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PERSPECTIVE

Why NFL teams are restricting media reporting at already restricted camps

Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Amari Cooper (19) runs through a drill with Dallas Cowboys wide receivers coach Adam Henry in practice during training camp, August 23, 2020 at The Star in Frisco, Texas.

VERNON BRYANT, THE DALLAS MORNING NEWS/TNS

By GREGG BELL | The News Tribune (Tacoma, Wash.) | Published: August 24, 2020

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TACOMA, Wash. (Tribune News Service) — Practice ended. They wore blue helmets.

That’s about all the Seahawks are now allowing beat writers to report from the action at daily practices during this unprecedented training camp.

The rules: nothing beyond the 10-minute stretching periods at the start of each workout. It amounts to little more than taking player attendance at the start, reporting who is and is not present.

That video at the top of this story, of lead running back Chris Carson plowing in one of the two practices in which he’s participated this month? That is now against team rules on reporting.

So is this, from All-Pro safety Jamal Adams’ first Seahawks practice two weeks ago:

When the photographers whom the team granted access to cover Saturday’s mock-game at CenturyLink Field showed up for the scrimmage, they were told they could not photograph the mock game. They were only permitted to shoot the pre-mock-game warmups—the mock-ups, as it were. No photos of the mock-game action.

Russell Wilson being the starting quarterback is about all we can divulge as far as the depth chart and who’s with the starting units in practices goes. And reporting Wilson is starting is based on common sense, not on what’s happening on the practice field (though, yes, you can safely assume that’s what’s happening on the practice field).

This training camp was already unusual, bordering on incredible.

I took my 11th nasal-swab test for the COVID-19 virus at the team facility in 19 days on Sunday, a players off day. All players were there, too. They had to be. They have to pass a COVID test each day in order to be able to gain access to the building and practice the next day.

Most of the team facility is empty. Any Seahawks employees who don’t normally interact with players (in marketing, sales, administration) are working from home.

There are no fans anywhere. At every other training camp, a couple thousand people pack the grass berm on the east side of the practice field each day, watching practice and screaming for autographs after.

Not this year.

Everyone who is not wearing a helmet wears a mask through practices, coach Pete Carroll included.

All persons admitted to the team facility and practices must wear a monitor that beeps if he or she gets within six feet of anyone. We media members wear the monitors, too. That’s the 10 of us each day who have what the NFL calls Tier 2M access to get relatively nearer the players (but no in-person interviews). We watch from the sideline while socially distanced.

Now the rules for what we can report are unique, too.

Each season the Seahawks issue three pages of rules on what the media is allowed to report from practices. For training camps not conducted during a coronavirus pandemic, we are allowed to post live on Twitter pictures and videos of position drills, group seven-on-seven drills and all the workouts up to the team, 11-on-11 scrimmaging. That’s because normally the fans are behind us doing the same thing from the berm. That’s the same reason that normally we can describe what happens during the team scrimmaging in camps—who’s starting, who is on the second and third teams, who is making tremendous plays against whom—just without the images from team-scrimmage periods.

Those rules stayed in place for the first week of practices of this training camp. That’s because the Seahawks are live-streaming the practices on their flagship television station, KCPQ channel 13, and on their team website and social-media channels for the first hour of workouts. We, the media on the sidelines, initially could report the first hour as it happened on our social-media channels.

But then last week, breaking with traditional policies set the publicly owned Green Bay team, Packers general manager Brian Gutekunst issued a new reporting policy. It restricts media from reporting anything about the starting lineup. The Packers announced the media could not report which players were competing for what jobs.

Green Bay — John Schneider’s hometown and the team for which he worked before he became Seattle’s general manager in 2010 — also now prohibits reporters who watch the practices from even projecting who they think might be a starter or key backup. The Packers’ rules applies to reporters’ Twitter posts from practices and stories written or broadcast.

Thursday, coach Kyle Shanahan of defending NFC West-champion San Francisco 49ers said he will not talk as openly this month about what players are playing certain positions or anything about the depth chart of Seattle’s division rivals.

Friday, 22 minutes before the Seahawks’ eighth practice of training camp began, the team’s public-relations department e-mailed an “updated media policy regarding practice reporting.”

The new policy “eliminated the ability to report on depth and rotations at positions from practice during training camp. This change now matches our regular season policy.”

Which means: nothing beyond the stretching portion of practice. In August. In a year fans are already restricted more than at any other time in league history because of the pandemic from seeing and learning about their teams during training camps, and from attending games this season.

Some folks are not pleased.

Why is this happening in Seattle, Green Bay and San Francisco, among other NFL camps?

1. The shortened training camp. Teams have just 14 padded practices before their first games. Early is already late this year in August. Starters are going against starters more often this month than in a normal training camp; Carroll acknowledged that last week. These practices are preparing veteran starters for the opener far more than the usual developmental workouts for younger players and mere ramp-up sessions for the vets, as in the first weeks of a normal camp.

In a normal camp, Seahawks third quarterback Anthony Gordon would be getting many series in scrimmages. The undrafted rookie from Washington State has gotten few drives this month. It’s been almost all Wilson and Geno Smith at quarterback. They coaches are preparing the veterans for the season now.

2. There are no preseason games this month. Usually, scouts from other teams feast on the intelligence they glean from the four exhibitions each team plays. They pay particular attention to the second halves of those preseason games. That’s when the players at the bottoms of rosters are auditioning for roster spots, either with their current teams or the teams scouting them for roster moves around the league’s cut day at the end of the preseason.

Plus, this season the NFL has expanded practice squads from 10 to up to 16 players. That’s six more young guys at the bottom of their rosters teams want to sneak through league waivers and onto the practice squad for the start of the season.

When Shanahan told 49ers beat writers in Santa Clara last week he will not so openly talk to them now about San Francisco’s depth chart, the Niners coach said this (via NBC Sports Bay Area’s Matt Maiocco): “That’s what all the other coaches are always trying to study. That’s why I’m usually more open with that stuff because they were going to find out in the (preseason) game anyways. That’s something we’re realizing now: it’s a big difference as we start to think about the teams we’re playing, when you don’t have those depth charts you can see yourself. So everyone is going so much off media reports. I might not be as open as I’ve been in the past training camps.”

Credit Shanahan for transparency, at least.

3. Most NFL teams and coaches are some of the most paranoid—and self-important—beings in the free world. Even in a non-COVID year coaches think their next opponent is spying on their practices. In May.

As a former intelligence and security officer in the Army, I assert our military could use some of the operational-security mindsets football coaches demand.

When I was the Oakland Raiders beat writer for The Sacramento Bee almost 20 years ago, owner Al Davis had his underlings make sweeps of the apartment complex that was directly adjacent to his team’s training-camp fields behind its Napa Valley Marriott summer headquarters. Word was Davis actually would try to boot the rent-paying residents of those apartments that overlooked the fields, or at least clear them from their homes during Raiders camp practices.

And that was before Twitter.

In Green Bay last week, Gutekunst, the Packers GM, said his pro scouts follow beat reporters on teams around the league.

“Are we going to make decisions over that information? Maybe or maybe not,” Gutekunst told Wisconsin reporters.

For an increasing number of teams in 2020, including the Seahawks, everyone knowing less is best.

Not all teams have gone into lock-down mode with their media policies this month.

The Colts allow media in Indianapolis to report team 11-on-11 drills, and keep their own statistics from it; same at Buccaneers camp in Tampa Bay and with the New York Giants.

©2020 The News Tribune (Tacoma, Wash.)
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