By Steve Silverman
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Training camp used to mean the start of an intense and brutal period for all players.
It’s by no means a vacation in the modern era of football, but it is a far gentler and less abusive time than it was during the 1960s and ‘70’s.
From both a logical and health-related point of view, that makes sense. But from a fundamental perspective, players are not prepared to play as well – especially at the start of the season – as they were several generations ago.
Here’s how you can notice the difference in preparation. The emphasis on training camp was making sure all players were performing at a peak level come the opening game of the season. While opening day in football has never had the same emotional meaning for fans as its equivalent in baseball, there is an easily distinguishable difference to the football played in the first week of the regular season and the football played in the preseason.
In past generations, the difference was that players would go for 60 minutes in the first week of the season and backups were relegated to the bench. In those days, starters would play hard in the preseason but were limited in how long they would play in games.
In the current era, players often will play hard in one preseason game per summer for a quarter or a half. That’s almost always the third preseason game. The rest of the time, the established veterans are playing to keep from getting injured.
It shows in the tackling. Players are not hitting as much during preseason – either in practices or games — and that has an impact on tackling in games during the first month of the season. Players will either go for the concussive shoulder hits that result in big-time knockdowns or they will drag down ball carriers and receivers.
It results in a lot of sloppy play that gets corrected in September.
By the second month of the season, the tackling starts to improve. Knockout-type hitters like Troy Polamalu of the Pittsburgh Steelers will still go for the big hits at the appropriate time, but they usually are not as reckless as they are in the first month of the season.
Drag down tacklers get taken to task by their coaches as they go over each error on film day after day in practice. These problems usually get corrected or players lose their jobs.
Instead of playing their best football of the year at the start of the regular season, today’s players are much more likely to play at an elite level about a month into the season.
The idea that teams use training camp to get ready for the regular season is basically folly. Teams use the preseason to keep players from getting hurt. Coaches and general managers don’t want to chance season-ending injuries in the preseason.
That only makes sense. During the 1960s and ‘70s, teams would lose players in preseason games and just mark it up to being part of the game.
That’s no longer the case. Logic has taken over. Nobody wants to see a franchise quarterback chase down a linebacker who has intercepted a pass and then get hurt while trying to make a tackle. Yet that’s what happened to Joe Namath during the prime of his career with the Jets. He threw a pass that Detroit Lions linebacker Mike Lucci intercepted in a 1971 preseason game and he tore up his knee trying to make a tackle.
When asked about it, Namath said he only knew how to play at “full speed.”
There have been many preseason injuries that have resonated throughout the NFL, but that’s one that coaches and general managers remember. The Jets’ ’71 season was basically ruined before it started – they went 6-8 — and that’s when the idea of not putting players at risk in the preseason first started to surface.
The sacrifice is that the game is not played at its highest level at the start of the season. However, that’s a small price to pay for any team that wants to compete for 16 weeks and on into the postseason.
Preseason injuries are useless and debilitating. No team can afford them and that’s why most teams are willing to sacrifice the preseason.