An Injury-Prone Journeyman on How to Survive in Football

With Peter King on vacation until July 25, this week’s Monday Morning QB guest columnist is Lions guard Geoff Schwartz. The 2016 season will be Schwartz’s ninth in the NFL. He was drafted in the seventh round of the 2008 draft by the Panthers, and he also has spent time with the Vikings, Chiefs and Giants. He’s written for The MMQB in the past and is active on social media. Follow Geoff here

By Geoff Schwartz

I turn 30 years old today. Happy birthday to me. (My son turns 2 as well, so I’d rather you send b-day wishes his way instead.) As I enter my fourth decade being gifted this forum by Peter King, it seems like a good time to reflect on my professional football journey.

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Who would have thought I’d be here? Not me. My career has been a roller coaster. I was drafted in the seventh round. I’ve been on a practice squad. I’ve been cut. I’ve signed a big contract, then been released from that deal. I’ve been a backup. I’ve been a starter. I’ve been injured multiple times. I came into the league under the old Collective Bargaining Agreement and now play under the new CBA. And I have a brother who’s also in the league.

Photo: Paul Sancya/AP

I’m not a sentimental guy. I don’t like looking in the rearview. I’ve gotten this far in the NFL by always looking forward and challenging myself to be better. However, in early February, looking forward kind of came to a screeching halt.

I got THAT call. You know, the one that almost every player gets. We are releasing you today. Man, was I upset. Angry even. But reality set in quickly. Professional sports is a business. So with the Giants in my rearview, I started planning my next move.

Except my next move didn’t come for almost 60 days. Those were two tough months. As opposed to being a coveted free agent as I was a couple of years ago, this time the phone wasn’t ringing off the hook. I didn’t know if I was going to play again. I was forced into reflecting on my career. How did I survive and thrive in the NFL?

The Injury-Prone Journeyman

My high school coach enjoyed clichés. The one that has stuck with me the most is: Don’t lie to yourself. Basically, know who you are. As hard as it is for me to say, I’m a journeyman who’s been prone to injury. Yet here I am, on my fifth team entering my ninth season, having gone through six surgeries, a severely dislocated toe and badly injured groin. How does a late seventh-round pick make it this far with an injury list like mine? I beat the odds. Why? I’ll lay it out in a bit. But first I want to take a few shots at the label “injury-prone journeyman.” 

Challenging the toughness of a football player is the worst insult we can receive. This game is tough, physically and mentally. The tag “injury-prone” has a connotation of softness, even if it’s not meant that way when said or written. I hate this label. Injuries are not created equal. There’s no way to prepare your body for guys falling on your legs. Or your big toe dislocating while trying to anchor a bull rush. S— happens. I feel awful about not being reliable. I pride myself on showing up prepared to work everyday. If I could have done something different to prevent these injuries, you can bet I would have. But there was nothing to be done. (Click for picture of dislocated toe. Editor’s note: It’s not pleasant.)

It’s easier to accept the term “journeyman.” If you look at my career path, five teams in nine seasons, that’s the definition of a journeyman. However, when I think of a journeyman, I picture the end-of-a-bench basketball player, or long man in the bullpen. Journeymen are good chemistry guys and just average in talent. They’re role players, nothing special and certainly not starters. Well, that hasn’t been me.

Photo: Rob Leiter/Getty Images

I have been an above-average player. I started 19 games in a row when I played for Carolina, never missing a snap in 2010. But then the injuries happened, and I had two hip surgeries, one core surgery and one awful season as a Viking in 2012. I went to Kansas City in 2013 and was not promised anything but a chance to compete, and I won a starting spot in the middle of a playoff push. That is rare. We were 9-1 after I became a regular starter. I played well. I signed with the Giants in 2014. And then the injuries happened again.

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Two seasons, a pair of broken ankles and a dislocated toe later and I’m now a Lion. What’s ironic is now I am the “grizzled veteran” in Detroit. I’m embracing the role. We have a young, extremely talented offensive line group. I’m the guy who’s been around the block more than any other lineman. It feels weird thinking that I’m the vet because I’m only turning 30 today. I’m not old in life but certainly so in the world of football.

How to Survive in Football

In a previous article on The MMQB, Emily Kaplan wrote about the toll it takes on the family when a player switches teams so frequently. Now, I’d like to take you through the football schematics of switching so many teams and what have I learned that’s allowed me to survive.

