In Lehigh, Andy has Birds where he wants 'em

emerges from SUV ready for training camp, or beach.DAVID MAIALETTI / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER
emerges from SUV ready for training camp, or beach.DAVID MAIALETTI / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER (Andy Reid)
Posted: July 28, 2011

BETHLEHEM - Northeast Extension to Exit 44. Route 663 to Route 309 (unless you know the back roads, which are faster but which will remain privileged information) to Route 378. Then follow the signs. It is how the Eagles begin the journey from July to January, every year, even this year.

In the maelstrom that is the National Football League in 2011, this is the rock that Eagles coach Andy Reid has grabbed. At a turbulent time, this, Lehigh, is his greatest chance for some continuity.

"I love coming up here because it puts everybody together," Reid said yesterday, check-in day for his team. "You're talking about the players, who don't know each other, haven't gone through minicamps - maybe this is even more important to come up here."

Kevin Kolb was not here, presumably about to be traded. DeSean Jackson was not here, presumably about to be in high dudgeon. Reid was especially non-communicative on these topics, the most newsworthy bits of business. But that is standard business for this coach and this NFL. It wouldn't be summer without at least some of that stuff.

Even so, the league right now is a circus attached to a runaway train, with draft choices needing to be signed within hours rather than weeks or months of negotiating, and free agents in the same hurried marketplace, and teams in 32 NFL outposts working furiously just to be able to outfit and educate and prepare 90 players for the beginning of this endurance test.

But there Reid was, getting out of a big black vehicle and doing a news conference beneath a crowded tent. The dais and the chairs, beneath white fabric to protect them from the weather, sit on the edge of the practice fields. Those fields are surrounded by temporary grandstands and several tents - for autographs and merchandise sales and interactive games for kids - as well as by sponsorship signs that cost money.

It looks exactly as it always has, which is borderline amazing given how short the setup time has been. Inside the fieldhouse, head athletic trainer Rick Burkholder and equipment manager John Hatfield and their staffs have somehow managed to transport their truckloads of stuff, seemingly overnight.

Just a couple of days ago, players were complaining about the owners trying to pull a fast one on them at the end of their labor negotiations. Now, yesterday, it seemed like just another reporting day at Lehigh, with reporters surrounding expensive vehicles and writing down expansive inanities.

Amid all of this leaguewide confusion, it is the normalcy that Reid craves.

"Change is hard for everybody but I really didn't care," he said. "I prepped for it. It is what it is. It doesn't bother me. I'm more progressive than that. If it's given to me, I'm going to try to solve whatever problem is there . . . I think we have a pretty good plan."

His beloved two-a-days are history, removed as part of the negotiations with the players, gone the way of the leather helmet. Reid used to start training camp with 3 consecutive days of hitting in full pads, in the morning and then in the afternoon, in an attempt to replicate a smidgen of what training camps were like in the old days. In recent years, though, he has scaled that back.

Still, there has been more hitting in his training camps than there has been in any camp in the NFL - and that word comes from national reporters who troop from camp to camp and cannot believe the amount of contact Reid has sanctioned. It has been one of his coaching signatures - and Eagles veterans through the years have come to believe that the reason Reid's teams are so good at the end of the season is because of how they prepare at Lehigh.

And now, well, what?

While they won't put on pads until Sunday, the fourth day of practice this summer, Reid promises that the morning practices after that will be pretty much the same as they ever were. That is, there will be hitting. He said, "That part is going to be very physical. It's still going to be the same type of thing. This is a sport where you make contact."

The afternoons, though - which used to be special-teams practices, or other variations on practice with shorts and shoulder pads and helmets - will be scaled back to walkthroughs. During those, under the new rules, the players cannot even wear helmets.

Reid says he will borrow time here and there in the morning to replace the full-speed special-teams work that used to be done in the afternoon. You wonder how that is going to go, and what kind of issue that will be leaguewide.

You wonder about a lot of things. It is the nature of leaguewide chaos, the wondering.

Only about a dozen teams will make it to a college campus for training camp, down from what has been about 16 in recent years. Half of the NFL teams, even in normal times, have decided that taking the team away and putting them up in college dorms and immersing them in football, and each other, is an anachronism.

Reid, though, insists on the wisdom of the process.

"They're housed together," he said. "They've got to make it work. You're up here without a lot of other things going on. You sit around after meetings, you talk and socialize and review your playbooks and do all of those things you do. I think it brings a team together."

He thinks and he hopes.

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