Darren Sproles was nearing the end of one of his first NFL training camp practices when Chargers coach Marty Schottenheimer gathered his players together.
“We got to the last period and we didn’t practice well,” Sproles recalled. “He called everybody and was like, ‘We’re actually going to start practice over from the stretch.’ So we started the whole practice over from the stretch.
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“Back then we had real two-a-days and it didn’t matter the time.”
Sproles is one of just five Eagles who experienced training camps before the new collective bargaining agreement in 2011 eliminated two-a-days and reduced the length of practices and workdays. Each has a story about the physical and mental grind. They tease their younger teammates when they complain about Doug Pederson’s sessions.
“I joke around with these young dudes nowadays,” wide receiver DeSean Jackson said. “I say they’re soft. They’re making them soft.”
In actuality, Sproles, Jackson, safety Malcolm Jenkins, tackle Jason Peters, and defensive end Brandon Graham said they all believe that the limits that were placed on practices – from the start of spring workouts through camp -- were better for the players and for the game. But a few, like Sproles, also said they still understand the purpose of coaches like Schottenheimer.
Many NFL coaches were initially upset when their owners, in negotiations, made the practice concessions. Graham said that then-Eagles coach Andy Reid was so mad that he scheduled an atypically difficult workout the first day players returned following the 2011 lockout.
But everyone has seemingly adjusted, and NFL football has survived and continued to flourish. There could be even more restrictions in the next CBA. (The current one is slated to expire after the 2020 season.) Owners will likely push for an 18-game season, and the players could agree if they receive an easier camp and shortened preseason in return.
Pederson went as hard as he could during his first two seasons in Philadelphia.
“In the first year you’re setting that tone, you’re setting that mentality,” Pederson said recently. “I don’t think they had previously hit a bunch [with the previous regime]. So I wanted them to know that we were going to be a physical football team.”
He has loosened his grip the last two years. In 2018, the Eagles were coming off the Super Bowl with a shorter offseason for players to recover. He discarded the three-day precamp for rookies and selected veterans, he reduced the number of live tackling days from four to two, and he eliminated the three-hour sessions.
This year’s camp has essentially been the same. Pederson has even cut short practices – as he did Monday and Tuesday -- that weren’t scheduled to be among camp’s longest.
“That’s just me gauging where the team is now,” Pederson said. “But I also want to keep them fresh for these preseason games so guys can play fast as we evaluate them. Back then they didn’t care as much. It was smash-mouth every day.”
The Eagles are still in the dog days, even though they have already played a preseason game. Camp technically runs through Wednesday. But there really isn’t much difference between training camp practices and the ones in the weeks leading up to the season opener.
For some veterans, they’re significantly easier. Reid had over-30 days, and Pederson has had them, too. But he’s been giving key veterans -- such as Peters, center Jason Kelce, tackle Lane Johnson, and receiver Alshon Jeffery, who played through injuries last season -- even more days off.
“I think when you have a veteran group that you trust, you know guys are going to do what they got to do to be prepared come the season,” Jenkins said. “You don’t win games right now. … It’s just about getting to Week 1.”
Jenkins said the belief that tough camps led to better prepared teams was “all a myth.” He said the benefits of having fresher and healthier players has actually “made it the exact opposite” and improved performance. The 11-year veteran is the Eagles’ union representative, so there might have been a little politician in his comments.
Sproles said that if there was a benefit from having two padded practices and workdays with meetings that would last until 10 p.m., it was that it made players and teams mentally stronger.
“It was a grind, but it gave you mental toughness,” Sproles said. “I see where [the NFL] is coming from now, but then I see the old-school way, too. The old-school way just made you an all-around tougher team, I feel like. Gives you that grit because you got to go through it.”
Peters recalled one of his first practices with the Eagles, in 2009. He had spent his first five seasons with the Bills, but their camps, he said, didn’t prepare him for Camp Reid at Lehigh University.
During one 8:15 a.m. practice in full pads, Peters said, he felt heavy-legged from the start, but he managed to finish the three-hour-plus workout. He said that by the time he showered and dressed it was 1:30 p.m. The Eagles’ dorms and cafeteria were about a 10-minute drive away.
