Never mind the "rookie wall," Jeremy Chinn feels ready for more

Jeremy Chinn

CHARLOTTE – The young ones, bless their hearts, don't always know what they don't know.

At least Panthers coach Matt Rhule has a few years on them, and he's actually looking at the next month as a break from what he used to have to deal with in the past.

As the Panthers prepare to enter the final month of the regular season, they have a host of guys who have literally never played (or coached) this much football in their lives.

So while the many rookies on this team have the benefit of young legs, they're about to learn how much harder the last month of a season can be, and how an extra four or five games can tax those fresh bodies.

"I haven't felt like I've slowed down or anything like that," linebacker Jeremy Chinn said. "It is Week 12, and I don't think I played 12 games in college. But I don't feel, ... I feel like I could play 10 more games, I feel good.

"I don't really feel anything about the rookie wall."

Chinn has continued to play well, but the increased physical burdens are a real thing proven over 100 years of professional football. If he plays long enough (especially if he continues to play linebacker, where the physical demands are greater since he's running into offensive linemen instead of just backs and receivers), Chinn may look back on his youthful optimism and laugh.

Rhule said the team has tried to take care of players as well as possible, using all the tools available to them in the realm of sports science and athletic training. But it's still hard to replicate what 16 games of football do to the body for guys who have never played that many. Chinn only played 10 games last year and never more than 11 in a season at Southern Illinois.

The one adjustment Rhule has made is with scheduling. For years, the norm in the NFL was to give players Tuesdays off, practice Wednesday through Friday, and have a short walk-through on Saturday before the game the following day. Rhule has tweaked that, making Friday a walk-through, which functions as a bit of a midweek recovery break for players.

"I think we have a good process in place," Rhule said. "I think we have a good schedule. We do a Friday walk-through and a Saturday practice. I think that's helped some guys. We monitor things. We use all the newest sports science technologies to make sure guys are doing good physically. At the same time, I think we have a good support network for people so that they're also doing well mentally.

"We also use our gut. If I see someone getting tired, we try to cut back. I think our guys have done a good job of going week-to-week-to-week, and Jeremy's no exception."

Staying in the moment is an important part of Rhule's overall philosophy, and keeping the attention on small increments of time can help rookies keep from feeling overwhelmed as they add an extra month to any amount of football they've ever played.

"Coming here, I feel like every day is a different opportunity," rookie defensive end Yetur Gross-Matos said. "I think it's easy, being in an environment like we have here, to focus on one day at a time.

"You kind of blink and it's like we're in Week 12 now."

Gross-Matos missed three games with a high-ankle sprain earlier this year, and while the training room isn't exactly a vacation, it's not the same as game action. So he's being sincere when he says: "Physically, I'm good to go. I feel just as amped up and ready as the beginning of the season."

Rhule laughed when asked if he shared Chinn's enthusiasm and if he thought he had 10 more games in him. For the first-year NFL head coach, stripping away all the ancillary duties of being a college coach seems like a relief, allowing him to focus on nothing but football.

"This is all I know. I love this. I love every second of game week," the rookie head coach said. "So yeah, I don't look forward to the offseason. I could go for a while.

"The demands in college on the coach are way, way, way, way, different (Editor's note: That was four ways, and they gained intensity as Rhule's sentence went on). And a lot.

"Here, it's all football, which we love. There, it's academics, it's discipline, on campus-recruiting. You get done on Friday, you go fly and watch somebody play, and then Saturday you coach the game, and after the game, you meet recruits.

"So I'm doing just fine."

Of course, one of these days, Rhule's hoping to coach the Panthers beyond the end of the regular season, so getting used to this grind now will be something they all need down the road.

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