Tampa Bay Buccaneers
NFL rookies facing much uncertainty
INDIANAPOLIS Imagine getting a new car, a car you've dreamed of owning for years, and then being told you can't drive it. For weeks. Or possibly even months. It wouldn't be disappointing. "It would be heartbreaking," said Virginia Tech defensive lineman John Graves, who is one of more than 300 rookie prospects facing such a possibility. The NFL's seemingly impending work stoppage has cast a pall over this year's Scouting Combine that is even darker than the blanket of gray skies that has hovered over its host city since the event began four days ago. Like those clouds, that pall serves as a constant reminder that a storm is brewing, a storm so wicked it might not only delay the start of someone's career but actually impact it in a negative way."It won't help us," Alabama quarterback Greg McElroy said. "If there's no minicamp, no (organized offseason workouts), it's going to hurt you. It's going to leave you way behind." At least McElroy won't be alone. If a work stoppage comes - and the deadline for the league and the union to reach an agreement on a new CBA is now just four days away - every rookie will be in the same situation. That's the good news. The bad news is that many will then be left to their own devices, which means their eventual readiness may depend largely on each player's individual work ethic and commitment to the game. "At that point I think it's going to be up to the individual," Chiefs general manager Scott Pioli said. "They're all going to have different points where they begin to develop." Physical development is the least of the young players' concerns. Most are already involved in strict training regimens, so most say they will stay involved in those programs in an effort to keep themselves physically fit. "For me, I'll probably just go back to school and train with my team there and stay in shape and stay strong that way," University of Cincinnati wide receiver Armon Binns said. "That's one advantage we may actually have, because your college coaches are always going to be open to you and you always have teammates that you've been around and know how you play that are willing to work with you." Mental development is another matter. Without a playbook to work from or study, a lot of rookies will simply fall further and further behind established players the longer a work stoppage goes on. And the longer a work stoppage goes on, the more difficult it will be for a rookie to earn playing time. Quarterbacks, in particular, will have a hard time catching up in the wake of a work stoppage. "It's going to separate a lot of guys," McElroy said of an elongated work stoppage. "And not just from a talent standpoint, but from an intellectual standpoint as well." Not all of the rookies will have to worry about falling behind. Those who go to teams with new head coaches or new coordinators could find they're on equal footing with veterans. The reason is that some of the new coordinators are still in the process of teaching their systems to their own assistant coaches have yet to even unveil it to any players yet. "When you hire a new coaching staff and you put a new offense in, you're teaching the offense to the coaches first and then to the players," former NFL executive and current NFL analyst Michael Lombardi said. "So for some staffs, a lockout could be viewed as a positive thing. They can spend more time studying the NFL and evaluating what they need to do and developing their system within their own building." You can bet the players don't see a work stoppage as a positive. Particularly from a financial standpoint. Though some may be able to organize loans through their agents, none will know when their first paycheck will come or what it will look like when it does. "You're going to have to be careful with the decisions you make because at any time, anything could happen," said Marvin Austin, a defensive tackle out of North Carolina who knows a little something about work stoppages. Austin was suspended for his senior season at UNC for breaking NCAA rules regarding contact with an agent. He's eager to get back on the field, but nervous about when that will be. "You've just got to make sure you're ready because any day they could get a deal done and then you have to go out there and perform for your team and that team is going to want to see a return on its investment."