Forgive me if this intro is too lengthy – if you’d like to skip down to find out how Curtis Samuel looked at training camp today (he looked good!) or if Christian McCaffrey’s biceps are any bigger (about the same!), I won’t be mad.
But this first dispatch has been a long time coming.
Beginning five months ago and literally up until a few weeks prior to getting a COVID-19 test, receiving my credential and walking through the gates at Bank of America Stadium to the practice fields on Sunday morning, I didn’t see how the NFL could possibly pull of a football season in the midst of a global pandemic. And while I still have my doubts, after seeing what I’ve seen over the past few weeks, the prospect seems not only realistic, but increasingly plausible that we will have football on September 13th.
After seeing the success both across the league – there have been fewer positive tests since players returned to facilities than players who decided to opt out of the 2020 season – and the Panthers, who are one of only six teams in the NFL to not have a positive test returned during the ramp up and acclimatization period – it certainly appears Matt Rhule will be on the sidelines, mask and all, coaching his first NFL game in less than a month when Jon Gruden brings the Raiders to Charlotte.
The reality of the situation has started to hit home for Rhule, who should have already coached his first preseason game last Thursday night after a full offseason of installing his scheme, but instead has only been able to truly be judged for how the Panthers have navigated building a new roster almost from scratch in the midst of a global pandemic.
“It gave me a sense of reality,” said Rhule. “I have a burning sense of urgency – and I want our coaches and players to have that as well. The games are coming.”
Obviously safety is incredibly paramount to Panthers, even for media covering the team.
Tier 2M personnel have daily COVID testing, assigned spots to stand that are six feet and individual contact tracers and obv wear masks at all times.
Yes, I need a haircut. pic.twitter.com/XRRYpG8QzQ
— Josh Klein (@joshkleinrules) August 16, 2020
The safety precautions for the media are just as intense as the players. I’ve taken eight COVID tests over the past nine days (all negative) and when I arrived to observe practice, I – along with the rest of Tier 2M media personnel – was given a Kinexon Contact Tracer and shown to my assigned viewing position which was both six feet from other reporters and at least 20 feet from the players or coaches.
Most of the coaches wore masks – or, in the case of Joe Brady and Jake Peetz, face shields – and on our way to the practice field, we passed an outdoor weight room under an enclosed tent, and there were some other changes to protocols – but for the most part, we were watching a football practice.
On the field is where the Panthers feel safest, an opportunity to block out the problems of the outside world and do the thing they’ve been doing since they were children. It’s also their opportunity to get better.
“Practice is everything. Iron sharpens iron and we want to go fast – there’s a level of teaching, don’t get me wrong, but I want us to play really fast. Sometimes in football, coaches have a tendency to stand around and talk a lot; guys aren’t engaged – we don’t want that,” Rhule said last week. “I want practice to be – I don’t want to say fun, but I want it to be competitive. Practice and a mindset built on competition, on going fast and flying around, is really important to me.”
“It’s up-tempo, it’s fast-paced,” said quarterback Will Grier. “He harps on bringing the juice everyday, working through things fast and treating it like a game.”
That was the biggest difference that everyone noticed immediately – now that the acclimation period and the walkthroughs have finished, a Matt Rhule practice, even one that’s in helmets and shells, moves at a fast pace. Rather than an airhorn to signal a change in drills, it is an alarm.
The urgency of what the Panthers must do to be ready for the regular season – and move on from a previous era – is apparent even from the soundtrack.
“You see explosiveness and competitiveness,” said Rhule. “It’s just so fast – in a good way.”
Panthers first session open to media is done.
Matt Rhule wasn’t kidding when he said practices were fast, fierce & competitive.
Didn’t see Temarrick Hemingway or Keith Kirkwood today.
Best Play 🥇 Will Grier bomb to Pharoah Cooper in team drill.
🎞 :1️⃣4️⃣vs2️⃣6️⃣ pic.twitter.com/m3Y8Tvq95j
— Josh Klein (@joshkleinrules) August 16, 2020
Here were some other things I noticed at Sunday’s training camp session – note that these dispatches will look a little bit more vague this season than they have in year’s past. Because this is a closed practice as opposed to being seen/live-streamed by thousands of fans in Wofford, we’re asked not to report on certain things that we see, from formations or personnel groups to the deployment of personnel or non-conventional plays among other details:
- The Panthers made three signings before practice: WRs Tommylee Lewis (former Saint) and Marken Michel (brother of Sony Michel) along with TE Andrew Vollert were all participating Sunday morning – as if echoing how quickly the NFL can move, Lewis was wearing #18, which used to belong to DeAndrew White – the wideout Lewis replaced on the roster. The team also released TE Cam Sutton and LB Kyahva Tezino. Lewis, in particular, looked crisp when running routes during 1-on-1s.
