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Covering NFL training camp: Six beat writers talk biggest challenges, storylines and more


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Having covered a couple of Buffalo Bills training camps many lifetimes ago, I was always struck by how the best reporters used training camp to come up with interesting stories and develop relationships with players and staff. In recent vintage — and no doubt fantasy has played a major role here — NFL fans seem to have an insatiable appetite for anything out of training camp. This week I asked six of our NFL reporters — Greg Auman (Buccaneers), Joe Buscaglia (Bills), Michael-Shawn Dugar (Seahawks), Zak Keefer (Colts), Tashan Reed (Raiders), Jourdan Rodrigue (Rams) — to answer a couple of questions on the coverage of NFL training camp.

What is the biggest challenge covering training camp?

Auman: There’s only one of me. The Bucs are back to a model this season where you can get guys coming off the field after practice, which is great, but it’s also at the same time that (head coach) Todd Bowles takes questions each day, and a few select players are available to a scrum of reporters as well. So getting one is at the expense of the other and vice versa, but if you know who you need a few days ahead, the Bucs will set up an interview on the side.

The challenge is finding stories that not everyone else is writing. If there are 10 writers sitting in on the same interview with a player, it’s hard to have a distinctive feature, so you have to work secondary sources and find angles that not everybody else has. I’m so thankful we’ll have open locker rooms and postgame access this season, which make for much less homogenized coverage. You want to zig when everybody zags, but you also need to stay on top of the news of the day, so it’s a balancing act. Also, it’s Florida in July, so it’s crazy hot, but I’m glad we have 8:30 a.m. practices in camp so it’s not quite direct-sun-overhead hot.

Buscaglia: Probably the mental aspect because of how intense it can get. I like to think of training camp as a choose-your-own-adventure three-week sprint where you don’t know what is up or down by halfway through the second week. Right around that time, there always seems to be a day where every reporter at practice is a bit loopy and laughs a little too hard at jokes. You hear the players call training camp a mental grind, and the same goes for beat reporters. There is so much you want to do, so many things pop up at each practice, and the target is constantly moving every day. You have to possess great time management skills and figure out what will be most impactful on the fly, all while networking with people around the team and paying attention to every detail of practice. For those reporters that cover a team that travels for camp, you have to be away from home for those weeks or commute two-plus hours every day. It adds another layer to camp life.

I love training camp despite all the things it throws at you. It’s often the best access to players and practice of the entire year, where the wall of protecting state secrets isn’t as built up as it gets during the regular season.

Dugar: Being insightful and informative within the reporting parameters. Typically, we’re not permitted to report formations, defensive and offensive alignments, trick plays, sequencing of plays or descriptions of injury information such as guys in boots or casts. Some of those rules are enforced less often than others, but you get the point. While readers and podcast listeners want to know where the new draft picks are lining up, which formations the new offensive coordinator favors most or how often the stud receiver is running skinny posts and dagger routes against split-safety coverages, reporters are often limited to more generic observations. It’s the give-and-take of covering the country’s most popular sport.

Could we violate those rules? Sure. But teams and public relations departments are the gatekeepers of the access that sets us boots-on-the-ground beat reporters apart from bloggers and national pundits who parachute in and out of various camps this time of year. The game is the game, and I’m used to it by now, but reporting limitations offer a bit of a challenge. This is especially true when working for a subscription-based site because the daily churn of the NFL training camp news cycle doesn’t allow time to do additional reporting to differentiate my practice coverage from my paywall-free competitors.

Keefer: The monotony — and I don’t just mean from a football side of things. After the initial excitement of arrival day and the first practice, it can all start to bleed together, and there are times when you feel like the regular season is never going to come. You even get pumped to cover a preseason game … and then you’re reminded, a quarter in, that it’s a preseason game.

From a coverage standpoint, outside of injuries, there’s not a whole lot of action in most training camps. Some players improve their stock. Others don’t. None of it really matters until the games start to count, and that’s when the storylines start to take shape and we see if this team’s for real. Outside of the daily grind — practice observations, injury updates, roster battles — I’ve learned to use the preseason to build story ideas for the coming year, and knock out some lengthy interviews that will help me come September and October.

