Maybe it can be viewed as the end of minicamp, as the end of the offseason program. But when Coach Mike Tomlin wrapped things up on Thursday with the players following a complete day of meetings capped by an on-field workout at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex, it was nothing like a teacher dismissing students for summer vacation.
"I'm really sad to see it come to an end," said Tomlin. "We just can't get enough work like we've gotten over the last several weeks here as a collective. Learning football, developing skill and techniques relative to positions, understanding, and cooperative elements of team. It's been a great few weeks and so sad to see it end."
Players are due to report to Latrobe on Wednesday, July 26, which means there are 41 days between now and then, and in Tomlin's mind that time can be put to good use.
"As we transition into our summer months and readiness for Latrobe, it's important that we leave them with some strong messaging regarding physical conditioning," said Tomlin, "and so that's the messaging we left them with. There are a lot of things outside their control, particularly the young players. Some of them have never been to Latrobe, they don't understand the challenges that await. They don't understand what we're going to specifically ask them to do. What they do understand and have control over is their readiness, their physical condition. And so we've been driving that point home, and hopefully they take heed to that. One thing I know for sure is that those who show up in Latrobe in great physical condition usually position themselves for a good experience."
When football coaches preach about "a player's best ability is his availability" never is that more true for a young player trying to earn a spot on an NFL roster during his rookie training camp. Being able to practice on a daily basis provides a player with a regular opportunity to be seen by the coaches, to accept coaching, and to take advantage of that daily work and instruction to hone his craft and develop his skills. How they manage the next month could go a long way in determining their readiness for that challenge.
"This (time gap) is not uncommon to what they've been going through," said Tomlin. "These guys have been independent workers, if you will, since the end of their college seasons. They hadn't been a part of a program. They've been working on preparing themselves for (an NFL offseason program). And so it's just more of a continuation of what they've been doing. I think that's the mindset."
The process will intensify at Saint Vincent College, and Tomlin believes he and the other coaches will be able to build upon what has happened since the start of OTAs to then make the most of the time they're going to spend at training camp. Which makes the offseason program as much of a learning experience for the coaching staff as it has been for the players in attendance.
"It's the getting to know the group individually and collectively," said Tomlin about what the coaches have gained through this experience. "What makes them tick. How to put them in position to be at their best and create an environment where we're all collectively getting better. It's the nuggets, the bits and pieces of information gathered daily in a variety of settings."
Starting on July 26, 41 days from now, the setting becomes Saint Vincent College when the pads will go on, the hitting will commence, and the job of team-building will shift into high gear.
"You know, I think anytime you're talking about a collective and gaining the type of cohesion that you need to be excellent, it's not an easy task," said Tomlin. "You respect it. I don't know that they're resting on their shared experience. There's urgency there, and the key is to maintain that level of urgency."
On to Latrobe.