ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — The compacted training camps and abridged free agency are challenges for everyone. They could be doubly difficult for the eight NFL teams with new head coaches installing their schemes on the fly and getting their first real look at their rosters following the 136-day lockout.
A quarter of the league’s 32 teams are rolling out a new coach this year: the Cowboys, 49ers, Panthers and Vikings in the NFC and the Broncos, Browns, Raiders and Titans in the AFC.
In many ways, those eight franchises are behind the proverbial 8-ball, but they all insist they’re in much the same situation as everyone else navigating the free agency fire drill and training camp cramming sessions.
“I’m not going to say that we’re going to be as even as a team that has the same playbook and has the same players,” Denver linebacker Joe Mays said. “I’m just saying that we’re not going to be too far behind.”
Two of the new coaches — Dallas’ Jason Garrett and Minnesota’s Leslie Frazier — shed their interim titles this offseason and may have gotten a little bit of a head-start, and two teams promoted assistants — Hue Jackson in Oakland and Mike Munchak in Tennessee, so there’s some continuity there.
Richard Seymour led some three dozen of his Raiders teammates through a week’s worth of detailed workouts in suburban Atlanta, but other teams with new coaches weren’t really able to hold what amounted to coachless minicamps during the lockout like Drew Brees did with the New Orleans Saints.
They simply didn’t have the experienced rosters, established staffs and entrenched systems and were left to work out in a more rudimentary, haphazard fashion with pockets of players getting together to lift, run, stretch and decipher the circulating playbooks.
“Hopefully training camp catches us up,” Raiders safety Tyvon Branch said. “You probably know as much about the defense as I do right now.”
He’s lost but certainly not alone.
“Everybody’s trying to play catch-up right now,” said Broncos backup quarterback Brady Quinn. “Without a doubt, the rookies have it the hardest. So, kudos to them if they can get in the playbook and get on the field early. Because that would be quite a feat.”
Teams might decide to hold back their veterans when preseason games begin, especially the free agent additions who aren’t even allowed to practice with their new teams until next Thursday.
That could make for some ugly football early on.
“Do you ever not see bad football from younger guys?” said Broncos safety Brian Dawkins.
Frazier and Garrett got their first head coaching gigs with teams that faltered last year amid high expectations. Munchak took over for Jeff Fisher in Tennessee, and Jackson was promoted from offensive coordinator in Oakland, replacing Tom Cable.
John Fox left Carolina for Denver, replaced by Ron Rivera. Jim Harbaugh left Stanford to take over for Mike Singletary in San Francisco and Pat Shurmur supplanted Eric Mangini in Cleveland.
Harbaugh said earlier this week he was excited to finally meet his players: “I can’t tell you how good it’s going to be having those guys in the building, face to face, knee to knee, smelling their breath, just getting to know them, let them get to know me,” he said.
With all the turnover going on across the league, the new coaches don’t think they’re at quite the disadvantage one might think.
“Something I think is important to remember is when you start a new year it’s a new football team,” Garrett said. “The dynamics are different, the chemistry is different. You have to develop those things.”
That goes for everyone.
“It was a different offseason,” Garrett said. “We didn’t have our OTAs and minicamps and we haven’t seen our players since the first week in March. So each of us has to adjust accordingly.”
Still, some are lamenting the lockout’s detrimental effect.
“You look at any team across the league, I think we’re one of the few that needs every ounce of time that we can get,” Browns quarterback Colt McCoy said. “That’s no excuse. We’re not trying to find excuses, but with a new offense, a new defense, new systems on both sides of the ball, we need time.”
Time isn’t on anybody’s side.
“That’s the way it is. There is nothing that we can do about that so we’re not going to make excuses,” Rivera said. “Those are the facts of the NFL.”
Coaches, new or not, won’t get a great feel for their teams until the veteran free agents can start practicing next Thursday, with just a few practices to spare before the preseason games begin.
“A week out on the field and a week without your whole team, it does kind of put you behind already,” 49ers wide receiver Josh Morgan said. “You’re behind already because of the lockout and the new coach. We’re not really looking for excuses. We’re looking for solutions.”
While they may not be in “football shape,” some players say they’re readier than ever for training camp.
“We’ve spent a lot of time this summer working together,” McCoy said. “We’ve done what we can do, we’ve worked hard … Now, it’s time to get a little coaching.”
Or, in some cases, a lot.
Like new teachers greeting students back to school from summer vacation, many coaches are putting faces to names right now.
Broncos defensive tackle Kevin Vickerson said the lockout may actually have worked in the favor of teams that changed coaches because the other teams didn’t get any offseason instruction, either, leveling the playing field for everyone.
“It’s a learning curve for everybody,” Vickerson said. “If you knew it from last year, you still have to refresh it in your mind. If you’re in college, coming in as a rookie, you still have to learn the schemes.
“It’s more classroom time now anyway, with the two-a-days eliminated, a lot of walkthroughs. This learning curve will be cured real fast.”