Reed: Encapsulating the big picture with detail and depth. Regardless of expectations for the season, every fan base wants to know everything that’s going on. Training camp is when the media have the best access they’ll get all year — teams are required to make every practice open in their entirety. But your eyes can only be in so many places at once. From hashing out position battles, schematic changes, individual, unit and team-wide performance and more, there’s a lot to stay on top of and communicate to your audience.

Rodrigue: I’ve covered in a lot of detail the ways the Rams have been a catalyst in the league — and in camp, the schematic elements of that are at the forefront. But providing detailed reporting within the parameters of the media guidelines can be a challenge (although believe me, I understand why they exist in terms of keeping hold of certain competitive advantages that coaches and players don’t want public until they absolutely have to be). It’s an odd feeling when a reporter can’t share which player is taking the bulk of first-team reps at right guard unless it’s directly asked in a press conference and addressed by said coach or player, but fans in the stands are able to share and video as much as they can (and again, the nuance here is that I’m stoked that fans can have a great experience; both can be true).

If that simple question is asked at a press conference in order to make the subject “usable,” it’s live-streamed and cherry-picked for aggregation immediately without the instant added context from the people on the ground who are watching every snap (because they’re in the press conference) and the possibly important context gets lost in the social media churn. This, of course, is a champagne problem. But finding the right balance of what to ask, and when to ask it within the parameters of the credential, especially as it pertains to scheme and building stories that are different and special for readers, is a challenge. Hell, I like a challenge.

What is the storyline or subject your fan base is most interested in during training camp?

Auman: In terms of readership numbers, I can’t write too much about Tom Brady. Even the most casual of football fans know who Brady is, so you’re constantly balancing how much you want Brady to filter into everything you write. Brady is really selective in the interviews he’s done. I’ve covered him two seasons and have yet to get him one on one, so there’s a challenge in finding new Brady stories that haven’t been written.

We wrote about his niece, Maya, who’s a standout softball player, and I talked to 10 guys who live in Tampa Bay named Tom Brady about what it’s like to share his name. You can have a lot of fun writing Brady without Brady’s help. We have a big story next month on (Brady). This being potentially his last NFL season, you can appreciate how much it means and how huge it would be if he could pull it off one more time at age 45.

Buscaglia: If the Bills can actually win a Super Bowl this year. The Bills have not had this good of a team or this high of expectations entering a training camp since the early ’90s. There was a long time in Buffalo when using the term “Super Bowl” was a lot like whispering “Voldemort” in and around Hogwarts because the Bills had been so far removed from a playoff appearance. It’s taken a few years of success with (head coach) Sean McDermott and (general manager) Brandon Beane to buy into these expectations, but they’re here now. Fans are as invested and have as high hopes as I’ve seen in covering the team in 13 years. For many, only a Super Bowl appearance will be considered a success. How this team handles those expectations after two straight heartbreaking playoff exits will be top of mind all year.

Dugar: In any given year, the fans in Seattle are most interested in rookies. The most popular question I’m asked this time of year is, “How does (insert rookie) look?” It’s not just fans, either. Agents, parents and high school and college coaches who have suddenly become fans of the Seahawks are always inquiring about the young guys. Because those folks can’t be at practice, they lean on our reporting to keep up with their people.

This year it’s all about rookies and the quarterbacks. Seattle hasn’t had a quarterback competition since 2012, when Russell Wilson beat out veteran Matt Flynn. Drew Lock versus Geno Smith may not move the needle nationally, but it’ll be a huge deal every day of Seahawks camp this year even though neither guy is expected to start in 2023. Quarterback battles are rare in today’s game because that typically means your team has two quarterbacks who aren’t very good, but the newness of the life-after-Russell-Wilson storyline will be king. Everything else is a distant second.

Keefer: Any report of a rookie or young player exceeding expectations stirs up plenty of attention, especially on offense, which of course comes back on us if said player doesn’t light it up in the regular season. The way I see it: It’s our job to tell the fans what they can’t see, the good and the bad. I always add the necessary caveats — it’s just training camp, it’s only the preseason — but that often gets lost in the shuffle. The focus is usually on the offensive skill positions (quarterback and wide receiver mainly). A good training camp doesn’t guarantee a good regular season, but it does tell you something.

