The 54th Man
Welcome to life on the Eagles' practice squad
Only eight people watching the Eagles game on television actually know the game plan. Ronald Johnson is one of them.
Right now, he's sitting in front of his 52-inch television, reclining on a living-room chair in his South Philadelphia apartment for the Eagles-Dolphins game. He has a black Phillies cap on his head, a remote control in his hand, and chips and salsa on the kitchen table. His fiancee sits on a loveseat beside him, asking him questions about the action on the field. He usually has the answer.
At one point in the first quarter, Dolphins wide receiver Brandon Marshall beats Eagles cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha for a touchdown. Watching the play, Johnson shakes his head. He explains how the Eagles practiced defending the particular route that Marshall ran. Once the replay begins, Fox's color commentator says, "Nnamdi Asomugha knew that route . . . He knows the corner route is coming."
Later in the game, DeSean Jackson scores a touchdown for the Eagles. A moment earlier, when Jackson had begun his route, Johnson mumbled the pattern under his breath, exclaiming that quarterback Michael Vick should look in Jackson's direction.
Johnson doesn't shout at the television, rip the players or question the play calls. He understands what the coaches are trying to achieve and what the players are doing. As the Eagles line up on a third down, Johnson studies the formation. From his easy chair, his Yorkshire terrier at his feet, Johnson urges, "Gotta get to Avant right here." Sure enough, Vick looks in Jason Avant's direction.
Johnson, who played at Southern Cal, is not a coach, a scout or a spy. He's a member of the Eagles' practice squad, one of the group of players on each NFL roster separated from the game you see on television by the number of zeros on his paycheck and the amount of free time he has on weekends. The practice-squad players are an essential cog in the football machine from Monday to Friday - and helpless observers on Sundays. They're in practice and meetings, in the locker room and in the cafeteria. Yet on game day, they're reminded that they take up roster spots 54 to 61; that they're not among the 53 who are eligible to play. Eagles practice-squad players neither travel to road games nor stand on the sidelines during home games. They have much to do with the preparation for games, but nothing to do with the actual games, when they're relegated to sitting on their couch or in the stands, no different than fans who have little idea who any of them are.
"I'm with these guys in practice every day, getting them better and getting myself better as well," Johnson says, trying to measure his words. "But it's tough to watch them without me playing with them."
As Johnson speaks, he's distracted by highlights of another game on television. "Oh, good catch!" he mutters, watching Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski score his 15th touchdown. "There he goes." He flips to another channel and sees a college teammate making a catch and motioning toward the home crowd. The contrast with his own situation couldn't be more stark. The only roar he hears on Sundays comes from the train that passes a deep-post pattern away from the balcony of his apartment.
Since coming out of Brigham Young in 2009, offensive lineman Dallas Reynolds has spent 1 week of his career on an active NFL roster. He's spent the rest of his time helping the starters prepare for a game in which he won't participate.
"You feel just like the other guys during the week," says Reynolds, now in his third season on the Eagles' practice squad.
Just like the players on the active roster, members of the practice squad arrive each morning at the NovaCare Complex, watch film and eat breakfast. During the week, the practice-squad players actually have more responsibility than the active-roster players, since they're often asked to fill in on both offensive and defensive scout teams. During the week, Ronald Johnson may work at wide receiver, running routes against Asomugha and at cornerback, trying to stay with DeSean Jackson.
"You have a hand in making the team better each week, giving the guy great looks," says defensive end Maurice Fountain, who joined the practice squad last month.
Another Johnson on the practice squad, D.J. Johnson, recently signed with the team after shuffling between the active roster and practice squad of six teams over three seasons. Johnson, a cornerback, says the life of a practice-squad player can vary dramatically depending on the organization.
"Some places . . . treat you like a regular player on the team as far as equipment goes, as far as practice goes," he says. "Some places, they treat you like you're different." Of the teams he's been with, the Buccaneers and the Vikings treated practice-squad players the best; he even traveled with the Bucs. The Redskins were the worst.
Johnson says some teams allow more contact during practice, which benefits practice-squad players by allowing them to show their skills. But even if pads are not worn, players can still benefit by learning the system and absorbing coaching for when their time comes. "Obviously, this game is physical, and you can't really be physical" without pads on, Fountain says. "In that aspect, you're not getting better. You're getting better mentally."
