Tampa Bay’s rookie class of 2010 is at the start of a rude awakening. Rookie seasons can be unkind to brand new NFL players – no matter how talented a guy is coming out of college.
As a rookie right tackle back in 1997, going up against the veterans in the mini-camps was quite an eye-opening experience for me to say the least. Coming out of Wisconsin and going to Tampa was a culture shock by itself. Then taking into consideration the jump in the level of play – that was a real shock.
I’ve said for years that the college game and the pro game are two different games from understanding the blitz pick-ups to the talent to the speed of the game. It was a whole another level. Moving to a new city and going from being one of the best guys on your college team to basically starting over is a real different experience. I knew I had the physical talent to do it, but to put in the time and the work to get to the level you needed to be at was something that can be tough to prepare for.
You have to understand the NFL game and that takes a lot more time to learn because it’s more complex. As an offensive tackle, you have rotating safeties from a defensive standpoint, and you had to mask your tendencies as a lineman from an offensive standpoint.
If you don’t put in the time and the work you are going to have long days and a short career. There are a lot more head games in the NFL, not to mention that the size, speed and strength are at a whole new level than it was at the college game. This is a job now and must be treated as such.
I used to maul guys in college. I think rookies – myself included – get a comeuppance in the league pretty quickly. It’s a learning experience and you really learn your weaknesses quickly. You have to work on them because you have to have a complete game playing in the NFL.
Unlike college, there are so many guys that are hired and fired in the locker room on a weekly basis. That gets your attention pretty quickly and you say to yourself, “Wow, this is for real!”
Although you are on a team, you realize that you are really on your own to be a part of the team and to make it. If you don’t get that coming into the NFL early you will have the word “flop” or “bust” associated with your name and that will never leave you. Those are the things that concern you in the back of your head.
Of course, you come in with all of the confidence in the world because people have chosen you to be apart of their team. At the same time, there are no guarantees.
Going in there and learning your place on the team is important. From my standpoint, Warren Sapp and I went at it a lot – on and off the field. Every day while I was at my locker Sapp would walk up and slap me in the back of my neck. One day I came back and slapped him in the back of the neck when a bunch of reporters were around. It was hard enough where he didn’t want to play that game anymore. It was a situation of attrition in the locker room and showing these guys that I was here to play, but I wasn’t here to play around.
It was my second year in the league, 1998, when I “got it” and figured out how to play in the NFL. That’s not uncommon. It took a whole year. I played a little bit in 1997 and got some snaps, but in 1998 is when I felt comfortable.
The Bucs had Paul Gruber and they were still comfortable with Jason Odom at right tackle at the time. But then I got an opportunity in 1999, and getting an opportunity and taking advantage of it is the key thing for guys that aren’t number-one draft picks. You may only get one opportunity.
I played well in ’98, but if you are playing neck-and-neck with someone you aren’t going to dethrone them. You have to be better than them and you have to make a difference without a doubt. In ’99 I had all the confidence in the world and felt like I could play with anybody in the league.
I was holding my own against Chidi Ahanotu, Marcus Jones and Sapp in the middle of my rookie year in 1997 and learning different things from different guys. Each guy had their own style and brought something different to the table in terms of learning how to block what they did to get the job done. Learning and feeling those differences takes time.
I got the hang of it after half a season, but translating that to an entire game was a different thing. Although I was able to play in games, I had to understand the entire realm of the game, and that’s what Tony Dungy was so good at doing. He would explain the entire game to everybody and have them understand it. That’s what translates into a great football player – taking all of the necessary elements and putting it together throughout an entire football game.
Dungy taught us about momentum, how to seize opportunity and recapture opportunity, how to keep momentum. He would talk about a game as a swinging pendulum. We had to keep momentum on our side and he taught us how to do that and to know when the opportunity to step on someone’s throat is.
If you are thinking only about blocking Reggie White, which I had to do, and you are not thinking about the opportunity at hand or seeing the big picture in the game, you are not doing the best you possibly could. Your block on a specific play could be the key to that play and the key to the entire game and you have to realize the importance of those things.
The longer an offensive line can play in the same offensive system together, it gets to the point where they don’t even have to communicate anymore. They know what each other is thinking. That’s when they start winning championships and that’s what we did in 1999 with the NFC Central championship. You have to get to that point and it takes time. There’s no way around that.
There’s a lot to learn for the Bucs’ 2010 rookie class from how they must get stronger and quicker at the next level, how they must fit into the locker room, and how they must learn their assignments, techniques and their opponents. They won’t be able to learn everything in the NFL in their first year even though the expectations will be there from the fans.
By Jerry Wunsch as told to Scott Reynolds