Jul 28, 2012; Cincinnati, OH, USA; Cincinnati Bengals guard Kevin Zeitler (68) works out during training camp at Paul Brown Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Frank Victores-US PRESSWIRE
Training Camp reminds me of a zoo. Not in the metaphorical sense, in that I mean it's crazy—it's not crazy—I mean a zoo in the spectacle sense. It's mass voyeurism where crowds quietly watch the beasts mill about in their natural habitat and occasionally yell out to them in hopes of some kind of a reaction. It's a peak behind the curtain where one might hope for football math to emerge to them from the practice field like a John Nash chalkboard, but instead you see a lot of the third-string offense running the same screen play against a defense of coaching staff members holding big puffy shields to occasionally whack anybody that runs past them.
It's dry and mellow, yet well attended. Discussion throughout the rows of cheap metal bleachers is sparse and typically it consists of folks asking each other where various players went to college. If the players were gorillas wrestling about in their enclosure, you would pretty much get the same vibe from those watching.
Like with all zoos, I began to empathize with the creatures themselves. These men have been given an area surrounded by terrible air quality. Here is Pete Rose Way, there is I75, here are trains, there are piles of river industry. Even my lungs felt the pinch of pollution as I walked the many blocks from free parking to the practice field.
Once seated, like everyone else I assume, I began to marvel at the really big ones. Andrew Whitworth and Dennis Roland looked like Transformers as they stretched and tried touching their toes. Andre Smith looked in fine shape too with only a respectable lineman belly showing. All the concerns of his offseason work ethic eased up in my opinion as I admired his build from afar.
Then I noticed the new young chap, Kevin Zeitler. He looked rather smallish next to these other prize-winning cattle. I wondered how he was gonna hold up on the pro level until I remembered that all of these guys weigh more than 300 lbs. All of them. That being said, this man did not look like a fat man at all. Unlike Whitworth who has surprisingly skinny ankles for such a large man, Zeitler is tree-trunk legged, he has a thick, wide torso but he is by no means fat. Also, he is supremely flexible. While the other beefcakes awkwardly bent to to reach their cleats, Zeitler grasped the grass well out in front of him and shifted from side to side problem-free. Never have I been more impressed with a person simply stretching, but after watching this little lineman do his thing, I now know why Marvin Lewis is so caught up in the knee benders. This guy isn't clumsy and he should do well at keeping his legs healthy with such athleticism and flexibility. That alone made me a believer in this kid.
The other individual whose sheer size affected me was Jermaine Gresham. He is a power forward in shoulder pads, a Julius Peppers on offense. No wonder people gush all over his potential. He is simply enormous. I saw a few interesting screens to him which I liked and he made a nice over-the-shoulder grab after beating Dan Skuta on a sideline throw by Andy Dalton. Now that I have seen him up fairly close, my expectations of him have grown almost as big as he is. Orson Charles, by no surprise, looks a little slight in comparison. I thought Charles looked like a thick receiver but not a tight end. Antonio Bryant with the Bucs comes to mind as a comparable build. Charles looks fairly agile, but I am now worried about how well he can block.
As practice began, some things became evident immediately.
A.J. Green is the best player on the team without question. Everything the man does is electrifying. He exudes stardom just standing in line waiting his turn to catch a five yard slant undefended. He moves like football should be easy for everyone. He doesn't just look the part, he is the part.
After Green and Gresham though, there are a lot of questions about how all this is supposed to come together on offense. The battle for the second receiver will be as fierce as advertised with no one making the decision all that easy. I'd say from what I saw on Saturday and Sunday, Marvin Jones has impressed, while Armon Binns made the least impression on me. Mohamed Sanu occasionally turns heads, but he also has dropped a few. Andrew Hawkins also dropped a catchable pass and a punt on Sunday. BenJarvus Green-Ellis also had a few drops on Sunday, the first one on a halfback toss—technically a fumble for all those scoring at home. It's just practice, but the playmakers appear minimal among the second-tier offensive contributors. I think Jay Gruden's test this season might be even more difficult than first imagined.
