There was a low buzz and slight tension starting to build Thursday around Halas Hall, something you might notice only if you’ve been around NFL training camps for years.
It’s a vibe that comes with the reality that at 3 p.m.Tuesday, 864 NFL players will be out of work. For Bears players, Saturday night in Nashville may be their last chance to earn or save a job.
The last exhibition game has always been pretty much a throwaway and even a bit of an annoyance to most fans because so few regulars participate, and it tells us so little about a team.
But for close to 1,000 or so players, those 864 that will be cut shortly after and the last four or five to make each NFL club, it is the most important moment of their young lives.
Head coach Matt Nagy said Thursday that he is aware of the impact Saturday’s game against the Titans has on his locker room
“Yeah, I have and that’s real too,” he said. “What’s the number of players that are about to have that unfortunate handshake and not know what their future is?
“So we always talk to our starters when guys don’t play and are on the sidelines, ‘Let’s look sharp, let’s be supportive, be coaches out there for them, these are some of the biggest job interviews that these guys will ever have in their entire life, so let’s respect that. Coaches let’s understand that as well.’
“That’s really big to me, it’s big to our coaches, it’s big to (general manager) Ryan (Pace), and we take it very seriously.”
It isn’t just about sympathizing with the guys that don’t make it.
Where might the Bears have been in recent years without Cam Meredith, Bryce Callahan, Roy Robertson-Harris, Sam Mustipher and Alex Bars, to name a few? Or going back in history you can look to Brian Piccolo, James Allen, Mike Tomczack, Tom Waddle, Dennis McKinnon, Leslie Frazier, James “Big Cat” Williams, Jay Hilgenberg, etc., all guys who went into their final exhibition as rookies not close to having jobs locked if the team hadn’t gotten it right.
It’s a right of passage that fans and media take for granted but one that both youngsters and vets with no idea how close to the top of the bubble they are actually perched, live in perpetual fear of.
I asked Nagy if heading to Nashville there is a position or two where the competition is so close even he’s not sure what will happen.
“I’d say there’s a few,” Nagy said. “Without getting into too many details just with other opponents, we have a couple positions right now that we’re looking at that we’re keeping an eye on. I always look forward to this one because sometimes you get that one player that maybe there might be, from coaches, a little doubt in. And then all of a sudden they prove you wrong in this game.”
There will be happy endings, too.
With increased practice squads and a full extra week between the final exhibition and regular-season opener, a number of guys whose dreams are dashed by 3 p.m. Tuesday will find new ones shortly thereafter.
There will be some surprising vets and talented youngsters suddenly on the street.
Are the Bears ready for this season’s final wave of free agency?
“They’re (Ryan Pace’s staff) all over that, they’re in here all day and night going through possible roster cuts of other teams,” Nagy said. “So for us as a coaching staff, we’re more focused on evaluating the players in the game and then they come to us.”
All that’s certain is for the 80 guys in that Bears’ locker room right now, 53 will have their dreams continue, some will have theirs die an early death, some will have new ones begin and much of that will depend on what happens during those 60 minutes Saturday night in Nashville.