As 34-year-old linebacker Keith Bulluck(notes) climbs the hundreds of steps at the Santa Monica Stairs or negotiates the 30- and 40-degree faces of the Malibu dunes in Southern California, honing his body for what he hopes will be his 12th NFL season, there is one asset he has that's even more important than his ability to tackle:
His knowledge of how to do it.
As NFL owners and players continue to talk in hopes of reaching a new collective bargaining agreement in time for the scheduled start of training camp in late July, there is a widely accepted belief about what teams are going to need this season to be effective: more veterans than ever before.
With minicamps and all the other organized learning sessions cut this offseason, the chance to teach young players has essentially evaporated. Sure, some rookies have taken part in the makeshift team practices during the lockout. In the NFL, that's like doing introductions at kindergarten.
Jacksonville Jaguars coach Jack Del Rio tried to be polite about the subject: "It's good that guys are working out, watching over each other. There's nothing wrong with it, but it's not the same as doing a full practice with coaches, the film crew and all of that. It's a different tempo, a different mindset."
Or as another head coach put it: "That stuff the players are doing on their own is like patty-cake in the schoolyard while we're teaching physics … Seriously, the levels of difference we're talking about."
"I can't begin to tell you all the stuff that goes into the offseason," said the unnamed coach. "That's when you do all of your teaching now. Everything you're thinking about putting for the season gets done April through July. The other thing that nobody really talks about is that the learning isn't just one way. It's not just the player learning the plays. It's the coaches learning the player. How do you talk to a guy? What motivates him? What does he do well? It's so many little things that go into it that you never get back.
"Once you get to training camp, it's game-plan installation. That's why when rookies hold out it's a nightmare. You can't get back the days for them. You can't go over the first four days of training camp because you have the next series of plays to work on."
Or as New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick told the Boston Herald earlier this offseason: "Something's going to have to go, I would think. The progression's got to stay the same, but the breadth of that amount of installation could be subject to being trimmed back, maybe drastically."
That's why this season could be so difficult for so many rookies … and such a boon for players such as Bulluck.
"You know that those rookies' heads are going to be spinning," said Bulluck, who became a Pro Bowl linebacker during his 10-year stay with the Tennessee Titans. After a knee injury at the end of 2009, Bulluck played last season with the New York Giants and will be a free agent once a new CBA is finalized. "I know what it was like for me and this is going to be much worse with no offseason for them."
In Bulluck's case, the timing and length of this labor impasse couldn't have been better. Last offseason at this time, Bulluck was just working to get back into shape after a six-month rehab from knee surgery. He had approximately a month to get ready before the Giants signed him to be a backup.
Keith Bulluck was in on only 31 tackles last season.
Now, Bulluck says he's 100 percent healthy. More importantly, he can go in and play just about any system. That means he's more valuable to the many teams that will need game-ready players. In addition, with coaches expected to push for bigger rosters this season to keep veterans who can play while rookies learn (general managers are reportedly already pushing for larger training camp rosters), Bulluck and other veterans will get plenty of chances to play.
"One of the best things about last season was playing in a new system and having to learn new terminology," said Bulluck, who has been working out with trainer Ryan Capretta and fellow players such as Antonio Cromartie(notes) and Clay Matthews(notes) in Southern California. "I played in the same defense [with Tennessee] for 10 years, so it was good to get out there and understand that the plays are really all the same, it's just something different that you call them."
To one executive, Bulluck is the perfect example of what many teams will be looking for as they quickly build rosters.
"I don't know Bulluck, specifically, other than the reports we have, but that's the type of guy you're talking about," the executive said. "He's probably seen every situation you can think of. He can figure out how to play with guys around him. He probably knows how you want to practice on a given day. Your only concern with a guy like that is, 'how's his body?' "
According to Capretta, Bulluck is in excellent shape and is well ahead of where he was a year ago. More importantly, Bulluck understands the big picture, acting almost like a coach to the players who are working together.
"Just strength-wise, I think he's 25 percent stronger than he was a year ago at this time," Capretta said. "The real difference is his movement. His change of direction is so much better, so much quicker than last year now that he's a full year removed from the rehab.
"He's really attacking his training with a lot of energy and enthusiasm. He really understands the goal of what we're trying to do with each exercise. It's like that old saying about the veteran players being an extension of the coaching staff. For us, he's great because he can explain to the younger guys exactly what we're trying to get at."
For some team likely to take a chance on Bulluck and other veterans like DL Bryan Robinson, DT Gerard Warren, DT Shaun Smith, LB Kirk Morrison, LB Mike Peterson, that approach is critical. Having somebody who both knows how to play and can explain it to younger guys who are likely to be confused can go a long way.
At least for another year or so in the NFL.