Vets happy with shorter practices, camp schedules

For many Miami Dolphins veterans, the perception of Nick Saban and the reality about their then-rookie head coach collided last summer when they received their official training camp schedule.

Regarded by those who didn't know him well as a torturous taskmaster, Saban mailed out a training camp blueprint that called for zero conventional two-a-day practice sessions, the bane of every veteran. At that moment, acknowledged 11-year veteran defensive end Kevin Carter, the myth of Saban as some merciless martinet was put to rest.

And as Saban enters his second training camp, two-a-day sessions are all but dead leaguewide, too.

"Part of it, I'm sure, is the fear of injuries and the [ramifications] they have on your salary cap," Carter said during a mandatory minicamp last month. "But part of it, too, is just being smarter about taking good care of your players. With all the offseason work we do anymore, the minicamps and the OTAs [organized team activities], you don't really need two-a-days. If you have a team that works efficiently in camp, no wasted motion or energy, you can get your work done."

Change usually comes slowly, some might suggest at a glacierlike tempo, in the NFL. The evolution in philosophies regarding summer training camps, however, has occurred at a comparatively breakneck pace, basically over the last two or three years.

Even some head coaches who were raised in an era when camps lasted six weeks, featuring two lengthy practice sessions under a withering sun at a venue tucked away in a secluded area, have changed their way of thinking.

Many older veterans accustomed to the crucible of traditional two-a-day sessions, who have recently prepared for the season under more benign camp conditions, agree that the change is for the better.

"It's called football, but really it ought to be named legball, because it's a game of legs," Cincinnati Bengals 10-year veteran offensive tackle Willie Anderson said. "It makes a big difference if you get to the middle of the year and your legs still feel fresh. Believe me, there have been seasons when guys' legs were as heavy as lead in September. But I think coaches are guarding more now against fielding a team that goes into a year having left its legs in training camp."

The Bengals, under coach Marvin Lewis, are a good example of the enlightened mind-set.

Cincinnati has only four two-a-days scheduled at its camp at Georgetown College in Kentucky. And on each of those four days, the second session is at 7 p.m., when the heat has largely dissipated. The typical tedium of camp is broken up by an intrasquad scrimmage on Aug. 4 and the Bengals' annual Black-Orange "mock" game a day later. And the Bengals are at Georgetown just 14 days, believed to be the shortest camp time in the league, before returning to their permanent Cincinnati practice site.

Shorter camps, shorter practices and longer playoff runs? Well, based on the past two seasons, there is no discernible correlation yet, but certainly the trend has skewed toward training camps that are dramatically less demanding on players than in past years.

Like the old (and universally dreaded) Oklahoma drill, full-contact scrimmages and musty dormitories without air conditioning, the twice-daily practice regimens of the past and drawn-out camps in small college towns are disappearing from the NFL.

This summer, 13 teams will convene training camps at their permanent practice sites. That's actually two fewer than a year ago -- the Tennessee Titans will conduct part of camp at Austin Peay State University in Clarksville, Tenn., and first-year Saints coach Sean Payton opted to take his team out of the metropolitan New Orleans area and to Millsaps College in Jackson, Miss. -- but the trend appears to be irreversible.

Forever in search of fresh revenue streams, owners have discovered that training camps at home can put a few dollars in the coffers. Many franchises have found corporate sponsors for camps (just go to a practice some time and you'll marvel at the volume of signage) and have determined they can draw just as readily from hometown fans as they can from smaller towns where camps are a novelty item. The Atlanta Falcons will conduct an Aug. 5 workout in the midtown area of the city, and tickets are already a hot commodity.

The other financial angle, one that relates more to the length of practices and not to where they are held, is the salary cap. The cap is unforgiving in terms of injuries. Lose a player to a season-ending injury in camp and he still counts against the spending limit. Chicago general manager Jerry Angelo has referred to the volatile mix of physical practices in camp and the potential for serious injuries "the perfect storm," which is why so many coaches have opted for a more tranquil schedule.

Coaches are more prudent in their practices and contact is reduced from past years, which explains in part why tackling is such a diminished art. But staffs consider it a necessary trade-off. Gone are the days when Jimmy Johnson would regularly conduct his "middle drill," a running segment of practice aimed at testing a player's manhood.

Still, players feel they are tested enough in camp and, truth be told, the changes have primarily been about saving erosion on tired bodies, not saving money.

"Let's face it," Falcons linebacker Keith Brooking said, "those two-a-days get old real fast. And they can make you old real fast, too."

Even a throwback guy like Brooking tends to ignore the criticisms of grizzled former players who feel that the less daunting camp schedule has made for a kindler, gentler league. What it's made for, certainly, are longer careers. Too many coaches believe their playoff chances wilted in the summer heat and have made adjustments to compensate.

Increasingly, it seems, coaches have adopted what has come to be known as the 1-2-1 practice routine. Such a schedule means a team is on the field for one practice on the first day of the cycle, two on the second day and one session again the third day (and then the 1-2-1 cycle repeats). When there are two-a-days, the second practice is often later than the traditional 3 p.m. start time. And on the days following the two-a-day sessions, the lone practice typically is scheduled for the afternoon.

Last year, ESPN.com surveyed NFL teams and, of the franchises that responded, nearly two-thirds had adopted the 1-2-1 system or a similar practice paradigm. The numbers are even a little better than that this year, a new survey indicates. And in terms of the traditional two-a-day schedule -- a morning practice at about 9 a.m., meetings, lunch and rest time after that, and then a second practice at 3 p.m. -- only a few teams still employ it.

"It's called football, but really it ought to be named legball, because it's a game of legs. It makes a big difference if you get to the middle of the year and your legs still feel fresh."
Bengals OT Willie Anderson

Even most teams that hold two-a-day practices regularly in camp have broken with tradition, since rarely are both of the sessions "padded" practices. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers begin camp with eight straight days of double practices. The Philadelphia Eagles have two-a-days scheduled for virtually every day of camp. The Carolina Panthers will be on the field at 9:10 a.m. and 3:10 p.m. on nine of their first 12 days at Wofford College. But for all those teams, the second practice typically is a special-teams session or a walk-through.

For the most part, staffs continue to look for ways to make camps efficient but tolerable, and nighttime practices have become a popular mechanism for achieving that goal.

On those days when the Falcons practice twice, for instance (coach Jim Mora is a strong proponent of the 1-2-1 system), the second on-field session is always in the evening. The Jacksonville Jaguars open camp with two straight days of traditional two-a-day work, and after that, the second practices during camp are all evening sessions. Eight of the 10 two-a-days scheduled by New York Giants coach Tom Coughlin are on the morning-evening routine. The Cleveland Browns start their second practices at 5:30 p.m.

Saban has only six of 24 camp practices scheduled at 3 p.m., and all of them come on days when the Dolphins hold just one session. On days when Miami practices twice, the latter workout is always set for 7:30 p.m. And there is no time in camp when the Dolphins face consecutive two-a-days.

"To me, that's one of the biggest things, really," said middle linebacker Zach Thomas. "People talk about the so-called 'drudgery' of camp. Well, that was pretty much [defined] in the past by knowing that you had to drag [yourself] out there twice every day. There wasn't much down time, and your body never really got sufficient time to bounce back even a little bit, because it was twice a day just about every day. No matter where you're at, even in camps in cooler [climates], that's going to wear you down.

"This way is so much better, you can't believe it."

Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click hereInsider.