- LT Russell Okung, who had seriously considered opting out of the NFL season, left with about 45 minutes left of practice. Rhule said later that the early departure was planned – trainers brought the 31-year old tackle inside to work in the pool as Okung has been experiencing some lower back tightness. “We’ve just been smart about ramping him up, not making him go a full practice and getting him a little bit more each day and then when we’re done, making sure we can get him in the water and de-load it,” said Rhule.
- Keith Kirkwood (shoulder/clavicle) was not at practice and is expected to miss “several weeks” – a source confirmed to me that Kirkwood has a broken clavicle. TE Temarrick Hemingway (head), who also missed practice, is day-to-day.
- The talk of the media will be the tone and tempo of a Matt Rhule practice session, and for good reason. The team jumps from drill to drill and sprints across the field when the alarm sounds. After a special teams drill outside, the team sprinted into the bubble for a half an hour or so of drills with music blaring loud enough to be heard on Cedar Street. “It’s great. There’s a lot of energy – you can tell it from him, the coaches and down to us,” said safety Juston Burris. “He has the formula and we fall in behind that – if that’s working hard, that’s high tempo, that’s fast energy, that’s fine with us if you’re going to lead us to victory.”
- The music that seemed to strike a chord – pun intended – on social media after Teddy Bridgewater asked for it to be turned off during practice was loud and blaring. It was mostly rap, but a couple of rock songs (if you can call Linkin Park rock) mixed it up. However, there were times during drills when Rhule would stop the music to make a point, whether it was correcting a player’s technique or simply applauding – or deriding – a player’s effort on a given play. “When he’s talking, you listen to him and that’s how it’s going to go, that’s just how a leader is supposed to be,” said Burris, who nearly had an interception during red zone drills.
- The best play of the day by far was a long bomb from Will Grier to Pharoh Cooper – Cooper and Grier had worked (along with DJ Moore) together over the offseason and it showed on the deep ball that saw Cooper beating Jeremy Chinn to the end zone. Chinn, who is expected to be used all over the field, was given some advice and tweaks to his techniques by Phil Snow immediately afterwards.
- Quarterbacks were wearing green jerseys instead of red jerseys – why? To Rhule, red jerseys indicate a player is injured – “we want our quarterbacks to stay healthy,” laughed Rhule.
Green wit it, rock wit it! pic.twitter.com/pJJEDZxhPu
— Carolina Panthers (@Panthers) August 16, 2020
- Cornerback TJ Green had some impressive showings both in team drills and 1-on-1s – the former second-round pick who starred at Clemson was claimed off waivers last December and will likely compete with Eli Apple and Troy Pride for snaps at outside corner opposite Donte Jackson.
- Omar Bayless and Curtis Samuel both had some nice catches during 1-on-1s, including Samuel putting Green in a blender before laying out fully extended for a catch over the middle. Bayless also added a touchdown during team drills and DJ Moore had a nice sideline grab as he fell out of bounds.
- Bridgewater is continuing to build chemistry and timing with his wide receivers, but Will Grier made some impressive throws; he looked, in my opinion, much more poised than he did last season.
- First Player at Practice Award goes to a player who has a lot of these trophies on his mantel already – defensive end Efe Obada.
- During a special teams drill late in practice, Tahir Whitehead worked with Christian McCaffrey in one-on-one pass coverage drills while Robby Anderson and Eli Apple worked on the opposite field. Good to see players taking advantage of their downtime – and if you’re Whitehead, there’s no better place to learn about covering shifty running backs than from McCaffrey.
- Derrick Brown, who is wearing an additional covering on his helmet, showed off his quickness by getting his hands up and batting down a Teddy Bridgewater pass in team drills.
- The team has been in helmets and shells for the past couple of practices, but tomorrow is the first day the pads go on. Rhule probably said it best: “What you do in helmets and shells is one thing, but what you do when you put the pads on is a completely different beast.”