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Scout Team Key to Success

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Because reps are so precious, what began as an NFL loophole decades ago is now standard operating procedure and helps fine-tune and polish the final product we see on Sundays.

We're talking about practice squads.

This gang of eight cushions the 53-man roster in each organization, primarily responsible for mimicking the upcoming opponent's looks and tendencies during the week of preparation.

As long as they are relegated to the practice squad, the members never see game day. Yet, when you ask any starter, assistant coach, or front office member, their presence is felt each and every Sunday.

"That's how we get plays run," Eli Manning said. "They've got to give looks and they've got to have an idea of what the defense is we're playing, what kind of technique they play. And they're in charge of making sure our receivers are getting solid looks or the offensive line is getting good looks of the movement and the pressure. They're a huge reason for us having success."

The practice squad emerged because every week is a numbers crunch for front offices, even back in the 1940's.  That's when Paul Brown, a pillar in the NFL's development, recognized the need for additional players for scouting purposes. During a time when rosters were set at 33, Brown, massaging the rules, funneled wages to these players through a taxi company. Thus, as the story goes, the "taxi squad" (as it was once called) was born.

While it is disputed if players on the taxi squad actually drove cabs for starters to keep up appearances, their present-day roles are as intricate as coaches want to make them.

Wednesday is when the masquerade begins for the practice squad and the rest of the "scout team" (scout team includes active players lower on the depth chart).

For the offense, while it is separated from the defense during jog-through at the beginning of practice, second stringers are flipped to defense. Same goes the opposite way.

For example, defensive assistant Al Holcomb holds up a card showing the scheme that coaches are anticipating they will see during the game. This is essentially the first time scout team members are shown what they are trying to mimic. Assistant coaches then match plays accordingly.

"It is crucial to development…in terms of getting guys ready because reps are precious," quarterbacks coach Mike Sullivan said. "A certain play that's called on Sunday might only get one rep during the week, believe it or not, maybe two. And it's got to be dead on. You don't want it to be wasted because the look is bad."

Because of all the mixed duties and assignments, practice squad players have to strike a balance between improving their own skills and providing the valuable commodity as a scout.

"You've got to take pride in it," offensive lineman Jim Cordle said. "Around here, if you don't do well in that, it's your only time to show what you can do. So if you're on practice squad and you look bad on scout team, you've got to be worried of them cutting you -- they'll bring in somebody else. On the other end, if you look good on scout team and you're on practice squad, it's chance for them to say, 'Hey, we're evaluating you in practice, you're going against the defense that's out there on Sundays. If you do well, then you can play and we'll bring you up.'"

That's how it works for players like Cordle, who spent all of 2010 and the beginning of this season on the practice squad before being promoted.

While it is always taken seriously, that doesn't stop some players from having fun with the scout team. How can you not, when portions of practices have third-string quarterbacks dropping back to play safety and offensive linemen trying to run around as linebackers.   

"Now that's fun," Cordle smirked. "Because I'm always Mike linebacker, I try to be Brian Urlacher or whatever. That's fun for me. We watch tape of them and say, 'OK, how much do they tilt, what depth are the linebackers, do they move when the safety comes down,' stuff like that. We can give a look. But, yeah, that's fun. I'm always covering tight ends or something like that. It's just jog-through, but I like to give those guys a hard time."

Even in team periods (full offense vs. full defense), players can flip depending on the health of certain position groups. Cordle recalled times when the defensive line was a little banged up and he had to go head-to-head with his natural position group.

"One time I hit (Chris) Snee with an inside move," Cordle said. "There's an understanding like, OK – but it was Philly week. I was like I've got to give him a look. And so I did and I beat him. Then the next time I lined up, he just fired off and punched me right in the face."

Additionally, certain players with the same body type as key players on the upcoming opposition will wear a bib with that player's number. For example, running back Andre Brown wore Brad Smith's No. 16 in preparing for the Buffalo Bills last week.

"My mentality going into it is that whoever I'm imitating, I'm better than," Brown said. "So I just go out there and I tell the defense, I say, I'm better than 35 or better looking than whoever they have me back there pretending to be. I just go out there and give it my best. I honestly think that I'm better than whoever they want me to be."

A common philosophy throughout the football ranks is to make practice difficult so that the payoff on game day is as sweet as possible.

Practice squad members don't get to taste that.

So, for players like Brown, they sometimes need an occasional reminder of the reason behind all their work. That's where vets like Corey Webster come in.

"Webby told me that. Look at it on Sundays and you'll be like, 'I helped Webby get better today.' That's what he told me. That kind of gave me a little oomph," Brown said. "I just go out there and feed off that and produce."

Brown needs to only look at Ryan Grant for motivation, says running backs coach Jerald Ingram. Grant, who spent time on the Giants practice squad, was traded to the Packers in 2007. With Green Bay, he has almost 4,000 career yards with consecutive thousand-yard seasons (2008-09) and a Super Bowl ring.

"When Ryan Grant was here on practice squad, he never let anybody take a rep away from him," Ingram said. "He worked hard every play, every day against a defense knowing that one day he will get there. I'll never forget he and his mom, we were walking out of the tunnel after a game, and I told his mom, I said, 'Your son is going to be a heck of a player.' I said just wait and see, he's going to be a great player. He's done pretty well. But he earned the right to get there, he really did."

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