“I was like, ‘Damn, I only got an hour and 15 minutes to eat and get back for the next practice,” Peters said. “So I just stayed in the training room and had the same damn practice again at 2:45 and was walking off the field in full body cramps for like the next hour.”
Jackson, whose first year was 2008, said he almost didn’t even make it through the three-day rookie mini-camp.
“I questioned myself, like, “Is this what I want to do for the rest of my career?’ ” he said. “I almost wanted to quit it was so hard.”
Graham had to experience only one of Reid’s notorious camps. About a week-and-half in, he said, he and fellow rookie Nate Allen, as they sat in the hot tub, contemplated leaving Lehigh. They wouldn’t have been the first or last. A year later, defensive end Ricky Sapp up and left – and that was after the new CBA.
Graham said that days would pass without Reid’s curtailing practice.
“I was like, ‘Man, we had such a hard day yesterday, he got to back off today.’ I said that for about two weeks straight,” Graham said. “It was the same [practice] and Coach Reid’s [practices] would let you know if you wanted to play or not.
“Like when we say, ‘Are you interested or are you committed?’ You just can’t fake that.”
Two-a-day training camps are the stuff of lore. Reid came along toward the end of an era. Some say former Eagles coach Dick Vermeil’s were among the hardest. His first camp in 1976 started on July 3, more than two months before the first game. The NFL had six preseason games back then.
Vermeil drove more than his share out of the game. Players would often be rushed to the hospital because of the heat and dehydration. It was a different era.
“We’d go fix, six weeks with that, and that creates a mental toughness that sometimes players today don’t necessarily understand,” said Pederson, who played 14 years and for coaches such as Don Shula, Mike Holmgren, and Reid. “It’s kind of their generation. It’s kind of embedded in them. But it’s fun to go back and tell them stories of how it was.”
Pederson said he now sees camp through a different lens. Medical advances have given teams more information on how best to condition athletes. How long a practice is necessary? How much rest should they get? What drills are leading to unnecessary injuries?
“I think we changed for the better. I still think we have a ways to go,” Jenkins said. “As we get more and more information just about the well-being of players and where we’re mostly at risk, I think the majority of the statistics show that the majority of concussions happen in training camp, the majority of injuries happen in training camp.
"It’s a weird time because it’s time for teams to prepare for the season and it’s time for players to get evaluated to make the roster. It’s highly competitive. Long practices. There’s a little more risk there.”
The Eagles have cut down on camp injuries the last few years, but they’ve already lost a few for extended periods, including cornerback Cre’Von LeBlanc and linebacker Kamu Grugier-Hill.
The latter’s knee injury came during a live tackling drill. Pederson is one of the few coaches who still has full contact periods.
“If I’m going to give max effort every time, I need to know you’re going to take care of me down the down. And I think Doug does a good job of that,” Graham said. “You can still get a lot out of your team without the two practices. Sometimes I’d feel like, ‘Boy, you’d be so damn tired that after a while you’re going to hurt something.’”
Graham, Jenkins, and Sproles have yet to take a day off, but they have always been practice-hard guys. They set the tone. During the Eagles’ Super Bowl run two years ago, Graham and Jenkins started racing each other to the ball after it’s spotted for the start of team drills as a way to energize the rest of the squad. They still do it.
Pederson said that he can dial practice back at times because he has steady veteran leadership.
“We got some good vets on here that are going to go out there and work, and that will trickle down,” Graham said. “We keep passing that on to the young boys and they know how to practice. If you know what it looks like, eventually you’re going to get another big-time leader.”
Second-generation leaders such as Kelce, tight end Zach Ertz, defensive tackle Fletcher Cox, and quarterback Carson Wentz never experienced NFL two-a-days and few would question their mental toughness.
That doesn’t mean Sproles and company don’t tout their bona fides to the youngsters who never had to endure old-school training camp.
“This ain’t nothing compared to then,” Sproles said. “It’s totally different.”