Because there are only eight players, it helps to be versatile. That's why quarterbacks are often a rarity. When the first week's practice squads were formed, only nine NFL teams had a quarterback among them. Depending on injuries in any given week, coaches might add bigger bodies (offensive and defensive linemen) for practice, while a shortage of skill players could prompt a coach to add a wide receiver or defensive back to the practice squad.
There's not much coaching for practice-squad players, especially when compared with starting players, but that doesn't mean coaches aren't paying attention.
"I know every week I'm focusing on something to get better at, whereas the first couple weeks I was frustrated just being on the practice squad," fullback Stanley Havili, another UISC product, says. "You got to . . . realize the coaches are still watching you." That's why many practice-squad players take a keen interest in how active-roster players operate. Tight end Brett Brackett often buzzes around Brent Celek with questions, while Ronald Johnson recently told DeSean Jackson that he's studying how he practices.
The practice-squad players attend positional meetings and even go through film work of the opponent, even if it's unlikely that the game plan will apply to them. Each practice-squad player knows - and holds hope - that he could be promoted at any time. Since the season started, the Eagles promoted three practice-squad players and two have been signed by other teams. "Do you really need to know being on practice squad? No," says Zane Taylor, an offensive lineman who has spent time this season on the Eagles' and Buccaneers' practice squads. "But guys get moved up during the week. You got to be ready when the time calls for it."
Maurice Fountain is 29 years old. He has a wife and two sons in Atlanta. The younger boy was born on Oct. 23, a month before Fountain was signed to the Eagles' practice squad. His wife and newborn remain at home while he spends the rest of the year in a studio at an extended-stay hotel.
"My family wants me to be home, but they also want me to work as well," he says. "They want me to be chasing my dream. They want to see me happy."
Fountain has chased that dream since he left Clemson in 2004. Over that time, he's played in two arena leagues, the United Football League, spent training camp with the Miami Dolphins and time on the Seattle Seahawks' practice squad.
When the Eagles presented an opportunity, Fountain was thrilled. If it's not playing in the NFL, it's one step closer to the league. Plus, the salary is more than passable. For each week on the practice squad, a player makes $5,700. If a player spends the entire season on the practice squad, he'll make $96,900. It's not going to allow players to stop working, but it's a better salary than any of them will find doing 4 months of work in any other occupation.
The salary is flexible, too. Cedric Thornton, a rookie defensive lineman who was on practice squad until he was promoted to the active roster this week, had the opportunity to leave Philadelphia. In early November, an NFL team wanted to sign Thornton to its active roster, which would have provided Thornton the prorated portion of the NFL minimum salary of $375,000 and - more importantly - a chance to play on Sundays.
After talking with the Eagles, Thornton declined the offer. He said he met with general manager Howie Roseman and was assured that the franchise values him. Thornton, who was signed by the Ealges as an undrafted free agent this year out of Southern Arkansas and spent training camp with the team, valued the mentorship he received from the veterans on the roster. "I just want to play here," Thornton says. "I want to be on the Eagles." The team bumped his salary to match what it would have been on his new team.
A similar situation happened with D.J. Johnson when he was on Denver's practice squad in 2009. The team increased his salary, which allowed Johnson to upgrade to a nicer apartment.
Where to live is one of the unexpected challenges a practice-squad player encounters.
"The big difference is your job is literally week-to-week," Taylor says. For players like Fountain and D.J. Johnson, who joined the Eagles late in the season, an extended-stay hotel is most sensible. Ronald Johnson and Reynolds have an apartment. Taylor, who befriended first-round pick Danny Watkins at the NFL Scouting Combine, lives at Watkins' home. Brackett, a Penn State product from Lawrence, N.J., has friends in the area and lives with them.
Taylor, 23, needs to support his wife and daughter. He's committed to pursuing playing on Sundays "until it starts hurting my family."
