In 24 hours, Ryan Neal went from being on Seattle’s practice squad to being the hero of the Seahawks 38-31 victory over Dallas, a sequence of events he admitted later left him so excited he could barely talk.
It also showed what can happen for players on the fringes of NFL rosters, especially this season, when new rules allow for greater roster flexibility than ever.
Seattle elevated Neal from the practice squad to its game-day roster Saturday, needing some depth in the secondary due to a flurry of injuries. The Seahawks used a new rule put in place this year — he will likely be returned to the practice squad Monday.
Neal, though, figured to play only on special teams Sunday unless more injuries hit – he was essentially a replacement for Neiko Thorpe, who has been battling a hip injury.
But Sunday morning, Lano Hill reported having a bad back.
“(Hill) woke up with it and it was a real surprise,’’ Carroll said. “He had X-rays and stuff like that today, to try to figure out what was going on. He just couldn’t go.”
That made Neal essentially the next man up at safety after starters Quandre Diggs and Jamal Adams (Neal can play both safety and corner).
Neal turned in several highlight plays on special teams early in the game — including making the tackle on the fumbled kickoff that led to a safety in the first quarter — and that might have been all he was going to be asked to do until Adams hurt his groin early in the fourth quarter.
Adams came to the bench on his own, and Neal was quickly sent in to replace him.
“It happened so fast,’’ said Neal. “ … You’re in it, and the next thing you know, I see Jamal and I hear ‘Neal’ and I strapped up and said ‘Let’s go.’ It wasn’t even a moment to be had.’’
Neal, who entered the league with Atlanta in 2018 as an undrafted free agent out of Southern Illinois, had played in six previous NFL games on special teams in his two previous seasons in the league but never on defense.
He made a tackle on his fourth play and another a few plays later, which would have been exciting enough.
But then, on a third-and-14 play that snapped with 16 seconds left, Neal roamed in the end zone and kept his eyes on Dallas quarterback Dak Prescott, who slipped out of a sack and rolled to his left, desperately looking for anyone open.
Prescott heaved it in the general direction of Michael Gallup.
But Neal leapt in front of the ball to save the game for Seattle and begin — he hopes — to make a name for himself.
He said after the game Sunday there were a few times as he bounced on and off practice squads and active rosters the last few years whether it was all worth it.
“There’s been times when I wanted to quit but you just don’t,” Neal said.
And the reason, he said, is what happened Sunday.
“I honestly can’t even walk you through the past 24 hours,’’ he said. “I was walking into meetings thinking I was still on the practice squad, and next thing I know, I’m starting on a couple of special teams, and I’m like, ‘All right, here we go, I’m back to doing my job, come in and give it my best effort.’
“You never know. This is a game where somebody goes down and you’re the next man up. You have to come in. … You just never know when it’s your moment so I always stay ready and stay working.”