Taken with the second pick in the 2008 NFL Draft, defensive end
When they subsequently signed him to the lucrative contract that goes with that lofty draft status, those prospects were only raised.
As if that wasn’t enough, Long was born with a name that when it comes to setting expectations comes with a certain amount of inherent pressure.
The son of Hall of Fame defensive end Howie Long, people expected Long to be his father from day one whether those expectations or realistic or not. It’s something he’s dealt with at every level of the game.
It would’ve been easy for a lesser person to crumble underneath the weight of those expectations, to believe the anti-hype, so to speak that goes with not posting double digit sacks as a rookie or performing superhuman feats every Sunday.
A less introspective person might not be able to see the forest through the trees.
“I’m just the same as anybody in this locker room,” Long said. “I think we all have different stories and backgrounds of how we got here, different trials and tribulations and no man in a NFL locker room hasn’t been through something tough. Everybody’s been through something tough.
“What’s tough for me is the last name thing, the draft status. But I’ve never felt sorry for myself. I have always been appreciative of all those things and tried to look at them as blessings. I think I have to pull my weight like anybody else. That’s the way I was brought up and I am not going to look for any handouts. I am just very lucky to be in the position I’m in.”
As Long is quick to point out, there aren’t many athletes – not many people – that haven’t had some sort of struggle to get where they are. The difference in what makes them who they are is whether they let that struggle break them, or make them.
Long decided early on that he wasn’t going to let it break him.
“All players in the NFL should set the bar really high,” Long said. “And then on top of that when your expectations are a little bit higher because of draft status or a number of other factors, you really feel that pressure. All you can do is just keep working at it or chipping away and have faith that things will turn around.”
Attending school and playing football at St. Anne’s-Bellfield in Charlottesville, Virginia, the expectations on Long weren’t much different than what they are now, if only because of his impressive football pedigree.
“That’s always something I have learned to deal with,” Long said. “Don’t make that a bad thing, draw the positives from it and use those things to motivate you. I’ve always had that as kind of a challenge, people telling you you aren’t worth this or that because you’re just there because of your dad or you’ll never be as good as your dad but I don’t really let it get me. I never have let it get me down. I am proud of who he is and I am also motivated by that. Maybe I won’t be as good as my pops, he was a Hall of Famer but that’s not a bad thing to shoot for and if you fall short you’ll still be a pretty darn good player. That’s my way of looking at it.”
For the Cavaliers, Long again showed the football world that he was a force to be reckoned with, racking up 14 sacks as a senior while playing end in Virginia’s 3-4 defensive alignment.
That performance made Long the most coveted pass rusher in the 2008 draft. When the Rams came up on the board, the choice was easy.
What wasn’t easy was the road Long was going to have to haul to again become a difference maker as he had in high school and college.
As a 3-4 end, Long grew accustomed to playing on the left side and lining up in a different position with different responsibilities, angles and techniques to play in that scheme.
Most 3-4 ends Long’s size enter the NFL and switch to 3-4 linebackers where they become stand up pass rushers. Long was asked to make the unusual switch to 4-3 base defensive end.
Long readily acknowledges that the change was a difficult one, especially considering the outside pressure placed on him to perform right away.
“It’s tough,” Long said. “It tests you as an athlete, as a person. It tests your faith in yourself as a player. It tests your mental toughness. It’s a big challenge but you can’t back down from it.”
Named a starter by then coach Scott Linehan on the day he was drafted, Long had much to live up to that season.
When it was all said and done, Long had four sacks and led the team in quarterback pressures. It was a solid if unspectacular debut and landed Long a spot on a few All Rookie teams.
But to those expecting instant greatness, it wasn’t enough.
“You hear them every day as a football player in general,” Long said. “With football, it’s hard for people on the outside to understand. It’s a complicated game to begin with but throw on top of that the fact that schemes are constantly changing, your job is changing, it’s hard. You can’t get caught up too much in what you hear. You hear words like bust or those types of things. Those aren’t dirty words. Those are words that motivate me. I have heard them before and I know the standard of expectations set for the No. 2 pick in the draft is going to be different than for most other people so I don’t expect other people to understand that. I don’t try to get into it with other people. I just try to be the best Chris Long I can be and try to help this organization the most I can.”
The honest and thoughtful Long looks back at his first year and a half in the league and openly admits that he felt the pressure almost from the time he entered the league.
The Rams, meanwhile, were going through changes, hiring Steve Spagnuolo as the head coach. For a defensive lineman, especially an end, the addition of Spagnuolo was music to the ears.
Spagnuolo had forged his reputation as the Giants defensive coordinator by deploying his defensive linemen in exotic ways and creating dynamic ways to rush the passer. Long was aware of Spagnuolo’s pedigree from the Giants’ Super Bowl win and was excited to dive into the new system.
Of course, the learning curve sharpened with a new scheme and new coaches – namely coordinator Ken Flajole and defensive line coach Brendan Daly - thrown at him for the second time in two years.
