You would have a tough time finding anyone happier to have Steelers training camp underway at Heinz Field than Coach Mike Tomlin.
He is a self-described football junkie and that is as accurate a description you can find for him.
On Thursday, you could tell how genuinely excited he is to be back in his environment when he spoke to the media via a Zoom call for the first time since camp got underway, while at the same time approaching it in a safe and cautious manner.
"We are all excited. We miss football," said Tomlin. "We are glad to get moving. We have a lot of respect for this environment we are in. We are working our tails off to familiarize ourselves and adhere to the COVID protocol and keep the individuals, and thus the collective group, as safe as we can be in the midst of this."
That protocol, which was set through an agreement with the NFL and the NFLPA, makes the start of the 2020 Steelers training camp much different than anything we have seen before.
"We all acknowledge this preseason process we are going through is different and abbreviated in a lot of ways," said Tomlin. "We'll be continually gaining an understanding what those differences are. In the short term we just have a great deal of urgency and respect for that. We have to respect that with everything we do daily and how we work."
There is mask wearing and social distancing when possible at Heinz Field. There are protective measures left and right. There is a very gradual process to get the players acclimated before the real football begins. And there are also introductions. Normally by this point the coaches would be familiar with rookies and new players. But the past few days has been a getting to know you time frame for many.
"We are trying to familiarize ourselves with the young people," said Tomlin. "We have been working with them virtually for several months, but to be in the same physical space with them and have the opportunity to give and receive information and get to know them more intimately has been a positive thing over the last number of days. We are excited and have a great deal of urgency continuing that."
Many expected Ben Roethlisberger to throw at Heinz Field for the first time on Wednesday since early last season after offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner hinted at that, but Tomlin said he didn't because right now the key is focusing on the rookies.
"We didn't have him throw here yesterday," said Tomlin. "We are focusing on getting to know the young guys. He has been throwing and that throwing has been going well. We like where he is. We don't have any reservations about him being a fluent participant in this training camp process."
Tomlin said the approach they will take to developing the rookies this camp won't be any different than in the past, instead what will be different is the time they have to do it in.
"The time we have and the access to them is what is different," said Tomlin. "There is a different urgency. There is an acceleration of the process. In terms of the boxes we need to check with them, the ways in which we get to know them, that is unchanged. We also have to acknowledge in this environment they will be less of a finished project as they step into regular season stadiums in 2020 as they are in normal circumstances. That won't be exclusive to our rookies. That will be global. It will be prudent for all of us globally to be thoughtful, particularly at the early stages of the season, what we ask those guys to do because of those circumstances."
Tomlin, who said he likes the physical condition of how players reported, won't get to see them in full gear until padded practices begin on Aug. 17, which is when their true football condition will show.
"The live opportunities and looks are really framed by the collective bargaining," said Tomlin. "In this environment we have 14 padded practices. We all globally get those. If we are smart, we are going to utilize those padded practices to evaluate. We are going to utilize those padded practices to teach, to get to know people. Live action is a part of that. We have done that in the past and more so in this environment, not getting the opportunity to have preseason games and such.
"We want to have an understanding of what we're going to get from people as we go into New York in the opener. The only way to do that is put the ball on the ground, spot it and play football and that is what we intend to do."
More from Tomlin:
On how tough it is to get ready for the season without a preseason:
"I think we are going to all discover that. I've been in the league 20 years. I've never been in a situation like this where we're going into it without the opportunity to have preseason games. I feel like I have an understanding of the issues of what's required and the process that we need to take our guys through in order to be ready. I think all of us collectively are going to be feeling our way to some degree, and there will possibly be issues revealed to us along the way. We have to have a hardcore plan, but we also have to be light on our feet and be thoughtful, particularly about the things we ask inexperienced players to do as we divvy up and define roles. It's just going to be a component of it."
On Eric Ebron:
"We're familiar with Ebron's talent. We've played him quite a bit since he's been in the league. We are excited about acquiring him and adding him to our offensive mix. He's a talented guy with a unique skillset for his position. We're excited about carving out a role and highlighting those talents. Some of it may include multiple tight end personnel groups. Some of it may not. That's a thing that's going to be ironed out through this process. He's a viable receiving option and one we are going to be excited about getting familiar with utilizing."
On how he stresses to young players how their off-the-field actions could affect everything on the field:
"You message it thoughtfully. You use catchphrases, and you guys know I like catchphrases. What you are talking about is conduct that is detrimental, and that is a term that is used often in our business and appropriately so. Because in this COVID environment, if you are not exercising digression and being thoughtful about how you move, that conduct is detrimental to your cause and ours collectively. That is the message that I am delivering to those guys. We have to conduct ourselves accordingly. There has been a lot of work to position ourselves to be where we are right now. It is one fail; all fail in this environment. We are going to continue to package the messaging that way and be very transparent. It is that. It is conduct detrimental to their efforts and ours."
On the condition players reported in:
"I feel good about the level of conditioning I have witnessed thus far. In terms of the mental readiness, there just hasn't been a ton of opportunities to display that at this juncture. We are not breaking the huddle and playing football and executing assignments. Often times, a guy can articulate what it is that you have taught him, but it doesn't mean that he can execute it. So we are reserving judgement in terms of some of those things until we get an opportunity to watch them execute a lot of the things that we have instructed, not only this week, but dating back to the very beginnings of this process that we have started virtually."
On how teaching and instruction is different now than in the spring, and does he expect any players to opt out:
"The work we are doing in person right now is very different than the virtual work. Just the physical clues that you pick up as you communicate with people when you are in the same space. The body language. There are more opportunities for feedback, for the players to express understanding, to get further clarification for you as a teacher to feel them and get a sense of their overall intake. We are working in a very different environment. There is a sense of urgency because of the challenges that the circumstances have presented. We are just pushing our way through that. In regard to the opt out, I haven't spent a lot of time trying to anticipate potential opt outs. Those are very individual decisions and we are respectful of those we will just deal with them if and when they arise."