1-23-04, 12:40 a.m.
MOBILE, Ala. _ College all-star games are the coaches' equivalent of meatball surgery and the Bengals' staff has opened their MAS*H unit here on the ground floor of the Adam's Mark Hotel.
They are stitching together the North's game plan for Saturday's Senior Bowl by taking strands of elementary strategy and high-level fundamentals with rookies thrown together for six days.
Throw in some professional etiquette, and the operating room is full go.
"You can't do that in this league," offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski tells a guy in the classroom. Bratkowski, the skilled, smooth Hawkeye Pierce of this group, leads the surgery with the remote as scalpel. He has just drawn blood because on the video the kid stopped after his teammate made a catch.
"You can't stand and watch," Bratkowski says. "That gets on tape, and it's all over. Find somebody to block. Every play."
Later, Bratkowski explains.
"A lot of these guys have been stars at their schools," he says. "Now, they're back to square one with everyone else.
A non-player's cell phone goes off grotesquely in the middle of one meeting and Zampese breezily mentions that would cost a player "$2,000," in the league.
With that, Washington quarterback Cody Pickett appeared to choke back a "Wow."
Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis agrees that this kind of coaching is, "Back to our roots. It's a good thing to get back to every once in a while."
The players' first contact with a NFL coaching staff comes in convenient but cramped downtown quarters. At Paul Brown Stadium, each assistant coach has an office where he can meet privately with his position group.
Here, four position meetings can break out at once in the same room looking at the same video, as the individual discussions merge in a dull roar of Xs and Os.
In the back of the room is wide receivers coach Hue Jackson counting aloud the steps in a route.
In the front row is coach Ken Zampese huddled with his three quarterbacks whispering about the leverage of cornerbacks and the importance of footwork on a throw.
On the side is tight ends coach Jon Hayes alternately talking geometry and explosives disguised as blocking and catching.
The partition in the middle of the room does nothing to block the voice of offensive line coach Paul Alexander spilling out of the other side, particularly the grunts when he starts taking on his guys in a mini pass-protection drill.
"Hit him in the helmet. Hit him in the helmet," yells an animated Alexander as he watches one block on tape.
"Yeah," Jackson says as he shouts back over the wall. "Hit him in the head."
"Back in (Division) I AA," says Zampese after emerging from the bustle and recalling his days at Northern Arizona.
As a veteran of three of the last nine Senior Bowls, Bratkowski has heard the helicopters and the idea is the same. Keep it simple, Simon.
"What normally takes a month to get ready, we've only got a week," Bratkowski says. "You just have to keep it very simple. Simplify it so you can make it the easiest for them to learn and just let them go play. The thing you have to remember is the other team has the exact same situation where they're fighting the same problems we are trying to get everybody ready to play. You still end up getting a pretty decent game out of it. If you approach it wisely, you can run a certain number of plays with a good amount of success."
Bowling Green quarterback Josh Harris is certainly hoping it does. Twenty-two Januarys after father M.L. Harris became an ice statue in Bengal lore with a touchdown catch in the Freezer Bowl, Josh is trying to show Saturday that his arm strength and accuracy matches his outgoing leadership and show-stopping athleticism. Enough to be drafted in the first day.
"I want to show them I'm the complete quarterback," Harris says. "With timing and ball placement, you can make up for not having a strong arm. I want to show guys I have the whole game. Arm strength, touch passing. I just want to play a good all-round game."
Harris has come to the right team with the right video. Before sending the quarterbacks and receivers out on the field Wednesday afternoon, the coaches end the Wednesday morning meeting by showing them some cutups of Bengals quarterback Jon Kitna completing passes the North team will try in the upcoming practice.
As Kitna hits a 20-plus yarder over the middle to wide receiver Chad Johnson, Zampese concentrates on his fundamentals.
"Look at how smooth the quarterback is. There is hardly any bounce," Zampese says. "The ball is snapped on the 31, so his back foot would hit on the 22, but inside nine yards to make the throw. That way the (defensive) end doesn't have a chance if you step up inside where you're supposed to be."
Now Kitna is working against the Rams in last month's loss and it's the dump pass to running back Rudi Johnson (one of the lone big plays for Cincy all day) against a simple zone defense the North will see Saturday.
"The (safety) up top is moving over. Now look at the drop of the quarterback," Zampese says. "See how big that third step is. He's thinking, 'OK, I'm five hitching because I've got press (tight man) coverage, so I'm going to get to the regular five and throw one of these things. It's not a rhythm five any more. He knows he's pressing, it's a five and hitch and it doesn't work out. So he just goes all the way to the back over the ball, and there's big money in that."
Then he wants Pickett to see this particular play, a side-line completion as Kitna gets away from the rush
"Watch him slide his feet and stay on to top. He's never off-balance," Zampese says. "His knee bends at the top. Sink your hips down, stay level with your shoulders. Look how the ball comes out of his hand. It's 'Boom.' It comes from balance and some base at the top level, the shoulders."
Pickett understands because he sees how comfortable Kitna is in his offense, while he is in just Day Three. Michigan quarterback Jon Navarre says he's just trying to show the scouts the fundamentals that Zampese is stressing.
"Footwork is probably the moist important thing that makes you a good passer," he says.
Harris says he has been mainly jotting notes on the pass protections, but he says the Kitna cutups help him because they show how the play should transpire and how the different options unfold.
"I think this gives you an idea of what every quarterback coach in the NFL is going to stress," Harris says. "Balance. Staying over the top."
But with the fundamentals comes the language of the game. Zampese offers this test:
"OK, you've got Three Buzz (a zone defense) with the strong safety outside in the buzz position, the strong linebacker has the arrow (route), you're working a half back pressing off a mike (linebacker) for a catch of three yards and whatever we can get running."
After a deep breath, Zampese asks, "Honestly, anyone, was that too fast to handle? Understanding what I just said, can you picture Three Buzz in your mind, how it matched up from quickness on film yesterday?"
No one says a word. Later, all three say this is pretty basic stuff.
"I played at Michigan," Navarre says. "It's very intense just like it is here."
"I wanted to make sure they knew how the routes get matched up," Zampese said. "It wasn't like I had the formations drawn up on the board. I'm trying to see if they know who is covering the receivers and why they need to get to the third read. I tried to do it fast, but I know the offense and they don't. That's an example of why I teach defense first."
The say this stuff is pretty simple stuff. In the offensive line's cave, Alexander is also talking about footwork.
"You really don't hear the other positions talking," says Kansas State center Nick Leckey. You're in your own little bubble."
Zampese and Jackson are running through a catalogue of the basics. Pump fakes. Fades. Outs. Posts. From the 10-yard line in, the QB can't take any more than a one-step drop. Throw it to the back pylon, not the sideline.
"We found our pump guy," says Jackson of a nosy South defensive back after he puts on the opponent's video. "He's a biter. . .You always have to watch your opponent and watch for tendencies."
Zampese catches the leverage of one cornerback on a streak route down the field.
"Leverage from right underneath, make it a line drive shot about 10 yards," he says.
"Right," Jackson tells his receivers. "Take it right inside, keep it inside, catch it, and keep running."
The quarterbacks smile when a cornerback mauls a receiver for clear pass interference on an overthrown bomb.
"That's a 40-yard gain in our league, so now that turns into a different thought process for you," Zampese says. "Give the DB a chance to take us out. Give us a chance to catch it."
Through meatball surgery, that's what the good coaches are only trying to do for their players when they go in front of the NFL.
Give them a chance.