The New Orleans
Saints' locker room was rocking after practice last Thursday, and why not? A
team no one had expected to do much was tied for the NFC South lead and heading
into a game at Tampa Bay that it would win handily. And Reggie Bush, the
21-year-old cover-boy--civic-savior--rusher--receiver--return-man, fit right in
with the upbeat atmosphere. The 2005 Heisman Trophy winner reflected on the
first half of his first NFL season, one in which he and five other fast-tracked
rookies have helped catapult the 6--2 Saints into playoff contention.
"People shouldn't be surprised,'' Bush said. "Times have changed, and
not just in football. How old was Freddy Adu when he started in pro soccer?
High school players changed the NBA--look at Kevin Garnett. Pro football's not
that big of a change from college. The routine's the same, practice is the
same, concepts are the same. It's been a pretty easy adjustment."
The same can be said by a host of first-year players in what is shaping up as
the Year of the Impact Rookie. The San Diego Chargers, tied for the AFC West
lead, start a rookie left tackle. A rookie tops the NFC North--leading Chicago
Bears in sacks. The NFC East--leading New York Giants started three rookies on
defense on Sunday. And the AFC East--leading New England Patriots have a rookie
right tackle clearing holes for a rookie rushing phenom. The kids are all
right, all around the league.
A generation ago
the rookie year was a redshirt year. The first two quarterbacks picked in the
1986 draft, Jim Everett and Chuck Long, got their feet wet in seven late-season
starts, combined, as rookies. The lone high-impact rookie among '86
first-rounders was Chargers defensive end Leslie O'Neal, who was ninth in the
NFL in sacks, with 12 1/2. Only one of the seven first-round offensive linemen
started more than four games. Playoff teams Chicago and New England drafted
running backs late in the first round; Neal Anderson and Reggie Dupard's
combined rookie production: 341 all-purpose yards.
the 2006 season. The first two quarterbacks picked, Vince Young of the
Tennessee Titans and Matt Leinart of the Arizona Cardinals, were handed the
starting job for good a month into their careers. Fifth-round pick Mark
Anderson, seeing significant time on the top-rated Bears defense, has 7 1/2
sacks midway through the season. All three offensive linemen drafted in the
first round are starters. Two playoff teams, the Indianapolis Colts and New
England, drafted running backs late in the first round; Joseph Addai and
Laurence Maroney's combined rookie production: 1,766 all-purpose yards--by
"I'm a little
disappointed that I haven't done more," says Maroney. What a slacker. All
he's done through eight games is put up a team-high 567 combined rushing and
receiving yards and a league-leading 29.7-yard kickoff-return average.
If the first half
of the NFL season has proved anything, it's that teams are relying on rookies
more than ever. Twenty-one players picked in the first round are starters
midway through their first season, and that doesn't include Bush, seventh in
the league in receptions, who doesn't start but plays on the majority of the
Saints' offensive snaps and returns punts. In all, 49 rookies have started at
least four games by the season's midpoint, a trend that didn't begin this year.
From 1994 to '98, the first five years of free agency and the salary cap, a
collective 162 rookies were regular starters by the midpoint of their first
year. From 2002 through 2006, the number of rookie starters by midseason had
swelled to 234.
explanation is that free-agency forces teams to play rookies early to measure
their potential before the kids hit the open market. But that's been going on
for 12 years. Why has the learning curve been accelerated? Three factors are
easing the transition from college to the NFL.
? More college
coaches are playing pro-style offenses.Schemes and plays in college are
gradually becoming indistinguishable from those in the NFL, thanks to the
demise of the option offense at major-college programs. As recently as 1998,
Nebraska ran an option offense and had a 75--25 run-pass ratio. But in 2005,
with former Oakland Raiders coach Bill Callahan directing a pro-style attack,
Nebraska's run-pass ratio was 49--51. Scott Fitterer, a scouting director for
the Seattle Seahawks, estimates that a decade ago only 40% to 50% of major
colleges ran a pro-style offense. Now, he says, it's more like 70%.
That shouldn't be
a surprise, considering how coaches move back and forth between college and the
pros these days. In the Pac-10 alone, five head coaches have significant NFL
experience: Oregon State's Mike Riley was the Chargers' coach; USC's Pete
Carroll coached the Patriots and the New York Jets; Stanford's Walt Harris was
the Jets' quarterbacks coach; UCLA's Karl Dorrell coached receivers with the
Denver Broncos; and Washington's Tyrone Willingham was a Minnesota Vikings
running backs coach. Even when coaches aren't changing jobs, ideas and schemes
are cross-pollinating. The Patriots' Bill Belichick has visited Florida in each
of the last two off-seasons, in part to learn about the spread offense of
Gators coach Urban Meyer.
admire Louisville coach Bobby Petrino's pass-happy offense so much, they tried
to hire him last winter. "My hat's off to Coach Petrino for getting me
ready to play pro football," says Packers guard Jason Spitz, a three-year
starter at Louisville and 2006 third-rounder who stepped into Green Bay's
opening-day starting lineup. "The speed of the NFL game is different, but I
was never worried about the mental aspect after being at Louisville. Basically,
I had no mental adjustment."
? The college
workday mimics the NFL's. Off the field as well as on, there's no NFL culture
shock anymore. St. Louis tight end Joe Klopfenstein, a 2006 second-rounder out
of Colorado, was stunned to learn that his pro football schedule was precisely
like his college schedule, except that it started one day later in the week.
During game weeks at Colorado, coaches installed the base pass plays and runs
on Tuesday, the red zone and two-minute plays on Wednesday and goal-line and
short-yardage plays on Thursday. With the Rams it's identical, only on
Wednesday-Thursday-Friday. And the parallels run to what goes on in those
practices, moment to moment. "Our practices in the NFL are just like
college practices," says Buffalo Bills starting strong safety Donte
Whitner, the eighth pick in the '06 draft, from Ohio State. "Same drills,
same techniques. We even do special teams first here, then individual drills,
then team periods, just like at Ohio State. I've got to say that nothing about
coming from college to the pros has been a big deal to me.''