|Wednesday, June 26
Updated: July 8, 9:58 AM ET
Plenty for coaches to worry about in summer
By John Clayton
NFL head coaches have embarked on month-long vacations the past week, a weird, fortunate quirk in scheduling caused by the late July start of training camps.
Many will go to the beach. Others will just relax. All will sleep well. They better. When head coaches return to work, their sleeping days are over. As great as training camps are to implement systems and work on fundamentals, they cause too many sleepless nights.
These days, coaches hold their breath at camp instead of blowing their whistles. The gatherings are that scary for a couple of reasons.
"The roster limits cut down what you can do in camp, so you can't be as physical as you would like," Falcons coach Dan Reeves said. "You are worried to death you might get somebody hurt."
Coaches worry about the injuries. Because most teams stretch their salary caps to sign players, it's hard to replace those lost by injuries. Coaches worry about how to run practices when the roster limit is 80.
The cap makes no exceptions for injuries, so if a team is lucky enough to have $1 million of cap room available for injuries, they don't want to self-inflict losses with an overly physical training camp.
Reeves remembers the camps of the Cowboys in the 1960s. They would go as long as 10 weeks. There were six exhibition games. Tom Landry was fair in not overdoing it in camp, but the double sessions and long practices seemed to go on forever.
A team now has about 15 days to get ready for the first exhibition game, six weeks to get ready for a season. The 15 days of practice for veterans is what is agreed upon by the NFL Players Association and the NFL. Most teams have eliminated a weeklong rookie orientation, rendered meaningless because teams can work with rookies and young players in the offseason program for at least two months.
Coaches worry so much because of the small numbers and injury concerns that they constantly adjust during those first 15 days.
"With the Cowboys, we used to bring 140 to 160 players to camp," Reeves said. "You used camp to get in shape. Now, if a player comes to camp not in shape, he's probably so far behind he's not going to make the team. That changes the intensity of your practices."
Reeves is like most coaches. He'll try not to have back-to-back practices in pads in which there is a lot of hitting. To vary things, he may take the team on the field for a morning practice in shells and save the full-pad practice for the afternoon. Another time, he may just have them go out in shorts to work on the mental aspect of learning plays.
That's when the worry sets in. Let's say three or four offensive linemen come up with leg pulls that sideline them a couple of days. The coach might have to eliminate a padded practice because having 11 linemen banging against 14 defensive linemen could promote more injuries with the offensive linemen having to take extra repititions.
"It drives you crazy because you can't work on tackling much," Reeves said. "Those are the fundamentals you work on when you're in games. You ask yourself about having a scrimmage, but that might be like practice. You worry to death about injuries."
Older veterans with leg problems usually work only one practice a day. Starters see limited action during the first two exhibition games. Two years ago, Jaguars coach Tom Coughlin was miserable during training camp because he had a half dozen offensive linemen sidelined with injuries. Coughlin, who loves hard practices to drive his team to get maximum performance, didn't know what to do to get quality work out of his troops.
He wasn't alone. Most coaches are miserable at camps. What used to be a fun time for the head coaches now is just a necessary stress time waiting for the regular season.
Lighter camps, however, are smarter camps, and teams are wisely using their resources better. Offseason programs start in late March, and most teams get between 90 to 100 percent attendance. Coaches have minicamps. They have 14 days of coaching sessions.
"Those are great for rookies because the rookies who used to report to camp were exposed to a lot of stuff for the first time in camp," Reeves said. "Now, the rookies are prepared for camp. They know the playbook better. But, of course, we are asking them to play a lot quicker, too."
Because of Korey Stringer's death last summer, coaches will be extra cautious about heat this year. It was an uncommonly hot summer last year, particularly in the Midwest. For years, players have been reminded about getting enough fluids. At their first meetings in camps, trainers and experts teach them the proper ways to keep themselves hydrated.
This summer, extra precautions will be taken. The Vikings, for example, plan to have a fulltime doctor available on the field at every practice. They will have a large umbrella set up on the field to help players cool down. They will have conditioning tests the first couple of days of camp to make sure players are fit enough for practices in the heat.
"People are just so much more aware about the heat," Reeves said. "It used to be a macho thing with coaches practicing players in the heat. Some coaches didn't have water breaks. It's a wonder we didn't get anybody killed back then."
But players are bigger now. Those old 260-pound defensive tackles are now 340 pounds. There are still so many unknowns. On July 1, teams start testing for ephedrine, which big players used as an aid to lose weight before camp. Will a few come in bigger? Will they find another quick fix? No one knows, but it's the head coach who has to worry.
"The worst nightmare is seeing a player go down because of the heat," Reeves said. "You always worry about going too much or too little at practice. Our coaches are constantly checking with players about getting water all the time. Players are asked to take water to their rooms at night. We check players' weight to see if a player loses an extreme amount of weight. We're constantly checking the heat index.
"All a player has to do is get his body out of whack, and no doctor can do anything about it."
Reeves does things a little differently. He holds offseason sessions through July and has a full minicamp in July. He doesn't want his players to forget much during what might be a month off, so he keeps everything -- including conditioning -- fresh.
Camps are different. Look at his old Cowboy team. They moved camp to San Antonio where they plan short morning practices outside and the main work in the afternoon in the air-conditioned Alamodome.
Of course, Cowboys coach Dave Campo will have to worry about practicing on artificial turf, which is harder on knee and leg joints than real grass. The concerns never stop.
John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.