Long claimed to be one of the greatest ripoffs in sports, game #4 represents the final shot for some of our lesser known Bronco hopefuls to make a name for themselves in one desperate attempt to avoid the cut. For fans across the country this game is nothing more than perhaps an excuse to go drinking and make a few poorly placed bets.
For a few players with dreams to play in the NFL, this is their biggest moment. Their ultimate audition. They will get only a few snaps under the watchful eye of 75,000 fans who are more concerned with their parking price, flat draft beer and the most recent results of the Bachelorette. It's a strange conglomeration of men fighting like gladiators for their right to play while they are surrounded by an ultimately bored base of fans that are memorizing dance moves to Call Me, Maybe and figuring out how to safely walk down the perilous flight of stairs that represent the 3rd deck of Mile High.
Welcome to the NFL. You may have owned the field at college, been the worship of your campus but here you are nothing more than a slight distraction in a sport that values its heroes far too much and its hopefuls far too little.
Such is the irony of preseason game #4. For sixteen games starting in September through December the final outcome is merely a step on a long journey, a journey that hopefully takes an organization into the playoffs. Yet, for the all the importance of the big sixteen, never in all of the NFL can you see more players step onto a football field who fear for their livelihoods than in preseason game #4.
Every missed tackle... damning.
Every touchdown catch... euphoric.
Every cut... devastating.
Players like our own Mike Adams staked their careers to this game. Others watched it slip away.
It all plays out today ladies and gentlemen. Over the past few weeks we have been looking at five players, specifically non-starters, who had something to prove in the midst of these meaningless preseason games. As fans, we've enjoyed seeing some players develop and watched as others fell to the first cut. Now, finally, the end is here. Final cuts are due and there is but one final rehearsal that must be performed.
Here are five names to watch closely.
5. Caleb Hanie
Backing up Peyton Manning is an underrated role on this team. Let's not kid ourselves here. If Manning were to go down for the season our team is sunk like Davey Jones locker. That's one iceberg we can't survive. However, we are all very aware that our window of prime opportunity opened when Manning signed with this team and it closes when he leaves... and nobody knows exactly how long that will be... we just hope it's long enough to get us to the iPhone 5S.
In the event Manning has to miss merely a game or two or three, we need a backup that can keep us in it. Is Hanie that guy? Man, it's hard to think so but this is his final audition. I think it's pretty clear that Osweiler needs some more time and if Hanie doesn't work out the Broncos could find themselves back in the QB market. Today is Hanie's chance to grab that roster slot.
4. Jim Leonhard
Safety is a position I don't think I fully appreciate. I grew up idolizing players like Steve Atwater but I've learned that the Atwater types simply don't exist in the same capacity like they used to. Thus, when Jim Leonhard steps onto the field I'm not entirely sure what will make his final preseason game of 2012 a rounding success. I look for tackles, batted down balls, maybe an interception, but I realize that the role of a safety is far more than just those things.
Watch for Leonhard today in terms of playing time. My gut tells me his roster position is not safe and we all know that the Broncos are not hurting for numbers on defensive backs. Still, he's survived the first round of cuts and now he needs to prove his worth past the second round.
3. Drayton Florence
One wouldn't think Florence's position is in jeopardy, but watching his game film doesn't exactly inspire confidence either. Tracy Porter, most likely the starter opposite Champ Bailey, should sit most if not all of this game. His position is safe. However, with competition from Omar Bolden (who won't get cut under just about any circumstance) and Syd'Quan Thompson, Florence is a name in the deepest part of the roster and depth on the roster is only good when it's on the final 53.
I expect Florence to see quite a few snaps today and my hope is that, with the rather weak QB lineup the Cardinals are sporting, he will work to continue to expose their weakness and make a significant case for his spot on this roster.
2. Julius Thomas
Continually nagged by injury Thomas may be approaching the end of his road with the Denver Broncos, which is a real shame considering the promise he showed from those first couple of weeks he donned a Broncos helmet. He's yet another name from that first Elway draft that has yet to pan out and reach his potential. I do think that Virgil Green's suspension buys him a little time and the practice squad is always an option if he can't make the roster (a move the Broncos may choose to attempt before simply cutting him).
However, Thomas needs to hear his name called a few times today, and he needs to do it with a second string offense that might be hell bent on being sloppy. Is it a fair deal? Maybe not, but in the NFL fair isn't exactly the norm. I really hope Thomas sees a significant part of the action tonight.
1. Knowshon Moreno
Good 'ol Knowshon. His jersey seems to always be on discount now and his promise seems to always be hyped and hated equally. I'm a fan of Knowshon like I'm a fan of hangovers. I've seen those flashes that get me excited and I've seen those games where he simply filled a roster spot. I watched him get carted off the field after that fateful Kansas City game where he sustained his latest injury. The look on his face wasn't one physical pain as much as one of complete despair.
He was watching his hopes fade away. My heart broke a little for him in that moment. So much promise... so little production.
And now he has a final chance. A chance with one of the greatest QB's of all time on a team that is trying so hard to get back to the Super Bowl. Will Moreno turn the corner today? Probably not. I think his roster position is safe for now, but I also realize that he is desperate to get something on film to show that he can be the kind of back that warrants his draft position in the NFL. Look for Moreno to get about 11 carries today and let's hope he can hit around 40 yards and maybe a TD.
Game #4. We love to hate it. It ushers in the beginning of that which we've waited so patiently (and not so patiently) for, the true NFL season. By the time you read this sentence the first real kickoff will be less that a week away and between now and then more than 500 first cut surviving players will suffer the bitter pill that is the second cut. Maybe even the second second cut when free agents are claimed.
It's a tough business but such is the nature of business that demands results. Let's hope, for the sake of our young players, game #4 provides some kinds of results.