Daily Archives: August 15, 2012

My top 10 (serious and fun) camp observations

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Where I went, and when. Thank you, Rand McNally.

THE COMFORTS OF HOME, Ont. — In the past three weeks, I’ve visited nine NFL training camps.

In the process I added 4,049 km — or 2,516 miles — to my odometer, and warped one front-wheel rotor on my otherwise hardy, trusty Chrysler Sebring.

I saw the Bills, Jets, Giants, Eagles, Redskins, Ravens, Steelers, Lions and Browns all practise.

Some teams went at it in full pads the day I attended. Others in upper pads only. Still others in shells only (helmets and soft shoulder pads). As well, some offences concentrated on either running or passing.

POINTMany comparisons, thus, aren’t fair.

With that asterisk in mind, herewith are 10 enduring observations, serious and offbeat, from my two whirlwind tours, with photos I snapped along the way:

1. TIM TEBOW:
Let’s get this one out of the way. The Jet-for-Jesus possesses the worst mechanics of any quarterback I saw throw. By a longshot. See right. That is all.

2. BEST QUARTERBACK:
The Steelers’ Ben Roethlisberger (below). He was on fire the day I attended practice at Saint Vincent College in Latrobe.

During one relatively long drill pitting the Steelers’ WRs vs DBs, Big Ben went almost the whole way without a DB getting a single touch on one of his throws.

Ins. Outs. Long fades. Quick hard slants. The works. Big Ben was friggin’ on. Backup Byron Leftwich was almost as good.

POINTYou could see, sense and hear the frustration of the Pittsburgh DBs.
Afterward, S Troy Polamalu confirmed that observation to me:

“Our quarterbacks are awesome right now. It’s been really tough for us to get any turnovers on defence … They don’t give you many opportunities.”

After Roethlisberger, I’d say Matthew Stafford of the Lions was most impressive. He zipped sharp, accurate passes all over the field. Then Eli Manning of the Giants, Ryan Fitzpatrick of the Bills, Michael Vick of the Eagles.

After that fivesome, it’s a pick-’em between Raven Joe Flacco, Browns rookie Brandon Weeden and both RG3 and Rex (yes, him) Grossman of the Redskins.

Mark Sanchez and Tebow of the Jets bring up the rear.

3. MOST IMPRESSIVE PLACEKICKER:
It wasn’t even close. If undrafted rookie Justin Tucker, from the University of Texas, was brought into Ravens camp to light a fire under playoff goat Billy Cundiff, call in the wildfire-dousing aircraft.

After the first week of camp, Tucker and his super strong right leg evidently hadn’t missed a single practice field goal. The day I attended, he perfectly drilled placekicks in rapid succession from 31, 36, 41, 46 and 53 yards out, before barely coming up short from 60. Sixty!

For a livin’ fact, if the Ravens cut Tucker, someone’s gonna pick him up.

4. PRACTICE ROUTINES.
These vary greatly from team to team, and tend to take on the personality of the head coach.

For instance, the Lions’ Jim Schwartz wants to cram in as many plays as possible, and demands attentiveness. Players thus run between snaps, and run between drills the moment the horn sounds.
POINT

The Jets, Steelers, Eagles and Giants (right) emphasized physicality the most.

The Ravens’ practice was most unique. Whether it was offence vs. defence or special teams, theirs was highly situational and game-like.

Example 1: At any moment during O vs. D, a field-goal attempt might be called.

Example 2: A special team ran through, in precise detail, what the strategic aim was for the play in question, and it varied depending on the number of seconds left in the first half.

Situational to the max.

“That’s exactly what it is,” Ravens head coach John Harbaugh told me. “Football always has been practised by script over the years. Our practice is way more free-flowing — like running water. Because the game is played like running water. It’s fast, it’s fluid. You’ve got to be able to adapt. Play-callers have to call plays on the run. We have scripted periods too, but we want to play the game in practice.

“When you practise basketball, you go out and play basketball. Why should football be any different? It’s definitely something that not a lot of people do, but it makes practice a lot more fun, I can tell ya that.”

