There might be something short of a regular-season atmosphere at the Green Bay Packers' mini-camp this week, but that doesn't mean these days are ineffectual. In fact, for rookies and other young players, they could hardly mean more.
Roster spots will be won and lost in training camp, that's true, but each week that the season draws nearer is a week that many players see their on-field opportunities start to diminish, making mini-camp one of the few times to learn the system on the run.
Come training camp, a Donald Driver will be able to afford a few dropped balls. A Carl Ford will not.
With that in mind, the June absences of 2003 draft picks Nick Barnett and James Lee might seem costly. But the Packers' coaching staff is doing everything in its power to see that they're not.
GM/Head Coach Mike Sherman calls it a "contingency plan." Each day after practice, packages of material are sent to Barnett and Lee via express mail. The packages include DVD video of the day's practice, playbook additions and even PowerPoint presentations.
Next come the phone calls. Sherman said that linebackers coach Mark Duffner will spend as many as two hours a night on the phone with Barnett reviewing the previous day's practice.
All of it is an effort to make sure that if Barnett and Lee can't be at mini-camp in body, they can at least be there in mind.
The success of the program can be seen just by looking up the roster at 2002 draft pick Marques Anderson. Like Barnett and Lee (Oregon State), Anderson came from a university (UCLA) that didn't close its spring term until mid-June.
An NFL rule designed to keep student-athletes in school long enough to get their degrees, prohibits NFL-bound players from participating in a second mini-camp until their school term ends, unless they have already graduated. That meant that approachinng his rookie season Anderson attended the April mini-camp, stayed home in June and rejoined the team for training camp in July.
Although not the easiest path to follow, Anderson said his Packers correspondence course allowed him to learn adequately from afar, and expects Barnett and Lee will find the same.
"It doesn't put them behind that much," Anderson said of the OSU players' absences. "Our defensive coordinator (Ed Donatell) does a great job of getting them materials, even when they're away ...
"(Last year) I felt like I was missing out physically, but mentally I didn't feel like I was missing out."
If Anderson lagged at the beginning of training camp, he seemed to reach full-speed quickly.
Inactive for the first two games of the regular season, Anderson showed his ability in his NFL debut in Week 3, returning an interception 78 yards for a touchdown and recovering a fumble -- both plays crucial in the Packers' 37-31 win over Detroit.
By Week 6 he was in the starting lineup, and remained there through season's end.
According to Anderson, if Barnett and Lee are to learn from his rookie season, they shouldn't concentrate so much on the beginning, but on the end, when Anderson found himself rundown and exhausted.
That's when he says his play started to deteriorate from what had been an unexpectedly strong beginning.
"I think it was just fatigue," Anderson said. "The season does start to take a toll on you physically. Not knowing exactly how long the season actually felt until you get to Week 16, and the playoff game, it's hard. And that's something that you have to put in your experience bank and just learn from ...
"It's hard to be consistent when you're learning on the run."
In those terms, Barnett and Lee will need to lace up their racing spikes if they want to contribute this season. But, really, that's true for every rookie.
Aiding in their development, both players plan to take part in the Packers' opportunity sessions later in the month, and Sherman expects them to be up to speed by the start of training camp. What they do after that will be up to them, but certainly they won't have time to lose.
"In football, it's kind of hard to get into the Xs and Os until you see them on the field," Anderson said. "(The Packers' long-distance instruction) does get you a step closer than not seeing it at all ... but there's nothing like experience."
Because of NFL regulations, Barnett and Lee missed some on-field experience over the last week, but that doesn't mean that they missed out entirely.