We're not gonna back out now, are we?
This is what Mike Singletary promised us. He promised us intensity, toughness, discipline. He promised us "physical with an F," a phrase he should copyright if he hasn't already. (Hey, if Dennis Green can have "They are who we thought they were"....) We swallowed it all, hook line and sinker. So now that training camp's begun, are we really surprised that it's not a siesta?
This is what we wanted.
Then again, do we really want physical with this much F?
Right off the bat, Singletary's scheduled "a rigorous marathon of two-a-days in full pads, every day from [last] Saturday until the 49ers' preseason opener August 14." Naturally, the press describes it as "boot camp." And the players are duly impressed. "I know this camp is going to be brutal," said Patrick Willis. "Physical and intense," added Joe Staley.
No one added "nerve-wracking," so I'll just go ahead and do it now.
It's no secret that more hitting means more injuries. But as one writer noted, "no one can gripe too much. Singletary, after all, has [a] bust in his honor sitting in the Hall of Fame." "That's the thing," agreed Justin Smith. "He's actually done it. I'm sure under Buddy Ryan they were hitting twice a day. He's definitely speaking from experience, and that makes what he's saying mean a whole lot more."
True enough. Singletary's been there and done that. He knows what he's doing, and that's why—in this and all things—he's earned our trust.
We're the 49ers, not the Bears, and our Papa isn't George Halas, it's Bill Walsh. And reading these gruesome descriptions of Singletary's camp, I couldn't help but think, WWBD?
We already know. In David Harris's definitive Walsh biography, perfectly titled "The Genius," there's a chapter called "How to Coach." In that chapter, Harris describes Walsh's first training camp, in 1979. Hold Singletary's approach in your mind as I share with you the following passage:
"One of Walsh's central concerns in his camp regimen was to avoid overtraining. Almost all coaches at the time used preseason camps to stress conditioning and toughness—scrimmages with full contact twice a day, exercise to the point of exhaustion, often using military boot camp as their model—but Walsh believed that this approach led to 'excessive physical and emotional fatigue' that in turn led to decreased concentration, resilience, and ultimately, performance, not to mention higher rates of injury. He often cited studies that showed football players trained that way were more exhausted going into a season than they were coming out of it, exactly the wrong equation. So in the interest of breaking camp fresh rather than spent, he always limited the most strenuous parts of practice and always scheduled recovery time, even though that approach was commonly dismissed as 'soft.' "
So Walsh used his training camps not to establish intensity, but to establish the ability to execute. He didn't take chances (and, in his view, waste time) by making his players sumo-wrestle in nutcracker drills. Instead, he made his players run plays, over and over and over again. As a result, his players not only were healthier, but also knew better how to actually play. And if Ronnie Lott was any indication, they had plenty of intensity anyway. " 'Everybody in the NFL is intense,' Bill warned. 'The difference is who's prepared and who isn't.' "
To put it simply, Bill Walsh would've wanted no part of Camp Singletary.
Does this mean Singletary's boot camp will fail? Of course not. Sure, Walsh's teams were great, but so were Singletary's. Did the '85 Bears look like they were suffering "excessive physical and emotional fatigue"? No. Walsh's studies aside, a boot camp can work. A boot camp, indeed, can produce a champion.
But like he always did, Walsh had a point. A team doesn't win because it's more intense. It wins because it executes better. It wins because it's mastered every nuance of every play, and it wins because it knows precisely what to do, in any situation. Crunch-time in an NFL game involves unimaginable pressure. When it's all on the line, intensity isn't the answer. The answer, in fact, is just the opposite: coolness, focus. Execution. If your training camp prepares you, you can do it. But if it exhausts you, you probably can't.
And preparation is so much more difficult when you have so much to learn. Like Walsh's first team, the present team must learn entirely new schemes, on both offense and defense, and the only way we'll master those schemes is by concentrated repetition. We can't afford to waste energy by proving our toughness. If we can't run our plays to perfection, all the toughness in the world won't get us anywhere.
And then, of course, there're those "higher rates of injury." I know, I know, football's a dangerous game, and injuries can happen at any point in the season. But training-camp injuries are just the worst. Suffer enough, and your season ends before it even gets started. That's why, during even a Walshian camp, I'm completely stressed out. I'm almost afraid to check the news, always dreading another blown ACL.
The point is, training camp's already stressful enough. And deliberately increasing the risk isn't helping at all.
But again, this is what we wanted. For years, we'd been struggling to find an identity, and Singletary provided one as soon as he took over. His identity's a good one, and a training camp like this is just part of the deal.
So no. We're not gonna back out now. Singletary's gonna dish it out, and we're gonna take it, no matter how brutal it is.
For better, and for worse.