When the Eagles-Baltimore Ravens preseason game was cut short at the 11:54 mark of the fourth quarter last Thursday at the Linc because of lightning strikes, it was, for most, just a matter of changing the channel to another show, or getting ready for bed a little earlier than usual.
That was not the case for about 60 talented football players on both these teams. For them, it was a disaster.
It hurt one Eagles’ player even worse.
Offensive tackle Brett Toth had just joined the team after taking an unusual path to the NovaCare practice field.
Toth played for Army, finishing his career after the 2017 season.
Toth spent the 2018 season as a graduate assistant at Army, helping coach the Black Knights to an 11-win season, a program record.
The Department of Defense ended the practice of allowing student-athletes in the service academies to postpone their military careers to pursue professional sports in 2017 until a recent change reinstated the policy.
Toth was granted a waiver, allowing him to sign with an NFL team. The Eagles reportedly signed Toth to a three-year deal with nothing guaranteed.
He said he chose the Eagles to learn under offense line guru Jeff Stoutland.
With only a few days of practice, Toth was looking forward to those precious minutes in the fourth quarter against the Ravens to get some game reps and show his talents to the coaches both in Philly and the rest of the league.
When the lightning struck, the 6-foot-6, 290-pounder was standing next to Stoutland, helmet in hand, ready to go in.
It was not meant to be. Toth, like a number of other rookie free agents, was listed on the score sheet under “Did not play.”
Toth sat at his locker after the game, staring straight ahead at nothing in particular. When asked about the disappointment of the shortened game, the 22-year-old spoke softly.
“Just got to make the best of next week,” he said.
Toth talked about how he had to suddenly work with a sense of urgency to get ready for an NFL camp after hovering for over a year as an Army football coach.
“It was a pretty quick turnaround,” Toth said. “I had to jump on the learning curve as fast as possible and get in there as quick as possible.”
He said once he learned he had a chance to get on an NFL team, he started the process that must be approved by the White House.
“I just had to talk to some representatives within the JAG corps,” Toth said. “Once Trump made his notion known among the different branches, at that point it was just sent up the chain of command.”
The Charleston, South Carolina native who had outstanding stats at his Pro Day in early 2018 said he can’t put any stock in the contract he signed.
“I’m just like every other guy in this locker room,” Toth said. “I’m just trying to make the team right now. That’s all I’m focused on right now. I’ve got to go back and get ready for next week and get ready for the Jets.”
Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz talked about how hard it is for him and the other coaches when it comes down to who stays and who goes.
“You root for everyone in this business,” Schwartz said. “You know how hard they work and what they put into their effort and making a contribution to the team. And not everyone can make the team, but when it is all said and done, everyone that was in camp with us will have contributed to our team somehow and to our success going forward.”
Veteran safety Rodney McLeod said he has been in these shoes himself. He was an undrafted free agent in 2016 out of Virginia. He said when the game was called for lightning, he thought about all the rookies trying to get noticed.
“It is hard,” McLeod said at his locker after the Ravens game. “It is unfortunate. But that’s why we always talk about you’ve got to seize every opportunity that you get. Because you just never know what the outcome is going to be. Whether it’s injury, cancellation to a game, so every rep counts and every rep is precious. We always preach that message to a lot of the guys in the secondary. A lot of guys are fighting for a job. I’ve been there, undrafted. I try to speak from my experiences to these men. But next game, they are going to see a lot of action. You still have six days, you can’t get down on yourself. Just look forward to the next game.”
Second-year running back Boston Scott was drafted by the New Orleans Saints in the sixth round in 2018. Due to all the injuries the Eagles suffered within the running back corps last season, Scott was signed off the Saints’ practice squad by the Eagles on Dec. 10. He, too, is trying to grab a roster spot.
He said the Ravens’ game getting called was tough to take.
“It was pretty disappointing,” Scott said at his locker before a recent training camp practice. “Those game reps are invaluable. Getting out there and actually doing it under the lights. That experience, it benefits you in the long run. You can’t get enough of those. I would have liked to get more reps out there.”
One rookie free agent not affected by the lightning was offensive lineman Nate Herbig. The 6-4, 334-pounder may have found his spot on the roster as a center, a position he never played before joining the Eagles.
He impressed at his debut against the Jacksonville Jaguars, playing the entire second half, dominating the Jaguars’ backups. He continued to raise his stock against the Ravens, playing a lot of minutes in the middle quarters against veteran NFL players.
Offensive coordinator Mike Groh talked about Herbig’s progress and transformation from guard to center and his status with the team that sounded like the Birds are keeping him.
“I read somewhere it was being talked about that he had not played center before,” Groh said on Monday before practice. “You can imagine how hard that transition might be to be able to do that here in the NFL, and I think it’s a credit to Coach (Jeff) Stout, Roy Istvan (assistant o-line coach), the guys over there and working with the offensive line and getting him prepared to play both guard and center in this training camp. He’s done both and he’s handled it well. Not where he needs to be yet. He’s got work to do but pleased with his progress.”
Herbig said it never occurred to him he would be looked at as a center.
“I never thought I’d be a center,” Herbig said. “I played guard my whole life.”
Herbig said he is not going to assume he has made the team.
“I’m not really thinking about it like that,” Herbig said. “Hopefully, I get to start this week, with Kelce not playing, I’ll be the first center to go in. So I just have to take advantage of that. I’ve been playing the ‘two’ center, so I would assume that I’ll start at center this week. We’ll see how that goes, play some good ball.” ••
Follow Al Thompson on Twitter @thompsoniii.