5. THESE SOCKS (below):
POINT

The owner? Flamboyant, boisterous Pittsburgh Steelers safety Ryan Clark.

POINT6. BEST PLAY BY A DEFENDER:
Ravens’ 17-year man Ray Lewis. Sure wasn’t expecting that.

RB Ray Rice tipped me that future Hall of Fame linebacker’s widely reported weight drop was from 250-255 pounds down to 240. And Rice said Lewis did it for the purpose of improving his pass coverage.

Er, mission accomplished.

In one 11-on-11 play, the moment Flacco released a quick out to the right to a tight end, Lewis immediately reacted. At that point I thought, “Great instincts, but no way he’s going to get there.” That quickly turned to, “Hey, he might get there.” Then to, “WOW, he’s GONNA get there!”

Lewis indeed got there. Before the tight end, even. In fact Lewis appeared to deliberately settle for a breakup, when in a game he could have had a pick-six.
Extremely impressive.

7. FIVE POTENTIAL UNDER-THE-RADAR BREAKOUT PLAYERS:
• Lions WR Titus Young. He can cut hard and keep his speed like few skill players I’ve seen. And the second-year Boise State product has good hands. He was injured for most of last year’s camp and has had maturity issues. But what a talent. “He’s an important part of our plans,” Schwartz said Monday.
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• Eagles DE Brandon Graham (right). The 2010 1st-round pick looks fully recovered from knee surgery, got more camp reps with injuries to starters, and continually was making plays in the backfield.

• Giants rookie RB David Wilson has the best feet (read: juke moves) of any NYG back since Dave Meggett, some observers said.

• The Steelers sure love their big-bowling-balls-as-running-backs. With starter Rashard Mendenhall still recovering from ACL surgery, others have had their chances to shine at camp. On my visit, Jonathan Dwyer (5-foot-11, 230) and John Clay (6-foot-1, 248) each destroyed potential tacklers on separate, impressive 10-yard TD bursts in 11-on-11s. Both looked like sound options as short-yardage backs.

8. NEW-LOOK HEAD COACHES:
POINTThe Jets’ Rex Ryan said he has lost 106 pounds, from 348 to 242. Andy Reid of the Eagles also has shed a bunch.

Meanwhile, Bills’ Chan Gailey has expanded his winter goatee into a fullblown ‘stache and beard — and John Harbaugh of the Ravens started a camp goatee, asking reporters how it looked. Um, not too good. Short-lived experiment. But now he’s trying to grow one again.

9. BEST SECONDARY:
Who else? The Ravens.

S Ed Reed is still sleek, fast, yappy, and good. And CB Corey Graham, signed as a UFA from Chicago, probably had the best PBU I saw of any cornerback in either 7-on-7s or 11-on-11s. He smelled out a dig route and beat the WR to the ball.

Of course, it might all just mean that Flacco is mediocre.

10. COOLEST BIT OF MOTIVATIONAL COACHING:
With the Eagles offence apparently winning too many battles in a goal-line war at the 1-yard line, Reid interrupted proceedings.

He sent the offence into a huddle, walked over to the defence and barked out some pointed words. All the while, he repeatedly jab-pointed to the ball on the ground (see my photo, below). Then he walked away, pissed off.

The D won the next attempt. Defenders went nuts.

That’s motivation.

POINT

Browns pin hopes on ‘old man’ Weeden

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My photo of Brandon Weeden talking to reporters Tuesday after Browns practice.

BEREA, Ohio — Tim Tebow turned 25 on Tuesday. Cam Newton is 23. Andrew Luck and RG3 are 22.

Yet Brandon Weeden, the rookie Cleveland Browns quarterback, turns 29 on Oct. 14.

That’s two months before Green Bay Packers’ All-Pro QB Aaron Rodgers does.

Why is Weeden so old? Because he shelved his college and pro football careers for five years to give pro baseball a go.
It didn’t go.

So he switched back to football in 2007, enrolled at Oklahoma State, and the past two autumns was one of college ball’s most prolific throwers.
The Browns picked Weeden 22nd overall in April, the fourth quarterback taken in the first round.

