The NFL rules on hitting, padded practices and the rest have changed over the years by virtue of collective-bargaining agreements. But even with fewer contact opportunities, in-season practices are costing the Bears some players, particularly starters.
The most recent was safety Antrel Rolle, already on the injury report as probable with an ankle injury but coming out of Saturday’s practice with a knee injury that took him out of the Denver game.
Rookie center Hroniss Grasu missed the three games before Sunday’s loss to the Denver Broncos with a neck injury suffered in practice after the Detroit game. Wide receiver Alshon Jeffery has seemed to end as many weeks as not with some new injury, most recently adding a shoulder problem last week to a groin injury suffered in practice the week before.
But the notion of Fox running overly physical practices doesn’t resonate with veterans with experiences elsewhere.
“Nothing really jumps out at me there,” said guard Matt Slauson. “I mean, playing for Rex [Ryan, N.Y. Jets] – everything with him is physicality. [Marc] Trestman’s practices, too, were very physical days. Wednesday, Thursday, Friday. Nothing’s really different now.”
[SHOP: Gear up Bears fans!]
Fox is hardly using brutal practices as a means of culling his roster; he and GM Ryan Pace did that in the offseason and continue to whenever a poor fit is recognized. Players have alluded to the competitiveness within the Bears as an accelerant to improving, not as added physical risk or fatigue.
“If anything, I think they're real competitive because [Fox] doesn't back off of the competitive nature of the game because that's what brings out the best of us week in and week out,” said cornerback Tracy Porter, now on his fifth NFL team. “So he continues to push that competitive nature, whether he slows down the physical contact or whatever he decides to do, that competitive nature is still going to be on 100.”
Coaches typically do put significant stock into practice, both for its sharpening of execution as well as keeping an edge for players even during the season.
“I don’t know how many golfers go out and work on their half-swings or in tennis they work half-speed to practice tennis,” Fox said. “I just think it’s a professional sport, and you have to practice it to get better at it or stay finely tuned.”
Fox is hardly the first nor the most physical coach to run the Bears.
When Mike Ditka took over as Bears coach in 1982, his practices were legendarily brutal, installing new systems on offense in particular (Buddy Ryan stayed on as defensive coordinator) but also weeding out players he didn’t want or couldn’t meet the physical bar he wanted to set. Hall of Fame defensive end Richard Dent has always said that after practicing all week against left tackle Jimbo Covert, games were easy.
Dave Wannstedt applied some of the same methodology in 1993, beginning with the allowable extra minicamp taken to Arizona as a way of starting everything in the heat. One offensive tackle was flattened by a teammate wielding a padded shield in practice (the tackle was cut).
As late as five years into the Wannstedt years, wide receiver Curtis Conway blasted coaches after a Bears preseason game in Ireland for wearing players’ legs down during training camp. Coincidentally, Conway was lost with a broken shoulder suffered subsequently in a preseason game diving for a pass.
The chuckle here is that Dick Jauron was gigged for his supposedly soft practices, probably because the Bears were losers in all but one of his five seasons. Now Fox is being questioned about his rough practices in a time where NFL/NFLPA negotiations have effectively put a governor on practice speed.