The best time to get the truest indication of how Joe Paterno feels about his football team at any particular moment is as he's standing on or walking off the practice field.
Which, of course, is a little like trying to find the warmest part of a glacier.
Penn State’s head coach keeps whatever he’s really thinking to himself and his assistant coaches, but sometimes what he says to the press and the public can be a little revealing.
Of course, as with most things involving the Nittany Lions, people tend to read things differently.
Take the two brief video segments posted this week on the team’s revamped Web site, gopsf.com (and they say Joe doesn’t do technology). Paterno, shown with his players participating in various drills in the background, offered ringing endorsements such as these:
“If we had to play this week, we’d have trouble — we’ll have troubles regardless — but we’d have big, big trouble.”
“We’re way off. I don’t know whether we’re ever going to be good enough. We’re gonna see.”
“I was hoping we’d come along a little faster, but I think that was unrealistic.”
“We don’t do two things in a row right, that’s about the best way to put it.”
Now, one school of fans, those who aren’t much for subtext or those who tend to seek the gloomy in life, will take those words, couple them with the lack of experience at certain positions and begin to get anxious (or get more anxious) about the coming season.
The second group is a little older. They’ve heard these and similar comments from Paterno before, through various presidential administrations, and have often seen the seasons that followed end with victories in places like Miami, Tempe or New Orleans. They know — or believe — that Paterno can use the media, be it print or Internet, to send messages to his players, particularly if he feels they are in need of a little ego-reducing.
The truth probably falls somewhere in between. Paterno’s concerns — the offensive line, the secondary and the young wide receivers — are legitimate. The Nittany Lions have enough experienced talent just about everywhere else on the field to have a big season if those three groups can perform.
But Paterno also knows that his linemen, his defensive backs and his wideouts have spent the better part of the spring and summer reading and hearing about how suspect they are, at least according to fans and media. Coaches take motivation wherever they can get it, and Paterno reinforcing those opinions — whether he really believes them or not — should drive those players to prove their fans and their coach wrong.
The other thing to remember here is that during the final week of the preseason, no coach ever believes that his team, regardless of how many starters are back or how much talent is in the fold, is ready for the season. There are always a few things that could be tightened up, always a wrinkle or two to add. Paterno is no different. He also knows that he’s not going to discover much more about his team that he doesn’t already know, no matter how many preseason practices he’s given, until the Nittany Lions take the field against players wearing different colored jerseys.
Some of the young players who didn’t perform well in practice will be pleasant surprises in game situations. Some who made the plays in practice will disappoint. The veterans will become coaches on the field and on the sideline.
The important thing to remember, and the reason Paterno isn’t going to get that down, is just how much potential there is on this roster. Maybe not all of it will be realized at the same time, but the Nittany Lions have enough skilled veterans to weather some peaks and valleys, especially during the first three weeks against the overmatched squads of Akron, Syracuse and Temple. Those games won’t earn the Nittany Lions a lot of national buzz, but they should give Paterno and his assistant coaches a better idea of what kind of squad they have and the best ways to drive them going forward.
“Way off,” as Paterno knows, doesn’t have to last very long. How he rates his squad when the camera’s rolling and when it isn’t could be very different at this time next month.
But just as open for interpretation, of course.