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The tragic and shocking death of Minnesota offensive tackle Korey Stringer last weekend has people questioning the safety of not only NFL training camps, but football practices at all levels. Stingerâ€™s death followed the death of a Florida State recruit from heat stroke. The death of a Northwestern player last week from asthma only made matters worse.
Shortly after Stringerâ€™s death, Paul Tagliabue called on all NFL teams to reassess their practice habits.
Is this an overreaction? Perhaps. The fact that such a tragedy even happened -- from something that seems so preventable -- almost assures that it will be over-analyzed. But perhaps, as Nick Cafardo of the Boston Globe said on Sunday, we should overreact, because thatâ€™s the only way change often happens.
"I've coached in some of the hottest places in the country," ex-Cowboys and Oklahoma Sooners coach Barry Switzer told Cafardo last week. "As a coach, I'm not an expert on the subject, but there are warning signs and you have to pay attention. In some cases, the kid - and I'm sure Korey Stringer was like this - is so competitive that he wants to show he can take it and beat it. Sometimes that competitive edge can be a detriment, especially in situations like this. But teams have to be able to recognize when a big guy has had enough and get him out of there."
"If the heat index was too high, we'd take the pads off, get into shorts, or cut practice in half," Switzer said.
Sounds like a routine habit for one NFL franchise we all know -- the San Francisco 49ers. There will be all kinds of solutions and ideas presented -- shorten the camps, practice indoors, etc -- yet an even better alternative is being played out every day in Stockton, California. In the wake of Stringerâ€™s death, and to avoid future heat-related problems, the NFL may want to take a look at the practice habits of the 49ers.
The 49ers practices are legendary, and they have been run the same way since Bill Walsh arrived in 1979. Despite the rather steamy temperatures in Stockton -- where the team holds its training camps -- the style of the practices helps the players beat the heat. There are very few full contact practices. Players wear shorts in the afternoon. Veterans are given lots of time off.
Some coaches will bemoan such an approach. Jimmy Johnson, Bill Parcells, and Marty Schottenheimer encourage contact. Phil Simms once said that getting hit was necessary in order to prepare you body for the contact, since it was not something your body usually had to incur. Yet the 49ers have been doing what they have been doing for over 20 years, and have a huge track record of success with it.
Of course, this goes much deeper than just the lack of constant contact. There are other benefits to the system as well.
The West Coast Offense requires a maniacal attention to detail, and that kind of precision is honed in practice. Practices need to be run crisply. The 49ers understand this better than anyone, and that is the reason, more than anything else, that other franchises have faltered when they try to emulate the WCO.
Really, how much of the physical, contact drills and full-pads practices are really necessary at the pro level? This equation gets a little tricky when applied to high school and college players, since they are all players who are developing. Coaching staffs at those levels need to see what theyâ€™ve got. Certain players tend to play a step slower in their pads. What kind of instincts does a player have? A running back might look great running out a play, but you canâ€™t wait until game day to see how aggressively and decisively he hits the hole. You can only find out by putting on the pads and hitting. Thereâ€™s a lot of evaluating going on.
But the NFL is a different story. The majority of players in the NFL are much more established. Most players with just one year of experience have shown their coaches what they are capable of. And training camp is not an all-out war for starting spots -- most NFL coaches will tell you that 80 percent of any given roster is already decided before camp even opens.
So why put that 80 percent of your final roster through hell for four weeks in August? The reason used to be simple -- to get in shape.
"When we came to camp, we were out of shape," said Merlon Olson, the great defensive tackle for the Rams. "Today, players are expected to come to camp in shape."
In Washington, veterans have been grumbling about Marty Schottenheimerâ€™s college-style, full-pads practices (of which there are 24 scheduled for the first 3 Â˝ weeks of camp). I, for one, would be inclined to grumble, too. What is Bruce Smith going show you in training camp that would effect how and when he plays during the season? Why even put him in pads? Just give him a banana daiquiri, tell him when to show up for week one and let him do his thing. But even with rookies and free agents who actually have something to prove, it still makes no sense to practice in heat. In searing heat, the players are suffering too much to get much out of practice anyway.
"You know, some of these big linemen out there can lose 8 to12 pounds a practice," coach Steve Mariucci said. "Thatâ€™s why we have water and Gatorade available. The days of 'suck-it-upâ€™ and 'just work through itâ€™ are over, or at least they should be. That is just an old school way to run things and frankly, itâ€™s an absurd way to do things."
When defensive tackle Dana Stubblefield left for the Washington Redskins in 1998, one of his first complaints (in a long list of them during his three years there) was that the Redskins were too sloppy in practice. On July 31, former offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg called off Detroit Lions practice due to a small degree of sloppiness from the staff and the players. It wasnâ€™t much, but it was enough. The move was a calculated one, most believe, to make a point: practice is done right, it is enforced strictly, and it is executed precisely.
"Mornhinweg knows the point that everyone misses about the West Coast scheme heâ€™s installing: more than anything, its success is about attention to detail," Chris Mortenson said on ESPN.com. "Itâ€™s about how you practice, how you meet, how you eat, how you restâ€¦any detail thatâ€™s out of whack is considered a threat to the teamâ€™s success."
"It's not just the 'West Coastâ€™ scheme. It really is a system, or a culture, about how you do things as a team."
The NFL should take a closer look at how the 49er conduct practice -- and learn from it.