At NFL rookie camps, hype rules the day

Mike Tanier / New York Times News Service /


Published May 12, 2012 at 05:00AM / Updated Nov 19, 2013 at 12:31AM

There is no such thing as bad news at an NFL rookie camp.

Every rookie looks poised, confident, dedicated and sharp. Every coach is pleased. Optimism levels run somewhere just above “employee orientation seminar” and below “honeymoon.” The boffo reviews read like the school newspaper’s appraisal of the eighth-grade production of “Hello, Dolly!”

The camps, which began last week for many teams and continue through next week, give draft picks the opportunity to meet their coaches and undrafted free agents a brief chance to make an impression. They are invaluable to the players and the teams. As sources of hard-hitting analysis or insightful criticism, they are somewhat lacking.

Modest accomplishments earn bubbly praise. Accurately calling and executing a play earns a public pat on the back.

“He’s unflappable, mature beyond his years,” Indianapolis coach Chuck Pagano said of quarterback Andrew Luck, the top pick in the draft. “If you listen to some of those play calls that our offensive coordinator Bruce Arians gave him, I know why he’s an architectural engineer.”

Arians’ terminology is apparently based on trusses and torsion calculations.

Not to be outdone, Redskins coach Mike Shanahan gushed about the second overall pick, Robert Griffin III.

“You can see what an incredible athlete he is,” he said. “The first day we didn’t have one bust with a formation or a play call. I don’t think I’ve ever had that in any minicamp I’ve been involved with.”

Take that, John Elway!

Quarterbacks invariably display outstanding “leadership qualities” at rookie camps, perhaps because there is no pressure whatsoever and they have been barking orders in huddles since their Pop Warner days. It is hard to imagine what a quarterback would have to do to show poor leadership skills during these film sessions, light workouts and noncontact drills — call out sick, perhaps? Or cower in a lavatory stall and refuse to come out to call a play?

Ryan Tannehill of the Dolphins has less experience than the other highly drafted quarterbacks because he played wide receiver for more than two seasons in college. But all rookie camp stories spin on the positive axis, so Tannehill’s familiarity with the Texas A&M offense, which is closely related to the Dolphins’ new offense, actually gives him an edge on other rookies.

“I am sure, as opposed to some of the other rookie quarterbacks that are practicing, he probably feels a little more comfortable when he puts his head on the pillow at night,” said Dolphins coach Joe Philbin, whose offense also features a high thread count and patented memory foam.

Tannehill’s first pass of rookie camp was an interception or, in rookie-camp speak, a perfect pass that bounced out of an unknown receiver’s hands and into an unknown defender’s arms. Griffin, meanwhile, hit on 14 of 20 passes in Redskins team drills, a 70 percent completion rate exactly as meaningful as his 78-of-84 performance against undefended receivers at his Pro Day. (Griffin himself called Pro Days beauty pageants.)

Off the field, players attended meetings and watched film, no doubt looking incredibly poised while doing so. Griffin watched game tape of Rex Grossman and Donovan McNabb running Shanahan’s offense, which is a little like showing rookie cops “Bad Lieutenant,” but true leaders can learn from counterexamples.

Quarterbacks are not the only players who draw praise during rookie camps.

“He was excellent during his first day,” Vikings coach Leslie Frazier said of offensive tackle Matt Kalil, the fourth overall pick. “His ability to pick up information was encouraging as well.”

Kalil said that learning the Vikings’ playbook was simply a matter of translating terminology.

“It’s like taking Spanish class in college,” he said.

Undergraduate football players take note: Dual-major in Spanish and architectural design, and you will become a playbook-absorbing machine when not designing Catalan arches.

Doing exactly what you were drafted to do can generate not only praise but also the revelation that your coach has little idea who his team drafted.

“Josh caught a punt and he took off like a guy shot out of rocket, and I thought: ‘That guy has a nice little burst. I better see who that is,’ ” Frazier said of Josh Robinson, his team’s third-round pick.

Even injuries are no cause for alarm, as a rookie like cornerback Morris Claiborne can excel in the theater of his mind.

“I was getting mental reps,” said Claiborne, who watched Cowboys practices with a cast on his arm after recent surgery on his wrist.

Coaches could not peer into Claiborne’s brain to determine if they were quality reps, so they heaped praise on the fourth-round pick Kyle Wilbur instead.

“He’s a smart kid,” defensive coordinator Rob Ryan said.

“He’s a nonstop guy,” coach Jason Garrett said.

As impressive as Wilbur may have been, it is not hard to recognize that many of these compliments are interchangeable, particularly in light of Frazier’s admission that many coaches can still barely identify their own players.

Rookie camp is also the time to justify controversial draft selections. The Jaguars drew criticism for selecting punter Bryan Anger with the seventh pick of the third round, the highest a punter had been taken since 1982. But Anger’s punts hung in the air for more than five seconds during the Jaguars’ sessions, the midspring equivalent of a kicker making 65-yard field goals during pregame warm-ups.

“Rarely do you have a guy that kicks it that far that can hang it for that long,” Jaguars coach Mike Mularkey said.

And rarely do punters earn headlines for routine drills before Mother’s Day.

At least Anger’s punts were actual punts. Rex Ryan credited the Jets’ first-round pick, Quinton Coples, with “about six” sacks when the Jets practiced in helmets, shoulder pads and shorts last week: minimal hitting, no tackling, no touching the quarterback. When is a sack not a sack? When no one is in uniform, no quarterback is endangered and the blocker is unlikely to be in the NFL by mid-August.

Add “estimated imaginary sacks” to hang times and completion percentages as the most dubious statistics to come from the rookie camp optimism factory. If Claiborne claims to have intercepted a dozen passes in his mind while watching the Cowboys practice, we should just take him at his word.