Uphill battle even steeper for long-shots

The reduction in padded practices makes it even harder for undrafted rookies and long-shots to make a lasting impression in training camp.

Training camp officially ended Thursday. For the fourth straight year, it has begged this question: How necessary is training camp?

Anyone who has ever played football recalls the old-school memories of two-a-day practices. From Pop Warner to high school to college to the pros, preseason workouts and training camps were the “gut check” for players. That has changed significantly since 2011.

A portion of the new Collective Bargaining Agreement that was signed in 2011 effectively ended two-a-day practices. Teams still hit the practice field twice a day, but one of those practices is a walk-through practice in which not only aren’t players wearing pads, most are wearing hats and some of them sunglasses. It shouldn’t technically even be called a practice because nothing is at full speed.

The new look of training camp has had a negative impact on the undrafted free agent types who simply don’t get the chances to impress the coaching staffs like they used to under the old system. For those who have never attended a training camp, perhaps some background is needed.

Back “in the day,” coaches would try to make an impression – especially early in their tenures – that sent the message to players that there was a new sheriff in town. In 1984, Les Steckel operated a boot camp that was the NFL equivalent to the Bataan Death March. Many didn’t survive the rigors of camp and the results that followed were equally dismal when other teams got involved.

In 2001 in his first season as head coach, Mike Tice pushed his Vikings hard in brutal heat index conditions. There may have been other factors involved, but Korey Stringer got so dehydrated that his vital organs began shutting down and he eventually died, which brought into place new league regulations about limiting padded practices when temperatures and humidity got to be too intense.

In 2006, when Brad Childress took over, there was a clear message sent that this sheriff was a no-nonsense type. Players were forced into pads for almost every practice and the hitting got a little intense. He eventually pulled back the reins on his veteran-laden team, but Chilly practices remained pretty up-tempo and had their fair share of hitting.

In 2011, all of that changed. The new CBA brought swift and significant changes. There would be only one contact practice allowed per day, turning the second practice into a lot of guys standing around for an hour. Fans in Mankato were stunned at what they saw because, for the most part, they hadn’t been informed of what was happening before it was implemented.

What used to be standing-room-only practice crowds became much more sparsely attended and, when the walk-through practices were held in the morning, more people showed up to get in the autograph lines than to watch what was going on.

The reduction of meaningful practices in training camp has resulted in making OTAs, minicamps and preseason games more important for those players on the roster bubble. Just as baseball players can’t replicate games in the batting cage, half-speed practices don’t have the same result in making the “wow!” type of plays that make a strong impression on position coaches, coordinators and head coaches.

Training camp is important to fans for the same reason it always has been. It is typically the only chance fans have to get that close to their Vikings heroes and it is the primary reason why training camps around the country are so well-attended. When Leslie Frazier was head coach, he started by putting the “real” practice early in the day, which were followed by autograph sessions. By the time the second practice commenced, the stands were barely half full because fans learned there wasn’t much to see.

It makes sense that the era of two-a-days ended as it did. There was no reason to burn out players unnecessarily before wins and losses counted. But in the process of collectively bargaining player safety, it may have taken away a critical chance for the longshots to make an NFL roster. They might have made an impression back in the spring during OTAs and minicamps, but their chances to make their case for fresh reasons in the summer have been reduced greatly.

For those guys on the bubble, the next three preseason games may be their best (and possibly only) opportunity to make the impression they need to make because, as training camp shut down Thursday, so too may some of the opportunities that players from previous eras used to springboard their professional careers.

John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Viking Update web site or magazine, click here.

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