There’s always a workaround.
The modern NFL has clamped down significantly on what paces teams are allowed to put their players through during summer workouts. The number of practices, the duration of drills, how many sessions can involve pads and even physical contact- it’s all been reduced dramatically in the name of player safety. Even the preseason- long a traditional slate of four games- has been slimmed down to just three exhibition contests.
And it’s all good. Unless you’re a football coach. And then it’s time to get creative with ways to properly evaluate talent and get your players ready for the physical grind of the regular season.
To that end, the Cowboys plan to show up at two different clubs’ practice fields in mid-August for shared work sessions. While holding their own camp in Oxnard, head coach Mike McCarthy will take his troops for a joint practice with the Denver Broncos on Aug. 11, and then visit the Chargers in Costa Mesa for a pair of workouts on Aug. 17 and 18.
It’s new territory, even for the 58-year-old McCarthy.
“Never done this,” the coach explained to reporters this week at The Star. “This is a bit of a leap for me personally, but obviously, I think we’re doing it for the right reasons. I think it’s an opportunity to work against two AFC teams. You’re on grass, all of those things. I look at all of those factors; always have. It’s an opportunity go to Denver before [the teams’ Aug. 13 preseason tilt]. It’s really risk assessment, a lot of it, to work certain players in a practice environment as opposed to playing them in a game. So that’s the driving force for me in talking with the other two head coaches who have done this a lot.”
The Cowboys held a joint practice last summer with the Rams. And while McCarthy stressed ahead of time that he had warned his players against the extracurricular fights that typically come with inter-squad work, it took exactly two plays for Connor Williams and Aaron Donald to end up going at it.
McCarthy says he’s addressed the same concern with Broncos coach Nathaniel Hackett and Chargers coach Brandon Staley.
“We’re going there to work, and all three organizations recognize that,” he said Wednesday. “So I’m not interested in any of the other stuff that goes with it. It will be quality work, and Nathaniel and Brandon, we’ve had those conversations. But I think it definitely is something different. I think it’s good for you as a team.”
Much of the benefit will come from the coaching staff seeing their players compete against opponents as opposed to same-squad drills where everyone is a teammate wearing the same uniform.
If the Cowboys’ first-stringers, for example, can line up for a handful of plays against the Chargers’ A-team on back-to-back days in a very controlled environment, then there’s less reason to have them do so in a meaningless preseason game, where the risk of injury is likely greater.
Not that injuries can’t happen in practices, too, despite a reduced work schedule that’s a far cry from what McCarthy used to see in the old days.
“When something is taken away from you, you have to find a more efficient way to utilize the time that you do have,” the coach offered. “We still have a 90-man roster. But for example, you’re able to go 16 padded practices in training camp. There’s not a chance in hell you can get 16 in without running your team in the dirt. So you’re probably going to come in around 11 or 12 or 13 if you’re practicing, in my opinion, the right way and make sure you have the rest and the recovery in there… In the old days, we had 12 padded practices the first week.”
Based on McCarthy’s comments, his main objective for the joint sessions is to let his starters shake off the rust against another team (last year, he described the level of contact and physicality as “professional thud”), saving the preseason games as evaluation events for bubble players.
Plus, he believes mixing things up with the joint practices will be an opportunity to throw “a little more of the unknown” at his players, right down to getting them used to extra travel and giving them a change of scenery.
“To be honest with you, once you get past that second week in training camp,” the coach said, “you’ve already gone through your installs. The guys have been competing against each other for two weeks. It’s a good change-up. The Rams practice last year, I liked the practice… I think really the key thing it does give you is an opportunity to risk-assess and play your younger guys more in the preseason games.”