Every team seeks to answer questions in training camp: Denver needs to know which quarterback will emerge; the Ravens need to know which of their stars will return to form after missing time to injury; the Redskins need to know how Josh Norman will fit in. There’s only one major inquiry that the 32 teams are all exploring this August, though: In an era of player-safety concerns and collective-bargaining limitations, what is the smartest way to approach training camp?
Five years ago this summer, the NFL and its players signed a new collective bargaining agreement that banned most of the activities that made training camp one of the most grueling stretches in sports. Players can no longer practice in pads twice a day, stay on the field for more than four hours a day, participate in padded practices lasting more than three hours, or put on pads for the first three days of camp. The NFL Players Association asked for these tweaks during 2011 labor-agreement negotiations in an effort to make practice less harmful for its players. But those changes happened to coincide with an explosion in sports science and increased awareness of how wear and tear can impact performance — and, of course, with heightened concerns about head injuries. In tandem, those factors sent teams scrambling to come up with new practice plans for training camp.
What makes this period so interesting, though, is that while all teams seem to be adjusting their training camp routines, few seem to be doing so in the same way. Some use bricks as props; others stage ping-pong matches to fire up the competitive juices; still others send players home as early as possible in order to guarantee rejuvenation each night.
“In the old days you would have as many reps in training camp as you would during the season in practice, and that’s not true anymore,” said Packers coach Mike McCarthy. “The coaching fraternity, as a whole, has to find creative ways to make sure everything gets taught.”
This shift marks the biggest change to NFL teams’ routines in the last few decades. And this preseason seems to be an incubator for new ideas thanks to a slew of new, young head coaches and assistants who seem eager to embrace the tweaks needed to run an efficient August program.
At the heart of the matter is how physically taxing training camp should be. McCarthy has coached the Packers since 2006, but his 32-year-old newly named receivers coach, Luke Getsy, is the type of young assistant who is shaking up the practice format. The Packers have long opted against featuring the big-hitting, tackling-to-the-ground practice routine that a few other franchises still employ — we’ll get to those squads later — but this year, they’ve further shifted their practice focus to drills that develop hand-eye coordination.
Their receivers, for instance, practice — on the actual practice field — dropping bricks and catching them in one swoop, and also catch quickly thrown tennis balls off walls to improve their reaction speed. Typically, NFL receiver practice is low-tech, with players running routes against cones, or catching passes from a Jugs machine. The Packers do that, too, except this year, instead of standing about 10 yards away from the unit, they’re standing directly next to it, which receiver Trevor Davis said improves reaction time. This certainly isn’t grandpa cheesehead’s training camp.
NFL teams have evolved into three training camp buckets: A few tackle to the ground (full pads, full tackles in multiple drills throughout practice). Some reserve those full-on hits for once or twice a camp, usually in scrimmages. And some never have their players hit the ground. But even within each grouping, the specifics differ to the point where there’s hardly anything uniform about NFL practices these days — and whichever franchise cracks the code on how to best prep players for action before the games begin might wind up with a big competitive advantage during the season.
In some cases, those tweaks began before training camp. This season, the Packers let any veteran with six years of service time (plus a few special cases) skip June minicamps to rest ahead of training camp. Dolphins coach Adam Gase actually decided not to hold an on-field practice in May during the team’s rookie minicamp, an unusual approach to a session that’s usually only about on-field practice. Many consider rookie minicamp a crucial time for early player development, but Gase opted to use that period to put players in the classroom, where coaches and team employees taught them about schemes and nonfootball matters such as how to manage finances. He also sends players home as early as 7:30 p.m., a time when some NFL coaches and players are just getting started with meetings. Meanwhile, beginning in minicamp, new Giants head coach Ben McAdoo reduced two practice fields to 80 yards to get the Giants used to using all of the grass on the field.
Those changes are magnified in training camp. In an effort to foster the type of competitive spirit that used to be a hallmark of August practice, Tennessee coach Mike Mularkey stages some interesting battles — and not just to see how his offense will look on third down. Mularkey saves full contact for scrimmages, but when he’s holding a regular padded practice, he finds ways to get his players’ juices flowing as though these were the old hard-hitting days. He’ll occasionally stop one of the full practices to make the team gather around a specific one-on-one drill. Last week, rookie tackle Jack Conklin took on defensive lineman Derrick Morgan in practice as teammates watched. Conklin overpowered Morgan, and the offense went crazy. The rookie received a championship belt for his efforts.
“This is how you figure out who wants to compete and win,” Mularkey said. “I want to see the guy who is going to say, ‘I’m not losing this in front of my teammates.’” That includes making sure the guys compete off the field, too. “You set things up like, who is going to go out there in ping-pong and beat the other guy’s ass?” the coach said.
