It may come as a surprise to Pittsburgh Steeler fans to learn that Mean Joe Greene, the awesome tackle, is displeased with his performance this season and wishes he could play again with the reckless enthusiasm of his rookie year.
"I've been paralyzed with analysis," he says. "I got so many things in my mind, it's like carrying your briefcase to work. I wish I could go back to the way it was my first year. When you're a rookie, it's beautiful. Just hit somebody or get hit and not worry about the consequences. The Man has a way of taking care of fools and rookies."
The Man must be mighty busy these days. Fools are as numerous as ever, and this season the number of rookies in the National Football League is the largest in its history. The principal reason for this influx is last summer's player strike, which left a vacuum on training-camp rosters that was quickly filled with new players. By the time the veterans reported, the youngsters had established themselves. Now there are enough of them in the league to stock five full teams, and some are making Joe Greene and the other veterans sit up and take notice.
Don Woods of San Diego, for instance, is the Chargers' most exciting player since Lance Alworth. A 6'2", 210-pound running back from the University of New Mexico, he is slashing through tacklers with power as deceptive as his gait. He has stung defenses for 673 yards on 111 carries and has scored six touchdowns. His 6.1-yard average is the NFL's best, and he has a strong chance to become the AFC Rookie of the Year. The gnashing you hear in the background emanates from Green Bay, whose Packers drafted Woods sixth, glanced at him in training camp, and then waived him to San Diego for $100. "We goofed," says Packer Coach Dan Devine.
After Woods rushed for 154 yards against Kansas City three weeks ago, Hank Strain of the Chiefs said, "He's terrific. He's so smooth he doesn't look as fast as he is. He does everything in an effortless way." Woods also racked Miami, Philadelphia and Oakland for 100-yard games, but against the Dolphins he also looked like the rookie he is when he drew a penalty on a man-in-motion play. "I was thinking about going in motion," he says, "and while I was thinking I was walking in motion."
Stram's praise of Woods is significant considering the performance of his own Woody Green (see cover) from Arizona State, who would be challenging for Woods' rookie laurels if he had not been hampered by injury the first five weeks. Against San Diego, Green rushed for 146 yards and caught passes for 98 more, including a 69-yard lob from Len Dawson for a touchdown (Green's second) that helped the Chiefs to a 24-14 victory.
Unlike the powerful Woods, Green breaks few tackles but his speed makes defensing him a sometime thing. "The NFL has been an experience," he says. "The atmosphere isn't the same. Where I went to school we didn't have guys laughing and singing in the locker room the day before a game." He is a serious athlete, and his standards are demanding. "When you score no touchdowns and don't go over 100 yards," he says, "you're just running around."
San Francisco's Wilbur Jackson is another running back who has rebounded from an injury to perform impressively. Hurt in the Coaches All-America game, the ex-Alabama star has gained 513 yards rushing and 165 more on 17 pass receptions, no mean feat on a team that has suffered quarterbacking woes since Steve Spurrier was injured in September. Jackson has an explosive starting charge and he takes tackles well. Says 49er Coach Dick Nolan, "He works like the devil. When he picks up five yards he wonders why he didn't get 10."
Doug Kotar of the New York Giants is a sleeper. From the University of Kentucky, he signed on with the Steelers as a free agent, spent four idle days in the Pittsburgh camp, and then was traded to the Giants for a fourth-string quarterback whom the Steelers needed because Terry Bradshaw, Joe Gilliam and Terry Hanratty were all out on strike. In the Giants' camp Kotar showed good speed, won a starting spot and has rushed for 370 yards in regular-season play. One of his three touchdowns came on a 53-yard run against Atlanta, which didn't seem to impress the phlegmatic Kotar one way or the other. He says he was not surprised that he was not drafted, nor does he seem at all moved by his considerable success.
Part of that success derives from the accomplishments of another rookie, the Giants' No. 1 draft choice, John Hicks from Ohio State. Hicks seems a fixture in the Giant offensive line, just as Henry Lawrence, an offensive lineman from Florida A&M, appears to have established himself firmly in the Raiders' future. To John Madden, the Oakland head coach, this is especially surprising. Talking about rookies and their chances for immediate success, Madden says, "It depends on the position a guy plays. Rookies can often help you right away at the instinctive positions, like running back, wide receiver, the defensive line, maybe linebacker. And on special teams, too, where the assignment calls for instinctive reaction. That's why so many rookies make it there. Or as kickers. A guy who has been punting all his life is doing the same thing as a pro that he has always done. But a position that requires a lot of technique—quarterback is the most obvious, or offensive lineman—that's something else. The things they have to do are so different, and they have so many things to learn that you don't often see a rookie excel there."
Whatever the requirements, it also helps if the rookie's position is not well stocked with veterans. Woods almost certainly would have remained with Green Bay if the Packers' outstanding running backs, John Brockington and MacArthur Lane, had not returned to camp. But they reported, and in time Woods was waived.
The most talked-about rookie in the beginning of the year was the Dallas Cowboys' Ed (Too Tall) Jones, the 6'9", 260-pound defensive end from Tennessee State, who was the first collegian drafted. Jones has been used only intermittently, primarily against the pass where his height can be most effective, but he is nonetheless the kind of draft choice every team prefers.
