At the end of a gauntlet of Houston Texans stood Ricardo Mathews, reaming with confidence.
The 6-3, 300 pound defensive tackle had never fielded a punt before at any level. Yet there he was, in the spotlight at the end of Tuesday’s morning training camp session, his teammates watching with hopeful anticipation, Mathews with a chance to play hero.
Catch the punt, get the team out of work that evening.
Drop it? Well, probably best to not think about that.
After a quick bobble, Mathews pulled in the soft Shane Lechler floater. His teammates erupted in celebration.
It was a defining moment — not for Mathews, but for head coach Bill O’Brien. His first NFL training camp has come to be known for its intensity. Players are often seen running laps, even the quarterbacks. Music blares at a deafening decibel. Whistles are blown, voices are raised. Maybe more often than usual. All to whitewash the stain of last season’s 2-14 record.
But O’Brien strives to find that balance, between working his players hard without overdoing it.
Hence, the scene today.
“I just think as the head football coach, you have to have a good beat on your team,” O’Brien said. “When to back off. When to really push them. That’s part of your job. So that’s what I’m always trying to get better and better at.”
The scene at the end was far from that at the beginning. O’Brien said he made an impromptu change to the day’s practice schedule upon seeing the vibes of his team this morning, deciding to start practice with a team session to simulate game situations.
“When we came out there, I didn’t get the sense that we were ready to go,” he said.
“So, I just put the ball down at the 10-yard line, and let’s play football. … I thought that got the guys going a little bit.”
Or, at least it did until the third turn for the second team, headed by backup quarterback Case Keenum. After a few snaps, and results that apparently weren’t to O’Brien’s liking, he pulled the plug on the period, motioning to an engineer to kill the music and sounding his whistle to indicate that he had enough.
A night-and-day difference from what the tone would be a mere hour and a half later.
“I do believe that we have a long way to go in some areas, we have a lot of things to clean up, but I also believe that these guys are working hard,” O’Brien said.
“You know, it’s hot our there for these guys, and the guys that are out there, giving us everything they have, that’s a good thing.”
Mathews, a seventh-round pick of the Colts in 2010 — and picked by O’Brien on Tuesday to be the one to field the potential get-out-of-practice punt — had no doubts about his chances.
Why did O’Brien pick him?
“They knew I was going to get the job done, straight up,” Mathews said with a laugh.
When was the last time he caught a punt?
“I don’t even know. For real, for real.”
What if he had dropped it?
“I wasn’t gonna miss. There was no indecision.”
But really, what if he had dropped it?
“I said we’ll be here until midnight,” O’Brien joked. “That’s why I kept saying, There’s a lot riding on this, Rico.”
You know, the punt and kick return jobs do seem to be open…
“Nah, nah. I’ll stick to defense.”
That Mathews caught the punt meant a free pass for the team from afternoon session.
“But you know, we’re professionals, so we’ll probably still be in the building.”
For NFL head coaches, embracing that balance is a growing trend around the league, especially among the teams that do the most winning. Pete Carroll brought his laid-back Pacific Northwest vibes to the Seattle Seahawks, now the defending Super Bowl champions. Jim Harbaugh is known to mix it up in practice with players on his San Francisco 49ers, who’ve advanced to the NFC Championship game in each of the last three seasons. Chip Kelly brought nearly all of the trappings of his upbeat college program at the University of Oregon to the Philadelphia Eagles, who went 10-6 in his first season there in 2013, a six-win improvement from the year prior.
Press too hard to often, and run the risk of being the next Greg Schiano, ousted from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers after two seasons that wore too heavily on everyone throughout the organization. Be too easy, and venture into dreaded Wade Phillips territory as too much of a players coach.
As O’Brien said, it’s all about finding that balance.
Among the many challenges for surviving in the NFL.
“It’s good every now and then to give them a little break, and they come back in my opinion fresh,” O’Brien said.
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