Thursday, November 6, 2008
By Nick Wagoner
Not even a month into his NFL career, Chris Long had read the stories, heard the whispers and committed most of it to memory.
Some decided to declare Long a bust before he ever played a regular season NFL snap, saying he was overwhelmed and overrated. Not worthy of the No. 2 pick, others declared.
“I read everything and I pay attention to everything,” Long said. “Sometimes for motivation and just because I want to know.”
Not that Long needs any additional motivation. The pressure of being the No. 2 pick and signing a contract that rewards you with almost $30 million in guaranteed money brings with it a certain amount of inherent strain anyway.
“I’m motivated anyway,” Long said. “I was the No. 2 pick in the draft; I have found a reason to be pissed off every day.”
Whatever it is that Long is doing to keep himself fired up to play in every practice and every game seems to be working.
At the halfway point of his first NFL season, Long has proved many of the nay sayers wrong. Sure, the sample size of eight NFL games isn’t terribly large but the tape and the numbers certainly don’t lie.
Through eight games, Long is first among rookie with four sacks and trails fellow end Leonard Little by just a half of a sack.
“Sacks are hard to come by in this league,” Long said. “I am lucky to have four I think. I’m kind of surprised by it. I know how hard they are to come by and just to get pressure is good. You do want to finish off some plays.”
But Long’s impact hasn’t been limited to the times he’s brought the quarterback down. In fact, coach Jim Haslett has said Long’s best performance came against Dallas on Oct. 19 when Long hit Cowboys quarterback Brad Johnson five times and didn’t have a sack.
In addition to the four sacks, Long has racked up 39 tackles, eight quarterback pressures and a fumble recovery.
While those numbers won’t have anyone confusing him for his father Howie, Long is certainly making more of an impact than the doubters had originally thought.
“That’s why we drafted him with the second pick in the draft,” Little said. “People criticized that pick but once a player gets comfortable out there and knows what he’s doing and can play off instinct, he’s the type of player that can dominate a game. He’s getting real good. He’s a great asset to our defense.”
Considering how far Long has come in one training camp and half of an NFL season, it’s perfectly reasonable to think that he’s only scratching the surface of the type of player he can become.
By his own admission, Long was a bit overwhelmed by the transition from college to the NFL.
During training camp, Long spent more time thinking on the field than reacting. That was only natural of course since Long was moving from a 3-4 defense at Virginia that asked him to take on multiple blockers and control a gap to a 4-3 defensive end who is asked to win more one on one battles and rush the quarterback from the edge.
“I knew coming in I’d be thinking for a while,” Long said. “That’s kind of the way things go. I think everybody has a different learning curve. People were freaking out a little bit during training camp. That’s just how it goes. I just try to keep an even keel. I knew that eventually I was going to pick this thing up. You have to be confident, patient; I’m going to continue to do that and just try to get better.”
Patience is a virtue for anyone learning a new job, especially one as difficult as NFL defensive end.
Defensive line coach Brian Baker believes that the closer you are to the ball as a rookie, the more difficult the transition to the league is going to be.
Recent top five picks at Long’s position haven’t had near the immediate success of Long.
Houston end Mario Williams, the No. 1 overall pick in 2006, had 4.5 sacks the entire season. Last year’s No. 4 pick Gaines Adams finished his rookie year with six sacks.
As Long battled through his first NFL training camp, he began to get more acclimated to everything about the NFL game.
But he says it wasn’t until the first week against Philadelphia that he felt truly comfortable.
“For whatever reason everything was not where I wanted it during the preseason and training camp,” Long said. “Then we got out in Philly with the regular season and real games, your speed picks up and things become more natural.”
As the starting right defensive end, Long has faced no shortage of top notch left tackles in his first time through the league. On Oct. 26, Long victimized New England’s All Pro tackle Matt Light for a pair of sacks.
For most of that game, Light had held Long in check. Suddenly in the fourth quarter, Long jabbed outside and burst inside past Light for a sack, a play that drew the only flag of the day against the Patriots.
It was then that, for lack of a better term, one could see the light coming on.
“I think he has confidence in what he’s doing and a better understanding of the defense,” Haslett said. “That helps. He’s playing fast. He’ll get better too. He’s doing a good job. You can see it. He’s got confidence in what he’s doing.”
This week there will be no motivational issues for Long. For he simply needs to look across the field to find any extra juice.
The Jets starting left tackle is old Cavalier pal D’Brickashaw Ferguson. Long says Ferguson usually got the better of him in college but the two are very different players now.
“It was Brick 90, me 10 if we took 100 reps,” Long said, laughing. “But I was a lot younger then. We both changed a lot as players. It will be interesting to see.”
As if that wasn’t enough, the defensive end who some had rated at the same level or above Long will be suiting up for New York as a 3-4 rush linebacker.
Vernon Gholston was once thought to be a potential target of the Rams but when they opted for Long, the Jets grabbed him at No. 6.
Any fears the Rams had about Long in the preseason might have been alleviated by his first eight games, but there is plenty of trepidation in New York about Gholston, who has three tackles and one pressure and has spent most of his time on special teams.
Long and Gholston became friends during their time together at the draft in April but Long says it’s still too early to judge anyone from his draft class.
“I don’t really pay attention statistically to what everybody’s doing,” Long said. “You like to look around and see how guys are doing so you can gauge your own progress. You have to know a lot more than just that to see how somebody’s doing. Everybody learns differently and at a different pace.”
Having a healthy Little opposite him hasn’t hurt Long’s chances either, as he gets more one on one opportunities because of the attention given to Little.
While Long appears to be fully adjusted to the speed of the game and is getting progressively more comfortable with the defensive scheme, he knows as well as anyone that he’s still somewhere near the beginning of his learning curve rather than the end.
“If I’m blessed enough to play eight years, I’m sure I will be learning for eight years,” Long said. “My learning is still in its infancy and I just need to keep progressing and keep getting better.”