Camp Observations: 2 Weeks, 4 Cities, 7 Teams

Over the past two weeks I had the privilege of attending four NFL training camps.

Three of those were joint practices: Browns vs. Eagles in Cleveland, Broncos vs. Cowboys in Denver, and Patriots vs. Panthers in Foxboro. I also spent a day on the St. John Fisher campus in Rochester, N.Y., observing the Bills. 

Overall, it was a very informative two weeks, seeing players and coaches from seven different teams in very competitive environments. Here are some general takeaways from my visits:

Pre-practice Walk-Throughs Matter

A walk-through is a “business” meeting – moving the classroom (in most cases) to the field that goes to the core of the teaching and learning process. It is also the second phase of a four-step progression that includes explaining it in the classroom through video or pictures, quickly walking through each play on the field (or at times, in an available area nearby), repping at full speed without a defense, and finally, running it in a full-speed competitive period vs. the defense. 

A walk-through is an opportunity to visualize and actively learn each play on the field. It is a practice rep for those participating and watching without the wear and tear on the body, unlike a full-speed play. During each of my visits, every team had a pre-practice walk-through that included not only offense and defense but also special teams, and without exception, the coaches and players had each other’s undivided attention. 

Player Safety Was a Priority

Fighting and trash-talking was not promoted or tolerated by any of the head coaches. 

It was clear to me while observing practice as players were going full speed that they were highly cognizant of player safety. Examples were everywhere:

>> The defensive players who beat blockers at the line of scrimmage were aware and respectful of staying away from the quarterback. Specifically, defensive linemen stayed on the edges of offensive linemen as opposed to running through them (commonly called a “forklift”) and taking an offensive lineman into the quarterback. 

>> Players were physical, yet for the most part they stayed on their feet. Over my years of coaching, it became obvious that the best players stayed off the ground and practiced in a manner that kept opponents on their feet as well. In the run game, the tempo is controlled by the offensive line while the tempo in the passing game is controlled by the defensive line. The offensive and defensive lines at the practices I witnessed over the two weeks did a great job of keeping each other safe.

>> Running backs and receivers were allowed to finish the play, and there was minimal jersey grabbing of the runners, which dramatically eliminates the possibility of soft-tissue injuries. This also allows both the offense and defense to run to the ball carrier and “finish” the play.

>> Defensive backs did a great job of preventing collisions in the secondary by coming off receivers when collisions were imminent.

>> Over the course of many hours of the three joint practices I attended, there were four instances of fighting. It was evident that the coaches were angry and disappointed at the behavior of their teams, but each head coach used it as an opportunity to teach some of the following:

  • The players were reminded that fighting is a safety issue that can lead to an injury and loss of a player. Players who fight in a game are ejected, which in turn causes a major ripple effect on game day to adjustments and player availability.
  • When a player loses his poise during an altercation, it is a discipline-related issue that takes the coach’s and player’s time and focus away from the team. The individual player can dramatically affect the perception of the team and its coaching staff. 
  • Each head coach brought their players together to explain how fighting on the field wasted valuable practice time and that the behavior was unacceptable.
  • All players involved in the fighting were ejected from practice by their head coach, and I’m sure in some cases, called into question their viability for a roster spot.

>> Practices were highly organized and extremely efficient, with a focus on special situations, including third-down, red zone and two-minute offense.

>> During the competitive portions of practice, the coaches let the players play. There was very little coaching during this time. Coaches wanted it to be as much like a game as possible, knowing they could coach from the tape during evening meetings.

What I Specifically Saw …

The quarterbacks were decisive. I was extremely impressed with the accuracy, arm talent and decisiveness of Josh Allen, Russell Wilson, Mac Jones, and especially Jalen Hurts, who I had not seen up close before. (Because of my location at Cowboys practice I was unable to watch Dak Prescott.)

Two things were evident from these practices:

  1. The ball was seldom on the ground and ball security with all four quarterbacks was at a premium. 
  2. All the quarterbacks, without question, were on the same page with their coordinator, play-caller and receivers. There appeared to be very little – if any – confusion or post-play discussion.

In Buffalo, new OC Ken Dorsey was in control: Dorsey was active during practice, clearly communicating with the offense, and utilizing the assistance of new QB coach Joe Brady and senior assistant Mike Shula.

In Denver, Russell Wilson was nearly flawless. In operating in a new offense, Wilson used the play-action and drop-back game, while spreading the ball around to multiple receivers. After practice, Wilson spent at least 20 minutes working with his receivers in the red zone. And following a 2 ½-hour practice and red-zone work, he spent nearly an hour of his time signing autographs in 85-plus-degree heat.

In Foxboro, Mac Jones was in complete control. He had outstanding footwork on drops both under center and in the gun, very quick decision-making and accuracy, and it was clearly apparent through demeanor and practice interaction with his teammates and coaches that he is entirely connected to and leading his team. Over two days of practice, I saw the offense function at an extremely high level in the middle of the field and in the red zone.

In Cleveland, I spent a lot of time following Jalen Hurts. Up close, you can tell he is strong and powerful. I saw him work through progressions and throw with accuracy, on time, and finishing to his flare control and outlet receivers. I also saw him move to the right and left, extending plays and making accurate and explosive throws to a talented group of tight ends, running backs and receivers.

The ‘Scramble Rule’

Over the years as a coordinator and head coach, I always interspersed pass plays in practice where I told the quarterback to pull the ball down and scramble (to extend the play). The most important part of the so-called “scramble rule” is that it is not a hard-and-fast rule but an opportunity for the QB and his receivers to connect on an explosive play. 

There is no set scramble rule, per se, but there are fundamentals that can be coached to create better opportunities for a big play. What impressed me was seeing an entire competitive team period devoted to offensive players working themselves open when the quarterback exited the pocket, and on the other side where defensive players had to attach to adjacent receivers (“plaster”) and contain the quarterback. 

The two most important stats in football are turnovers and explosive plays. Quarterbacks extending plays is an integral part of the game. Using an entire period makes so much sense. It is a separate element of “special-situation” football like third-down, red zone, short-yardage, and two-minute, and arguably carries with it an equal amount of importance.

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