One of the hardest things to deal with once teams get to training camp is the evaluation of younger players. Though training camp offers enough time to perform this task well, some teams tend to spend more effort focusing on getting the veteran players they are familiar with ready to go for the upcoming season. This an easy trap to fall into because every team wants to start the season off on the right foot.
One of the worst things that can happen to any team trying to establish itself is a slow start. If a team commences the year with a losing record over the first quarter of the season, it’s tough to rebound. At this point, it feels like you’re constantly digging yourself out of a hole, with each game carrying a scent of do-or-die.
Training camp is critical for the evaluation and development of players. Why? Because the rules have changed very radically thanks to the new Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA).
The amount of time coaches are permitted to have with their players on the field in full gear has been reduced dramatically. There are no more two-a-day practices at training camp. In the past, two-a-day practices were a staple for most teams during training camp. Now, players not only practice only once a day during camp, they also get a mandatory day off each week.
All that being said, the biggest hurdle teams have to deal with once the season starts is the fact that they are now required to operate only one practice per week in full pads with their players. Prior to the new Collective Bargaining Agreement, teams could and would have as many as three full padded practices during the week, with no less than two. So the bulk of the work in pads must be done in training camp, particularly for evaluation purposes.
My opinion of why the owners acquiesced to the players’ request for fewer practices is that the owners now have one more year to talk the players into a longer regular season schedule. Making training camp and in-season practices easier could have the players contemplating adding another game or two to the regular season schedule.
Previously, the players have balked at the notion of extending the season. They feel they are already at the brink in terms of their physical health and well-being. More games would only have the players rolling the dice with their careers. So what if they get an extra game check or two? If it means that their careers could be shortened even more than they already are, it’s pennywise and dollar dumb to do so.
Owners and their media partners are driven by numbers. More games = more money. For owners, it’s no longer about quality, it’s about quantity.
Teams that focus on getting their starters ready for the season are missing the big picture, which is making sure you’re keeping your best players on the roster. In the end, it’s not about who can comprehend the schemes the fastest. It’s about who can make plays and make them routinely. At the end of the day, the teams with the better players win. The Seattle Seahawks had better players than the Denver Broncos. It didn’t matter that Peyton Manning is the smartest player in football. He couldn’t find open receivers and his offensive line couldn’t handle Seattle’s pressure defenses.
There is an old saying in the National Football League: “Players, not plays, win games.”
How to improve training camp
Wes Welker has caught 841 passes since the Chargers cut him back in 2004.
My first thought is that every player should report at the same time, but have only the bottom 50 to 60 players practice and play in the first preseason game. The rest of the team—the players you know will be around after the final cut—condition and participate in position drills, but without pads.
The emphasis here is to evaluate and practice the mid-to-bottom portion of your roster. These are the players you’ll need to decide on at a later date, most of whom are relatively new to their teams. The common mistakes teams make during OTAs is to use those sessions as their primary evaluation period for players. As a result, teams go into training camp with a strong opinion on these first or second-year players with too little experience. Therefore, teams don’t give some of these players a serious look at all during training camp because their minds are already made up. Players are cut all the time without teams really getting to know them.
It’s not until teams get to training camp that they can make fair and objective evaluations on players. The reason is simple: Anybody can look good in shorts. It’s not until the pads are on that you can realistically see what a player can really do.
Because you’re only practicing with two thirds of the team in pads under my new concept, the emphasis would be on fundamentals and individual drill work. There would be a lot more 7-on-7 (perimeter work) and 9-on-7 (interior work) during these practices. At the end of practice there would be a short team period, where the whole offense would practice against the whole defense. So the players would get used to playing with one another in their relatively new systems. Again, you are not trying to get these players ready for the season. You are simply trying to evaluate and develop them in an effort to make sure you are keeping and cutting the right players.
Play-time would be determined ahead of the first preseason game, with every player participating in approximately the same number of plays. This would have to be scripted and monitored carefully by the coaches. Game tape is the best source of evaluation you can get on a player and it’s a great teaching and learning tool for both the players and coaches.
At the conclusion of the first preseason game, teams can now make sounder decisions on which players they want to continue developing with the idea that these are the players who can potentially make up a team. Teams can now start giving these players more work during practice in lieu of the players they feel have little chance of making the roster. This will allow teams to get a better handle on who is in the best position to make the team.
The veteran players would get the bulk of playing time during the second and third preseason games. You would not have to give the younger players any more than a quarter of playing time in these contests. However, during the final preseason game, all of the playing time would go to the younger players.
For this approach to be as effective as possible, teams should not have a mandatory cut date other than the final one. Every team should be able to keep all its players until the last preseason game has been completed. It makes no sense to cut any player before that time period. It’s been talked about, but it needs to be mandated by team executives.
No team wants to play their veterans during the final preseason game, but they are forced to because of the 15-man player cut they have to make in order to get their rosters down to 75 players before the last preseason contest. This makes absolutely no sense to me.
With the advent of how teams must monitor their practices according to new legislation under the CBA there have to be teams looking for new ways to train, develop and evaluate players.
Proper player evaluation and development is essential for an organization’s success. The teams that make the right decisions in player evaluations and are able to take advantage of the limited time they have to work with and develop younger players are the teams that are going to have a competitive advantage going into the season.
Follow Jerry on Twitter: @RealJerryAngelo
Jerry Angelo was the General Manager of the Chicago Bears from 2001 to 2012. Prior to joining the Bears, Angelo spent 14 years overseeing the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' scouting department as their Director of Player Personnel. Angelo graduated from Miami University in 1971.