Sweet spot in time

Blogger Ryan Wilson is back in the comfy confines of his living room after a three-day whirlwind tour of training camp. His stint in Latrobe was a great experience, and to paraphrase Mike Damone, "He was so close to the practice field he scared the players." Now that he's had a couple of days to reflect ...

... on his time at St. Vincent's College, here are some storylines to keep an eye on as we head into the regular season:

. . . It's sometimes hard to understand how good Hines Ward is when you're watching him on television simply because he's not the fastest, or most athletic player on the field. Yet the fact that he's constantly open is kind of a head-scratcher. Well, seeing Ward live really clears things up. For starters, he might be one of the best receivers in the league in setting up defensive backs. During the 2004 training camp, Ike Taylor gave probably the best explanation for makes Ward so tough:

What makes Hines Ward so good?

Hines can run the same route three different ways. He's tough – he keeps you on your toes. The thing is, as a cornerback you have to be patient and Hines is really good at keeping people off balance. And by patient I mean you have to stay in your back-pedal and then just trust your ability to react to the play. Hines is good at getting corners out of their back-pedal and that's when he makes plays.

And now Ward is like Gordon Gekko and the rookie wideouts are Bud Fox. Seemingly after every practice, Ward is working with either Santonio Holmes or Willie Reid. On Thursday it was Holmes; Friday morning it was Willie Reid who got the lesson. Sure, the new guys still have a long way to go – especially with the mental part of the game – but working with Ward certainly lessens the learning curve.

. . . Also after Friday morning's practice, Anthony Madison and Nate Washington worked on kick returns. Ricardo Colclough was nowhere to be seen, but maybe he's accepted the fact that he'll only see time as a defensive back. In the few practices I saw, Colclough was dreadful, but when did this happen? He came out of Tusculum as return specialist, and during the 2005 preseason game against the Eagles returned a kick for a touchdown. Early in the 2005 season, he had several big run-backs, and then, like Keyser Soze, he just disappeared. Or more precisely, his ability to catch the ball disappeared and it seems that no amount of yelling and screaming from Bill Cowher has an effect. I think it's time for the Punt Return Whisperer to make a training camp visit. You know, he rehabilitates punt returners and he trains coaches.

. . . Nate Washington's training camp star continues to shine, but I'm reserving judgment until I see him in some preseason games. And I say this not because I'm skeptical Washington can be a good NFL wide receiver, but because my eye for recognizing talent could best be described as Matt Millen-esque. On a couple of occasions last week, I was sure several rookies were having solid camps only to find out that some guys were having trouble learning the playbook. So while they may have looked great on the field, they were looking great while missing assignments. People like me don't pick up on such things, but the coaches don't miss them.

. . . One of the things you notice as you watch from the sidelines is how much communication goes on between players pre-snap. If a receiver goes in motion, the safety barks out orders; if the fullback shifts from the I-formation to the offset I, a linebacker yells out defensive adjustments. Once the quarterback releases a pass, the defense yells out, "Ball! Ball! Ball!" to alert players in coverage and give them a chance to make a play. Tyrone Carter and Ryan Clark both saw time with the first team, and I don't think this arrangement will change during the season. Anthony Smith looked fine when I saw him, but how much can you really tell by watching the safety on a handful of plays? The physical part of the game isn't the issue with the young guys; it's knowing assignments. I don't care if Smith is a charter member of MENSA, learning an NFL defense isn't like taking a summer school class; it's like getting a graduate degree in six weeks. Remember, Chris Hope didn't start until his third season in the league and he was an Academic All-American, and Troy Polamalu looked absolutely lost his rookie season. I wouldn't be surprised if Smith saw some time in the dime package, but we shouldn't expect much from the kid for at least a season or two.

. . . NFL referees made an appearance at camp last week, and in addition to sporting some new unis, they also brought along the new rules from this year's winter meetings. You don't have to be Einstein to see one of the rules changes is going to be a monumental pain in the rear. From the Cincinnati Enquirer:

One rule change is a 15-yard roughing the passer penalty for hitting a quarterback low. It is a penalty if the quarterback is in the pocket, has one or two feet on the ground and the defender has not been blocked or pushed into the quarterback.

"Each situation has to be ruled on its own merits," Winter said when asked if Kimo von Oelhoffen's low hit on Palmer in the playoff game would have been a penalty under the new rule.

"I can't answer that," he said. "We, as referees, didn't look at that play."

Um, isn't that exactly the play referees should be looking at? Didn't that hit have a lot to do with the rule being introduced? If the refs don't even know how they'd call that play seven months after it happened, why should we believe they'll get it right next season. Yep, this is going to end badly.

. . . Okay, these aren't so much storylines to look for in the regular season, but they're some training camp anecdotes that stick out in my mind.

After Thursday's practice, Ben Roethlisberger signed autographs for at least 30 minutes and ended up giving away his practice cleats to two lucky fans. During Friday's practice, I turned to Dale Lolley and said, "Ben is a rock star out here. If some Martians landed in Latrobe and didn't know anything about football, and you asked them to pick out the most charismatic person on the Steelers, their little E.T. fingers would undoubtedly end up on Big Ben." Yeah, we all know Ben is a superstar, but it's hard to convey just how big an attraction he his during training camp. Hines Ward, Troy Polamalu, Willie Parker and Joey Porter are all a distant second behind Roethlisberger. I asked Dale if Tommy Maddox engendered a similar reaction during the 2003 training camp and his response? "Not even close." The last time the quarterback drew such an audience was when Kordell Stewart first came on the scene back in 1995 and 1996. If anything, this should be a cautionary tale for how quickly things can change in the NFL.

One of the cool things about being right on the field with the Pittsburgh Steelers is that you're sometimes a fly on the wall for the random, mundane, day-to-day stuff that most of us take for granted. While we waited for an afternoon practice to start, a group of rookie linemen – of all races – were having a conversation about country music. If I had stumbled across a similar such discussion in, say, Wal-Mart, I wouldn't have thought much about it. But when it's a bunch of 350-pound guys in shoulder pads and shorts, it all of a sudden becomes interesting.

After one practice, as the players made their way back to the dorm, I noticed Tyrone Carter sporting a black tee shirt that read: "Samoan Headhunter" on the front and "Polamalu 43" on the back. Not sure what to make of this, but it was a funny visual.

Alrighty folks, my first training camp was a resounding success – at least from my perspective – and it was a pilgrimage definitely worth making. The summer camp feel to things will soon give way to the business side of professional football as preseason games start in earnest and some players will be on the wrong side of the 53-man roster. But one of the great things about being a fan is that it's not just getting to the finish line, it's the journey. Now that I've gotten myself sufficiently pumped up for the 2006 season, I'm going to play "backs on backers" for a while.


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