Early in May, all NFL rookies, whether they’re high draft choices or undrafted free agents, report to their club’s facilities for a two-month-long orientation. The orientation is an important step in each rookie’s process to becoming a member of the 53-man roster.
NFL Rookie Orientation
Physical Evaluation, Team Plan
Every club I have worked with followed the same approach. As players arrive, the strength and conditioning staff meets and greets them, beginning an assessment of their general and football condition. During the three-month run-up to the draft, a significant number of players get out of football shape.
After their collegiate seasons, most players sign with agents and immediately go to private strength and conditioning facilities. The players specialize in getting ready for the physical and mental tests they will be required to undergo at the NFL Scouting Combine. As a result, they come to the combine ready to conquer the drills. That, however, has nothing to do with football-playing shape.
Following the combine, the prospects prepare for and execute the same tests at their pro days, held at their college campuses. In addition, a significant number are crisscrossing the country on commercial flights, visiting NFL facilities. Each NFL team is entitled to bring in 30 players for these visits.
A typical visit involves dinner with the coaching staff and/or the general manager. The next day, they will check in with the trainers and doctors if there are any physical issues that need to be addressed. They then begin a daylong session of interviews with the head coach, the coordinator, the position coach and the general manager. It is then back to the airport and onto the next stop.
Anyone who travels for a living can tell you how exhausting time-sensitive air travel can be. Couple that with 20 or so job interviews in a month and you have a prescription for a decline in physical condition.
So, once the rookies have signed with a team and the strength staff has established a baseline for each of them, the staff will tailor an individual diet and exercise program for them. They will meet with each rookie individually, explain what is expected of them and set a schedule for work in the weight room each day.
The first morning of their NFL lives begins with breakfast designed by the club dietitian. No more “load up on what you like,” as it was in college.
What Rookies Need to Understand
The next order of business is a full team meeting. The GM usually opens. My talks were straightforward and short on hyperbole. Each year, I made the following points:
No. 1: I would explain that the NFL is a job, and they are now pros, not college students. “Act like a pro, be on time, be a good citizen and never embarrass the organization. Giving 100 percent effort in everything we do is the price of admission. There are signs around the building that say, ‘No excuses, no explanations.’ We live by that axiom.”
No. 2: I would explain they were drafted and will be given a bonus for what they did in college. “From this day forward, everyone is equal. The No. 1 draft choice and the last college free agent signed will be judged solely on what you do here. We keep the best 53 men who can help us win, regardless of how you got here. The NFL is the ultimate meritocracy. You are what you do on and off the field. No excuses, no explanations, no favoritism.”
No. 3: I would ask how many knew who Vince Lombardi was. Most did not, and I would explain his place in football history. I then would quote him: “What you see, hear, say and do here stays here!” Then I would explain that, for the overwhelming number of rookies, there is no benefit to becoming a presence in the media. “If our public relations people want you to do something, they will ask. If the media approaches you, be polite but circumspect. Generally, it is better for a rookie to be seen on the field than heard in the media.”
No. 4: I would advise them to listen to and follow the veterans’ lead. “You are a team member who we expect to contribute to our winning culture. There is no hazing here. We have a few traditions, such as carrying the veterans’ pads in camp, that are staples of the program. Beyond that, you are a valued teammate. Be a good one.”
No. 5: I would tell them the answer to most problems and challenges in life is hard work. “A 100 percent effort in all we do is the price of admission. Except for faith and family, focus on doing your job above all else. We chose you because we believe in you. Welcome. We’re glad to have you. Everyone here, from myself to everyone else in the football operation, is here to help you. If you have a question, ask. If you have a problem, speak to us about it. Our doors are always open to you. Good luck!”
The head coach would follow with his message. It would be detailed and focus on the nuts and bolts. He would discuss league regulations and team rules, explain practice and training camp regimens and review the OTA and training camp calendar. He would also discuss travel policy and spend significant time on how he wanted players to conduct themselves on and off the field and in the community.
The coach would then introduce every assistant coach and staff member, including people in training, equipment, video and public relations, who help the team on a daily basis.
The head coach would usually wrap up with an overview of how he wanted his team to play: i.e., winning the turnover battle, avoiding penalties, creating turnovers, running the football in the red zone and making fewer mental mistakes than our opponents. He then would send the players off to meetings with their respective position coaches to begin the arduous journey for a spot on the 53-man roster.
As the players go about their work on and off the field during this introductory period, they are evaluated daily by every staff member in every phase of the program. Each drill and play is videotaped, and oral exams are given on subjects covered in the meetings.
The head coach, coordinators, position coaches and pro personnel compile a file on every player; the data from each will form the ultimate comprehensive evaluation at the cut to 53.
Big Change From College to Pros
One of the most important things rookies learn during their initiation to the NFL is practicing without pads at a relaxed pace. At the college level, there is no prohibition on padded practices, and the tempo of practice is set by the head coach. Additionally, every Power Five college team has more than 100 players available to practice.
During the NFL regular season, a team can have a maximum of 71 players, not all of whom are available every week. The NFL allows only 11 padded practices during the 18-week regular season. Players must learn to simulate team and individual drills without pads in more than 80 percent of their practices.
To preserve the players’ health and energy, a significant number of non-padded practices in the NFL are held at what is called a “jog-through” tempo. The definition of that term is established by the head coach, but basically, the players come off the ball at a normal play tempo and then go through the rest of the drill or play at half- to three-quarter-speed.
Every coach emphasizes players staying on their feet and under control. During OTAs, the head coach will often emphasize players protecting one another from injury by “playing under control.”
How does that approach square with 100 percent effort all the time? It’s hard for rookies to balance those two things. I heard an iconic assistant coach describe it as follows: “Give a 100 percent effort on every play at the tempo we require and stay off the ground.” Coaches often tell the rookies that learning to practice as a pro is one of the most important things they do during rookie OTAs.
Following the last OTA session, the coaches and veterans depart for vacation. The rookies will stay, usually until the end of June, to work with the strength and conditioning staff. The goal is for every rookie to be in top shape when he reports to training camp in late July.
As told to Vic Carucci
Bill Polian is a former front office executive and a six-time Executive of the Year award winner who won Super Bowl XLI with the Indianapolis Colts. Polian’s career as an executive earned him an induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2015.