FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Devin McCourty made it safely through one of the most difficult days an NFL player can experience during the grind of a long season.
With final cutdown day now behind him, the New England Patriots cornerback is focused on one of the best days.
And he’s not alone.
“Definitely anxious. I’m always excited to get the season started. Tennessee’s a good opponent,” Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski said Sunday of next week’s opener against the Titans. “First game of the season, always got the jitters, always ready to go and always excited for the game to come.
“As you can see, college football started this week and it was exciting watching all that. It’s just getting you more excited to get going.”
That eager anticipation was more a feeling of anxiety for a handful of players just a few short days ago.
When the Patriots trimmed their roster from 75 to 53 on Friday, it was more emotional than usual, as current players said goodbye to a few veterans, including wide receiver Deion Branch, longtime center Dan Koppen and backup quarterback Brian Hoyer.
“It always humbles you. I think you’ve got to realize how blessed you are to have the opportunity to continue to play,” McCourty said. “We come into camp with 90 guys and all those guys I think they put it all out on the line to be on the team. To get released, you definitely feel for those guys.
“Like I tell a lot of people, it’s one of the worst days of being in the NFL, going through and seeing your friends and stuff, some of those guys you might never see again, but it’s a part of the business,” he added. “I think we’re excited to go on, now we’ve got our team and go out there and start playing.”
Most players realize it’s a business with no guarantees.
Rookie defensive end Chandler Jones already recognizes the differences between college and the pros.
“A lot of people have different approaches to their job. As far as me and my job, it’s definitely a business,” said the first-round pick from Syracuse. “Like I said previously, it’s how I’m paying my bills from here on out and you got to approach it the same exact way.”
Perhaps nobody understands that more than Patriots coach Bill Belichick, who in a rare moment of candor Sunday expressed the challenges of cutting players.
“That’s the hardest part of the job,” Belichick said. “To take players that have played for you, won for you, and players that have been with us since in the spring, the whole offseason, done everything we asked them to do, worked hard, sweated, been banged up, kept going out there, kept playing, kept trying to do everything they could to make the team, to do what we asked them to do, to give into a team-first attitude and fashion, to tell those players that they can’t be a part of the team, it’s very difficult.
“On the other hand, we all know when we get into this business, that that’s the way it’s going to be.”
Branch was a beloved figure in the Patriots’ locker room, a member of two Super-Bowl winning teams in New England, including the Super Bowl against the Philadelphia Eagles when he caught a record-tying 11 passes and was chosen MVP.
The 33-year-old had spent all or parts of six seasons with the Patriots, developing into one of the most charismatic and engaging players on the team. Despite being released Friday, his nameplate was still above his locker Sunday and his personal belongings in it, including gloves and a portable speaker.
Belichick wouldn’t comment on whether Branch would return.
“He taught so much on the field — how to practice, how to stay motivated out there, how to always do the rep right so we don’t got to repeat it and everything,” Gronkowski said. “He’s a great guy, always loved talking to him and will always be in touch with him.”
The thought even set in, Gronkowski added, that it could be him down the road that finds himself in the perilous position of fighting for a roster spot.
“I think of that on the days like last Friday when you see people go. It’s like, ‘Man, it could be me someday,’ ” he said. “It’s definitely the business side of the NFL and you just got to keep working hard every week, keep working out, keep practicing hard, keep doing what you got to do so you can stay around.”
With cuts behind them, the portable lockers gone and familiar faces bidding farewell, the promise is palpable as the regular season draws near.
“You dig in big — physically, mentally, everything. You’re getting ready. It’s game time now,” Gronkowski said. “This is what counts, this is what starts the season is this game. Everything from here on out matters.”