An NFL training camp tour can take you to the most interesting places. Like the United States Naval Academy. Or Mount Ararat.
You see the most interesting things. Emmanuel Sanders wedging footballs between his thighs. An F/A-18 Hornet fighter jet. Coaches keeping score using a weird fantasy scoring system during 11-on-11 drills. Bruce Gradkowski lobbing footballs into trash cans. An Escalade menacingly tailgating a Smart Car on the driveway into a team parking lot. Historic highways, scenic downtowns, dreary hotel bars, arcane multimedia policies, bleary colleagues with suitcase eyes; the training camp tour is Jack Kerouac in shoulder pads, his intoxicants limited to local beers and the sunburned dehydration of long afternoons spent watching younger, fitter men exercise.
And as much as teams try to avoid a "circus atmosphere," a camp tour is a lot like a traveling circus.
The Ravens held a special camp session at the Navy-Marine Corps Stadium in Annapolis on Sunday, one of several public practices scheduled for the next few days. Fan appreciation events are typically the least intense practices, but John Harbaugh has kept the Super Bowl champions alert during endless drills of camp by implementing an offense-versus-defense scoring system. Every 11-on-11 rep is scored: the defense gets points for a stop, the offense for productive yardage, and big plays like a 3rd-and-long conversion earn bonus points.
The winning unit gets an incentive, like ice cream. Seriously. Harbaugh had an ice cream truck roll onto the field last week, but only the defense was allowed to partake. Can you imagine that happening last year, Ray Lewis strutting and sermonizing with a cone in each hand, jimmies flying everywhere? It's just as well that the defense won that day; Joe Flacco is so boring that his favorite ice cream flavor is a bowl of soup. The real takeaway from the ice cream truck is that football players are motivated by the same tactics you use to keep your kid from sulking through his booster vaccinations.
"I give some of our guys credit, Drew Wilkins and Matt Weiss did a lot of research on that," Harbaugh said of the two quality control subordinates who dreamed up the point system. Heh-heh, yeah -- research. Wilkins and Weiss were probably playing Madden in Career Mode, noticed that for years the video game included a scoring system for a player's practice performance -- earn 10,000 practice points, and your player gets a +1 level-up in Accuracy! -- and figured it would be a hoot to try the same thing in real life. Then, they went out for ice cream.
There was no ice cream on Sunday, but there was an F/A-18 parked just outside the stadium, a permanent memorial to fallen members of the Blue Angels. If anything, Annapolis is too beautiful, historic and fun for training camp, even for the World Champions. Fans lined up for two hours to get into the practice. Downtown is just a 10-minute stagger away, but no one wanted to risk his or her place in line and a chance to watch a walkthrough offensive installation from smack-dab at midfield.
The Ravens kept score on the Navy scoreboard. During red-zone drills, the offense got four points for scoring a touchdown, the defense earned four points for a stop. Four points for a touchdown? Why not six? Research. The defense pitched first, second, and third-string shutouts to build a 12-0 lead, but the offense rebounded with five straight touchdown drives for a 20-12 lead after Joe Flacco found new tight end Visanthe Shiancoe over the middle to open the scoring. An offensive super-slump followed by an incredible hot streak: the Ravens 2012 season in drill form.
Drills piled atop drills, and the scoreboard started looking like a pinball machine. Players apparently love the scoring system, but fans ignored it, and the system did not seem informative or fair. When the Ravens first-team defense stones Flacco on a two-minute drill, then Tyrod Taylor throws a touchdown pass to rookie Aaron Mellette for the second string, then the third-string offense is so inept that kicker Justin Tucker is sent to the field to practice his 63-yard field goal (it hit the crossbar), how does scoring that Defense 8, Offense 4 resolve anything? It does not even seem like a fair method for adjudicating ice cream. Third-stringers, who sometimes look like elementary school kids as they gallop onto the field at the wrong times or shrug shoulders at each other during hurry-up drills, should have their own scoring system, perhaps involving stickers.
