PHILADELPHIA — The reigning NFC Offensive Player of the Week is hiding.
Somewhere behind the craning necks and rolling cameras, among the stretching microphones and unsteady arms, his face is alight. His biceps bulge. But you can’t see him. Stand on your tiptoes, or burrow in between reporters, and you might catch a glimpse.
Or glance up at the nameplate above his locker. Read it once, then again. And realize just how remarkable the scene is. Think back to the first time you heard the name. Back to October, when a broadcaster enunciated it with a hint of surprise, and even some diehard Eagles fans responded aloud … Huh?
Now, the entire NFL knows him. Now, on a Wednesday afternoon in South Philly, with the Eagles’ wild-card round showdown against the Seattle Seahawks four days away, he’s the center of attention. But once upon a time, he was a 5-foot-6 running back with no scholarship offers. A year later, he was an unused freshman walk-on at Louisiana Tech. Three months ago, he was a practice-squad player.
All of which helps explain why the locker room at the NovaCare Complex seems slightly unprepared for his sudden fame. Scott, the star of the Eagles’ playoff clincher, stands at his locker. And as the semicircle of humanity around him swells – two rows deep, then three – Marcus Green realizes he has a problem.
Green has been a practice-squad receiver here since September. He’s been assigned a temporary-looking locker on an island in the middle of the floorplan. On a normal day, he’d look directly across the aisle at Scott. Today, he can’t do much of anything. His personal space has been swallowed up by the growing crowd. So he decides to create some. He swings his mobile locker left. A team staffer walks by and asks what the heck he’s doing.
“I couldn’t get dressed!” he chuckles.
“Boston might have to move!” he later jokes. “Somebody gon’ have to move.”
But the conundrum brings a smile to his face. It’s a byproduct of success. Success that nobody saw coming.
The Eagles are in the playoffs, just like everybody foresaw back in August. But in no way did they take the anticipated route. They were not dominant. They are here because of a dramatic four-game winning streak led by a resilient defense, a franchise quarterback and … the practice squad. Yes, the practice squad. And it appears the formula for a win on Sunday will be no different.
The Eagles, decimated by injuries at the skill positions, closed out their Week 17 clincher with six healthy running backs and pass-catchers. Five had been promoted from the practice squad. At the time of their promotions, these five players had accounted for three times as many NFL transactions (57) as NFL receptions (19).
Yet they have scrapped and clawed their way to victories, in part because they aren’t too far removed from scrapping and clawing for their careers. They know what life is like on the edge of unemployment. Because months devoid of opportunity have taught them how valuable this one is.
Life on the practice squad
The first of the five to confront harsh NFL realities was Josh Perkins. An undrafted tight end out of Washington, Perkins made the Atlanta Falcons’ 53-man roster as a rookie. Then, week after week, he missed out on Sundays. Two months went by. He didn’t see the field.
As he struggled, he pocketed a piece of valuable advice. “Stay ready so you don’t gotta get ready,” teammate LaRoy Reynolds told him in 2016. So he did. And that, he’d later realize, is exactly what the practice squad grind is all about.
It is a life of impermanence and scant reward. “You really do everything else that the actual team does … you just don’t play in the game,” former Eagles practice squad wideout Robert Davis explains. That means meetings, lifts, film study, extra lifts, practice, extra work after practice – only to sit in your apartment on Sundays and watch teammates on TV. It’s all the preparation without the thing you’re preparing for. You’re a musician who spends hours rehearsing and never performs. You’re a writer who spends hours researching and never writes. You make decent money by Average Joe standards – minimum $8,000 per week, for up to five months out of 12. But you can be told to pack up and leave apartment leases behind at any time.
This is the life that Perkins, Scott, Davis, Greg Ward and Deontay Burnett were living not too long ago. Burnett knows the volatility as well as anybody. He’s been with four teams in two years. And for six weeks this fall, he was without one, at home back in Compton, California, running on a track and doing skill work with a high school coach, waiting for a call.
Davis, in early September, was with the Redskins. The previous year, he’d torn his ACL, PCL and LCL, and broken his tibia during training camp. One week, he’d felt “immortal.” The next, he was in bed, unable to walk or even lift his leg, wondering whether he’d ever get back to the game he loves. A year later, practice squad life felt like a blessing, but was nonetheless “frustrating.”
