Packers tailor practices to preserve players

Ryan Wood
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GREEN BAY - Six months after shoulder surgery, T.J. Lang was itching to play when the Green Bay Packers opened training camp in late July.

Green Bay Packers wide receiver Jordy Nelson (87) talks with coach Mike McCarthy during training camp at Ray Nitschke Field August 30, 2016.

He missed the entire offseason program, relegated to an observer's role. That stationary bike on the sideline is no place for a starting right guard. Lang expected to be in the trenches on the first day of camp, wearing helmet and shells, back in his natural environment.

The Packers' medical staff had a different plan.

The staff kept Lang in bubble wrap one more week. He was one of six players on the physically unable to perform list. Lang couldn’t understand it. His body was able, but he was forced to stay off the field.

“I think they were doing that with a lot of guys,” Lang said. “It’s something I haven’t really seen in the past. It seems like just tradition of training camp. Getting out there, butting heads and getting ready to go has always been our motto.”

It’s one example, Lang said, of how this training camp was different than any other.

The Packers are among an elite few who entered camp knowing a Super Bowl title was attainable. Coach Mike McCarthy, more than most, knows how quickly one twist of the knee can alter his team’s path.

McCarthy acknowledged it would be a “natural reaction” to overhaul the Packers' preseason after receiver Jordy Nelson’s torn anterior cruciate ligament wrecked the 2015 season. His approach didn’t change, McCarthy said, but Lang noticed a difference.

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“I think what happened last year (to Nelson),” Lang said, “obviously it’s still stuck in the back of everybody’s head, especially when we’re out there playing those preseason games. I mean, how can it not affect you? We lost one of our best weapons, and it changed the dynamic of our season. So definitely, for me, I think about it in the preseason.

“Last year, it kind of left a little scar, if you want to say. You don’t really forget things like that.”

There is no fool-proof safety net on a football field. Whether it’s a game or practice, contact or no contact, injuries come with the sport.

It didn’t prevent McCarthy from trying to preserve his top players.

This preseason, the Packers swapped live snaps with practice reps. McCarthy designed rugged practices that excluded only live tackling, trying to circumvent exhibitions. There were more half-line drills. More one-on-one blocking. More starters competing against each other in team reps.

His approach to camp is always the same. McCarthy must get the Packers ready to play Week 1. This preseason, they arrived at the end result differently.

“The quality of our training camp,” McCarthy said, “from a pure analytics standpoint, this is the best year we’ve ever had as far as just the energy, the physicality. Since we’ve been doing the numbers over the last four or five years, this is the highest intensity that we’ve ever had in so many practices.”

Yet McCarthy showed restraint when mapping his team’s preseason practice schedule.

The Packers were first in the NFL to open camp. They could have practiced more than any other team. Instead, at least 19 teams matched the Packers’ 21 practices between the start of camp and Thursday's final exhibition, according to schedules USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin gathered.

At least 12 teams practiced more.

The 21 practices were stretched out over 37 days. By comparison, the Chicago Bears had 23 practices in 34 days, and the Minnesota Vikings had 22 practices in 34 days.

Throughout the preseason, the Packers had an NFL-high 13 days with no practice or game – almost two weeks’ worth in a five-week period. They were the only NFL team with three consecutive non-travel days away from the practice and game field.

The 13 off-field days in camp is the Packers’ most under McCarthy, surpassing the 11 they had in 2012. It would be easy to correlate Nelson’s injury last year and the Packers’ lighter schedule, but McCarthy said it was mostly out of his control.

“The extra days is more of a reflection of the flow of the schedule,"  McCarthy said. "Because preferably, I like to be on seven-day stretches (between exhibitions). If you can get two seven-day stretches in a training camp, to me that’s a perfect-training camp schedule. We’ve had zero this year.

“Ideally, I would’ve liked to have two more practices than two more (off-field days), but it’s not in the best interest of your team.”

McCarthy resisted multiple chances to fatten his practice schedule.

When the Hall of Fame Game was canceled, he decided not to add an extra practice. McCarthy also canceled a closed practice Aug. 20, preferring to have an interactive, educational football activity meshing offensive and defensive players.

Because they were scheduled to play in the Hall of Fame Game, the Packers could open camp two weeks before kickoff, which would have been July 24. Their first practice wasn’t until July 26, the fourth time in the past five years McCarthy scheduled his first camp practice on that date.

McCarthy said he used the June minicamp as the unofficial start to training camp. He sent veterans with at least six NFL seasons home, designing practices for player development.

“It gave us three days with our rookies,” McCarthy said. “So to me, those three days replaced coming into camp early. I’m trying to teach them a process of when the (mini)camp is over, the amount of time they had to transition into training camp. Because you do worry about the grind of a rookie.

“The grind of a rookie is not how many practices they have, but it’s really how long they’re in camp.”

While it allowed McCarthy’s coaching staff to work more closely with young players, sending veterans home before minicamp gave the Packers’ core group – players with a lot of snaps to play this fall – three more vacation days.

Their preservation continued in camp. Outside linebackers Clay Matthews and Julius Peppers will enter the regular season having played eight exhibition snaps apiece. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers will finish the preseason with nine pass attempts, the fewest in his career.

With fewer snaps, McCarthy still has to prepare his team to play its Sept. 11 opener in Jacksonville.

“The way we run practice gets you ready,” left guard Josh Sitton said. “We’re at a very high tempo all the time, moving from drill to drill quickly, and getting through the plays quick, getting the next one ran, and always covering, running. We don’t go run gassers or do things like that because of the tempo we have during practice.”

The Packers insist their practice tempo prepares them for the regular season. New tight end Jared Cook said McCarthy’s practices have a quicker pace than did those with his previous two teams in Tennessee and St. Louis.

There’s a good reason McCarthy’s practices are more physically demanding. Neither the Titans nor Rams run their no-huddle offense with near the Packers’ frequency. Both teams huddled and rummaged through pre-snap checks, Cook said, with more hot routes than are in McCarthy’s playbook.

In Green Bay, Cook said, pre-snap communication is much more efficient. Players hustle to the line of scrimmage immediately after a play, ready for the next. With fewer preseason snaps, practices mold players’ conditioning.

Cook said McCarthy’s practices “do a pretty good job” simulating a game’s tempo.

“It’s just rapid fire,” Cook said. “Which is a good thing, because that’s how you play.”

Whether the adjustments work will be seen when the Packers open the season in Jacksonville. There is risk in limiting live snaps. Tackling, especially, can’t be simulated in a game.

McCarthy said he trusts his veterans to know what it takes to get ready for the season. For them, the key is settling into routine. More and more, that routine has excluded extensive preseason appearances.

“There’s a misconception where you’ve got to be out there hitting for so many minutes to get ready,” Lang said. “It’s just the wrong thought about it. The best way of getting in shape is by practicing. Just because we don’t practice two-a-days, and we don’t practice three, four hours, doesn’t mean we’re not getting our work in. We take time during practices to make sure we’re doing what we have to do to get ready for a game.

“So long as you’re going out there and doing what you’ve got to do, you can get your work in, in less time, so long as you’re doing it clean and precise.”

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