TEMPE, Ariz. — Take a look at the snap count for some of the Cardinals’ rookies in Sunday’s 25-21 win over the Detroit Lions.
Defensive back Tyrann Mathieu played 53 snaps, safety Tony Jefferson played 47, running back Andre Ellington played 18, receiver Kerry Taylor played 17 and receiver Jaron Brown played 13.
Can you imagine that happening under former coach Ken Whisenhunt, who had a seeming aversion to rookies?
Well, there was a good reason for Whisenhunt’s hesitation. Before the new collective bargaining agreement went into effect, rookies were woefully unprepared to take on significant roles so early in their careers.
When asked if he would have considered playing his rookies so much under the old CBA, Cardinals coach Bruce Arians chuckled.
“No, not at all. It never worked before,” he said. “Back four years ago, a rookie might get three reps in a spring practice or an OTA practice, and he’d screw up two of them. All you ever had to do was cuss him out because you never wanted to deal with him.”
Following the 2011 lockout, the renegotiated CBA put strict limits on the amount of hours veterans could practice — but no such limits were placed on rookies.
“Once they start getting 200 reps, it’s a whole new ballgame,” Arians said. “Then it’s your talent against a veteran’s talent.”
Arians’ creative approach to spring and training camp practices had an impact, as well.
“With coach Arians splitting up the field and getting two practices going at the same time, even rookie camp gave us a lot of reps,” Jefferson said. “To be honest, I feel like practice here is harder than the games. They throw a bunch of stuff at you in practice that could possibly happen in a game. You probably only get half of that in the game, but you’re doing a lot of different scenarios, which forces you to do a lot of thinking.
“Then the game just becomes going out there and executing.”
Practices can never fully simulate games, but Ellington said the heavy rep load took care of one major hurdle for rookies.
“It allows you to know what’s going on with the playbook — not just in your head, but running through it,” he said. “Once you know what’s going on, you’re able to play a lot faster and just go out there and compete.”
The proof was in the performance Sunday. Ellington had four rushes for 20 yards and two catches for 42 yards and a TD. Mathieu had six tackles (one for loss), a pass breakup and the game’s final tackle on which he stopped Lions receiver Nate Burleson a yard short of the first-down marker on a fourth-and-4 play. Jefferson had three tackles and one TFL when he stuffed Reggie Bush for a 4-yard loss.
Jefferson admitted that he had no idea he would play 47 snaps in Week 2.
“I didn’t know what to expect,” he said. “I can’t control what I can’t control, but I just figured if I keep working my butt off and keep makings plays, I feel like upstairs, they’ll want to put me in.”
Ellington laughed when it was suggested that he should thank the veterans for creating this opportunity for rookies via the new CBA.
“That CBA allows the veterans to stay fresh, too, so that’s a really big thing,” he said.
As it turns out, some of them are staying fresher than they ever imagined possible, whether it’s through lesser roles or unemployment because their replacements come at a cheaper price.
“We learned that (rookies) can get more than ready with the new rules in the CBA in the spring and in the summer,” Arians said. “As long as the guy shows me he can play football, we’ll play him.”