Well before Roger Goodell's four-day Rookie Symposium scheduled for the later part of June in Aurora, Ohio, the fresh pups of the NFL have been learning the differences between college and the pros.
Coaches expect more from you in less time. The holes close faster and backers hit harder. DB have incredible closing speed and defenses can mask their coverages really well. Plus don't forget about the defensive end that is breathing down your back. It takes more than just flat rate speed to get behind a corner and more than a swim move to get past a tackle. Reads are quicker, plays develop faster and hesitation kills.
But besides the garden variety of lessons to be learned between the white lines, there are five very critical points every rookie must understand off the field that will impact their careers.
They may have been the highly touted blue-chip recruits, the full ride All-American Heisman watch playmaker, the biggest and baddest at every level from Pop Warner up. But when they reach the National Football League, they are bottom of the barrel material until they prove otherwise.
Rookies find themselves in a new strata of competition. Their reputations are about as useful as yen at a 7-Eleven. They are just one of 1,696 players in a league that has 92 years of history. They'd better believe, they they are nobody until they become somebody.
Even the attention high profile draft picks like Luck and RG3 receive is just vaporous hype that will evaporate at the first hints of underachievement. Have you ever heard of Tom Cousineau or Aundray Bruce? Both were the first overall picks in the NFL Draft (1979 and 1988) and after more than disappointing careers, their names are about as revered as the boom operator in Titanic's movie credits.
Roger Goodell has made a point of emphasizing the amount of tradition and honor that accompanies playing in the NFL. He has made rookie visits to the Hall of Fame a mandatory element of their initiation. As they wander through the halls of greatness and admire the placards of men whose legacies span generations, it gradually sinks in that as a rookie, they are a minutia of what is the NFL.
Lesson 1: "The game is bigger than any one individual—including each one of them."
NFL's executive vice president Ray Anderson puts it bluntly, "Many of these players do not realize the depth and breadth of our history and what has been established...And the ones that do not get it will find there is no place for them. We know that there are those that will not elevate."
In order to elevate, there is a long and arduous journey. Rookies must pay their dues, from veteran hazing, to long hours in the film room. There is no such thing as an instant star. Careers don't grow like Chia pets; they are earned through the sweat and pain of dedication. Just because they've made it to the NFL, it doesn't mean they've made it.
For the cream of the crop in college, the NFL seems inevitable, and well before draft day or ever sitting down to sign a contract, they are already spending. Cars, homes, jewelry, clothes, shoes and burnt money on friends and family, all acquired on loan.
But while they are buzzing around in their otha otha Benz, with their Newman suit, de Grisogono watch, drooling about how to dispense their signing bonus, rookies should stop to consider the impact of their spending.
Seven-time Pro Bowler Warren Sapp thought $6,500 in Jordans was a good use of his paycheck until he found himself $6.7 million dollars in debt and filing for bankruptcy. Sapp is not alone. Johnny Unitas, Lawrence Taylor, T.O., Deuce McCallister, Mark Brunnell, Charlie Batch and Muhsin Muhammad are some of the many NFL players who went bankrupt as a result of financial mismanagement.
In fact, Sports Illustrated reported in 2009 that eight out of 10 NFL players go broke just two years out of the league. A pretty staggering figure to say the least.
The league offers seminars in fiscal responsibility and some teams have advisers on hand. But in the end, it comes down to the individual's decisions. Rookies need to learn how to use some foresight and discretion when it comes to spending or the next thing they initial will be a Chapter 7 bankruptcy title.
Nothing can submarine a young career and off-field perception faster than legal problems.
Jacksonville's first-round wideout Justin Blackmon is learning the hard way, when in Stillwater, Oklahoma, he blew a BAC three times the legal limit after getting pulled over on his way home late one night. This is not the kind a press a young player needs before ever suiting up.
Unlike in college, where transgressions can be wiped under the rug, NFL players are under the watchful eye of the media and can expect to have their mug shots plastered all over Google Images, possibly for the rest of their career. Personal accountability is a premium. The team will not shoulder any of the punishment, i.e. Ohio State for Terrelle Pryor and his tattoo mishap or USC and Reggie Bush's improper benefits scandal. Mess up and it is all on you.
Plus, transgressions can be costly mistakes. The Commissioner's office will not hesitate to fine or suspend those who are guilty of misconduct and a pattern of off field problems can hurt endorsements, public image and future contracts.
Adam "Pacman" Jones, reflecting on his tumultuous past, put it bluntly "I was pathetic. I had no respect for the money that I got. I had respect for football but not the business part. I still thought I was in college and didn't realize the scrutiny that comes with the NFL." He will later speak in front of the 2012 rookie class, preaching an explicit 'don't make the same mistakes I did' message.
Tennessee Titans rookie cornerback Cary Williams understands what is at stake. "Commissioner Roger Goodell is not playing. You don't want to be in his sights for the wrong reasons. You don't want to be that guy."
New draftees may not have a GPA requirement anymore, but they are still constantly studying. The playbook is their new textbook, their top priority and the key to their success.
If nine-year veteran and two-time Super Bowl Champion Ben Roethlisberger is struggling to translate Todd Haley's new playbook, so much so he referred to it as the Rosetta Stone, then you could imagine how difficult it might be for a rookie to hammer it down.
Depending on the coach and the style of offense/defense, the playbook can range anywhere from phonebook-thick complete with a variety of packages, variations and audibles, to a simple set of core plays. One thing is certain, however: "No layman or superfan could get through the first section without being completely confused."
Rookies are expected to internalize the plays and their role within them in just days before hitting the field. Inept knowledge and on-field hesitation is the fastest way for young players to lose reps and drop in the depth chart. Thus, rookies are always nose deep in their three-ringed medley of X's and O's.
ESPN's Elizabeth Merril's anecdote about a Minnesota rookie emphasizes the level of commitment a NFL playbook requires. "He lugged his three-ring playbook around like it was a Bible. He read it, knew it, and protected it enough to carry it into the stall, next to the toilet."
"I've got to get into shape," 49er's first round wide out A.J. Jenkins confided to insider Eric Branch, between double-day practices at the Santa Clara training facilities. Jenkins, like many rookies around the league, is learning that there is a huge difference between college and the NFL's definition of "in shape."
The NFL's 17-week season is a grueling will test any player's joints, ligaments and tendons. Health and longevity are essential to a solid career. But beyond training hard, running everyday and being well conditioned, there are many subtleties necessary to keep the body in top condition.
Players must start with eating right. Like many young men out of college, rookies aren't very adept at cooking their own meals, and unless the team provides meals, they will likely value convenience over quality and fall into the trappings of junk food. Agent Jach Bechta estimates that fast food constitutes 75 percent of players' meals.
Eating poorly will make players slower, heavier and of course constantly with low energy levels. Proper diet and nutrition can make all of the difference. Al Harris attributes his durability throughout a 14-year career to his healthy eating habits.
Also critical is stretching and flexibility. Muscles ache and will continue to ache if not properly cared for. Yoga is a great way to aid recover and stay limber. Rookies who aren't attentive to their aches and pains will likely develop more serious ailments as both seasons and their career progress.