His life right now is so simplified that it revolves around a single word, a word Troymaine Pope used four times in one sentence Sunday.
“My main focus,” he explained, “is finish, finish, finish, finish.”
The moment brought genuine electricity to a preseason game that, at times, struggled to maintain a discernible hum. His finish was an exclamation point, and Pope is all about finishing today because he has been agonizingly unable to do so in each of his previous three training camps.
- An undrafted rookie out of Jacksonville State, Pope rushed for 162 yards and two touchdowns for Seattle in the summer of 2016. And he was cut.
- The next summer, he led Indianapolis with 18 preseason carries and added seven receptions. And he was cut.
- Last year with Houston, he rushed 16 times for 41 yards, caught seven passes for 64 more yards and returned a kickoff 45 yards to set up a field-goal attempt. And he was cut.
So, while everyone around him Sunday was giddy over his 81 yards of brilliance, Pope remained all business.
“I feel like I’ve had good camps wherever I’ve been, but I’ve never been able to stick where I was,” he said. “So my main focus … I just want to make sure I finish. That’s my only [thought] right now.”
The NFL has been a moving target for a player whose survival depends on his ability to zig and zag. The Chargers are Pope’s fifth team. He has appeared in only four real games, with 12 carries and one reception, in three years.
The last time he stepped on an NFL field during a regular-season game was Dec. 11, 2016.
“I’m not really worried about my chances,” Pope said. “I’m trying to control what I can control each day, work hard and continue to do what I’ve been doing. I’m not really worried about one, two, three, who’s coming in when. Any of that.”
Given his experience, it’s little wonder that Pope said his immediate goals are “being stable somewhere” and “being able to build from here.” The father of two, he understands life isn’t football. This is a player who, during his college career, worked as a cashier and stocker at Walmart.
After going undrafted and failing in a tryout with Kansas City, he was on the brink of going to work at a factory near his home in Alabama when the Seahawks called and invited him to his first camp.
Pope, 25, has been chasing the NFL since.
He joined the Chargers in late November last year and spent time on the practice squad. He was active for one game — at Kansas City — but never left the sidelines.
“You know his instincts, his quickness,” coach Anthony Lynn said. “His first-step explosion is as good as a lot of backs I’ve been around. I saw that last year with him on the scout team. We gave him more opportunities this year, and he’s taken advantage of it.”
Based on this latest performance, the odds still aren’t necessarily leaning in Pope’s direction.
After Austin Ekeler and Justin Jackson, the Chargers have second-year running back Detrez Newsome, who appeared in nine games last season. They also have Melvin Gordon or, at least, should have Gordon at some point. The Pro Bowler is holding out in a contract dispute that could extend into the season ... or end at any moment.
“When I come in, I’m just going to make some plays and try to do my best,” Pope said. “Every play you make out there is big. This is the NFL. It’s a great opportunity to go out and show what I can do.”
That’s what happened Sunday when he eluded five Saints who somewhat had a shot to tackle him on his punt return. With the blocking set up in front of Pope, the other six Saints on the field weren’t even close.
“Once I made the first guy miss, I just outran everybody,” Pope said. “I looked back and it was just dig and dig and dig. Then I knew I was going to score because no one was going to catch me.”
Starting Tuesday, the Chargers have three days of training camp left. And, for Pope, the chase continues.
Derwin James surgery
Safety Derwin James will undergo surgery Thursday to repair a stress fracture of the fifth metatarsal in his right foot.
An All-Pro as a rookie, James was diagnosed with the injury last week and is expected to miss three to four months.
He likely will open the season on the injured reserved list with a designation to return.
The projected timeline has James returning, at the earliest, during the Chargers’ bye in Week 12.
Offensive line in flux
Among the negatives Sunday was the early play of an offensive line that remains in flux. Pro Bowl center Mike Pouncey didn’t dress for the game, which meant Dan Feeney shifted from left guard and Forrest Lamp moved into Feeney’s spot. The Chargers’ game-opening possession ended when the offense twice failed to pick up a yard running the ball.
“We had a couple runs early on where it wasn’t so good,” Lynn said. “I give the Saints defense credit. Those linebackers came downhill.”
On third-and-one, Jackson was stopped for no gain. The next play was worse, with Jackson losing two yards to forfeit possession.
The left side of the line — Lamp and second-year tackle Trent Scott — was unable to prevent being pushed backward.
“I put us in those situations in preseason to see how we respond,” Lynn said. “It was a scenario where we did not respond the way I thought we would.”