LATROBE, Pa. – This could be considered the football version of the time warp known as Christmas in July. Call it OTAs in training camp.
The Pittsburgh Steelers held their first practice of this 2011 training camp at Saint Vincent College, but instead of the typical excitement that would surround the first practice in full pads and all the hitting accompanying it, what the fans saw on the fields was closer to what happens in May and June.
But on this year's NFL calendar, there was no May or June because of the lockout, and now that a new Collective Bargaining Agreement is about to be in place, there are some new rules regarding what can and cannot happen on the practice field.
The first day of practice in pads for the Steelers will come on Sunday, July 31, and so between now and then Coach Mike Tomlin and his staff are trying to introduce and teach as much of the offensive and defensive systems to the new faces as possible so that once the pads go on those players will have some chance to show what they can do.
It's not an optimum situation, but right now it's the situation they are in.
"It's the same for all of us league-wide, so I want to keep that relative perspective on it and not let frustration set in," said Tomlin. "It can be frustrating compared to how I felt last year at this time or in other years but how we feel here, right now, with our progress will be measured with others that are doing similar things. We're not going to get bogged down or think too negatively about some of those issues to be quite honest with you. We're just going to work and understand that everyone is working under the same conditions."
And even those conditions were something less than the Steelers got here on Friday, because electrical storms shortened the afternoon session and sent the players and coaches scrambling for cover. But Tomlin still found the silver lining.
"It was a good start for us today here, day one," said Tomlin. "We had some productive walk-through and instructional sessions this morning. We met also this morning. Of course we came out to practice this afternoon and got some good quality work in until the weather forced us off, but that's football. We're not allergic to rain but we are allergic to lightning, so we called it and we'll try it again tomorrow."
The unique set of circumstances goes beyond the kind of practices teams can have and extends into which players are allowed to participate in them. Because any veteran players who signed new contracts are not eligible to start practicing until Aug. 4, the Steelers had some interesting situations at both cornerback and offensive tackle.
At cornerback, Ike Taylor signed a new contract and William Gay remains an unrestricted free agent, and so Keenan Lewis was the starting cornerback opposite Bryant McFadden. At left tackle, Max Starks and Flozell Adams both were released, and Jonathan Scott and Willie Colon both are veteran players who signed new contracts, and Tony Hills was a restricted free agent who signed his tender, and so the starting left tackle was Kyle Jolly, a former undrafted rookie who spent 2010 on the practice squad, and the starting right tackle was second-year pro Chris Scott who spent all of last summer on the physically unable to perform list with a broken foot.
There was a bit of good personnel news in that No. 1 draft pick Cameron Heyward signed a contract and took part in the afternoon workout, which for him consisted mostly of an evaluation of his conditioning.
"We knew it would happen," said Tomlin about getting the team's No. 1 pick signed and in camp. "It's good that it's over, and he can move on with starting his career. We're happy, and of course excited that he's a part of us. We'll just continue to roll our sleeves up and continue this process."