Commentary

Bryant could learn from Spencer

When the linebacker was a rookie, he kept quiet and learned all he could from vets

Updated: July 30, 2010, 5:18 PM ET
By Calvin Watkins | ESPNDallas.com

The Roy Williams-Dez Bryant shoulder-pad drama has died down. In fact, it's basically over, thanks to Dallas Cowboys coach Wade Phillips, who during a team meeting told the parties to stop making noise about it.

But the next part in this drama is the eventual takeover of Williams' job by Bryant.

It's a reminder of something that happened a few years ago, when the Cowboys drafted defensive end Anthony Spencer from Purdue as a possible replacement for outside linebacker Greg Ellis.

Spencer was moved to outside linebacker and didn't cause a stir when he was a rookie. Ellis, who was recovering from a torn Achilles tendon, failed to make it out of the first practice and grumbled with management for much of the summer of 2007.

One thing was clear in the eventual takeover of Ellis' job, which didn't occur until last year: Spencer was seen and not heard.

[+] EnlargeAnthony Spencer
Geoff Burke/US PresswireWhen he was a rookie in 2007, linebacker Anthony Spencer carried plenty of pads and spent time learning from the veterans at his position.

"I carried all their pads," Spencer said. "I stacked them all on my hands and threw them in the lockers and hung up their helmets and everything. I was a good rookie."

Bryant came under harsh criticism from several NFL players for refusing to carry Williams' shoulder pads. The rookie said he didn't know it was NFL tradition, and several veteran Cowboys players believed him. Yet everyone involved, including Williams, was shocked at how not carrying shoulder pads became such a huge issue nationally.

It's not so much the shoulder pads that were the issue; it was that proper NFL protocol wasn't followed.

On Thursday afternoon, for example, the tight ends gathered together for a drill on the blocking sled. Tight ends coach John Garrett was trying to move the sled from against the bleachers to a spot on the sideline to conduct the drill.

Jason Witten, who is entering his eighth season, said in a stern voice, "Scott, move the sled."

Scott -- being Scott Sicko, the rookie tight end who signed as an undrafted free agent -- had to move the sled. And once he did that, the drill commenced.

Nobody was hurt or hazed or whatever. It's just part of the culture of the NFL. You could say it's stupid or smart, but this is the life of the NFL. If a veteran tells you do something, just do it.

Bryant will understand this at some point. For not carrying the pads, Bryant will have to buy dinner for the other wide receivers. The bill will be close to $1,000, or maybe more. Williams will order a $200 bottle of wine, or maybe a $75 steak.

No problem. It's not hazing or disrespect or anything of that nature. It's just the culture of the NFL.

Spencer realized that pretty quickly when he got to the Cowboys.

He studied film with Ellis and watched his moves on the field. Ellis would tell Spencer how to attack certain offensive linemen with hand placement and footwork. Spencer wanted to learn everything he could about the NFL.

He was changing positions, and Ellis was in the same boat. Bill Parcells, then the Cowboys' coach, moved Ellis from defensive end to outside linebacker because he switched from a 4-3 to a 3-4 defense. Ellis was hesitant about the move but made it successfully.

Ellis said he understood that for players to become pros, especially in the NFL, they have to learn to adapt and mentor others.

"I was just doing what other guys did for me," Ellis said from his home in North Carolina, where he is pondering his future after a season with the Oakland Raiders. "It was guys like Leon [Lett], Chad Hennings and guys like that just passing on the stuff to me, and I'd pick up some of the stuff and I pass it along to the younger guys and guys who wanted to benefit from that."

Ellis did the same thing with DeMarcus Ware, and you all know what he is: one of the best pass-rushers in the game.

Ware has two more years of experience than Spencer. So what does Ware do? He goes over film with Spencer. In Spencer's rookie year, going over film with a veteran wasn't optional; it was mandatory.

"He looks at little things so he can get a good jump off the ball; a lot of different things with him," Spencer said of Ware. Then, with a smile, Spencer said, "He always invites me."

The mentorship of Spencer, who has emerged as one of the top young pass-rushers in the game, started to pay off late last season. After not getting a sack for the first ten weeks of the season, he had six sacks and 17 quarterback pressures to finish the season. In the Cowboys' two playoff games, Spencer recorded a sack in each game and five quarterback pressures total.

Williams wants to mentor Bryant, too; show him the ropes as far as what it means to be a wide receiver in this league. Williams' struggles -- 57 catches for 794 yards since coming to the Cowboys with 10 games left in the 2008 season -- raise questions about his own ability.

But that shouldn't stop the learning process for Bryant.

"I guess it is kind of the same way," Spencer said, comparing how he developed under Ellis and Ware to Bryant and Williams. "Greg was great just because I got to talk to him all the time. When I first got here he was injured but I still got to talk to him, and it was a great help to have him and D-Ware."

Williams and Bryant don't have anything against each other. During breaks in play the two sometimes sit and talk about certain routes. It's just that Williams is trying to teach Bryant the NFL way.

"I could say Spence was a good rookie," Ellis said. "He did the things you didn't even ask him to do, and he just stepped up as it was his duty. Your job is to do help the guys. It's a competition thing, and everybody wants to play and start, but at some point we all have to get on the same page."

Calvin Watkins covers the Cowboys for ESPNDallas.com. You can follow him on Twitter or leave a question for his weekly mailbag.

Calvin Watkins joined ESPNDallas.com in September 2009. He's covered the Cowboys since 2006 and also has covered colleges, boxing and high school sports.

SPONSORED HEADLINES

MORE NFL HEADLINES