Every NFL coach faces a dilemma in training camp. A tough, physical camp with tackling to the ground prepares your players fully for games, and helps evaluate new players more accurately.
But it risks injury, and losing one starter for the year probably wipes out all the competitive advantage you get with the rest of the team.
Chip Kelly knows both sides of that dilemma. As he told Murph and Mac on his weekly KNBR interview Monday, it’s harder to evaluate Kaepernick and Gabbert when they’re wearing the protective red jerseys.
"... sometimes a quarterback is a little bit different in a game than he is in practice just because of, he knows he's not going to get hit in practice. If he does it's, it's something inadvertent or somebody bumps into him but ... people aren't trying to, Aaron Lynch and Navorro Bowman aren't coming in full speed and trying to take their heads off. So it's out of a different mindset when the game comes around."
And Kelly knows that some injuries can’t be avoided, particularly broken bones and ACL tears like the one that ended WR Eric Rogers’ season last week.
But he also sets limits, which have been consistent from the day he signed with Philadelphia. The sports science program is focused in large part on recovery from the previous day’s practice, and monitoring to make sure a player isn’t pushing themselves past the danger line. Proper hydration reduces the number of soft tissue injuries.
More generally, Kelly focuses on players developing their skill sets and fundamentals (such as footwork) rather than emphasizing hard hits. His compromise? Just don’t tackle to the ground.
"It's live blocking. We're going to thud up the back. We're not going to take them to the ground, but I just don't want people leaving their feet. The problem when you have those situations isn't really the tackling, it's the collateral damage with that because someone's on the ground and now two guys trip over it and you got a twisted ankle or what not."
Some coaches tolerate or even seem to like training camp skirmishes as a sign of drive and passion. Not Chip. He’s a big believer in teamwork between the entire roster, and fighting each other doesn’t fit into his vision.
“No, I don’t think, they understand that you have to play with emotion, not let emotion play with you. It’s the same rules that you have in a game. If you get in a fight in a game, you’re not going to be around. So, it’s the same thing. We’re trying to get a good quality practice. We’re not trying to turn it into a WWE wrestling match.”
His approach seems to work — the Eagles were among the leaders in fewest days lost to injury during all three of Chip’s years. For a contrast, look no further than Kelly’s successor in Philadelphia, the Eagles’ new coach (and former player) Doug Pederson.
Tasked by the Eagles FO with reversing Chip’s legacy in a sort of giant Control-Z, Pederson announced in July that he was “cutting way back” on sports science and emphasized how physical his training camp would be.
"Why I do I believe in hitting? ... It's a physical game; it's football. It's tackle football. ...Those guys have to know how to hit. ...
I want to see [a fullback] run downhill and hit a MIKE linebacker. I want to see him strike a defensive end. I want to see if he can hold up. Do his legs collapse? Does he stay up? Can he power through the block?”
On August 3, with camp open, the rookie coach doubled down.
"Listen, I've been around this business a long time, to know that this is a contact sport and injuries are part of the game," Pederson said. "I'm not going to shy away from the tackling or shy away from the hitting just to try not to get anybody hurt. “
The results were sadly predictable. Just five days later, several starters were out injured — including two Pro Bowlers (S Malcolm Jenkins and and LT Jason Peters) and top receiver Jordan Matthews. Tight end Zach Ertz passed a concussion test after a hard hit, but DE Marcus Smith (the team’s 2014 first round pick) didn’t. And Pederson reversed course, though he couldn’t explain why exactly.
“...the live tackling drills probably will be over.” Pederson denied it was because of those specific injuries. “No, I’m not concerned as much about that,” Pederson said. “I’ve just got to look at the overall health of the football team. It’s not about getting somebody hurt. It’s about protecting the guys who are out here. These last six days have been tough. And I wanted it to be tough on them.”
So Chip is going to stay with his measured course, even during the upcoming joint practices with the Houston Texans.
Q: Back to the Texans, do you want that to be more physical since you’re not hitting your own guys?
A: It’ll be the same as we normally are. I think our practices are pretty physical right now. The only thing we don’t do is tackle to the ground and we’re not going to tackle to the ground against the Texans either.
Sounds like a good idea.