Bengals right end Sam Hubbard knew the first day of work as a team on Tuesday at Paul Brown Stadium would be different during a training camp they have been introduced to a new kind of red zone.
It is Aug. 4, after all, 40 days before the Sept. 13 opener at The Paul against the Los Angeles Chargers. Less than six weeks away, and they're used to being together since April. Plus, Hubbard's defense most likely lined up at least five new starters when they went nickel in that very first walkthrough. And, it is the middle of a pandemic.
But when Hubbard looked up in the socially-distanced special teams meeting and saw coordinator Darrin Simmons glaring back at them through a face shield?
"There was a moment there I said, 'Wow, this different,'" Hubbard said, "But this is what we have to do in order to play."
While there may have been things you only see in a pandemic (head coach Zac Taylor is separating his four quarterbacks to such a degree that they are conducting first-year quarterbacks coach Dan Pitcher's position meetings remotely in rooms of their own), it was football.
And, as Hubbard says, football is football.
"It was good to be on the field with everybody again," Hubbard said.
Taylor came away satisfied for a first walkthrough,which took place on the grass practice fields. The rookies had already been out there on their own for four days and the veterans were going on muscle memory.
"Everyone was really in sync ... It really meshed at the right time this fifth day," Taylor said. "The rookies had some confidence, they've been doing it, the vets join and have confidence from doing it last year, it was a good mesh."
Since football is still football, that means walkthroughs still have to have huddles and linemen tight on the line of scrimmage.
"That part's not going to change. You know, it's just our players, coaches being mindful that when we can control it, to try to create their distance from one another," Taylor said. "But football's football, and when you're in a huddle and you're at the line of scrimmage, we're not going to be able to control that any more than we could have before so our guys just proceed as normal."
All Taylor had to do is look down at his wristband, where many players and coaches are keeping their computer chips that monitor physical distancing, and see that it was normal football. If it blinks red, they're fewer than socially accepted six feet away.
"There's a lot of red, there's a lot of red," Taylor confirmed.
But the idea is to not linger together for very long in football's new red zone. The coaches are mandated to always wear masks and so are the players, except when they are doing conditioning or are on the field. Taylor said on Tuesday many players wore their masks during the walkthrough, except maybe when they had to talk.
"You have to call the play," Hubbard said. "But once you do that, you don't need to be standing there. Get lined up. Just minimizing (the contact) as much as you can."
And what's football without a quick, business-like huddle anyway?
"We always preach urgency in and out of the huddle so now more than ever," Taylor said. "It's on us to have great urgency to get the play called and put pressure on the defense to get to the line of scrimmage. It just further aids what we're asking these guys to do."
The chips are just one of the reasons why The Paul may be one of the safest places in Hamilton County. On Tuesday, Taylor said the players in the
"When you're within six feet of someone it beeps red and it tracks how long you've been around someone over the course of the day," Taylor said. "We're trying to keep everybody safe, but in the instance someone does get sick you're able to go back and do the contact tracing and see who they've been around and make sure we can quarantine those individuals the proper amount of time."
They're taking great pains to make sure the quarterbacks aren't going to have a problem. The newest one, veteran journeyman backup quarterback Brandon Allen who learned the offense with Taylor in Los Angeles, shouldn't feel like the odd man out of the four. Even though he was during the walkthrough.
"We brought in a guy and we keep him apart from those other three quarterbacks, but they all still learn at the same pace," Taylor said. "They were all out there at the walkthrough today trying to stay apart from each other, but we'll manage it. It kind of evolves from day to day how that's going to look."
And Taylor isn't sure what that final look is going to be.
"We'll just see how it goes throughout training camp, but it's good to get him in the building," Taylor said. "He's got familiarity with the system, not only from the two years in L.A., but last year in Denver. He's a guy that can get up to speed very quickly and that way we have plenty of options as we get through training camp."
The Bengals certainly had a new look on defense Tuesday. For the first time their prized free-agent crop of nose tackle D.J. Reader, middle linebacker Josh Bynes, safety Vonn Bell and cornerbacks Trae Waynes and Mackensie Alexander lined up.
Hubbard has been looking forward to playing next to Reader, the former Texan the Bengals made the highest-paid nose tackle back in March. When Reader came into town a few weeks ago he and Hubbard made sure they got together for some workouts.
"We've added a bunch of pieces and it was nice to meet everyone face-to-face. I'm really excited about the guys we brought in," Hubbard said. "(Reader is) going to bring a lot to the table. He looked confident. He looked like he knew what he was doing. I'm really excited to play with him. We've been working together a little bit and he's really humble, a really hard worker. Just come in every day and make our team better. And we're really happy to have him."
Taylor plans to keep the same schedule for roughly the next week. Walkthroughs. Conditioning. Rookie quarterback Joe Burrow can throw to his guys and he already has, but the coaches can't work with them fully on the field until pretty much their first practice in helmets on Aug. 13 in the run-up to the first padded practice on Aug. 17. Taylor says he may not use all the allotted 14 padded practices, but he plans to have multiple scrimmages in an effort to make up for the cancellation of the preseason.
"We'll have three or four different opportunities where we create some situations where we can really evaluate our guys in a game-like atmosphere," Taylor said.