The concerned look on my mom’s face said it all as I walked out of FedEx Field on one of those humid nights in August after the third preseason game in 2004.
“Are they feeding you?”
Like most mothers, that question meant one thing: Why do you look so skinny?
My parents had flown in for the weekend from Chicago to watch the game and I, well, had lost quite a bit of weight off my already lean frame during Joe Gibbs’ first training camp back in Washington.
We hit—every day—and went through weeks of double sessions with nine-on-seven inside run, physical competitive periods and scrimmages that tested our conditioning (and recovery) on a consistent basis.
Before camp, our defensive coordinator Gregg Williams made us all cut weight, and I showed up to report at Redskins Park in Ashburn, Virginia, at 203 pounds (my reporting weight had to be under 205).
But after that preseason game, in a red polo that was now hanging off my shoulders, I was topping out at 194 pounds on the scale.
I looked weak, beaten down and tired.
Today’s camps in the NFL are a shell of what they used to be from a physical perspective, with the elimination of two-a-day sessions and built-in days off for players under the new CBA.
However, in terms of the much-needed rest and recovery during the summer, this should be viewed as a positive for players.
The extra time away from the field gives the players the opportunity to recover quicker, manage their body weight, use the training room and maintain their strength/flexibility in the weight room.
Recovery in Gibbs’ camp? That was a kiddie pool filled with water and ice outside of the facility doors.
Guys would jump in there with their uniforms still on just to get some relief on their legs before getting back on the field for the afternoon practice session.
The amount of stress put on our bodies in camp limited our movements in the weight room, and it was a challenge to maintain the gains we made during the offseason training program in the core lifts (squat, bench, clean, etc.).
But with only one padded practice a day in today’s camps (plus the mandatory days off), players can now have productive lifting sessions in the summer while also managing muscle injuries and the general soreness that comes with the sudden change of direction and high-speed contact in an NFL practice.
That’s vital for players who can now push through camp while reducing the amount of stress on their lower bodies to prep for the grind of an NFL regular-season schedule.
Looking at the structure of today’s camps, something has to give when discussing the limited contact and reduction in total reps on the practice field.
And tackling is at the top of the list, in my opinion.
No different than a wide receiver running routes, a defensive back driving downhill out of his pedal or the footwork required for a quarterback to throw the deep, 15-yard dig route, tackling has to be practiced (consistently).
However, to drill the technique required to make a solid, form tackle in the NFL (head up, wrap the arms, roll the hips, drive the feet), players need to be put into full-speed, competitive settings.
That means more nine-on-seven and team drills, competitive goal-line periods and controlled “scrimmages” where coaches allow defenders to square up ball-carriers and take them to the ground.
Yes, there are still coaches in the NFL—such as Andy Reid in Kansas City—that believe in creating “live” competition during practice, but are enough clubs in the league allowing their defensive players to work on tackling in camp?
I was down in Bourbonnais, Illinois, for a couple of Bears practice sessions earlier this week. And while Marc Trestman runs an efficient, uptempo style of practice that tests his players from a conditioning standpoint, his camp doesn’t focus on any “live” periods.
Are NFL camps getting too soft?
Instead, players will “tag off” on ball-carriers at the second level (break down, tag the hips) to let the running backs and wide receivers continue their path up the field.
Again, that keeps players healthy, but does it force defenders to practice their proper tackling technique?
I don’t see it.
In order to hit, wrap up and drill the necessary technique every pro defender has to lean on versus NFL running backs, they need constant repetition in practice.
And with only one practice a day, I wonder if there needs to be a stronger focus on tackling in today’s camps.
Talking with an AFC executive this week, he mentioned how the reduced number of “live” reps in today’s camps can hurt the early development of rookies.
Yes, there is much more teaching done today with walk-through sessions and extra time to self-scout (off the practice film) with position coaches.
However, with veteran talent getting the majority of the practice reps to install and prep for the regular season, the rookies see limited action with only one practice session a day.
Without those much-needed reps, rookies miss the valuable time on the field to improve their technique in order to compete (and produce).
Plus, from an evaluation standpoint, the limited reps in practice put more emphasis on the preseason schedule in terms of grading out rookies when it is time to make cuts and set the final roster.
Remember, rookies need to get beat (often) if they want to develop.
That’s where they learn from their mistakes and begin to understand why footwork, leverage, hand placement, etc., play a major role in winning one-on-one matchups at the NFL level.
But on veteran teams, the rookies just aren’t getting enough reps in camp.
I will never call anything in the NFL “soft.” Nah. It’s too physical of a game when teams put on full gear in camp.
And even though training camps have changed dramatically with a larger focus on recovery and the mental aspect of the game, there are still violent collisions at camp that test every player’s toughness along with their ability to compete.
But I still think about the limited hitting/reps and how that impacts crucial aspects of the game that need to be practiced in the heat of camp.
Is it enough?
Seven-year NFL veteran Matt Bowen is an NFL National Lead Writer for Bleacher Report.