Block to be tackled
Rookies on Patriots are dealing with ‘wall’
Back in 2001, defensive lineman Gerard Warren heard about the “rookie wall.’’ In the midst of his initial pro season, with the Browns, Warren was warned by his veteran teammates. By the halfway point of the campaign, he was supposed to be hit with mental fatigue and physical aches unlike any he had experienced.
The veterans were right, but hitting the wall doesn’t mean production on the field has to stop, Warren said. He is in his 10th NFL season, and he said the only way for his Patriots rookie teammates to avoid “hitting the wall’’ is to not believe in the concept.
“They were talking about that when I first came into the league,’’ Warren said. “If I recall, the second half of the season I made my biggest improvement my rookie year. For that to take place, the rookie wall couldn’t take effect, right? So I don’t believe in it.’’
Stories of hitting the wall have floated down to the Patriots youngsters. The team has 11 rookies and at least six are contributing on a regular basis. Last week, New England completed a three-game stretch in 12 days. Now the Patriots are entering Week 13 and preparing for a critical game against the Jets, an AFC East rival.
Cornerback Devin McCourty has played nearly every snap in his rookie season. The training for that began in camp, when McCourty, the Patriots’ first-round pick, logged significant time in preseason games. By the time McCourty reached the halfway point of the season, he could sense some chal lenges, he said.
“Guys kept telling me about the wall,’’ he said. “I think I hit it earlier in the season. It kind of came quick, and I’m hoping like a lot of guys say, once you hit it and get through it, you’re pretty good. I’m feeling pretty good now. I’m hoping the way the season plays out, it will help me mentally and physically.’’
The more McCourty talked to teammates and others in the NFL, he knew what to guard against in his first season.
“[They said] everything just seems longer. Going to meetings feels longer, practice feels harder. It’s just more mental than physical,’’ he said. “Your body is hurting like everyone else’s, but it’s more coming from college. In college, your coach would tell you to just get away from football during the bye, but here it’s your job, so you never really get away from football.’’
During Warren’s rookie season, he had five sacks and 83 tackles with the Browns. He started 15 of 16 games. He doesn’t deny that the stress of an NFL season can affect a newcomer, but he said a player has to grind through it to see benefits. If a player does hit the wall, Warren said he should be excited about what’s on the other side.
“I think it’s more mental than it is physical,’’ he said. “Constantly coming into work for a longer period of time than you’re used to in college, mentally you may get exhausted. Preparation and preparing for games week in and week out from preseason to the regular season. That’s a long haul coming in from college, but it was my dream to be in the NFL so this is the work I had to put in.’’
Defensive lineman Brandon Deaderick, linebackers Jermaine Cunningham and Brandon Spikes, and tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez are logging plenty of snaps as rookies. Gronkowski has been active for every game and has 25 catches for 310 yards and six touchdowns.
The NFL season could feel even longer to Gronkowski, who missed his 2009 season at the University of Arizona because of an injury.
But Gronkowski said he has tried to avoid being overwhelmed by leaning on more experienced Patriots and taking care of his body. If a player has hit the wall, Gronkowski said it just means he isn’t motivated anymore.
“Us rookies just have to help each other out,’’ he said. “The veterans help us out, too. They keep us motivated. They know it’s our first year being up here and playing this many games, so they keep us motivated and keep us focused.’’
Running back Sammy Morris is in his 11th NFL season and he said each player is different in how he responds to his first campaign.
“I wouldn’t say it’s a definite or automatic, but I think when you’re accustomed to doing one thing for four years — or however long they actually played college ball — to the NFL, you’re just not really used to it,’’ Morris said. “There’s a difference from minicamp to training camp and you’re not used to it being as physically or mentally demanding.’’
The Patriots have five games left in the regular season, and if anyone is worn down, Warren said there is a way to break through.
“You should tap into that inner strength and push through and dig deeper than everybody else,’’ Warren said. “When everybody else thinks you should be hitting the rookie wall and says, ‘It’s Week  now, plus the four preseason games, how do you feel?’ They should say, ‘I feel great.’ ’’
Monique Walker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.