It was less than two weeks ago that Jake Carlock was called up in front of the team to deliver a postgame speech following his dynamic performance against the Jets. Pat Shurmur pulled the rookie linebacker, who had an interception return for a touchdown and a sack in his preseason debut, from the back of the locker room and gave him the stage.
He made highlight shows. He made headlines. His phone buzzed to exhaustion. It felt like the beginning of something great. It felt as if a story like his – an undrafted free agent from a small local college who grew up rooting for the Giants and makes a huge splash – is the very reason for training camps and preseason games.
Maybe on the outside they are. To pro teams, they are not.
The real reason those parts of the NFL calendar exist is to prepare 53 players for the regular season. In the Giants’ case, that begins on Sept. 8, a little over two weeks from now. And as that date creeps closer, more and more of the work the Giants put in is focused on starters and second-teamers. Players who will determine whether 2019 is a success or a failure.
Carlock, so recently called front and center, has been sent back to the fringes and shadows.
“It’s tough,” the Babylon High School and LIU Post product said of his rapidly reduced role since his moment in the spotlight. “In the beginning of camp they make sure everyone gets the same amount of reps, ones, twos and threes, and now it’s like I’m lucky if I get one at the end of a group period.”
Such is life for players such as Carlock near the bottom of the depth chart. In last Friday’s preseason game against the Bears, he played just eight defensive snaps, mostly in the third quarter. He did not record any defensive statistics. Late in the game a group of fans at MetLife Stadium was heard chanting: “We want Carlock! We want Carlock!” They were disappointed.
He has no way of knowing what any of it means. Have the Giants seen enough of him to make a decision already? If so, is that in a good way or a bad way? There are no progress reports in the NFL, no periodic job evaluations. You are either on the team or you are not. Right now, Carlock is one of 90 players who is. When that list shrinks to 53, it may be tougher to make that case.
In practices this week, Carlock has spent the majority of his time with a yellow beanie on top of his helmet as part of the scout units for the defense and special teams. He ran more reps as the running back or tight end for some hypothetical opponent in walk-through installation drills on Monday than at linebacker for the Giants.
“You start wondering,” Carlock said of his place on the team with cutdowns looming at the end of the month. “But at the same time you are looking forward to the next game and getting a shot in the game. Once the games come around, that’s when you get the chance to make some real plays and that’s when it matters most. It’s kind of how I’m looking at it.”
That seems to be what the Giants are thinking, too. While recent practices have slanted heavily toward getting work for the starters, games like Thursday’s against the Bengals (and certainly next week’s preseason finale against the Patriots) will be used for evaluating the lower tiers of personnel.
“Generally speaking, I see us playing the game a lot like we did the first two,” Shurmur said of Thursday’s deployment gameplan. “I think we have some guys in the second and third group we have to see. You have to see them play.”
Carlock, it would seem, is among those. In the meantime, in practices, Carlock tries to stay ready. He focuses on what he is asked to do, not the number of times he is asked to do it.
“I attack it the same way, just go and really take advantage of that one rep if it is one rep,” he said. “When they ask me to go on scout team, you have to go do something on scout team to get noticed and try to make a play… I’m not doing as much but when I do get my shot I just make sure I give it my best.
“If you mess up your one or two reps,” he added, “you’re screwed.”
He knows there are cameras everywhere watching everything, so even if he is on a scout punt team he goes full speed. On the sideline, he said, he tries to be aware of his body language and never put his hands on his hips to avoid looking winded or disinterested.
Lately, there has been a lot of time on the sideline.
“It sucks, but at the same time it’s a part of the game,” he said. “It’s a business and whatnot. I’m ready to do my part and when my number gets called make a play. I’m attacking it with the same mindset as I did in the beginning. That’s how I started off, too. I didn’t have much in the beginning, either.”
He wound up working his way to the center of a postgame celebration from that lowly start. It was a dream come true. It was a moment that can never be taken away from him. But the moment has passed. A harsher reality has replaced it.
That’s not up to the Giants. That’s up to Carlock.
If the past few months have taught him anything, it’s that in the NFL no status is permanent.