By BOB LABRIOLA
It had the feel of the last day of school.
The weather was appropriately hot and sunny. The mood was upbeat in a way reflecting the six weeks of free time that soon would be theirs. And once they had been dismissed, the doors burst open and, well, it didn't take long to clear out the parking lot.
The Steelers concluded their offseason program on Thursday at the UPMC Sports Performance complex with their final OTA. Per NFL rules, each team is permitted one three-day minicamp and 14 separate OTAs, and the Steelers broke for the summer on June 12. They now are off until training camp opens for them on Sunday, July 27 at Saint Vincent College.
Coaches all over the league will talk about the importance of these sessions, and while Mike Tomlin is a believer in them he also accepts them for what they are. And maybe even more importantly, what they are not.
"I thought the camaraderie was great and the energy was great," said Tomlin, "but I don't read too deeply into evaluating this time of year. It's about teaching. This is football in shorts. I keep that in mind as I look at what goes on out there. People who may do great things out there may disappear in pads. Guys who may struggle out there in shorts may be great players in pads. I always keep that thought in mind. So I reserve judgment until we go to training camp and put the pads on."
It's often been said that the only news an NFL team makes at this time of the year is bad news, and the Steelers steered clear of those types of issues. None of their players boycotted the OTAs because of a dissatisfaction with a contract, and no one sustained an injury that would impact their availability for training camp. In this sense, no news for the Steelers was very good news.
"The great thing is that we were able to get through the offseason without any major injuries," said Tomlin. "Travis Kirschke had a little clean-up surgery in his ankle and foot area but no major deal there. The guys with pre-existing injuries, when you talk about Aaron Smith or Willie Parker and so forth, they have improved and are on target to be ready to go for training camp."
There will be some changes during this camp, and only some of those will have to do with Tomlin's increased familiarity with his job and his players. Because NFL Europa folded, each NFL team will be permitted to have no more than 80 players on its training camp roster. Fewer bodies means more repetitions during practices, and coaches don't want to burn their players out before the season even begins.
"I think the 80-player limit is a significant difference in terms of how you need to approach camp this year," said Tomlin. "Last year of course we went with 85 or 86 guys. This year because of the rules, I think you have to approach it differently from that standpoint. We are veteran football team in some areas, and so we can approach it differently because of that. I know the guys a lot better than I knew them last year.
"Of course, players never stay the same, they always change, but I do have a better window to who they are as football players this year. So for those reasons we will approach it differently. The goals will remain the same, and that is to exit Latrobe as a hardened unit that is ready for battle. How we get to that, of course, will be different based on the things that I mentioned."
The phase of preparing for training camp has ended, and the Steelers will be using their time in Latrobe to get ready for a schedule that includes games against eight different teams that made the playoffs in 2007.
"I never assume anything or take anything for granted as we move into a new season," said Tomlin. "What we have done to this point has been good, but it has been teach-oriented and skill-development-oriented. It's different than playing a game of football. We've got to get used to carrying our pads, we have to be a physical football team. We have to be a football team that doesn't make mistakes and doesn't beat ourselves. That is what you are looking for as you go to training camp."