"The easiest Ones are guys like Jones," Madden says. "He's playing the position in college that he's going to play for you. Guys like him are the cherries you pick off a tree."
The Chicago Bears' No. 1 choice, Waymond Bryant, a teammate of Too Tall at Tennessee State, was such a pick, too, and his fine play at linebacker has contributed to the Bears' strong defense this season. But Charley Wade, a first-year player with the Bears ("first year" means he was not activated for more than three games in previous seasons), was the last pick in the 1973 draft. Waived from Miami to Chicago, Wade has caught 32 passes this season for 600 yards and a touchdown.
John Dutton, a defensive end from Nebraska, gives Baltimore an improved pass rush; the St. Louis Cardinals have made good use of Greg Hartle, a linebacker from Newberry College; the New England Patriots might not enjoy the 6-3 record they have without Sam Hunt, a linebacker from Stephen F. Austin; and the New Orleans Saints are delighted with Wide Receiver Joel Parker from Florida, who has caught 28 passes for 335 yards and three touchdowns. Houston's Billy Johnson has been among the leaders in kick returns; Defensive Tackle Bill Kollar has impressed the Cincinnati Bengals, and Mercury Morris' unhappiness with Miami is offset in part by the fine running of Benny Malone, who, like Green, is from Arizona State.
This surprising success of so many unheralded newcomers may call for a reassessment of training-camp priorities. Fred Schubach, the Colts' player personnel director, says, "This is going to convince some coaches that they should look at the kids longer." But Schubach also points out that the weeks the rookies spent in camp without the veterans were a psychological advantage, too.
"A lot of times, when the veterans come in," he says, "the rookies are overawed. All of a sudden they're face-to-face with these famous people they've read so much about, and they become timid. This year there were no veterans to speak of, and the kids were on a par with everyone. They had more confidence."
Apparently, they retained that confidence when the strike ended and the veterans returned, or at least they tried to. While NFL hazing has diminished to little more than mealtime singing and a rookie show, some newcomers confronted the camp ritual with a defiance unthinkable a few seasons ago.
"When our veterans came back," says Wide Receiver Lynn Swann, Pittsburgh's No. 1 choice from USC (the Steelers have another impressive rookie receiver in John Stallworth of Alabama A&M), "I told them we weren't going to put on any kind of rookie show because we'd been here longer and it was our camp. I said that because I run my mouth more than some of our other guys. Well, Mean Joe heard about it and I was the first one to sing, and they kept me up there about an hour and a half." It was less a joke at Atlanta, where Gerald Tinker, the Kent State Olympic 400-meter-relay gold medalist turned wide receiver, flatly refused to sing his school song or any other. "Hell, no," he told a vet. "Us rookies are on strike, too."
"Times have changed," says Steeler veteran Andy Russell. "Rookies are cockier than they used to be. Bobby Layne would tell a rookie, "You will meet me in the bar at 4 a.m. or I'll get you cut.' That doesn't happen anymore."
Oakland's George Blanda, whose rookie season coincided with the discovery of fire, says, "I never went through any of that stuff, and we've never done much of it here. The game has gotten more serious, and you don't hassle a rookie who can help you. There's more money at the end of the rainbow than when Layne was playing."
Toward that rainbow's end, the unknown rookie who can step right in and work wonders is a dream shared by players, fans and coaches. But it usually only happens when the right athlete is in the right place at the right time.
"I'll bet that when you look at the unknowns who make it," says Madden, "they were all hidden somehow. They were either injured or were playing another position or had personal problems that kept them from doing what they were capable of. That's where the ability of a scout counts. More than saying O. J. Simpson is a good runner, he has to be able to look at a guy and see him playing another position for you."
Sometimes a man can be hidden in publicity. One of Baltimore's last picks was Tim Berra, Yogi's son, a wide receiver drafted No. 421. Possibly taken for the immediate public-relations value of his name, young Berra worked hard, showed talent and made the squad. For the most part, the rookies in this year's bumper crop are putting time in on the bench, waiting and learning, between sessions of special-team duty. "The toughest thing is sitting around wanting to play," Swann says, "and having to learn from the bench."
That attitude is traditional, but in the opinion of many coaches the old values of discipline and loyalty are disappearing. Today's rookies are more aware, more given to questioning established procedures and are eager to take over, whereas most coaches agree that they have to be brought along slowly. Madden, for one, guards against premature praise.
"You can't pick on a player," he says, "but you have to keep the pressure on to see how he'll react. Too much praise too soon, and he'll settle into mediocrity. You've seen guys who played like hell until the final cut because they were trying to make the team, then not do anything afterward. Once they make the team, it's not the end. You have to help them establish other goals."
Mark van Eeghen, a running back from Colgate, was the victim of Madden's style in a preseason game at Detroit. Oakland had the ball on its 37 with one second left in the first half. Van Eeghen took a hand-off, burst through a hole and galloped 63 yards for a touchdown. As the Raiders headed for their locker room, Madden said, "Way to run out the clock, van Eeghen."
Even so, van Eeghen prefers such limited praise to the caustic comments he heard after a mistake he made against Pittsburgh. "I exploded out of my stance two counts too soon," he said. "I really hate to do things like that. It makes you look like a rookie."