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A little helpful advice

CARLSBAD, Calif. -- As a highly successful coach who has worked with some of the greatest players in NFL history, Mike Shanahan had plenty of his own helpful tips for the 262 drafted players at the league's annual Rookie Symposium.

Yet early in his speech, he chose to share a quote that another successful coach, Bill Cowher, had delivered during a previous symposium address.

"He said, 'Your talent and reputation got you here. Your work ethic and personal conduct will determine how long you stay,' " Shanahan told the rookies. "I thought that got right to the point of what makes this room tick.

"Everybody in this room is very talented. You guys have worked throughout your career. You've gone through Pop Warner, you've gone through high school, you've gone through college to get yourselves in the position you're in right now. You've worked your rear ends off.

"Some of you guys have more talent (than others). Some of you guys are more overachievers. Some of you guys have both. The guys that have both, chances are, will be in the Pro Bowl. The guys that are very talented, but don't have the work ethic or drive or the hunger, chances are you'll eliminate yourself in the first couple of years."

In building the Denver Broncos into a two-time Super Bowl winner, Shanahan saw many players who showed the qualities he spelled out to his young audience. He mentioned several names that the rookies would recognize -- John Elway, Terrell Davis, Rod Smith, Shannon Sharpe -- and in each case he would point to an example where great talent was enhanced by even greater perseverance and work ethic.

Shanahan talked about how Elway overcame a long drought of winning any sort of bowl game, dating back to his days at Stanford, to win back-to-back Super Bowls in his 15th and 16th NFL seasons.

He talked about how Davis emerged from a sixth-round draft pick to become an elite running back.

He talked about how Smith earned his way onto the team as an undrafted free agent who spent three seasons on the practice squad and developed into one of league's best receivers and how he still blocks with the zeal of a lineman.

He talked about how Sharpe arrives at the Broncos' training facility each day at 5 a.m. for offseason workouts -- 45 minutes before Shanahan arrives.

"All the teams in the NFL are pretty close to being the same," Shanahan said. "What are you going to do out there to make a difference to your coaches, to separate yourself from the rest of the pack?

"Regardless of your talent, if you're not hungry, if you're not wanting to be the best at what you do, you will not last in the National Football League. Because there are a lot of guys that are talented. But the difference is: Are you a positive guy with a great attitude? Do you have a plan? Will you prepare yourself, both on the field and off the field? And do you have perseverance? And what I mean by perseverance is: Can you do it constantly, or are you up and down?"

Of all of the superstars he has coached in Denver, Shanahan has never been around a more determined player than Jerry Rice, the NFL's all-time leading receiver whom Shanahan coached as an assistant with the San Francisco 49ers. In Shanahan's book, Rice, who is entering his 18th NFL season and second with the Oakland Raiders, epitomizes perseverance and is the very essence of a strong work ethic.

When Shanahan joined the 49ers, Rice was in his eighth season in the league. By then, he already owned most of the NFL's receiving records, yet acted like an overachieving fringe player still striving to make an impact.

Shanahan recalled showing up at his office in the offseason and seeing Rice -- who would be part of a team workout later in the day -- running pass routes on the practice field at 8 a.m. with an equipment man throwing him the ball. Then Shanahan would find Rice downstairs in the weight room lifting for 90 minutes. Then he would find him in the film room, watching videotape of the top 10 receivers in each conference. Rice was studying their route-running technique, looking to pick up any tricks that he might not yet have thought of himself.

"He said, 'Coach, I want to make sure no one ever catches me. I want to be the best that ever played the game,' " Shanahan recalled. "That's why I consider him the best player I've ever been around, because he was consistent every year in the offseason.

"People talk about the fact he only runs a 4.5 (40-yard dash). In all my years, I had never seen Jerry Rice, until after his knee surgery a couple of years ago, ever get caught from behind. We had a guy in Denver who ran a 4.38 and got caught from behind all the time. Jerry would run a 4.53 or a 4.50 or a 4.58 every play, because he was in such great shape and he believed that, every time he caught the ball, he was going to score -- that no one was going to catch him. And that's what separates the great ones from the good ones and average ones."

Shanahan pointed out that this rookie class has an advantage over its predecessors because salary-cap limitations are forcing teams to carry cap-friendlier salaries of younger players. But he also stressed that it was incumbent upon each player to take the necessary steps to make the most of the opportunity.

And the first step is physical conditioning. Shanahan reminded the rookies that they were about to embark on a much longer season than they had in college and, therefore, needed to be ready to handle it.

"It is hard," he said. "You guys are going to say, 'Hey, I've never been through anything like that.' That means you've got to have a commitment in the offseason. You've got to get in better shape than you've ever gotten in. You've got to lift harder than you've ever lifted and you've got to stay in shape in the regular season."

Step two is mental conditioning to grasp the much thicker and more complicated playbook than is typically found at the collegiate level.

"I don't care what team you're on, you are facing probably some of the hardest classes you're ever going to be in -- offense, defense and special teams," Shanahan said. "And if you're not ready to study and take that home with you, then you are not going to have the type of career that you think you have a chance of having. If you're not going to take that game plan, Monday through Friday, and study it each night where it becomes automatic, you can't play at the level you're capable of playing. If you don't study tape and you don't know what your opponent's going to do before he does it, regardless of talent, you can't separate yourself from the rest of the pack, because nobody is that good."

Rookies must be ready to contribute in a big way on special teams, Shanahan told the audience. Otherwise, they should plan for a very brief stay in the NFL, where all backups and even several starters are involved in the kicking game.

"If in the back of your mind, you're thinking -- and I don't care if you're a starter or a second-team guy -- that you aren't a special-teams player, you will not last in the National Football League," Shanahan said.

Off-field conduct is another area that Shanahan cited as a place where players can make or break their careers. In his closing remarks, he warned the rookies that regardless of their team, they should never think they can find a place to do something they "shouldn't do" that will be out of the coach's watchful eye.

"I'm telling you, as a head football coach, the head coach knows," Shanahan said. "People will call him, tell him where you're at, what you're doing, how you're handling yourself. So just conduct yourself as a professional. Just think about all the time you've invested throughout your life for this opportunity.

"I tell guys during the season, if you're out the night before a game and I catch you, you're gone. If we've got everybody working their butt off on the same pace and everybody gets a good night's sleep the night before the game, we've got a chance to be something special. But if we've got three or four guys that think that nightlife the night before the game or even during the week is more important than what's at hand, we may get to the playoffs, but we'll never be the champs.

"Remember, you control your own destiny. Good luck."

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