When Giants co-owner John Mara first told coach Tom Coughlin last year that the new collective agreement mandated a day off for players in the first week of training camp, Coughlin was confused. Does that mean they cannot come to meetings, Coughlin asked Mara. No meetings, he was told. A full day off.
One year later, and in the midst of the first full training camp under new rules designed to drastically limit the number of hits players sustain, Coughlin still was not a fan of the day off in the first week.
“Why?” he wondered during the opening week of camp. “You haven’t even played a game yet.”
But even Coughlin sounded hopeful that the players who would emerge from the preseason – most teams wrapped up training camp last week and start their regular-season practice schedules this week, leading to their third preseason game – would not bear the bruises and dead legs that training camps of old used to yield.
“I’ve been told by college people that have been doing it this way for a while that players are fresher, so I’m counting on it,” Coughlin said. “I still don’t say we have a handle on this.”
The new rules for camps were a point of contention until the end of labour negotiations last year. The frantic start to training camps and the condensed free-agency period that resulted from the lockout meant that this year would provide the first true snapshot of the effect of the new rules. Teams are not likely to know the results of the restrictions, including the end of two padded practices a day, until the regular season begins. Then the pace of practices and games will quicken as starters consume most of the practice time. But from the start this summer, training camps have had a far different, less exhausting, feel. While it is too early to tell if the number of injuries will decline, live periods have been livelier, encouraging coaches who initially resisted the idea of the new rules.
“We had practice for 2 1/2 hours, padded, and there was a live period and there was an incredible amount of energy,” said Howie Roseman, general manager of the Philadelphia Eagles. “The good thing about it is they get their morning to get their feet under them. They get two full meals. They get hydrated, so they’re coming to the afternoon seemingly with a lot more energy.”
Not surprisingly, players seem delighted with the changes.
“I don’t like it, I love it,” Eagles cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha said. “Our bodies are fresh, or as fresh as they can be in camp. The practice we do is very gruelling. One-a-days will add years to anybody’s career. Two years ago, you’re doing this twice a day. I still don’t understand how I was able to do this.”
The restrictions are no guarantee that injuries will not happen. Asomugha suffered whiplash in a violent practice collision. But preseason practices have evolved for years as health concerns became more prevalent, players stayed in better shape during the off-season and teams worried about keeping their high-priced talent available for the regular season.
When Herm Edwards was a player, teams held six weeks of training camp, often reporting around July 4. By the time he was the coach of the Jets, teams had fewer weeks of camp, and he held older players out of the second practice each day to rest them.
The new collective agreement winnowed camp down further. It forbade teams to make players report before 15 days before the first preseason game. No on-field work was allowed on the first day of camp, and no contact was permitted during the second and third days. Players were finally allowed to wear pads on the fourth day, but the gruelling two-a-days that are part of football lore have all but disappeared.
Players can be on the field for no more than four hours a day, and only one padded practice is permitted each day, not lasting longer than three hours. The second practice may only be a walk-through, which is the football equivalent of a dance class, with players standing around without pads or helmets and walking through plays.
Coaches, intent on not leaving anything out, have adjusted. Mike Lombardi, a former NFL personnel executive who now works for NFL Network, said most coaches were trying to jam the equivalent of two practices into the one three-hour padded practice, making the “live” portion of the practice – when players line up against one another in game-type situations – especially intense. Coaches have also made those practices more like regular-season ones, eschewing a focus on specific aspects of the game because there is so little time.
At the start of camp, Coughlin said, the Giants had to improve their running game, but he explained minutes later that they couldn’t devote an entire practice to power-running drills, because the time allotted had to be more balanced. And there is much more emphasis on classroom time, when tactics are installed. The walk-throughs are used to correct mistakes made in the padded practices and to reinforce what was taught in meetings.
Still, teams are concerned about the switch in priorities from the physical to the mental repetitions. Edwards, an analyst for ESPN, points to last season, when the level of play was unexpectedly high after no off-season work was permitted during the lockout. His theory: Teams had to simplify what they tried to do on the field because players had less time to study and prepare, allowing them to focus on excelling at a few things. He worries that with more classroom time, coaches will tilt toward information overload. And Roseman says he wonders if players near the bottom of the roster will have enough work to give coaches an adequate look at their skills before cuts are made.
“You don’t want to be in a situation where you get to cut-down day and you haven’t seen enough, and that’s hard because you’re getting your first-stringers ready because you have less practices, probably half the practices you had,” Roseman said, adding that the preseason games would matter more. “You don’t want to make a mistake on those young guys. The games are going to be really important.”