One never has to look far into an NFL training camp to find someone willing to embrace the virtues of competition, as that’s probably the biggest cliché of this time of year. But on Saturday, final training at the first set of campsites at the Atlanta Falcons, the competition was as clear as the humidity.
“This has been by far one of the most competitive practices since I have been here,” Arthur Smith said to start his post-training press conference.
Although the Falcons’ pillows were still immaculate and wouldn’t be laid down until Monday, there was plenty of physique and emotion in front of the large crowd that made the trip to Flowery Branch. The Atlanta minor group celebrated furiously at any pass breakup, while wide receivers embraced press coverage in 1-on-1 drills and often managed their way through freely.
Offensive and defensive liners are probably the ones most affected by the lack of pads, but that didn’t stop them from ramping up the intensity. This intensity boiled twice and resulted in full fights.
Galen Dalton, a defensive lineman who joined the Falcons this season, was pushed out of training by Smith after attempting to throw a punch during a confrontation with offensive lineman Jerman Ivede.
“These guys are competing,” Smith said. “You go over the edge; it’s just learning experiences. Nobody has really done anything that stupid, but somebody swings through the air, you’re kicking them out.”
The second fight came a little later in practice and involved center Jonothan Harrison and nose tackle Anthony Rush, who was thrown to the ground. Both dusts resolved fairly quickly, and no one appeared to be injured as a result, but they certainly added to the loose and lively atmosphere of Saturday.
Those on the hill watching the training seemed to enjoy the display of competition and superiority the players had. It was a symbiotic channeling of energy where players fed the fans, and the fans motivated through perseverance on the field.
“Stay” is a very common refrain from coaches and support staff during camps, in part to avoid conflict with any of the NFL rules at this point in the pre-season but mostly to avoid any unnecessary injuries. Atlanta seemed willing to allow players to hit their deck a little more than usual today – rather than take full advantage of it – and perhaps spur the level of competition the coaching staff craves.
During his time on the podium, defensive coordinator Dean Pace shared one of the many lessons he learned throughout his long and successful career in the NFL. Make it clear that the best teams don’t need a coach to give a big, exciting speech to prepare emotionally for a match that comes in-house. These are the players Atlanta sought in its attempt to redirect the culture within the building.
Saturday was a long-awaited sign that those efforts may be paying off. One of the most notable aspects of this practice was that the energy seemed to be entirely driven by the players. There were no gatherings in the middle of training filled with screams to speed up their pace. The tempo was clear early on, and the players had set it.
Maybe it had something to do with the focus of the session – the heavy focus on the red zone and the goal line work. When the end zone is in play, the stakes, even in practice, get a little higher. In terms of actual performance, there was an encouraging balance between attack and defense. Kyle Bates and Drake London provided their share of exceptional plays, but A.J. Terrell and Jaylinn Hawkins responded with excellent coverage shortly thereafter.
Not many Falcons anticipate this season, but the organization’s members, themselves, don’t think that way and can’t afford it. In many ways, the 2022 season is all about finding the answers and those players that can be long-term solutions. This process is still in its early stages, but Saturday was a step in the right direction.
For this team to eventually get where it wants to be, the right players and the right mindset must be in place. The fact that Saturday’s competitive session with the guys is probably the best that can come from camp training.
“You really want the truth, it takes the right players to do that,” said Pease. “You have to take the men who won’t take [the losing]. I will not bear this. I will not take it. You have to find these guys. . . . The players have to prepare, and that’s what we’re trying to do. We’re trying to change the culture, we’re trying to bring players who have that kind of attitude here.”