Reed: The offensive line. As much excitement as there is about the offense following the addition of Davante Adams, there’s as much concern that Derek Carr won’t have time to get the ball to Adams, Darren Waller and Hunter Renfrow — and that Josh Jacobs won’t have anywhere to run. (New head coach) Josh McDaniels is one of the best play callers in the league, and the Raiders have some of the best skill-position talent out there, but their ceiling will be limited if the big guys up front don’t handle business.

The O-line largely struggled last year, but the front office opted against making major personnel changes and kept the group intact outside of drafting interior offensive lineman Dylan Parham, who’s competing for a starting role but has mostly been a backup so far. The biggest change has been bringing in offensive line coach Carmen Bricillo, who worked with McDaniels with the Patriots. Whether Bricillo can put together a competent unit is the biggest thing to watch for the Raiders throughout training camp.

Rodrigue: “Can the Rams repeat?” is, and will be, the biggest question facing this team from now until February. However, the question I get most often is how many snaps I think Cam Akers will get per game. (Answer: A lot!)

What is something NFL readers in another city would be surprised to learn about your training camp?

Auman: I will totally non-answer this and say it’s so important to protect yourself from the sun — Florida or not — and put sunscreen on every day and wear a big hat and find shade whenever you can. I got through a minor skin cancer three years ago without any significant problems beyond a scar on my cheek, but training camp is a time where sun exposure is a real occupational hazard for us, so I feel like it’s important to do the PSA and say to be careful. Get any irregularities checked right away.

Buscaglia: The Bills hold training camp at a small school outside of Rochester called St. John Fisher University, about a 90-minute drive from Buffalo. The team picks up the entire operation from their multi-million dollar facilities in Orchard Park and jams 90 players into dorms and a locker room that’s meant for a Division III college program. Over the years we’ve often heard about how cramped it is inside those locker rooms, especially with the size of a large portion of a football roster. They also don’t have access to their state-of-the-art weight room and recovery facilities that they invested heavily into over the last few years because it’s back in Orchard Park. Players, the front office, the coaching staff, scouting staff and many employees from different team offices are all housed in the dorms in and around the university. The days are long for everyone, not just the actual team, and then most get a twin bed to return to at the end of a long work day for a few weeks straight. If the weather gets too bad outside, the Bills either have to change their daily schedule to work around the weather or, in the past, they’ve taped off yard markers in a basketball gym and do a walkthrough instead of an actual practice. If the team were in Orchard Park, they would have an indoor field where they could easily do all their work on those days. Bills training camp is an old-school throwback from what the NFL is today.

Dugar: The energy at Seahawks training camp. The crowd has its collective volume turned all the way up. The players are always interacting with the fans. The defense always has a guy or two who just lives for the opportunity to talk trash to the offense. Someone is always dancing. Pete Carroll may be the oldest coach in the league, but his training camp practices sometimes feel like one big party. It’s easy to forget that Carroll is a legit celebrity with connections to other celebrities. Drake has come to practice. So has Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Kendrick Lamar broke down the huddle a few years ago. Rainn Wilson pulled up and kicked field goals. Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson lost a shootout in the team meeting room against Tyler Lockett. You never know who’s going to pop up around here.

Keefer: The Colts have participated in joint practices in six of the past eight seasons — hosting each time. GM Chris Ballard said that four or five teams reach out to him every spring, hoping to come to Westfield, Ind., in August and practice for a few days against the Colts. The reason isn’t so much the team but the setup: the Colts stage their monthlong training camp in Westfield, a suburb north of Indianapolis, at a venue called Grand Park, a sprawling youth sports campus that has hundreds of fields, easy access and, in a lot of ways, is perfect for an NFL training camp. There’s a bit of rural charm, as well, with a few houses that butt up against the Colts’ practice fields, allowing those residents the chance to watch Matt RyanJonathan Taylor and the rest of the team practice from the comfort of their backyard.

Reed: The Raiders almost exclusively practice outdoors. Yes, it’s hot as hell outside in Vegas and, yes, the Raiders have a multi-million dollar indoor facility, but they opt to brave the elements. Even though they practice in the morning, the temperatures often surpass 100 degrees by the time the session ends. It was that way with Jon Gruden as coach and it hasn’t changed under McDaniels. It’s worse for the players, obviously, but it still doesn’t feel too great as the media!

