Lombardi: What teams do well -- and poorly -- in training camp

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Joe Schoen is a nervous wreck -- it's tough being a first-year general manager. 

Long ago, training camp in the NFL was more about getting players in shape than preparing for the opening game. Then players had offseason jobs and didn’t have the time or the facilities to properly train their bodies … which meant six weeks of two padded practices a day with full contact, paying no attention to the heat index, many conditioning drills and few (if any) water breaks.  Watch any old training camp films and notice the players drinking water from a bucket with a soup ladle – oh, the good old’ times. Camp was an endurance test of the mind, body and spirit for players and coaches.  Today, the dynamics have changed for the better, as training camp is a slight blip on the NFL scheduling radar.  It starts, and ends before the practice field grass has been slightly worn.  In less than 20 days, every NFL team won’t be in camp practice mode.  

When a change occurs in one area, the ripple effects create further changes.  However, there is a huge tight rope each team must walk.  How do coaches get their team ready to face 17 grueling opponents and remain healthy?  Football requires “physical practice” (all due respect to 76ers legend Allen Iverson and his rant) and practice means contact, not full-scale tackling of the running backs or hitting the quarterbacks, but enough to evaluate the players required to play the game with a high level of physicality.  And for a first-time general manager, knowing what the job entails and what it doesn’t is the greatest challenge.

Schoen, the New York Giants new general manager, echoed his concerns recently to the New York Post.  Schoen said regarding training camp, “It’s always very stressful for me.  You’re watching the football but you also want to make sure you have enough bodies that you can practice and you want enough competition where guys have to put their best foot forward. It’s a delicate balance between guys getting enough work in and being ready to play and contact, and also keeping everybody healthy.”

Even though the NFL reduced the preseason to three games, those games are still dangerous for some players to participate.  Does Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers really need preseason reps?  No, but he does need practice reps with his new receiving group, and that can be handled without playing in the game. Some players need game reps, some need to understand the physicality and intensity of each play.  And young players need to make mistakes when the mistakes won’t cost their team a real game.

Under the new practice system, a head coach divides his team into two groups.  The first group consists of players that don’t need game reps.  The second group is the players who must develop their skills in the game and improve not only for the start of the season, but be ready to contribute later in the year.   What makes evaluating the second group so challenging for Schoen and other general managers is that most of the good players are not playing against the players that need to be developed, which makes the evaluation phase not ideal. For those who want to understand how a team is progressing in the preseason, be fully aware of who is on the field for the team you’re evaluating and who they play against.  If it’s good players vs. bad players, the evaluation becomes meaningless.   

There is a strong belief that the “real” NFL season doesn’t begin until mid-November, fueled around the perception that the month of September is meaningless.  Many believe starting fast isn’t important, what matters most is how you finish.  But like all perceptions, this one is shrouded with erroneous data.  Since 2018, every Super Bowl champion has played well in September.  Last year both the Bengals and Rams accumulated three wins.  In 2020, the Chiefs were undefeated and the Bucs were 2-1 in September.  In 2019, both the Chiefs and the 49ers went through September without a blemish and in 2018, the Rams were 4-0 and the Patriots were the only team with a .500 record in September that won the Super Bowl.  Yes, finishing strong is vital.  However great teams, the ones that have a Super Bowl feel, not only finish strong, they start fast.  And starting fast means having a great offseason and camp.  It doesn’t mean not practicing to avoid injuries, as the Philadelphia Eagles love to do. 

Handling training camp and the month of September is going to be different for every team.  It’s going to be different for the head coach and the general manager who work for the same team.  The general manager will want to develop young players, while the head coach will want to get off to a fast start, favoring the veterans, who won’t make mistakes.  Coaches are assignment driven; personnel men are development driven. Both have merit and both have their place in the football supply chain, yet both can create problems in the short and long term. 

When taking over a colossal mess, the scoreboard is never an indication of progress, as most first-year head coaches are there because of said mess.  In the case of the New York Giants, both head coach Brian Daboll and Schoen should be joined with every step, thinking long term; not short.  They both inherited a wreck -- a “Giant” wreck, if you will.  They are taking over a team that had won 22 games in the last five years and currently has serious salary cap restrictions, which is a clear indication of prior mismanagement.  Instinctively, Daboll will crave to show improvement to the fans and the organization, and therefore might favor sacrificing the long term to gain a few wins.  All coaches feel confidence comes from the scoreboard, which is natural reaction.  Yet, the main job of any coach is to develop confidence without evidence in the first year.  

For any home to withstand the storms, a strong foundation must be laid. Therefore, a strong leader must develop a systematic belief in the first developing the winning process.  The process is never tacked on as an afterthought, it’s a requirement from Day 1.  Former Giants coach Bill Parcells started 2-7-1 and finished 3-12-1 his first year.  Joe Gibbs of Washington started 0-5 and finished 8-8 in his first season. Bill Walsh was 0-7 before his first win and finished 2-14 in 1979.  All three men are in the Hall of Fame, all three hoisted multiple Super Bowl trophies and all three understood the art of developing confidence without evidence by first developing the winning process. 

Fans will never understand this concept because the scoreboard is their validation for improvement, which is natural as they don’t watch practice or examine the progress behind the scenes.  Don’t believe me?   Let’s examine Matt Nagy’s Chicago Bears tenure. 

In Nagy’s first season, he sets the world on fire, goes 12-4 and Bears fans (not me) think they have found their new Papa Bear.  After Year 1, the 2018 NFL Coach of Year, Nagy could have beaten George Halas, Bobby Hull, Ernie Banks and Michael Jordan for mayor of Chicago. (OK, maybe not Jordan, but the others he would have destroyed.)  The following three years, the Bears are five games under .500, never win a playoff game and are in a complete rebuild. Nagy was innovative in Year 1 with trick plays and deception, and he had Vic Fangio running the defense.  Nagy never developed a tough-minded offensive team that could consistently ran the ball, something that is vital towards winning in Chicago. 

In his four years running the offense, the Bears never finished higher than 21st on yards rushing per attempt, which placed a higher burden on the quarterback and made the Bears too one-dimensional.  In addition, he never correctly evaluated the quarterback position, which is one of the major job requirements and he fell victim to losing his core strength of the team when Fangio became the head coach of Denver.  Nagy never understood what the job was and wasn’t, and by Year 4 his Coach of the Year trophy was obsolete. 

The job of a head NFL coach might be the hardest of any coaching profession; no other position in the world changes one third of its work force every season. Assistant coaches focus too hard on “getting the job” and not enough energy on doing the job the right way.  Quick fixes never work.  Sustainability is the only protection against being unemployed and to sustain, a coach must ignore the short term, think long term (today, long term is defined by 2-3 years) and build a strong foundation.  With the restrictions on camp, coaches will need to be divergent in thought and find the balance Shoen was discussing; once they do, the foundation on the construction will begin in the next week.    

The best part of camp is we know NFL football is back. 

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