Wednesday May 7th, 2014

At a time when all talk in the NFL surrounds the 2014 Draft, a few undersold picks from years past—Ray Rice, Joe Flacco, Lardarius Webb—are busy elsewhere, pushing around weights and running repeats in an oversized training facility in Owings Mills, Md. One day after voluntary off-season training began for the Baltimore Ravens, strength and conditioning coach Bob Rogucki told reporters that turnout for the noncompulsory program among players, including such stars as Rice and Flacco, was high—and that hopes for the team this year were just as elevated.

“Anybody who comes into this program right now, our expectations are always going to be high for them,” says Rogucki, in his seventh year as head strength coach for the Ravens. “We’re always going to press that button, because if we don’t start pressing that button today, then three weeks from now they’re not going to be ready.”

What “pressing that button” means for Rogucki and the Ravens is working out harder than before to build strength and speed in just nine weeks—a shorter training time since the NFL enforced new regulations before the 2013 off-season as a result of changes to the collective bargaining agreement. “We do a little bit more than a lot of teams do. We expect a lot out of them,” Rogucki says. “The bottom line is we’ve got to get them strong and in shape as quick as we can, because we’re missing four weeks because of the late start time for us. So we’re attacking it as hard as we can with the concept of being safe and making sure that we’re getting prepared for the next phase.”

After losing key defenders Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, Paul Kruger, Dannell Ellerbe last season, the Ravens struggled to get back to the Super Bowl, posting a mediocre 8-8 record in route to missing the playoffs for the first time since 2007.
Baltimore Ravens

While the team normally “may start a little bit lighter in regards to overload,” says Rogucki, this year it’s a vigorous push, with a large part of the maximum training time allowed to Baltimore by the NFL—just four days per week—spent in the weight room. Rogucki says he starts players out by working their neck and trapezoid muscles on dedicated upper-body days on Mondays and Wednesdays; Tuesdays and Thursdays are spent doing lower-body lifts, beginning with exercises such as squats and trap-bar deadlifts. “We always strive to get stronger—that’s the bottom line,” says Rogucki. “They say, ‘What is unique about your program [this year]?’ Every time [players] come in they’re going to do more weight or more reps, and without bells and whistles.”

PHOTOS: Inside Look: Training with the Baltimore Ravens

In addition to more weight or reps, the Ravens are also regularly doing skill work and running twice weekly this time of year, says Rogucki, who kicked off his 2014 program with six 300-meter repeats—a test, he says, that helps establish a baseline for player fitness and determines how much they did on their own during their time off. “It’s a challenging run, it’s a safe run, and it tells us that if they’re running five and six, and if they end up having to walk, then they haven’t done anything,” he says. “It’s just a guide for us to monitor how we approach them.”

All players are put through the same rigors and given the same amount of attention, regardless of whether they’re a second-year rookie like inside linebacker Arthur Brown or a Super Bowl MVP like quarterback Flacco. “You can’t [look at] practice squad guys [and say], ‘Well, we’ll get them when we can get them,’” he says. “No, if a practice squad guy is [training] at the same time Flacco is in there, a practice squad guy we will pay attention to just like we do Flacco. Everyone is important, because you never know when that practice squad guy becomes Joe Flacco.”

Nevertheless, some players always seem to grab more media attention at least, players like Flacco and running back Rice, who’s already raising eyebrows for the slimmer frame he brought back to Owings Mills. “He looks great; he looks fine,” Rogucki says of Rice. “He’s doing some things differently as far as his diet and so forth, and he told me he has a handle on it … Whatever he did from the end of the season until now, he’s in a good position right now.”

PHOTOS: Training Day: How Football Players Practice Through the Years

Ravens defensive tackle Brandon Williams is also in what Rogucki might call a good position after he posted a video of himself benching an incredible 525 pounds just two weeks before the off-season program started. “It was a pretty good lift,” says Rogucki, noting he saw the video. “But that’s high enough for right now, Brandon.”

This word of caution over colossal benching isn’t to say Rogucki doesn’t want his players to push around heavier plates in the off-season. On the contrary, the strength and conditioning coach says Baltimore’s number one goal right now is for players to get as strong and as fast as they can if they want to make it off that other bench on the sidelines this fall.

“The bottom line is, fellas and ladies, it’s like this: In order to survive in this league, you’ve got to lift, and you’ve got to lift heavy,” says Rogucki. “That’s the bottom line. You’ve got to run, and you’ve got to run fast. You’ve got to condition, and you’ve got to condition long. There is no other answer but that to survive.”

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