Training camp practices leave NFL coaches in quandary: to tackle or not

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NFL training camps have changed over the decades. Long gone are the double sessions in full pads designed to get a team in shape after an offseason in which players might have worked another job to help make ends meet. For several years now, full-speed tackling has largely been a no-no during camp as teams often practice in the blazing-hot temperatures during July and August. The idea is to keep players healthy for the start of the regular season.

But there has been no offseason like the 2020 NFL offseason. Because of the coronavirus pandemic and the threat to its players and staff, NFL teams have not had a normal offseason program, organized team activities or minicamp. Training camps have been altered and preseason games have been eliminated.

While the Kansas City Chiefs and Houston Texans, who are scheduled meet in the NFL's season opener on Sept. 10 at Arrowhead Stadium, have been in full pads since Aug. 14, the rest of the league joins them Monday for the first semblance of football.

"We're going to have to find a way to get the speed of our play up very quickly," Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers said. "We're going to have to get some hitting going. There's got to be some padded practices where we're maybe not tackling guys to the ground or ripping guys, but there needs to be some thudding up in practice and we've got to get that feel of the contact back."

How coaches get players the "contact back" is the interesting dynamic. Teams rarely tackle to the ground against their own team during camp. The Dallas Cowboys, under former coach Jason Garrett, would run a handful of goal-line plays in one practice in the summer that were live, and they would not allow running back Ezekiel Elliott to get a carry. The work would often go to a backup.

In previous years when teams would practice against each other in the summer, they would not tackle live, but the intensity level of those workouts were a only notch below game-like conditions. Intrasquad scrimmages could be more prevalent than in the past, but perhaps not include all of the starters.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Bruce Arians said there will be a need to tackle more in camp than in previous seasons (but you can bet quarterback Tom Brady will not be placed in harm's way).

"You have to be very careful tackling yourselves, but you've still got to tackle somebody," Arians said. "We'll probably have more than we've had in the past -- maybe one or two days where we're actually scrimmaging each other just to get the contact, facing cut blocks and all those things you're going to see in the first ball game."

Virus risk

With padded practices comes closer contact that could help transmit the coronavirus. However, NFL players are tested daily and the Cowboys, for example, have created something of a bubble during camp, with quarterback Dak Prescott estimating 90% of the Cowboys' players staying at a hotel connected to the practice facility.

Some players across the NFL have opted to wear a face shield for added protection, and more Cowboys are wearing eye shields than ever before. Mike McCarthy, hired as Cowboys coach in January, let the players make their own decisions about what gear to wear with consultation of the equipment and athletic training staffs.

"I've worked out with a mask on and it's kind of hard to breathe with it on," Dallas center Joe Looney said. "Football's a physical sport and we're going to be touching each other all the time, but I think our training staff and the NFLPA and the NFL, they've done a great job of making sure that the No. 1 thing is that the athletes are safe."

Said Cowboys linebacker Leighton Vander Esch: "I need to breathe when I'm playing. And it's one thing to have an eye shield on but to have that other part on your helmet, some guys can wear it or anything, but I'm probably not going to do it. We're sweating, we're hitting and doing all that. I don't think we're going to get around it just by wearing a little shield on our chin."

Tackling fundamentals

San Francisco 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan learned a lot from his father, Mike. Practices can be physical without tackling, but the evaluation process could suffer. Without preseason games, how can he tell for sure a running back can break tackles or a defensive back has the willingness to make a tackle?

"I've never done tackling before; I've never planned on it. I also don't think you have to have NFL players just tackle to get them ready to tackle," Shanahan said. "There's a certain way where you practice that our guys know how to hit and play low and pop a guy without bringing them to the ground. Bringing guys to the ground, to me, is where guys get hurt and you want to only do that on game day, but there might be certain drills and stuff you have to set up.

"There's going to be a few guys on this team where, gosh, it's neck and neck and it's got to play out, and as a coaching staff, we're going to have to figure out how to put those guys in that position, which will be new for us."

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McCarthy said he will have tackling fundamental sessions in every practice for Dallas players. In Washington, coach Ron Rivera plans to use a similar formula to what he had in Carolina for nine years (2011-19).

"Halfway through my first season was one of the things that was very evident was we weren't tackling as well as we needed to, and Sean McDermott, who's now with Buffalo as the head coach, he came up with this great idea of having a tackling circuit," Rivera said. "... Working on the technique of tackling so guys understand how to form it up, how to fit it up and how to make a tackle, I think, is important because you're not really going to be able to simulate as much live action as you would like to."

As much as there is concern about defensive players wrapping up and offensive players protecting the ball, Tennessee Titans coach Mike Vrabel worries about the special teams unit being ready for the Titans' opener on Sept. 14 at the Denver Broncos.

"This is critical that we don't go out there and our first live kickoff return is Sept. [14] and somebody gets hurt, because that's the last thing that you want to do is say, 'Well, I just wasn't ready for that guy in the speed to come down there, as he was covering kickoff,' because we all know that's what's going to happen," Vrabel said. "On Monday night, they're going to be flying down there."

And time will soon start flying, too. NFL teams are limited to 14 padded practices during training camp, and regular-season games are scheduled to be played in less than a month.

Tackling will be live in practices, but will it be an issue?

"I think we'll find out," Cowboys linebacker Sean Lee said. "After you get done with the first quarter maybe of the first game, some of the starters have played as much as they would during the entire preseason. I don't think that should be used as an excuse for missing tackles."

NFL Nation reporters Rob Demovsky, Turron Davenport, John Keim, Jenna Laine and Nick Wagoner contributed to this story.