FFL Rewind: The Minicamp Diaries, Survival of the Fittest (2002)

By  Last updated: 27th April 2011

The following piece was originally published on The FFL Online during the 2002 preseason.

Survival of the Fittest: The Minicamp Diaries, Part I
by Jessie Hester

Uncertain looks in their eyes is what you see first. Uncertain looks, because careers and lives will be indelibly impacted by the next several weeks. It is a still locker room. Sure, the jocular banter is still there, the usual smalltalk is evident. But there is a seriousness of purpose to this part of the season, and the businesslike ambiance soon takes a hold. The players suit up, trot out on the field, and begin their pre-practice stretching. The morning rain has left the field muddy, but this is not a time for the uniforms to stay clean. For some of them, a future job is all but assured. Marshall Faulk and Randy Moss don’t need to worry about what where they’ll be playing in September. But for the vast majority of the league, the league’s annual rite of natural selection is at hand. Enter the FFL minicamps.

Springtime has arrived, and in typical FFL fashion, a strange reversal of the seasons is at hand. For FFL players, spring isn’t a metaphorical period of renewal and hope. Quite the opposite — it is a time for desperation, for lost hopes and fragile loyalties. It is the time of harvest, the separation of the wheat from the chaff. An entire roster of players will be pared down to three survivors. Is this what keeps the league fresh and vital, or is it merely cruel calculus? Well, that point remains to be debated, but the men on the practice field I’m watching don’t care about the rationale. They’re merely focused on the result. If they attain one of the coveted three roster spots, they hit a big payday. If they don’t, well, there is still that line of scouts from opposing teams watching from the far side of the field. This is the way it has always been; minicamps are a cross of triumph and turnover. And when a player is on the bubble in between the two, that’s when it gets really interesting, and that is why I am here. This spring the FFL Today has taken a tour of the FFL minicamps, and in the process we’ve gotten an inside look at a prelude to what should be an exciting 2002 season.

It’s been a long winter for those of us in the FFL offices here at Olympus Parkway. Slow news days. Bad coffee. Fowler has gotten fat off his book royalties. Bob has been trying to calculate what percentage of the Waikiki Tsunamis’ late-season wins were due to backup tight end Ken Dilger. Niofred has been trying to fix our toaster (we don’t get the fancy feces like they do up the road in Bristol.) Meanwhile, Ricardo has been touring the midwest with his band, Trendsetter 2000. And we haven’t seen much of Jackie Zieger, whose vacation in the south of France has attracted the papparazzi. And me? Well, I do my fair share of autograph shows. Chicks dig the vintage 1992 Thunder uniform.

But when April came around, business was back to usual. We loaded up into the Manfordmobile (again, not as fancy as the plush leather charter jet seats they get in Bristol) and set off on the road. First stop: the Atlanta Predators minicamp. That’s where I am now, watching the morning session with head coach Fred deBoer. And, just as his players bear a look of uncertainty, so apparently does he. After taking home a championship in his rookie coaching year of 1999, deBoer and his Predators have fallen on hard times. In two straight seasons Atlanta has been picked as a favorite to win the FFL South-Central. But in both years the Kansas City Blockers, playing with not a little finesse and overachieving, have won the division. What is worse is that the Predators have been booted from playoff contention in the final week each time.

What has gone wrong? deBoer chalks up many of the problems to injury, which is a fair attribution. Fred Taylor, he of the ever-present knee and hamstring troubles, has kept getting sidelined. However, there is something else that has been problematic, something more elusive. deBoer readily admits that the team has lost some of the fighting spirit of ’99, and that he aims to reclaim it.

Kurt Warner takes the snap, drops back, and fires a rocket to backup received David Terrell. It bounces off his shoulder pad, and he stumbles to gain control before the scout team corner gives him a swift hit. The pass was dead on, but Terrell misjudged it. deBoer drops his clipboard to the ground. Tearing off his hat, he strides over to Terrell, throwing his cap into the misty turf. Receiver Marcus Robinson comes over to intervene, putting his hand on deBoer’s shoulder in what appears to be a calming gesture. But deBoer turns on Robinson, tackling him to the ground. Assistant coach Matt Pattavina runs over, pulls off the coach, and restrains him.

Certainly there is a fighting spirit back, if only in the heart of deBoer. But whether he can get the whole team to buy into this philosophy will be the key. Warner is certainly with him, as he has been the past three seasons. deBoer, after all, gave him his first big break, and he answered with an MVP 1999 season. However, Warner’s impeccable performances have not been supplemented by quality play by the backs and receivers. Taylor has been hurt. Robinson never replicated the seasons he had in Colorado. Joey Galloway’s best days are behind him. None of the backups have stepped in to contribute. All said, this has been a team carried by Warner, and Warner has only been able to do so much.

Over the next several days, it is clear to the team that at least two of the three pre-draft roster spots are tied up. Warner’s return is a given, and his favorite target — Isaac Bruce — will also be back. Bruce’s ability to garner 10TDs a season him a lock too. The uncertainty rests upon that third spot. The most likely candidates: Fred Taylor and Anthony Thomas. Taylor has been a mainstay on the team since the Minh Le era. Thomas was acquired at the beginning of the offseason in a trade for Ricky Williams. It was an unsurprising move, considering that Williams never really gelled with the Predators offense, and that rumors of a post-Week 14 fistfight between deBoer and Williams continued to surface.

The pressure to produce, I notice, falls on Taylor. Thomas and Taylor are getting equal reps in practice, but Thomas IS the new guy. What is unspoken is whether he is there to pressure or supplant Taylor. deBoer is tightlipped about the situation, only saying that the best back will be with the team come drafttime.

Taylor seems pretty nonplussed for a guy about to potentially lose his job. He tells me that he is feeling great, that he has been working hard on his durability this offseason. He talks about his goals for the season — 15 TDs, 1300 yards rushing. He goes on to talk about the deep roots he feels with this franchise, the only one in the FFL that he has known. Clearly, he feels guilt for the hard times the Predators have fallen on, and he aims to make it up.

Thomas, on the other hand, doesn’t feel that this is a competition. Whether cockiness or confidence, he expects to be the team’s starting back in September. The coach told him as much, he says, when the team acquired him. Anthony may be right. As the camp begins to wrap up, I notice that there is more of a buddy relationship forming between he and deBoer, while Taylor has become quiet, reserved. The numbers for the final scrimmage hold no definitive insight — Thomas averages 4.3 yards a carry, Taylor 4.2.

deBoer makes several cuts, leading to a somber mood as the camp breaks. A defensive tackle, just given his proverbial pinkslip, bellows to me: “%$&# deBoer! &)%& him! Yeah, that’s right, you can put that in your paper!” Several others clean out their lockers. A tight end I talk to says that he will head to the Middletown Syndromes’ minicamp in the hopes of getting a look as a walk-on. Life, as it is in the FFL, goes on.

Before making my way out of town, I sit with deBoer as he watches over gametapes of the team’s first rival of the 2002 season — the Montana Blazers. Between taking notes on the snap calls of Brian Griese and biting into a White Castle hamburger, he waxes philosophical on the state of the 2002 Predators. He tells me, in a note of true sincerity that is lacking from his on-the-field tirades, that he is part of a cruel business. The cuts have to be made, and loyalty can not get in the way. He doesn’t say as much, but it looks like Taylor may be finding a new backfield in the fall. Then again, maybe his luck will change. deBoer has been known to take chances.

As has been his tradition this preseason, deBoer ends his day by walking over to a bust of the head of Justin Billings (original Predators owner) and rubs it for good luck. “He knew about intensity,” says the coach. “This is what I’m trying to teach them.”

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