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Deciding When To Play

Posted Nov 29, 2011

Acho's case crystallizes Cards' philosophy in integrating rookies

Linebacker Sam Acho celebrates his sack and forced fumble Sunday in St. Louis.

Sam Acho had one of those games Sunday in St. Louis: Two sacks, two forced fumbles, a fumble recovery.

The rookie had to make the transition from college defensive end to pro outside linebacker, and it seems to have worked already, a pleasant development given how hard it has been so far for the Cards to get that to work over the past few years.

Acho already has five sacks in just five starts, after gimpy veteran Joey Porter had just one sack in six starts before his deteriorating knee forced surgery. Coach Ken Whisenhunt and defensive coordinator Ray Horton could have put in Acho sooner – certainly, there was an outcry from fans to do just that as Porter struggled – but that has always been a fine line with Whisenhunt.

The head coach’s philosophy is hesitance in playing rookies or inexperienced players. Sometimes, there is no choice – as Pittsburgh’s offensive coordinator, Tommy Maddox’s injury forced Ben Roethlisberger on the field, and this season, Patrick Peterson had to play after Greg Toler got hurt – but when there is, the choice is usually to move slowly.

“The natural tendency is to put them in there and just let them play, grow with them,” Whisenhunt said. “But you can’t always do that. It’s not fair to the other guys on your team who have been here and worked hard. I think as long as you’re true to guys earning it, then you will always be OK.”

Not all coaches think the same way. Dennis Green famously stuck rookies in the lineup without fear, especially in his first season. Sometimes it made sense (wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald) and sometimes it didn’t (center Alex Stepanovich). Sometimes, hindsight seemed to say, in the maturing process, it might have served the players better for a while to mature a bit as a pro and have to have earned it – that arguably was true for defensive players like Darnell Dockett and Karlos Dansby, and perhaps even Fitzgerald.

More than that, however, is the downside on the field the current coaches see with going with inexperience right away. Those clamoring for an Acho or O’Brien Schofield to play right away earlier this season were often equally frustrated with the results from young cornerbacks like Peterson and A.J. Jefferson after they were playing right away this season.

Of the draft picks taken since Whisenhunt arrived, only Peterson, linebacker Daryl Washington and tackle Levi Brown – who was installed from day one as the right tackle in 2007 – have started on offense or defense (special teams is a different story) from the beginning. Peterson may not have if Toler hadn’t gotten hurt. Washington definitely wouldn’t have if Gerald Hayes had been healthy last year.

(Technically, fullback Anthony Sherman has been a starter from the get-go, but that position is different and he’s the lone one on the roster.)

“I guess other people or other teams have different philosophies, but being raised in the system that I was raised in, (I believe) the way you do it is what’s fair to everybody. I think it creates a sense of team that’s important, because when guys have success, you know that they’ve earned it and everybody is excited about that.”

Whisenhunt specifically said he thought Acho was helped by being brought along more slowly, even as the coaches all raved about his intelligence. Even No. 1 picks like Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Beanie Wells and Dan Williams weren’t going to be thrown in the mix too quickly.

Defensive coordinator Ray Horton, in fact, just was talking about his reticence to put more things in the defensive package if he saw mistakes being made in practice. Given the mistakes that are usually made by the inexperienced, it’s no wonder, for instance, Schofield has been slow to get reps after he admitted that even after one of his good plays (a strip-sack in Baltimore) he was lined up incorrectly.

There are arguments to be made on both sides. Whisenhunt got to where he is as coach under his thought process, though, and it’s not going to change now.

The Cards are long past the point where younger players would be playing – even if Porter had not been sidelined, Acho would have found a way on the field by now – but the cycle will begin again next year with the next draft and the next crop of rookies.

And by then, they’ll be able to learn a little something from a guy like Acho, who patiently bided his time.

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