Mini-camps are welcome activities to the long offseason for NFL teams. For the most part, the heavy lifting by front offices and personnel departments has been completed by now, and it’s time to look at the glittery new merchandise that teams have acquired in the offseason to this point. It’s a time of rebirth and rejuvenation, a spring event featuring the blossoming of the new embodiment of the team. When players finally walk over those freshly laid white lines for the first time since December or January (or February, for the Cardinals and Steelers), there’s a sense among fans, players, coaches and teams that all is good. A long sigh and an equally long “ahhh” passes from the mouths of NFL personnel everywhere, meaning it’s time to get the focus to the field rather than off it where it has been the past four months.
It’s been written many times in this space that the NFL is home to the longest offseason of the major professional sports leagues. Over the past four months, especially March and April, teams are molded, designed, assembled and massaged into transformations – whether gentle or radical – of what they were when the players cleaned out their lockers months earlier. These months are extremely busy times for NFL management, much more so than when the teams are actually playing. I always got a kick out of people asking me, “What do you do in the offseason?” That may have been a valid question 30 years ago, but a more appropriate question for team management today would be, “What do you do during the season?” as the busier times are soon after the expired season and before the start of a new one.
Minicamps, while presenting teams with this first and much-anticipated look at the new team, can also be frustrating and teasing. I always try to listen to scouts and personnel staffs at these times to take note of who was flashing at the camps, who made an immediate impression, who is someone to keep an eye on and what potential roster battles bear watching as we head into training camp. Invariably, however, these impressions fade when the pads come on in August, mere fleeting recollections of the spring.
It often happens that players who flashed during mini-camp end up buried on depth charts during training camp. When I would ask scouts and coaches what happened, I usually got the answer, “That was before the pads went on.” Whether a player looks good or bad in training camp, one always has to keep the coaching mantra in mind: “He looks good in shorts,” meaning anyone can look good – or bad, I guess – in non-contact drills. The real evaluations come when “the pads come on.”
So why the mini-camps? Well, there has to be some gathering of the team prior to training camp in the long offseason. There has to be the installation of the offensive and defensive systems prior to the onslaught of two-a-days. There has to be some getting-to-know-each-other during the spring, some galvanizing of forces that start the union necessary for in-season chemistry. These long weekends are vital to jump-starting the bond that will attach for the next eight months.
Moreover, mini-camps are the beginning of “we” time in the NFL after four months of “me” time. Sure, there will be some players missing from the camps and some low rumblings of discontent throughout the league about contracts, playing time and more nonspecific unhappiness, but that’s to be expected with the number of players football has. However, after writing about the wealth of challenges that teams face with the winter and early spring machinations of building teams and keeping the talent happy and productive, it’s nice to get everyone on a football field, savoring these long weekends in May to get our first look at the 2009 products to be unveiled in August. “Ahhh” football – albeit without pads — is finally here.