Mark Sanchez opened his “Jets West” camp earlier this month with added security, and Tim Tebow in attendance. This is a very normal thing for players to do; work out with their teammates before training camp to get their timing right and build chemistry which the Jets obviously lacked last season. These workouts would be otherwise very un-newsworthy except that Tim Tebow is reportedly in attendance, the Jets are one team representing the media capital of the world, and Sanchez has reportedly hired enough security for the workouts to occupy a small country.
This story reminded me of just how much the NFL has changed in the last few decades without us really noticing it. It really wasn’t that long ago when players didn’t do anything even remotely related to football during the offseason, even this close to training camp. Part of that was because they didn’t make nearly as much money as they do today, although it was still a really good salary for the time*. That means that players, even prominent ones, were working jobs all throughout the offseason, and even in-season when allowed.
Back in 1967, Jerry Kramer of the Packers wrote the memoir Instant Replay, detailing almost every day of that season with the eventual Super Bowl Champions. The Packers opened camp that year on July 15th, less than a month into summer. The Packers didn’t play their first regular season game until September 17th. That means that the Packers had sixty-three days in between their first reporting to camp and the day when the games start to matter. That is a very long time. It’s worse than the break college teams have today if they manage to get a BCS Bowl bid.
As of today, July 27th, some teams have opened camp. The rest of the league will open in the next couple of days, with the latest teams to report on July 29th. The first preseason game isn’t until August 5th, but most of the rest of the league has their first game on August 9th. The first games that count are on Thursday, September 5th, Sunday September 9th, and Monday, September 10th. That means most teams in the NFL have around forty-three calendar days in between reporting to camp and their first game that counts.
Think about that time frame for a minute.
Coaches and management can now put a team on the field, with less than two weeks of practice, able to play an actual game. Regardless that the game doesn’t count for anything, that’s a hell of a feat to accomplish. There’s only one reason why that is able to happen so seamlessly: There is no such thing as an offseason in today’s NFL. There is only the time when they aren’t playing games.
If you go back to the 1970’s Raiders, John Madden wrote about how he always had what were the basic equivalent of today’s OTA’s, but just for his quarterbacks. He wanted them to come in for a week in April for some film study, weight training, and meeting. He said that it was always hard to track down Ken Stabler during the offseason because he was always out partying, shooting a commercial, doing appearances, or just other random odds and ends. Stabler eventually told Madden that the offseason is the players’ time which is not to be interrupted [paraphrasing]. Madden and Stabler eventually struck a deal where Madden wouldn’t interfere with Stabler’s offseason antics as long as Stabler was 100% focused during the season, and it ended up working out well. Prior to the 1978 season, Jets’ quarterback Richard Todd wanted to throw a ball around with Stabler (they were both from and played for ‘Bama and Bryant). Stabler told Todd no, and that he had to save everything he had for the season. This isn’t to say that Stabler was lazy, because he wasn’t. It’s just that the NFL was a different world back then.
Let’s go back to Jerry Kramer. He wrote in his book about how he ran a few 350’s (laps around the field, end zones included) to get himself prepared for the upcoming Hell on Earth known as Green Bay Packer Training Camp under Vince Lombardi. It was implied that he really hadn’t done much work in the offseason, and that he counted on camp to get himself into “football shape”. This state of mind wasn’t just on the Packers. In Paper Lion by George Plimpton, Alex Karras of the Lions used to make fun of how much weight he had to lose once camp started and how out of shape he was.
Kramer also wrote about how he talked to Paul Hornung, who had been placed on the expansion draft list that offseason and was a New Orleans Saint at the time, said that the Saint team about died after doing twenty up-downs. For those of you not familiar with the term, an u-down is a conditioning drill where you run in place, and when the whistle blows, dive in place flat on your chest, spring back up and start running in place again. These are also used as punishment, and are absolutely miserable to do when it is hot, humid, or in the middle of a drought when the field has taken the form of the Dust Bowl. Ten of these will get your heart rate up, twenty will leave you panting for breath, thirty is excessive, and forty will have you puking your guts out.
There is no way that would happen in today’s NFL. Training camp is not to get people in shape. Training camp is to get everybody on the same page. NFL training camps are no longer death camps. Most of the discomfort associated with going to camp is due to the grind, not the physical exhaustion like it used to be. The players might only be practicing for an hour and a half to two hours twice a day, but the rest of their waking hours are spent in meetings, training rooms, weight rooms, film study, meals, and signing autographs for fans before and after practices. Many teams don’t stay in dorm rooms anymore like they once did; they’re in hotels now. If Vince Lombardi’s camp was eight weeks of Hell, Brian Billick’s camp with the Ravens was known as Club Med.
This is a huge contrast to the training camps of just a few decades ago. Players of yester-year always talk about how the game was better and they were tougher back when they played, but I just never buy that for this reason. Players today in large part don’t need a boot camp every year just to work off the twenty-five pounds they put on from beer in the offseason. Players today are expected to recover from the previous season, and then continue to keep their bodies in shape throughout the offseason so they can just concentrate on their assignments when they get back to their teammates in July. Yeah, their training camps were harder to survive back thirty and forty years ago, but that’s because they needed to be whipped into shape in the first place.
The other thing that I think is telling about how the game has changed when it comes to training camp is the treatment of the preseason games by the coaches. One of the groundbreaking 1978 rule changes that is often overlooked is the decrease in preseason games from six to four. At that point, the goal of preseason games started to change. Coaches started aiming their strategy at just surviving the sixteen-game season (with no bye week until 1990). Previous to that expansion, coaches actually tried to win preseason games. Now, they just want to evaluate talent and shake some of the rust off of the known starters. Can you imagine that? Six preseason games. That was almost a half a season back then. It took almost a half a season of games they were trying to win just to prepare for the real thing.
I love it when training camp opens. Next to the draft, it’s the time with the most pure optimism of any point during the season. Training camp may be a bitch for the players, but it’s great for the fans. If you have the opportunity, I highly recommend you check one out. I have been to both the Panthers and the Bills camps, and had a great time at both. It’s the closest you can get to the players playing the game as you’ll ever get.
*Just for an example: Larry Csonka and Jim Kiick signed contracts in Miami worth $60,000 per year in 1971. Converting from 1971 dollars to today’s, which equals out to about $340,000 per year when inflation is taken into account.