Green Bay Packers assistant head coach Winston Moss, an 11-year National Football League veteran, remembers his rookie training camp in 1987 as if it was yesterday.
Moss was playing linebacker for first-year Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Ray Perkins, who wanted to instill toughness in his young team.
“We had three-a-days, where all three practices were in pads,” Moss said.
“The humidity down in Tampa, the contact, the hitting, it was brutal. It was absolutely brutal.”
When asked to compare training camp back then to now, Moss replied: “Oh my goodness, it’s not even close.”
Some would argue today’s players are pampered compared to their predecessors. But with the dawn of the NFL free-agent era and reduced roster sizes in camp, most coaches have dialed down the frequency and intensity of practices.
“There’s more awareness of trying to take care of players, make sure you aren’t wearing them out in training camp,” said Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers, a 25-year NFL coaching veteran who has seen vast changes during his tenure.
Even in the past decade much has evolved. Packers coach Mike McCarthy’s rest-and-recovery schedule this month includes just 24 training camp practices. As recently as eight years ago, then coach Mike Sherman’s schedule included double the amount of practices. Even considering some of those workouts were devoted solely to special teams, the difference is vast.
“I think the head coach is actually being smarter with us,” said 11-year veteran tackle Chad Clifton.
“We’re getting time to recover more than in past years, which is good. Compared to 2000, my rookie year, I’m still getting plenty of good work in. They’re just being smarter with our bodies.”
McCarthy said the goal of his training camp schedule is to lower the injury risk due to fatigue. Although the Packers have been plagued by several injuries this month, none has been severe.
Packers outside linebacker coach Kevin Greene, a 15-year NFL veteran, went through a similar ordeal as Moss during his early years in the league in the mid-1980s. Two straight weeks of two-a-days wasn’t uncommon, but Greene has no complaints. “It made me a heck of a player,” he said.
That kind of grinding schedule wouldn’t work today, according to Greene.
“It’s more player friendly now and I think it’s a good thing with the limited amount of numbers we have here in camp,” Greene said. “We have 80 (players) as a maximum. When I was in it we had upwards of a hundred. So we had some numbers. Now if we lose a couple players here and there at the position we get really lean. It needs to be player smart and player friendly. I agree with this. It’s a better way to extend a player’s life.”
Everything from player nutrition, to practice tempo, to time management, to rest is regulated.
In his playing days, Moss said coaches used training camp to promote an aggressive, no-holds-barred atmosphere. That’s not unlike the way legendary Packers coach Vince Lombardi conducted business.
“I mean the structure was, ‘We’re going to make this tough, we’re going to make it kind of uncomfortable and we want to do it for a particular reason,’” Moss said. “That mentality is kind of long and gone. That mentality now is more ‘Hey listen, we’re focusing on different things, we’re trying to get better at doing things and we’re trying to create more quality,’ as opposed to just some of the blunt trauma that was going on back in my day.”
Moss said he didn’t have a problem with the smash-mouth training camps because of his aggressive mentality but believes his career would have been extended if he played today. “If I was on this schedule, I could play for 20 years,” he said.
In Capers’ first head coaching stint in Carolina, it didn’t take him long to figure out he needed to change his training camp approach when players started dropping like flies in the heat.
“The first two days of practices we went morning and afternoon and we had like six (players on) IVs, and from that point in time on, I’ve always been on this schedule that we’re on here,” Capers said.
In this more player-friendly era, Packers defensive lineman Ryan Pickett doesn’t want anyone to get the wrong idea.
“There’s no such thing as an easy training camp,” Pickett said.
“When we’re out there, we’re going 100 miles per hour. … Our practices are high speed, high intensity (and) tempo.”
The tradeoff is fewer practices and more days off, which Pickett said will benefit players in the long run.
“Near the end of the season it saves your legs,” he said.
- Mike Vandermause is sports editor of the Press-Gazette.