Over one week after the Browns reported to Berea, tight end Austin Hooper still hasn’t met all of his teammates.
Hooper, who signed a four-year, $44 million contract with the Browns in March, attributed the lack of icebreakers to the Browns’ COVID-19 training camp guidelines. Players have been separated into “pods” to help the team social distance during team activities.
Sure, he runs into teammates from other pods in the halls. But they try to maintain their distance. And when that’s the case, there isn’t time to say much besides hello.
“This is the new normal, right?” Hooper said during a Wednesday Zoom call. “You have to abide by the rules because first and foremost, we want there to be a season, and the only way we can do that is by being socially distant and by self-adhering to the rules.”
Hooper’s unfamiliarity with his teammates is a microcosm of the challenge the Browns are facing at-large this offseason. Normally, Hooper said he would simply take his teammates out to eat and do “guy stuff” together to build camaraderie. Likewise, the Browns would normally spend their offseason working hands-on with their new coaching staff to learn their new system.
Neither has been possible during the pandemic. And that lack of preparation complicates goals for teams like the Browns, who are trying to transform their on-field product.
“Having less football makes it tough,” Hooper said “The only way to get better at football is by playing more football, and without as much, especially with a new system, could there possibly be some growing pains? Who knows?”
The good news is, of course, that every NFL team is facing the same struggles. Not every team is doing so with a new coach, but everyone is facing the same continuity crunch .
Hooper said Browns coach Kevin Stefanski, along with his offensive coaching staff, have excelled at explaining the new offense’s concepts to the players. Hooper said he already feels comfortable with his understanding of them, though that is partially because he said Stefanski’s offense resembles 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan’s. Hooper played under Shanahan in Atlanta during the 2017 season.
“Schematically, it is very similar,” Hooper said. “For me, it is refreshing because in my four seasons at Atlanta, I had three different coordinators and had to learn three different offenses. It is cool to be back in something that I already know.”
Hooper and the Browns won’t truly know how well they’re grasping those concepts until they implement them, though. They’ll begin a gradual ramp-up period, which will include 3.5 hours of on-field activities, on Aug. 12. If the regular season starts on time, that would give them 32 days to build chemistry, time-up routes and maybe learn a few more names.
In the meantime, the Browns are doing their best to maximize progress given their unprecedented situation. But according to Hooper, real progress can only occur through on-field action.
“You have to get used to seeing how (players) move, what they like to do, what their best skillset is and how they can be used to the best of their ability and their fullest potential,” Hooper said. “That can only be done through reps. Meetings are great and walkthroughs are great, but you have to play football to really get that feel by playing next to each other.”