The term evokes nerves, anxiety, stress. As NFL teams get ready to reduce their rosters to 53 men by 4 p.m. ET this Saturday, players wait to see who will get to keep their jobs and who will be knocking on doors looking for work elsewhere. Coaches and general managers, meanwhile, have to decide which potentially helpful asset to say goodbye to.
But cut day is about more than just one deadline. It's about months of preparation, capped off with a frenzy of activity.
If you paid any mind to my last article, you already know GMs are constantly evaluating their respective teams and grading players after each practice and game throughout the preseason. This process can be long and tedious, but it's necessary in order to build the best team. When I was GM (I worked in that capacity for the Washington Redskins from 1989 to '99 and for the Houston Texans from 2000 to '06), I would also have weekly meetings with the head coach, assistants and scouts to review the roster, assess team needs and construct a "mock cut" to prepare for the final cut day.
The weekly mock cuts allowed us to focus on players at each position who were on the bubble. Simultaneously, our pro scouts and I would divide up the other NFL teams, excluding those in our own division, to reach out and get updates about available players and team needs. I never talked with GMs in our division, nor did I make any trades with those teams -- that is, after I got burned in my first year as the Redskins GM. It was terrible! We traded defensive tackle Dean Hamel, a player we were already planning to cut, to the Dallas Cowboys in 1989. This was our reasoning: Dallas had the first pick in the waiver order, so Hamel would likely have ended up there anyway, and it made sense for us to make the trade instead of getting nothing for Hamel. But when we faced Dallas that season, he gave a pre-game speech to the Cowboys, which we were told got the team fired up. Our longtime rival beat us for its only win of the season; even worse, we finished 10-6 and just missed the playoffs. I never made that mistake again.
Getting to the final cut-down day is quite the process, one that involves months of preparation. Before I became the Redskins' GM in 1989, there was no limit on the number of players we would bring into camp (we'd bring in about 120). That year, though, a 100-man limit on the training camp rosters was instituted. During my front office career, we were required to cut our rosters down multiple times before the season started. This is no longer the case, as NFL owners voted in 2017 to eliminate the first cut-down period. Another major change is the speed in which you receive game film. In my final year as a GM, in 2006, we made CDs to send to scouts, and as you can imagine, we lost a lot of time doing this. Now teams can get digital game film almost immediately.
One thing that helped keep us organized was our "second draft board," a concept that was given to me by former New York Giants GM George Young. Kept in the pro scouting room, the second draft board listed every player we added to our team after the draft. This running list indicated how many of these players made the final roster. The purpose was to illustrate how we could continue to improve, and to motivate our pro scouts, showing them their work was as important as the work of the college scouts.
The final preseason games are played on a Thursday, and the work really jumps to the next level on Friday. Every team operates in its own way, but I'll give you a glimpse of the Joe Gibbs method for two reasons. The main reason? I lived it, having worked with Gibbs in Washington from 1989 to 1992. And No. 2? It would work in any era.
The itinerary would go like this: Coaches graded Thursday's game tape in the morning, while players with injuries reported to the team trainer, who then gave reports to the head coach and GM. The staff would meet to discuss and ultimately decide which players to recommend keeping or cutting to the head coach and GM, either later on Friday or on Saturday.
The staff would also go over which players were on one of the lists of players who did not count against the 53-man roster. Today, those lists include the physically unable to perform (PUP) list, the non-football injury list (NFI) and the injury settlement list (players who have not recovered from a football injury suffered during the current season cannot be cut). Players on the PUP list to start the season cannot be activated to the roster for six weeks. When it comes to injured reserve (IR), two players per season can be designated to return from IR after eight weeks. Those two players MUST be on the final 53-man roster, then the team moves them to IR and signs two other players to replace them. You still with me?! OK, good. Let's move on ...
At this point in the process, there were never more than a few cut decisions to make, but there could be some heated discussions. I would lead the discussions as GM and indicate which players we considered cutting but who had the best chance to clear waivers and come back on our roster, though Gibbs ultimately had the final say about which players stayed. He was a good listener and took everything into consideration, but he would voice his opinion if he felt strongly. And why shouldn't he? We were all fighting for our jobs, after all!
Saturday is the busiest and BIGGEST day of the final-cut weekend. Teams generally get a practice in and are joined by players who are on the roster bubble or are being considered for the practice squad. Players who didn't make the final 53-man roster are cut, which involves being contacted by a team representative (like a scout, coaching assistant or assistant GM) and asked to meet with his position coach. After learning the news, the player meets with the trainer/doctor, followed by meetings with the head coach and GM. Players are also told whether or not they'll be back on the practice squad or targeted to be claimed and placed on the opening-day roster.
All of these decisions MUST be made by 4 p.m. ET Saturday.
Thankfully, in today's world, the internet allows the staff (coaches weren't involved in this step on the teams I was with) to get a head start making the list of available players around the league before the league releases its official list of cuts around 8 p.m. ET. Again, after hours of reviewing tape of players we were interested in, we'd finalize a list of potential players we'd like to claim, which was submitted at noon ET on Sunday. Each team would wait for a personnel notice within the next hour that reported which players we could actively target. The staff immediately worked on getting the players who were claimed off waivers to the facility, while releasing others to make room.
Claimed players were brought in -- thanks to help from a travel agent and the team's director of operations -- and immediately met with the head coach and GM, followed by the trainer. If cleared, they'd go to their position coach to get a playbook and schedule and were issued equipment. Also, housing arrangements were made.
In addition, teams can begin signing players to the 10-man practice squad at 4 p.m. ET on Sunday. Most of the practice squad will consist of players recently cut from the team's roster, but the staff also makes calls to agents about other players. This can be a hectic process, as well.
While the GM and scouting department work tirelessly through the offseason, camp and preseason to finalize a roster, coaches and players are doing the same preparing for Week 1. When I was in Washington, Gibbs used every Monday in the preseason to practice the game plan for the season opener. As an organization, you can never lose sight of that first game on the schedule. The regular season is why we put in all of this work, and it's the true test of the roster we put together.
In other words, it's when we could see if everything -- from free agency to the draft, through the preseason and roster cuts -- would pay off or not.