NFL

Mini Camps Power the NFL’s Spin Machine

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It’s said you shouldn’t believe anything you hear in the two months leading up to the NFL Draft. The same “hear no evil” rule can be applied to the dozen-plus mini camps that occurred around the league this week.

Mini camps are a unique experience. They are the first mandatory practices of the offseason, so it’s a chance for reporters to get access to all the team’s star players at one time. However, because contact is prohibited and players are in helmets and shorts, it’s impossible to critically analyze performances.

In short: players can say whatever they want and it’s impossible to find on-field evidence to dispute them.

“Everyone thinks they won every play,” said Chargers center Chris Watt. “The linebackers think they made a tackle, we think we pancaked them.”

Players spend their time in front of the microphone doing their best version of “coach speak.” Everyone is happy to report they are “in the best shape of their lives” and “getting better every day.”

Teams with new coaches talk about a “new energy and direction.” Teams with returning coaches brag about how comfortable they’ve become with their respective systems.

Everyone is doing it right … everyone is feeling good … everybody sees a winning season on the horizon.

For example, Andy Dalton had a tough go of things in practice on Wednesday. He completed roughly 50 percent of his attempts and had some flat-out ugly throws, including a duck on a fade route to A.J. Green that fluttered so much that even CB Brandon Ghee could not catch it.

So, in true mini camp form, offensive coordinator Hue Jackson came out after practice and spouted about what a terrific job Dalton has done.

“I think our quarterback has done an outstanding job this offseason of taking the group and making them understand what we have to get done,” Jackson said. “He is more vocal. He understands what his agenda is now more so than ever. We’ll ride with him. I think he’s going to lead this team where it has to go.”

Over in Arizona, the Cardinals are undergoing a makeover on defense. Former coordinator Todd Bowles is now calling the shots in the Big Apple, leaving former outside linebackers coach James Bettcher to step up into the coordinator position.

The Cardinals are missing a couple veterans from last offseason — Darnell Dockett, Antonio Cromartie and John Abraham among them — and are breaking in new faces like Corey Peters, Cory Redding, Sean Weatherspoon and LaMarr Woodley. But instead of talking about an obvious transition period, Belcher & Co. are already insisting they are right where they want to be.

“It’s a Cardinal defense,” Bettcher said. “There may be things along the way you’d do on a yearly basis regardless of having a new coordinator or not – how people are attacking, how people are doing stuff – and you find some adjustments you need to make.

“From a continuity standpoint, it makes those adjustments easier. With every call, there is always a soft spot. The awareness the players have … we are always at that point, so when we add a wrinkle, it makes those (changes) easier.”

Some teams/players take this mini camp preaching to the extreme. The two biggest culprits? Players searching for new contracts and players getting up their in age.

Houston Texans cornerback Johnathan Joseph, 31, met both of those criteria before agreeing to a two-year, $22 million extension on Thursday.

Joseph told ESPN.com last week: “I still think I have some better years ahead of me. I think this will probably be my best season just from being healthy, being able to go through a full OTA session, being in this defense for a second year and obviously having great players around me.”

Offseason optimism at its finest.

In the Motor City, Calvin Johnson is feeling the good vibes, as well. This despite the fact he turns 30 later this year and is coming off a season in which he missed three games due to injury.

“You can’t change what you’re doing,” Johnson said. “We talked about it the other day. Just keep on doing like I’ve been doing.”

Asked whether it is more difficult to prepare for the season now that he is older, Johnson eschewed the obvious answer (“of course it is!”) in favor of something more in-line with mini camp script.

“Not really,” Johnson said. “It’s a mindset more than anything. Yeah, if you have injuries, it’s tough. But I’m feeling good right now.”

There are countless other examples.

Chargers outside linebacker Jerry Attaochu, who is entering his second season in the league: “It’s been a change of worlds. Being a part of the whole offseason program, knowing the flow of practice, knowing the playbook to a T and working with your teammates; it’s been a world of a difference.  It’s been a lot of fun.  The guys really came together on defense and that’s really important.”

That’s pretty good. But leave it to the head coaches, who spin things for a living, to really master the art of the mini camp quote machine.

Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer, who just completed his second offseason as a head coach: “I think everybody’s a lot more comfortable in their roles right now. We seem to be playing faster and not thinking quite as much. Defensively, we actually had a couple of things in this week that were difficult and they handled it very well. That was good to see.”

Panthers head coach Ron Rivera is singing a similarly upbeat tune: “This team is further along. We’re a little bit more established at a few positions — wide receiver, offensive line, secondary. Last year we weren’t as much so, plus our quarterback wasn’t healthy. He took really big steps this year, had some really good days.”

Get excited, football fans! You’re favorite team is primed for a big season and boasts several young players positioned for breakout campaigns! It doesn’t matter what team or what players we’re talking about. At this point in the offseason, players and coaches can say anything they like — and usually do.

Just take that fact with a Geno Smith-sized grain of salt.


About Michael Lombardo

Michael Lombardo

Michael Lombardo has spent more than 10 years as a team expert at Scout.com, primarily covering the Chargers, Cardinals and Panthers. He has been published by the NFL Network, Fox Sports and other venues.