With teammates waving in his face and jawing under his skin in Thursday morning's school's-out-for-summer practice, Evan McPherson sent the Bengals into the break with a 63-yard field goal on head coach Zac Taylor's last snap of his six voluntary practices.
For a guy who kicked the Bengals into the AFC title game and then into the Super Bowl on consecutive last snaps in January, it had to seem like ho-hum stuff when McPherson launched what would have been a team-record field goal off the steamy Paul Brown Stadium turf that had to be baking near 90 degrees in the late morning heat. The next time they meet as a team is the July 27 start of training camp.
But it meant plenty to special teams coordinator Darrin Simmons, who also sent a message with McPherson.
"He kept his concentration and piped it right down the middle," said Simmons Thursday after practice. "He has to use his experiences that he had a year ago and become a self-starter. I think that's the one area he has to work really hard to improve. He has to be a self-starter. He has to be a better practice kicker."
McPherson had a better week this week than last, when he was nine of 12. The 63-yarder followed up a miss and capped a week he was 15 of 16. He has picked up right where he left off as the most prolific rookie kicker in NFL history. But he's not alone for summer assignments.
"Some of these young guys are going to have to make a big jump from what they did this spring and what they need to do to have a chance to compete this summer," Simmons said. "The younger players are going to have to do a lot of that on their own. Don't take a break this summer. Don't take a breather. They have to put the hammer down."
It's a team-wide mantra. Taylor and quarterback Joe Burrow said it earlier in the week. Taylor knows the pre-COVID days of 10 OTAs and three mandatories are probably done.
"There's a lot of work to be done on their own," Taylor said. "We've got to be able to trust those guys to come back and be ready to go. In a lot of ways, I don't know if everything is going to be normal like it was in 2019 ever again. It's always going to continue to evolve and the quicker you can adapt to that, the better off you're going to be."
Simmons has been watching Bengals teams go into summer breaks since 2003. They cut back their time on the field this spring in response to playing so deep into last season with a Feb. 13 Super Bowl date, so he says he doesn't have his usual feel for the young players. He could see in certain drills their team speed has improved.
"But something like that, you really don't see it until the preseason games when you're going against other teams," Simmons said. "We'll certainly have plenty of time in training camp to get a handle on the young guys and hone the skills of the veterans. The OTAs are for self-improvement. Training camp is for competition and working on the team concepts."
NEW FACES, SAME TEMPO: Taylor has displayed many strengths as a head man and two of them were on display in the six June practices. One is his consistent, rock-ribbed organization and adapting to the current needs of the team. The other is his ability to adjust to new veterans at key spots and guide their personalities seamlessly into the existing program.
Taylor could sense the difference from last year
as he eased into his typical practice tempo on an offense that has four new free-agents starters in right tackle La'el Collins, right guard Alex Cappa, center Ted Karras and tight end Hayden Hurst. The signings have organically transformed the front and the chemistry of the offense for the better with so many new proven vets.
"You look at free agency, new guys have been offensive linemen and Hayden. That's really been changed," Taylor said. "We've got total professionals with those guys on offense. So for those guys to walk in and hit the ground running, because they know the expectations. Those guys, Alex and Ted have played for Super Bowls, LC has played for Frank (Pollack)0. He knows the expectation there. Hayden has played for some tremendous organizations and knows what it looks like. I've been really pleased with how those guys have fit in to what we want to do and how we want to do it."
KIDS TO WATCH: The competition at punter with Drue Chrisman challenging all-time Bengals leader Kevin Huber and undrafted rookie Cal Adomitis facing off against one of the NFL's two most senior long snappers in Clark Harris has the incumbents in the lead.
"Drue has to take what he does in individuals and carry it over to the work in team," Simmons said. "It's not what he does with me. The most important thing for him is doing it when the team is together."
Simmons says Adomitis continues to learn the vast differences between the college and pro games.
"There's more to being an NFL long snapper than just throwing it back there straight and looking pretty," Simmons said. "You've got to get down and block people. It's a greasy, grimy position to play and no one knows you until you screw up. You better do the job. The less notoriety the better."
LBS LAIR: New linebackers coach James Bettcher, who has an estimable decade-long NFL resume that includes coordinator stints with the Cardinals and Giants, didn't get much of a look at his core this spring. Starters Logan Wilson and Germaine Pratt and spot starters Markus Bailey and Joe Bachie were rehabbing and are expected back for training camp.
Bachie, it will be recalled, came off the practice squad to make two December starts for the injured Wilson and had ten tackles before he tore an ACL. Bailey averaged about 40 snaps in the heat of the last four games as Wilson got better for the playoffs. Clay Johnston took just one scrimmage snap in the postseason and saved the season with his opposite field stop of Titans running back Derrick Henry's failed two-point conversion in the AFC Divisional.
"It's unique in the sense a lot of these guys made some sort of significant contributions last year," Bettcher said. "That's what's special about them. That's what's fun. So many of them have big game experience. It allows you to step back and see how each guy can get a little better."
With Pro Bowl candidate Wilson and playoff hero Pratt rehabbing, Bettcher went with Akeem Davis-Gaither in the middle and Keandre Jones flanking him. ADG, a member of that star-studded 2020 draft class as a fourth-rounder, went down with a season-ending knee injury last year late in October, but he's come back looking sharp in adding the middle to his game.
"He's a three-down backer and he's getting better and better," Bettcher said. "I know he has the skills to play both. He's grown up as a coach's kid and you can feel that with his intelligence and his approach."
All coaches love the tape junkie Pratt and Bettcher is no different. He's particularly noticed what he calls "the intentionality of work," when Pratt does things in a walk-through like putting his hands down on where a blocker would be.
"But there's no blocker. It's a walk-through," Bettcher said. "It shows you how important technique and fundamentals are to him."
Bettcher gets that vibe from the entire room. His first assignment in the league was ten years ago as the outside linebackers coach for the Colts. Dwight Freeney already had 100 career sacks, Robert Mathis was close and Jerry Hughes was in the third year of a career still going.
"Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis were practically already wearing gold jackets," Bettcher said. "But they still wanted to be coached. They still wanted to get better. Same thing in Arizona with players like (Chandler Jones) Karlos Dansby. I get the same thing from these guys that they're looking to get better every day."
ZACATION: Taylor and wife Sarah had already lived for a year in Cincinnati and loved the place as an ideal spot to raise their children even before he returned as Bengals head coach in 2019. But before he embarks on his fourth season, they plan on finally spending a large chunk of the off summer time at home.
"We're going to try to make it the first normal summer, where we just wake up and have coffee and spend time here in the area," Taylor said. "I think so often as my years as a coach, this first day of vacation you're booking your plans to go see this or that and get out of the city you're in. We truly enjoy it here for a reason. We want to spend the time to actually get to enjoy it without the stress of planning the day and getting ready for the day. It'll be nice to kind of sit around and enjoy Cincinnati for a couple weeks."