Exhibition finale biggest game of year for players on bubble

Bears rookies and vulnerable veterans will give all in final push for roster spot — somewhere

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"You aren't coming out tonight. Don't put a hand up and tell me you're tired — because there ain't anyone left." — Special teams coach Danny Smith addressing the rookies before the fourth exhibition when I played for the Redskins.

Make a big play. Flash on tape. Get the ball out on special teams. And do it while you are gassed — with no rest in sight.

That's the goal for the Bears' rookies and veteran bubble players Thursday night against the Browns.

There are no water breaks when you are trying to make an NFL roster in the final week of August. You play almost every snap, cover kicks, block on special teams and showcase your talents one more time in hopes of landing a roster spot for opening day.

What about the key starters, the proven veterans? Forget about it. Their preseason work is done. They are merely spectators for the majority of the night.

But such is not the case for the guys trying to earn a job in the NFL. Nope. The final exhibition is their stage to give the coaching staff a reason to keep them around.

Isaiah Frey, Greg McCoy, Armando Allen, Lorenzo Booker, Dane Sanzenbacher, etc. They have put in the work during the spring, in training camp and throughout the first three weeks of the preseason.

But Thursday night is different against the Browns under the lights in Cleveland.

"You just want them to continue to confirm the things that they've done and keep showing you," Bears coach Lovie Smith said earlier this week. "And if you have something that you've been saving — some special play — to really get you over the hump, this is definitely the time to do it."

That exhibition finale is another test. The last chance to prove you belong with the big boys. Play until you drop and put your best stuff on film.

"When you know that you need to play the best that you can play … you want to see how they handle that," Smith said.

Look at the battle for the No. 3 running back job between Allen and Booker. One of them will be practicing at Halas Hall next week while the other likely will be home. That's life in the NFL when final cuts are made.

However, players know this game is also an audition for the rest of the league.

Maybe they don't make the cut in Chicago. Hey, that happens when there are only a couple of roster spots up for grabs. But there will be plenty of personnel movement over the Labor Day weekend once these games are in the books.

Thirty-one other teams will watch this tape and search for a spark, a special teams demon or depth for their locker room. The waiver wire becomes a buyer's market with players scooped up across the league and handed new mailing addresses.

That's just another reason why I love the final exhibition. And I plan on watching the entire thing.

As someone who has been in this exact position with the Rams in 2000, I know you push yourself physically to levels you didn't think were possible. You do that because it is a dream to play pro ball.

This game provides one more opportunity to do something special. That's it. It's all you can ask for as a young and unproven player trying to grab a locker (and a game check) during the regular season.

That's why I want to see someone in a Bears uniform make a play when their job is on the line.

Special contributor Matt Bowen, who played at Glenbard West and Iowa, spent seven seasons in the NFL as a strong safety. You also can find his work at nationalfootballpost.com.
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