Rodrigue: I wish people from all over could see the playing surface and atmosphere in Irvine, Calif., where the Rams hold training camp. The team is still re-building their fan base in a lot of ways, especially in a region that went without pro football in-city for a while. But in Irvine, with the emerald grass that bounces a little when you walk on it, the constant breeze (and occasional wayward seagull), and the packed, excited bleachers — the vibes are excellent.

Who is someone on your beat (player/coach/executive) who you could see working in the sports media after his/her NFL career has concluded — and why?

Auman: I could see Tom Brady given the opportunity to make more money in TV than he did in a 23-year NFL career. (Sorry, that was a really easy one.) Even when they were bad, the Bucs were a leading supplier of NFL broadcast talent, from Chris Simms to Keyshawn Johnson to John Lynch to Ronde Barber to Tony Dungy to Jon Gruden to Brian Griese. Can I count Steve Young? We saw Richard Sherman last year, and he’ll be great on TV with Amazon. Same for Ryan Fitzpatrick. Both are really smart and engaging football minds with a great sense of humor.

Buscaglia: There aren’t many obvious examples, but I’ll go with All-Pro free safety Micah Hyde. He has an excellent way about him of having a mostly friendly conversation with reporters rather than going to the all-too-familiar cliché route. He does a great job explaining things in a digestible way and is one of the most intelligent people in the locker room. One of his best attributes on the field is how well he anticipates a play through film study, and that, combined with his personality, could help him tremendously in a color commentary or analyst role in the future.

Dugar: Defensive coordinator Clint Hurtt is one of the funnier football coaches I’ve been around. He’s very colorful and quick-witted. But even when he’s cracking a joke, you can tell it comes from a place of love, absent of malicious intent (unless he’s destroying a projector at halftime — that was certainly malicious). He was great on our “Seahawks Man 2 Man” podcast a year ago. Good storyteller. Honest dude. Could easily see him on television as an in-studio analyst or bringing the former player/coach perspective on a radio show alongside a traditional sportscaster. He’s probably not thinking about that now seeing as he just got his first defensive coordinator job, but I think he’d be perfect for that role. A comp would be a combination of Shannon Sharpe and Jeff Van Gundy.

Keefer: The Colts’ roster has at least a half-dozen players or more who I could see having a role in sports media after their playing days. In no particular order: running back Nyheim Hines and tight end Kylen Granson (jovial personalities, lighten any room they’re in), linebacker Darius Leonard (incredibly engaging and his passion for the game spills out any time he speaks), and defensive tackle DeForest Buckner and running back Jonathan Taylor (polished pros who command respect). My dark horse is nose tackle Grover Stewart, who might have the greatest Southern drawl you’ve ever heard and is one of the most relaxed players I’ve ever been around. He’d make a great color analyst for college football games, maybe on the SEC Network, down the line.

Reed: Darren Waller. He has a great story — he struggled with substance addiction early in his career, overcame it to achieve sobriety and blossomed into a star player — and has his own podcast show with Blue Wire Podcasts where he opens up about his journey, among other topics. He’s a strong quote, has personality and has already gotten a head start on utilizing his platform. He also participated in an NFL media training program for players this past offseason. I wouldn’t be shocked in the least to see him join sports media whenever his playing career is over.

Rodrigue: I feel like saying “Sean McVay” is a cop-out, right? We all know he’s going to be a broadcaster someday (my sense is he’s tied to quarterback Matthew Stafford, in the shorter term). I look at a player like safety Terrell Burgess, who blends a bright, truly earnest and eager personality with a little bit of a dry sense of humor, as someone who could bring a fresh voice to the broadcasting space if given the tools and opportunity.

“There he goes. One of God's own prototypes.

A high-powered mutant of some kind, never even considered for mass production.

Too weird to live, and too rare to die.”

 

Twitter: @HKTheResistance

 

HipKat, on *** other h***, is genuine, unapoli***tically nasty, and w**** his hea** on his ******. jc856

I’ll just forward them to Bridgett. comssvet11

Seek help. soflabillsfan

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