And though the money is nice, the insecurity can be chilling. If a player gets cut, there's no guarantee if, or when, another opportunity will come. Unsigned players tend to spend their time working out - often on a college campus, waiting for the phone to ring. When Taylor was released from the Buccaneers' practice squad on Nov. 7, he returned to Salt Lake City and worked out at the University of Utah's facilities, and went to his home in Moab, Utah, for Thanksgiving. It was there, while shopping for groceries, that he received a call from his agent, who told Taylor that he needed to catch the next flight to Philadelphia. He's been here ever since. Each week, he wonders whether he'll be able to stay. "As long as it's providing for me and my family, I'm going to do it," he says. "If it ever gets to the point where it's costing me and family more than it's worth, then I'll stop."
In 2003, Jamaal Jackson walked into the Eagles' locker room during his first day on the practice squad and received congratulations from Pro Bowler Tra Thomas.
"What do you mean, congratulations?" Jackson asked Thomas. "I'm on practice squad."
"Dude, you're still on the team," Thomas responded. "You still have a job."
Jackson spent two seasons on the practice squad before being promoted to the active roster as a reserve, and he eventually became a valuable starter. He's now a backup center, but he's used himself as an example for the practice-squad players who fill the roster each season.
"Most people look at practice squad as a negative," Jackson says. "You take the good with the bad. The good thing is you won't be on forever, and there's always room to excel. That's the challenging part. That's what kept me going. I knew, the more and more I stayed with it, somebody's going to see my talents."
That's how linebacker Greg Lloyd felt earlier this season. After the Eagles selected him in the seventh round of April's draft, Lloyd failed to make the final roster. He signed with the Eagles' practice squad and earned a promotion 2 weeks ago. So far, at least, the only differences between being on the active roster and the practice squad have been the bigger numbers in his paycheck and a spot on the team's flight to road games. Lloyd has been inactive in his three games on the roster.
Receiver Chad Hall already has felt the rush of Sundays. Hall was on the roster last season and started this season on the practice squad before being tapped for an open roster spot. He sits next to Ronald Johnson in the Eagles locker room. When Hall was on the practice squad, he told himself the same message each day - and it's one he's shares with Johnson: "Every day's an opportunity to get better, and any day your number could get called to move up, so be ready for it."
When Ronald Johnson finished his senior season at Muskegon (Mich.) High School, Rivals.com ranked him as the No. 8 overall prospect in the nation - and the No. 1 wide receiver. He signed with Southern Cal over Michigan and Florida, although he could have gone to dozens of other schools.
Upon arriving in Los Angeles, Johnson immediately factored into an offense overflowing with future NFL talent (Mark Sanchez was a backup that year). He did not need to redshirt nor wait his turn. He was productive at USC, although injuries devalued his draft stock. At 5-10 and 185 pounds, Johnson does not have elite size, so he needed to display good speed and sure hands, and he slipped to the San Francisco 49ers in the sixth round of April's draft. After catching only one ball and fumbling a punt in the preseason, though, he didn't make the team's final roster.
The Eagles saw enough raw talent to offer Johnson a spot on the practice squad, so Johnson and his fiancee, Kiya Covington, brought their two dogs across country. And when the first football weekend arrived, the couple first encountered a newfound realization: They had no games to attend. "We have to start from the bottom of the totem pole and work our way up," Covington says. "Later on, it'll be sweeter to tell the story."
At one point while watching the Eagles-Dolphins game, a Vicks cough-medicine commercial comes on, explaining how professional football players have "no sick days, no sick nights." Covington nods at the screen before adding, "And no holidays!"
She doesn't want to admit it, but she actually likes that Johnson is home on the weekends. He can finally experience football from her perspective, watching on television and listening to the commentary. She can ask the questions that she's always had about the game; she says she never knew how much Johnson understood about the sport until they watched it together. But she also sees the pain that Johnson experiences when he needs to explain to people what he does. "It's hard for me to tell I play football, because I'm not actually out there doing it," he says. "I'm still out there trying. I'm out there practicing, trying to get my craft to perfection."
He admits it's "actually embarrassing," because he doesn't play on Sunday. And that's all he wants at this point. He's remained patient, but there's a reason they live in an apartment with an easy-to-break lease and rental furniture. He gets up from his chair in the fourth quarter of the Eagles-Dolphins game and starts cleaning dishes. He glances at the screen and still calls plays, but he could no longer stand to watch. He wishes Sundays were no longer a day of rest.