Are the New CBA Rules for Training Camp and Kickoffs Creating a Kindler, Gentler NFL?

By Patrick Wall

On a soggy Tuesday in Bethlehem, Pa., Philadelphia Eagles players began cleaning out their dorm rooms and filling their cars with their clothes, playbooks and free cases of Gatorade. It was the last day of training camp, and players were heading home before crossing the state to play the Steelers in Pittsburgh on Thursday.

Yes, the few sweltering weeks of camp had ended, and the players had been rewarded with an extra day off.

Wait, what?

That’s right. Head coach Andy Reid, known as one of the most brutal training camp overlords in the NFL, decided his team had done so well on the practice fields of Lehigh University that they deserved a break.

In the past, Reid would put his team through “hell” (his words, not mine) for the first three days of camp, a tactic he used to build toughness and camaraderie. Now he was giving his team the proverbial pat on the back after not seeing them all offseason due to the lockout.

Welcome to the brave new world of the NFL.

The league’s new collective bargaining agreement stipulates that teams are only allowed one padded practice per day at training camp. This means the dreaded two-a-days are gone, replaced instead with one padded practice and one slower paced walkthrough.

The rule was created to give players a break and preserve their bodies for the regular season and playoffs. While it has drawn the ire of coaches, players love it.

“Camp wasn’t so bad this year,” said Eagles running back LeSean McCoy in what might be the understatement of the season.

True, the lack of a “normal” training camp has the potential to hurt the toughness and cohesion of teams. But it is not without benefits. Thanks to these less strenuous practices, players are leaving camp feeling better than they ever have. This could potentially lead to fewer injuries and better play late in the season.

The NFL has come a long way since the days of Vince Lombardi and Hank Stram. The once commonplace practices of denying players water and cutting guys who couldn’t stay conscious may as well have happened during the Middle Ages. The boorish and brutal attitude of the “60 minute men” – the men who played on both sides of the ball in the game’s early days – has all but evaporated.

Modern football is a smarter and safer sport, though many critics would argue the game has given up some of its signature grit to accommodate its new traits.

While the change in training camp procedure may be the most glaring change in the kinder, gentler world of the NFL, it is certainly not the first.

Defensive players have groaned at several rule changes over the past few years. Defensive backs are no longer permitted to be as hands-on as they once were, while the big boys up front have to be more careful than ever to avoid unnecessary hits on the quarterback – a rule many feel is especially true for the league’s premier signal callers.

And in addition to the new training camp rules, the NFL moved the kickoff spot to the 35, vastly diminishing the number of kick returns, and thus, kick return touchdowns.

Yes, the NFL needs to be on the lookout for its players. And yes, the league does need to make sure it can protect its investments – namely, its star players. But the NFL also risks alienating its fanbase.

In many ways, the NFL has succeeded because it’s not like soccer or baseball – it’s a brutal, punishing sport that rewards players for laying devastating hits and performing well, even after their bodies are all but destroyed.

To attempt to eradicate all injury and create the safest game possible is to effectively neuter a game created to be vicious. It’s a sport no person in their right mind should play, yet it’s as much fun to play as it is dangerous. Each NFL player understands the risks every time they step on the field, and they accept that risk by cashing their six or seven-figure checks.

So as 1900 players 32 teams leave training camp and head home for the remainder of the preseason and beyond, fans, coaches and the players themselves are left to wonder if the new rules will lead to greater success or more broken bodies on the field come December.

What do you think? Is the NFL turning soft, or are the rules justified?

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About Patrick Wall

A Philly-based journalist. I like football, long walks on the beach and the first Counting Crows album.

Posted on August 17, 2011, in Commentary and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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