Steelers Training Camp: Friday Night Lights
It was with great anticipation that my lovely niece Laura and I headed for Latrobe Memorial Stadium and Friday Night Lights. I have never been to this event, and Laura has never been to any sort of football practice. (She will perhaps, like me, learn the error of her ways in later life.)
But it was not only the practice and the atmosphere I was anticipating, because we were meeting up with Greg (of the late lamented Weiner’s Circle,) Homer J., and Ivan. They arrived considerably earlier than we did and grabbed seats on the 40 yard line. It was then only a matter of catching up as we waited for the yellow school busses to arrive from St. Vincent’s. (Yes, the players are brought in yellow school busses. I don’t believe they are specially kitted out yellow school busses either. Mike Tomlin likes to keep the guys uncomfortable and humble during camp.)
I don’t have a single note on my yellow pad from Friday night, because as great as the 40 yard line seats on the 2nd row appeared to be, in fact the majority of the reps took place in the red zone, one way and another, and it was difficult to see too much. (This explains in part why I so seldom go to games. You can actually see much better on the TV, and are more comfortable besides. If this makes me a bad fan, well, I think there are an awful lot of bad fans.)
The one takeaway I had from Friday Night (pun intended) is that as reported the defense is winning an awful lot more of the drills than I am accustomed to. I recall discussing with Ivan the rather poor showing of the defense last year, especially against Ben and the receivers. (Ben and The Receivers would make an interesting but not compelling name for a band, BTW, but use it if you like.) At the time we hoped this meant that the offense was just that good, not that the defense was that bad. I will draw a veil on my conclusions after the end of the season.
And the intended pun is because the DB group is taking away a lot of balls this summer. We will see if this continues to be the case, but the DB group appears to be the best and deepest I have ever experienced, and it is hardly surprising that the coaching staff is tinkering with ways to get a lot of them on the field at once. (And when I say “a lot,” I’m talking about seven DB packages at times.)
There was a group of about eight people sitting behind us, including one very vocal man who said “Go Jacksonville” when the players started coming in. I turned around and looked at him, and he was wearing Steelers gear. He smiled ruefully and admitted that he was still torched about the playoff game. (I’m quite sure he is not alone.) We ended up talking quite a bit during the practice.
I enjoyed talking with him, but I have to say I have difficulty relating to the psychology of the sort of fan who feels entitled to a certain level of performance from the team/players. So very many things can go wrong—things we as fans are almost never privy to at the time.
Here’s an example. Terrell Edmunds is looking every bit a first round pick. It would appear the Steelers did their due diligence in overlooking what was an underwhelming senior season for Edmunds. He is clearly very smart, very athletic, very hard-working, and very tough—all things the Steelers value highly. So, one would assume, does everyone else. So what was going on last season with Edmunds?
As it happened, he played the season with a shoulder injury sufficiently serious to require surgery after the season. All the other teams knew this, as did the scouts. The same scouts who were grading him out as a second to third round talent. I don’t get it.
I would get it if he had the sort of injury surgery doesn’t necessarily entirely remedy. One can’t help but think of Sean Spence. It was amazing that he managed to fight back from his catastrophic injury. But there is no doubt he was never again the player the Steelers drafted. There are some things that even Mother Nature, in combination with the best sports medicine has to offer, can’t fix.
And speaking of such things, some of the loudest cheers in the stadium were for Ryan Shazier, who walked around part of the stadium and took a seat at the 50 yard line. He had several people with him, but they weren’t assisting him to walk. He had a cane which he was using, and his walk was awkward and stilted, but he is walking on his own. Watching him, one can’t help but be overwhelmed with gratitude that he has made enough progress that one feels assured that he will have at least a relatively normal life. This is undoubtedly due not only to the best medical care one could possibly have in such circumstances but to his clearly indomitable spirit.
But watching him, it’s also very difficult to image him ever playing football again. As Dale Lolley commented many months ago, if this is what Ryan needs to help him through what is surely a very difficult and painful recovery, so be it, and Lolley vowed to never doubt him. But for me, the thought of him going back on a football field as a player is terrifying. And it is impossible to think that even if he were to get to the point where he could actually make “football moves,” the elite speed which was the basis of his game would surely be gone. I’m really hoping he enjoys the ways the Steelers are using him now—in scouting, as an extra coach, and so on, because that is the football career that makes sense for him.
Seeing him also adds urgency for the players to the coaching from the refs (there was an NFL ref team working the practices last week) about the new helmet rule. I find myself wondering if one day it will be called the Shazier rule.
Saturday’s practice was a chance to get a better look at what was actually going on. Tomorrow’s post will cover that. So tune in to find out who else looks like they’ve justified the Steelers’ draft picks, what wily veterans are impressing, and the results of throwing down the gauntlet.