The first preseason games are in the books, and already conclusions are being made about what teams' preparations for those games mean for the start of the season on the weekend of Sept. 11. The difference in philosophies was striking on a humid Friday evening in Kansas City, Mo., where the Chiefs and the Bucs faced off at Arrowhead Stadium. The teams are in similar positions—both have third-year coaches and young rosters and are coming off surprising 10-win seasons—so when Tampa Bay won 25--0 there was a sense that the Bucs' postlockout approach was the correct one.
This is an article from the Aug. 22, 2011 issue
Tampa Bay coach Raheem Morris wanted to hit the ground running, building on the momentum generated last season. Morris played starting quarterback Josh Freeman—who looked sharp, completing 9 of 13 passes for 73 yards—into the second quarter. "I've got guys that are babies who couldn't wait to get better," Morris said afterward. "I knew they would come back from the lockout in shape, and I just had to be ready to go with the football installments. It showed in the way we were able to play fast and physical. For us it was about getting out of the gate quickly."
Conversely, the Chiefs took it slow. With his players in varying degrees of fitness after having no contact with team staffers during the four-month lockout, coach Todd Haley laid out a plan that would focus on conditioning and teaching in the early stages of camp, even at the cost of short-term execution. Haley didn't even call a pass for Matt Cassel in his three-series cameo. There was no reason, he believed, to expose his starting quarterback to contact, and potential injury, so early in the preseason.
Those divergent approaches were evident across the league. Rookie 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh went hard in practices during the first week and a half of camp, keeping players on the field for three hours in full pads and conducting full-contact drills that included tackling to the ground, something most NFL coaches avoid for fear of injury. His team—particularly on offense—was overwhelmed 24--3 by the Saints.
The Patriots sat 33 players against Jacksonville, including quarterback Tom Brady and 15 other projected starters (and still manhandled the Jaguars 47--12). For New England coach Bill Belichick, it was more important to get a long look at youngsters who had no opportunity to make an impression in the off-season than it was to have Brady and the other veterans reaffirm what Belichick already knew.
The rebuilding Bills, also in the AFC East, are another team taking baby steps. "It used to be that you played your starters a little bit in the first game, a little more in the second and built toward that third game as a big dress rehearsal for the regular season; that's when you wanted to be game-ready," says Bills general manager Buddy Nix. "But I can tell you now that instead of building for that third game, we're now building for September 11."
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