The scoring system ultimately gives veterans something tangible to jaw about. Flacco has grown more vocal this year, and the players jaw and trash-talk about big plays and stops. Now that Lewis is gone, everyone can get a word in edgewise.
Camp tourists learn quickly that every training camp is different. You would expect Steelers camp to be uptight, but it's one of the loosest camps I have ever visited. Some drills seem designed to allow players to showboat for the fans. The multi-ball punt return drill, for example. The potential returner -- a veteran receiver like Emmanuel Sanders or Antonio Brown, a youngster like Marcus Wheaton or Justin Brown -- fields a punt, then holds onto the ball. A second punt is fired from a Juggs machine, and the returner must catch that punt without losing the other ball. Most returners use a juggling technique, flipping the first ball into the air, fielding the punt, then hauling in the original ball.
By the third punt, most players have fumbled. Brown lasted through four punts a few days before my visit, but he bobbled his fourth football on Wednesday. Sanders fielded his fourth, then prepared for a fifth, cradling multiple footballs along his left forearm and under his left armpit. Success! But a sixth ball? Both of his hands were now full, and when the Juggs fired a punt about 15 yards to his right, Sanders had no chance of bringing his baggage with him. Coaches gave him a mulligan, however, and the second punt was on target. Sanders got into position beneath the plummeting football, tucked one his five previous catches between his thighs, then dove to gather the final punt between his belly and his overfilled arms.
The coaches did not allow Sanders to try for seven punts. Heaven knows where he would have tried to stuff those footballs.
The Ravens started practice on Sunday with a similar demonstration. Jacoby Jones fielded four punts but fumbled the fifth; actually, he muffed the second punt as well, but coaches can be extra-forgiving after Super Bowl kickoff return touchdowns. What purpose does a drill like this serve? It forces returners to concentrate on all aspects of the return: tracking the ball, watching it into his hands, clutching it securely. It's like the old diction coach's trick of making an actor speak with a mouth full of marbles. It's also fun, and it keeps things lively for veterans. Punt return drills for veterans like Brown and Sanders can be pure drudgery, and bad habits can slip in. Turn a drill into a little competition and demonstration for the audience, and everyone stays alert.
The trashcan drill is another peculiarity of Steelers camp. Quarterbacks must drop 15-yard sideline passes into 100-gallon trashcans, set one atop the other to make the stack about six feet high. Ben Roethlisberger does not participate; he just hoots and heckles as his backups and offensive coordinator Todd Haley bounce passes off the plastic sides or sail them out of bounds.
Bruce Gradkowski is the king of the trashcan drill. He sunk several three-pointers from beyond NBA range in a steady drizzle on Wednesday. It's a very Gradkowski skill to have. The well-traveled veteran survives by doing the little things, and excelling at the training camp equivalent of wastepaper basketball is a very little thing. Gradkowski has played for some terrible teams during his career; on the 2009 Raiders, a stack of trashcans probably could have been third on the depth chart.
Gradkowski explained that the trashcan drill is as much about having fun and building camaraderie as making sure the 15-yard outs are crisp. "You're working on your accuracy. You're working on your footwork, timing and things like that," he said. "Why not incorporate that into a fun drill, a competitive drill?"
Fun: the element of training camp the NFL does not want you to see, or me to report.
Some teams do nothing remotely fun. I have spent a lot of time at Giants camp over the years, and the closest thing to levity is a wind sprint. Andy Reid's Eagles camps were business-casual on their most rollicking days. The Eagles are the last stop on my travels this year (great timing, I know), but Camp Chiplandia sounds like a cross between a county fair and an episode of Wipeout, though with less contact. It sounds like a hoot, but buzzkill Bill Belichick will also be there when I arrive, and of course Riley Cooper has harshed the vibe.
