FOXBORO (CBS) — By late Sunday afternoon, as the third full week of the preseason concludes, no fewer than 480 players will confront a stark reality.
Among the cuts needed to reduce 32 rosters from 90 names to 75 apiece, they will suddenly become NFL expatriates. Or, speaking specifically of an unfortunate 15 in New England, ex-Patriots.
Surely, some already recognize what awaits, their understanding as distinct as black and white. Thus, they play these final days of August for a future opportunity — either here again or in the 31 elsewheres around the league.
Others remain far from resigned to any football fate, their status with the Patriots still very much unresolved. Included in their ranks, you’d have to think, is running back Jonas Gray.
Driven by experience with two other NFL organizations, Gray is coming off a 12-carry, 98-yard rushing performance in last Friday’s 42-35 win over Philadelphia. At 5-foot-10 and 230 pounds, he’s already outlasted another big back in New England’s training camp, rookie free agent Stephen Houston, who was released by the Pats and has since signed with Pittsburgh.
But as a guy once described by his Notre Dame teammate and current Dallas Cowboy Zack Martin as “a killer downhill runner,” Gray is in an uphill struggle. The Patriots’ backfield is crowded by veterans Stevan Ridley, Shane Vereen and Brandon Bolden, as well as rookies James White and Roy Finch.
Still, Gray professes his faith.
“Just believe in the process,” he said, when asked about his performance to date, invoking a phrase he’d later repeat while discussing an injury that halted his collegiate career, if not his pro aspirations.
Gray was bearing down on the 800-yard mark of his senior season with the Fighting Irish, platooning with another would-be Patriot signee Cierre Wood, when he ran 26 yards for a touchdown in a 16-14 victory over Boston College. It gave him an eighth straight game with a score, including a three-TD afternoon vs. Navy.
Early in the third quarter against the Eagles, the 189th carry of his Notre Dame career proved to be Gray’s last. With it, he tore his right ACL. On a path to the pros, he was detoured down a road to recovery.
“I just really believed in the process,” said Gray, echoing his earlier words. “I made sure the first thing I could do was get healthy, get back to where I was able to compete, and if an opportunity came I was going to be ready.”
Because Gray was always part of a deep running-back group — first under former Patriot offensive coordinator Charlie Weis and then Brian Kelly — he rehabbed on relatively fresh legs.
“I felt like I didn’t have a lot of wear and tear,” Gray recalls. “I felt like once I got my knee healthy, that was the only real injury I’ve ever had. I knew once I got that right, once I got somewhere I’d be able to compete, that I’d be okay.”
That first somewhere was Miami, where Gray was placed on the Physically Unable to Perform List for 2012. The following preseason, he gained 41 yards on seven carries vs. Dallas in the Hall of Fame Game, before scoring twice against Jacksonville.
Nonetheless, Gray was cut by the Dolphins at the end of August. A few days later, he was signed to Baltimore’s practice squad. What followed was his own reality series of hard knocks.
“I think going against the Ravens starting defense every single day definitely made me tougher,” he says. “(Nose tackle) Haloti (Ngata) and the rest of those guys, they never gave me a break. I remember one time the defensive line coach asked Haloti if he had a problem with me, because he would just go hard against me every day. I think that prepared me mentally to be tough and to be physical all the time.”
Life with the defending Super Bowl champs prepared Gray for the uncompromising culture he now experiences in New England.
“I brought that here, and you can tell that it’s the same kind of mind-set, the same type of atmosphere, so every day you’ve got to bring your hard hat,” said Gray, who signed with the Pats as a free agent in January. “The main thing is it’s a winning atmosphere and every day you have people come to work to do whatever they can. Their focus is on whatever is going on in here.
“’Next man in’ mentality, no matter what. Guys are constantly working.”
Like Gray himself.
“Hard working kid,” head coach Bill Belichick said on Tuesday. “Worked hard in the offseason, worked hard in the spring and he’s worked hard in training camp; been out there every day making progress and improving. We’ll see how it goes. He’s done everything we’ve asked him to do.”
The sheer number of teammates sharing the running-backs room in Foxborough may ultimately prevent Gray from earning an opening-day spot as a Patriot. What won’t is a lack of want.
Though rarely targeted as a receiver in college, Gray has sought to sharpen his route-running footwork and soften his hands as a pass-catcher. He’s also tried to expand his role into the kicking game.
“I think I’ve gotten a lot of work with (receiving) here, especially during the passing camps,” he says. “One thing we do here, we don’t run the ball a lot until we get to (training) camp. So I had a lot of work at it. My coaches demanded it of me. They always kept getting on me about my depth, little things about my routes. I’ve just been working hard to make sure I don’t keep making those mistakes.
“When I was in Miami I didn’t get a whole lot of work on special teams. But when I was on the practice squad last year, I worked on it a ton. I think with my body type and speed I can be a guy who can play a number of positions on special teams. I think I can definitely help the team there.”
At the very least, with the Patriots, Gray is getting a legitimate shot to prove his point.
“I had other choices, but my main thing was going somewhere where I knew that regardless of numbers, regardless of anything, I was going to have a great opportunity to make the team,” said Gray, citing New England’s track record of retaining undrafted signees. “So this, right away, was the right place to come to.”
Hopefully for Gray, the next two weeks will also prove the right time. For now, entering Friday’s meeting with Carolina, he can only try to sustain momentum from a week ago.
“Even when I was in Miami last year, I had a few good games,” Gray said. “You’ve just got to keep building on it, making sure you don’t make any mistakes, making sure you keep polishing all the little things.”
