Easing into the season

Green Bay Packers head coach Mike McCarthy has instituted a new training camp routine for this season that reduces the number of practices compared to previous seasons. PackerReport.com's Todd Korth offers his opinion on the schedule.

Johnnie Gray, the Packers Hall of Fame safety, used to tell me stories of what training camps were like when he was playing for the Packers under Bart Starr in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Same with Packers Hall of Fame center Larry McCarren. In short, the practices separated the men from the boys. They were tough.

A few decades back, two-a-days in training camp generally meant two-a-days. Players often dressed in full pads for both practices and worked on blocking and tackling. Many players would use training camp to get in shape. At that time, the regular season schedule was no different than now, though, the money that players were earning was considerably less. But when the regular season began, the players were well prepared to hit and tackle. They were ready to go.

With the help of exercise technology, supplements and the growth of the league, players are in better shape now more than ever before year round. They're also making more money than ever before. Many players hire personal trainers in the off-season, or return to their college to work out under their former strength and conditioning coaches. In general, players keep themselves in tip-top shape year-round.

It is easy to understand why NFL coaches have tapered off practices in training camp over the last decade. Many players arrive at training camp in great physical condition, but need work mentally to perfect the plays that were installed during the off-season mini-camps conducted in shorts.

Still, as Gray and McCarren often will point out, there is nothing like being in "hitting shape." In other words, a player can be in great condition, but if he is not used to getting hit, or delivering a hit, he has a good chance of ending up on the season-ending injured reserve list when the bullets are for real in September.

Nowadays practices are much different. Coaches do as much as possible to prevent players from getting injured, especially star players aside from the quarterbacks who wear red jerseys, which means they are not to be touched. Often, even when practices are conducted in pads, the Packers will go with "thud" tackling with quick whistles. That's where a defender makes contact with the ball-carrier, but doesn't fully tackle him. The coaches are obviously protecting the players in skills positions in those situations from injury. Only in selected scrimmages during training camp are players allowed to tackle until the whistle.

This begs the question: Are injuries during the season a result of a lack of contact in training camp, or just fate?

New head coach Mike McCarthy this week revealed a new "2-1-2-1" practice schedule for training camp. Of the 29 practices around three preseason games from July 28 through the end of August, only 16 are in pads, including the team's annual Family Night scrimmage. Back in the old days, the Packers had 16 practices in pads in a little more than two weeks. Ray Nitschke must be rolling in his grave.

"I just think it has so many more benefits. It flows," McCarthy said. "There's a number of things I did not like about (the old schedule). Particularly as a position coach, you felt like you were never caught up on your ability to watch film. You come off a practice, then you've got another practice, then you've got to meet at night. That's not truly beneficial to you, particularly your young guys.

"(And), in the 2-1-2-1 schedule, you never have two practices back-to-back, so that enables the players to take care of their bodies. Obviously, the start of the season is the most important part of their conditioning and that's another reason why."

Time will tell whether this type of schedule that eases a team into the schedule will work or not. Either the Packers will come out Sept. 10 against the Chicago Bears ready to hit, or will get ripped apart in the first four games because their bodies simply did not have enough time to get conditioned to the contact.

Football is all about contact. The strong and those who are used to the contact survive. For a team that is preparing to play smashmouth football this season, Green Bay's approach to the season seems fairly soft.

Todd Korth

Todd Korth is managing editor of PackerReport.com and Packer Report. E-mail him at packrepted@aol.com.

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