Training camps becoming more player-friendly, but at what cost?
My first Vikings training camp was in 1976 at Mankato State University, 10 days after my wedding. We worked virtually non-stop in Gage Hall, our dorm, for seven weeks.
I felt somewhat fortunate because then-Vikings coach Bud Grant wasn't a big fan of training camp, so he brought our veteran team in just 10 days before our first preseason game. Teams like the Cowboys had already been in camp since early July, but even still, seven weeks in the non-air-conditioned dorm during the hot and humid Minnesota summer was a grind for me as a young PR guy. And I wasn't a player who had to meet day and night and practice twice a day with no shelter from the heat, usually in full pads.
Players would break the monotony of training camp by dashing off for an hour or so before curfew to the on-campus player bar. Grant played bocce ball with the team trainer during the limited down time. If I wanted to make the 90-mile drive home, I had to leave at 10 p.m. and return by 7 a.m., which was tough after a 12-15 hour workday at camp (although I did manage to sneak my wife in the dorm one night; don't tell Bud).
There were no days off, and just one evening off per week (even then, players had to be back by the 11 p.m. curfew). Every meal had to be eaten at the dorm dining room. The only escape from camp were the six (yes, six!) preseason games. We looked for any escape we could, anything to lighten things up, even for a minute.
Things are drastically different now. As camps open league-wide this week, most modern players do not know how good they have it compared to their predecessors. Start with the fact that 19 of 32 teams hold training camp at their own practice facility, instead of some small college away from the bright lights of the city. If camp is at the team facility, most teams allow their vets to sleep at home instead of the old-school approach of pairing two players in a small dorm room. At two-to-three weeks, camps are also much shorter than they used to be. The number of preseason games has been reduced from six to four, which is still two too many for many.
The biggest benefit for the players under the new CBA is that teams are only allowed to practice once a day in pads or shells, with an additional walkthrough sans pads. Most of the time, players practice in shorts. When the heat index rises, it's common for teams to practice at night to get out of the hot sun. Today, water and shade are more readily available, and most teams practice in light-colored jerseys.
Jeff Fisher played for the Bears from 1981 to '85. He knows firsthand the transformation of the NFL training camp.
"The changes in training camp are dramatic," Fisher said. "With the Bears, we had two-a-day practices in full pads every day plus tons of meetings. Camp was hard work and we practiced mornings and then mid-afternoon in the heat.
"I spent hours and hours planning training camp this year and I count 24 practices we will have over six weeks prior to the first regular season game. Only 12 of those will be in pads and the CBA dictates we can't practice in pads the first several days of camp. Two years ago under the old system, we had 24 practices in three weeks, so it's been cut in half, which makes it really challenging to get your team ready for the regular season."
Fisher and other coaches are concerned that, because of the significantly reduced practice time, it will be difficult to find enough reps to go around for the 90 players in camp before cutdowns begin. "It's going to be tough to develop young players when you need to give the majority of the limited reps to your starters and backups to prepare them for the season ahead," Fisher said.
This emphasis on less hitting and contact in training camps now carries over to the regular season, where teams can have only 14 padded practices over the entire regular season (and 11 of those must be in the first 11 weeks).
The NFLPA fought for these relaxed work rules with the goal of reducing injuries and lengthening playing careers. With an eye on the concussion issue, the league agreed. It was also a reaction to several heat-related incidents, especially Vikings tackle Korey Stringer's 2001 training camp death from complications brought on by heat stroke.
The key question is whether the new rules will translate into a better quality of play. Some players, such as Jets' linebacker Bart Scott, have ripped the changes, saying the NFL is going soft. Will we see less hitting, more missed tackles, fewer illegal hits that result in fines and fewer injuries?
This season should be a true barometer of the changes' impact after last year's lockout resulted in no offseason program and perhaps a more careful approach to training camp. The reduction in the offseason program from 14 weeks to nine -- along with fewer practices in camp -- could have an effect on the cohesion of all phases of the game, especially the timing and intricacies of the passing game.
Fisher, a member of the league's Competition Committee, doesn't think there will be a big difference in the physical nature of the game under the new format. He believes, however, the offensive and defensive linemen have a big challenge to get better without as many practice reps. He also sees more trouble for special teams than in any other area. "I don't think there will be a significant difference in play except on special teams," he said, "where with such limited practice time, it's hard to get the work done in the various parts of the kicking and kick-coverage game."
Fisher and his fellow coaches hope the rules are tweaked after this season. "Hopefully during this 10-year labor deal, the league and the players will get together and work it out so we can develop players with more practice time allowed," Fisher said. "I'm concerned that we'll have too much standing around by young players trying to make the team. We'll also have to get a lot of learning done in walkthroughs."
Although their training camps are a breeze compared to the past, current players do work harder in the offseason (even with the reduced number of work weeks). Grant's Vikings had one rookie minicamp, and that was it for the offseason. No conditioning program, no veteran minicamps or OTAs. The first time we saw Fran Tarkenton, Alan Page, Carl Eller and company was on the opening day of training camp.
Still, given how long and brutal that training camp was, I guarantee the old Vikings would gladly trade with today's players.