Giant leap forward: Good riddance to NFL 2-a-days

August 1, 2011 - 7:59 PM
Falcons Camp Football

Atlanta Falcons offensive tackle Sam Baker, right, blocks defensive end John Abraham (55) during their NFL football training camp workout in Flowery Branch, Ga., Monday, Aug. 1, 2011. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. (AP) — Roddy White stripped off his pads after practicing for nearly 2½ hours on a balmy Georgia morning, knowing he wouldn't have to go through that again.

Not on this day, at least.

Two-a-days have been tossed aside, joining leather helmets and the Wing-T as NFL relics.

Good riddance.

No wonder White was wearing such a big smile as lunchtime approached.

"I am done for the day, baby," gloated the Atlanta Falcons' star receiver.

Well, that was a bit of an overstatement. There were still meetings to attend, film to watch, weights to lift. Heck, White and his teammates weren't even done on the field Monday, returning in the afternoon for an hour-long practice known in football terms as a walkthrough.

But considering what training camp was like in past years, this feels like a walk in the park.

The league's new collective bargaining agreement finally puts the focus where it should have been all along. On the players. No longer can wannabe generals (some refer to them as coaches) hold two full practices on a single day. No longer can they push players dangerously close to the brink of exhaustion. No longer can they send out players day after day after day in blazing summer heat.

There are coaches and ex-players — and even some current players — who look at the changes with a disdainful eye, believing it's brought a little too much humanity to this violent sport.

Hogwash.

These guys are still going to be throwing themselves into each other for our enjoyment on any given Sunday, maybe even more violently than they did before because they're not so beat up after training camp. At least now, they'll improve the odds of living a better life after they put away the helmet and pads.

"I'm trying to live to see 65," White said, "and not have headaches."

"I wanna be able to play with my kids when I'm done," added a teammate, Falcons safety Thomas DeCoud.

What's so unreasonable about that?

While studies continue on the devastating effects football can have on the human body, there's already plenty of anecdotal evidence to break your heart many times over. We've had enough players such as the late John Mackey, the eloquent, thoughtful Hall of Famer whose mind slipped away in his golden years, undoubtedly because he took far too many blows to the noggin.

Too bad this didn't come along sooner for players such as Mackey, or even Pittsburgh Steelers defensive lineman Casey Hampton, who's 33 years old and going into an 11th season that probably feels like his 111th.

"Coming in under this system and playing this long," he said wistfully, "I could only imagine how much better my body would feel."

Still, there are those — largely in the coaching ranks — who would have you believe these new rules are going to produce a league full of wimps. Many of them speak through gritted teeth, saying these are the rules and they'll just have to adapt.

Occasionally, one will slip up and say what the majority of them are thinking.

"I think the players got their way a little bit," said Paul Alexander, offensive line coach for the Cincinnati Bengals. "It's like your kid wants a pony, and the kid gets a pony. I didn't get my kids a pony."

Some have raised the notion that limiting the amount of contact and mandating once-a-week off days during camp — another player benefit in the new CBA — will result in them being less prepared for the rigors of the game, actually resulting in more injuries.

Again, hogwash.

Seriously, does anyone really believe that a player's odds of getting hurt will actually increase because he didn't spend enough time running into other gargantuan men at full speed when it didn't count in the standings?

"The statistics say it's like being in a car crash every time you make a tackle," DeCoud said. "Well, we're saving ourselves from a lot of car crashes."

Cleveland linebacker Scott Fujita, who's on the executive committee of the players' union, said a study done a few years ago found that more than half the reported injuries in a given season occurred during the first two weeks of training camp.

Fortunately, there are some coaches who don't live in the dark ages. New Orleans defensive coordinator Gregg Williams says he petitioned the league nearly a decade ago to do away with two-a-days.

"For people not to understand that fatigue and accumulated contact are directly related to injuries, well, they're not very smart," he said.

Maybe in a different era, there was some justification for two-a-days. Some longtime executives remember the 80-20 rule: A team figured 80 percent of the players would report to camp in shape, while the rest would need a lot of extra running. These days, there probably aren't more than 1 percent who require anything more than the usual conditioning.

Many players believe the quality of the game will actually improve because they're going be fresher, stronger, faster for the season.

"You can take care of your body the right way," Fujita said. "You can see guys conditioning after practice. Most years, you really can't do that because you're trying to preserve everything you've got for the next practice. We can actually train our bodies in the weight room. We can get with the trainers and do some things we normally wouldn't have time to do. I think it's going to be so good."

As if health and safety weren't enough reason to embrace these new guidelines, the fans will also come off as winners. Anyone out there against having their favorite player be able to stay on the field longer than he does now? Well, check back in a decade. The average career will undoubtedly be extended in this kinder, gentler NFL.

"Without these two-a-days," said Dallas linebacker DeMarcus Ware, who led the league in sacks two of the last three years, "the sky's the limit."

Looking forward, the players need to hold firm on another victory at the bargaining table: Keeping the 16-game regular season, instead of going to 18 games like the owners wanted.

All that would've done is put even more money in those already bulging suit pockets.

Now let's see if we can get the NCAA on this one-a-day bandwagon.

Surely there are plenty of college players who wanna better chance of yukking it up with their kids someday, who wanna have long lives, too.

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Paul Newberry in a national writer for The Associated Press. He can be reached at pnewberry(at)ap.org or www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963

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AP Sports Writers Joe Kay in Cincinnati, Brett Martel in New Orleans, Will Graves in Pittsburgh, Tom Withers in Cleveland, Jaime Aron in Dallas, John Wawrow in Buffalo, Steven Wine in Miami and Joseph White in Washington contributed to this report.