(To see and hear Gray’s speech to his Notre Dame teammates after his career-ending knee injury, click here).
STUDY IN PERSEVERANCE
Gray’s once-and-again teammate from Notre Dame, linebacker Darius Fleming, has played his way into strong contention for a Patriot place both at linebacker and on special teams.
And like Gray, he’s done so by overcoming reconstructive knee surgery. Though in Fleming’s case, more than once. As San Francisco’s fifth-round pick in 2012, Fleming tore his left ACL on the first day of rookie mini-camp. A year later, he suffered the same injury to the same knee during training camp.
On Friday a now-healthy Fleming will look to continue his solid summer opposite the Panthers and another linebacker who’s persevered past knee surgery time and again, and again.
Three straight years, Thomas Davis needed reconstruction of his right knee. He is believed to be the first NFL player to come back from three ACL surgeries on the same knee.
Positioned alongside 2013 Defensive Player of the Year Luke Kuechly in Carolina’s linebacking corps, Davis is easily overlooked despite posting Pro Bowl-caliber numbers. He’s started the last 28 games and averaged 9.32 tackles in that span, including 17 last season vs. the Patriots.
And Davis has positively impacted others, like Patriot newcomer Brandon LaFell.
“When I first got there (in Carolina) he tore his ACL in OTAs,” recalled LaFell, who played 60 games for the Panthers the last four seasons as their third-round draft choice in 2010. “That’s a guy, you never see him down. He was always out (at practice), always kept everyone motivated. He made the guys who were behind him way better just being around them and giving them the knowledge of the game that he knows.”
As one would expect, LaFell also left Carolina for New England with a lasting impression of quarterback Cam Newton. LaFell watched Newton become the only player in NFL history to pass for 50-plus touchdowns and rush for at least 25 scores during any three-year stretch.
“He has everything you wish for in a football player,” LaFell says. “He’s got great size, he’s got speed, ability. He can do it all.”
Enriching all those skills in his set, Newton, who recorded a career-best .617 completion percentage in 2013, also has matured tremendously since entering the NFL.
“It’s night and day,” LaFell said succinctly, before acknowledging the work of Carolina’s last two offensive coordinators. “When (Cam) first came in, he just did everything off talent. Once he got with Coach (Mike) Shula, (and Rob Chudzinski), he really worked on his game, worked on his fundamentals.
“That guy started to blow up. Now he’s one of the best in the game.”
By signing with the Patriots as a free agent, LaFell left one of today’s best quarterbacks for one of the all-time best.
“I’m blessed,” he said, smiling widely. “I go from Cam, who’s doing his thing, (from) up-and-coming (to) real good quarterback … and now I come over here to (Tom) Brady.”
POINTS OF (OVER)EMPHASIS
Not that anyone needs reminding, the halting pace of last Friday’s 3-hour, 11-minute game between the Pats and Eagles was symptomatic of the widespread rash of penalties across the NFL. Thanks — or no thanks — to this year’s well-publicized points of emphasis and the inability — impossible as it might seem — of players to adjust.
According to a report in the New Orleans Times-Picayune, an average of 23.7 penalties (11.8 per team) were called in the 62 games to date. During the 2013 regular season, games averaged 12.7 penalties (6.3 a side). There have been 104 defensive holding calls and 55 flags thrown for illegal contact, as well as 70 penalties for illegal use of the hands.
New Orleans has been the most frequently-penalized team, guilty of 42 infractions (in addition to nine that were declined) for 293 yards. The Patriots rank eighth with 26 penalties (six declined) for 164 yards.
Naturally, the tightly-legislated play has been a topic of ongoing conversation between reporters and the Patriots this week at Gillette Stadium. On Wednesday, it was Tom Brady’s turn to address the issue.
“It’s not so much how the refs are going to call it and points of emphasis,” Brady reasoned. “I think you’ve got to focus on what your job is and not necessarily worry about the calls. For those defensive players, yeah, they’ve got to understand that. The offensive players, they’re talking about cut blocks a lot this year, you’ve got to understand the rules. Not much has changed for the quarterback, so a lot of it for me is just trying to play quarterback and do that the best way I can.
“Coach doesn’t want us to commit any penalties in practice … you’ve got to be conscious of (the rules) and try to work on them so that when they come up in the game, they’re really instinctual and you don’t have to think. Because the best part about playing when you’re really in a groove is you don’t think about anything, you just react, and that’s when you’re usually at your best.”
After forcing teams to convert what amounted to 33-yard kicks on extra-point tries the first two games of the preseason, the NFL has ended its experiment — for the time being. This Friday and thereafter this season, snaps will be delivered again from the two-yard line.
But, as the league’s vice president of officiating Dean Blandino told The Dan Patrick Show this week, the ball may very well be moving back in years to come.
“This play’s going to change in the very near future,” Blandino said on his radio appearance, indicating that he didn’t know where the line of scrimmage would likely be relocated.
Belichick advocates moving extra points to the 25-yard line, seeking to add a large degree of difficulty to a play all but taken for granted.
For example, last season kickers missed only five of 1,321 extra-point attempts. Since 2009, they’ve nailed 99.6 percent of their PAT kicks. Meanwhile, this preseason with the ball spotted at the 15-yard line, there were eight misses in 141 tries for a .943 conversion rate.
Bob Socci is the radio play-by-play voice of the New England Patriots. You can follow him on Twitter @BobSocci.
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