Learning from Mistakes: Newbie Raiders Can Gain Valuable Lessons from Vets

Paula LehmanCorrespondent IJuly 26, 2009

BALTIMORE - OCTOBER 26:  JaMarcus Russell #2 of the Oakland Raiders looks on from the bench against  the Baltimore Ravens during the game at M&T Bank Stadium October 26, 2008 in Baltimore, Maryland.  (Photo by Chris McGrath/Getty Images)

The New York Times recently reported that for the first time, NFL teams—namely the Ravens and the Giants—have started mentorship programs for their rookies.

William C. Rhoden of the Times wrote, “The idea is that the veterans will shepherd young players through the minefield as if they were younger brothers and even sons.”

The program, Rhoden reports, started last year when Ravens’ veterans took the initiative to develop their teammates by taking younger players under their wings, preparing them for life in the NFL both on and off the field.

The article quotes Baltimore’s director of player development Harry Swayne as saying, “We are clueless as far as what manhood really is.”

The article goes on to talk mostly about finances, how once these young players enter the real world they need to spend wisely and leave their personal troubles off the field.

“It’s going to keep you in the NFL after you win that job,” said Giants director of player development Charles Way.

The example Rhoden gives is of Plaxico Burress, who, if he had a guiding spirit, may not have shot himself in the leg or even carried a gun around in the first place.

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Oakland would no doubt benefit from a program like this and should take the cue from the Giants, whose efforts very obviously paid off.

A San Francisco Chronicle article recently focused on what old-time Silver and Blacks had to say to the young starters in this year’s lineup.

Daryle Lamonica gave a shout-out to JaMarcus Russell, warning him that defensive backs would very likely outrun Russell’s receivers and that he would have to rely more on mental strength rather than just physical strength.

All the veterans in the article basically said the same thing: You can’t rely on what got you by in college, whether it be Darrius Heyward-Bey’s speed or Russell’s arm strength.

But when you can no longer depend on something that’s gotten you through all those years in college ball, how do you transition to the pros?

The answer is in the wisdom and experience of your veteran players.

Daunte Culpepper had eight years under his belt in 2007 when he started for the Raiders at the age of 30.

If paired with Russell, he could provide advice from mistakes learned that season, when he passed for 1,105 yards with eight interceptions and the Raiders went 4-12.

Zack Miller will be starting his third season with the Raiders at the ripe old age of 24. He had 44 catches for 444 yards in his rookie season, which he improved to 56 catches for 778 yards in 2008.

Miller continues to progress and is shaping up to be one of the league's top tight ends in 2009.

It’s hard to imagine Miller gaining anything from the advice of Randal Williams, who played as a 28-year-old in 2006 and scored zero TDs. Miller had him beaten already in his rookie season when he scored three TDs.

But Williams was playing with five years of experience and undoubtedly knows the pro game better than Miller, even if he wasn’t able to convert that knowledge onto the field.

Finally, with zero years of experience, the 22-year-old Heyward-Bey perhaps needs a mentor more than any of the aforementioned players.

Heyward-Bey doesn’t need any help physically. He ran a 4.30 at the combine and is indisputably one of the fastest wide receivers in the 2009 season.

But Heyward-Bey, like so many rookies, is still looked at skeptically by critics, who, as usual, wonder if this kid can make the leap to the pros

Last year’s RB LaMont Jordan might have something to say about that.

By the 2008 season, Jordan already had six years in the NFL. He had 144 rushes for 549 yards and scored three TDs. Jordan knows how to handle quick defensive backs, and if Heyward-Bey is naïve enough to think he can outrun anyone, he will have a rough rookie season.

I don’t presume to know about any personal troubles the young 2009 starters have. But having a mentor could be very therapeutic and crucial to keeping problems at bay on and off the field.

If history tells us anything, it is that the NFL can be both physically and mentally draining. Sometimes you need a hand to hold.

Training camp starts on Wednesday in Napa Valley, and it is the perfect time for these players to connect. Rookies should watch carefully, take note, and learn some lessons, whether football-based or otherwise.

Russell, Miller, and Heyward-Bey are still kids, and we don’t want any of them to get shot in the leg, both metaphorically and literally.

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