Chip Kelly's Eagles start a saner, safer camp

Eagles linebacker Connor Barwin is the only one the roster to play on the outside in an NFL 3-4 front. Matt Rourke / AP
Eagles linebacker Connor Barwin is the only one the roster to play on the outside in an NFL 3-4 front. Matt Rourke / AP
Posted: July 23, 2013

Chip Kelly's first training camp as head coach of the Eagles is going to be very different from his predecessors', and the move from Lehigh to the NovaCare Complex is the least of it.

Andy Reid opened his first camp in 1999 with what the players called "three days of hell." Reid had the team practice in pads, with full contact, twice a day for those first three days.

After Buddy Ryan's first camp practice at West Chester in 1986, 13 players required intravenous fluids to combat dehydration.

Dick Vermeil's camps were legendarily tough and much longer than NFL rules now permit.

In Instant Replay, his classic 1967 book about playing for Vince Lombardi's Green Bay Packers, guard Jerry Kramer writes about reporting to training camp for eight weeks. He also tells a story about Fuzzy Thurston smuggling ice from the trainer's supply and distributing the illicit refreshment to his water-deprived teammates.

Kramer relays some of Lombardi's speeches, including one about fatigue turning men into "cowards." The point of his training camp was only partly to practice plays and prepare for the season. It was partly designed to weed out the weak by putting everyone through physical duress.

Three decades later, Reid echoed that philosophy in explaining his three days of hell as "something you have to fight through . . . to develop mental toughness."

Training camp is not about that anymore. It is about learning plays, developing timing, evaluating talent, and preparing for a 16-game season.

The evolution toward this approach was a long time coming. Coaches stopped denying players water decades ago, when the risks of dehydration became better understood. A major turning point came in 2001, Reid's third year, when Minnesota Vikings Pro Bowl tackle Korey Stringer died from heat-related complications.

Even with access to water and shade, a 350-pound body is under immense strain in full pads on a hot day. Former Eagles tackle Jon Runyan said he used to lose close to 20 pounds during a long practice in pads. He probably doesn't experience that on the floor of the House of Representatives, no matter how heated things get.

Kelly's first camp completes the journey from Lombardi's Parris Island cruelty to the football seminar approach. Two-a-days, a fundamental concept for decades, are a thing of the past. There will be more classroom time, more weight-room time, more video-review time. After a brief walk-through, the team will practice just once, at 12:30 p.m.

Two years ago, the NFL lockout ended with a collective bargaining agreement that set strict limits on the number of padded, full-contact practices coaches can hold. The Eagles wound up practicing in pads just 11 times in 19 days at Lehigh.

It's hard to tell what impact that had. Reid's last two seasons, played under those work rules, were the worst of his tenure. That likely had more to do with the talent level and decisions such as making Juan Castillo his defensive coordinator than with the camp schedule. Other coaches adapted to the changes with great success.

This new-age camp approach puts a premium on players reporting to work Monday in great physical condition. Kelly emphasized that on the last practice day in June.

"It's on them in terms of what they do," he said. "We'll see them in July. We'll know. That is the great thing about this. You can't fake football. If you didn't do any work from the time you left here on June 6 and show up on July 25, we'll know because your body will tell what you can do."

In Kramer's era, players worked or even did six-month military stints in the offseason. Those eight weeks were needed to build conditioning and then build a football team. The physical and mental cruelty were bonuses.

Now the most grueling aspect of training camp will be the music Kelly sets on blast. Players are more likely to rush to the trainer for headache relief than IV bags after practice.

It is a saner, safer, more civilized approach. It is, ultimately, a positive development that should cut down on injuries and extend careers.

There won't be any more classic books about players' surviving the brutal conditions, but that's not such a bad thing.


Contact Phil Sheridan at psheridan@phillynews.com. Follow @Sheridanscribe on Twitter.

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