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The Mentor Method

Posted May 13, 2010

Helping young players ultimately helps a team win

Veteran nose tackle Bryan Robinson (left) works with rookie Dan Williams during a drill at the Cardinals' recent minicamp.
 
 
The initial moment was captured on video, when Bryan Robinson shook Dan Williams’ hand for the first time and declared, “so you’re the guy they brought me back to mentor.”

The discussion between nose tackle present and nose tackle future meant so much to where the Cardinals want to go and what they want to be as a team. Later, the two had another talk, with Robinson telling the No. 1 draft pick, “If I am playing a lot more than you this year it means you’re aren’t doing your job. You need to play a lot. They drafted you to be that guy, and I am going to help you get there.”

The Cardinals are going through transitions at certain positions. There are veterans like Robinson, or pass-rushing linebacker Joey Porter or guard Alan Faneca in front of players like Williams, Cody Brown or Herman Johnson.

Grooming them – even in the My-job-is-always-in-jeopardy-to-a-younger-guy NFL – is imperative. Faneca glances around the locker room and points out that everyone on the 53-man roster usually ends up playing at some point during the season. “To help the guy out and get him prepared,” Faneca said, “is everybody’s job.”

Said Robinson simply, “I just want to win. If he knows what I know, we have a better chance of winning.”

Robinson usually downplays such things. A couple of offseasons ago, I asked him about training young defensive end Calais Campbell during organized team activities. Robinson good naturedly mocked me, wondering why I kept asking about him in that role.

He had done it before, and he’d do it again. He brushed aside a reporter at minicamp making a big deal about his relationship with Williams, saying he’ll help an undrafted guy just like a first-rounder. “I don’t treat anyone any different,” Robinson said.

The pay-it-forward approach has lived in the locker room for a few years. Former cornerback Ralph Brown made his internal reputation among the defensive backs for taking young players under his wing, and now Michael Adams – one who benefitted from Brown’s approach – is trying to do the same. Linebacker Clark Haggans talked about the "football 101" veterans like he and Joey Porter know and can pass on to youngsters like Brown or Will Davis.

Faneca recalled coming into the league in 1998 as a first-round pick with a veteran offensive line in Pittsburgh and “they opened up and told me everything.” That experience, knowing as a high pick he was there to take a job, molded Faneca’s philosophy into a give-back mode – one young Jets center Nick Mangold spoke about when New York unexpectedly cut Faneca last month.

It can’t be easy. Robinson knows that, ultimately, Williams is here to take his job. A player has a short shelf life in the league to begin with; possibly jeopardizing your earning potential by giving tips to a potential replacement can on the surface defy logic.

If winning is the goal, however, it suddenly becomes very logical.

At the end of minicamp, Williams was asked what was more pressure: Being a No. 1 draft pick, or having Robinson publicly let everyone know the veteran expected the rookie to beat him out for playing time?

Williams smiled.

“The second one,” he said. “I really want to earn the respect of my teammates so I will say the second one.”

“I’ll be leaning on him for his guidance,” Williams added. “He’s been in the league 14 years. You can’t help but learn from him.”

Which is exactly the point.
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