The waiting is finally over.
Cleveland Browns training camp begins on Thursday, ending a lengthy offseason punctuated by texting, a suspension, and a rehab stint.
On the eve of the beginning of a new season, Browns head coach Mike Pettine spoke to the media. The second-year coach covered a wide variety of topics, from the quarterback position to the team's rookies to the injury situation.
Pettine's most interesting quotes are listed below, but you can view the complete transcript here, courtesy of the Akron Beacon Journal's Nate Ulrich.
Pettine began the press conference by expressing his excitement at the start of a new season.
"Obviously, this is always an exciting day for us. It’s great to see the guys all back in the building. We’re excited about getting on the field tomorrow. For us, training camp signifies something, an opportunity to get back to get tunnel vision on football and continue the process of building and improving the team. That’s really going to be our theme this year is it’s concentrated football. With all the talk that surrounds it, whether that’s talk coming from us to external, the theme for this year is going to be ‘words into action’. A lot of stuff gets put out there and we put a lot of pressure on ourselves when we talk about it, but the theme this year is to have that continue on to the field."
The defense is well ahead of the offense, as Pettine alluded to, noting the defense has "very high standards." Meanwhile, the offense has some work to do.
"Offensively, it’s about building an identity. I thought we did an outstanding job in the spring of teaching and implementing what we’re going to do. Talking to Flip [Offensive Coordinator John DeFilippo] and looking back through the installation, that’s well over 90 percent of what we’ll run in the fall was put in in the spring. The only thing that remains are a handful of new concepts and a lot of our special situations that we did not get a chance to practice in the spring, the goal line and the short guarded stuff, stuff you don’t want to practice when you don’t have pads on. I was very pleased with the progress we made, but the next step is to circle back and implement that installation in pads, real football as we like to say."
Pettine then addressed the injury situation. Both defensive back Ifo Ekpre-Olomu and tight end Randall Telfer will start the season on the physically unable to perform (PUP) list, as expected.
"On the injury front – I did talk about this a little bit earlier – we are very encouraged by the progress of our guys that are coming off of injuries. We are going to be very smart about how we handle it. Some of the guys will be out there, but we’re very aware of their pitch count and we’ll have them on a limited basis of how we work them in. We do have the two drafted rookies that are going to start on PUP: Ifo and Telfer. They’re not going to be participating in training camp. We knew this was the case when they were drafted. Ifo was highly unlikely to be available this season. We know that that is a long recovery for him. Telfer has made good progress, and the date we’re thinking there is around midseason. We’ll get that window to evaluate him and see where he is. Very confident in both those guys’ recovery just because of how hard they have worked so far, their character and how they have approached it."
Pettine later spoke further to Ekpre-Olomu's situation.
"I don’t think it was just a pure ACL. There were other ligaments involved, and I think there was a dislocation, as well. Obviously, it happened during bowl practice. I think it’s a combination of both. Players that have had this injury before, it’s rare that you would return that season. Given our depth, we’re very comfortable with him sitting out. That’s just one that we felt it was a low-risk, high-reward move when we took him in the seventh round. There’s no reason to rush it back, is what I’m saying, given the depth in that room now anyway."
After Pettine concluded his opening statement, the media proceeded to ask Pettine a host of questions. This portion of the presser began with typical talk of expectations and conditioning, with no significant revelations. However, according to Pettine, no players plan on skipping camp.
Following the typical back-and-forth opening part of the question-and-answer segment, Pettine was asked a great question: Which position group will be the most competitive?
"I don’t know if I can pinpoint just one. I think that’s one of the things where we feel we’re in a good place that we generated a lot of competition at a lot of different spots. I think that’s where you get better as a football team. There’s a lot of different places. You can start with Cameron Erving competing with those established five starters. That’s one. You look at the running backs as another one. You look at the competition, the wide receiver room. We’re very deep at tight end; there will be some completion there. There are a lot of spots. Defensively, all of those guys on the D-line compete for playing time; the outside backer room where we made some changes – Scott Solomon coming on late and drafting Nate Orchard – to challenge [Barkevious] Mingo. Armonty Bryant is going to get some work, we’re going to cross train him between defensive line and outside backer, and obviously, we have [Paul] Kruger coming off of a very successful season. I already referenced the kicking competition. There is no better motivator than competition."
Two of the aforementioned positions -- the offensive line and defensive line -- have key players returning from injury. Both center Alex Mack and defensive tackle Phil Taylor will ease into training camp.
"They’ll be on pitch count, but a lot of it is just that communication with them. How do you feel? And some of the tell-tale signs. If they come in that next day and there’s a little bit swelling or some tenderness to it, then you can certainly hold them back. That’s on them to communicate with us and communication with the guys in the training room. The opener is a long way away. That’s why we’re not in any rush to jump out here and start giving those guys full workloads. Also, as we’ve always done, just looking at some of the veteran players and being smart with them, that comes in two forms whether we give them a complete day off, as we’ve done with Joe Thomas, or if it’s monitoring them and saying, ‘Hey, listen go get ramped up and give full speed reps early in practice, and then we’ll shut you down.’ There will be guys that will fall in both categories."
Speaking of the offensive line, Erving likely won't steal Mack's job this year, but the youngster could beat out veteran John Greco. Erving will begin camp as a right guard, and could win the starting gig if Pettine likes the way Erving works with the rest of the line.
