BOURBONNAIS – The light popped on about 3 this morning – not literally, but figuratively in my head. Something Martellus Bennett said Friday had been gnawing at me, and I finally realized what it was. The quote was, "This has been a lot of fun, like going to a new school."
I can't speak for Martellus, but honestly guys, who likes going to a new school. The fear of the unknown, the certainty that everyone there would be better than us and all the other self-doubts and multitude of ways we could fail. It's horrible.
With all that is new about these Chicago Bears, not a single job secure, why has everyone been having such a jolly old time? Because all we've had so far is orientation, opening ceremonies and a welcoming party with gift baskets holding brand new playbooks and shiny new uniforms for all.
But training camp's not supposed to be fun!
After 35 years on the NFL beat, I've lost count of the hundreds of NFL Training Camps I've passed through. But I can tell you there is a definite pace to all of them, one that has shifted dramatically in recent years.
In the old days, we'd show up at Camp Ditka on a Wednesday afternoon and we wouldn't dare be late for the first of the next day's two fully padded practices, as the first drill always promised to be a nutcracker with each player forced to line up head-to-head with a future teammate and see who could knock the the other's teeth out or head off?
Alas, these are kinder, gentler times. Two practices in the same day? That's taboo. And as Coach Marc Trestman told us on day one of camp, there will be no tackling, no one on the ground, no full speed contact anywhere, limited contact at the line of scrimmage, and we'll see about heavy breathing.
OK, I threw in the heavy breathing part, but he really did promise the rest. So how do we end the love-fest, get these guys out of their comfort zones, put the fear of Butkus into them? How do we find out if they can play football?
In fairness to Trestman, this gentrification of training camp is not on him. Much of it is dictated by the most recent Collective Bargaining Agreement the players negotiated in 2011, and more is a result of the rapidly escalating concern over head injuries and debilitating, post-career threatening injuries in general. A worthy endeavor indeed.
Even with all these changes though, there is still that pace I mentioned, and at some point walk-through's have to more closely resemble football.
About 45 minutes into practice No. 2 on Saturday, something happened in a seven-on-seven passing drill. It was an accident, but receiver, defender and ball all arrived in the same space at the same time and there was a collision. An audible gasp spread across the practice field and throughout the crowd. I didn't even bother to note the players involved, and It wasn't really a football play but it felt and sounded like one, and I swear the tone and timbre of that practice was different from that point on.
At 9 a.m. on Sunday, our brand new Bears will show up in pads for the first time and, like it or not, the welcoming party will be over. Even with all the safeguards in place, the competition for jobs will be on in earnest, and educated opinions will begin to be formed.
Starting Sunday, football becomes a game of blocking and tackling (or at least threatening to) again, and we'll actually have some real evidence on which to base our beliefs of who are the best and baddest Bears of all.
I've got Wednesday in the pool for the first fight. That's when we'll know we're all really having fun.