For now, just call the preseason NFL lite

Posted: August 11, 2011

BETHLEHEM, Pa. - The Eagles held a mock game at training camp on Wednesday, and, in some ways, they will do the same thing Thursday night in Lincoln Financial Field against the Baltimore Ravens.

Even in a normal year, the first exhibition game of the season is a vanilla sundae floating in a lukewarm bowl of dumbed-down schemes. This year, without the benefit of minicamp preparation and with barely two weeks of limited contact in training camp, the result will definitely be more scrimmage than scrum.

"There's going to be some learning going on," Andy Reid said Wednesday. "It might not be as crisp as it will be when we get back to the minicamps next year, just because of the reps. At the same time, we expect great energy. As coaches, we've cut the packages down a little so they can show their talent."

In the mock game at Lehigh, the team went through the nuts-and-bolts mechanics of the game, putting the team through a cram session on everything but how to line up for the national anthem. Even so, there will be times against the Ravens when the second-team punt coverage unit takes the field and there are 10 or 12 guys running out there. It always happens, and it will likely happen more this time.

Each player on the team will approach the game with a different set of goals and priorities. For the veterans who are sure to make the team, it's about getting in some work and getting out in one piece.

"That's the key," quarterback Michael Vick said with a laugh. "Come out healthy."

For the draft picks who are also definitely going to make the team, the bar is a little higher. Play well and keep the organization believing in you.

For the rest, the undrafted free agents and veterans on the roster bubble, it is a real game. It is a chance to win a roster position and, failing that, to get some work on game tape that perhaps will interest another team.

"From what I've heard, the preseason games are where you kind of make the team," rookie backup center Jason Kelce said.

The young players and borderline veterans have to feel that way, but even the coaches understand that the first exhibition is anything but normal this season. If you need more of an indication, consider that Reid and Ravens coach John Harbaugh spoke this week and exchanged their plans for how much playing time will be given to the various units. No coach wants to have a first-teamer lit up by a third-string guy trying to make a name for himself, so Reid and his former assistant made sure the rules of engagement were understood.

"I think for the short period of time that [each unit is] in, they're going to go hard," Reid said. "They know they don't have a lot of plays. They're going to get in and try to show. For the younger players or veterans trying to make the team, you're going to get an A-effort for wherever they're at right now condition-wise and knowledge of the offense and defense-wise."

For the rest, the grading will be on the curve, with a priority on execution and not necessarily on full-speed contact.

"We're just trying to make sure everything flows together and we get our communication down," cornerback Asante Samuel said. "We have to start putting things together, get a feel for things and get the wrinkles out."

The really interesting part of this curtain-raising will be getting a first look at some of the major changes on the roster. There is a new kicker and a new punter. There is a new return man (Johnnie Lee Higgins). There is the three-headed cornerback monster, and the revved-up defensive line with Jason Babin playing opposite Trent Cole at the ends. And not everyone will get the memo this is merely a dress rehearsal more concerned with getting the dialogue right than the stage movements.

"I'm going to be going 100 percent," Babin said. "If you watch me in practice or when I walk through the lunch line, I'm 100 percent, even if it's rock, paper, scissors. From the defensive line perspective, if a guy isn't 100 percent, [coach Jim Washburn] is going to be very much in his business. We're not thinking about percentages. We're thinking about giving everything we've got every play."

Ryan Harris, the starting right offensive tackle at the moment, said that goes for the other side of ball, too.

"Different guys will treat the game differently, depending on their role on the team," Harris said, "but you're dealing with professionals. Once you put on pads, no one wants to get shown up. This is a man's league and no one wants to be bested, even in preseason. You'll see that."

You'll also see blown snap counts and guys jumping offside, delay of game penalties, and botched assignments. It won't always be pretty and, at some level and for some players, it won't approximate the speed or intensity of the regular season. On purpose.

But it will be football again. Three weeks ago, there was no certainty that would even happen this season. In the place of that doubt, the NFL is back now. So, give them a little time to remember exactly how it's done.


Contact columnist Bob Ford at bford@phillynews.com and read his blog at http://www.philly.com/postpatterns.

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