Will football suffer from lighter camp? We'll soon find out

Head coach Andy Reid and the Eagles return to Lehigh Saturday for camp. (Yong Kim/Staff Photographer)
Head coach Andy Reid and the Eagles return to Lehigh Saturday for camp. (Yong Kim/Staff Photographer)
Posted: August 15, 2011

BETHLEHEM, Pa. - If you went back to 1966, kidnapped Vince Lombardi and brought him to Lehigh University in 2011, he would not recognize what is now called "training camp."

It used to be all about training. Now it looks a lot more like camp.

No one is suggesting coaches should still be denying players water and cutting the guys who pass out. We know a lot more about the effects of heat and the benefits of a balanced, year-round fitness regimen. But you don't have to come from the bad old days of up-down drills and gassers to experience camp culture shock.

You don't even need time travel. Andy Reid used to open camp with "three days of hell" as a rite of passage and test of will for his players. On Monday, he told the players he was cutting camp short by a day. The team will have a short practice Tuesday morning and thus conclude the Lehigh portion of their season preparation.

In the 19 days since players reported, the Eagles practiced in full pads just 11 times (fewer for the new additions who couldn't practice until Aug. 4). They will have a total of five full days off. Bluntly stated, this was the softest training camp in modern Eagles history.

The extra day off was surprising because, with new defensive coaches and no offseason workouts or minicamps, you might think the Eagles need more practice time rather than less.

None of this is happening in a vacuum, of course. The new agreement between the league and its players included these new work rules. And the rules apply to all 32 teams, so it's not like the Eagles are chill-axing while the Giants and Cowboys are following Bill Parcells' and Tom Landry's camp formats.

"That's the way it is everywhere," Reid said Saturday of the decline in practice reps.

The gradual turnaround in football philosophy is now complete. Reid's early teams hit more, and with more intensity, in the "three days of hell" - six brutal practices in full pads at the start of camp that had players rushing for IVs - than this team will hit all summer. That approach was partly about football and partly about psychology.

"This is something you have to fight through," Reid explained back then. "Not just to get into football shape, but also to develop mental toughness."

"There's no question," defensive coordinator Jim Johnson said at the time, "you want to see who can play through it. Guys get so tired, they can't think. When you go through all that together, you do get that bonding, where guys are feeling sorry for each other. That's all part of it. "

Reid and many other coaches eased up after Minnesota lineman Korey Stringer died from heat-related problems in 2001. Over the years, the morning practices got a little less intense and there were no pads or contact in the afternoon.

But there's no getting around it. If coaches were right that a grueling, character-testing ordeal would weed out the weak-minded and build team unity among those who endured, then all of that is lost with this kinder, gentler approach. If some pain and hardship made for better, tougher football players, what will this approach lead to?

Of course, all teams are operating under the same rules, which also place limits on the number of regular-season practices in pads. If there is an across-the-board decline in quality, the games will look every bit as competitive. To fans, that may be all that matters.

Or maybe the old-school coaching style - 13 players famously needed IVs after Buddy Ryan's first training camp practice in 1986 - was just misguided. Maybe emphasizing classroom time and the mental aspects of the game will keep players fresher for Sunday afternoons. Maybe fresher legs will allow the games to be played at a higher tempo.

We won't know until the regular season opens. We may not know until November or so, when those grueling summer camp days were supposed to pay dividends.

There could be another side effect of the new rules. They could be one more nudge toward the Eagles holding their entire camp at the NovaCare Complex. About half the teams in the NFL do so already, although many have space to allow fans to watch practice in their facilities. Others hold a handful of public practices inside their stadiums.

The Eagles have always liked giving fans access to the team during camp. But there's simply not as much to watch as there used to be. The morning practices include some 11-on-11 football, but the afternoon sessions are teaching exercises with little action. That's not much return on the investment of a long drive to Bethlehem.

The new NFL approach is more enlightened. It is safer. It is popular with the players. Soon we'll find out if it makes for better or worse football.

Contact Phil Sheridan at 215-854-2844, psheridan@phillynews.com, or @Sheridanscribe on Twitter. Read his blog, "Philabuster," at http://go.philly.com/philabuster. Read his past columns at http://go.philly.com/philsheridan.

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