Do Rookies Really Make A Difference?

Or a better question: Is Le'Veon Bell's eight-week setback going to be a blessing in disguise for the Steelers? Jim Wexell dissects some history.

A local DJ was talking about Le'Veon Bell on his morning show the other day, and I thought he was going to cry.

His commentary was pretty intense, and I wanted to bring it here but the best I could replicate from a search on the Internet was a headline to another story that went like this:

"Bell's Lisfranc Injury Leaves Steelers In Shambles".


When I took my incredulity to Twitter to find an army of those like-minded football fans who believe the temporary loss of a rookie with 9 rushing yards on 4 preseason carries is NOT cause for depression, I was hammered by the opposite. Few -- no, make that none -- shared my disbelief.

So I shout from a lonely perch:

This is only a rookie! A second-round rookie! And rookies really don't help all that much anyway!

I apologize for the exclamation points, but I do believe the list of recent team Rookies of the Year will support my thesis that rookies just do not help all that much:

Mike Adams, Marcus Gilbert, Maurkice Pouncey, Mike Wallace, Patrick Bailey, Daniel Sepulveda and Santonio Holmes did not make much of a difference in this team in their rookie seasons.

Pouncey did make the Pro Bowl, and he did help the Steelers get to the Super Bowl. He could be the anomaly of the bunch, but he wasn't a skill player, nor did he play in the Super Bowl. The guy he did replace -- Justin Hartwig -- actually won a Super Bowl ring.

Heath Miller did play in the Super Bowl following his 2005 rookie season. He started 19 of the 20 games that season and caught 46 passes. So he certainly helped on all fronts, but with one asterisk:

Miller didn't endure the grinding year that's thrust upon most rookies these days.

Miller was one of the rare first-rounders who didn't come into the league with a 40 time, the all-important stat that scouts will chase across a nation if need be.

Miller had a sports hernia and sat out the combine, and then his pro day, so he didn't go from bowl to (Super) Bowl without a break. That kind of a grind would wear out any rookie. Ask Troy Polamalu.

"Yeah, for a rookie at any skill position to be successful in their first year is a really impressive feat," Polamalu said. "It's such a long process coming from a bowl game to combine to visits. Then you end up taking a month off because you're traveling to 32 teams, possibly. Just that whole emotional roller coaster of the draft, or not getting drafting, they definitely go through a lot."

Polamalu and Miller were drafted the year before and the year after what may have been the greatest rookie performance of all time by Ben Roethlisberger. But even Roethlisberger hit the proverbial wall late in the season. Polamalu said that wall hit him hard, too, whether it was psychological or not.

"Oh yeah," he said. "I did the pro day at USC. I did train for the combine. I visited about 12 or 15 teams. Yeah. I don't know if I really hit a wall but I felt like I got really sick at one point in the season when they said the wall was coming. Maybe it was that. But I also didn't have the load of being a starter on the defense. I pretty much played all positions but the starting defense, so I definitely felt like I was playing a lot."

Polamalu didn't participate in the combine, but as he said he trained for it. Miller didn't even do that, and later felt thankful for the time off.

"It was less stressful for sure," Miller said. "The combine was stressful enough just doing interviews so I couldn't imagine trying to wake up and workout. It was exhausting enough just watching those guys."

Both Miller and Polamalu did allow that throughout college they routinely trained year-around, taking only a couple of weeks off after bowl games, but both have since delayed their routines to bring their bodies to a physical peak sometime around the middle of the season.

"You continue to evolve your off-season training program as your body evolves and you understand more about this game and the off-season schedule," said Polamalu. "You also talk with older guys. I was just talking with Rod (Woodson) while he was here. He was talking about taking more time off as you get older."

Does this mean coaches shouldn't expect much from rookies? Should they just consider a productive rookie to be gravy?

I was told that Tomlin has a philosophy along those lines, that he believes there's more relief than joy from a rookie when he makes his NFL team.

So I threw a question about the rookie grind at Tomlin during his weekly press conference, in the hope he would revive that comment.

He didn't.

"It's part of the process," was Tomlin's public stance. "It's just the system as it is. I think it's very functional. I think there are a lot of productive things associated with it. Obviously there may be some negative things associated with it, but it is our system, it is the system we utilize in today's NFL, and I think it's functioning very well. You're always capable of stating a case of some of the negativity associated with it, injury and so forth. The bottom line, some of those negative things can be attributed to the transition itself. The NFL game is a bigger, faster, more violent game than college football."

In other words: Life is hard; the men make a lot of money; the men will get over it.

Which brings us back around to Le'Veon Bell and how this eight-week setback will allegedly ruin the Steelers' season and why Pittsburgh is in such a depressed state because of it.

But, really, the last rookie runner to make any kind of dramatic impact here was Franco Harris more than 40 years ago. I'm just guessing that scouts didn't chase him all over the country for a 40 time back in 1972, and that he didn't visit 15 teams and then have to get back into prime shape for rookie minicamp only two weeks after he was drafted.

Bell wasn't asked about the rookie grind, but he did make a comment late in his media mob session Thursday that spun the inner workings of this column into action.

"My knee's fine," Bell said to a question out of left field. "When I hurt my foot it really let my knee get back to 100 percent. I guess you could say the foot was a blessing in disguise."

It might indeed turn into that proverbial blessing, but for an end-of-season reason instead.

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