There's nothing like playing in the NFL.
I proudly say that after spending five seasons in the league as a wide receiver/defensive back/kick returner with five different teams. Although I didn't earn Pro Bowl recognition, I had the opportunity to play on a team that went on to win a Super Bowl title and got to share the huddle with a number of Hall of Fame players throughout my career. In other words, I've experienced quite a bit during my time -- and nothing was more challenging than training camp.
I know old-timers like to knock the training camps of today, which feature shortened practices and limited physical contact. But I firmly believe the key to surviving training camp has always been more about the mental than the physical -- and that's as true now as it was then. Every player -- whether he's a rookie, a journeyman, an established veteran or a marquee free-agent acquisition -- faces mental challenges heading into a six-week endeavor that requires tremendous levels of preparation, concentration, focus and perseverance.
With everyone under pressure to hit the ground running from the start of camp, I'd like to share the insights I have -- as someone who's been on the inside, both as a player and a scout -- about the mental obstacles players of all stripes will encounter in the scramble to grab (or hang on to) a precious roster spot.
Rookies: Fighting to make the grade
Though being a high draft pick carries plenty of hype, it's really only like winning pole position in the race to carve out a successful NFL career. Sure, top picks are likely guaranteed a place on the team in their first couple of years, but the league is ultimately a meritocracy, and every player eventually has to earn his keep.
In 1994, I walked into the Buffalo Bills' locker room as a second-round draft pick expected to fill a role as the designated deep threat on a receiving corps that had just helped the squad make its fourth straight Super Bowl appearance. I relished the opportunity to play alongside Andre Reed, Bill Brooks, Don Beebe, Russell Copeland and Steve Tasker. In addition, I had a chance to learn nuances of the position from Hall of Fame receiver Charlie Joiner, who was coaching the group.
With the strong veteran presence in the meeting room and a distinguished assistant showing me the way, I had plenty of support acclimating to the pro game. From Reed teaching me clever moves to escape jams at the line to Brooks showing me how to come out of my break at the top of comebacks, the veterans helped me get up to speed and enjoy a strong camp.
From a mental standpoint, I had to meet the veterans halfway by mastering the playbook and rapidly adjusting to the breakneck pace of the Bills' no-huddle offense. The only way for a rookie to earn the trust of veterans is to know his job and do it well when his number is called, something that I learned quickly. I made a few plays in one of the early practices, then put together a pair of strong performances in preseason games -- and from that point on, I had tremendous support from the vets, which elevated my overall confidence.
Rookies attempting to make the cut this year must focus on earning the trust and respect of their teammates through their play and performance. Coaches and veterans want guys in the huddle who will make the plays they are expected to make. Young players should spend extra time studying the playbook to eliminate the risk of making mental mistakes -- and they must also play as hard and as fast as they can whenever they cross the lines.
I can romanticize what it takes to make the team as a young player, but it really boils down to knowing your job and doing it well, regardless of the circumstances. If a young guy does those things, he will live to play another day in the NFL.
Veteran journeymen: Life on the bubble
"Don't count the numbers!"
That's the message every head coach in the NFL delivers to his guys before the start of camp. It's an attempt to encourage them to focus on their own performance rather than worry about how everyone else at their position is doing, and it's one of the best pieces of advice a leader can dispense to men fighting for their careers. Still, the pressure to outdo the competition can force even the most confident player to question his ability.
In 1996, I was a newly converted defensive back for the Green Bay Packers, battling to earn a roster spot as the fourth or fifth cornerback. I watched every rep in 1-on-1s, 7-on-7s and team drills, and I privately tracked how every competitor performed throughout the day. I spent so much time worrying about my teammates' play that I was probably a bit distracted when it was time for me to take my reps. Luckily, I eventually decided to heed the advice of Craig Newsome, my training-camp roommate, and concentrate solely on getting a little better each day, focusing on improving a single skill during each practice. I'd write the objective of the day -- work on turns and transitions out of my backpedal or work on hand placement on jams in bump-and-run -- on my wristband and strive diligently to master it.
