WESTFIELD, Ind. — We’re in the midst of another training camp at Grand Park Sports Campus.
And it’s a tad different from Frank Reich’s camp experiences during an NFL playing career that spanned 14 seasons and four teams, including the first 10 seasons with the Buffalo Bills.
“Two-a-days, pads both practices, he said. “Full pads one practice, just upper (pads) the second. Run game with full pads, pass game with the uppers.
“Practices weren’t super long, but they were two-a-days. There were very few exceptions to that.”
The Bills trained at Fredonia (N.Y.) State from 1981-99, and endured “long training camps,” said Reich, the Bills’ popular, productive backup quarterback from 1985-94.
However, they never seemed to be the proverbial “dog days.” Marv Levy, whose bronze bust resides at the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, never was known as a taskmaster. He rarely even exposed his front-line players to extended minutes in preseason games.
“I don’t know why, but it didn’t seem hard. Of course, I was a quarterback,” Reich said with a smile. “There were years that it really wasn’t that difficult.”
Reich routinely fine-tuned his golf game during camp. Fredonia Country Club was a 5-minute drive from the training facility.
“I played 18 holes of golf almost every day,” he said.
The Bills held a morning practice that lasted roughly 90 minutes.
“We’d finish practice, go in and shower, grab lunch on the go and go play nine holes,” Reich said. “Then we’d come back just in time for the 2:30 afternoon practice. An hour and a half, finish a little after 4. Go grab dinner on the go and go play nine more holes and be back for the 7 o’clock team meeting.
“We were having fun. It was training camp. It was fun. We were playing football and getting better and bonding together.”
Levy’s approach, coupled with a slew of Hall of Fame players (Jim Kelly, Thurman Thomas, Andre Reed, James Lofton), produced the desired results. The Bills remain the only team in NFL history to reach four consecutive Super Bowls (1990-93). From 1988-94, they were 77-35 and advanced to the playoffs all seven seasons.
Training camp laid the groundwork.
“Some ways it’s easy to say it was harder back then because of the two practices every day,” Reich said. “Even if they were short – an hour and a half – it was still three hours of practice every day.
“I don’t know why, but it just felt like, ‘well, we don’t know any better. This is how it’s supposed to be.’
“It’s just what we did.”
The Collective Bargaining Agreement has chewed away at the length, intensity and frequency of on-field work, during the offseason as well as camp.
Now, players are limited to a total of four hours on the practice field per day for camp. Teams break that down into a walkthrough, and a padded practice that can’t exceed two and a half hours.
As for padded two-a-days? Forget it. The CBA limits padded practices to one per day, a maximum of 16 over the duration of camp and no more than three on consecutive days.
Even with those restraints, a coach wrestles with the structure of camp. How much is enough? Or too much? How much live hitting/tackling is required to adequately prepare for when games count?
Reich admitted he’s always looking for ways to better prepare.
“It’s a whole new game,” he said, “and so I think the key for us, and guys like myself who have some old-school in us, is to continue to learn and adapt. Bring some of the mentality that we think is good from the past and the traditions of training camp, but also be able to adapt and blend to the new kind of style of athlete.”
It’s impossible not to notice the difference.
Practices are unfolding at a quicker pace at Grand Park Sports Campus. Thanks, Matt Ryan. The newest face of the Indianapolis Colts approached Reich about ramping up the tempo of practice and, of course, was given the thumbs up.
A byproduct of players being required to reset PDQ between plays has been less time on the field. The first two practices this week – one scheduled to last an hour and 20 minutes, the other an hour and a half – ended 10 minutes early.
The longest scheduled practice this summer is 1 hour, 45 minutes.
Also, the Colts have 16 full-scale practices, buttressed by five days of walkthroughs. There are only three stretches where players face three straight days of full-scale work.
That’s in stark contrast to previous Reich-led camps:
- Last summer, there were 20 practice sessions and players practiced four consecutive days three times.
- In 2018, his first year as head coach, the schedule involved 18 practices and again involved practices on four consecutive days on three occasions.
“You adjust,” Reich said.
Reich, general manager Chris Ballard and their support staff spent a good portion of the offseason debating how best to structure training camp. The team’s notorious poor starts drove much of the discussion.
The Colts have lost a league-high eight straight season openers. They look to snap that drought Sept. 11 at Houston.
And their 7-12 September record since Reich’s arrival in 2018 includes a 1-4 start in 2021 and 1-5 last season.
The overriding objective is getting the necessary preparation while limiting the risk of injuries to players.
In the first week of camp across the NFL, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers lost Pro Bowl center Ryan Jensen for “multiple months,” according to coach Todd Bowles, with a knee injury. San Francisco defensive tackle Maurice Hurst suffered a torn biceps that might force him to miss the season.
“Yeah, you worry about injuries,” Reich said. “Now, a lot of it is get to week 1 healthy. Hey, get prepared and get all of the mental and physical stuff you need, but really have your eye on, ‘Let’s be healthy’.”
Again, Reich has gleaned information during his three decades in the NFL as a player and coach. He’s taken this from Levy, that from Tony Dungy.
“You adjust,” he said. “When I first got here in ’18, we had a couple of practices that were 2:15 or 2:30. We went hard, really hard. Practices were longer and harder and we started 1-5.
“We decided that was too much.”
Did he take a tired team into the season opener against Cincinnati (a 24-23 loss)?
“I don’t know, but in ’19 we came out and I backed off (in camp) and we started off 5-2,” Reich said.
It was a similar approach last summer, but injuries early in camp to quarterback Carson Wentz (broken foot) and All-Pro guard Quenton Nelson (broken foot) contributed to a 1-4 start.
Through the years, Reich has come to the conclusion there are different ways to approach camp.
“I like to use the term there’s multiple webs of reciprocity,” he said. “It’s like a spider web and there are multiple webs. You pull one here and it pulls the web everywhere else.”
One of the most noticeable changes to camp – other than Ryan pushing the pace, that is – involves the start time for practice. Fourteen of the 16 begin at noon. Previously, Reich often preferred earlier times. There were seven 9 a.m. starts in ’18 and 17 10 a.m. starts last summer.
“We’ve changed,” Ballard said. “You can see with the start times. Rusty Jones and our strength staff – who I have a great deal of trust in – have worked hard this offseason to try to get a good camp schedule so we can hit the ground running better in week 1.”
Pushing most of the start times back two hours was to better reflect regular-season kickoffs. Nine of the games, and perhaps more, have 1 p.m. kickoffs.
“We play at 1 o’clock, so hopefully from a circadian rhythm standpoint, talking to Rusty, getting them up, getting to walk through, getting the run in their eyes early,” Ballard said. “We can start setting their clocks to how we play.”
Ballard also stated the obvious, preceding it with an expletive under his breath.
“. . . play better,” he said. “Let’s just play better in week 1. I mean, we played bad (in a 28-16 loss to Seattle).
“Let’s just play good football.”
You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.