent in 1994, he was cut during training camp by the Miami Dolphins.

Understanding that feeling helps him tailor his conversations with players.

“I try to shape [the message] based on who the player is and what their attributes are, if I think they have a shot at making a roster, then I’ll shape it a little bit differently,” Quarles said. “If I don’t think that they’ll have a chance, then I’ll soften it up a bit. … More times than not, I’m gonna be soft in my delivery of the message to the players.”

The newly departed: ‘Like breaking up with your girlfriend’

Whether the message is delivered with a tap on the shoulder, text or dorm-room phone call, for the players on the bubble, cut-down day is a waiting game.

“You start micromanaging everything like, ‘Damn, I had this little mistake or this little mistake,’ ” Washington Redskins running back Byron Marshall said. “[Cuts] typically happen in the morning. So what I do is try to stay up as late as I can and sleep the whole morning and as long as my phone don’t wake me up when I’m asleep, I can wake up happy because that way you don’t have the anxiety kicking in.”

“And every time you got a call, it was just like breaking up with a girlfriend. It was, ‘It’s not you, it’s me’ kind of nonsense. ‘We’re going another direction,’ or, ‘You did great, but’ …. And it was always funny.””

Former Saint, and cut-down day expert, Jed Collins

“Just sitting there, chilling, on the phone, hoping yours don’t ring,” Jacksonville Jaguars cornerback Tre Herndon said. “It’s a real emotional time. I wouldn’t want anybody to go through that, but it’s the business.”

Former New Orleans Saints fullback Jed Collins calls himself an expert on getting cut. Over an eight-year career with 10 different teams, he was released from an active roster or practice squad 10 times. After being cut by eight teams in his first three years, he finally played his first NFL game in his fourth season.

“And every time you got a call, it was just like breaking up with a girlfriend,” Collins said. “It was, ‘It’s not you, it’s me’ kind of nonsense. ‘We’re going another direction,’ or, ‘You did great, but.’

“… And it was always funny. I did begin to judge teams and organizations based on how they got rid of you (from whether the head coach met with you personally to whether they packed up your locker or gave you a garbage bag).”

There’s a cruel math to the day and a whole lot of gallows humor. Players on the bubble know that as their teammates get cut, it increases the chances they’ll make the team.

“It’s one day where all these people lose their jobs and if you lose it, you’re hoping, ‘Well, are they going to keep me here? Is someone else going to get me?'” said Marshall, the Washington running back.

“The main thing you are thinking about is the roster spots, and the cut of the roster and [how it will get] to 53 people,” said Houston Texans safety A.J. Moore, who was released by the New England Patriots on cut-down day last year.

Coaches suffer and families prepare

Jaguars coach Doug Marrone walked into his news conference Sunday grumpy and pretty much stayed that way the entire week, because he loathes what he has to do: cut 37 players.

“I’ll relate to the anxiety with a lot of the players that’ve been giving us everything they have, and trying to make it in the NFL, and in a couple days, everybody’s life changes,” Marrone said. “Obviously, [it’s] one thing [that] hits me a little bit harder, probably, than most, because I’ve been through it.”

A lot, actually.

Marrone was drafted in the sixth round by the Los Angeles Raiders in 1986. Over the next five years, the former offensive lineman had stints with Miami, New Orleans, Pittsburgh, Dallas and Minnesota. He appeared in only five NFL games and was cut six times before his playing career ended after two seasons (1991-92) with the London Monarchs of the World League of American Football.

“I don’t think you ever get immune to that. People who are immune to that are bulls—ting.”

Jacksonville Jaguars coach Doug Marrone, on making cuts

That’s why he hates this week.

Marrone has received the phone call and the reminder to bring his playbook. He has been on the other side of the desk in a head coach’s office and heard the clichés. He knows what it feels like when someone tells you that you’re not good enough and what it’s like to walk back into the locker room, throw your stuff in a bag, and walk past former teammates trying not to make eye contact.

Marrone has had to do the cutting four times as a head coach — two years with Buffalo and the past two with Jacksonville — and it hasn’t become any easier.

“I don’t think you ever get immune to that,” Marrone said. “People who are immune to that are bulls—ting. I think people that are immune to that have no appreciation for what these people do. They have no appreciation for what goes on in their family.”

Just like free agency or the trade deadline, families get caught in the middle of these transactions. At times, that significant other is a player’s emotional support and the person who sees an NFL player’s most vulnerable moments.

“I saw it firsthand as a player,” Tennessee Titans coach Mike Vrabel said. “I was one of those guys that didn’t know early in my career. You have long conversations at night with your girlfriend or your fiancée, your wife about, ‘I don’t know if I’m going to make it.'”

After those conversations, if bad news is indeed delivered, wives, girlfriends and significant others are affected and try to find any way to help.

