Players, they say, are made in the offseason, but there is no NFL offseason, anymore; not even in the countdown days to camp that once were used to recharge the batteries. For many a pro football player, the hottest days of July are as high-voltage as the rest.
"You only got one release, man, so dudes are gonna get used to that [stuff]," Baltimore cornerback Fabian Washington, a former first-round draft pick, told the kid during a workout this week under an unforgiving afternoon sun. "You gotta be able to release outside -- but also speed release inside, too."
Jacksonville cornerback Michael Coe grabbed the young receiver and tossed out a couple more pointers.
"When you have pads on, you're gonna have to learn to drop a shoulder coming off [the line of scrimmage]," Coe explained, pulling the apprentice closer. "I've got long arms, so I might be able to grab or use my hands to direct you. Dip that shoulder, though, and keep me off you."
Moments later, the 5-foot-8, 169-pound McCluster was split out wide for a one-on-one rematch against Washington. Clearly, the pupil was paying attention. This time, McCluster shimmied coming off the line, dropped a shoulder, busted inside, sped up-field about 10 yards and shimmied again before snapping outside.
Washington lost his footing on that last move. As chunks of sod flew into the air, the Ravens' defensive back fell on his backside.
The collective reaction of the group was something along the lines of, "DAMN!"
McCluster, the former University of Mississippi star and 34th overall pick in the April draft, gobbled up the pass on the out route and turned upfield.
"Whoa!" Washington exclaimed. "Now, that was nice. That's what I'm talking about."
McCluster smiled when asked about the session.
"Whatever they've got to say, I'm listening," said the soon-to-be running back, wideout, slotback and Wildcat fixture for the Chiefs. "That's what I'm here for ... to get better."
That's what they're all here for.
The NFL has come a long way since the days when players readied for training camp by quitting their offseason insurance jobs, giving up cigarettes and losing weight by sitting in steam baths. With offseason programs, organized team activities and mini-camps, pro football is a year-around business -- even during what's supposed to be the down time of the summer.
Down time for these guys is IMG time.
How "down" is it? Think two-a-days.
"What we do here," Washington said, "is balls to the wall."
It covers every other part of the body, too.
The IMG Performance Institute (IPI) at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., is one of the venues where players go for specialized training during the offseason and -- in the cases of a handful of players this month -- to fine-tune not only their bodies but also their minds before reporting for training camp and the grind of another season.
"I'm trying to hit the ground running," Arizona Pro Bowl cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie said. "From an athletic standpoint, I know what I'm capable of. So do the Cardinals. From a mental standpoint, I don't think I've come close to the player I can be. That's why I'm here."
There are boutique training outlets around the country that are geared toward the offseason athlete. Fitness mastermind Tom Shaw has a renowned one at ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex at Disney World near Orlando. Athletes Performance Center outside Phoenix is another. Arizona claims Fischer Sports, where Donovan McNabb took his new Washington Redskins teammates for his annual "Hell Week," also.
IPI is different. The 350-acre IMG complex is annually home to 12,000 athletes of all ages from eight sports, but IPI combines an array of disciplines to maximize not only physical conditioning, but also provide state-of-the-art training in mental conditioning, nutrition, visual performance, communication, athletic regeneration and life skills.
"We're giving them a full 360-degree approach," IPI business coordinator Chris King said. "This isn't a place they come just to see how fast they can run and to improve their conditioning."
These last-ditch workout warriors like Washington, Rodgers-Cromartie, McCluster, Dallas cornerback Mike Jenkins and Cleveland linebacker D'Qwell Jackson all have roots in the Tampa Bay area and were among those who entrusted their final few days of summer to the IPI staff. Washington, Rodgers-Cromartie and Jackson spent the bulk of their offseasons here, as well.
"What we do here is different," said Jeff Dillman, head of physical conditioning. "Training an athlete, to me, is a lot like a relationship with a woman. You got to keep things interesting."
They do that. And more. Even this time of year, competitive juices definitely flow when guys are matched up during speed and agility drills outside and the weight room inside. As much as each wants to help and encourage each other, they also want to beat the other guy.
"Yeah, there's some trash talk," Washington said. "It's good."
Even in the vision center.
Dave Da Silva heads the vision training phase of IPI, an innovative program that uses exercises originally devised for pilots in the U.S. Air Force. Just watching the players work through each station makes your eyes hurt (Note: taking part in one or two of them is obviously more taxing).
"When you get to the later stages of a game situation, fatigue sets in," Da Silva said. "Visual fatigue too. And 90 percent of mistakes made are a lack of focus and concentration. That has a lot to do with how the eyes endure."
Take the Rotating Pursuit Testing Chart (please), for example. Subjects stand about eight feet from a wall chart filled with letters and numbers. They read off a sequenced number on the chart, then must find the corresponding number on a wheel on the wall that is spinning.
"I'm gonna go cross-eyed looking at this thing," Coe said.
Actually, Da Silva explained, the exercise is merely a high-intensity version of what a defensive back does on the field while his eyes move from the receiver to the quarterback and to locating the ball.
"You just never do it for one minute [straight]," he said.
Another test puts a player's nose up against a chart with 100 circles. While staring at the center of the board, the player uses his peripheral vision to locate and punch the circles as they light up; sort of like a sophisticated version of Whack-A-Mole.
And try catching a tennis ball while wearing the strobe-light goggles.
"It's like when you turn around and have to locate the ball," Coe said.
An hour or so in the vision center is tough on the eyes, but it doesn't excuse them from 90 minutes of work outside on the sweltering fields. Or from their meetings with their nutritionists. Or from sessions with mental coaches.
Performance Institute Director Trevor Moawad knows a little something about mental conditioning and peak performance. Included among the 20 NCAA and professional sports organizations he works with is reigning national champion Alabama.
"The Performance Institute was put in place to really manage everything outside the sport that is really, really critical," Moawad said. "So just like a coach has a complete focus on, 'OK, what do I have to do to technically, tactically and physically get this athlete ready,' we want to have another group of experts who don't have to focus on the techniques and tactics. Their job is psychologically, nutritionally and pre-habilitatively ... are they doing the right things to get to that next level."
Take Washington, for example. He started 22 games the last two seasons for a team with back-to-back playoff appearances, but suffered a season-ending ACL tear in November. Cornerbacks already must deal with the "on-an-island" mentality, and thus need a short memory. Now, coming off a serious injury, Washington can expect to have more things swimming in his head when he plants that knee to make a cut.
"He came here wanting to reinforce his health, confidence, belief and trust in that knee," Moawad said. "His program was about formulating a strategy for keeping positive and dealing with setbacks."
"I'm going to be stronger in every way when I get to camp," Washington said.
So will the others, including McCluster, who before even signing his first pro contract already will have a leg up on many a veteran talent-wise, but now with his preparation and psychological approach, too.
Though, the NFL season is about to start, McCluster is getting a crash course in knowing that it never really ends.
"I'm a young guy and just starting out, so I don't know what a lot of other guys are doing," McCluster said. "I came here to train and along the way learn from some of these guys how to be a pro. And I'm glad I did."