The Chicago Bears' opening practice for the 2023 NFL season is less than a week away. With camp opening that soon, it got me thinking about how the preparation for the regular season is so much different from when I started working in the League and even when I played football.
The biggest change is that there are no longer double practice sessions during a training camp, which is a huge change. When I started playing high school football, we had at least two weeks of double sessions and sometimes three. When I played in college, double practices began the first day of practice and ended either with the start of classes or the week before the first game. Whichever came first.
Why did we even have double sessions? A lot of it had to do with tradition. Players in high school, college or the NFL didn't train/workout year around like they do now. There were no health clubs/gyms/weight rooms to go to. Once practice began, the coaching staff felt they had to practice twice daily to get the players "in shape" and get their bodies ready for the regular season.
In the NFL, there was no offseason program or OTAs. In fact, it wasn't until the mid-1980s that NFL clubs even began to build weight rooms for their players. Don't forget, before players started making the huge amount of money they make today, their salaries from football were often not enough for them to get by for an entire year. Many players had offseason jobs. With holding down a 40-hour-a-week job, who had the time to work out? It became only natural to have two practices a day. The funny thing is, in other sports they didn't have "doubles". It was a football-only thing.
Today in the NFL, players train year-round and report to camp in great condition. There really isn't a need for the extra practices. When I started working in the League in the early 80s, doubles began with the first practice and often lasted until after the first or second pre-season game. Double practices weren't just a few days a week, they were at least six days a week and often seven.
In 1984 when I began working for the New York Giants, I remember vividly the first day of practice at Pace University in Pleasantville, NY. Practice started at 9:00 AM, and after about 10 minutes of stretching, we immediately went into the "Nutcracker" drill. It's a very physical two-on-one drill where each rep only lasts a few seconds. Hall of Fame Coach Bill Parcells said he wanted to begin Camp that way because he wanted to know who was ready to play. If you have never seen or done the Nutcracker, the strong, tough guy always wins. When an offensive lineman is going against a defensive lineman, it can get a bit crazy because it's very competitive. Needless to say, there is a lot of testosterone floating in the air.
NFL players have it easier today than in the "Old Days." The Bears vets all report to camp next Tuesday. While the first practice is Wednesday, there is no contact or hitting. In fact, the first two days are referred to as "ramp-up" days which are very similar to OTA practices where players go through individual and team drills, but no hitting is allowed. It won't be until next Friday that players put the pads on and begin contact work. Double Sessions? No such thing anymore. Today a double session is a 45-minute walk-through in the morning followed by regular practice in the afternoon. Also, players must have a full day off with no meetings or practice one day a week.
With the offseason programs the way they are and players keeping themselves in superb condition, there isn't a need for more practice. When players report to camp, most are already up to speed with the offensive and defensive playbooks, as they were "installed" during the off-season program. It's only new players that have been signed since the end of OTAs that have to play catch-up with the playbook.
In the NFL today, the game is so much more mental. The off-season program allows the players to learn what they need to know, so there is no need to start from scratch when camp opens. Players truly do prepare for the regular season instead of trying to get in shape and prepare.
Practices are far less physical than they used to be, and that can be good and bad. Seldom do we see clubs practice live tackling during camp, with the main reason being they don't want key players to get injured. The purpose of camp now is not only to get the team ready for the season but also stay healthy. The best way to do that is to reduce the amount of hitting in camp. In reality, the most hitting we see during camp is in the pre-season games. My feeling is that the absence of contact in camp leads to some sloppy play when the season begins, there is a noticeable amount of missed tackles and blocks. That isn't necessarily good for the game, but the most important thing during camp now is keeping players healthy. When a club losses key players to injury in camp, you can be assured they will lose the games when they count. Old-school people like me might not like all these changes, but they really are for the better of the game.