Rookies have to walk before they can run

Professional football has undergone a number of dramatic changes since the days of Coach Vince Lombardi. For one thing, today's players command much bigger salaries than they once did. As a result, teams demand a quicker return on the investment. Rookies are pressed into service much sooner now – and that means lots of growing pains.<p>

Rookies make more mistakes because there is so much to learn and precious little time. Playing has to be instinctive. If you stop to think, you're beaten. But the bottom line is that, even if today's rookie cannot be an immediate starter and impact player, he's expected to make a solid contribution as a substitute or on special teams.

It might sound a bit odd, but I think the transition from college to the NFL is not as big a jump as from high school to college. High school players are very "vanilla" in their fundamentals, in their mental capacity and in techniques. When you go to college, you fine-tune your mechanics and your mental knowledge increases 10-fold. In fact, a lot of the same philosophies and schemes you use in college carry over into the NFL.

For me, the toughest part transitioning to college ball at the University of Virginia was learning the intricacies of the game itself. In high school, we had maybe four or five different pass plays and maybe six or seven different running plays. That was it. At UVA I had to learn a lot more about reading defenses and recognizing pass coverages. I had to see blitzes and make "hot reads," as well as learn offensive schemes and philosophies that weren't thought of in high school. It all humbled me very quickly.

The humbling experience continues when players get to the NFL because the pool of players is so much better. You find yourself going up against the best of the best. The sheer number of plays, schemes and philosophies is staggering.

In college, for example, you might have played only three different coverages in a game – a basic zone, maybe a two-deep coverage and maybe one blitz. There isn't that much time to learn everything because you spend so much time going to class. In the pros, this is your full-time job and, like in college, you're in class all day learning about game planning and different offensive and defensive schemes. There's just a huge load of material put on your shoulders that you have to learn.

When you look at rookies in the NFL, there aren't all that many that enjoy immediate success. One player from my career who really sticks out as a guy who had great impact as a rookie was running back Marshall Faulk at Indianapolis. He was an intelligent player, but we still limited the number of plays he would learn as a rookie. And it's even tougher at quarterback. You really go through a baptism by fire. Dan Marino probably had the biggest impact as a rookie in the NFL.

In my days with the Packers, there were a lot of rookies who had athletic talent that was far superior to other players who made the team. For some reason, these rookies didn't take the game planning and the mental aspects of the game serious enough to learn their assignments. If you make a lot of mistakes in the NFL it's not going to be tolerated, no matter how good a player you are. Players who know where they're supposed to be and make the fewest mental mistakes are the ones who make the final roster.

Sterling Sharpe was a guy who really had a good rookie year as a first round pick getting thrown into the starting lineup from game one. He started all 16 games and caught 55 passes for 791 yards (14.4 yards per catch) and a touchdown. He had a successful season, especially when you consider that we didn't have a very strong team. The fans and the media, however, expected Sharpe to be an immediate impact player, like a James Lofton, and he took criticisms very personally. In my opinion, he took things too personally, and he went into a shell. He became very introverted. He had trouble speaking to the media and it affected the way the public perceived him. From a player's view, you couldn't have asked for a better teammate than Sterling Sharpe.

Tony Mandarich was a perfect example of a dominating player in college who came into the NFL and slipped to being a below average player. He did a lot of self-promotion and bragging, but it was just an image; his bigger than life persona wasn't even close to what he was really like personally. Off the field, Mandarich was quiet and soft-spoken. When he finally signed and came in for his first day of practice, he got a rude awakening. In the one-on-one passing drills, defensive end Timmy Harris just verbally and physically abused Tony – so much so, that Tony had a very difficult time because he was so humiliated.

Once you get to training camp it doesn't matter in what round you were drafted. If you have confidence in yourself and you know that you can play, that's all that really matters. In my case, I was selected in the 10th round and I came in with a bit of a chip on my shoulder. I had something to prove. I was extremely confident in my ability and I wanted to study extremely hard. In the off-season, I was there for every mini-camp, did classroom work with coaches and learned the system. I had some nice success as a rookie, but I also had difficulty with the learning curve, especially with reading coverages. To accomplish my goals, I was extremely focused and, to be honest, I became somewhat introverted, except with my teammates. We had a great rapport immediately. I think they respected my work ethic and seemed to like the way I got us al

As I look at this year's rookie crop, I think Ahmad Carroll is handling things well. As the number one pick, there are plenty of high expectations for him. Here's a guy who's had some criticism because of his size. Despite his great speed, critics have wondered if he'll be able to defend against big receivers. Though he's made some mistakes, I think he's showing some good signs. I gotten to know him personally, and this is a dedicated guy who has the positive mental framework that is needed for success. I see him improving week in and week out with his technique and I think he's going to be a fine player.

I've been asked what advice I might give to a rookie coming into the NFL today. First off, as long as you know deep down that you have the ability to play the game and have the confidence and drive to succeed, that's all that matters. Don't let criticism from the media affect your confidence. Every player at some point in their career receives criticism from the media. Take note, but don't dwell on the negative.

Secondly, study and learn your assignments. The sooner you understand the game, the quicker your true athletic ability can take over and be exhibited.

Lastly, all rookies are humbled early in their career. Learn from your mistakes. Become friends with a veteran player who can give you valuable advice on and off the field. The best way to learn in this league is to watch and absorb as much as you can from the successful veterans. Believe me, veterans like to share their knowledge of the game with young eager rookies who are willing to listen and learn.

Editor's Note: Don "Majik" Majkowski played for the Packers for six seasons (1987-92). He was named to the Pro Bowl in 1989 when he led the NFL in passing yards (4,318). In addition to his duties with Packer Report, fans can catch Majik every Monday morning on WSAU-AM 550 in Wausau. He also is a frequent guest on "Pack Attack" on WAOW-TV 9 (Wausau) and occasionally contributes sideline reports for WITI - Fox 6 (Milwaukee).

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