How Do They Get on the Travel Squad? : Rams: Practice, practice, practice say those who work on scout teams and watch TV on game day.
After a week practicing against the Rams’ first-string defense, wide receiver Richard Buchanan will settle in front of the TV to watch Thursday night’s game at Atlanta.
Such is the role of a practice-squad player on game day.
Buchanan will watch as Courtney Griffin, usually a game-day spectator himself, and the rest of the Ram defensive backs try to stop Atlanta’s run-and-shoot offense.
This is the Griffin who has been waived twice this season and probably will be again.
But this is also the Griffin the Rams have turned to when they need extra defensive backs.
Griffin will make his first NFL start Thursday night at Atlanta. It’s one of few opportunities, maybe the only reward, he and other practice-squad players get in a season.
“You’re still part of the team when you’re on the practice squad,” Griffin said. “You want to contribute during a game, and it’s tough not being able to do that. But you have to look at the fact that you could be gone altogether.”
NFL teams keep 53 players on their active roster, plus five on the practice squad. Practice-squad players earn well below the minimum rookie salary of $100,000 a year.
They work against the top offensive and defensive units, not with them. Unless they get promoted to the active roster, they don’t travel.
“The practice squad is like a redshirt year in college,” said starting fullback Tim Lester, who spent six games on the practice squad last season.
“It made me a lot better because I was running against the first-team defense each day. The best thing about it is you get a lot of work in. The worst thing about it is you don’t get to play on Sunday.”
Most practice-squad players are young, promising athletes such as Lester, a second-year pro. Some are veterans who provide depth at a certain position.
They are players such as Buchanan, who adds depth at wide receiver and can return punts.
They are players such as Griffin, a third-year pro from Fresno State who can be activated when needed.
The Rams activated Griffin Sept. 24 for help in stopping Houston’s run-and-shoot.
He played that Sunday but was waived the next day to make room for tight end Jim Price. Two days later, Griffin was re-signed to the practice squad.
“If you think too much about what’s going to happen to you, you can’t concentrate on what you need to be doing in practice,” he said. “You don’t have any control over it anyway, so there’s no reason to worry about it. It’s just extra stress.”
Tell that to Buchanan, who had anxiety attacks when he was cut two days before the Houston game, the same day Griffin was promoted.
A free agent from Northwestern, Buchanan’s mastery of pass routes and punt-return skills made him one of six wide receivers who made the opening-game roster. They cut him Aug. 30, then re-signed him to the active roster the next day.
But when the Rams signed free-agent wide receiver James Lofton to a one-year deal, Buchanan became expendable. He was cut on a Friday, remained unemployed over the weekend and was re-signed to the practice squad the following Wednesday.
“It hit me hard,” Buchanan said. “I had an anxiety attack that weekend, and I got sick.”
He said it was hard on him because he had just moved his family from Chicago to Los Angeles. He didn’t know if the Rams would re-sign him, and he wasn’t sure where his next paycheck would come from.
“You’re never guaranteed anything,” Buchanan said. “They told me they were going to put me on the practice squad, but you never know. There might have been another, younger wide receiver out there that they wanted to take a look at. I just didn’t know where I stood. I was out there in the Twilight Zone.”
Buchanan’s uncertainty about his future has tested not only his nerves but his budgeting skills.
The minimum practice-squad salary is about $3,300 a week, which works out to $60,000 over an 18-week season. But the contract can be terminated at any time.
And if a player is promoted to the active roster, his practice-squad contract becomes void, and he must negotiate a new deal. Thus, a player’s salary can change significantly if he is promoted and demoted regularly.
“It was tough for me because the demotion to the practice squad meant a decrease in pay,” Buchanan said. “I had set up a budget I had wanted to follow, and I had to restructure it over that weekend.”
Short-term apartment leases are the norm for practice players. Despite the job insecurity, Griffin said he earns enough to live comfortably.
“You still get good money on the practice squad,” he said. “It’s not good money from a football salary standpoint, but business-wise, it’s great money. It’s not like I’m out there living check to check, but you won’t find me out there buying houses, boats and stuff like that.”
Griffin has spent most of his two years with the Rams on the practice squad.
After the Canadian Football League’s Edmonton Eskimos released him in 1991, Griffin signed with the Rams before the start of training camp in 1992. He was assigned to the practice squad for 15 games, and was listed inactive for the final game of the season, against Atlanta.
Griffin and Buchanan draw inspiration from players such as Lester, who went from the practice squad to the starting lineup in a matter of months.
Lester spent the first six games on the practice squad, then was promoted to the active roster.
He was used mainly as a blocking back and on special teams last season. But when fullback David Lang underwent arthroscopic knee surgery during training camp, the starting job was Lester’s.
“If you do well against the starters, you’ll be noticed as a practice player,” Lester said.
Practice-squad players are free to sign with another team at any time, thus raising a question many must deal with: Should I stay or should I go?
“The coaches would think I was stupid if I had the opportunity to play elsewhere and I stayed here to be on the practice squad,” Buchanan said. “There is a sense of loyalty. I’ve learned a lot from Flipper Anderson, Henry Ellard and James Lofton. But I want to further my career, as they’ve done while they’ve been here, and I’ll have to go where I have to to do that.”
Griffin disagreed. He said he would stay with the Rams, even if a better offer comes along from another team.
“Good things will happen,” Griffin said. “Good things have happened to me twice so far.”