“Andy Reid was telling us yesterday ... ‘At times, it looks so pretty, it's perfect. Other times, he's a rookie, and he's going to make some mistakes.’”
By TEREZ A. PAYLOR
The Kansas City Star
— NFL Network play-by-play man Brad Nessler
If you watched the Chiefs' intriguing 26-16 win over the high-flying Philadelphia Eagles on Thursday, you probably know who Nessler was talking about in the quote above.
We’re still only three games into the Eric Fisher era, and while Reid’s quote is hardly unusual regarding a rookie, it accurately reflects an up-and-down beginning for the 6-foot-7, 306-pound right tackle, who the Chiefs selected No. 1 overall out of Central Michigan in April’s NFL Draft.
“There's a lot to learn every day,” Fisher said. “I think every day you’re going to learn something new, you’re going to learn from your mistakes. That's the way I approach it.”
Fisher has made his share of mistakes so far, which I wrote about for today’s Star. Feel free to check that out ― Reid and fellow linemates Geoff Schwartz and Donald Stephenson all weighed in on the challenges Fisher faces as a rookie offensive lineman, and how he has attempted to meet that challenge.
Yet, Fisher is not alone. In fact, all five of the right tackles taken in the first round of April’s draft ― Fisher, Jacksonville’s Luke Joeckel (No. 2) Philadelphia’s Lane Johnson (No. 4), San Diego’s D.J. Fluker (No. 11) and New York’s Justin Pugh (No. 19) ― currently have negative grades, according to Pro Football Focus.
(The site’s grading system is hardly perfect ― we’ll never really know what players are coached to do on each play, which complicates any evaluation of a player's performance ― but through the miracle of NFL Game Rewind, there are instances where it’s obvious a player simply didn’t get the job done. In general, I’ve found the site's statistics and analysis to be similar to the ones I compile and form during my own film study.)
In fact, I got a chance to see two other rookies’ struggles up close and personal this season. Joeckel was beaten for a sack and allowed four quarterback hurries in the season opener versus the Chiefs, while Johnson had a brutal outing against Kansas City on Thursday in which he allowed three sacks and three hurries.
Still, it’s worth noting that both those players’ overall grades ― negative-1.9 for Joeckel and negative-5.2 for Johnson ― are noticeably better than Fisher’s, despite the fact they each had the distinct misfortune of facing the Chiefs’ burgeoning sack master Justin Houston in those aforementioned brutal outings. I found it interesting that Fisher has allowed a total of two sacks and seven hurries and posted a lower overall grade while facing the likes of Jason Babin, George Selvie (with a dash of DeMarcus Ware mixed in), Fletcher Cox and Connor Barwin. (Barwin is a proud University of Detroit Jesuit alum, by the way. Go Cubs!)
(I wouldn’t go sounding any alarms, though. Remember, we’re only three games in, folks. Other players with similar grades to the rookies right now are San Francisco left tackle Joe Staley (-4.7), who ranked as the league's best tackle last season with an overall grade of 40.4, and Jacksonville left tackle Eugene Monroe (-4.4), who finished 10th among left tackles with a grade of 21 last season. It’s safe to say those dudes will turn it around.)
So to get a better handle on Fisher’s struggles, I actually decided to chart Fisher’s performance throughout the course of the Philly game. In total, I had him allowing a sack, two hurries and two holds, and yes, it was as bad as it sounds. But surprisingly, all of those negative plays, aside from one hold, came in the first half.
He was beaten three other times (one pass, two running plays) in the second half, but was bailed out each time by either right guard Jon Asamoah and fullback Anthony Sherman, who was right there to help I also jotted down “good job by Fisher” in my notes over a dozen times in the second half with a few “OK job by Fisher” sprinkled in, which was nearly the complete opposite of the first half.
So without further ado, let’s take a deeper look at Fisher's performance against Philly, breaking down the rookie’s good, bad and ugly plays.
Let's get the ugly stuff out of the way, shall we? On the Eagles’ very first play from scrimmage, linebacker Connor Barwin explodes past Fisher with an inside move and gets a nasty lick in (Front Page Sports Football Pro ’98 alert!) on quarterback Alex Smith.
