Robinson's Steelers Insider: Practices no longer perfect with new rules
The NFL does almost nothing in small, measurable doses. It just wouldn't fit the image of a league that isn't just a sport anymore but a major production, an entertainment extravaganza. Everything is done to excess, from the Super Bowl (wait, there's a game, too?) to the draft and even to the release of the schedule, which is draped in so much manufactured drama it could masquerade as the announcement of a major medical breakthrough.
Except for perhaps the one thing that has been the very core of the sport for years, the place where stars are born, dynasties begin, championships are begun to be won, names are first made, reputations are established.
The sport with the longest downtime of any of the four major U.S. pro sports — the NFL goes seven months between games, the NHL only three — would seem to have the most available practice time. But the collective bargaining agreement ratified two years ago severely reduced the number of organized offseason practices (the Steelers were scheduled for 13 this spring but had only 12) and the on-field team during training camp, where teams routinely held two long, hard practices a day only a few years ago.
With player salaries now so high — an average of $2 million — and the risk of having a season destroyed by a preseason injury anytime a team steps onto the practice field, team owners agreed to the cutback in practice time. Players can't be on the field longer than four hours a day, including walk-throughs, and can have only one practice in pads of three hours or less. The Steelers routinely practice for 2 1⁄2 hours, counting stretching time.
One day off a week is mandated, too. As a result, the Steelers are taking Sunday off following their preseason game Saturday night, will practice again Monday then have Tuesday off — the kind of schedule that perplexes Mike Tomlin and other NFL coaches.
To them, there's simply not enough practice time to reduce 90-man rosters to 53, and to determine who can handle the heat of the day and the heat of the moment. As a result, Tomlin brought back live tackling to Steelers practices this summer, at the same time new Eagles coach Chip Kelly was banning it and the Carolina Panthers began reprimanding players who were too physical during practice.
The Panthers' policy is almost like fining a player for making too many shots during basketball practice.
“I think we are going to continually work to try and maximize our ability to gain information within the structure of today's system,” Tomlin said. “I think that is one of the things that the live tackling was about, and quite frankly, it is about. I think the guys understand that, and I think that is one of the reasons that they embrace it. They realize that it is an opportunity to distinguish themselves, and that is what they are here for.”
Not long ago, a player was said to be limited in practice if he couldn't do everything he wanted. Now the entire team is.
Steelers defensive end Brett Keisel can see firsthand how it's making roster cuts more difficult.
“With this new CBA, you only have so much time to evaluate these guys,” Keisel said. “It used to be you could practice in the morning, evaluate them, practice in the night, evaluate them. It's hard. You're limited in how many reps these guys can get. Until you put that live situation in there, to see how players react, you really aren't sure.”
Teams became even more cognizant of players' training camp health when Vikings offensive tackle Korey Stringer died of heat stroke Aug. 1, 2001. But even that tragedy didn't result in the severe practice cutbacks now in place.
Tomlin, trying to establish himself as a first-year head coach, admittedly over-practiced the Steelers during the 2007 camp and later blamed that for a late-season fade. Cornerback Ike Taylor said Tomlin has done a better job since of managing on-field time.
“Coach T has grown. What I like about Coach T is he's a great manager. He knows how to manage his coaches, his players and situations. He doesn't let anybody dictate. He's the dictator,” Taylor said. “Coming into his first season, it's hard not to lay the hammer down … but then he softened up. You've got to respect that because going the other way probably wouldn't have worked. Now he's managing when we're going to hit and how we're going to hit.”
Even with the restricted practices, the Steelers lost wide receiver Plaxico Burress (shoulder) and tight end Matt Spaeth (foot) to injuries before the first preseason game. The Eagles lost two starters to season-ending injuries in the first week of camp.
Practice may make perfect, but for the NFL, there doesn't appear to be any perfect amount of practice.