The Jets are also pretty serious on the field, even when the world around them is a cyclone of ridiculousness. But the Jets have their share of light, almost self-effacing moments. They ran a drill last week that is fairly common at NFL camps, a "Mayday" drill for the field goal unit. The coaches put about 40 seconds on the game clock and place the offense somewhere near midfield. The offense completes a pass in the 20-25 yard range -- the defense plays soft to allow it -- then runs up to spike the ball. The offense then simulates a disaster: they run one more play, but the quarterback is sacked, forcing the field goal unit to rush onto the field. Quarterbacks are never touched in practices, so the simulated sack usually consists of the quarterback dropping back, scanning the field for a second, then crumpling as if he was pulverized.
Now, the Jets being the Jets, the sight of Mark Sanchez collapsing in a heap with no one around him is intrinsically hilarious. Sanchez compounds the amusement by method-acting the stop-drop-and-roll drill. He believably gets sacked by an invisible attacker -- I swear, he even makes an "oof" sound at the moment of imaginary contact -- then clambers to his feet and hustles full steam to the sideline. Last Saturday, he even simulated the elated high-five to Stephen Hill (who caught the pass to start the drill), aggressively pouncing on the surprised receiver, who nearly toppled over. It was a lighthearted moment for a team still excavating its dignity from last season, though I am forced to report that Billy Cundiff ended up missing the simulated game-winning field goal.
Much of this went unmentioned, unreported and un-Tweeted, in part because it was trivial, but also because different teams have different rules about what mass-media and social networking devices can be used where, when and by whom. The Jets have become more finicky than most teams. Who can blame them after last year, when ESPN televised their every move and some goober followed Bart Scott around the locker room snapping pictures? Most NFL coaches would be happy if an electromagnetic pulse obliterated every cell phone and other instantaneous-media device on earth (except their headsets and the helmet communicators), but there are a few hundred fans at even the least-attended practices, and all of them can Tweet happily away. The only people on pins and needles are those of us there for the express purpose of reporting the events of training camp.
Usually, this is not a problem. Most of us have the good sense not to take video of a whole 11-on-11 drill and post it on the Internet, or to walk around haranguing a player. Likewise, media relations coordinators typically offer gentle reminders or suggestions when we break a rule, rather than ripping the credentials off our lanyards and escorting us to the outskirts of town. But gray areas cause unease. The Jets did not want reporters to talk about Geno Smith running some read-option plays last week, even though it happened in front of 2,000 witnesses, and Rex Ryan alluded to it in his press conference. Similarly, we were not supposed to "tweet" that the team ran some direct snap plays, with Sanchez at wide receiver. Again: many, many witnesses saw the plays. If Bill Belichick wants to know that Mark Sanchez may line up at receiver, he does not need to read my stuff to find out. Perhaps opposing coaches might direct their defenders to take a shot at Sanchez when he is split wide. More likely, they would order defenders to give Sanchez an energy bar and some Gatorade, to make sure he remains in the lineup as long as possible.
That was the last Jets joke, I swear. At any rate, if the Jets want to keep the play a secret, that's what closed walkthroughs are for.
Yes, this sounds like the whine of a self-serving reporter. But severe restrictions on social media by the media, in addition to making us look silly -- "Marty's Fan Blog" has pictures and play breakdowns from camp, but the Daily News does not -- will just exacerbate the problems they are supposed to solve. Instead of getting a stream of casual chatter from camp, fans get icy silence, followed by the team's corporate line and our somewhat redacted camp tales and reactions. It makes teams appear paranoid and skittish, inviting unwelcome criticism instead of diffusing it.
The human elements of training camp, the stuff veteran reporters are a little too jaded to notice and coaches would prefer took place behind a 50-foot high soundproofed wall, are the moments fans need more of. The league's image would be better if the players looked a little more ordinary, if their day-to-day lives weren't veiled in mystery, parting only when someone gets arrested or pulls out a racial slur. Fans should see and hear players riding bicycles around upstate New York or eating sandwiches in a college cafeteria or razzing each other after dropped passes. It would counterbalance the dollars-and-depravity impression we get from thinking of NFL players as robots until they malfunction. But it is not something the NFL is eager to show us. Go on a camp tour, and you can fill notebooks with little things.