Mularkey also believes in keeping players on edge emotionally during practice. One example: He had his punter fake an injury last week to see how the team would react in his absence.
Of course, some teams analyzed the way they practiced and decided that some old-school elements were worth keeping. Pittsburgh is the rare example that isn’t changing much about its tackling in the modern era: The Steelers are hitting in certain drills in practice, and they’re hitting as hard as possible.
Cornerback Ross Cockrell — who spent two training camps in Buffalo, where, he said, there were few full-contact hits in practice — said that Steelers coaches want hitting “to eliminate the gray area” from the evaluation process. “They want to see if the guy is going to make the play or not,” Cockrell said, “instead of just guessing.”
The Steelers tackle to the ground at the beginning of practice and do live, often brutal goal-line drills toward the end of practice. This week, running back Brandon Brown-Dukes was slammed so hard by a pack of defenders that his helmet flew off.
General manager Kevin Colbert said the hitting plan exists for two reasons: First, as Cockrell said, it helps the team evaluate players. Second, the Steelers want their players’ first real NFL hits to take place in a controlled environment. NFL hits are significantly harder than the typical college hits, and Colbert said it’s better for rookies to first adjust to them on the practice field with coaches supervising rather than in a preseason game against random players.
“You’ve got to practice contact,” Colbert said. “Of course there could be an injury on any given [practice] play, but I think we’ve also got to prepare our guys for hits. They will experience live tackling at some point, and for their first experience, we can control it.”
San Francisco’s Chip Kelly has taken the opposite stance. He said this training camp that he can teach tackling without players wearing pads, and he wants their first hits to come in the preseason games. “We do have four preseason games that, last time I checked, are live,” Kelly said. “So, we’ll get an opportunity to tackle a lot in these four preseason games.” Kelly wants full blocking in practice to get the offensive line in tune, but doesn’t want to engage in practices that risk injury. “The problem when you have those situations isn’t really the tackle,” Kelly said. “It’s the collateral damage with that because someone’s on the ground, now two guys trip over it and you’ve got a twisted ankle or whatnot.”
Cleveland’s Hue Jackson, meanwhile, is holding an “anything goes” period during padded practices where players can tackle fully. The Browns signify the start of this period with an honest-to-goodness siren, after which players are free to go nuts, which is vaguely similar to the plot of The Purge.
But not everyone is staying committed to this plan. Eagles coach Doug Pederson, who replaced Kelly in Philadelphia and is one of the few coaches who decided to maintain a full-hitting training camp approach, said at a press conference that he’s “a big believer that you never shy away from contact.”
That belief didn’t last long. Pederson told reporters this week that the hitting was “probably over.”
“I just have to look at the overall health of the football team,” Pederson said. “It’s not about getting somebody hurt, but it’s about protecting the guys out here.”
Many teams were already more closely aligned with Kelly’s thinking. If a team is going to go full contact in practice, it usually reserves that for one or two scrimmages over a weekslong training camp. At most camps, a whistle stops play before a bone-rattling hit can take place.
While that’s a fairly straightforward approach to protecting players, McCarthy said that the most creativity is coming from teams tinkering with how to improve despite not being able to practice as much as they could before 2011. That includes plenty of technology. Teams have used GPS data to measure players’ performance for years, but they’re starting to use new gadgets for drills, too. The Falcons, Packers, Lions, and Ravens, among others, have started to use the “tackling ring,” a doughnut-shaped pad that rolls toward players, who can then tackle it and bring it all the way to the ground.
“For years we would do a drill and they’d say ‘go tackle that cone now,’” said Falcons linebacker Paul Worrilow. “This is really realistic.”
The Falcons allow contact, but not tackling to the ground. When rookie safety Keanu Neal accidentally nailed tight end Jacob Tamme earlier this camp, it was considered so taboo that it started a fight, which ultimately forced Neal to admit he was wrong.
So while the Falcons don’t want bodies hitting the ground, Worrilow said the Falcons manufacture competition by keeping score of almost everything else during practice. They tabulate turnovers vs. times the offense kept the ball successfully, and they keep score of who won a play when the offense and defense are facing each other in team drills. (It’s not dissimilar to some college spring football game scoring systems, where a defense can score points for breaking up a pass, for instance.) The Falcons tally up whether the offense or defense won the day, and the winning side goes wild, high fiving and yelling.
“We’ve made it a really, really big deal,” Worrilow said.
Whether or not teams can manufacture intensity in this way remains to be seen, but teams like the Falcons will opt to preserve the health of their players over finding ways to practice full contact. Finding new ways to spend the heavily regulated practice time is a new frontier for the sport. The success teams see on the field this season could determine how many are using tennis balls or sounding the “anything goes” siren next August.