One of the best offensive linemen the Chiefs have ever had picked up his phone and heard the voice of general manager John Dorsey.
“What did I do?” John Alt remembers thinking. “Did I do something wrong?”
“Hey,” Dorsey began, “I’ve got a huge, huge favor.”
This was the beginning of the season. The first or second week. Dorsey had a project for Alt, and a hope for one of the Chiefs’ most important players.
Last year, Dorsey used the only No. 1 overall NFL Draft pick in team history on Eric Fisher. The truth is that the 2013 draft was widely thought of as one of the worst in recent history, so nearly every prospect came with some sort of caveat.
Dorsey thinks Fisher will be a great left tackle — great, not good — but needs some time. From the first day the Chiefs drafted Fisher, Dorsey has thought about Alt. The similarities are striking, when you think about it.
Two tall, athletic, raw prospects taken in the first round. Both relatively new to the position. Both with a lot of learning to do, and even more potential. Alt struggled early in his career, and then made two Pro Bowls and played long and well enough that his name is in the Chiefs’ Ring of Honor — right there between Derrick Thomas and Gary Spani.
Dorsey sees a similar career path for Fisher. Maybe getting the two together would help. So Dorsey called Alt to give him a heads-up, gave Fisher the number, and now it’s a friendship built on shared experience that’s helping an important player continue growing into his enormous talent.
“I do see a lot of myself in him,” Alt says.
“You can learn all kinds of things from a guy like that,” Fisher says.
You may not have noticed, but Fisher is playing really well. Offensive line play is hard to judge, of course, but since a particularly rough game against Robert Quinn and the Rams in October, he’s been solid.
Using numbers from Pro Football Focus, he’s allowed two sacks and two quarterback hits while showing significant progress as a run blocker in his last seven games. In his first seven, he allowed three sacks, eight hits and graded well below average in the run game. Overall, PFF has him at minus-0.4 over the last seven weeks after minus-14.9 the first seven.
The improvement is especially encouraging if you consider the competition. The Chiefs’ last seven games have included matchups with the Bills, Seahawks, Raiders (twice), Broncos and Cardinals — lots of teams that put particular emphasis on hitting the quarterback, with some particularly talented defensive players.
Fisher surely got some pop in the film room this week, for instance, for flattening rookie of the year candidate Khalil Mack on the Chiefs’ first running play against the Raiders last weekend.
Run blocking has always been Fisher’s strength. He has a nastiness that went a long way in breaking a virtual tie between him and former Texas A&M star Luke Joeckel, who went second overall to the Jaguars last year.
Against the Raiders, Fisher sealed the edge against defensive tackle Ricky Lumpkin, giving Jamaal Charles an easy 5 yards before contact.
But pass blocking tends to be more about technique than strength, more about the brain than the biceps. Fisher was a two-star recruit out of high school, played in college at Central Michigan, and spent his rookie season as a right tackle. So it only makes sense that he is still adjusting, especially after spending last season at right tackle, and that his run blocking is ahead of his pass blocking. But there have been good signs in the passing game, too, like being matched up with two-time All-Pro Justin Tuck with mostly good results.
Of course, it’s not all positive. On one play in particular against the Raiders, Fisher tried to go low on Tuck but whiffed, giving him a virtual straight line toward Alex Smith, who had to scramble.
So this is very much a work in progress. Fisher is improving but still has a ways to go — particularly considering his potential. Besides the switch in position, some of it is that he had two surgeries after his rookie year, which meant he spent the offseason rehabbing instead of focusing on important conditioning and strength-building. He’s playing this season a little over 300 pounds. The Chiefs expect him to be at 320 next season, and stronger, with a full and healthy offseason.
But there are also more intricate and subtle adjustments going on here. Fisher’s first step back in pass blocking isn’t always where it should be. He used to hold his hands too low, and for a while he overcompensated and had them too high.
Nobody feels sorry for the No. 1 pick, but sometimes that spotlight can make the transition to the NFL harder. Alt was a first-round pick in 1984 and can still remember reading stories about how he was a bust.
There are whispers of Fisher being a bust already, and that’s part of what made his introduction to Alt so helpful.
“I think he’s seeing some of the same hurdles I had to deal with,” Alt says.
“It’s awesome to talk to people who’ve been through the whole offensive line world,” Fisher says.
The first thing that struck Alt was Fisher’s attitude. Alt had heard Fisher was diligent in his work, and liked to pick up every point he could, but it’s different when you actually talk to a guy.
Fisher was 5 years old when Alt played his last game, but he didn’t have to look up the name when Dorsey mentioned Alt. One of the first things Fisher did after being drafted by the Chiefs was study the franchise’s history. Naturally, he was most interested in the linemen. So Fisher was excited when Dorsey gave him Alt’s phone number.
Alt appreciated a young millionaire willing to reach out for advice.
“That means he’s willing to do the little extra things to make himself better,” Alt says. “That’s a great starting point.”
Their conversations have been a mixture of lineman minutia, such as hand technique and how to spot a defensive player’s tells on what move is coming, along with big-picture stuff such as how to block out noise — good and bad — from media and even teammates.
Alt remembers walking into the weight room for the first time after being drafted, and hearing receiver J.T. Smith yell out: “This is our first round pick?” The compliments can chip away at your drive, and the criticism can get in your head if you let it.
These are the kinds of things that Alt learned the hard way.
“Confidence is the key,” Alt says. “And his is going up. Some of the things I talk to him about, ‘You’re isolated at that position anyway, so you have to isolate in your own mind, block out everything.’ It’s going to be there either way, and the same with the positive. You can’t let any of that stuff get in your head. I just felt like a lot of it was in his mind.”
Performance and confidence are impossible to completely separate, of course, but in Fisher’s case both seem to be improving week by week.
His coaches, even the ones who don’t know about his conversations with Alt, have always appreciated Fisher’s humility and hunger to learn. Hearing that he jumped at talking with Alt, and follows up regularly with more questions, won’t surprise anyone at One Arrowhead Drive.
If it helps the Chiefs’ only No. 1 overall NFL pick in franchise history climb into his enormous talent, it’s a beautiful way for the team’s past to help its future.
“Once you get to that point, you’ll know,” Alt says. “Your teammates will rally around you, and it will change dramatically. And it happens around that third year. Did for me. That’s a pivotal year for most linemen. It’s make or break.”