One more story from Jets camp. Antonio Garay, a 320-pound lineman, drives a Smart Car that probably weighs 639 pounds when he is inside of it. It used to be a Hello Kitty Smart Car, but the kitty appears to have vanished. Kitty or not, a Smart Car sticks out when puttering into a players' parking lot, and one morning, two of Garay's teammates pulled up behind him in an Escalade and followed him through the lot as if they were trying to stay in his slipstream to save mileage. It was a delightfully silly moment, with the tiny car and giant car looking like something from a Richard Scarry children's book, rap music thumping, a giant man emerging from the smallest possible vehicle, and everyone walking off to another day at the office as if nothing unusual had happened. It only could have been funnier if Garay had parked his Smart Car inside the Escalade.
If that goofy, gentle slice of life violates reporting policy, I apologize. Better to foment a front office conflict or harp upon a third-string running back with a rap sheet, I suppose.
As the Interstate miles pile up, the NFL writer on a camp tour starts to develop deep, strange infatuations. Psychologists call them "prospect crushes" -- sudden, irrational fascinations with players near the bottom of the depth chart. Unheralded rookies with lightning quickness and eager dispositions are like pretty barmaids with welcoming smiles when you are far from home; you cannot help but fall briefly in love.
The Jets had a sure-handed little running back named John Griffin and a strapping, acrobatic wide receiver named Clyde Gates who earned some casual flirtation in last week's Mandatory Monday. On Sunday night, the Ravens introduced me to John Simon, a rookie pass rusher who played defensive tackle at Ohio State but sprinted back to free safety for a few plays during full-squad drills. But my real road crush for the year is Alan Baxter, a tiny, hiccup-quick, tenacious, undrafted rookie pass rusher from Northern Illinois. Baxter recorded 9.5 sacks as a defensive end for the Huskies, but at a charitable 6-foot-0 and 238 pounds, with no experience at linebacker, he is a hard player to project to the NFL.
The Steelers have turned fast, undersized defensive ends into Steelers-style linebackers for about a generation. "I noticed some of the other guys made that transformation," said Baxter, who chose the Steelers over other interested employers because of their defensive reputation. "I'm learning from the best. Every day I'm getting better and better."
Baxter stood out consistently during my two days in Latrobe. He beat blockers to the edge, slipped past veteran linemen during 1-on-1 drills, and leapt to tip a Landry Jones pass at the end of Thursday's practice. First-round pick Jarvis Jones is much bigger, but Baxter may be quicker, and with both players getting most of their reps with the second string, Baxter is making more plays.
Every camp has its crush object. The beat writers take notice, the coach is prompted to say nice things, the youngster becomes a storyline during the team-produced, regional preseason game telecast. The infatuation reaches a critical mass, but like any crush, it has a high burn rate. Damaris Johnson caught Philadelphia's collective eye last year, a 175-pound blow dart, whistling down the field in passing drills and on punt returns. Johnson had his moments during the regular season, but he's just another returned and depth receiver now; in all the fuss about the Eagles receiving corps, his name rarely comes up as anything but a mid-rung role player. Griffin, Gates and Baxter probably will get filed in the same bin eventually, but right now, in the flush of Baxtermania, I must fight the urge to pencil him in to 11 Pro Bowls.
Not all of these crushes fade. Victor Cruz was an object of obsession in 2011, when I was briefly on the Giants beat. Cruz had caught 15 passes and scored 4 touchdowns in the 2010 preseason, then spent nearly all of the regular season laid up with hamstring injuries. Experienced Giants reporters remembered Cruz, and they also knew that (a) the Giants like to stash players on their bench, practice squad or injured reserve, giving them multiple chances to climb the depth chart, and (b) Cruz was behind Domenik Hixon, who is as brittle as a stale breadstick. Long story short: Cruz caught 82 passes, salsa-danced his way to a Super Bowl ring, and the world fell in love with the former sweetheart of SUNY Albany.