When I speak to players who are currently in similar situations, I try to pass on a valuable lesson that I learned in yoga: Stay on your own mat. In essence, I try to encourage guys on the bubble to spend all their time focusing on their own performance and ignore how others around them are doing. You always hear about your teammates' play via comments uttered by the coaching staff in meetings, but attempting to decipher what coaches or scouts are thinking will clutter your mind and get in your way.
In the end, the guys who survive life on the bubble are the ones who embrace the challenge of fighting to earn their spot on the squad every day; they make themselves indispensable by consistently making the kinds of standout plays in practice and in preseason games that catch the eyes of the coaches and scouts when they pop in the tape in meetings. I wound up making the cut, and though I was released later that year and finished the season with the Jacksonville Jaguars, I did get to share the field with a Packers squad that went on to capture the Lombardi Trophy.
Established veterans: Setting a tone
Everyone feels the pressure and urgency to perform in training camp, but a handful of players on every team are exempt from the chopping block. Established stars use the six-week preseason to prepare for the regular season, gradually ratcheting up the intensity and spending each practice session honing individual skills and conditioning levels. In addition, they work with the other established veterans to set the tone for the rest of the squad.
As a player, I had the chance to watch several established veterans use training camps as a springboard for the regular season. When I was with the Kansas City Chiefs, I observed the late Derrick Thomas working his way into peak condition. The nine-time Pro Bowler would focus intensely on an aspect of his game -- from his remarkable get-off to his patented tomahawk chop -- that he wanted to improve, doing countless repetitions to get better and be ready for the time when the games would count. When I worked as a scout for the Carolina Panthers, I saw Julius Peppers, Kris Jenkins, Dan Morgan and Mike Minter take the same approach. The quartet would work individually on their skills and collectively on their chemistry to anchor a defense that helped the team consistently compete for the NFC South crown.
Each team with legitimate championship aspirations has a handful of veterans working diligently to form a bond designed to spearhead a deep playoff run. These established players will challenge their teammates, particularly the youngsters, to understand their assignments and bring the urgency needed to play at a championship level. They set the pace, as will be apparent via the tempo and crispness of each practice. In addition, the veterans will perform at a level that clearly separates them from the pack and cements the front office's confidence that the team's stars are ready to roll.
Free-agent acquisitions: All eyes on you
A new free agent faces quite a challenge when he steps on the field at the start of training camp, especially if the team spent big money to get him there. The value of his contract aside, he must earn the respect of his teammates -- and respect is something players only dole out to those who prove to have superior talent. Moreover, his peers likely have been looking forward to seeing him in action since he signed. Yes, organized team activities and minicamps can provide a preview of someone's ability, but guys will place greater emphasis on how their new teammate performs in pads, because that is how football is played. The phrase "game recognizes game" captures the essence of how players evaluate each other, and the first few days of camp are critical.
When I played with the Kansas City Chiefs, the team signed Derrick Alexander to a big contract to be the team's new No. 1 receiver. While the money suggested Alexander was locked in to be the primary option in the passing game, I remember All-Pro cornerbacks James Hasty and Dale Carter making it a point to challenge Alexander in 1-on-1 and team drills, in an effort to see if he was as good as his reputation suggested. They took turns harassing Alexander at the line of scrimmage with their ultra-aggressive physical tactics; how he responded to their tenacious styles would let the rest of the team know if he was up to the challenge of being the alpha dog on offense. Ultimately, Alexander earned the respect of his teammates by fighting through it all, and he ended up making key contributions as a designated playmaker on the perimeter.
Surveying the league, I would expect several marquee free-agents additions to undergo similar initiations. Guys like Darrelle Revis (with the New England Patriots), Aqib Talib (Denver Broncos), Chris Johnson (New York Jets) and countless others can expect to be pushed as Alexander was tested by Hasty and Carter. If the newbies flash their "A" games early, skepticism will subside and their teammates will welcome them with open arms. That's why it's important for new arrivals to come ready to compete, even if they've just landed the kind of cushy deal that can lead to complacency and self-satisfaction.
In the NFL, respect must be earned between the lines by every member of the team -- and no amount of money can ever change that.
Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter @BuckyBrooks.