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The practice squad used to carry a stigma as a place for players on the NFL fringe. Not anymore

The practice squad used to carry a stigma as a place for players on the NFL fringe. Not anymore


When Eric Rowe’s phone buzzed on cut day in late August, the veteran safety wasn’t exactly sure why.

The answer came as a shock.

The Carolina Panthers, who signed Rowe to a one-year deal last April to help a team eyeing a reboot under rookie quarterback Bryce Young, wanted to waive Rowe and put him on the practice squad if he didn’t find work elsewhere.

Ummm, what?

“I was like, ‘I’ve been in this league. I had a good season (with Miami in 2022), had a good camp, I played and started in the Super Bowl, the biggest games,” said Rowe, who won a pair of titles with New England earlier in his career. “Why am I on the practice squad?”

It’s not that Rowe considered the practice squad beneath him. He did accept the gig after all and has long considered practice squadders the hardest-working players on the team. It’s just that he came of age during a time in the NFL when the unit was strictly the bastion of largely unheralded younger players coaches considered not quite ready for the 53-man active roster, players eager to do whatever they could to remain in the league.

And while the NFL tweaked the rules around the practice squad during the COVID-19 pandemic — bumping them in size from 10 to 16 and opening eligibility to players of all experience levels instead of those with three years or less — the stigma of being in a group that has its nose pressed against the window of the 53-man roster lingered.

“It took a while to get my ego back down,” Rowe said.

Rowe smiles while telling the story. Maybe because he’s telling it in the Pittsburgh Steelers locker room. The player who was taken aback when put on the practice squad in Carolina — which ultimately waived Rowe in mid-September — couldn’t answer “yes” fast enough when the Steelers called him the week before Thanksgiving and asked him to join their practice squad to help out their injury-ravaged secondary.

“’Hey, put me on there,’” Rowe told Pittsburgh’s front office. “If it gets me playing again, I will be on there.”

Rowe is hardly alone. The rosters of many of the teams playing during wild-card weekend are dotted with accomplished players whose careers would likely have been over under the pre-pandemic practice squad rules.

Practice squad alums eyeing a shot at the Super Bowl include Cleveland quarterback Joe Flacco, and Steelers linebacker Myles Jack, who was “retired” and trying to run the minor-league hockey team he owns in the northern Dallas suburbs when Pittsburgh signed him the same day they brought Rowe into the fold.

“I love the ‘off the couch’ (mentality), I embrace that,” said Jack, a former second-round pick in Jacksonville who has made nearly $50 million in his career. “There’s times in life where you’ve got to kind of start from ground (zero), start from the bottom and look back up.”

Bills running back Leonard Fournette won a Super Bowl with Tampa Bay three years ago. This fall the 28-year-old wondered if it was over until the Bills signed him to the practice squad on Halloween. On Sunday, he’ll be splitting time with James Cook as Buffalo tries to end Rowe’s — and Pittsburgh’s — season.

That doesn’t mean the initial adjustment from former first-round pick and two-time 1,000-yard rusher to “break glass in case of emergency” status was easy.

“It’s still hard,” said Fournette, who has 40 yards on 12 carries in two games. “But you know, I’m doing it for the team. The bigger goal. It’s not about you. It’s putting yourself last because the team comes first.”

A mindset that has long defined what it means to be one of the players who exist on the NFL fringe, players often asked to do a little of everything. Work on the scout team, a job that requires them to learn both their plays — and the opponent’s — simultaneously. Fill in intermittently for the starters or the second string during practice when they need a break. And do it well enough they earn the right to stick around, hardly a given in a profession given to relentless roster churn.

It’s a lot to ask. And one of the reasons San Francisco 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan is tired of the perception that practice squad players are somehow beneath those given one of the coveted 53 roster spots on game days.

“I hate even the title of practice squad because it sounds like you’re just like a walk-on or something and it couldn’t be any more the opposite,” Shanahan said. “But they are a part of this team as anyone. That’s why they travel with us. That’s why they’re on the field. That’s why they do everything.”

That perception might still exist in some corners of the locker room and in the public at large. It does not on coaching staffs that have taken advantage of expanded practice squads to create 16-man groups that feature a mix of young players in development and old pros like Fournette and Flacco whose resumes are littered with championships.

“The ability to have veterans who have been in tough situations, playoffs experience, those things are invaluable because when they come in the building, they know what time it is,” Miami offensive coordinator Frank Smith said. “They also are trying to maximize their opportunity to be on a successful team. Clearly, there’s value to both.”

In a way, the new paradigm has also provided teams with something often in short supply in January: fresh legs.

“Maybe they (didn’t) have to go to camp,” Pittsburgh defensive coordinator Teryl Austin said. “They don’t have that wear and tear on their body. All of a sudden you pick them up for the last (handful) of weeks of the year and they’re positive for your team.”

Jack, who was cut by the Steelers in March and then stepped away from the game in August while in training camp with the Eagles, needed a full six weeks to get back into football shape after spending most of the fall playing pickup hoops at a Dallas-area YMCA.

Re-immersing himself into the rigors of the NFL took time and more than a little patience. It also rekindled a flame he worried had flickered out. He and Rowe found fun trying to “terrorize” the starters during practice, regaining some of the swagger that they feared they’d lost.

Jack certainly looks like he’s “back. He’s collected 17 tackles and a sack while playing 77% of the snaps after being promoted to the 53-man roster over the final three games, a renaissance he didn’t see coming three months ago.

“I like to watch the movie ‘Scarface,’ so to watch that rags to riches story, I felt like I was kind of living it,” Jack said. “Everything up until the end, I’m trying to do.’”

And do it with gratitude for a path that was unavailable to players like him not so long ago, a path that Jack and so many others are embracing every step of the way.

“P-squad,” Jack said. “I’m repping it until the end.”

TOP PHOTO: FILE – Green Bay Packers helmets lay on the ground during a practice session at their NFL minicamp Wednesday, June 13, 2018, in Green Bay, Wis. (AP Photo/Morry Gash)

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