I was talking with former NFL lineman Pete Kendall recently about this weird offseason and training camp. Was there any area in which players might lag behind because of the lack of preseason games?
“You have to hit during practices,” said Kendall, the 21st pick in the 1996 draft. “You can either hit or lay on the ground and have eight guys kick you with steel-toed boots for five minutes.”
As it turns out, no team embraced the latter option. Far as I know. And there was hitting during practices. But there hasn’t been ratcheted-up, game-level contact this year.
Kendall – who played 189 games in his 13-year, four-team NFL career – was reiterating a point Bill Belichick has often made: The only way to get in the proper condition for football is by playing football.
But without preseason games or even joint practices, full-speed collisions aren’t happening, especially for players who aren’t in the trenches. Punt returners, kickoff returners, wide receivers and quarterbacks aren’t being taken to the ground with force. And corners, safeties and linebackers aren’t taking them down.
“When I played, I needed those preseason games to kind of know where I was, and get a feel for the game,” said Patriots Hall of Famer Troy Brown during a video conference on Wednesday. “Especially as a young player, those games are tremendously important to you. So, it’s a unique situation here with us. But, like I said earlier, every team in the league is going through the exact same thing. No team is going to play a preseason game before they step on the field for their first game. So, these guys are figuring it out. They’re professionals now. They have to get out there and with what little contact they’ve had over the past few months, they’re going to have to make the best out of it.”
There is a knack to getting tackled. It is something that players – most notably Tom Brady – used to work on.
Brady practices falling. He practices getting hit. He has trainers pummel him with pads and tackling dummies to prepare him for impacts.
"Your body gets used to the hits," Brady said last year. "The brain understands the position that you're putting your body into. And my brain is wired for contact. I would say in some ways it's become calloused to some of the hits."
But the punishment he took while flat-footed and sometimes unaware is different than what Cam Newton has absorbed through the years as a viable running threat who not only takes on but dishes out punishment as a runner.
In his red jersey, Newton – the Patriots presumed starter – isn’t getting the whacks he’ll get from the Dolphins in the opener.
Joe Judge, the former Patriots special teams coordinator who’s now head coach for the Giants, recently mulled having his starter, Daniel Jones, take a few whacks to get ready.
“I don’t think we’re going to throw him in any Royal Rumbles, or anything like that,” Judge said. “We’ve talked about it. With quarterbacks, you want to be calculated with how you bang them around. At some point, we’ll pop his pads a little bit in a controlled environment.
“I’m not in a hurry to just beat the hell out of him, but at some point, we want to prepare his body for what it’ll take in the first game,” Judge said.
Belichick said the Patriots haven’t been “deficient” in having contact over the past month.
“We’ve live-tackled, we’ve tackled the guys to the ground but we’ve done it in more of a 1-on-1 setting as opposed to game conditions,” he explained. “We’ve done some game conditions as well where we tackled as a team in a few selected drills but not extensively. …
“I’m sure that’s a skill we’ll have to acquire a little bit as we always do,” he allowed. “It’s similar in preseason. If you look at how many tackles the guys who play a lot make (during) preseason (it’s not a lot). A couple here and there. We’ll be less than that but it’s not a whole lot different than how it normally is. I think we’ve prepared our players for that. I think they’ve had their opportunities to feel the contact and to feel as close to game reps as we can without playing in a game. There’s another level to that that we’ll have to experience but I think we’ll be prepared to take that next step and then we’ll have to refine it from there. I don’t think it’ll be perfect but I think it’ll be competitive and we’ll continue to work and improve on it.”
Every season, there are plenty of players who play sparingly or not at all in fake games then show no ill effects when the real games begin.
Others, according to former Patriots quarterback Matt Cassel, want to get hit.
“I used preseason to get myself prepared for the energy level and excitement that’s there and the adrenaline when you’re getting hit legit for the first time,” Cassel said. “In terms of quarterbacks, it will just add another level of adrenaline and excitement. There’s no preparation for getting hit unless you are getting hit and that may create some issues for quarterbacks not just with getting hit but with stamina.
“You use game one and game two (of preseason) to be prepped to play a little longer each week and then game three is the ‘real one’, ”Cassel said. “They’re gonna be tired physically and mentally. You have to be into it for four quarters. It can’t be simulated.”