NFL beat writers don’t normally get to count Robert Griffin III as one of their own. But at the beginning of training camp, the ESPN analyst and former quarterback broke a story that would make the press hordes proud.
Griffin reported that tackle Orlando Brown Jr. had agreed to play under the franchise tag after he and the Kansas City Chiefs couldn’t work out a big-money extension. Griffin worded his scoop in a way that was bound to give veteran beat writers a shiver of recognition. Brown, Griffin tweeted, was in the “best shape of his life.” He was “betting on himself.” If Griffin failed to tweet a practice rep of Brown mauling a defensive end with the caption “Orlando Brown looks like himself,” well, he’s still learning the fine points of the craft.
Every summer, beat writers use training camp to nurture relationships with players, tuck away notes for future use, and plot out the big stories they’ll track all season.
But the relaxation of COVID protocols and the reopening of NFL locker rooms also brought back a certain kind of eternal training camp story. These stories appear year after year, with only a few details changed: The rookie “sponge” of yesterday, who asked all the right questions, has become the wise veteran “big brother” of today.
I spent the past week studying beat writers like beat writers study players. In their honor, here are 15 training camp notes—I believe the precise term is “observations”—that can be used this summer or anytime in the future.
1. A Player Is in the Best Shape of His Life
A player may still claim to be in the best shape of his life. But the phrase has been so widely mocked that a writer is as likely to say a player “spent the offseason remaking his body.”
2. A Player Is Betting on Himself
A story that sounds like it was assigned by an agent—and in some cases, probably was.
3. A Young Quarterback Is Getting More Vocal
This summer, young quarterbacks that got a reading on their stadium noise-meters include Justin Herbert, Kyler Murray, Zach Wilson, Justin Fields, Davis Mills, Kenny Pickett, and even Lamar Jackson (“more vocal than ever” at age 25). This story should be written when a quarterback corrects a wide receiver after a practice rep.
4. Things Got a Little Chippy Out There
“Tempers flared a little bit,” defensive end Bradley Chubb admitted after a Broncos-Cowboys joint practice last week. Tempers often do that “in the heat” of camp.
This summer, things have also gotten a little chippy with the Pats, Jags, Jets, Bucs, Lions, Niners, and Steelers. But only a little. While just about every camp fight is reported, a fight rarely reveals a schism on the team. This is because a bond has been forged. “That’s my brother, so it is what it is,” the Niners’ Brandon Aiyuk said after tangling with Fred Warner. “We’ve moved on.”
5. A New Coach Has Created a New Culture
In Miami, Mike McDaniel’s new culture is one where “swagger is not only permitted but encouraged.”
6. Players Who Play the Same Position Are Feeding off Each Other
Sometimes, a team arrives at training camp with lots of decent players at one position. This may create a competition for snaps or a “logjam.” Players insist this isn’t a problem. They are feeding off of each other.
This summer, that sentiment has been expressed by a Saints receiver, a Cowboys defensive lineman, and a University of Louisville running back. It’s important that players feed off of each other because “you have to have multiple guys who can step in and make plays.”
7. Iron Is Sharpening Iron
Like the above story, except written about players who line up against each other in practice. On Hard Knocks, Lions defensive end Aidan Hutchinson said of tackle Penei Sewell, “The fact that I get to go up against him, it’s a blessing, really.” Sewell said: “Iron sharpens iron. Everyone knows that.” The story is most winning when a so-so player claims he will receive a boost from an All-Pro.
8. A Rookie Is a Sponge
Reporters want to figure out whether the team’s draft picks are any good. But few veterans are going to tell them, “I knew that guy was garbage the first time I saw him.”
Instead, we hear a Steelers veteran say of new quarterback Kenny Pickett: “I think he’s done well.” A Jets veteran says of Ahmad “Sauce” Gardner: “He is a guy that gets after it.” On the Falcons’ Drake London: “Much respect to that kid.”
9. A Veteran Is Taking a Rookie Under His Wing
The rookie’s chance to genuflect before the veteran who is praising him. In training camp, every sponge has a “big brother.”
10. A Young Player Did Some Good Things and Some Bad Things
If NFL beat writers visited any office in the world, they’d see workers doing good things and bad things, making a few great reads and blowing a couple of assignments. But head coaches still like this noncommittal assessment: See Robert Saleh’s pre-injury take on Zach Wilson or Bill Belichick on Mac Jones. Sometimes, NFL players start to parrot their coaches. “There were things that I messed up,” Patriots rookie Cole Strange said this month, “but I think there was a lot that I did well.”
11. There Are Some Things We Need to Clean Up
These are the bad things.
12. A Player Is Putting in Extra Work on a Side Field
This month, Peter King found Bengals receiver Ja’Marr Chase catching passes from a Jugs machine after his teammates left the field. “You want to be the best, don’t you?” King asked him. “That’s my goal,” Chase said.
13. A Player Is Upset About His Madden Rating
A gimme. Nearly every NFL player, including Geno Smith, is insulted by his Madden rating. The video game answer to “overcoming the doubters.”
14. Players Are Excited to Start Hitting Someone Else
An antidote to the note that practice was getting a little chippy. Most beat writers published this note last week before the first joint practices and preseason games. Every year, reporters ask whether players are excited to hit someone else. They always are.
15. The Defense Is Ahead of the Offense
Or vice versa. This is really the ultimate training camp story. A new version can be written every day, and it will inevitably scare the crap out of the team’s fans. When that happens, the reporter can add—or quote the head coach saying—“It’s too early to say much of anything.”