The “pajama warriors” finally turned into good, old-fashioned, pad-wearing football players Tuesday in Allen Park.
And not a minute too soon. Not long into the Detroit Lions’ first padded practice of training camp, the whapping, thwacking and thunking sounds synonymous with football collisions rang out across the practice fields to everyone’s delight.
Players hollered. Fans squealed. Reporters winced, wrote and smiled.
“Man,” right tackle Penei Sewell said, “it’s kind of like when you’re out in the desert and you take that first sip of water. I would say it’s like that to be out there again, to strap it on, to put the helmet back on again.”
And then it happened. A fight. An honest-to-goodness camp fight. Between two draft picks, no less.
Receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown and cornerback Ifeatu Melifonwu faced off in a special-teams blocking drill. At the end of the tightly contested drill, Melifonwu threw a punch at St. Brown and teammates started barking as they quickly closed in to stop the altercation.
Coach Dan Campbell approached and slowly circled the scrum. He casually took a swig of water. Then he joined the symphony of coaches’ whistles to break it up.
I loved everything about the fight and the aggressiveness the Lions showed in their pads Tuesday. I loved how Campbell handled the whole thing, especially since he practically prophesized it just minutes early when I asked him what he wanted to see in practice.
“I want to see these guys compete,” Campbell said. “I want to see them go all the way to the point to where it is almost an all-out brawl, but we’re not getting that. Like it’s so heated and it’s so hot and guys are trying to win so badly that we get better. I think that’s the only way you really get better.
“There’s such a fine line between, ‘We took it too far and guys are getting hurt. We’re out of control.’ But yet, if you don’t push it almost to that point, you really won’t get where you need to get, in my opinion, in this league to be competitive at the very highest level.”
I’ve had an issue with the wonton violence we saw in old-school football for such a long time. Even before we knew much about concussions, something never seemed right about the reckless way some coaches ran their practices, from Bear Bryant’s “Junction Boys” at Texas A&M to Frank Kush allowing live hitting on quarterbacks with the Baltimore Colts.
But football will always have a certain about of violence in it, which makes the practice of aggressiveness necessary. And, frankly, the Lions will need to become a more aggressive team if they want to make up for their deficiencies in talent, experience and depth this season.
I think Campbell handled the first padded practice perfectly. As a former player, he knows what it takes to get the team going and where the lines are that shouldn’t be crossed — or crossed too often.
Before practice, Campbell told a hilarious story about the time he was with the Dallas Cowboys. Coach Bill Parcells told him to push defensive end Greg Ellis in the back to help the team get out of its funk midway through camp.
“I’m like, ‘Bill, you know it’s going to piss him off?’ ” Campbell said. “ ‘Yeah, I know.’ So then you do it, and then it’s an all-out fight. But guys got energy and juice because now all of a sudden you get a fight.
“And then he yells at me for starting a fight. I’m like, ‘Bill, you told me to push the guy in the back.’ It was classic Bill.”
Coaches need to have this kind of feel for their players. When to push, when to push hard, and when to back off. I get the sense Campbell has this feel.
A good example of this feel comes in Sewell, the star No. 7 overall pick who has a reputation for playing with a nasty streak. In a half-line drill, he dominated Julian Okwara, easily pushing back the outside linebacker. It was one of the clearest wins of the day and Sewell let out a quick celebratory holler, then ran back to his huddle.
When Sewell was asked what it felt like to win the drill, he did the right thing and shut his mouth to avoid embarrassing Okwara. Something tells me that’s coaching influence on Sewell.
“I just try to get better each and every day,” he said. “Whatever that looks like stays in between those lines. I don’t like to speak about anything, but yeah, I’ll bring the juice each and every day. That’s just who I am and leave it at that. … You’ll see me and feel me out there.”
Aggressive, smart and classy. How can you beat that?
After practice, Campbell addressed the whole team as he always does. I asked rookie defensive tackle Alim McNeill what Campbell told them about their first day in pads.
“Yeah, he was overall happy with it,” McNeill said. “There’s always things to improve on. But we were physical today, we were flying around, moving around. Started off a little slow, that’s words from coach. So tomorrow we’re looking at picking that up, starting off faster and finishing fast.”
There’s always room to improve. But as first days go, this was a day that showed us what the Lions could be, what potential their coach has and how well the team responds to him.
Contact Carlos Monarrez at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @cmonarrez.