Growing up in Arizona in the late 70s, I remember the excitement and the dread of the start of our high school football season. It meant spending the first two weeks in two-a-day practices in the scorching Arizona heat. In full pads, it was brutally hot inside that helmet and under those shoulder pads and I was a thin receiver/defensive back. I can’t imagine how hot the big linemen were! It was tough. But, we always came out of it in prime football shape and it made the one time a day practices once school actually started seem a lot easier.
It was a rite of passage if you wanted to play for the school team. Surviving it brought both a sense of accomplishment and brought the team together through the shared experience. Especially tough was the end of every practice. Already hot, tired, and sore, we’d have to head to one end of the field and runs sprints until the sadistic coach felt like we’d had enough – which was usually 5 or 6 more than I thought I could physically do. But, this was where you could make a difference. In the 4th quarter in a close game, when both teams are tired, the one with the better conditioning was likely to come out on top. This was where you learned to push yourself when you thought you could go no further.
Now, think about what training camp used to mean in the NFL. It was a similar grueling test but on a much bigger scale of course! Two-a-day practices were the norm and the entire camp stretched eight weeks. Full pads and lots of contact were expected. Don Shula even famously dehydrated his players on purpose to toughen them up when he coached the Colts in the 1950s. That was a little over the top but these were endurance tests and only the toughest survived and made the roster. You could have all the natural ability in the world but if you couldn’t make it through camp, you couldn’t play in the NFL.
Flash forward to the NFL today. Coaches have become nothing more than “franchisees” who are told exactly what they can and cannot do at practice, how much they can do, and even when they can hold practice. It is all part of the new CBA (Collective Bargaining Agreement) signed in 2011 between the player’s union (NFLPA) and the league. Here are just a couple of rules spelled out for teams and coaches in the CBA:
1. Teams are told when they can start camp (no more than 15 days prior to the team’s first preseason game)
2. First day of camp – physicals, meetings, conditioning tests; no on-field activities allowed.
3. Day 2 and 3 – shorts and helmets only, non-contact drills only (technique and repetition)
4. Day 4 through end of camp – one padded practice per day and one walk through allowed; there must be 3 hours between practices and the padded practice can last no more than 3 hours. In total, they can practice no more than a total of 4 hours per day with 24 hours between the start of the first practice and the start of the next day’s first practice.
5. Teams are required to give their players one day off per week and a minimum of 5 days off at the end of camp.
The union was trying to build in some protection for their players against the wear and tear on their bodies in what has become a sport that requires a year-round commitment. And, frankly, I think the veteran player’s mindset was a little bit of, “We’re elite athletes. It’s stupid that we have to work this hard. Totally unnecessary”. As in the case of most regulatory overreach, the intentions were good, but the impact may be exactly the reverse of what was desired.
Now, I’m not a doctor nor did I ever play in the NFL. But, I think there are two universal truths in football at any level:
1. There is being in physical shape and there is being in football shape. For anyone who has ever strapped on a helmet, you know there is a huge difference between shorts and helmets and a walk through and actually hitting. No matter how good of shape you are in or how many weights you lift, it takes the body time to adjust to wearing the pads and taking the violent collisions that happen on almost every play. There is no substitute for contact.
2. I was always taught to go full speed at all times and that most of the time people get hurt when they are not giving it 100% or are not fully concentrating. And, you go hard in practice because “you play like you practice”.
We’ve all heard the stories about how a tree needs wind in order to grow tall and strong. It needs something to resist and without it becomes something that is easily toppled or broken. That is what the physically tough, full contact practices provide to the NFL player – resistance. You can’t practice running in slow motion and then jump into a race at a full sprint without exerting some entirely different stresses on the body. In my opinion, that is part of why we are seeing so many torn ACLs, torn achilles tendons, strained hamstrings, and the like. What we’re not seeing are concussions, broken bones, or other injuries from the contact portion of practice – as minimal as that might be. It’s not less contact they need, it’s more.
I remember the first Cowboys training camp I attended. I was amazed at how slow and leisurely the pace of the practice was (under Wade Phillips). There was little if any contact. There was a lot of walking around, walking between drills. No real sense of urgency. Absolutely zero conditioning work. All the football coaches I’ve ever known would have had us doing “up downs” for hours and would have been hoarse from screaming at us. And, I think someone like Lombardi would be very disappointed in how the game – at least the practices – has evolved.
I’m not suggesting we remove the red jerseys and start lighting up the QB in practice or anything reckless. But, the guys whose job it is to hit or be hit, should probably get some more of that work. It can’t be all slow motion, “technique” work.
The Eagles’ Jeremy Maclin tore his ACL last Saturday and is out for the season. Did he get injured because of too much contact? No. He was participating in a non-contact drill. Would he have been hurt in a full contact situation? Maybe. Who knows? But, he’s played in 59 regular season NFL games only missing a total of 5 games in 4 seasons. I’ve been an NFL fan for more years than I care to count and I can’t remember ever seeing this many non-contact injuries before a season even starts.
There is little doubt that over the years players have gotten bigger and much faster. The game has become more violent for players at the same time that our knowledge of the long-term implications of concussions and brain trauma has increased. The league should err on the side of caution without a doubt. But, when you look at the number and type of injuries we are seeing the last couple of years under these new rules, it suggests that in an effort to limit injuries and extend the careers of their players, the NFLPA and the NFL might actually be making it riskier for some of them. We may have strayed too far to the side of caution. If you wrap an egg in multiple layers of bubble wrap, you protect it from being broken, but you also never get fed.
As disappointed as most Cowboys fans were to hear about up and coming defensive lineman Tyrone Crawford’s season-ending injury early in camp, I would say we’ve fared so far a lot better than some of our NFC East rivals. Let’s hope the Cowboys can continue to dodge the major injury bullet. Go Cowboys!