Will a rugby star make it in the NFL?
Before I get into any details, I want to disclose that I have represented two Australians who have played in the NFL. Matt McBriar, Cowboys pro bowl punter. And Hayden Smith, a Saracens rugby player turned tight end for the Jets in 2012. In addition, I am a big fan of rugby and rugby league, follow the sport closely and even consult for USA Rugby captain Todd Clever on his contracts and endorsements.
With all the attention given to Jarryd Hayne’s shocking decision to leave the National Rugby League to pursue a career in the NFL, I thought I’d shed some light on the challenges he will face and the probabilities of making it.
First, to put it in perspective for NFL fans, it would be equivalent to Marshawn Lynch quitting the Seahawks at age 26 to pursue a career playing rugby league in Australia. Or, a young Derek Jeter leaving MLB to pursue a cricket career in India. This is big news down under.
Jarryd Hayne was bred to play rugby league and was a natural since his early youth. In his first year as a professional he made a huge splash, similar to what SS QB Russell Wilson did as a rookie. He went on to win just about every award available within his first seven years in the NRL. He’s been rookie of the year to player of the year and everything in between. He was even named “The fastest man in Rugby”. Jarryd Hayne is one of the most decorated rugby league players in the history of the NRL There really wasn’t much left for him to accomplish that he hasn’t already achieved.
So being one of the best of the best in one sport says a lot about ones athletic ability and overall skill set. It must be special. However, the question remains, will it translate into being special enough to make an NFL team?
Let’s break down Jarryd’s and/or any other Rugby player challenges:
The physical adjustment: For Rugby and or Rugby League enthusiasts, who think wearing helmets and pads makes the NFL game softer than Rugby league, please forget that silly notion. The pads are there for a reason. The NFL game is extremely physical and the hits are massive and aplenty. The helmet and pads encourage players to hit as hard as they can, sometimes even using the helmet as a weapon. The average starting NFL linebacker is about 6’ 3 1/2”, weighs 256 pounds, and runs a forty-yard sprint in 4.65 seconds. He’s strong, mean, explosive, agile and quick. Our defensive linemen are even scarier. They can weigh between 290 and 320 pounds and run as fast as many rugby players weighing 50 pounds less. My point, if you are the fastest and quickest guy on the rugby field, you most likely won’t be the fastest guy on an NFL field, thus your speed that was a huge asset on the pitch will be marginalized to “average” on the NFL field. The same goes for the size and speed combination.
So for a rugby or rugby league player who is used to dominating his peers and playing at an advantage because of his physical skills, he will now have to adjust to the talent level around him.
A rugby league player will have the advantage from a training, durability, stamina, and mental standpoint and will be in better shape than most NFL players. Rugby and League players are some of the best conditioned athletes on the planet. When Hayden Smith was touring the NFL, the Saints put him through a non-stop hour and half workout at a few different positions. Mickey Loomis called me and said he wanted sign him and had never seen a guy in better shape at his size. Unfortunately, the NFL game doesn’t require the endurance needed in rugby. Therefore, rugby players will train differently for the NFL game and have to make some adjustments.
Overall, rugby and rugby league players will have a great advantage stepping into an NFL tryout, camp or game. My only fear is that traditional NFL style training can take away a rugby player’s edge and there is always injury risk in doing a lot of new things that the body is not used to.
(As a side note, the NFL could learn a lot from Rugby as it relates to training and enhancing a player’s durability). Hayden Smith made the Jets in his first season with the club without ever playing football in his life. He actually was playing rugby in the same year he played for the Jets. The following year he was released after not progressing over the previous year and not moving as quickly as he did the year before. Hayden feels his off-season football training slowed him down. Although he got stronger and bigger he lost a tad of his agility and quickness. He told me if he did it all over again he would have stuck more to his rugby training regimen.
The language / terms/ playbook: I like to equate learning an NFL offensive system and playbook to being in an eleven-piece orchestra. You have over fifty songs to learn and you may have to play more than one instrument. In addition, you have to understand the other members’ roles as well. One of the biggest challenges for players is learning the language of the game. Many NFL players have been playing football since the age of ten, so by the time they get into the league they know the basics. Even then, rookies struggle knowing the plays, the calls, and the audibles.
Audibles, also known as “check downs” or simply “calls”, at the line of scrimmage (right before a play starts) may be the biggest challenge for offensive players. If a player misses a call on a blocking assignment he may get his QB killed, run the wrong route, or hit the wrong hole and help cause a fumble.
Rookies from Stanford and Iowa, for example, do really well in the NFL because they work from a pro style terminology, playbook and system. They speak the language well! Rugby players on the other hand are starting from ground zero. And even when they get some type of crash course like I did for Hayden Smith, (I hired a former NFL TE coach to tutor him before his workouts), they will still struggle while learning on the run.
The better an individual’s ability is to learn, the faster they will catch on. But some NFL languages like the Patriots digit system can be even more challenging.
Learning the NFL system, a position requirement, and the game rules gives a younger player from college a huge advantage over someone who has never played the game. And preseason camps are so short that there isn’t much time to learn on the job.
Jarryd may have instant success with his potential ability to cover kicks/punts and possibly return them by relying on his athletic ability and instincts.
The CBA limitations and culture: With only four preseason games before the cut-down to the final 53 roster, there are very limited reps available for the projected starters and the other five or more players competing for a job at a given position.
The NFL Collective Bargaining Agreement severely limits the amount of coaching time a coach has with a player on the field. Hayden Smith ’s biggest frustration in learning was his lack of on-field time with the coaches. Even though he would stay at the Jets facility for fourteen hours a day for 3 months straight, he was limited to learning p hysical techniques on the field with coaches. His coaches were just as frustrated with the limited amount of coaching sessions they’d get with him and all players.
Under these rules, Jarryd and other rugby players will be better served having retired NFL coaches working with them as soon as they make the decision to give the NFL a try. And even once they are signed with a team, they should stick with a personal coach as long as they can.
The other challenge of making an NFL team, is the culture of the decision makers. Coaches and GMs have to think short-term. Outside of the quarterback position, there is no such thing as a three-year project anymore. There is little patience in the NFL in developing players, especially when they get north of 25 years of age. Jarryd and other potential crossovers will have one year to prove they can develop. By their second year, they have to be contributing by the end of that season. A younger player may get more grace with a solid organization.
There will be a few other areas where Jarryd will have some culture shocks. For one, Rugby is one of the world’s greatest fraternities. The players practically live together, travel together, socialize together, vacation together and train year round together. The NFL is very different. With only 16 games and 53 players, a rugby player won’t find the same kind of closeness he experienced with his other teammates. Many NFL players are married and rarely ever go out. Certain position groups stick together and don’t do much with other position groups. Unlike rugby, the NFL roster turns over so much that it’s hard to build and maintain relationships with teammates.
The other x factor involved with Jarryd having success or not may be out of his hands. Coaches select what players get the practice reps in the preseason and minicamp. If a coach thinks another player can help the team more, a crossover rugby player may never get the reps, coaching and time he needs to be successful. So no matter how hard he works, how talented he is, and how determined he is to make plays, he may never be given a fair opportunity to compete. Therefore, picking the right team will be 60% of his potential success.
I for one have a feeling he’s going to make it. Additionally, I already know of a few teams who are interested and wouldn’t mind grabbing the attention of his already built in international following.
Follow me on Twitter: @Jackbechta