One obvious benefit of NFL teams’ not being able to get together on the field all year up to this past week would be, nobody ever tore an ACL watching film.
NFL coaches would not choose to miss OTAs, minicamps, and preseason games, as they prepare to play games that count just six weeks from now. But several Eagles coaches have said recently that the coronavirus restrictions really weren’t a disaster, that there were benefits from spending all that time on classroom work and film study in the spring.
Three-time Pro Bowl tight end Zach Ertz said Friday that he feels better than he has ever felt going into a season, because he was able to skip a lot of rote work on the field. Teams were able to do walk-throughs this past week, with actual practice starting this coming Wednesday and pads allowed five days after that.
“I think this time off really helped me focus on my body and becoming a better athlete overall, instead of just minute details of running routes, like I’ve focused on during OTAs and early in the offseason [previously],” Ertz said on a Zoom call with reporters. “For me, in particular, I feel like it’s the best offseason I’ve had.”
Of course, Ertz is entering his eighth season with the Eagles, his fifth in Doug Pederson’s offense. He just needs to get to September healthy. Not everyone is in Ertz’s situation. Jalen Mills, for example, is switching from corner to safety as he enters his fifth NFL season.
But Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz indicated recently that he thought shifting the offseason focus to off-the-field work might not have been so bad for Mills, or even for new players trying to learn Schwartz’s scheme.
“The one benefit of this year is, we’ve had a lot of meeting time with the players,” Schwartz said. “Didn’t have a chance to meet with them on the field. But a lot more meeting time. Were able to look at a lot more film from last year, and the year before, and the year before that. I think you get a good feel for guys, whether it’s Jalen Mills changing position, or [safety Will] Parks coming in as a veteran, or [cornerback Darius] Slay coming in as a veteran, that’s just learning a new set of terminology, or even rookies, who are learning everything new.”
Schwartz said new director of performance Ted Rath designed good workouts for players to do on their own (and to tape for their coaches), that made sure physical preparation wasn’t ignored.
“Guys could still prove that they were hard workers. You didn’t actually put your hands on them, but the hard workers still shone through,” Schwartz said. “It was different from what we’ve done in the past, or what anyone’s done in the past. Maybe there were some questions left unanswered. But there was a lot of good with it, and there were a lot of things that you could glean from it.”
Special-teams coordinator Dave Fipp faces an ongoing challenge, trying to get coverage and return units ready without a preseason. But Fipp, too, was far from despairing when he recently spoke with reporters.
“I think that’s probably on every coach’s mind right now. It’s going to be a challenge, obviously, without preseason games. … I think we’ve just got to do a great job of kind of putting them in situations where they can show themselves, I would say probably a lot of competitive drills, and some competitive environments in our practices maybe a little bit more than we’ve done in the past, so we can make sure that we get a great evaluation on the guys,” Fipp said. “I think it’ll be a challenge, but the good news is, everybody’s in the exact same boat. And it’ll be fun, I think.
“I think sometimes when things are different, it’s fun. It’s a new challenge, you’ve got to figure out how to make the most of it.”
Asked about offseason virtual work for special teams, Fipp said: “You had to find a different way to touch those guys, emotionally. … You had to find different teaching techniques, because not all the tools you have in a classroom environment were available to you. So that was enjoyable for me.”
Passing game coordinator and quarterbacks coach Press Taylor faced a challenge, after the Eagles spent a second-round draft pick, 53rd overall, on quarterback Jalen Hurts. How in the world do you find a way for a rookie quarterback to master an offense when you can’t work with him on the field, and he can’t work with his new teammates?
“It really challenges your language, because you have to explain what the expectation is, what it’s looked like from these other guys, what we expect him to do, and then find ways to put him in those situations without being hands-on, without him truly being in a huddle,” Taylor said.
“We had to find ways to show him what the huddle looked like – all the different things like that, what it sounds like at the line of scrimmage for our quarterbacks, without being able to stand behind him, hear him say it, see him do it, and correct him immediately.
“It challenges the way you teach things. But at the same time, we had more meeting time this spring than we’ve ever had before. So you’re able to dive into all aspects of it. You start with the big picture, kind of shrink it down into details.”
Hurts might not have experienced, say, trying to check down to Ertz during a practice or game, but Taylor said he has a good grasp of what the Eagles want to do in every situation, and why they want to do it.
“We talked through every single philosophy of what we’re doing, first- and second-down offensive philosophy, when we’re backed up, when we’re red zone, when we’re third down, two-minute, four-minute, eight-minute, all the different philosophies we have throughout a game, we were able to really dive into that,” Taylor said.
This past week, though it was limited to walk-throughs, Hurts finally lined up with the rest of the offense.
“When we were able to get him out on the field, he’s shown that he was able to take a lot of that information through the spring and retain it … and there’s still some things. You hear the cadence [from Hurts] maybe and you say, ‘It really sounds a little more like this.’ …
“There’s some of those things that you may miss in a virtual offseason, but I feel like we were able to get more meeting time than we’ve ever gotten with the guys, and we feel like we were able to use it to our benefit,” Taylor said.
Of course, we have no idea yet on how all this will play out. Ertz said that even though he feels rested and primed, the coronavirus restrictions definitely have impeded important parts of how teams grow together.
“The toughest part of this whole thing is, you’re losing the camaraderie between the guys, and you’re losing the interactions with the defensive guys. … For me, the relationship part of this business has always been the best part. … Football’s not necessarily the same when you’re not able to build those relationships,” Ertz said. “That’s the thing that, in the springtime, I really missed the most.