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Jessica Marshall, Byron Marshall’s wife, is a trauma intensive care unit nurse in San Jose, California. She approaches the day as she would with one of her patients.

“For me, it’s easy because of my career path being empathetic and sympathetic to the situation they’re in,” she said. “[It’s] ‘OK, what’s the next plan? What are the other options we have?’ Not letting anyone sit around and mope and keep their morale up.”

One of Collins’ wife’s jobs was the household moving company.

“She would be behind me, packing up things,” Collins said. “Finally by the fourth or fifth time, we were like, ‘Sell all the crap. We don’t know where or when this is gonna end.'”

When it’s over

Agents such as Kelli Masters have an emotional investment in their clients’ success, not just a financial one. But their livelihood is at stake just the same. In 2009, after representing NFL players since 2006, she was finally going to see a player survive cut-down day.

Julius Crosslin, a Dallas Cowboys fullback, had spent his rookie season on their practice squad after going undrafted in 2008 and was in position to make the team the next year. He had started the first three preseason games, then averaged 4.7 yards on nine carries in the finale. Masters was optimistic.

“Some guys are devastated. Other guys are numb to it and lost.”

Duke Preston, Tampa Bay Buccaneers director of player engagement

Then came the call from Jerry Jones’ right-hand man, Todd Williams, who delivered the double whammy of bad news. Not only were the Cowboys waiving Crosslin, they weren’t interested in keeping him for their practice squad.

“I just collapsed to the floor,” Masters recalled. “I sat down on the floor just in disbelief, like, ‘When is it actually going to happen?’

“I can’t compare my experience to players who work their entire lives and are in that moment. It’s a totally different situation. But … as an agent, after investing so much time and so many resources into recruiting and working so hard to try to get players in the right position to have an opportunity, and years into it, to still feel like I was a complete failure was just devastating.”

Some players who get the call on cut-down day are on their way to a new city in 24 hours. Some of the bigger agencies have client-services departments that assist with all the logistical challenges that come with being uprooted overnight. Masters — who represents more than a dozen NFL players as the founder, CEO and chief player agent of KMM Sports, including Seahawks receiver David Moore and free-agent running back Alex Collins — said she prefers to handle that herself.

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“You have to have great relationships with relocation companies and lots of resources to tap into,” she said. “I’ve done it so many times now, I know who to call if we’ve got to transport a dog, I know who we need to call if it’s shipping vehicles or packing up a house, cleaning — all of those things that have to be done.”

For those in the team facilities, there is a wide range of emotions, no matter the news.

“Some guys are devastated. Other guys are numb to it and lost,” said Preston, the Bucs’ front-office staffer. “And other guys, truly it’s a relief. I think it spans the gamut of experiences.”

Said Spielman: “Some guys are very quiet, some guys break down, some guys this is the only thing they have so you’re affecting their lives, their families’ lives and that’s very difficult to deal with.”

Some players will be put on the practice squad or be picked up by other teams.

Wide receiver Rod Smith, who would go on to win two Super Bowls with the Denver Broncos, was an undrafted free agent in 1994 and wasn’t sure what his status would be as his rookie training camp was ending. He was riding a stationary bike when he got yanked out of his workout.

Bob Ferguson, the Broncos’ GM at the time, told Smith he was being released but that Denver intended to sign him to the practice squad.

“So I’m like, ‘You mean I don’t have to go home?’ ” Smith said. “[Ferguson] said, ‘No, you don’t have to go home,’ so I didn’t really hear anything he said after that, after he said that I didn’t have to go home, I didn’t hear a word he said.

Dennis Gardeck’s first cut-down day had a happy ending. Scott Winters/Icon Sportswire

“Then I said, ‘Can I go finish my workout?'”

Then, sometimes, this terrible day isn’t all that bad.

Arizona Cardinals special-teamer Dennis Gardeck got the tap last preseason. Gardeck, who was an undrafted rookie free agent, was in the locker room when a staff member came up to him, tapped him on the shoulder and said, “Scooby, come with me.”

Wait, what?

The staff member had Gardeck confused with Scooby Wright, another 6-foot, long-haired linebacker.

“I was like, ‘I’m not Scooby,’ ” Gardeck said. “I thought I was done.”

ESPN NFL reporters Todd Archer, Ben Baby, Sarah Barshop, Courtney Cronin, Rob Demovsky, Turron Davenport, Jeff Dickerson, Mike DiRocco, Brady Henderson, Jamison Hensley, John Keim, Jenna Laine, Jeff Legwold, Marcel Louis-Jacques, Tim McManus, David Newton, Michael Rothstein, Mike Triplett, Lindsey Thiry, Josh Weinfuss and Eric Williams contributed to this report.

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