Bears, rest of NFL can’t rush conditioning despite short camps
BY NEIL HAYES firstname.lastname@example.org July 22, 2011 9:22PM
The Bears have a long-standing team policy that prohibits players from taking the practice field until certain conditioning requirements are met. | Nam Y. Huh~AP
Updated: October 27, 2011 12:33AM
That safety Todd Bell and defensive end Al Harris sat out the 1985 Super Bowl season because of contract disputes has become part of Bears lore. After Bell signed before the 1986 season, then-general manager Jerry Vainisi offered Bell sage advice while driving him to Fan Appreciation Day at Soldier Field.
‘‘You’ve been out for a year, and I know when you get in there, you’re going to want to compete and win your job back,’’ Vainisi told him. ‘‘You have to take your time and get in game shape.’’
When training camp began, Bell’s competitiveness drove him to do what Vainisi feared. He pulled a hamstring and didn’t win back his starting job until the next season.
‘‘That’s what I’m afraid of,’’ Vainisi said while explaining his concerns for the post-lockout NFL. ‘‘You’re going to get a lot of injuries. That bothers me more than anything else — how quickly they are going to try to do well and accelerate the process to get players ready. My hope is that they’ll rotate players and not try to bring them along too quickly.
‘‘I also know the competitive nature of the coaches and the game, and I’m afraid that won’t happen. What happens is they are well intended, but they also are impatient in terms of trying to win and bring players along. They focus more on winning, which isn’t wrong. That’s why you hire a guy.’’
Perhaps never before will coaches and players feel a greater sense of urgency than when training camp opens, which will be this week pending the players’ approval of the owners’ outline for a new collective bargaining agreement. Because offseason conditioning programs were canceled, the most successful teams will be the ones who resist that urge and take it slow.
Training staffs only will have a few days to evaluate players’ overall physical condition before practices begin. While the majority of players will report in good shape, they might be susceptible to soft-tissue injuries because they haven’t done the on-field work they normally do during the offseason. Out-of-shape players will be at even greater risk.
Expect teams with the most depth to have more early-season success.
‘‘They have great strength and conditioning at the NFL level,’’ said Douglas Casa, a professor of Kinesiology at the University of Connecticut’s Neag School of Education. ‘‘In a typical year, they would be training them March through June, hitting all the key components of practice scenarios. I’m sure you’re going to have a lot of players not do the conditioning they would normally have done.
‘‘If you go all-out in first couple days, you will have more injuries and more acute injuries. It’s about being smart and not trying to get everything done in the first couple days.’’
The heat wave that has gripped much of the country for the last week compounds the risk, said Casa, who also serves as the chief operating officer for the Korey Stringer Institute, which was established in the wake of the Minnesota Vikings tackle’s sudden death from heat stroke in 2001.
Bears players are strictly monitored to avoid such a tragedy. It long has been team policy not to allow players in poor physical condition on the field until certain conditioning standards are met. The training staff takes temperature and humidity readings every 15 minutes during practices. Water breaks are mandatory when the heat index reaches 95 degrees.
‘‘Everybody needs to be more alert,’’ said Casa, who is also UConn’s head athletic trainer. ‘‘Coaches have to realize players haven’t went through normal offseason strength and conditioning programs. They won’t be seeing the same athletes on July 28 they normally see on July 28. This is a different person. They won’t have the tolerance to the heat they normally have.’’
New rules prohibit two-a-days, defined as two full-contact practices. There also likely will be less contact than in a normal training camp, which could reduce injuries, although others wonder if less hitting in camp will result in more injuries when games begin.
‘‘You’ve got to get in shape, no question, but there’s a difference in getting in shape and getting in football shape,’’ said former Bears linebacker Doug Buffone. ‘‘I can run 10 miles, but the first day you put on the helmet and cleats, it’s brutal. It’s not natural. No one hated training camp more than me, but you need the work. It really helps with the injury part.’’
Bears coach Lovie Smith has not been known for overseeing overly demanding training camps. This season, striking the right balance will be more important than ever.