During the Carolina Panthers’ first training camp practice on Thursday night, new offensive coordinator Norv Turner was all angles and animation, pointing and particulars.
As receivers ran through individual drills he paced and sought out a few who trimmed a route early or let it stem too long, didn’t make their cut at exactly a 45.23-degree angle on the three outside pegs of their cleats or didn’t exhale for nine milliseconds as the ball slapped into their gloves.
See, Turner is a perfectionist. Throughout the night, Turner pulled players aside to show them, with arms moving in right angles, fingers pointing and his voice a drawling bark, what they did wrong.
“He’s hilarious,” coach Ron Rivera said after the workout. Rivera used to be Turner’s defensive coordinator in San Diego, and is pleased to report that Turner, now 66, hasn’t lost a step.
“He’s very animated. He’s very flashy and mobile,” Rivera said. “It’s a different way, and it’s a good, refreshing difference. ... He started as a wide receiver coach in this league. If there’s one group that’s gotten a lot of instruction, it’s those guys.”
Turner has already exchanged, ah, words, with veterans Greg Olsen and Devin Funchess, and pivoted from swoon-faced pre-draft photos with rookie first-round pick D.J. Moore to knuckle-rapping whenever Moore has erred.
He may be a perfectionist and almost comically so, but Turner is an equal-opportunity perfectionist, up and down the roster.
Early on, he made his expectations clear. And his receivers and quarterbacks heard him.
So, during the annual trip to Baltimore that quarterback Cam Newton plans for his receivers, fellow quarterbacks and tight ends, they all went to work building the foundation for Norv Turner’s perfection.
Where it starts
After an underwhelming 2017 season in which the Panthers finished No. 28 in the NFL in passing yards per game (192), general manager Marty Hurney overhauled the receivers room. He traded cornerback Daryl Worley for veteran deep threat Torrey Smith, brought in third-down specialist Jarius Wright, and drafted Moore and promising tight end Ian Thomas.
With new faces all around, new chemistry was required.
Newton, who is sponsored by sportswear super-brand Under Armour, organizes an annual trip with his receivers and tight ends to the company’s training facilities in Baltimore for the week before training camp. It’s a chance to bond, create trust between quarterback and receiver, and work through the playbook.
The rhythm established there, in theory, leads to an unspoken understanding of style and cadence. Where is a receiver going to be at a certain time, on a certain route? How hard does the quarterback like to sling? What are the throw and catch windows? What are each player’s tendencies and ticks?
“We learned more about each others’ families,” said Smith, who had attended the trip before as a Baltimore Ravens receiver who was looking to catch some passes in the offseason.
“We laughed. Joked. It pays dividends in a lot of ways. It wasn’t even about working out together and catching passes. It was about being together and having a good time.”
A bonding experience
Team-building activities included sharing a slick multi-passenger van for travel, eating meals together and staying at the famed Sagamore Farm, a thoroughbred racehorse breeding and training facility and whiskey distillery owned by Under Armour founder and CEO Kevin Plank.
The sprawling grounds include a small, trickling stream from which Sagamore pulls water to cut the whiskey.
All of the players present, from running back Christian McCaffrey to Olsen to backup quarterback Garrett Gilbert, participated in the tradition demanded of visitors to Sagamore: To plank (get into a tall pushup position) over the stream, and sip from the pristine water bubbling underneath.
Newton and his receivers threw and caught every day on an emerald-green, regulation-sized field carved into the grounds, surrounded by softly rolling hills, farmland and some of the most beautiful horses on the planet.
It was a perfect place for any player to get his mind right, surrounded by his teammates. But it wasn’t all team-bonding and pass-catching.
A test of will
Newton establishes sets of grueling workouts that are built to test a player’s mind as much as his body.
“We worked out all day, every day for three days straight,” Moore said after his first training camp practice on Thursday night. “It’s special, because we (went) a week before camp, and we still have that same chemistry here that we had out there.”
Most of his first trip to Baltimore with Newton and his teammates will be a fond memory in Moore’s mind.
But not “the hill.”
Receiver Rasheed Bailey refers to it as “The Hell.”
It’s a long swath of land that cuts up a treeline so steeply that the top can hardly be seen when a player stands at its base. That, and the untouched green grass that covers it, gives it the appearance of being endless.
And it felt endless.
“That hill was straight up,” said Moore, gesturing with his hand to illustrate its slope. “That was the hardest thing I’ve ever gone through in my life.”
The players ran up and down the hill five times, drenching the grass with their sweat, cursing and knifing the thick air with their ragged breaths. But everyone finished.
Bailey, an underdog fighting for a roster spot this fall, beat them all.
“He crawled up that hill,” said Moore, wide-eyed with his respect for Bailey’s accomplishment.
The dividends from the trip are supposed to be physical and mental. Each player hopes they will start to show throughout training camp and the preseason.
Turner will be watching. But Rivera caught a flash of the payoff early in the evening, during team drills as the starters burst from the line of scrimmage.
Olsen ran a route up the seam, adjusting to the coverage by curling inside more than what was drawn up. Newton knew he would, hit him in stride, and Olsen had room to run.
Olsen was Newton’s favorite target for three years, and became the first at his position to have three consecutive 1,000-yard seasons. But he was hurt for the majority of the 2017 season, and when he returned late in the year it was obvious that his chemistry with Newton was off.
“That’s what you want to develop,” said Rivera. “That’s why you (take that trip), so that you have those unspoken signs that (the receiver) knows he’s going to do something to get open and Cam is going to deliver the ball there.”