By Steve Silverman-
(CBS) Training camp is nothing like the violent world it used to be in the NFL.
This used to be the most hated time of the year by veteran players. Coaches would push their players through demanding double sessions, sometimes as long as 2 ½ hours in the morning and 2 hours in the afternoon.
They were painful, brutal and nearly inconceivable when compared to the current activities.
Training camp changed dramatically because teams got a lot smarter.
Instead of putting their players through the ringer every summer, teams decided they would be better off keeping their talented players upright and ready to play in the regular season.
There was a time that teams played six preseason games every year and the regulars played three quarters or more in at least three of those games.
Coaches were of the opinion that their players would not be ready for the opening game of the season unless their players put themselves to the test in exhibition games.
Coaches like Vince Lombardi, Tom Landry and Don Shula knew what they were doing. Back in the 1960s and ‘70’s, players were more prepared to play their best football in the opening week of the season than they are today.
What has happened is that the preseason has become a walk through when compared with past generations. Starting players don’t play much in the four preseason games. A quarter or maybe two in the first two preseason games. Two-plus quarters in the third preseason game. A day off in the fourth and final preseason game.
The first two games of the regular season are much more like the final preseason games of a bygone era. The first games of the season often look good to most fans because starters will play for four quarters, but look at the tackling early in the season. It usually stinks.
The blocking isn’t much better.
Players make mistakes in these areas and you will also see players drop passes and put the ball on the ground after getting hit.
These issues tend to get cleared up before the September page gets pulled off the calendar.
Why has the preseason and training camp philosophy changed so radically? Teams have come to the conclusion that they don’t want to lose their best players in the most meaningless games.
You would think this would have been the philosophy that all teams would have adopted when the NFL began playing preseason games, but it was not the case. In the 1971 season, the New York Jets season was over before it started because Joe Namath tore up his knee while attempting to make a tackle of legendary Lion linebacker Mike Lucci after throwing an interception in a preseason game against Detroit. The Jets finished 6-8 that season and never had a shot at the postseason.
In 1999, the Rams nearly suffered a similar fate when No. 1 quarterback Trent Green tore up his knee while getting sacked in a game against the Kansas City Chiefs. St. Louis head coach Dick Vermeil was in tears when he realized that Green was lost for the year.
He knew he had a good backup in Kurt Warner, but he did not know that he was a championship-caliber quarterback.
That’s just what Warner was as the Rams won their only Super Bowl title in January, 2000 when they defeated the Tennessee Titans in Super Bowl XXXIV.
After the season, Vermeil realized his team had gotten lucky. He would retire from the Rams after the Super Bowl title and realized that allowing his players to be put in harm’s way prior to the start of the season was not a smart way to coach a football team. When he came back to coach the Chiefs shortly thereafter, he refused to put his best players in a position to get hurt in the preseason.
It’s a change that has made the game better. Fans may have to suffer through less-than-stellar football in the first month of the season, but few really notice.
Later in the season, the game is played at its highest level.
That’s the way it should be.
The NFL gets many things wrong – such as its pigheaded stance towards paying officials properly – but this was one thing it got right.
Steve Silverman is an award-winning writer, covering sports since 1980. Silverman was with Pro Football Weekly for 10 years and his byline has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Playboy, NFL.com and The Sporting News. He is the author of four books, including Who’s Better, Who’s Best in Football — The Top 60 Players of All-Time. Follow him on Twitter (@profootballboy) and read more of his CBS Chicago columns here.