I’m pretty sure you caught this one, too, where defensive end Fletcher Cox ― a former first-round pick, by the way ― blows by Fisher on the right side with a nifty inside swim move to force the quarterback hurry.
And then ― several plays after Fisher was beaten badly to the outside in pass pro by a linebacker and whistled for a hold ― Fletcher got him again inside, resulting in a sack:
Are you noticing a trend? Fisher got beat inside three times. But here are a few things you didn’t see: Barwin tried the same inside move against Fisher and got stifled later, while Cox actually set up those inside moves by attacking Fisher’s outside shoulder twice to open the game.
Schwartz told me Fisher has mainly struggled in pass protection, which I found to be true. He also noted that it takes awhile to get a feel for the angles and tricks pass rushers in this league like to use. That’s why, Stephenson said, rookies often have some ugly tape.
“It was just a year ago, but even if I go back and look at my rookie tape, there’s going to be a lot of things where I’ll be like ‘Aw, come on. You can't let that happen,’” Stephenson said with a laugh. “But that’s everybody. Everybody’s a little bit ashamed of their rookie film.”
Translation: What Fisher is going through is pretty normal, and Schwartz said the Chiefs’ coaches are pretty understanding during film study.
“When I make a mistake or someone else makes a mistake,” they don't “dog cuss them and yell and all that stuff,” Schwartz said. “It’s very constructive criticism and positive reinforcement. That’s the way they’ve always been.”
Most of the simply “bad” stuff had to do with the running game. On the Chiefs’ 28 running plays, I had Fisher getting beat five times, twice on reach blocks (I think) and once when defensive end Cedric Thornton spun back into the play:
There was also this, when Fisher gets bull-rushed by Cox:
And this hold on Cox:
After the play above, the great Mike Mayock ― Nessler's play-by-play partner ― said Fisher has a tendency to play too high.
“Where he gets in trouble is when he gets too tall, too tippy-toe,” Mayock said.
I’d expect Fisher to improve in this area as he continues to receive NFL coaching, and I suspect some of the plays above can also be rectified with another year in the weight room. Fisher isn’t thinking that far ahead ― he shrugged it off when I mentioned that possibility to him Monday ― but Schwartz agreed that in general, rookies tend to get much stronger between their first and second year.
“If you think about it, he went from playing a college season where you're not lifting too heavy, to combine training when you're really just training to run a 40,” Schwartz said. “Then you get drafted and you're coming in as a rookie, and you’re really spending all your time ― I mean, you're lifting and stuff – but you’re worried about the plays, the whole mental side of it.
“So the second year, you don't have that kind of concern. You have six months to kind of prepare for the season. You know the routine now, you know what you need to do to get your body ready to go.”
For all of Fisher's struggles early on, I was impressed with the way he kept battling. For instance, check out the way Fisher sets the edge and helps spring Jamaal Charles for a score that gives the Chiefs a 23-9 lead:
There’s also this play, which was easy to miss. But look what he does to speedy Philadelphia linebacker Mychal Kendricks on this 14-yard run by Jamaal Charles:
As you can see, Fisher is nearly 13 yards down field, and he absolutely refused to let the smaller player go. This was late in the fourth quarter, with the Chiefs trying to run out the clock.
One last positive thing: I noticed Fisher and Asamoah picked up a stunt Thursday that had previously given them trouble. Check out this out:
Seems simple enough, right? Well, what if I told you that Jacksonville defensive tackle Sen'Derrick Marks beat him for a quarterback hurry on a similar stunt in the season opener, while Dallas defensive tackle Jason Hatcher actually recorded a sack on the same stunt in the Chiefs' week two win? It's true.
Anyway, plays like the three I’ve posted above ― which all came after Fisher's biggest struggles in the first half ― are clearly what the Chiefs had in mind when they made him the top pick in April’s draft. The hope is he’ll start making more of them as the season goes on.
“As a rookie, it’s not always going to look pretty,” Stephenson said. “But effort is the biggest thing. That's what coaches want to see, and he has a lot of that, so he’ll be fine.”
“There are things here and there that get people in trouble,” Schwartz said. It’s the same thing that happens to me and other guys and it’s happening to Fish right now. He’ll be able to work through it, and he’ll get better as the year goes on. You’ll see. He’s going to improve every week. He’s got the right mind-set to do that.”