Commentary

Rookies have wall to scale

Mental, physical fatigue setting in, and we're not even to playoffs yet

Originally Published: December 7, 2010
By Ross Tucker | ESPN.com

Sam Bradford and Rob GronkowskiUS PresswirePlayers such as Sam Bradford, left, and Rob Gronkowski are trying to steer clear of the rookie wall.

It is a real component of every NFL season and has an impact in some way, shape or form, even for those teams that try to prepare for it. The New England Patriots need to be especially concerned about it this year, considering they have designs on a lengthy January playoff run. The St. Louis Rams and Jacksonville Jaguars in particular should take strides to combat it, if they hope to stay in first place in their divisions. And the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, though probably already facing an uphill battle to stay in playoff contention, may need to be as afraid of it as any other team in the NFL.

It is the dreaded "rookie wall," and it is coming to a city near you. Right around this time of year, once the college football season is clearly in the rearview mirror, the production of some NFL rookies begins to decline. For a select few, their play can drop off precipitously. Young players who are unaccustomed to the length of a grueling NFL season can start to wear down mentally and physically. I know, because it happened to me.

I began my rookie season with the Washington Redskins in 2001 at 308 pounds and still remember feeling like training camp and the preseason had been practically an entire college season in and of itself. It wasn't, but it sure felt like it. In college, I had two weeks of preseason practice and then 10 regular-season games for a total of 12 weeks of football. Just the preseason in the NFL is at least six weeks long. Then there are 17 more to go after that.

Now, I played in the Ivy League, and I recognize that the guys who played for BCS powerhouse schools had longer seasons than I did, but it is still nothing like 23 straight weeks of football, including 20 games, not to mention the playoffs. Rookies almost always have extra duties, including working out in the early group at 6:30 a.m. and staying later on the practice field and in film sessions, long after the veterans go home for the day. It is easy to see why it is such a hard adjustment.

My sleep patterns got totally out of whack because I was unaccustomed to getting up early on a daily basis. I remember being so exhausted after practice every day late in the season that I would immediately go to sleep as soon as I got home. I would sleep from around 5 to 9 p.m. and didn't know what to do when I was wide awake at 9 p.m. I also wasn't eating consistently for whatever reason and finished the season around 288 pounds, meaning I dropped 20 pounds during the season. That is not good for any player, let alone an offensive lineman.

The crazy thing is I wasn't even playing. I was inactive on game day virtually every Sunday that season but still felt the effects of the marathon NFL season. What must it be like for key Patriots starters and contributors such as Devin McCourty, Jermaine Cunningham, Brandon Spikes and Rob Gronkowski? Or how about Jaguars starting rookie defensive linemen Tyson Alualu and Austen Lane?

Coaches are well aware of the problem. My coach that rookie season was Marty Schottenheimer, and I distinctly remember his meeting with the rookies to try to address it. He told me recently why.

"I always felt it was something that you had to address with the players so that they could prepare for it, and to me it was more a mental issue than a physical issue," Schottenheimer said. "I wanted to make sure that their preparation never changed and they stuck with the same routine while getting their sleep and eating right."

Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis, who is getting key contributions this season from rookies Jermaine Gresham, Jordan Shipley and Carlos Dunlap, echoed Schottenheimer's sentiments. "I think you address it certainly with them as a group, but then I always do it individually as well with the guys that are getting a lot of playing time," Lewis said. "It's mainly about nutrition and rest."

Whether the rookies on certain contending teams are able to climb over that rookie wall remains to be seen and probably will be a key factor down the stretch.

From the inbox

Q: I reckon O-linemen should get a stat like "Sacks Allowed," because without stats, I feel as though they don't get the recognition that they deserve. Sure, there's Anthony Munoz, Walter Jones, and Matt Light, but don't you think it would be a better determination of who's the best?

Arneet from Seattle

A: First of all, Light is a great guy who has had a nice career, but he should never be mentioned in the same sentence as Munoz or Jones. Even Light would tell you that. As far as the sacks allowed stat, it's not an official one and never could be. It is not always clearly defined who gave up a sack. A lot of times, it can be a combination of errors by two linemen or a linemen and a back that causes a sack.

Q: Why in your opinion do fans so often side with owners rather than players when it comes to labor issues? When I watch I'm rooting for players. I never see an owner being sacked or booed and never see a player threatening to move the team if I don't cough up tax dollars for a new stadium.

Peter from Los Angeles

A: Good point. I'm not really sure, but my guess is that it stems from the fans being aware of the significant salaries that players receive to play a game that many fans feel they would play for free. Conversely, most fans have no idea how much money most NFL owners make.

Q: I think your comment about Andre Johnson and Cortland Finnegan trying to "win an individual matchup" being laudable is laughable. It was incredibly selfish. It was not motivated by a desire to help the team. It was about settling an individual score. Nothing more. Give Johnson credit. He wasn't foolish enough to do it in a tight game and waited until the game as almost over. But he should have been suspended and could have hurt his team in a playoff hunt. The only reason he wasn't suspended was his presence being needed as the marquee player in an upcoming game that happened to be on the NFL's flagship.

Tom from Sarasota, Fla.

A: First of all, almost every NFL play is a series of individual matchups, and it is incumbent upon each player to do what it takes to win his one-on-one matchup on that play. Secondly, the fight is not what was laudable. What was laudable is what led up to that point.

Q: I understand that it's YOUR Top 10. However, how can leave off the 8-3 New Orleans Saints while having the Chargers (6-5), Chiefs (7-4), Packers (7-4), Eagles (7-4) & Steelers (8-3), whom the Saints beat by double digits)?

Jeremy from Houston

A: It was simply an omission on my part that has been fixed in today's Top 10.

Ross Tucker, who played on the offensive line for five teams in his seven-year NFL career, writes regularly for ESPN.com.

Ross Tucker, who played on the offensive line for five teams during his seven-year NFL career, writes regularly for ESPN.com. Tucker, who also hosts ESPN.com's Football Today podcast, graduated from Princeton.