|COLUMN: At Panthers training camp, my how the times they are a changin'|
|Written by Steve Reed|
|Sunday, 31 July 2011 15:23|
SPARTANBURG, S.C. – This is the 17th summer I’ve spent here at Wofford College covering the Carolina Panthers training camp, and I can tell you it’s unlike any other I’ve seen.
It makes you wonder, is this really training camp or a watered down OTAs?
The Panthers have been in helmets a couple of times, but they’ve also practiced exclusively in shorts and often in baseball caps.
Baseball caps? Other than the day before a game, practices never used to be that way.
In the past the first practice of training camp was an exercise in physical stamina, an all-out chest-pumping, helmet-thumping event that quickly separated the strong from the weak, the men from the boys. That smell? Yep, it’s testosterone. Players knew they had to be prepared and ready to hit, and guys came out swinging right away.
All I smell now is Bengay.
This year NFL teams are forced to ease their way into training camp because that’s what the rules set up in the recently approved collective bargaining agreement dictate.
The new rules handcuff what today’s coaches can do.
I can still remember Dom Capers having players run a series of timed 40-yard sprints on one steamy afternoon at camp. Some players, particularly the offensive linemen, looked like they were about to drop dead. I remember aging defensive tackle Greg Kragen contemplating retirement right there on the practice field after one grueling two-a-day. Capers bent over next to him, convincing him that he’d be OK if he just got through camp. I remember fights breaking out on occasion as the heat began to take its toll on players, always testing their mental toughness.
It’s hard to imagine that now.
The reality is players have it much, much easier.
Look at the schedule.
Almost every practice here is at night when it’s a little cooler. And every day going forward has just one practice listed per day. The Panthers will still have some walkthroughs in the morning, but it can’t be in pads and there can be no hitting.
It’s not exactly Club Med here, though.
The Panthers will begin practicing in pads tonight. There will be hitting. There will be something that resembles football I imagine.
But there won’t be that many of those practices, certainly nothing like the grueling five-week, two-practice-a-day session Capers would host back in the mid-90s.
By the time the Panthers kick off the preseason Aug. 13 against the New York Giants, they will have fewer than 10 padded practices under their belt.
It gets even easier once teams get into the regular season.
They can only practice once a week in pads for the first 11 weeks. After that, teams are limited to three total padded practices in the final six weeks of the season. I can only imagine how bad the tackling will be across the league. Kids, don’t watch. It might be like NBA guys playing defense.
But those are rights the players fought for — and won — in the contract talks with the owners.
I can still hear owner Jerry Richardson’s words ringing in my ears from last January when he talked about the ensuing contract battle with the players union.
“When I meet with the union lawyers, they say, ‘Mr. Richardson, we want more money, more benefits and we want to work less.’ Then they say, ‘Let’s begin the negotiations,’” Richardson said.
It appears the players got most of what they wanted.
“It’s an extremely veteran friendly system,” veteran offensive tackle Jordan Gross admitted. “It puts a lot of pressure on guys to learn without hitting.”
Instead of camp being about power and strength, it’s about thinking and muscle memory.
Times have changed and coaches must adapt.
“There’s a lot of talk about hand placement and pad level and things like that,” Gross said. “I think the coaches understand that, and they’re harping on us about technique and fundamentals.”
As an offensive lineman, Gross admits he’s a little worried that once the real bullets start to fly in the regular season he might not be quite as used to the contact.
“That’s the one thing I’m a little nervous about that could suffer when you don’t have someone tackling you or someone trying to get to the quarterback at full speed — the things that allow you to get into good practice habits,” Gross said.
Then again, every team is playing by the same set of rules.
For the most part, players like the new rules.
Gross argues that the NFL has become a year-round job and has been for a long time. He said players are programmed to train throughout the year, so using training camp as a conditioning tool is no longer a necessity.
And he feels there are times when players can actually get more accomplished practicing without pads because the fatigue factor, which can lead to overall sloppiness, is not an issue.
“I don’t think camp is a time to get guys into shape as much as it is a time to learn the system,” Gross said.
After watching Saturday night’s practice, I asked retired defensive end and current Panthers preseason TV analyst Mike Rucker about his take on the changes.
He had the look of a man who couldn’t believe his eyes.
He seemed a little envious.
“You know what, if I had played under these rules I might have been able to play two or three more years,” Rucker said. “It’s going to save a lot of wear and tear on guys’ bodies.”
In many ways, the new rules seem to fly in the face of what new Panthers head coach Ron Rivera is preaching.
Rivera is an old-school guy.
He played linebacker for the Chicago Bears. I’ve never known a Bears linebacker to be soft. He wants the Panthers to play like the 1985 Bears, an aggressive, attacking style team.
But how can he reach that point when the rules limit what he can do in practice?
Adding to Rivera’s quandary is he didn’t have this group of players in practice for four weeks at OTAs, so many are still learning the new offensive and defensive system. That takes time. You can’t throw it all at the players in one day and expect them to comprehend it. It’s impossible.
Rivera realizes that in many ways learning the plays is more important than seeing who can hit and tackle. And, truthfully, you can do that just as easily without pads.
“We have a long way to go,” Rivera said after watching practice Sunday.
Gross has been at this for eight years now. He’s used to waking up the second day of training camp feeling like he got run over by a bus after a full day of hitting in pads.
Not this year.
“Yeah, my neck definitely felt better this morning waking up than it normally does on day two,” he said.
Yes, it sure is different. Not necessarily better, but most definitely different.