MANO A MANO: Saints' 1st Practice in Full Pads Tomorrow Will Separate the Men From the Boys

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Day 4 of Saints Training Camp, Practice #3. That's what it says on the "official" 2018 Saints Training Camp schedule, anyway.

But tomorrow morning's practice — besides the fact that it will be the first of 10 total practices (including one at Yulman Stadium on the Tulane University campus the following Saturday) during this year's Training Camp that are open to the General Public (nearly all available tickets have already been distributed) — likely will be special for one very important reason: it's also the first time that Saints will be practicing in 2018 wearing full pads.

Up until now, the Saints have been working out, training and practicing for the past 3 months in preparation for the upcoming 2018 season, in t-shirts and shorts; or what's commonly referred to as "shells".

 (Photo by Michael DeMocker, | The Times-Picayune)

(Photo by Michael DeMocker, | The Times-Picayune)

Yesterday's opening practice along with the one scheduled for later this morning (available to the media only), are probably going to be the last 2 times that you'll likely see the boys in Black and Gold wearing only "shells".

But when fans begin arriving tomorrow, the team will be dressed out in full gear for the first time since they left the field of U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, Minnesota back in January, when they were beaten by the Vikings during the 2017 NFL Divisional Playoffs in a heart-breaking 29-24 loss that ended what was an otherwise "magical season" for both the team and its fans last year.

Since they've last been in pads on that unforgettable early January afternoon, many of those same players can't wait for this moment to finally arrive tomorrow morning; as they look for the opportunity to write a much different ending to this upcoming season than the heart-breaking finish that was written in Minneapolis last year.

Practicing in full pads will give the Saints coaching staff a better chance to see just how far along some of the younger players are in their development, while also ensuring that the older veterans are in shape and are also not experiencing any notable "drop off" in performance that could hurt the team's overall play in actual game situations.

 Photo courtesy of Patrick Dennis, New Orleans Advocate

Photo courtesy of Patrick Dennis, New Orleans Advocate

Also, with live contact now finally being allowed for the first time since this new and hopefully even better 2018 version of the team has gone into full Training Camp mode, it will also allow both the coaching staff and the general public attendance to see which of the players are bringing their "A Game" to the table.

For a lack of a better term: the team will be going "mano a mano" for the first time in 2018.

Or to borrow a tried and true phrase often associated with this time of year: "it's time to separate the men from the boys".

Watching players actually hit each other with pads allows the Saints coaching staff to eliminate the "gray area” from the evaluation process. It gives them a better opportunity to see if the player is actually going to make the play or not, instead of simply just trying to guess that he would or wouldn't have done during simulated situations in practices where no hitting is allowed.

As it is, any Saints fan who is over the age of 50 or older will remember that this current "scaled back" version of modern-day NFL Training Camp practices wasn't always the way that things used to be.

Saints (and the NFL) Training Camps in general are a far cry from the days of the 1960's, 1970's, and even the early 1980's, when head coaches would use Training Camps to both verbally and physically assault (and eventually wear down) their players, in an effort to "toughen them up" for the rigors of the regular season ahead. 

In fact, former Saints head coach Hank Stram (1976-1977) was notorious for "3-a-days" — making the team practice THREE times a day, in the sweltering summertime heat of Vero Beach, Florida while completely dressed out in full gear.

 Photo courtesy of The New Orleans Times-Picayune

Photo courtesy of The New Orleans Times-Picayune

Saints / NFL Training Camp in 2018 is a far cry from those days, and that's because of concerns for player safety, more than anything else.

Seven years ago this summer, the NFL and its players signed a new collective bargaining agreement that has since banned any type of activity that at one time made an NFL Training Camp one of the most grueling and downright brutal experiences in all of Professional Sports.

Since the 2011 NFL-NFL Players Association Collective Bargaining Agreement, NFL players can no longer:

Participate in "two-a-days" (practicing in full gear / pads twice a day), stay on the field any longer than 4 hours a day, participate in padded practices lasting more than 3 hours, or put on pads for the first 3 days of camp.

It was the NFL Players Association who lobbied for these changes to be made during those 2011 labor-agreement negotiations, in a concerted effort to make Training Camp practices less potentially harmful (or even dangerous in some extreme instances) to the overall health and well-being of its players.

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Those changes were influenced no doubt by the current implosion of player safety awareness, and in particular the long-term lingering effects of player injuries and the discovery of CTE — Chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a degenerative disease found in people who have suffered repeated blows to the head.

The staff writer Kevin Clark noted recently that NFL teams have evolved into three training camp phases: A few teams tackle to the ground (full pads, full tackles in multiple drills throughout practice).

Some NFL teams however, reserve those full-on hits for only once or twice a camp, usually in scrimmages. And some never have their players hit the ground.

But Clark adds that even within each grouping, the specifics differ to the point where there’s hardly anything uniform about NFL practices these days — and whichever one of the 32 franchises crack the code on how to best prep players for action before regular season games begin, might wind up with a big competitive advantage during the season itself.

For the Saints (and especially in the current "Sean Payton Era"), they have a very specific way of approaching live contact and hitting once they put the pads on, as they continually evaluate the way that they practice and go about conducting Training Camp from year to year.

 Photo courtesy of Patrick Dennis, New Orleans Advocate

Photo courtesy of Patrick Dennis, New Orleans Advocate

New Orleans Advocate beat writer Nick Underhill observed last year that after dialing back on walk-throughs and introducing some new wrinkles to individual drills, the team is doing more 'live' hitting, or so-called "thud" periods, during daily practices.

Underhill says that in previous years, outside of the annual "Black and Gold Scrimmage" (usually held every year on the 2nd Saturday of Training Camp), the only real live sessions came on the designated goal-line day. Other than that, there weren't many full "thud" sessions.

“One of the things we wanted to do was try to create some of those game-like situations, and rather than just one live scrimmage on Saturday, you’ll see — not at every practice, but you’ll see some 'live' football," Saints coach Sean Payton told Underhill.

It was an interesting change Underhill noted, because it was a sign that perhaps the Saints felt that more spirited practices and more contact was a needed change.

 Photo courtesy of Getty Images

Photo courtesy of Getty Images

As the team walks out on the field for the first time in 2018 dressed out in full gear in front of a "packed house" tomorrow morning, you can expect to see a lot of very notable enthusiasm and excitement from both the Saints players as well as the coaching staff.

This is what it's all about:

To see who is where at this point of the training process; and to find out which players are the ones whom will be relied and called upon often to contribute in a variety of different ways to the team's overall success in the upcoming season ahead.

It's time to see who is going to stand out and help the Saints advance even further in the post-season this year, after the bitter end to last season at Minnesota that left them literally 10 seconds away from getting a shot to play against the Philadelphia Eagles in the NFC Championship Game.

 Photo courtesy of The Associated Press

Photo courtesy of The Associated Press

It's time to see who is going to help the Saints get back to the NFL Playoffs once again and compete to win another Super Bowl title before the franchise's greatest player ever — QB Drew Brees — retires.

Tomorrow morning, it'll be time to go "mano a mano" and separate the men from the boys.....