Prospect crushes are harmless, as long as fans see them for what they are. What good is training camp if it cannot be an outlet for a summer bromance? The Steelers reporters have not warmed to Baxter as totally as I did during my visit; they are fawning over Hebron Fangupo, a 324 million-pound defensive tackle whose calves look like they were built from rebar and quick-drying cement. When I approached Baxter for an interview, he appeared a little awkward and unsettled, shocked that anyone would put a tape recorder in his face and ask him what it was like to play for the Steelers.
Don't worry, kid: it stops feeling creepy after a while.
Mount Ararat is where Noah's Ark came to rest after the flood. It is located in Western Pennsylvania, in the Allegany Mountains east of Steelers camp. Noah landed, looked around and said to his sons, "Well, we can try to survive in this jagged wilderness, or we can take our chances for a few more days in our boat full of animal feces." And off they went, to land in the more-forgiving Middle East.
Actually, Mount Ararat and the surrounding Laurel Highlands are lovely, but also remote and discouraging when you are supposed to be someplace else in a hurry. Mount Ararat is close to Steelers camp in the same way that a buoy floating in the Atlantic Ocean is close to Times Square. Only a dope who takes Google Maps a little too literally could wind up in the Laurel Highlands when trying to go to Steelers camp. What can I say? I misjudged times and my own tolerance for Honda cliff diving, ignored my own memories about driving through Pennsylvania on non-Turnpikes (gorgeous, interminable treachery), and asked myself the five dumbest words in the English language: How bad can it be?
Training camp locations are chosen for their ability to warp time and space. Old-time coaches and executives sought colleges far enough from the city to lead players away from temptation, but close enough to keep travel expenses reasonable. Teams that still travel -- a dwindling minority -- select their camp locations by starting at team headquarters and seeking the most direct route to the middle of nowhere, which often is a route that leads past signs like the one pictured here, at right.
For years, the Eagles played in Bethlehem, another biblical landmark, only accessible by donkey caravan and with manger-like accommodations. Bethlehem is a substantial city in a well-populated valley, but Lehigh University somehow manages to be inconvenient not just to Philadelphia or Bethlehem, but even to itself. The football field is nestled among hills on a remote outskirt of campus. The media relations office was in Switzerland. Every single road connecting the field to the main campus and the Mountaintop Campus (a real thing) is named Mountain Drive; the various Mountain Drives appear to loop but did not, twisting instead into a groovy topological paradox that probably amuses the engineering majors at the university to no end.
In three years of trips to Eagles camp as media, I never found the media office without five U-turns, some possibly felonious readjustments of traffic gates, and a cursing fit that would make David Mamet blush. I nearly missed Kevin Kolb's entire career because I was stuck on South Mountain Drive, wondering whether it would turn into North Mountain Drive so I could double back and get my f%^&*&g press credential.
Bethlehem has nothing on Latrobe, which is admittedly much easier to get to from Pittsburgh than from Philly. Mount Ararat is along the Lincoln Highway, a nation-spanning route enjoying its 100-year anniversary in 2013. Lincoln Highway preservationists are serious about the route, an ambitious highway project from the dawn of the automobile era, littered with landmarks of a roadside America that was quickly forgotten the moment we discovered the Interstate. There are signs marking the original route all over the stretch of Route 30 that leads into Latrobe from barren nowhere, interspersed with signs that say "Vehicles Over 639 Pounds Not Permitted: Next 47 Miles," and "74% Grades Next Three Miles: Descend In Lowest Gear and Poke Your Feet Through the Floorboard for Extra Traction."
I am all for preserving Americana and shunpiking along the nation's lost byways, but I am even more all for getting places on time and not driving off a cliff. Those Lincoln Highway signs might as well have said "Unless you are searching for antique gas pumps or looking for a place to film your Deliverance remake, you came the wrong way, dude."
