Training camp practices are a balancing act
CINCINNATI — The big noise from the surroundings at Paul Brown Stadium over the weekend concerned the Oklahoma drill. There was great anticipation of what has become a training camp ritual for the Bengals under Marvin Lewis, only to be followed by the letdown of the drill being cancelled Sunday afternoon.
The Oklahoma drill is a spectacle of old school football. The team gathers around in a circle as one ball carrier readies to attack full speed ahead with one blocker and one defender in front of him. Offense vs. Defense. It’s gladiator football complete with roaring crowds, teammates woofing back and forth at one another. Thumbs up to the victor, thumbs down to the loser.
Are you not entertained?
The Oklahoma drill is great theatre for fans and used to be a great kickoff to the first day of full pads and hitting at training camp. It was always a good team bonding moment, bringing an added spark to practice. Practices aren’t designed to be exciting for the masses. They’re practices.
And NFL practice times are limited in comparison to even four years ago before the new collective bargaining agreement between the league and players was reached. No longer are there two-a-day practices. Now teams practice once a day, with a walk-through practice permitted as well.
Everything a team does in training camp is pointed at being ready for that first game. There has always been a cost/benefit analysis to setting up a practice schedule but the factors that go into that analysis have changed.
"When I first came in the league there wasn’t that much hitting anyways. It was a big change from college to the league," said safety Reggie Nelson. "When I got to the league, that was the surprise. I thought we’d hit every day."
Nelson was a first-round pick of Jacksonville in 2007. He came to the Bengals in a trade in 2010 and has started 51 of the 61 games he’s played for the Bengals, including the last 48 he’s played. Nelson has been known to lay a hit or two on opponents in the past, sometimes to the point of drawing the ire of game officials whether warranted or not.
He said former Jaguar running back Fred Taylor gave him the advice early on in his career to take care of his body.
"If you’ve got aches and pains, ain’t nobody going to want you," said Nelson. "The NFL is different. They’re getting paid and I think the approach on that is that we’re paying these guys a lot of money and we’re trying to get them to Sunday. At the end of the day it’s the goal to get them to Sunday and win and bring home a championship."
NFL teams have a shorter period of offseason contact with their players. What used to be a 14-week window is now compressed into nine weeks. Bengals players began showing up for the offseason workout program in April. Five weeks later they began practice sessions on the field with coaches, then had a six-week break before returning for training camp.
Players get periodic days off from physical practice, especially the veterans who have been through the rigors before. Defensive end Robert Geathers, cornerback Adam Jones and offensive lineman Mike Pollak didn’t practice Monday as a way of eliminating some of the wear and tear on their bodies.
"Guys are older, they have more mileage, more orthopaedic things. You win with your best players on Sundays," said strength and conditioning coach Chip Morton. "The teams that are healthier, they put themselves in a better spot to do well. You want your best players on the field on Sundays. You’ve got to have some contact, some preparation to season the body to do it but at what point is that diminishing returns?"
Morton said that while head coach Marvin Lewis has always been conscientious of how to structure practice with the health of players in mind, he’s been open to changing ideas and tactics over the years, taking in the thoughts of the medical and conditioning staff as part of his decision-making process.
"Science will never make decisions for you," said Morton, "but it will give you information, reliable information, valid information that allows you to make a more informed choice. But it won’t replace the knowledge and the experience and the eyes. Often times it will tell us what we are seeing."
So back to the balancing act. Football is about contact, often times violent contact. No Oklahoma drill because it while it may provide some intangible knowledge, it doesn’t help get the team ready for Sept. 7 as efficiently as working on goal line situations or a seven-on-seven session might.
"We’re still in full pads and there is definitely times when you’re going to get your work in," said tight end Alex Smith, who has played nine seasons in the league with Tampa Bay, Philadelphia, Cleveland and the Bengals. "It’s not going to be the volume or as many times but you still have plenty of opportunities to work it.
"It only takes a couple of days for you to get back in that mindset. It’s one thing to be running around with just shirts on but as soon as you put those pads on everybody knows the job that needs to be done. Low man wins. That’ll never change."