First and foremost, and this is a cliché, you have to respect the process. The process isn’t easy. It takes time and is supposed to be tough. But once you’ve respected the process, you truly become a pro. That means doing whatever is needed to be prepared for Sundays. Work out for longer? Do it. Spend more time watching film? Do it. Eat properly in the offseason? Do it. Give up drinking? Do it. What it takes is different for everyone, but it starts with respecting the game and the process.

I believe the talent gap at the bottom of a roster isn’t much. So if you know what you’re doing, and adjust on the fly, you can live the NFL dream. 

Once you’ve learned how to be a pro, you’re in a much better position to adapt to new environments. Each team has a different scheme. You need to learn the new scheme and then apply what you do best within each scheme. Knowing what you do best and applying it correctly keeps you in the league.

I’ve played for six offensive line coaches in the NFL. You might think OL play is simple enough to where the coaches are basically teaching the same things. Nope. Only two of my OL coaches taught the same technique. Ironically, these also have been my favorite OL systems.

Everything linemen do in a system is for a purpose and has a reason. I can get down with that. So I’ve had to adapt to various ways to pass block. Some OL coaches teach strong inside hand, some want vertical sets, some want a jump set at 45 degrees. I’ve been taught two-hand punch, independent hand usage and outside hand punch. I’ve been taught three different ways to stop a bull rush and different aiming points on zone plays. How difficult could it be to pull right? Well if you’re pulling on power, some schemes take the guard inside (but always outside of the double team) and ask him to “swab out” anything in the hole. Other schemes, if the guard sees it’s congested inside, then he adjusts and pulls around the blocks. It’s all madness. So you have to adapt and obey. You find out what the OL coach demands. You follow that.

Part of being a pro is learning not only your job, but the jobs of people around you and the defense. I’m playing right guard, but what is the tight end doing here? The fullback? The slot wide receiver? Where are the safeties? Are the backers deep or close, bowed or bossed? And on and on. This makes learning a new offense more fluid. They are unique, with different principles for the same plays.

Photo: Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

Let’s take Outside Zone as an example. Outside Zone is a choreographed run blocking scheme. The entire o-line initially moves in the same direction as the play is called. The objective of a true Outside Zone is getting the running back outside the widest defender and around the edge. However, in today’s NFL, a true outside zone play is the least common form of a zone running play. The name is almost a misnomer.

Outside Zone is used to describe a zone play, but rarely does the running back get outside; defensive ends are too good and quick. Most often, an Outside Zone turns into a Mid Zone. And a Mid Zone starts out like Outside Zone, but the running back often cuts up, mimicking Inside Zone. Confused? Well, you’ll enjoy what’s next.

When I started writing this column, I talked over Outside Zone principles with my brother, Mitch Schwartz of the Chiefs. He offered to write up Mid Zone disguised as Outside Zone. Here is what Mitch wrote, unedited on purpose to show complexity of language.

Traditional Outside Zone starts with the running back chasing the inside leg of the TE. That’s the landmark he’s given to stay on course. His read is the DE, back inside to the DT. If the DE plays with the OL, which they’re typically coached to do in the scheme, then he looks inside to see how the DT is playing. If the DT is also running with the OL, and maintaining his gap integrity, then the running back cuts even behind him. This is where you commonly hear “one cut.” The RB has been on his angle, running towards the inside leg of the TE, but once both the DE and DT have committed to running laterally with the OL, he cuts the ball behind them. A common way of saying this is that he “cuts back,” but coaches in this scheme don’t like that term. They like to say “cut up” because the best running backs in this scheme get vertical when they cut up, they don’t start running backwards from the flow of the offense, otherwise the defenders from the backside will catch up to them. The nature of this scheme is that the outside defender will play outside, defending his “contain” responsibility, and so the RB will never truly get outside of the defense. Some RBs get to know that, and will cheat by cutting up too soon, but this ruins the flow and integrity of the play. The best RBs “press the line,” which means they stay on that angle for as long as they can, which then helps bring defenders towards them, brings defenders to the offensive line (we work as a unit, and their ability to stay on track for as long as possible is crucial to our success on this type of play), and will end up defining the read much better for them.

These zone run plays are my favorite, in part because they work. Back in 2009 when I was a Panther, DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart etched their names in NFL history, becoming the first teammates to each scamper for more than 1,100 yards in a season. I was one of the “hogs” blocking for them. How satisfying, especially when they presented the entire starting line with a token of their appreciation.  Every time I put on that fancy watch I’m reminded of that amazing season.

