Training camp brings joy to hundreds of thousands of football fans nationwide, and for good reason: Its arrival signals the return of football.
Why else would thousands turn out to watch guys practice?
But for the first couple of training camp sessions, something is missing. It's something that's integral to the sport: contact.
That changes Saturday for the Browns, who will reach their third practice with plenty of anticipation built up to, well, hear and feel those first cracks of pads.
Wearing pads changes everything in the game. They flap when you run. They add weight (and more importantly, protection) to you. They make you sweat more, and they take some getting used to, no matter how many years you've spent wearing them.
But they also open the game up to how it's supposed to be played. For this team, that's especially important, because we have some evaluating to do thanks to the many new faces who joined the Browns during the offseason.
The players have some testing of their own to do, of themselves and their teammates. It's time to find out who's really cut out to win a starting job and make plays for a team that is expected to succeed. And for the offensive linemen, it's time to prove that their defensive counterparts aren't as hot as they think they are.
"I think it actually makes our job easier," Browns center JC Tretter said of putting the pads on for the first time. "I think you get these D-linemen in tight jerseys sweating and you can't grab them, you can't do anything. The D-linemen, I don't think, have become aware that it only makes our job easier when we get the pads on. They think they're going to get an advantage tomorrow when the pads come on but I think we equally think that we have the advantage once the pads come on."
The defensive line has received plenty of love for the problems it has collectively caused for the offense through the first two practices, but it's going up against linemen who aren't fully equipped to do their jobs until they have pads on. Evaluating their performance is pointless right now because line play is heavily dependent upon full-blown contact.
Conversely, defensive linemen can't really bull-rush or utilize their power moves without having pads on.
"You can't get physical with a guy when you don't have pads on," defensive end Myles Garrett explained Thursday. "You're not trying to put a hammer through his chest or anything that can tweak something or keep a guy from being in the regular season. So once you put those pads on, put those pants on, it's a different world."
So it's clear: The men in the trenches can't wait to suit up before getting down to some old-fashioned bumping and banging. The technique work meets with the physical side of play starting Saturday, which means we can start to answer some questions.
But what about the skilled positions?
Wide receiver Jarvis Landry had to take a moment to clear his throat before answering the question Friday.
"I don't know," Landry said with a chuckle. "I'm excited, man. Obviously, it's football and it's an opportunity for us to really get some contact after the break that we had. It's gonna be a good day. I'm sure it will be."
Landry is known as one of the more physical receivers in the NFL, but there is a toll frequent contact can take on the body over time, not to mention the heightened injury concern. That's one of the biggest goals for this team, and every NFL club: exit training camp healthy.
By no means will any player slow up, though, because jobs are on the line. And as the saying goes, playing scared will get you hurt. Instead, they'll be going at it from the first snap and we'll get to find out how many runs will actually end up in big gains instead of being tapped down shortly after nearing a defender.
"I'm very excited to put the pads on because the game of football is played with pads," head coach Freddie Kitchens said. "We haven't had the pads on in a long time, and I'm looking forward to it."
The first day of pads is the first day of legitimate competition. Expect a heightened energy in the air in Berea on Saturday, and a physical, scrappy session. And expect those linemen to get after it.
The annual Orange & Brown Scrimmage will take place on August 3rd at FirstEnergy Stadium. Click for information and tickets.