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Mike Preston

On the Ravens practice field, it’s still the same great game | COMMENTARY

The true feeling of training camp was back on the field Monday.

You could smell the grass and see the sweaty bodies. The players were telling old jokes while plotting new pranks. There was a lot of chatter after big plays, and a lot of trash talking, too. Those tremors that you felt in your yard weren’t minor earthquakes, but the Ravens hitting in full pads for the first time this season.

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Football was back. Finally.

In the weeks leading up to training camp, my excitement was limited. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, this was going to be a watered-down camp. There were going to be no fans, vendors or food, and all interviews with players and coaches were going to be virtual, which was about as exciting as watching the Ravens offense before quarterback Lamar Jackson came to town two years ago.

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But that changed for me Monday. Sometimes you don’t miss something until you see it again. There was Jackson running around left end and darting into the midfield untouched while eating up tons of yards. There was new defensive end Calais Campbell crashing into the line of scrimmage and blowing up running play after running play as players pounded on each other.

At the same time, it was great hearing that raspy voice of defensive line coach Joe Cullen and offensive line coach Joe D’Alessandris teaching offensive line play as if it were as technical as brain surgery. When defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale yelled out a few profanities, it was like being home again.

There still isn’t much optimism about the entire 2020 NFL season being played, but let’s hope that it will be.

Those ESPN highlight shows have gotten old, and we don’t need to see any more past NBA Slam Dunk contests or “greatest games” of the past decade or century. Major League Baseball and the NBA came back in an effort to fill the sports void, but sorry, the NFL is a man’s game. No other sports can replace it.

When the NFL announced that it was canceling preseason games and that training camp was going to be modified, it diminished my enthusiasm. Except for the debacle heading into the 2012 season, when the Ravens moved training camp from McDaniel College to the team’s Owings Mills facility, fans always had access to the team.

In fact, when the team moved from Cleveland to Baltimore in 1996, team officials encouraged fans and the media to interact with the players. At McDaniel practices, fans were sometimes close enough to touch players. Some reporters would meet with former coach Ted Marchibroda in his room at 7 a.m., and other favorites were allowed to watch film with defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis in his office.

Those trends started to change once the team moved from its old facility to the new one, the Under Armour Performance Center, in 2004, under coach Brian Billick. He started isolating the media from his assistant coaches and players, and current coach John Harbaugh kept the same authoritarian rules in place when he replaced Billick in 2008.

The current coronavirus situation makes it even more restrictive. A security guard greets you at the front gate of the facility to take your temperature. There are signs inside and outside of the building that emphasize hand-washing, safe distancing and wearing face masks. There are tents outside to test players for the virus before they enter the building.

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There isn’t much right now that reminds you of a traditional training camp, until practice begins. Then, all of a sudden, it’s back to being just a game again. Except for the coaches wearing masks during practice.

The Ravens’ team speed is clearly noticeable, and there is a sense of confidence that was lacking at the beginning of last season. As Jackson broke off another long run, thoughts of Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes and just how good the Buffalo Bills are this season came to mind. Will the San Francisco 49ers can repeat as NFC champions? Can the New Orleans Saints ever get to another Super Bowl?

There are thoughts about quarterback Tom Brady and his new home in Tampa Bay, and how New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick will survive without his golden boy.

On the way home from practice Monday, I realized that sports had served its purpose again, and provided me a reprieve from COVID-19, the divisiveness in this country and the upcoming election.

I hope the NFL plays through the entire 2020 schedule.

It’s nice to be able to play and watch football again.


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