What is it about the second year? No, we're not discussing walking and preternatural potty-training skills. It's the NFL, and it involves the art of pass-rushing.
In the NFL, it's a widely known reality that some positions are simply far too nuanced and require too much technique specialization for rookies to make a significant impact. Consider our NFL Preview cover. Mario Williams was on the front, breaking through (real!) glass. Williams, of course, was perhaps the most controversial first pick in the last ten years when the Texans nabbed him ahead of Reggie Bush in 2005, and his rookie season did little to diminish the chatter. He had just 4.5 sacks. In his second year, however, Williams piled up 14 sacks and largely muted anybody who would question his draft standing. This year, he's on a sack-a-game pace. Despite a lot of extra love from tight ends and running backs, he's second in the NFL.
In the current issue of ESPN The Magazine, we took a look at the rise of Pittsburgh's LaMarr Woodley, another guy experiencing the second year surge.
"It's hard to believe this is the same guy who played sporadically as a rookie," wrote Charles Curtis. "In the off-season, ex-Steelers linebacker Kevin Greene schooled Woodley on the subtleties of the bull rush, such as getting his chin underneath a taller blocker's head to gain leverage."
Woodley was largely a ghost last season, playing off and on and ending up with just four sacks after a stellar senior season at Michigan. This year he's near the top of the league in sacks. The question is: Is there any merit to this second-year theory? We asked a scientist.
"Many collegiate pass rushers rely on a single pass rush move, ie, the speed rush, a rip move, a bull rush, etc. The best pass rushers in the NFL will have as many as four or five different rush moves, so there is a tactical learning curve to get to the top of the league," says resident NFL Scientist KC Joyner. "I'd also say that college defenses often don't have the scheme depth that pro teams do, so there is also a playbook mountain for most 1st year players to climb."
A look at this year's sack leaders, or other great pass rushers, says something similar.
DeMarcus Ware played a ton as a rookie, but the eight sacks he had that year are his career low. He's on pace for 18 this year. He's second in the league. James Harrison has 8.5 sacks this year, good for third in the league, but he had none as a rookie. It's taken him years to mold his game into that of a pass-rushing specialist. John Abraham is 5th in the league in sacks for Atlanta, with seven. As a rookie, he had just 4.5 sacks, but developed into one of the league's best pass rushers in just a year, piling up 13 in his second season. He's been one of the league's best since. Jared Allen climbed from single to double-digits as an NFL sophomore. Justin Tuck went from one sack as a rookie to 10 in his next fully healthy year.
Even the great leader of the pack of wild dogs, Lawrence Taylor, had zero sacks as a rookie in 1981 before jumping to 7.5 in 1982. (Okay, that's a trick solution. They didn't record sacks officially until 1982.)
Still, if you counter that the issue is one of playing time alone, Joyner disagrees.
"I think pass rushers are like running backs in that if they have the raw ability, teams will get them in the lineup as soon as possible," says Joyner. "One reason they often don't make the jump in year one is that they have been used to facing lesser physical talents in college. In that environment they don't have to go full speed on every play to get top-level production, but you can't get by like that in the NFL."
There are aberrations, of course. Consider that Dwight Freeney exploded onto the scene with 13 sacks in just eight rookie starts in 2002. By his third year, he'd hit 16 sacks to lead the league. And yet while Freeney was piling up sacks early in his career, offensive coordinators began to take advantage of his furious rush up the field by running draws and traps behind him. He was slow to develop into an effective run-stopping defensive end and the Colts running defense became a famous Achilles Heel for an otherwise great team.
Then, in 2006, he fell to a career-low of 5.5 sacks.
The result: After a mediocre regular season stopping the run, the Colts were exceptional in the playoffs, and won the Super Bowl over the Bears.
That Bears Super Bowl team featured rookie Mark Anderson, who led all rookies with 12 sacks. Of course, many noted he had the same early problems as Freeney, constantly getting too far in the backfield in pursuit of the passer, leaving the team vulnerable against the run. He fell off to five sacks in 2007, and despite seeing action in each game this year, has no sacks. Lovie Smith prefers Alex Brown, who gets his share of sacks, but is one of the best run-stopping defensive ends in football.
So who leads the league in sacks this year? Well, they're all trailing the ageless Joey Porter, who leads the league with 10.5 and seems to be experiencing that famed 10th year bounce. We think. Porter's previous career high in sacks? It's 10.5, of course. He's achieved it twice. The first time was in his second season.
As a rookie, he had just two.