From Miami to Seattle and San Diego to Minneapolis, this week the National Football League’s players were back at work.
In Tennessee, several of the Titans reminisced about how they’d spent their free time during the lockout.
Wide receiver Marc Mariani said he’d played a lot of golf. Several of his teammates claimed to have spent lots of time with their families, and linebacker Will Witherspoon rolled his eyes and said he taken his kids to Disney World for eight days. “You can only imagine how that was,” he said.
Defensive tackle Jason Jones was particularly candid, maintaining that “it was good to sit on the couch and chill out.”
Like the players, the coaches took advantage of the fact that they couldn’t engage in company business after the company locked out its employees. Or at least Chicago Bears head coach Lovey Smith saw that circumstance as an opportunity.
“We had a long off-season,” Smith said. “That’s for sure. My wife and I took a trip to Rome and we had a great time. We did some visiting, and some hanging out, but a while back I started waiting for this day to come.”
Throughout the NFL, fans were also waiting for the day when they would learn that the season would transpire as planned. On Tuesday afternoon in Foxboro, Mass., fans of the New England Patriots crowded into the bleachers beside the practice field and spilled over on to the hillside behind the endzone. A young fellow named Craig saw attendance at training camp as part of his own pre-season preparation.
“We’re just huge fans, and getting even the slightest piece of this team right now is pumping me up,” he said. That’s why we’re here…to get pumped up for the season.”
With a picnic spread out before them on the grass beside the field, Sylvia Nolette and her daughter, Shannon, both dressed in Pats jerseys, were grateful for the proximity to the players during training camp.
“I just enjoy seeing them this close,” Sylvia said. “At a normal game, you’re way up there at the top of the stadium. Right now it’s more like watching high school football.”
I don’t know where Sylvia Nolette went to high school. The men fighting for jobs with the Patriots didn’t look like high school players to me, but she was right about the opportunity to be close to the action.
Like the fans, the players were appreciative of the return to business as usual…or as usual as the relationship between pro football players and their fans can be. New England tight end Rob Gronkowski seemed particularly happy to be performing for an audience.
“The fans are great,” Gronkowski said. “We appreciate their support, and we love going out there and playing for them. I mean, what could be more fun than kids going wild for your autograph?”
Of course training camp – even training camp convened in the wake of a four-month lockout – is not all applause and autograph signing. Besides having to work themselves into game shape, normally players must learn – or re-learn – the thick book of plays particular to each team. Many of the offensive plays and defensive alignments feature multiple variations, each requiring adjustments on the part of several players. Those who don’t know the playbook well enough to recognize how their obligations change when the quarterback alters the play at the line of scrimmage can look foolish when they miss a blocking assignment or step to the right when they’re supposed to have gone left.
Cody Grimm of the Tampa Bay Bucs acknowledged that the challenge was daunting, especially after the lockout.
“Everything seems like it’s in fast forward, to tell you the truth,” the safety said. “It takes a little bit more studying. Thankfully I’m not a rookie again this year, but still, everything’s crammed with stuff that took us a week or two to put in during mini-camps. Now we have to install it in two days. So you just have to do everything you can to try to keep up.”
Grimm is in his second season with the Bucs, but the challenge to learn the playbook quickly is not limited to less experienced players. Tampa Bay wide receiver Michael Spurlock is entering his fourth NFL season, and in this abbreviated preseason, he’s had to create study halls whenever he can. He referred to those sessions as “work away from work.”
Michael Spurlock and the rest of the players in the NFL will get an opportunity to demonstrate how well they’ve done their homework very shortly. Ten teams will play pre-season games on Thursday, and ten more will be in action on Friday. The regular season will open on September 8, when the New Orleans Saints face the Packers in Green Bay.