The slow build to September: dispatches from training camp

1.

Clay Matthews is riding a recumbent bicycle to practice. To a great many cheers, Matthews gets up and starts onto the grass trimmed like a fairway. Somewhere else this is something, maybe; here it is Tuesday. Here bikes accustomed to gently bouncing off pavement, a child and helmet on board, get shock-treated to the weight of professional football players. Tires flatten against concrete as Packers awkwardly ride on seats and pedals set for much younger people down the street to Ray Nitschke Field. Today Matthews apparently gets a more comfortable ride. Somewhere else this doesn’t happen. Somewhere else they are not cheered for entering practice or offered laying down bicycles to get there. Here it is Tuesday.

It’s the regular season now, we know, but the build to it does not get less important now that it’s here. (As we’ve seen in both good and bad ways over the offseason.) It’s probably more impressive that training camp’s atmosphere remains special even when you think you know what to expect. Especially when you remember it’s a football practice and a Tuesday morning. That said, I’m pretty certain that if the Green Bay Packers decided to hold training camp workouts at 4:25 a.m. on a Monday, fans would begin lining the rails from Lambeau to the team’s practice area on Armed Forces Drive at 3:30. It happens like clockwork, with the normalcy of a, say, Tuesday morning, and that only adds to its uniqueness.

2.

This particular Tuesday is hard to argue with. A soft morning breeze blows through a partly cloudy sky. Players stretch as a team and in lines down the field. Practice starts and third-string quarterback B.J. Coleman is running some option plays against the first-team defense. Instantly you remember the San Francisco 49ers. More specifically, you remember Colin Kaepernick and his ties to New London, Fond du Lac and Milwaukee, and how impossible he looked on the night of January 12, 2013.

Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday of the week July melts into August and subsequent weeks after, the Packers open by practicing against the read-option offense. Two of their first three opponents in September – San Francisco and the Washington Redskins – run this to deadly effect, and no one, since head coach Mike McCarthy began the offseason by reciting 579 – the number of total offensive yards the Niners gashed Green Bay for in the Divisional Playoffs last season – has forgotten.

Coleman and Graham Harrell alternate days running the option offense. When Vince Young is inked later in training camp it is speculated he’s here to present a more accurate version of the read-option. The drill itself seems to focus on proper positioning of the defense. It is not contact or full speed but the coaches are intense throughout. Linebackers coach Kevin Greene is that way because otherwise he wouldn’t be Kevin Greene, but being in the right place, making the right decision against the offense feels paramount. That’s definitely, to some degree, because of what happened last season. These lingering dizzy spirals aren’t all-encompassing in camp, but they remain hovering for a good reason.

3.

For the most part Packers training camp is about the Packers. After the read-option drill practices are inner-focused dissections of a team with its own unique set of questions and answers. They are a young team with potential depth and space available for players to step in and earn ample playing time. This happens as a result of balanced position battles or injuries, but opportunities arise. I found the most important element to remember about training camp and preseason amongst all the nuggets of detail in front of you is that every piece adds or subtracts to a picture too wide in scope to be fully seen at the time.

Those little sets and motions and drills get put together, ironed out and drilled in. And while it’s true that every moving part counts in football, they are not always an exact representation of something substantial. All of these quick decisions, the corrections on footwork and eye level and hip-turning and hand technique, are pixels. In quality pictures, pixels are not easy to spot instantaneously. But they’re always there. They’re unquestionably part of a team’s portrait.

So a majority of this ongoing action in the offseason is incomplete. Tackling can’t happen like it does in a game. Injuries can occur anywhere. Football is instead finely chopped into its fundamentals, separated out by specific skills or areas of focus. The intent, the goal, might be clear during drills or the fourth quarter of an exhibition game, a conclusion to draw from one of these diced portions is not.

4.

Young, Harrell and Coleman are obviously not Kaepernick or Robert Griffin III. Week 1 is not last season, either. Whatever happens or already happened, Green Bay had to wait exactly the shortest amount of time they could’ve before getting another shot at harnessing the chaos that got out of control in San Francisco in January. This is good. The read-option will re-emerge somewhere again, but training camp is more than that even when it was focused on that. There’s plenty of season to prepare for, the rest of a challenging schedule still ahead.

For now, Tuesday mornings are once again a regular part of the work week. Those practices leading to September don’t just go away though, not in the first month. The early regular season version of the Packers, under construction and constant evaluation since the offseason started, is the first formation of all the pieces and moving parts together and operating without exhibition’s restrictions. As a team they’re still young in the literal sense and in terms of this year. The regular season doesn’t even know its own name yet. But we can finally start to see a fuzzy picture taking form.

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