As most NFL training camps hit Phase 2 of the “new normal,” let’s start with these observations. In my opinion, there is absolutely no real buzz being generated about the National Football League on the wide variety media platforms throughout the country. Fans and, for that matter, the media themselves have never been more in the dark as to what is happening in and around training camps and team offices.
COVID-19 has forced restrictions on access to training camp practices and as a result, fans are also less informed than at any time since I can remember. Now with no preseason games and very limited video being provided of NFL practices, it’s hard for the media to come up with significant and timely storylines. They are unable to monitor camp battles amongst players and, in general, get a feel for what’s going on behind the curtain. They also can’t speculate on what to expect once the curtain is raised.
Here’s the good news! You probably haven’t missed much. There have been no pads on players, thus no sounds of cracking/banging helmets or shoulder pads. No one has been tackled yet and very few have been injured yet. Other than a few minor roster moves due to the fluidity of the coronavirus-reserve list, teams are focusing on perfecting the testing process and should be commended for how it’s going. Sometimes no news is good news but here are a few things that have jumped out at me.
Camps are being run in a very collegiate way but with a lot less bodies on the practice field. Everyone has 80 players and that’s not a lot when it comes to getting the reps needed to evaluate or learn a new scheme. For that reason, some final rosters, and also depth charts, will be chosen without any contact or “real football” even being played.
I foresee very little, if any, tackling or scrimmaging for the remainder of this month. Offenses will be ahead of defenses early in the season and overall, I predict the tackling will be very sloppy and inconsistent. The overall quality of the special teams will be shakier than ever, so fans should keep all of this in mind. In other words, bet the over early in the season!
It should not come as a surprise to anyone but Las Vegas Raiders coach Jon Gruden told media this week of his love for new QB Marcus Mariota. In his coaching career, Gruden has made a habit of throwing effusive praise towards many early on but, in this case, here is what I took from his comments. He wants to keep the pressure on starter Derek Carr, so expect this praise to continue. When he came into the league, Mariota was highly regarded by many because he was a superior athlete who could both throw on the run and keep plays alive with his feet.
His new head coaches comments are stating the obvious but if his accuracy can be slightly improved, I think he will be more effective in the current Raiders system than he was in Tennessee. Unfortunately, we won’t have any preseason action to judge it. My guess is, at some point this year, Mariota will get his chance.
The fact that Washington QB Alex Smith has been cleared to practice sheds a total new light on their team and the NFC East. This is a fairly talented team that gets overshadowed by the continual off-the-field, circus-like, environment that has gone on in the nation’s capital for many seasons. If Smith is truly healthy, and if he shows signs of his prior skill level, it would not shock me if he jumps back to the top of their depth chart.
My opinion is Kyle Allen (a new face brought in from Carolina) is limited physically and if 2019 first-round pick Dwayne Haskins shows he is far from ready for prime time, Smith, at full strength, would give this team the best chance to compete in 2020.
One team that has benefited from the lack of hype and media spotlight thus far is the Cleveland Browns. Other than an occasional outburst from Odell Beckham Jr., this team is making an effort to take on the personality of new head coach Kevin Stefanski. After last year’s brash and crazy idea of “putting a target on our own back,” this attempt by the Browns to “let our play do our talking” is refreshing.
Stefanski went about changing the team culture when he met with QB Baker Mayfield in Austin before the virus changed our worlds. I can’t help but think his message was a more low-key approach and his chosen route was a more even keel style of leadership.
I think RB Nick Chubb will stand to benefit greatly from this new offense and the blue-collar mentality of new OT Jack Conklin from Tennessee. Conklin and fellow offensive lineman Joel Bitonio are culture changers when it comes to the running game. Tough and nasty individuals with attitude, they are cut from the same cloth.
In my opinion, how fast the Browns can get it together in 2020 might depend on how long it takes for Stefanski to settle into HIS new role. Sometimes we forget that the preseason is really valuable for first-time head coaches too.