This is the fourth in a series on how NFL teams are conducting their offseason programs, and installing their 2020 plays virtually. Previously: the Chargers offensive line, the Seahawks tight ends and the Vikings wide receivers. Today, Detroit wide receivers.
The Lions are in the first week of the NFL’s “Phase II” of the offseason program. In Phase II, teams are allowed normally to work on the field without pads as they begin to install their 2020 playbooks, but this year, because all work is being done virtually, teams have to trust players to do the work they’re being assigned in the honor system. Or, in Detroit’s case, in a necessarily muddled way.
The scene: Coach Robert Prince, from his home in Jacksonville, is the longest-tenured Detroit assistant—on the Lions staff since 2014—which lends an air of normalcy to an abnormal time. He teaches his receivers for a two-hour daily session via Zoom videoconference. The roster on these Zoom sessions, and where they’re joining calls from: Danny Amendola (Austin, Texas), Marvin Jones (San Diego), Kenny Golladay, Victor Bolden and Gerramy Davis (Los Angeles), Marvin Hall (Poway, Calif.), Chris Lacy (Dallas), Tom Kennedy (Farmingdale, N.Y.), Travis Fulgham (Florida), Geronimo Allison (Green Bay), converted DB Jamal Agnew (Detroit), rookie Quinten Cephus (Arizona).
The veteran: Danny Amendola. “Control what you can control,” he says. This is the 34-year-old Amendola’s 12th NFL season. Detroit is his fourth different team, and he’s in his second year as a Lion. The toughest thing, he told me, is that both of the local gyms in Austin where he works out have had to close because of the pandemic, so he had to improvise. He has re-located a weight room—with a dumbbell circuit, Kettlebells, and traditional weights and bars—at the back-house of an Austin friend. That’s where he lifts. He works out at several other places, doing Yoga at his home and throwing with NFL quarterbacks Baker Mayfield (Browns) at Austin’s Westlake High and with Colt McCoy (Giants) on varying days; on this day, he had Yoga at 2:15, and a throwing session with McCoy at 3. “I’ve been throwing twice a week for about a month with Baker,” he said. He also flew (“private,” he said, “being very safe”) to Atlanta for four days of throwing with Matthew Stafford.
“We’re going to miss 14 on-field sessions of OTAs, most likely,” Amendola said. “That’s going to be the toughest thing to get over. But everybody’s in the same boat. For us, the good thing is we got the offense installed last year [under offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell], and we’ve got a lot of the same people back this year.”
The assistant coach: Robert Prince. He’s gotten some advice on distance learning from the two teachers in his family—his father and sister. Their advice: “Over-communicate.” In the first three weeks of Zoom teaching, Prince said he explained the whys of every route. If a player wondered why he was running a specific depth on a certain route, knowing the quarterback wouldn’t see him in his prime progression, Prince might explain that he was running a route to get the receiver inside of him open and free from a bashing in the five-yard bump zone. In this week, Prince urged his players to find space to do their route work outside—but he knows it’s hard for players like Golladay, because there aren’t many public open fields in the Los Angeles area, which is still discouraging people from using open facilities for workouts.
There’s another factor for the Detroit coaches. Prior to the off-season program, coach Matt Patricia told each assistant to come up with a plan for every player to work on a weakness, or on an aspect of his game that could be improved. With Amendola, Prince is emphasizing footwork. Some offenses in the NFL have different ways of coming in and out of breaks, or coming off the line of scrimmage. Amendola is working on aligning his footwork with the way Detroit teaches it.
The head coach: Matt Patricia. You’d think, with a 9-22-1 record in two years with the Lions and knowing the pressure’s on in year three, that Patricia would be all wound up by the coaching inconveniences of a coronavirus-plagued offseason. He’s not. In fact, four times in 30 minutes on Thursday, he emphasized the most important thing about this offseason—and in fact, this year as a whole—is his players and staff coming through it healthy. “Football’s important to all of us,” he said. “But I don’t want to see any of our people on ventilators.”
Similarly, as individual team-instructed workouts of players began outside last week, Patricia said he wanted players who could to work out at local fields—but he didn’t want to put pressure on them if their lives were chaotic. Also: In some ways, he sounded like the adversity of this spring would help him. “My biggest struggle in the job is work-life balance,” he said. When he was a kid in upstate New York, he bonded with his dad over “Monday Night Football.” With his son Dominic getting more interested in football, Patricia said it was fun during the draft to spill the beans to Dominic that they were about to pick Ohio State cornerback Jeff Okudah before the world knew.