In the aftermath of the Steelers' improbable victory over the Green Bay Packers, one wonders how a team that was held to six points by the Cleveland Browns could come out and re-write the team passing records 10 days later.
It's beyond the scope of this article to identify and attempt to quantify all that went into a slumpbuster game such as that one, but one aspect really intrigued me: Mike Tomlin put the Steelers back in pads.
Back in the day, it was nothing to see the words "Full pads" on the chalkboard in the locker room. The words written on the board determined how hard the day would be. We expected it. I can count on one hand, over 12 years of playing in the NFL, the number of practices before which "sweat pants" had been written. Shells are the equivalent of today's sweats.
Full pads in yesteryear meant live go for everyone in the trenches and the front seven defensively. A bump was for the backs and wideouts only. Ninety percent intensity levels were easily reached. Internal run, half-line, one-on-ones, you name it, and we did it at nutcracker speed. But there was still a hold-it-in-check thought process overriding all because of an imminent game. You had to save something for your opponent.
Shells are used today to protect the players. Shells are just light pad-like material covering the player's shoulders, and the players work at close to 70% intensity, which has more to do with enlightened coaching and salary-cap issues than anything else. Again, this is beyond what I want to address.
"Back to Basics" was a Chuck Noll phrase used to signify a change in practice tempo. When Chuck felt we'd been out-physicaled, that our pad level was too high, that we were executing our techniques poorly, he wanted to get us back on track with a return to a training camp mentality, which was another way of telling us to get ready for a brutal week.
The difference between a regular hard week and a back-to-basics week was punctuated by the save-it-for-the-game governor being thrown out the window. It was Katie, bar the door. The emphasis was on individual one-on-one battles and performance versus the normal offense versus defense. The violence of practice picked up considerably. Cutting a teammate by throwing at the legs, normally a bozo no-no, was a relatively normal occurrence that week. Fights galore (does that surprise anyone?), plus maybe some extra running thrown into the mix made for a volatile bunch that readily focused on the next opponent after thoroughly thrashing each other for a week.
After a back-to-basics week, the game often seemed easier than the practices. And it came with the implied threat of continuing the practice if things didn't improve in a hurry. But it came at a cost: You were exhausted. And the bottom line was that you couldn't do that week in and week out or you couldn't field a team after a while.
When I heard that Coach Mike had put the players back in pads, I smiled. It brought back memories of another day, and I knew that it would grab the players' attention.
A good dose of pads does a few things. One, it gets their attention. Sometimes trying to get the attention of 53 grown men is like herding cats. But a back-to-basics approach is like a two-by-four across the nose of the most unwilling mule on the team.
Returning to pads elevates the intensity level and puts players in another frame of mind. A bull out in a corral has a certain demeanor. Put him in the chute with a cowpoke on his back and it becomes another thing altogether when that door swings open. The same happens with players when they wear full battle regalia.
Wearing pads also gives you an opportunity to work on your technique at closer to game level speed, which can do wonders late in the year when one tends to get a little sloppy. By and large, though, a basics week changes the tempo and demeanor of practice, sending a message of urgency through the entire squad. Hear me now, believe me later, players understand when the "Back to basics" call goes out.
I'd say it worked pretty well. Merry Christmas everybody!