Scott, Ward and Perkins, meanwhile, were in Philly. They’d sit together in meetings, and chat during workouts, bonding via positivity. They’d encourage one another when the work without reward wore them down. Perkins learned to be grateful for what he had rather than discouraged by what he didn’t have. He read a book, “The Gratitude Formula,” and took the message to heart. He’d recite thank yous every morning and before bed.
Still, though, he would occasionally get down. On himself. On his situation. But if Ward noticed, encouragement flew Perk’s way. Or, he says, sometimes a reminder: “Bro,” Ward would tell him. “I was at home last year.”
Ward, a week into his second year out of college, was cut from the Eagles practice squad and picked up by no one. Four months later, he joined the AAF, which three months after that folded. His latest reappearance on the practice squad in late-September was his 17th professional football transaction in 28 months. He still did not have an NFL catch.
But he relied on his faith. And his parents. (His dad’s a pastor.) He stayed the course. When he caught his first NFL touchdown last month, the emotions of the journey overwhelmed him and sent him to a knee.
“You’ve got to look down the road,’’ he said of the lows that led to that afternoon’s high. “You can’t just look at how things are right now. You’ve got to keep working and keep praying and keep your head down and stay with it. I wasn’t going to quit until I did it.’’
It’s finally about them
There is an alternate world, somewhere off in the NFL’s vast galaxy, where Greg Ward is not Greg Ward right now, but rather Scout Team Russell Wilson. Where the Eagles, behind a healthy DeSean Jackson and Alshon Jeffrey, cruise to an NFC East title and this same wild-card matchup with Seattle. And where Ward, a college quarterback, is not at the literal top of the depth chart, but rather servicing those who are.
That, of course, is the irony. For practice squad players, practice is rarely actually about them. For contributors, it’s about preparing for opponents. For the practice squad, it’s about preparing those contributors for battle by emulating opponents. Outside of the occasional developmental period, scout-team responsibilities often override personal growth in practice. Personal betterment, especially during a playoff race, becomes an extracurricular activity.
Yet the Eagles, in between must-win games, were forced to facilitate plenty of it. Not a single running back, wide receiver or tight end made it through 16 games unscathed. The Eagles have now activated 21 different skill-position players at various points this season. And when injuries created problems, they often looked for internal solutions. Nine of the current 53-man roster have been promoted from the practice squad.
Five of the nine have caught passes from Carson Wentz the past two weeks. They credit Wentz and the coaching staff, but also their own note-taking and playbook-studying and question-asking, with helping get them up to speed. “You don’t have a lot of time,” Wentz says. So building a rapport is about “having those conversations – what you’re expecting, what you’re thinking … talking to them about what I’m seeing, what I’m thinking.”
They, alongside Wentz, are now the toasts of Philadelphia. Ward’s first NFL touchdown clinched a Week 15 win over Washington. Perkins’ first Eagles touchdown put them ahead in Week 17. And Scott’s three second-half scores booked Sunday’s date with Seattle.
Back at NovaCare three days later, Scott is asked whether life has changed – as if the throng of reporters surrounding him isn’t evidence enough. He’s a “homebody,” he says, an avoider of distractions. But he acknowledges that fans have started recognizing him around the city. Then he shrugs. And he cracks a smile.
Ten minutes later, cameras surround Ward as well. Yes, life has changed. Money, surely, has been made. A season, improbably, has been saved.
Yet they are still the practice-squad guys. They don’t have a nickname for themselves. But the bonds formed outside the spotlight have endured. Ward strolled to Wednesday’s walkthrough with Burnett and a current practice-squad member, laughing as they went. Scott bounded across a parking lot to the indoor facility, his cleats clacking on concrete, his energy as buoyant as ever. They are each relishing their own opportunity, but equally happy for the friends who have seized theirs as well.
“I love seeing my guys eat,” Scott says.
Sometime soon, Perkins has been saying, they need to actually eat together. Go out for a nice dinner. Reconvene the practice squad to celebrate their graduation.
But first, they have a playoff game to win.
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