Training camp in the olden days used to be at least two practices a day with plenty of physical blocking and tackling
RENTON — As the Seahawks’ training camp entered its final stages over the past week, veteran defensive end Cliff Avril began to hear increasing, if inevitable, laments from players going through it for the first time.
“Some of the young guys are like, ‘Oh, this is hard,’ ’’ Avril said. “I’m like, ‘This is pretty cake compared to what it used to be.’ ’’
Avril, in fact, is one of nine Seahawks remaining who have firsthand experience of what is the traditional image of football training camps — players trudging through an endless stream of two-a-day practices in full pads, each with as much full contact as a coach deemed necessary.
That all changed thanks to the collective bargaining agreement between the players union and the league in 2011, which, among other things, limited teams to one full-contact, full-pads practice per day during training camp.
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Teams can also hold a one-hour walk-through each day while players must be given at least one day off per week.
All of the changes were aimed at reducing the number of injuries for players, specifically concussions.
When the new rules were implemented, former NFL player Bucky Brooks wrote an article for the league’s official website wondering if tackling might suffer and if the running game also might take a hit with teams unable to practice as much live tackling and blocking as in the past.
Longtime Jets linebacker Bart Scott made headlines at the time for ripping the changes, telling the The Star-Ledger (Newark, N.J.), “I think it’s wimping out, making football more soft.’’
As the Seahawks get set Tuesday to complete their sixth training camp under the new rules, though, players and coaches alike agree that players are undoubtedly being kept healthier, both in the short- and long-term, while being mixed on whether it has had any impact on the game itself.
The Seahawks, in fact, do not typically practice live to-the-ground tackling at any point during training camp.
“I don’t think people can tell any difference (in the product on the field),’’ Avril said.
Statistics would seem to largely bear that out.
Teams averaged 4.2 yards per rush in 2010, the last full season before the changes, and 4.1 last year, indicating no great change in either the ability to block or tackle. Yards per pass has increased from 6.2 to 6.4.
The rates of fumbles, something else typically influenced by the type of contact teams rarely practice anymore, have also stayed about the same — 1.4 in 2010 and 1.43 last season.
Michael Bennett, who began his NFL career in 2009, argues, though, that he thinks the game looks and feels “a lot different.’’
“I think there’s not a lot of time to develop players so players are going in and out of the league a lot faster. And I think it’s one of those things where it’s not as physical as it used to be. I think it looks less physical and guys aren’t tackling as well as they used to. But overall, I think the toll of not hitting your head as much as you do, in the long run, it will be more beneficial for the player and their longevity after football.’’
Seahawks coach Pete Carroll says that players are unquestionably fresher for the regular season now than they were under the old format.
“Everybody was doing it (practicing two times a day) so everybody was relatively beat down so when they played you couldn’t tell because everybody was pretty much worn out,’’ Carroll said. “It’s a different challenge now getting through camp. It’s not what it was and I can’t imagine back in the college days (at USC) we would go three times a day. I don’t know what we were thinking. I don’t know how guys could hold up. But we didn’t know any better at that time. … I don’t know how their bodies could hold up because our guys are struggling now with what we are doing. Different age and different time.’’
Said Bennett: “You feel more refreshed and you feel a lot more in shape with a lot less contact and getting injured at practice.’’
Bennett said he also thinks it’s better for the players to not take as many hits due to the fact NFL contracts are not guaranteed.
“You have no protection at practice because when you get hurt at practice you don’t get paid,’’ he said. “You’re taking less hits, there is less chance of you getting hurt.’’
One person who has one of the best perspectives on it is Seahawks running back coach Sherman Smith, who played for the Seahawks from 1976 — the year the team debuted — to 1982 and has coached in the NFL since 1995.
“There’s a trade-off with not doing as much physical work,’’ Smith said. “But I think the fundamentals are pretty strong. You’ve got OTAs (Organized Team Activities held in the offseason) and all this other stuff we didn’t have. Yeah, we did quite a bit (of tackling) back in the day. But it didn’t mean we tackled better, it just means we tackled more. That’s how I see it.’’
Smith, though, said he thinks the old training camp format made players prepare better in the offseason than they do now. That might seem at odds with the common perception that today’s players stay in shape year-round while those of 40 or 50 years ago often had to get offseason jobs to support themselves.
But Smith says the fact players of the past knew how grueling two-a-days were going to be, it created more of an urgency to be in shape when camp began.
“Back then, we came to camp in shape and I think now you see you can come to camp and you can get in shape,’’ he said. “I didn’t try to get in shape in camp because I knew that if you weren’t in shape, you were going to struggle.’’
Camps also used to typically be held in a location away from the city where the team played.
But these days, more and more teams are training at the same complexes where they work year-round, as is the case with the Seahawks, who once held training camp at Eastern Washington University in Cheney. The Seahawks moved training camp back to Kirkland in 2007 and then to the VMAC in Renton in 2008.
All of that means that the ending of training camp doesn’t quite have the celebratory allure it once did for players.
Mostly, it means just one thing — no longer having to spend nights in a hotel.
While staying in college dorms is a thing of the past for the Seahawks and many other teams, those that train at home — such as the Seahawks — typically require players to stay in a hotel during camp, though they do get some free time at night.
“I think it’s a waste of time,’’ said Bennett, who said he doesn’t think veterans need the supervision, while acknowledging it might be good for rookies and younger players.
Countered Avril: “I’m perfectly fine with it. Curfew is at 10:30. I don’t have to show up until 10:20. So I’m fine with it.’’