The best way to understanding this weekend's Steelers rookie minicamp is this: What they're doing hasn't changed, but how they're doing it has.
Rookie minicamp is underway for the Steelers even though there is nothing happening at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex. That's because, like so much else happening around the world when it comes to the business of conducting business, it's taking place remotely. The Steelers "welcomed" their draft picks and their undrafted rookies virtually, with the first part of the weekend happening on Friday in the form of a speech to the group by recently retired guard Ramon Foster.
"We were excited about that, and Ramon delivered in a big way," said Coach Mike Tomlin. "I just thought he was a great guy to welcome those guys, a guy who understands the journey that many of them are attempting to walk, as a guy who was undrafted and went on to have a great career here that lasted over a decade as a really well-respected professional. Being recently retired, Ramon is very fresh to getting off the field, and the position he is in, the perspective he has, would be a good one (for them). I thought he did an awesome job."
One of the potential misconceptions about rookie minicamp is it's the beginning of the evaluation process that will culminate during the first week of September when teams cut their rosters from 90 players to 53, but that's not the way Tomlin chooses to utilize this time with the newest additions. This is the beginning of a months-long introductory/teaching period, with the primary purposes being to create a level of comfort for the new guys while assessing how they learn and retain information.
"We're excited about introducing ourselves and introducing the organization to these men this weekend," said Tomlin." We wasted very little time lamenting about what we aren't capable of doing in terms of not being able to work in the same space, and we've really focused our energies on maximizing the opportunity that we have, the platforms that we have, and using this opportunity not only to instruct these guys and get to know them in that way – how they learn and how they communicate in a football way – but also introduce some of our football support staff and laying the foundation for a lot of the professional relationships in a lot of areas so they can be the well-rounded guys we need them to be. We think we've had some great opportunities in that area."
And what has helped Tomlin maximize this time under these unique parameters was the experience of conducting the NFL Draft under the same unique parameters.
"I've gotten quite comfortable with it," said Tomlin about doing his work virtually. "I'm a big draft preparation guy, and Kevin (Colbert) and I usually sit in rooms for over a month in preparation for that. We had an opportunity to do that virtually, which was preparation for what we're doing now. Over the course of the time we've been in shelter-in-place, I've become quite comfortable with utilizing the technology and getting some things done in a normal way even under these circumstances. So that hasn't slowed down this weekend at all."
Work-from-home orders are starting to ease across the country, and Allegheny County will have its status upgraded to the yellow phase on May 15. Tomlin was asked about when he thinks his working conditions might return to something more approaching what has been considered normal.
"I would imagine that day is coming, but when it's coming I do not know," said Tomlin. "There are a couple of things we're committed to adhering to, and that's the global approach of the National Football League in regards to football operations and how important competitive fairness is in our game. So we all have to get started on the same footing in that regard, and then also respecting our local governments and the guidelines they prescribe individually in terms of workplace safety. Those are the two key components for us. We're in a wait-and-see mind-set, and we'll be ready to go when both boxes are checked. Until that time, we're going to focus our energies on what is available to us and take advantage of that."
Which means that during the rest of rookie minicamp, the Steelers will teach and then evaluate the players' ability to learn and retain was they have been taught.
"The evaluation of their ability to absorb information, the retention of the information is probably the most significant difference when working in this setting," said Tomlin. "It's much more difficult to get the feedback, to get the feel of somebody receiving the information when you're working remotely than it is when you're dealing with somebody in an intimate setting. So it's probably not about the material or the amount of material that we can give, it's about evaluating what they learn, how they learn, and the reinforcement of what we give them is what's probably the most challenging element of the circumstances.
"We're in a teaching and instruction stage right now, and we will be in that until we get into a football environment in a training camp-like setting and we're playing the game. All of the things we're doing for them right now is preparing them for that, and so there's very little evaluation in these circumstances and that would be the same even if we were working together."
As for how they should spend their time between now and whenever being in a training camp-like setting is allowed, Tomlin's advice to this group in this unique situation is the same he has given to every group.
"One thing that they share with all rookies is they don't know what they're getting into," said Tomlin. "No rookie does. And the only way you pay respect to that is to be in the very best condition, per your position, of your life. That's something we sell to all rookies. That's something we're selling to this class. That's something we sell to every class, because that's one thing they all have in common, and it's very true. When it's your first lap around the track, you don't know what you're getting into, so you better be as best prepared as you can."