CINCINNATI, OH - MAY 12: Vontaze Burfict #55 of the Cincinnati Bengals works out during a rookie minicamp at Paul Brown Stadium on May 12, 2012 in Cincinnati, Ohio. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
I was relieved to see that beers were sold at Paul Brown Stadium during this training camp. They were still $7.50, and they were probably last year's leftover kegs, but the August sun made them necessary. That isn't true. The fact that they existed at all and that I was off work made them necessary, but a relief nonetheless.
I asked a staff person if beer was also available on the higher levels. She didn't know but allowed me to explore. I took a rickety escalator up and then a second one up even higher. On my Jacob's Ladder through Bengal World, I began to notice some shabbier bits of the stadium. Whole ceilings were raggedly ripped up between levels, showing cracked concrete and rebar. One has to assume that some kind of home-improving was going down in various spots throughout the Browns' residence and that the unsightly parts were simply projects behind schedule, but the more interior sections between levels had an aged Death Star type of décor and for the more ill of heart would have demanded a dusk mask to traverse.
Once into cleaner air and the vastness of an empty sports-arena concourse, my heart sank to see the concession stands gated off and faceless. Only mildly deterred, I soldiered on to find an elevator nearby, actually four rotund elevators, neatly encased in a well air-conditioned glass room. It felt like I had stumbled into the world's smallest airport terminal. I pressed the buttoned, and immediately one behind me yawned open, exposing its fancy lighting and sharp tile floors. All the buttons inside were confusing. There was a PL, an FL, an SL, and other L's. I tried PL, which opened up to a level that appeared private and exclusive. The kind of level where employees become very alarmed at your presence if they don't already know you. The kind of level that felt like a natural extension of the little glass elevator room. Next I pushed FL, which brought me to a floor that had all the feel of a basement. There were families, I guessed of players, that were getting on opposite elevators. I decided I probably wasn't allowed to be there either so I stayed inside. As our doors closed simultaneously, one of the families and their elevator attendant all gave me puzzled expressions. I felt I could have used my own attendant. My last option was SL, and when the doors opened a third time, I nearly sprang out determined to end this confusion.
Once seated, after purchasing my Michelob Light and obligatorily spilling some on my shoes, I found my seat and unbuttoned every piece of clothing I could while still remaining decent. Sweat rolled down my lower back. I decompressed for a minute or two, drank half my beer, grabbed my mechanical pencil and started taking notes.
The first thing I noticed is that this practice was going to be like the others I'd seen: half-assed. I know it's easy for me to say, sitting in the shade drinking, but I thought training camp was supposed to be tougher than that. I thought people were desperately clawing the eyes out of each other in hopes of landing a job. Nope. The most contact I saw on the day was Marvin Lewis getting knocked over when he shaded like an outside linebacker on a slant pattern drill. The crowd cheered, Marvin laughed. That isn't to say I was devoid of observations, but in general, I was underwhelmed with the sense of urgency demonstrated in the Bengals' practices.
It forced me to think about it further, though. Perhaps my expectations weren't realistic. The new CBA had undoubtedly changed the culture of practice altogether with its favoritism toward play safety, which, of course, I am all for, so they had me there. On top of that, I trust Marvin's program and I think he is tune with modern-day football, so I guess he knows best. Speaking of which, and most importantly, I have never coached football nor had I been to a professional football practice prior to the 2012 training camp, so I realized I had no right to complain. Nonetheless, I worry about the potential decrease in tackling quality across the league if teams can't adequately practice it.
Once things got going, I noticed a couple highlights.
Donald Lee is a very good run blocker. He was eating Dan Skuta alive on one-on-one drills. All throughout the weekend, I noticed a good amount of multiple tight-end sets, and Lee's run-blocking skills might make that a preferred look come September.
On that note, I have noticed an emphasis on getting the ball to Jermaine Gresham. I know a lot has been written about it, and even he is aware of his potential, but one can see for themselves in practice that Gruden and the Bengals plan to use him even more.
