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The Contradictions of an NFL Practice
USA TODAY Sports

Despite common perception, trying to make an NFL roster simply on maximum effort during practice is more likely to get you sent home early than get you a job.

As counterintuitive as it may seem, this is just part of the contradictions players face in an NFL practice.  

One of the most challenging elements on an NFL practice field, especially in the month of August, is trying to find the perfect practice speed and tempo to achieve success and to impress. This issue is doubly true for those fringe players looking to take advantage of every opportunity they can to stand out.

Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

As a football player, most of your lifelong training is spent with the understanding that practicing hard and physical will best prepare you for game-time action.

These brutal practices are justified by the coaching staff with convincing credos like, “Hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard,” or, “Building good practice habits will translate onto the field.”

These mantras may be cliche to most, but they fall in line with a time-honored tradition in football that suggests players who train the hardest and give the most effort in practice are going to yield the best results.

If I were given a dollar every time I heard a coach go out of his way to emphasize the importance of effort in practice, I would be a much wealthier man.

After all, isn’t that the long-held narrative of sports?

There is perhaps no better evidence for this argument than looking at one of the greatest football players in the history of the game. Hall of Fame wide receiver Jerry Rice has a storied reputation for being one of the hardest working men in sports history. Most would even point to his insatiable work ethic as the primary reason for his unrivaled success.  

So how would Rice feel participating in today’s NFL practices? In short, he would probably be forced to allocate even more of his rigorous preparation to his off-time hours.

These days, an NFL practice is designed primarily to preserve the health of their highly paid stars. Conditioning and play installation come next.

The interesting part is even though practices are becoming less physical, the coaching rhetoric seems to be spewing out a mixed bag of both old and new preaching points that are often contradictory.

Allow me to explain.

When a coach talks to his team about the pace and tempo of practice during training camp, he will generally emphasize certain values that are deemed important to the organization-like effort, toughness and physicality, all while working on technique and fundamentals.

A hypothetical pitch you’d probably hear in a pre-practice team meeting would be, “Practice creates habits and those habits spill over into games.”

“Fundamentals” is one of the most exhausted terms to ever fly out of a coach’s mouth.

Yet, as they emphasize these things, they don’t seem to really mean it. What they really mean is, be safe out there and don’t do anything to get our million-dollar players injured. Surely even these words sound familiar to anyone who has watched a few episodes of NFL Film’s Hard Knocks on HBO.

So which side of these contradicting practice demands should we adhere to more? In a perfect world, the answer is both—but this is far from a perfect world, and regulating the tempo of 90 different moving parts with various degrees of skill and motivation can be quite the challenge.

I suppose favoring one over the other all depends on what the player’s intended outcome is. Either way, trying to somehow find a way to play hard, safe, careful, aggressive, tough and with maximum effort is a delicate balance to say the least.  

If this common speech from coaches is true, “what we do in practice is directly translated into games,” then why do they urge their receivers not to dive or leave their feat to catch a pass? Why are they demanding defenders to gently touch the ball-carrier with two hands rather than tackle him? Why is there no tackling in practice?

Everywhere you look on a practice field you see drills, sleds, bags, balls on sticks, tennis rackets and countless other toys all designed to replace player-on-player contact in an emphatic attempt to keep their incredibly expensive merchandise out of harm’s way.

It’s not hard to understand how coaches and organizations can assimilate to this philosophy more and more—but does that mean the old-school coaches, who sought to make the practice field so hellacious that game days felt like a vacation, had it all wrong?

Were those coaches ultimately causing their players more harm than good? I highly doubt it.

Matt Rourke/Associated Press

Both history and personal experience would suggest that the success rate and ability to turn struggling teams around by turning up the intensity in practice has proven to be effective. And when I use the word intensity, I’m not talking about an Eagles practice under Chip Kelly—I’m talking about physicality with bodies on the ground and helmets clashing.

It also seems as though teams that were run this “old school” way didn’t suffer more injuries than their more cautious, modern-day counterparts. It could even be argued that player injuries increase as practices become less physical.

Jenny Vrentas, in an MMQB.com article, presents analysis that strongly suggests injury frequency is on an upward trend.

In addition, Vrentas also states:

The new collective bargaining agreement agreed to in 2011 dramatically changed the landscape of how teams practice, reducing the length of the offseason program, eliminating two-a-days and cutting down the number of padded practices. The goal was to promote player safety, but (Robin) West (Steelers assistant team physician) said she’s curious to see if, over time, more time off is shown to play a role in increased rates of some injuries. ...

The NFL’s injury surveillance data, courtesy of Edgeworth Economics, shows a slow upward trend in the total number of injuries sustained in all practices and games from 2004 (2,623) to 2012 (3,126); a spike of 4,493 injuries in 2011 was attributed mainly to greater reporting of minor injuries that season.

This, however, is beside the point.

What are players to do when the messages they get from coaches about practice habits fly directly in the face of their instincts? Most football players and coaches will tell you that a large portion of injuries come from guys who hesitate or slow down.

Unfortunately, this is exactly what the emphasis on safety creates.

Amidst the confusion and uncertainty, those adversely affected the most are guys fighting for their livelihoods, trying to make a good impression without upsetting coaches or teammates. Trust me, this is not easy to do when you play on the defensive side of the ball.

I found this out the hard way as a rookie when I accidentally crashed into Randy Moss during training camp. I was immediately kicked out of the drill and yelled at by multiple coaches and players.

Don’t get me wrong. I understand there have to be limits between what you can do to your own teammates at practice and what takes place on game days. But in today’s NFL, the only practice guys get at tackling anything comes from tackling a motionless bag held up by a coach and landing on a giant soft mattress.

How is this supposed to prepare players (especially the younger, inexperienced ones) for the likes of talented stars such as RB LeSean McCoy or Jamaal Charles? The answer—it doesn't.

This is why we’ve seen such a significant downgrade in quality tackling among NFL players. It’s becoming a long-lost art just as the league’s public relations machine is force-feeding this Heads Up Certified concept to the parents and children across the country.

The message to the public is clear—the NFL prioritizes proper technique for tackling. But the reality is much different. Coaches are scared stiff to have their players tackling each other in practice.

Over the course of an entire training camp, a defender may encounter just a handful of opportunities to tackle another player at full speed during practice—and that’s if he’s lucky.

Ridiculous right?

Lenny Ignelzi/Associated Press

Call me crazy, but wouldn’t it make more sense to risk a few extra injuries in exchange for having the best tackling defense in the NFL alongside an offensive unit that has more practice running through arm tackles?

The risk/reward of that trade-off is one that I’d be willing to explore as an organization—especially in a league saturated with parity.

Even recovering fumbles by falling on the ball is frowned upon in most (if not all) NFL practices. Basically players are expected to stay on their feet at all times during practice.

The irony here is that coaches are constantly looking for ways to improve their turnover ratio.

If only they could remove their hyper-cautious attitudes about injuries in practice, they may be able to implement a drill that actually helps.  

In the end, if coaches are going to stick with this preservationist attitude about player injuries in practice, their words and messages to the team need to be more reflective of that and less ambiguous.

There needs to be a clearly defined understanding of what is expected of each player during practice.

As much as these teams like to think this is happening, I can almost certainly assure you it is not. Instead, most NFL practices during this time of year have a bunch of guys practicing at different speeds and operating under cloudy expectations.  

During an NFL practice, there is a fine line between good effort and insubordination.

 

Ryan Riddle is a former NFL player who writes for Bleacher Report

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