So as you can see, even a seemingly simple running play has so many nuances. You’ve got to be able to figure all this out, and then play fast. This is what the best can do. I believe the talent gap at the bottom of a roster, and between the 5th through the 8th linemen, isn’t much. So if you know what you’re doing, and adjust on the fly, you can live the NFL dream. 

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Photo: David Eulitt/Kansas City Star/TNS via Getty Images

Ten Things I Think I Think

1. I think I’m tired of people attacking the NFL game. Yes, it’s different than years ago, but it’s not dying and it‘s not a worse product. Just look at how much money the NFL is making. If you want to find a factor that changed the game the most, look at two-a-day practices going away. Two-a-days is a phrase that makes all footballers cringe. The current CBA, under the premise of player safety, did away with two practices a day.  But that decision dramatically changed the game. Blocking and tackling will never be the same without two-a-days. Those are skills that need constant repetitions. I used to blame collegiate spread offenses for the general decline of o-line play but the loss of reps is mostly at fault.

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2. I think I like when passionate players take a stand. We all have our opinions. Take Eugene Monroe for instance. I won’t use this space to agree or disagree with his view on marijuana usage, but if he, and others, feel strongly about removing the NFL’s ban, they should be able to share their thoughts—without repercussion.

3. I think I love the report about fewer NFL players being arrested. Did you know that arrests are way down for players in the league? There has been an effort from the league office to the team level to stress a zero tolerance policies for off-the-field incidents. While I doubt guys are consciously thinking, “Hey, I better not screw up. I’ll get released,” all the awareness towards behaving properly must be working. I also sense that tougher penalties at the college and high school levels are contributing to the decline in arrests.

4. I think the game should be played on grass. I love grass. The smell, the uniform stains, the way it feels under my cleats. Grass is easier on my feet and legs and is certainly softer on the body when hitting the ground. I know it’s not practical in a domed stadium—though Arizona gets away with it—but just a wish of this lineman.

5. I think I’m falling out of love with social media. I use all forms because I like interacting with fans, and I get my news and entertainment from it. However, it’s gotten to a point where social media causes fake outrage mobs and everyone wants to be on the right side of a story. There’s no nuance anymore and heaven forbid you have a reasoned opinion that isn’t what the masses believe. You’re labeled all sorts of nonsense. It’s okay to have civil disagreements and reasoned opinions. My teammates and I discuss politics and often disagree. That’s perfect; it leads to discussion. And guess what? We are still friends and work together just fine. 

6. I think I love seeing all these NBA players making so much money. And it’s all guaranteed. While NFL players have parts of our contracts guaranteed, it’s typically no more than 40% of the overall value. I hold out hope in the next round of CBA negotiations that we can work towards fully guaranteed salaries, or maybe some sort of team financial penalty for cutting a player before the end of his contract. While anything along these lines would be a big win for us, I’m not holding my breath that it will happen—unless we use the only leverage we have and sit out games to get our point across. 

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7. I think if you love OL talk, check out my podcast. It’s called “Block ’Em Up,” and my co-host Duke Manyweather and I discuss everything offensive line. It can get nerdy at times but we have great guests join us. It’s fun and educational. You can find us on iTunes or wherever you enjoy listening to pods. We are there. Please subscribe.

8. I think it’s time for another shameless plug. My brother and I have a book coming out in September called “Eat My Schwartz: Our Story of NFL Football, Food, Family and Faith.” It covers all the bases, including our story as the first Jewish Brothers in the NFL since 1923. You can preorder it here.

9. I think that, if he wants, I’ll allow my son to play this game I love so much. Football has taught me many life lessons. Why not let him benefit from the same experiences? As a whole, the NFL and all 32 teams are doing a much better job creating a safer environment, especially when it comes to concussions. The big question for me is when to have him begin playing. I started in high school. If he plays, that’s when he’ll begin as well. I’ve seen pee-wee and youth games. Kids can’t control their bodies well enough to practice good technique, especially tackling. Also, I’ve watched “those” parents. Way too intense for me. Sports should always be fun! 

10. I think I’m worried my San Francisco Giants are too good right now. They have the best record in the majors, but lead the league in blown saves and have tons of injuries. When they have won their championships, it’s been by scraping into the playoffs. However, I have no worries once they get in because of their front end rotation, their defense and their timely hitting. I can’t wait for October.

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