Packers should re-examine their limited tackling in training camp
GREEN BAY-In the off-season, Mike McCarthy declared war on injuries. This war was lost. Another season is in jeopardy.
Year after year, the Packers fail August. As usual, the flood of injuries was the story of the summer. Another training camp has been disrupted.
Obviously, McCarthy and his many advisers inside and outside the organization have not found an answer. Buzzard's luck is not an excuse, not after this much time.
Before they wave the white flag, the Packers ought to think outside the box. McCarthy and his people have nothing to lose a year from now. It can't get any worse than this.
If it were me, I'd put the players in pads more often. And then many of the practices, at least in the first two weeks of camp, would feature 11-on-11 periods of live tackling in which everyone except the quarterback could and would be brought to the ground.
If serial worrywart Ted Thompson can't bear to watch, so be it. Packers smacking Packers is the way to harden their football team.
Certainly, some players will get hurt. It's inevitable. Risk lurks around every drill.
But the human body must be conditioned to play this violent game. It becomes conditioned best by real football, and that means the man with the ball being put on the ground.
The Packers have been living in mortal fear of injury since Thompson and McCarthy took over. It's time they confront those fears and begin developing a team that doesn't start coming apart in late July.
Look at the participation numbers in exhibition games since 2006. If you're a Packers fan, they should make you sick.
This is the eighth straight preseason in which Green Bay has had more players declared unavailable than its opponents. Of the 31 summer games that McCarthy has coached, the Packers have had more scratched, or injured, players in 26.
The increase in roster size from 80 to 90 in 2011 is one reason their injury rate has climbed steadily over the years, but not the only one.
Don't get the impression that McCarthy directs an easy camp. His half-line drills for the running game are conducted at or close to full-bore among the linemen. His tempo is keen. He's a taskmaster.
He just doesn't believe in live tackling.
If memory serves, McCarthy has never had any practice periods with tackling. Based on an old clipping, he didn't in the first four days of his first training camp. In 2009, after the intrasquad scrimmage was canceled by storms, it was written that the team's first live tackling would be in the opening exhibition game.
Certainly, he didn't have any in the last few years, and the 2011 collective bargaining agreement does not limit coaches in the amount of contact in training camp practices.
What's interesting is that 13 of the 32 teams, based on my survey this week of beat writers and club officials, did include periods of tackling this summer. That doesn't count the formal scrimmages that are common around the league.
In Pittsburgh, coach Mike Tomlin harkened back to the days of coach Chuck Noll by instituting periods of tackling in every practice for the first week. Bill Cowher never did that, and Tomlin hadn't, either.
"Physicality is an asset of ours," Tomlin told Sports Illustrated. "In order to make it an asset, we've got to do it."
He added: "The only way to improve is to play football. I've stated that many times, and it's something I believe in. I'm going to give (players) an opportunity to do that and show what they're capable of."
When Andy Reid moved from Philadelphia to Kansas City, he went back to the type of training camp that he ran in his first nine years. He pulled off live tackling in his last five summers with the Eagles.
On average, the Chiefs run 150 to 160 plays per practice. An estimated 30 plays featured tackling of everyone but the quarterback.
Four days into camp, the Chiefs were knocking each other around on a wet field. Owner Clark Hunt winced a few times but understood what Reid and trainer Rick Burkholder, who worked under him in Philly, were trying to accomplish.
"Our trainer pointed out to me that a lot of times injuries occur when one guy is going full (speed) and the other guy is going half," said Hunt. "When you've got 11-on-11 with tackling, everybody is going full speed.
"Here in a couple weeks we'll be playing preseason games and they're going to tackle to the ground, so from a conditioning standpoint it's valuable, and also from an execution standpoint it's valuable."
The Chiefs practiced at 8:15 a.m., worked 21/2 hours and then had all day to heal. The team was dead tired at times, but the contact periods weren't excessive and the players knew their bodies were toughening. In fact, some were ecstatic that Reid had brought the rough stuff.
By the way, the Chiefs had few injuries.
On Aug. 14, three of their players missed practice. That day in Green Bay, 14 sat out.
Change also was significant in Jacksonville, where new coach Gus Bradley inserted periods of seven to 10 plays with live tackling in the first week.
Despite the contact, the Jaguars never had more than nine of their 90 players miss a practice because of injury. The Packers had twice that many (18) sit out on Aug. 8.
In the NFC, Dallas had a few live red-zone sessions, St. Louis ran a few series one day, Minnesota tackled the second day of camp and Detroit declared about half a dozen sessions live on the goal line.
In the AFC, the New York Jets and Baltimore incorporated live goal-line tackling for a few days. Denver did it once, Oakland a little bit and Buffalo tackled on the sixth day.
Cincinnati coach Marvin Lewis still goes old-school with the rip-snorting Oklahoma Drill on the first day. Running backs aren't tackled then, but they were on three other days in camp.
Many teams follow the example of Washington's Mike Shanahan, who hasn't done any tackling in four training camps, and Atlanta's Mike Smith, who threatened to send safety William Moore to the showers if he broke the "no tackling" rule again.
Back in Green Bay, 18 important players, including seven starters, were sidelined for a week or more because of injury. There were so many injuries that McCarthy felt compelled to change three practices from pads to shells over the last three weeks, and he canceled another.
In a span of 33 days, the Packers practiced 20 times (11 pads, eight shells, one helmet), scrimmaged once and played three games. They've practiced in pads merely six times in the last four weeks.
Absolutely the worst moment was Friday night, which was four weeks after the start of training camp.
Injured against Seattle were Brad Jones (hamstring, 18 snaps), safety Morgan Burnett (hamstring, 12), DuJuan Harris (aggravated patellar tendon, 12) and Casey Hayward (aggravated hamstring, 10).
When McCarthy read off that list of important players, with 16 days remaining before a date in San Francisco, it occurred to me this either was the unluckiest team in the league or the most fragile.
Then on Tuesday, four players were placed on injured reserve while four more remained on the physically-unable-to-perform list.
Green Bay does hit. There's still a different mind-set when the man with the ball isn't being knocked down.
The Packers simulate tackling a few minutes at a time by wrapping up teammates and depositing them into cushioned air bags. It's all so lighthearted. Really, why bother?
When the advantage of making some periods live was broached, the response was negative.
"I wouldn't recommend it," said linebacker Rob Francois. "You'll beat your team down. You'd get rolled up a lot."
Said defensive coordinator Dom Capers: "You just can't afford to lose a guy by being foolish in practice because you've got to have all your horses on Sunday."
The Packers really haven't had a break from injuries since 2006 and '07. Mike Sherman, who always had periods of live tackling in camp, was almost injury-free in 2001, '03 and '04. Mike Holmgren always practiced like that, too.
When McCarthy and perhaps some fresh eyes start re-examining the injury mess six months from now, he might have to be ruthless. The people and practices in every area touching players have to be scrutinized anew. A culture change might be in order.
Just don't expect live tackling to surface in Green Bay as long as Thompson remains general manager. He would appear diametrically opposed. He is petrified of even the least exposure to injury.
But if McCarthy were to prevail, he'd have the clout to make it work. Maybe sign a camp running back or wide receiver to soak up some body shots, explain the philosophy and don't overdo the heavy stuff.
If a starter went down with a major injury in a live period, I'd never second-guess McCarthy. That's football.
Players who survive those first two weeks would stand a better chance of avoiding the hamstrings and knees and quads and ankles and toes that have bedeviled the Packers for too long once they start playing games.
At least it seems that way to me, but I'm no expert. It should seem that way to the Packers, too, and they're obviously no experts on injuries either.
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