Don’t hate, appreciate: Rookies are people first

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The last time Chicago had a Hall of Fame quarterback was 1958, and since then, Bears fans have yearned for a signal-caller to put us over the hump. With that in mind, I couldn’t help but continuously refresh the Bleacher Report app on that late April drive home from school. My Chicago Bears had the No. 3 pick in the 2017 NFL draft, the highest selection the team held since I had become a fan. It was finally time for the team to pick the next NFL great, the savior who was going to turn the tides of a struggling yet proud franchise and single-handedly bring us back to prominence.

My eyes were set on Deshaun Watson, the accomplished Clemson quarterback who had slain the beast that was the Alabama Crimson Tide in the national championship game, no less. But as badly as I wanted to see Watson in a Bears uniform, I wasn’t the general manager. I was a fan.

Chicago ultimately traded up, selecting Mitchell Trubisky, the quarterback who only started 13 games at UNC, over Watson and another quarterback named Patrick Mahomes. I, like many other Bears fans, was furious at the time. With Trubisky seemingly regressing and his starting job in question for the upcoming season, many will argue that my anger has been justified. But it is easy to play Monday morning quarterback and make judgments about the past. In 2017, however, that anger was not justified.

This trend is all too common in the NFL. Trubisky isn’t the first player to be scrutinized on draft day and he won’t be the last. But it is important for fans to realize that when a team selects a player, they are taking a gamble — the rookie may or may not pan out.

When fans boo a selection, they are usually airing grievances with the choices made by upper management and the scouting department. But it comes across as booing the player, the individual, the person behind the helmet. In essence, fans seem to be telling the player, “You are not good enough to be welcome here.”

The outcry doesn’t always end on draft night either. Former 49ers quarterback and No. 1 overall pick Alex Smith was hounded after throwing 11 interceptions and just one touchdown in his rookie season. Between 2005 and 2010, Smith threw 51 touchdowns to 53 interceptions and was considered a bust after feuding with his coaches.

But there is a lot that goes into the transition from the collegiate level to the NFL and successful player development. The athlete must be in the right situation for themselves – with a coach, roster and scheme tailor-made to fit their strengths.

In 2011, Jim Harbaugh was tabbed as the new head coach in San Francisco. Under his guidance, Smith threw for 30 touchdowns and just 10 interceptions over the next two seasons, leading the 49ers to the NFC championship game in 2011 and a 6-2 record in 2012 before being concussed. Smith’s label changed from being a seeming bust to a feel-good story and game manager.

And Smith isn’t the only one. If fans had their way, J.J. Watt would not be with the Houston Texans. Perhaps no player and organization are as synonymous with one another as that duo in the current NFL landscape.

Future Hall of Famers Peyton Manning and Drew Brees both had disappointing beginnings to their NFL careers. These two might be the exception and not the rule, but clearly struggling is part of the journey.

But fans rarely learn from such examples. Before he played a single snap in the NFL, Trubisky was booed at a Chicago Bulls game. After Trubisky said he was trying to get TVs turned off at the Bears’ facilities this past season, fans and critics questioned his mental toughness, an unfair critique of a player who was just trying to do his job.

Think about it this way: If you went into your new job knowing that people were rooting for you to fail, you probably wouldn’t feel confident and that might affect your product. The two are not mutually exclusive. Young players are, in many ways, just like anyone else. If you believe they are going to disappoint you, you are setting them up to fail. On the other hand, if you support them, they are only going to work harder at their craft.

It is alright for fans to be passionate about their teams. After all, being passionate only shows that you truly care about your team and its chance to climb the mountain of success. But you’re mistaken if you don’t think the player being drafted doesn’t also care about the team and isn’t working hard to climb that mountain.

In a society driven by immediate gratification, we often place unfair expectations on young players to succeed and are quick to judge when things don’t go according to plan. If a player isn’t the next Tom Brady, we immediately think they can’t throw a football. The problem is that if we continue to follow that logic, we are just setting ourselves up to be let down.

Fans aren’t general managers. We can’t submit the high-pressure picks on draft night that might make or break a franchise, even if we are sure Deshaun Watson should be the pick at No. 3. But as fans watching the NFL draft this weekend, we can be aware that player development is a process. We can trust the process and understand that sometimes, that process takes time — time in which we should not boo them, but give them a chance.

Kabir Rao covers men’s tennis. Contact him at [email protected].