“It just took a little time,” Long said. “Once it started clicking it really started clicking and I really enjoyed making the transition. It’s also helped me really learn to hit the curveball and do things on the run and when our defense changes, I feel like I’m maybe better at adjusting to sudden change because I made that big adjustment. You have to be versatile to play in this defense anyway so I think that helps.”
With experienced veterans Leonard Little and
And, of course, Long leaned on his parents – he’s also very close with mother Diane, whose name he recently had tattooed on left side – to help his keep his confidence up.
“I don’t know his father, I do know how he was as a player and I would suspect that his father was a guy that everything he got, he earned,” Flajole said. “I would also suspect that the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. Chris has been brought up that way that nothing is going to be given to you, that you have to work for what you get. He’s earned it and I would just go back and think that’s how Chris was raised by mom and dad.”
About halfway through his second season in 2009, the light bulb went off and Long made the decision to cast the outside pressure and expectations aside.
“I just decided: ‘Hey you are either going to let all this pressure make you think your way out of this thing or you can just let it go. What’s the worst that can happen? Give it your best shot,’” Long said. “I just started to try to let things flow a little bit more and not worry about making mistakes and not worry about all the expectations. To be honest, that was the best thing that could have ever happened to me because I was just able to play more freely and our defense started to improve and my improvements came along with that.”
Long actually took a backseat to Little and Hall in his second year, coming off the bench for much of the season but playing just as much as a starter would. He finished with five sacks, each of those in the final nine games of the season.
“You saw him start to play faster at about that same point,” Daly said. “You saw it show up on tape. On Sundays in the games, he was reacting to things quicker, he was allowing his natural ability to take over in his play a little bit because he was getting more comfortable with what he was being asked to do.”
Long carried the momentum of that strong finish into 2010, when he was finally moved back to his more natural position on the left side. That, combined with his advanced understanding of the defense in its second year and his increasing comfort with his place in the league, made for a breakout year in which Long was one of the league’s most dynamic pass rushers.
“The other thing you see is him developing as a pro: studying tape, watching the game, understanding how to work at it when we’re not on the practice field or in the meeting room,” Daly said. “He does a great job of that.”
Long finished with a career high 8.5 sacks and finished tied for ninth in the NFL with Seattle's Chris Clemons in combined quarterback hurries and knockdowns with 36.
A BIT OF A RASCAL
Were there to be any lingering doubt that Long still lets the pressure get to him once in a while, one need only to sit in on a defensive meeting, especially one in the linemen room.
“I would say this: he’s a good pro, he knows how to work, he’s very diligent about his preparation,” Flajole said. “Does he have a little rascal in him and like to cut up sometimes in meetings? He does but that’s the fun part of him. He’s a great guy.”
As one of the resident pranksters in the Rams locker room, Long knows when a little levity is needed. In the grind that is a NFL season, he is well aware that you can’t be too serious all the time.
“I tend to be an independent thinker I guess, and a little bit defiant,” Long said. “I’m not sure if he means that as a compliment. He would probably call it me being a pain in the (butt).”
That doesn’t mean Long doesn’t take the classroom work serious. It’s that fun, outgoing side that perhaps Long wouldn’t have showed in his early years that show how far he’s come.
In some ways, allowing a little more immature side to come out is a sign of his maturity.
“He’s got a unique personality and he keeps it light,” Daly said. “He’s fun to be around and he likes to joke around. When you are in the grind of the NFL season, there is always a need for that levity and to break the monotony. He’s a breath of fresh air from that standpoint.”
THE SKY IS THE LIMIT
Completely comfortable in Spagnuolo’s defense in his third year in the scheme and firmly entrenched on the left side, Long’s job description is clearly defined.
Along with Hall, Long’s job is to get after quarterbacks and be solid against the run, an area in which he’s been sound from the day he first entered the league.
In the two plus years since Spagnuolo, Flajole and Daly have coached him, Long has already made great strides.
“He’s made a lot of progress from the first time we walked into this building until now,” Flajole said. “He had a good year for us last year. I really anticipate that he’s going to make the next step and have a great year for us. He’s a very talented kid.”
Through three weeks of this season, Long has 20.5 sacks for his career, including one in each game this season. As a pass rusher, that’s the number that he knows will ultimately define his individual career.
But in some ways, Long is still just scratching the surface of his NFL potential. Few numbers annoy Long more than the combined hurries and knockdowns because, to him, all that means is he was just a half step short of coming up with another sack.
“I think he has the potential to be an excellent player in this league for a long time, I really do,” Daly said. “And I think he has the ability to be a dominant player. It’s up to him. We’ll see where he goes with this thing but he is certainly putting the work in and he’s starting to do a lot of the little things to be a great player.”
If those little things continue to add up and Long starts turning more of those near sacks into the real thing, the sky is the limit on where his career can go.
“I plan on trying to get better,” Long said. “I think there is a point of diminishing returns on your physical ability in this league. I think that’s a reality. I don’t know how long my career will be. You age quickly in this league and that’s just the reality of it but while I am here I want to get better every year. Mentally, I want to be improving myself every day, the way I prepare and the way I look at playing offenses. Hopefully I get better until the day I get kicked out of the league or hang it up.”