Today is Judgment Day in the NFL, as rosters must be trimmed to 53 players for the regular season. The Patriots got a jump-start yesterday, releasing nose tackle Steve Fifita, offensive lineman Jimmy Martin, tight end Jonathan Stupar, and cornerback Jeff Shoate to slim down to 71.
Roster reductions are the corporate downsizing of professional football, a reminder that an NFL job might be both glamorous and dangerous, but it is still a job, which means football players can be fired, just like anybody else.
"I think, for me, the hardest thing is looking at some of the guys and how hard they worked and seeing the looks on their faces and the disappointment with not making the team," said running back LaMont Jordan, who is entering his eighth cutdown day. "This is a business, but at the same time, that's the hard thing about this business is that you see a guy who has been there for every workout, comes out and busts their tail in the workouts, and they just don't make the team."
It's not just the players who are released who suffer. Often the teammates they leave behind are just as disappointed to have lost a coworker and confidant.
"One day a guy is your friend, the next day he's gone," said defensive end Jarvis Green. "So that's part of the business and that's the way it is. It's a performance business, the NFL."
There are a few players who will be fretting over their job security today. Veterans such as linebacker Victor Hobson and offensive linemen John Welbourn and Mike Flynn; young players such as safety Antwain Spann, wide receiver Chad Jackson, and quarterbacks Matt Cassel and Matt Gutierrez; and rookies such as linebackers Vince Redd and Gary Guyton and safety/wide receiver/return man Matthew Slater find themselves with a tenuous hold on employment.
The biggest decision coach Bill Belichick and vice president of player personnel Scott Pioli must make is at quarterback. They can either elect to carry three behind Tom Brady, who sat out the preseason, or go with two backups, in which case either Cassel or Gutierrez will be sent packing.
Neither did much to aid his cause Thursday in the Patriots' 19-14 loss to the Giants. Cassel, who finished the preseason 19 of 34 (55.9 percent) for 165 yards and an interception, was 4 of 6 for 37 yards in two series. Gutierrez had more playing time - five series - but was 5 of 9 for 69 yards and an interception. He ended the preseason 29 of 45 (64.4 percent) for 362 yards and two touchdowns with two interceptions.
Cassel, entering his fourth NFL season, was the only one of the passers to play in all four preseason games, but also the only one who couldn't find the end zone. He quarterbacked 17 series and led the Patriots to just a pair of field goals. The Patriots punted 12 times with Cassel under center. However, his one interception was not a bad throw, but a miscommunication with Jackson.
A second-year player, Gutierrez quarterbacked 14 series - he sat out the Tampa Bay game with a bruised shoulder - and led the Patriots to two touchdowns and two field goals. The team punted five times with him at the controls, and he tossed two interceptions and had a fumbled snap.
The safest roster bet behind Brady is rookie Kevin O'Connell. O'Connell, who was not used against Philadelphia in the third preseason game, was in for 11 possessions. The third-round pick from San Diego State led the Patriots to four touchdowns and a field goal. He threw a pair of interceptions and had three drives end via punt and one on downs.
"They are starting at different spots, but they are all young," said Belichick. "Cassel has the most experience in our system. Gutierrez has the next most, then Kevin. They have all worked hard. They really competed well and have taken advantage of the snaps and opportunities they have received. Tom practiced a lot this year, so it is not like they got a lot of [snaps] in practice.
"I thought they all improved in a number of different areas, and they all have a long way to go. That will certainly be one of the decisions - how to handle the quarterback position and what to do."
Jackson, the enigmatic wide receiver who has yet to blossom after the Patriots used a second-round pick on him in 2006, seemed to help his cause Thursday. He bounced back from a slip in the end zone on a fade route that led to Gutierrez's interception to catch a 16-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter. That marked the second straight game the 23-year-old Jackson came up with a touchdown grab after he struggled in the first two preseason games.
"I'm kind of both [nervous and excited]," said Jackson. "You never know what's going to happen in this situation, especially with it being Bill Belichick. He's a hard coach.
"He's a hard-working coach. I'll just see what happens."
The question was put to Jackson simply: Do you feel you've done enough to stick?
His answer showed both his maturity and the capricious nature of cutdown time in the NFL.
"I think so, but you know enough might not be enough," said Jackson.
Christopher L. Gasper can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.