Roderick Muckelroy impressed me that day. He ran well, and he seemed to be in good spots. I look forward to seeing the backup linebackers in Friday's preseason game. I think each one has shined at times and at this point, I just want to see them hit somebody. If Muckelroy can become a true defensive substitute and not just a special teamer, it will alleviate the loss of Brandon Johnson some. He has been in Mike Zimmer's meeting rooms for the past three years, and he knows his way around, now he just needs to stay healthy and get better.
Some of my other notes from that day include how I didn't like seeing the quarterbacks tuck and run so much in practice. I know you want the QB to automatically do the smart thing all the time, but I don't see how it makes anybody else better. Especially Bruce Gradkowski. We all know he can run, but he needs to learn how to actually throw the ball better. I also wrote down that the wide receivers were consistently beating the corners. This could be a case of veterans taking it easier in practice, but no one looked like a dynamic, play-making defensive back.
Speaking of dynamic, A.J. Green made a deep touchdown catch that inspired me to write the name "Jerry Rice" with a question mark behind it. He may be close to being the best wide receiver in the NFL.
The final air-horn blast sounded, the fans gathered around the first row and lowered their paraphernalia down to the players on the field for autographs. I finished my beer about 30 rows up and strolled out.
The inter-squad scrimmage. Not much different from Thursday, except that I didn't bother with the second level and found a prime seat on the 50 instead. The voice of Dave Lapham boomed over the stadium's PA like a football God, as he and Dan Hoard described their observations to the live and presumably radio audiences. Lap broke the world record for saying the word "football", murmuring it well over 3,000 times throughout the day. He promised the fans that we would see full contact and eventually, albeit briefly, that was so, but when the day started as a regular practice with two-hand tagging, I felt I'd been cheated. Then I reminded myself of the cost I'd paid to enter the stadium and settled down. The team practiced third-down scenarios, and the defense won. Later they practiced goal-line hand offs and the defense won. While it may be valid to harbor concerns about the kind of yardage this offense can realistically generate, it was comforting to see the defense show its teeth a little early on.
I watched a lot of Vontaze Burfict that day and watched him get a big hit on one play, celebrate aggressively, and then whiff on a weak tackle attempt on the very next play. It's as if he spends up his entire adrenaline supply on contact and has to let his energy bar refill before he can make another big pop. He's like a linebacking cheetah in this way. Nonetheless, the guy has natural ability radiating through him and if polished enough, can be a difference maker.
The live contact was minimal and I overheard fans griping on the way out. Even Lap had a hard time getting excited, but again, it was free. I came away thinking how a Mike Zimmer defense is consistently well built and how it will be the calling card of this team once more this season.
During the mock game, I didn't take notes, I just watched. I was with my girl and some friends and we sang that stupid old Bengals song when the offense scored, and drank our beers and reacted accordingly to the action on the field between light conversation. It felt like watching golf on a football field. I noticed more power formations and more Gresham. I spent a lot of time watching Dre Kirkpatrick on the sidelines, wondering why he was wearing an arm sling, and then thinking it wasn't him because I hadn't heard anything about his arm, but then not finding him elsewhere on either sideline and settling on that it was him and that I had missed something on the his injury status. I knew Brandon Ghee had arm troubles, but it wasn't Ghee, it had to have been Kirkpatrick. I was stumped, and I guess I still am.
Ultimately, I didn't think it was all of an impressionable event. AJ Green was exciting but what's new? Devon Still and Brandon Thompson looked active. Gradkowski struggled.
After all the practicing and mocking and scrimmaging, it is still difficult for me to assess what kind of team the Bengals have without comparing them to someone else. There's no real measuring stick this way. The words I would use to describe the Bengals' preparation include relaxed, subdued and quiet. Perhaps one could sense this as a collected confidence, while others may view it as slacking, but either way, this is not a fiery bunch—with the exception of Burfect. What kind of an effect on the season this reserved nature will have is hard to say. Maybe it will help their long-term endurance and pay dividends later on. Or maybe, there will be some growing pains getting back into regular-season hitting shape. But like I said before, I trust Marvin Lewis and his program and I assume he knows what he's doing. A little preseason action should help us get a better grip on what we're dealing with in 2012.
Mojokong—behind the times.