The numbers that usually define football success – yards per carry, third-down conversion rate, turnover margin and, ultimately, final scores – will be rendered essentially meaningless tonight when the Cincinnati Bengals play host to the Indianapolis Colts in the preseason finale.
The only number with any real significance this evening will be 53, which is how many players the Bengals will be allowed to keep heading into the regular season.
“You’ve made decisions, but you haven’t made the final decisions because you don’t have to yet,” head coach Marvin Lewis said, referring to Saturday’s 6 p.m. roster deadline.
Sixty minutes and a few dozen snaps is all that is left tonight for the players on the bubble to prove they are worthy of a spot.
And while it doesn’t happen often, Lewis said there have been years when a player he hasn’t planned on keeping has performed well enough in the preseason finale to earn a job. Lewis specifically mentioned Cedric Peerman, who is still with the team, and DeDe Dorsey, and he also said there was a guy who played his way onto the team with his performance in Indianapolis last year.
Lewis declined to name that player, but he said earlier in camp that Ryan Whalen was a guy earned a spot his spot with a strong preseason last year. And Whalen was one of the team’s leading receivers with four catches for 41 yards in that 20-16 loss to the Colts.
But Whalen finds himself back on the bubble, along with a number of other players.
And in most cases, there is more that goes into the decision than just performance. Coaches and the personnel department have to weigh what a player can offer immediately versus his long-term potential, and they also have to speculate on which guys might get claimed on waivers after they are released and which are likely to slide through so they can be re-signed to the practice squad.
Here is a look at some of the key battles heading into tonight:
The team placed Chris Pressley on the Physically Unable to Perform list Tuesday, leaving John Conner and Orson Charles to battle it out for what is likely to be just one spot. Conner is a proven fullback in his fourth NFL season, while Charles, a second-year players, is a work in progress after being converted from tight end.
Neither player was on the field much in the last two preseason games. Charles is listed as the starter on the depth chart, but Conner was the first fullback in Saturday night in Dallas.
Cedric Peerman, with is abilities on special teams, would seem to be safe as the third running back behind BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Giovani Bernard, so that leaves rookie Rex Burkhead and Dan Herron in a battle for what is likely to be one spot.
Herron shined on special teams after coming off the practice squad last year, but he is a better bet to clear waivers and be re-added to the practice squad this year if the team were to waive. It is far less likely that Burkhead would clear waivers, which may be a bigger factor in the decision than how either guy plays tonight.
Even with a broken hand, George Iloka seems to have firm grip on the starting job at strong safety, and rookie Shawn Williams has been impressive in each of the last two games. Starting free safety Reggie Nelson is a lock, and special teams maven Jeromy Miles is the next closest thing, which leaves Taylor Mays as potentially the odd man out.
However, the Bengals could elect to go with five safeties and only keep five cornerbacks instead of six. How Mays plays tonight could factor into that decision.
Terence Newman, Leon Hall, Adam Jones and Dre Kirkpatrick are locks, which leaves Brandon Ghee, Chris Lewis-Harris, Onterio McCalebb and Shaun Prater fighting for the final two spots, or possibly one if the team keeps five safeties.
All four corners on the bubble have practice squad eligibility.
A.J. Green, Mohamed Sanu, Marvin Jones and Andrew Hawkins are locks, and Brandon Tate is the next closest thing with his punt and kickoff return abilities. The Bengals kept seven receivers last year after Whalen’s strong preseason, but six is more likely this time. That leaves Whalen in a battle with Dane Sanzenbacher and rookie Cobi Hamilton.
As inconsistent as Hamilton has been, he’s almost a sure bet to be claimed by another team if waived. But that still may not be enough to offset the value Sanzenbacher presents not only as a returner on special teams, but in his ability to play in the slot while Hawkins recovers from an ankle injury that may shelve him for the first half of the regular season.
Barring an injury, it’s hard to see John Skelton supplanting Josh Johnson for the backup job this late in the game.
Skelton didn’t even play in Dallas, and head coach Marvin Lewis admitted that was the plan before the team even got on the plane to go down there.
Skelton should see plenty of action tonight, but it’s likely to be his last in stripes.