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Beware the Turk: Clayton Holmes on Making the Team

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Once a week leading up to the 2008 NFL Draft, three-time Super Bowl winner Clayton Holmes will personally explain some of the pitfalls he fell into as a player: Money problems, inability to say “no,” the gold diggers, the party culture, his own demons from childhood. As told to BC sportswriter James David Dickson.

The Turk is one of the most feared people on any football team. That’s because he’s the guy who, when the team decides to cut you, comes around to ask for your playbook before sending you to speak with the coach.

Coach might give you the official news, but seeing the Turk make his way towards you, with his shifty, sorry to be the bearer of bad news eye contact, is one of the worst sights you can ever imagine – your heart never beat so fast in your life.

You could try to argue him, which would be useless since he’s only the messenger. You could try to argue the coach, which would be useless since he’s already made a decision and his ego probably won’t let him go back on it. But when the Turk makes his approach, chances are you’re leaving the building without a job. Even if you keep it, you know it’s just a matter of time before you’re Turked for good.

The Turk is the guy you want to avoid at all costs – for your entire career if possible, but especially as a rookie. Veterans, if they still have some game left, can usually catch on with another team. In all their years in the League they’ve turned someone’s head through a tackle they’ve made or broken, the kind of play that makes coaches on the opposing sideline think, “hey, if I get a chance at that kid…” That’s why coaches often grab free agents from within the division. In addition to gaining insights on how a division rival operates, they’ve witnessed the damage that player can do.

So, to get cut as a rookie, with no such highlights under your belt, few contacts, and no real reputation to fall back on — it can kill your career before it’s even out of the gate. Until you catch on with another team and start making plays, you’ll always be one of the JAGs (Just Another Guy) proving to coaches that you deserve a tryout.

Like most things in life, finding a place in the NFL is much easier if you do it right the first time. Because if you mess up as a rookie, there might not be a second chance.

So how to avoid this fellow, the Turk?

First, get out of the mindset of “avoiding” being cut. Guys who obsess about not getting cut tend to give effort in spurts, usually around cut days. But you want to be a day-in, day-out type guy. A consistent player. If you play any differently in training camp than during the season (especially if you play better in training camp), you’re risking being labeled inconsistent.

And few Pro Bowls on your resume could be the difference between the veteran minimum and that rare and special gem that is the third contract. Some guys get paid like their prime in their last year; other guys get paid and treated like old-timers. Which guy you become is entirely a matter of how much effort you put in between now and then.

Become an effort guy. By the time you hit the pros you’re no longer the fastest or strongest guy around. You’ll need to stand out in other ways. And just as final scores often favor the team that hustled for loose balls, coaches and contract negotiators tend to favor players who lay out everything for the moment, for the game. If you’ll do it in the practice, they know you’ll do it in-field. That, at its most basic, is all coaches really want: reliable guys with a consistently high motor.

Groucho Marx once said that, “you can only be as good as you are willing to be bad.” But what rookie risk-takers sometimes forget is that the right to freelance on defense is earned. It’s earned through film study and understanding tendencies and your defensive keys.

When your coach calls you to the sideline to ask why you jumped tight end flat and let the running back blow by you on the wheel, you’ll want to have a good reason why you did that. It’s okay to do the wrong thing for the right reasons. But if the best you can manage is a blank stare, you’ll have some problems.

Risk-taking comes from proven competence. Ed Reed might get burned every now and then for outsmarting himself, but he’s also a game breaker. 99 coaches out of 100 will take the game breaker who makes the occasional mistake to the guy who’s just average but never makes or gives up the big play. Find me another guy who combines football instincts and film study like Ed Reed and I’ll show you another guy in a position to take those risks.

It’s a given that you’ll make mistakes. Just last year you were a college kid. But the problems come from making the same mistake. Not only does this frustrate the hell out of your coaches and teammates, but you miss out on a learning opportunity. You don’t learn anything from repeating the same bad idea without tweaking it or heeding criticisms — but you can get cut for it.

Ignorance is at the heart of most broken plays. That thing about how a team is only as strong as its weakest link? Believe that. If you don’t know what’s going on, always ask.

It’s better to ask and take the consequences (which will actually make you work hard to not have to ask again) than to guess and blow a play. Your coaches would rather catch you up on the sideline, at training camp, than waste a time-out in the second half of a game that matters.

But don’t stop there. If you find yourself asking questions, it’s because you have gaps in your knowledge. You fill those with film study and absorbing – not memorizing, but absorbing – your playbook. A question that just gets you an offhand remark from a veteran in training camp is a heartbreaker for your coaches if you ask it during the playoffs. But even – hell, especially – if it really is the playoffs and you really don’t know, ask. I never heard of any coach who wouldn’t trade a timeout for a touchdown.

Whether you see yourself as a future Hall of Famer or you’re Just Another Guy hoping to see the light of an NFL locker room (and you can be both), it’s crucial to get off to a good start. This League is full of stories of guys who missed all or part of training camp and literally just never caught up. Playing catch-up with veterans who are just as fast as you, if not faster, and just as good as you, if not better — that can affect your confidence. A bad start can easily lead to an early exit.

Most NFL careers last a short three years. But when you’re playing every down like it’s a privilege just being there, you’ve already won half the battle of avoiding the Turk.

Clayton Holmes is a 3-time Super Bowl winner with the 1990s Dallas Cowboys. The sixth and final installment of his advice to NFL rookies will run next week. The topic: What I Wish I Had Known Then.

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