As the saying goes, you never get a second chance to make a first impression. Well, in the NFL, that is only partially accurate. That's because as a young NFL player trying to stick on a roster, you really have a trio of "first" impressions, culminating with the first preseason game.
The initial first impression is at the rookie minicamp right after the draft. That's the first time the coaches and front office evaluators can see you move around on the field and compete athletically against other NFL-caliber talent. It's also the first inclination of how quickly a player can pick up the offensive or defensive scheme, which is a critical part of the evaluation in a league that is growing increasingly complex.
But that impression only goes so far because nobody is wearing pads. That's why "first" impression number two is the first padded practices in training camp. This is the first real football that a rookie plays and the first indication of how physical and violent that player can be when the tempo is full throttle and almost everything goes, with the exception of tackling in some instances.
The last, and probably most important, "first" impression takes place across the country in NFL stadiums this weekend. Because the established starters typically play very little in the first preseason game, this often represents the best chance any rookie or young player trying to make the squad has because of the considerable playing time they are likely to get.
Sure, a lot of those same players may get a lot of playing time in the final preseason game since the starters barely play in that one as well, but usually by that time most of the decisions have already been made. In rare cases, two or three players may still be auditioning the last weekend of August for the final roster spot. But you have to play well in the extended action that you get in the first preseason game to even get that shot three weeks down the line.
That's why this weekend means everything to the approximately 960 young players in the league, about 30 per 80-man training camp roster, who are competing for the last five or six spots on the 53-man roster and eight practice squad spots.
The guys at the biggest disadvantage in this regard are the linebackers, defensive backs, and in some cases wide receivers and defensive backs, who are really only going to make the team based on what they do on special teams. What is crazy about that is, in most cases, the rookies trying to make an impression on the specialty units are being judged almost exclusively on something they have never done before.
Think about that for a second. The vast majority of rookies were stars in college, and, as such, were never asked to play special teams. Now, in the NFL, their job opportunity is completely based upon something they have never done.
Making matters worse is the reality that nobody practices special teams at a live tempo in the NFL. It is just too dangerous and too violent. That means this weekend hundreds of players will be almost exclusively judged based upon how well they perform a task that they are doing full speed and with live contact for the first time in their entire lives. Talk about pressure. Most of them will have just two or three repetitions on the punt or kickoff teams and their lives could potentially be forever altered based upon whether they make a play, and thus an impression, on those units. That may not be fair but that's the NFL.
Here's an all Twitter mailbag, all of which were sent to @SI_RossTucker ...
If you could have picked any era to play in, which era would you go with?--@PhinPhanatics via Twitter
From a business standpoint, I'd pick right now, the current era, because of the league's increasing popularity and the financial implications of that for current players. Although the way things have been skyrocketing in recent years, maybe I would pick an era in the future... But if you take the money, benefits, etc. out of the equation and talk solely about the action on the field, I'd say the earlier in the history of the game the better. The further back in time you go, the less passing there was, and as an offensive lineman I much prefer run blocking to pass blocking. I know for sure I definitely wouldn't have wanted to play in the 1970s and '80s, when both artificial turf and anabolic steroids were a big part of the game.
Which team do you expect to have the biggest improvement in the win column from 2009 to 2010 and why?--@elliotmetz via Twitter
I'll go with the Washington Redskins (4-12 in 2009), primarily because of the addition of a future Hall of Fame coach in Mike Shanahan and a top 10 starting quarterback in Donovan McNabb. You can't even imagine what having people like that at those two vital positions does for the mentality of all of the guys in the locker room. It makes all of them feel as if they have a legitimate chance, and for a team that already has talent in Washington, that should translate into an improvement of at least four wins and quite possibly more.
How is it possible to be excited for the season if you like the Bills? Every season is like groundhog day.--@NYCJayhawk via Twitter
Well, for this season at least, I understand where you are coming from and I feel your pain. There isn't a lot to truly be excited about when it comes to being competitive in 2010. The thing I will tell you is that general manager Buddy Nix and head coach Chan Gailey are true football guys and they are going to do everything possible to build this thing the right way. That means no more malcontents holding the team hostage like Aaron Schobel or short-term solutions from a ticket-selling standpoint like Terrell Owens. They are trying to put together a consistent, long-term winner by stockpiling players in the draft and maintaining some continuity with what they are going to do offensively and defensively.