Here we are, less than four months later, and the not-so-wide-eyed rookie already has been named the Browns’ starting quarterback.

WeedenHe’s the latest hope for a hapless franchise that hasn’t had a QB hold the reins for more than two years since Tim Couch’s disappointing turn ended a decade ago.

At Tuesday morning’s training-camp practice, held indoors, the 6-foot-3, 220-pound Weeden showed off his impressive abilities — foremost his strong, accurate arm.

In his turns in red-zone 11-on-11s, Weeden was precise on five of seven throws. The prettiest was a wheel route to Montario Hardesty streaking into the end zone. Weeden dropped it right into his hands, but the running back alligator-armed it and dropped it.

“Brandon’s very talented,” No. 1 Browns wide receiver Greg Little said. “He can make any throw. And when I say that, he doesn’t try to drill you with the ball every time. He knows (when) to take something off, or put a little bit more on it, or put air under it.

“Even when he’s late through his progressions with a read, he can make that time up with his arm and get it there.”

But he’s still a rookie, and it’s all coming at Weeden fast and furious. He smiled Tuesday about having to get his wife Melanie read him plays at night during spring OTAs, to help him memorize them.

“Now I’m good,” he said. “Now I’ve got a feel for what we’re doing.”

We asked Browns head coach Pat Shurmur if the game has slowed down already for Weeden — because it can take a couple of years — or longer — for this to happen.

“I saw in the last game that this thing is not too big for him,” Shurmur said. “There wasn’t anything out there that surprised him, or he didn’t see.”

In limited reps in the Browns’ first preseason game last Friday in Detroit, Weeden completed only three of nine passes, with a pick and a fumble. Deceiving numbers?

“Absolutely. No question,” Weeden said defiantly Tuesday.

That’s just one aspect of Weeden’s character that Shurmur likes.

“I think he’s a very resilient guy,” Shurmur said. “So when he has a bad play or two, or a bad series or two, I’ve seen him bounce back extremely well.”
Weeden isn’t lacking in courageousness or confidence, either.

“I’m not scared to throw the ball into the end zone,” he said.

WeedenFor this Thursday night’s game in Green Bay, Shurmur has decided to play Weeden and the first-team offence for the entire first half.

What probably would help Weeden to succeed more than anything in Year 1 — especially in the same AFC North division as the Steelers and Ravens — is an effective running game.

The Browns are hoping No. 3 overall draft pick Trent Richardson makes that happen.  But the 5-foot-9, 230-pounder — seen as the most promising rookie runner since Adrian Peterson in 2007 — hurt his left knee early in camp, had it scoped to remove a tiny, loose piece of cartilage, and likely is shelved for the remainder of the preseason.

If that means more of the burden falls onto Weeden’s shoulders, he just might be able to handle it.

“I think all quarterbacks, on some level, are definitely more mature than their age,” rookie offensive tackle Mitchell Schwartz said. “He probably acts like a 35-year-old.”

Just don’t ever expect Weeden to deliver jokes as fast as his passes.

We asked Little if the QB can keep up with him when it comes to humour.
The 23-year-old, second-year wideout didn’t blink.

“Naw, he’s too old.”

——

HOW TO GET MORE PASSES THROWN YOUR WAY, 101

BEREA, Ohio — As the Cleveland Browns’ top wide receiver, Greg Little knows who butters his bread.
Quarterback Brandon Weeden.
And he knows how to butter him up.
“Yeah, it’s just like you’ve got to take him out to eat, to the movies, those type things,” Little cracked after Tuesday’s indoor practice.
“Ya know, get him shoes every now and then. Make sure he has a snack. Send cookies to his room if we’re on the road. Those type things. You’ve got to take care of the quarterback, so he can get you the ball.”
Laughs all around. But Little was only half-kidding.
“Well, last week (before playing in Detroit), I sent cookies to his room. So this week, I don’t know, I may get him some fruit. Just trying to think on a healthier note.”