"Just evaluating it, it just felt like it’s a good starting point, but we’re still going to move him around. We talked about the days off with Joe and that’s a good opportunity to move Cam around. He’s also shown that he can handle moving around. He proved it in college. You run the danger of if a guy gets spread too thin and then he’s jack of all trades, master of none. We felt in looking at it and evaluating it that that was the best position, but camp is a long process. That’s not etched in stone that that’s where he’s going to be or that’s where he’s going to stay. It gives us the ability to mix and match. As I said, as camp goes on, we’ll settle on the lineup that we feel will be out there. No reflection on Greco."
While Erving is talented, nothing is guaranteed.
As Pettine told the Florida State product and the other rookies on the roster, everything is earned in the NFL.
"When we opened rookie camp that was something I talked about with them, that there’s no such thing as being on scholarship, other than the guys that were hurt that know they have their rehab to take care of. But those other guys, all they have to do is look around and do the math – there’s no guarantees. You look at guys last year that were undrafted last year that made it. I think that’s the mistake rookies can make sometimes. One, they can assume they’re not going to make it, and that’s just as bad as assuming they are going to make it. We very much operate on what have you done lately? That’s why life in the NFL can be a day-to-day thing. Guys have to know they have to come in here and everyday put in the work, put in the effort with a great attitude. We’ll see how it plays out, but we’re very happy with that draft class so far. I mentioned this in the spring that every single one of them – and that’s continues here in the few days that we’ve had them – they have all showed reasons why we brought them here. That’s one of the reasons we’re so encouraged about the competition thing that we already talked about. Some of these guys have come in, and there’s going to be some interesting battles with rookies competing with veterans for playing time."
Pettine then spoke about the quarterback situation, one of the biggest concerns heading into training camp. Will Josh McCown provide a serviceable option for the Browns at quarterback? Will Johnny Manziel develop into a reliable starter? Pettine deflected the deeper question and instead focused on the offense as a whole.
"It’s 11 players out there at a time; it’s not just one. We’ve talked about this. We have a lot of confidence in all of our players when we go out there, and we showed last year that we could be very competitive in the division, splitting with Pittsburgh and how the last six quarters against them went. Then you look at how well we played against Cincinnati and then they returned the favor up here, we feel we certainly can compete with them. Then we had fourth quarter leads in both Baltimore games. It’s not like we feel like we’re staring up a mountain at the division. To me, it’s the exact opposite. We’re very much looking forward to when those games are played. Like I said, if you want to get your ultimate goal, that’s the most direct route to it. We spend a lot of our focus as a coaching staff on the division opponents this offseason, and our players will certainly know the level of importance that each of those games holds."
Pettine later complimented McCown for working with wide receiver convert Terrelle Pryor.
"[McCown] is the same guy every day. He’s all about football. He’s all about the team and he’s all about winning. For him to take time during his break to workout with Terrelle speaks to his character. Even just the few days we’ve had him since he’s been back, he’s picked it up right where he left off. Whether it’s with me or with Flip or [Quarterbacks Coach] Kevin [O’Connell], the conversations are always positive, they’re about football and they’re all about the browns getting better."
Another point Pettine touched on was the similarity of this year's system to last year's.
"A lot of it is new, but there is a lot of carryover from last year. It starts with the protection. It’s great having [Offensive Line] Coach [Andy] Moeller and [Assistant Offensive Line] Coach [George] DeLeone back and those five starters, plus Cam Erving from a protection standpoint that’s where it all starts. We do have numerous guys back ... guys that were contributors for us last year in the pass game. It’s not like we’re starting from scratch. I feel good about the football aptitude of this group. It’s a very intelligent group. We were able to put in a lot. Like I said, we’re 90-plus percent installed, and a lot of is familiar concepts from a year ago. If it was the same thing, it might be called something different or just a subtle tweak in the terminology, but for the most part, a large part of what we’re doing now is carried over from last year. I’m confident that our pass game will be where we want it to be Week 1."
The perceived weakness of the offense has led to low offseason grades for the Browns.
This doesn't bother Pettine.
"Nobody wants to be disrespected. It’s a prideful group and I just see it as a motivating thing. We had two wins over division opponents last year by 21 points, and we just feel that our best path to get to where we want to be is through the division. We played well enough at times to be in that conversation and other times we didn’t. I think so much of the NFL is every team is capable but who can do it consistently and who can do it the longest. I think that is where we have to take that next step this year."
Pettine concluded the interview by addressing the club's alleged plan to move training camp to Columbus.
The Browns coach seems to be fully onboard with the idea.
"I felt fortunate, when I was in Baltimore, we went away to McDaniel College in western Maryland. It wasn’t that far away; it was a half hour. When I was with the Jets, we went away to Courtland in every year except the year of the lockout. When I was with the Bills, we went away to St. John Fisher. I know I’ve spoken on this before, but I like to compartmentalize the year. It’s just tough to be on your same fields and your same meeting room and everything’s the same and we say, "OK its training camp now, and now it’s not training camp anymore.’ Physically being away helps the players, it signals a change in atmosphere. It really does force you to have a time – I don’t want to talk about shared misery because a lot of the guys bring their own beds and their TVs so I don’t know how miserable they are – but just being away signifies something. I like that because it helps at night when there’s nothing else to do, you’re building a team, its camaraderie, guys are doing stuff together. Then I also think it gives another area, whether it was Westminster, Maryland or Rochester, New York or Courtland, as it would do in Columbus, you are giving an opportunity for another area to come see you. I didn’t know any better, and that’s one of the things I brought it up here and researched it and saw that it was feasible to do. We’ll see how that plays out."