Of course, once you reach Latrobe -- and before you see the gorgeous St. Vincent Basilica that looms over the practice facility -- you face commercial sprawl at its worst, a vast prairie of strip malls and gas stations. Suddenly, the Loyalhanna Gorge would be welcome. The sprawl is not part of the Lincoln Highway, which sneaks south for a few miles to cruise past Arnold Palmer's childhood home. The best road to a training camp is always the one less traveled.
Even the direct route to Latrobe is not so direct. The Pennsylvania Turnpike suddenly runs a coy read-option in that part of the state, looping wide of the small town known for Palmer, the Steelers, Rolling Rock and Mister Rogers. It's the perfect training camp location, a place that highway preservationists remember but turnpike engineers forget.
Times are changing, of course. The Giants no longer go to Albany. The Eagles practice in South Philadelphia, a 15-minute drive from my home, so naturally they waited until I was 300 miles away to turn into a bunch of racial-slurring, referee-outpacing crazy people. When not holding fan appreciation practices in historic, easygoing Annapolis, the Ravens hold camp in Owings Mills, barely beyond the Baltimore Beltway. Why drive through gorges to force 300-pound men to sleep on seminary cots, when you have a state-of-the-art facility across from the stadium, or out in the suburbs?
You might think that camp tourists would welcome the switch to easier-to-find locales, but wanderlust is one of the reasons many of us hit the training camp road. There are lots of us crisscrossing the NFL universe. Most travelers have itineraries much more ambitious than my short jaunts around the East Coast, and few are under direct orders to push themselves to so many locations. One colleague told me during a hotel bar confab that he visited so many cities in the last week, along such an unlikely path, that his credit card provider threatened to cancel his account, assuming that his card had to be stolen. No sane person would go from Cortland, N.Y., to Rochester; then Allen Park, Mich.; then Bourbanis, Ill.; then Berea, Ohio; then Latrobe, Pa.; then back over to Canton, Ohio, except for someone on a training camp tour. And this individual volunteered for every leg of that continuing journey.
The truth is that we like weird little towns. It's fun to eat at Bobs Barbecue outside of Cortland, with cows grazing on the hillside across Rt. 11, or at the Black and Gold in Latrobe, a cozy pub hidden on a residential side street. (Annapolis, of course, is heavenly.) There is not a lot of charm in East Rutherford, N.J., or the part of South Philadelphia where the stadiums are located. Flying from city to city makes the camp tour experience impersonal, a drone of airports, rent-a-cars, chain restaurants and 7-on-7 drills. The differences between cities accentuate the difference between camps, and rural college campuses bring the game back down to human scale.
So training camp is changing, the way America is changing in ways that make the road trip a thing of the past. Last-generation reporters drove from country town to country town, talked to coaches in informal settings, generally knew where the record's on-off switch was located, and found it easy to put a human face on the sweaty monotony of blocking drills on summer afternoons. The next generation will be escorted from airport to practice facility with restrictor plates on their recording gizmos, exposed to tightly controlled glimpses of practice and painstakingly monitored interviews. We are in transition, and I am thankful for the non-Walmart moments that camp touring still provides, even if it means driving 20 miles behind two senior citizens on three-wheelers who are searching for the coffee shop shaped like a coffee pot.
The Roar of the Crowd
The "tour" portion of my camp tour ends in Annapolis. With the Eagles and Patriots just across the bridge from my neighborhood next week, it makes little sense to scoot off to Spartanburg, S.C., or anywhere else. After this week, the preseason gets into full swing, and training camps slowly morph into weekly practices. The crush-worthy prospects get released or settle in as special teamers, the fan appreciation events are more rare, and quarterback controversies curdle and harden. Fans stop getting excited about leaping catches at 7-on-7 drills and start clamoring for the darned season to start already. Driving into the countryside to talk to coaches and see how the rookies look is neither romantic nor cost-effective. Camp tourism has its moment, and it fades soon after it arrives.
So if you want to hit the road, go now. There is still time to get an autograph, get lost in the country, fall in love, and watch NFL football in an intimate setting. It won't be there in a few weeks. It may be all gone in a few years. Enjoy the road trip while it lasts.