Last August I covered one training camp practice, and it wasn’t until after it was over that I learned that it was the last practice that would be made open to the media.
Like last offseason for the San Francisco 49ers’ coaches and players, my first 49ers practice was a little overwhelming. I got lost on the way to the 49ers’ facility in Santa Clara. It was fan appreciation day, so there were hundreds (thousands?) of people walking around and I had no credential. After finding my way inside and walking around the perimeter of the practice fields, past the bleachers full of fans and over toward where the rest of the media was stationed, I watched a practice that looked a little sloppy. I had no idea I was watching a 13-3 team taking shape, and the fans in attendance were even more in the dark since the bleachers were one field over from where the 49ers were practicing (meaning without binoculars it was tough to see what was going on).
This year, I have a little better handle on what’s going on. However, the venue has changed slightly. The practice fields are in the same area, but they’re turned 90 degrees. The entrance is now on the other side, due to the stadium construction going on where I entered the facility last year.
After driving to Santa Clara and through some city streets near Great America, you cruise up to security. After showing your credential, they let you drive down a long parking lot and around the corner, which is labeled “Player and overflow parking.” I guess I’m overflow.
From the parking lot it’s about a 100-yard walk to the media trailer, a building about the size of a small classroom that’s been in use for quite some time. I recently heard someone say that Ira Miller used to pretty much run the place. On the way from the overflow lot to the trailer, to the west there are several steel girders popping up as the new stadium starts to take shape. Since no girders were up during the June minicamps, it’s clear that the construction process is going fairly quickly.
The schedule changes every day. Sometimes the team practices in the morning, followed by all the media stuff (generally a coach and two players answer questions). Sometimes the press conferences are held before an afternoon or evening practice. Yesterday offensive coordinator Greg Roman, Kendall Hunter and Colin Kaepernick spoke at noon, then practice started about 90 minutes later. The 49ers PR staff is nice enough to reproduce transcripts of these press conferences a pretty short time after the interviews have taken place.
Generally the questions are mostly asked by Matt Barrows, Matt Maiocco and Eric Branch, along with assorted queries from whoever else showed up that day. Luckily, as opposed to some sports/teams I’ve covered, the guys who cover the 49ers rarely ask “Talk about…” or “Importance of…” questions. For example:
“Talk about the importance of winning this upcoming game.”
See, there’s a two-for-one. First the questioner is ordering the interviewee to put words together about the subject of the questioner’s choosing. And “importance of” questions are as necessary as “NO SMOKING” signs in doctor’s offices. Of course they want to win the next game/series/whatever, you ninny!
And … done venting.
The interview sessions usually take place in a tent in between the fields and the media trailer, with about 20 chairs/desks set up on the grass. With the desks, it’s almost like the guy at the podium is our teacher. “Professor Kaepernick, what’s the hardest thing about transitioning from the pistol offense to the NFL?” Sometimes a couple of the beat writers will try to pass a note to each other, and Jim Harbaugh takes the note and reads it aloud for everyone to hear. Alright, maybe that isn’t true. But I wish it was.
This is probably going to make a few of you hate me more than you already do, and I can handle that.
During the last two afternoons, after the players cleared out of the cafeteria, the most glorious sentence is uttered in the media trailer: “Hey guys, time for lunch.”
Yes, I learned this week that sometimes the media gets to sample the same buffet the players do. Unlike at AT&T Park or Oracle Arena, the food is free of charge. It’s also on the healthy side, with signs above each station telling the players the correct portion size and what the food helps with (fruits, vegetables, nuts: for immune support and recovery). Yesterday I had salad, chicken breast, halibut with pesto, and tomato soup. I was ready to hit the blocking sled afterward (also not true).
Practice – first hour
The first hour consists of position-based drills. It isn’t the best time to judge the viability of individual players (they’re all in shape), but it is the time when I can take photos.
The defensive linemen (who seem to have the most fun, perhaps thanks to Jim Tomsula) mostly work on things like technique coming off the ball. The linebackers seem businesslike, and always conclude their drill sessions by huddling up and yelling “LBs.” Yesterday, Patrick Willis, NaVorro Bowman and the rest were working on close-range interceptions and forcing fumbles. Here are a few shots of the LBs, starting with Bowman catching one of those short INTs.
Defensive backs work on all kinds of things based on the few practices I’ve witnessed, like one-on-one deep coverage and zone coverage against short passes. Here’s a picture of Donte Whitner going up for an interception over “receiver” Tarell Brown.
I think I mentioned this earlier, but these are constantly talking to each other — especially the secondary. I’m not sure if it was that way before Carlos Rogers and Whitner showed up, but I can’t imagine a way this group isn’t significantly better in 2012 than they were last year. I also frequently wonder if other teams are so communicative with guys they’re competing with — Goldson and Whitner advising Trenton Robinson; Tramaine Brock and Chris Culliver going over the previous play with Perrish Cox; Rogers talking to everyone with a huge smile.
It’s just another example of how football goes against human nature, and that’s part of what makes being a coach so difficult. Our instincts tell us to protect our bodies; avoid contact. Football players can’t succeed unless they convince themselves to crave collisions. The players are constantly reminded that they’re competing with one another every day, yet sharing information and boosting a teammate’s accumen is the rule, not the exception.
Then again, I’m admittedly new to covering professional football. The 49ers could be unique in certain ways, but that’s a question for a more seasoned football scribe. Perhaps someone who doesn’t take his own pictures.
As far as the offense goes, the line’s activities are similar to what the d-line does. Quarterbacks throw passes to receivers running simple routes, running backs either work with the QBs or the o-line (and Frank Gore always seems to be chatting with Tom Rathman during a break between plays).
Oh, I almost forgot, there are a LOT of kickoff and punt return drills, often with the ball getting shot downfield out of a machine. Generally, the kickers and Brian Jennings practice on a third, smaller field next to the outdoor weights area is where the injured guys do their rehab work. That is, until they’re needed to practice field goals during 11-on-11 drills later on.
Offensive players wear red jerseys, the defense dons white. Those white jerseys are looking better and better all the time.
Practice – contact time
About an hour in, Harbaugh blows his whistle and yells, “Tackling!” That means no more cameras.
All the position groups that were spread out among the two practice fields join up and start doing 7-on-7 or 11-on-11 work on one of the fields. On Friday, they played on the field closest to the sideline where the media are to stand. On Monday and Tuesday the team scrimmaged on the far field, which makes it a little more difficult to tell what’s going on. That issue has been brought up by other writers, and Harbaugh recently explained that it’s a safety issue because the installation of two streets led to a reduction in available practice space.
Regardless, even someone from one of the dozens of planes flying overhead could probably tell that the defense is very tough to move the ball against. Normally the end of practice consists of the first, second and third team offenses working on specific situations (example: 2:34 left, down 4 points, starting at your own 36). The defense usually keeps the 49ers out of the end zone, but every once in a while Vernon Davis, Delanie Walker or Randy Moss catch a touchdown pass.
Harbaugh’s presence is always felt, whether he’s watching a drill or taking part. He seems to check in pretty much everywhere, with special attention focused on wherever the quarterbacks are running plays. When he decides the 11-on-11 drills are over, everyone heads to the middle of the field and stretches … and that’s my cue to head back to the trailer with the rest of the media personnel (the beat guys couldn’t be friendlier, by the way).
Now that I’ve gone through what covering a training camp practice is like, stay tuned for which players have caught my eye so far and who I’ll be paying close attention to during Friday evening’s preseason opener against the Vikings.