So, what the heck is all this rookie wall talk about? And, is it real?
In short, you better believe it’s real. Being a rookie in the NFL is almost certainly the most taxing year of a player’s career. Most don’t realize this, but as soon as a college prospect has played in his final Bowl game, he must then transition almost immediately into training-mode for All-Star games, the NFL Combine, Pro-Days, Interview preparation, private workouts, graduation, and all the other miscellaneous loose ends that must be tied up.
Essentially, for most players entering the league for the first time, there simply isn’t an offseason; which I believe just so happened to be the primary reason for such a high rate of success for rookies during the lockout season of 2011.
During that anomaly of a year, many thought the uncanny rookie production was counterintuitive given the lack of organized team activities. After all, how were these kids able to do the things they did despite not having a true NFL offseason of training? The answer very well could be attributed to the intense nature of an independent “offseason” or lack thereof, for transitioning rookies.
Fellow former NFL players turned columnists Ross Tucker and Stephen White have each voiced resounding affirmation as to whether or not this vague and almost mythical concept exists at all. Their firsthand accounts and experiences have certainly echoed a palpable truth to this phenomenon, one in which we seem to be left with more questions.
Well perhaps we can dive a bit deeper, look a bit closer, and find out once and for all, just what this “wall” is made of—concrete or glass? Can the rookie wall be prevented? Does it affect the stat line, or is it simply a mental battle one must overcome internally and during off-hours?
When I reflect on my rookie season there’s little doubt that the transition is a tough one. Given the endless nature of my preparation into the NFL, as I alluded to earlier, the fatigue of football and wearing down process had already started long before the regular season even began.
A pressure-filled and grueling training camp took a toll both mentally and physically. When you fight to prove your relevance amongst the best in the business, you’re in for a level of competition so shrewd and all-encompassing that you’re literally ready to collapse from sheer exhaustion once fortunate enough to simply make an NFL roster.
But as we well know, at that point the season has only just begun, and for most rookies, expectations are amplified.
While in Oakland during my inaugural season, all rookies were expected to be the first guys in the facility so they can get in an early-morning lift before breakfast and team meetings, this was also before the sun was up as well.
Furthermore, we were expected to stay after practice to work on, and improve our craft, because clearly rookies still have a lot to learn. Then when the day of work was finally over and guys could go home for the night, the rookies had to stay afterward to participate in a program the Raiders utilized, specifically designed to turn their rookies into professionals both on and off the field. Those meetings included anything from staying out of trouble to media relations and everything in-between.
Just as Ross Tucker expounded on in his article, I too was dead tired by the time I got home every night that all I could do was pass out.
By the time you get near the end of a full NFL season, it feels like you’ve been playing three seasons back-to-back without a break. Keep in mind my last year in college started with a training camp and 12 games that finished up just before New Year’s.
Then without even a week of rest I went immediately into incredibly physical and competitive practices for the East-West Shrine Game, which was held in the middle of January.
After the shrine game you actually have to turn the training up another notch for the chance of a lifetime to impress scouts and GMs at the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis, which was, for all intents and purposes, three days of absolute hell consisting of being poked, prodded, tested, studied, and bored out of my mind during the time in-between.
After the combine, you turn up the training yet another notch hoping to improve upon testing numbers before your school’s Pro-Day arrives, which typically falls somewhere around the middle of March.
Throughout that time you’re flying around the country performing in private workouts for NFL teams which are often designed to push guys to the brink of respiratory failure. Once all that’s over, you get to find out where in the country you’ll be living, as dictated by the NFL draft.
Immediately following the draft is an introductory mini-camp serving as an official beginning to an NFL career. This comes only days after being drafted and leads directly into the normal offseason workout programs, which for most veterans, is the true start to their offseason workouts. But for us first-year guys, we’ve been going strong literally since the previous August, or 10 straight months.
So when you tack on 20-plus professional games of football on top of that, both the body and mind understandably begin to sabotage one’s focus, desire, and ability to produce.
By the time Week 13 of the never-ending season arrived, I was so depleted that I actually stopped doing things like listening to our weekly gameplans, pushing myself in the weight room, studying tape, staying awake in meetings, and trying hard in practice.
What I was feeling didn’t seem to be unique only to my experience, but at the time I never honestly associated it with a rookie wall. I just thought I was losing my passion for the game, which actually angered me even more and caused me to doubt my dedication. But in reality, I was powerless against the lull.
Free time for trivial pursuits such as seeing a movie or reading a book seemed like a distant memory and a luxury now forcefully sacrificed forever. My mind played tricks on me like that. Football suddenly seemed like a 24-hour, 7-day-a-week job that now had a firm grip around my neck, strangling all recognizable life out of me. It quite literally seemed endless.
Looking back on it now, I guess that was clearly a rookie wall. But we were never prepared or warned about its actual symptoms in Oakland. Some teams refuse to acknowledge this phenomenon in hopes it will never manifest, just as long as no one talks about it. Well that turns out to be as logical as the Looney Tunes characters defying gravity until they look down.
If anything, me not verbally acknowledging this very real issue only amplified its detrimental effects on this unassuming rookie.
But does the rookie wall affect players' performance during games?
Maybe they can suck it up during game time, right? Well according to an article by the folks at FantasySharks.com, using statistical data, the rookie wall does indeed have a dramatic affect on player performance, as the graph provided below demonstrates.
The study also points to something else rather interesting, which is that there appear to be two walls hit during a rookie season. The first wall happens around Weeks 4-6, while the more dramatic wall occurs around weeks 9-12.
So can the rookie wall be avoided?
Truth be told, the rookie wall appears to be something that’s experienced differently by each person. There are several variables at play that may intensify or dilute the effects of the rookie wall.
Bleacher Report’s own featured columnist Stephen White chronicled some important factors in his article that may help prevent a rookie wall. Elements such as proper nutrition, adequate rest, and overall body maintenance can go a long way in preventing or minimizing its infringements.
One other factors which may influence the wall one way or another is the amount of playing time you had both in your last year of college and throughout your rookie season.
There may also be inherent differences in each individual in regards to attrition which could cause some people to feel those changes more dramatically than others.
As a rookie entering the NFL, it seems the best thing to do is just mentally prepare yourself for a long exhausting ride with the understanding that a nice vacation eventually will come.
Take care of your body, and keep in mind that the wall you hit is only temporary and once you bust through it, you emerge a stronger, more capable athlete, primed and ready for almost anything—except perhaps the end of an always-too-short career. So appreciate every moment of it, especially the hard times, because even those will be greatly missed.