Then there are the corners. On Sunday the only reputable corners on the field were Brandon Ghee and Jason Allen. Five others, all starting-worthy candidates, sat the day out watching in baseball caps. Ghee had a nice interception on a very poorly-thrown Dalton pass, and Allen also made me remember who No. 25 was with his solid play, but the Bengals will need more than two decent corners pretty damn soon. Before taking Sunday off, Adam Jones was burnt twice on deep passes on Saturday. Leon Hall was upset with himself after A.J. Green roasted him off the line in one-on-one battles on Day 2. Taylor Mays didn't look all that fast either day. The secondary isn't off to a great start.
One defensive back excelling, however, is rookie George Iloka. Hue Jackson, the newest coaching addition on the Bengals staff, has consistently been pleased with George and his efforts. I caught the two low-fiving on numerous occasions.
Another guy I kept my eye on was Vontaze Burfect. He is definitely still a very physical player. On one pass near his zone, he grabbed some facemask in his attempt to strip the ball from the receiver. On another he blasted a potential blocker to the turf during an innocuous running play where no one was to be tackled anyway. I like the mean streak and his instinct for the ball, but there was a play where he dropped into zone coverage, got lost and had the receiver run right behind him on a slant that would have been a touchdown as a result of his blown assignment. I know that zone coverage isn't the first thing a rookie will excel at during his first few days of practice, but to me, it reemphasized the reasons why he wasn't drafted. Being mean and hitting hard are traits held by many men who are not recognized as linebackers, therefore showing you know a thing or two about zone coverage might be pretty key for Burfect to gain a good first impression.
All in all, it's extremely difficult to take away much inside knowledge of the team after witnessing a couple of training camp practices. There was one scene though that had nothing to do with football that struck me as interesting.
I looked across the field and on the other side I noticed Mike Brown sitting in his little John Deere cart with his white hat and shades, watching and forming his opinions that will change the lives of the men he employs forever. His thoughts matter and everyone, even us sheep in the stands, could feel it. He is the zookeeper, everyone else just works there. Then my eye trailed along the sideline a little farther down where a bright pink blouse burned into focus. There was the only female on the field, Katie Blackburn, looking a lot like a little girl hanging out in her daddy's front yard. She looked on too, trying to translate the action on the field into some kind of shrewd business perspective, but at the end of the day she may not give much of a shit. Who knows? Then it became clear to me, that every grown man on the field who was not a coach or a player were white dudes with polo shirts tucked into khaki shorts and that most of them were in Mike Brown's country club. The theory expanded when all the Bengal personnel in sight who were not directly football related appeared to be of the affluent Caucasian variety. Handsome young blond people handing out tickets, strapping stubble-faced lads ushering around the press as media liaisons, even the kids selling Gatorade had those stupid yellow rubber bracelets that only rich white kids wear. Then a young man came into sight who was clearly of the same background, only this one had grown too large. Here was a mountain of a 16-year-old, the telltale signs of adolescence betraying his enormous frame, schlepping Sharpie markers and photos of players to the rows of fans stuffed within the cheap metal bleachers. I could just imagine Mike Brown soliciting this white-collared behemoth at his country club.
"You're a big boy, you wanna job with the Bengals?" MB would tease the poor kid, get his hopes up to spot the d-linemen during weight training or something bad-ass like that, but instead breaks it to him that he has to sell autograph paraphernalia to weak, unprepared parents and then laughs at the kid's crushed reaction after telling him. And there would be Katie at the table next to her father, feeling sorry for this large teenager but too deep into her bottle of white wine to say anything about it. Troy might be there too, disinterested and checking out the waitress' ass. Who knows? Not me.
But that's what training camp feels like: a zoo that employs the golf crowd and lets in the poor for a free taste of their attractions. At the end of it all, no one really had to work all that hard—not even the players. I imagine the autograph sessions work themselves into a mild frenzy after practice, and I'm sure too many adults embarrass themselves by jockeying around children for their favorite players' signature, but my back always hurts after an hour or so of those hard-ass cheap metal bleachers and I never last long enough to see for myself. I left early both days, the second so I could fit in this blog post. The first so I could fit in a cold one.
Mojokong—training for something.