Kinder, gentler camp eases long season

Billick attributes modern approach of keeping players fresh to Walsh


August 01, 2007|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN REPORTER

Picture the typical NFL training camp from 30 years ago: a six-week road trip to the middle of nowhere, a bunch of oversized men cramped into claustrophobic college dorm rooms swatting away mosquitoes at night, a demanding coach pounding his team into shape during endless two-a-days and six preseason games.

Now envision camp in 2007: a three-week stay at three-star hotels, or even posh resorts, and that's if your favorite team leaves home in the first place; an obsessed but more reasonable coach building in practice and four exhibitions on what his team began in minicamps during the spring.

"In the old days, players just blew off the offseason and came into training camp to get into shape," Ravens coach Brian Billick said last week. "The old-school mentality, and it was pervasive for a long time, was [to] come in and beat the hell out of one another and make yourself physically tougher."

Billick said he believes the evolution of the modern training camp began with Bill Walsh, the celebrated San Francisco 49ers coach who died Monday. At Walsh's urging, the 49ers hired a physiologist to measure, among other things, when the players were most fatigued.

"The physiologist came back and said that they were in their most beat-up state prior to [their] first game," said Billick, who worked in the team's public relations department in 1979 and 1980. "That's when I think the light came on in teams recognizing that it's a long, long season and you've got to be prudent about the way you go about ... training camp."

Linebacker-defensive end Gary Stills, who spent his first seven NFL seasons in Kansas City, saw a change in the training camp regimen when he joined the Ravens last year.

"I came in with the Dick Vermeil era, and later the Gunther Cunningham era. It was hard-nosed, hard-knocks football," Stills said. "Coming here, it was more a player-friendly program. We're going to get the job done, we're going to hit, we're going to run, we're going to play football, but we're going to get a lot of rest in the process."

According to the current collective bargaining agreement, teams are allowed to practice for 15 days before their first preseason game. For the Ravens, a 20-day training camp began Monday at McDaniel College in Westminster and runs through Aug. 18, five days after their first preseason game. Remaining at McDaniel, the Ravens are bucking a recent trend among NFL teams to train at the same location year-round.

Though 17 of the 32 teams train away from their home sites, a growing number of organizations hold summer camp at their regular-season facility. The Ravens have no immediate plans to leave Westminster, having signed a seven-year deal that runs through 2010.

According to Billick, the biggest attraction of the team's Carroll County summer home is simple. "It's the fans. It allows them to come to camp," Billick said. "If we set up training camp here at our [Owings Mills] facility, which, quite frankly, would be a lot easier, a lot more efficient and a lot more cost-effective ... because of parking and zoning limitations, our fans couldn't come to practice."

Billick said that holding training camp at a different location helps to break up the psychological grind of a long season.

"To have training camp here [in Owings Mills] and go through that four- or five-week ordeal, and then you `break camp,' and now you're getting ready for the regular season, you just keep coming back to the same place, there's no dividing line," Billick said. "To get away from here for a little bit, everybody looks forward to coming back here."

Of the teams that conduct training camp away from their in-season facilities, the majority are not as close in proximity to the team's headquarters as the Ravens' is but, like the Ravens', are on college campuses.

Bob Eller, who has organized training camps since the Ravens were the Cleveland Browns, recalled how the Browns players sometimes didn't go back to their dorm rooms at a nearby college after morning practice at the team's regular-season facility. Instead, they turned off the lights in the locker room as if it were nap time at nursery school. "There was no really good place to rest that was fairly close," said Eller, the Ravens' director of operations.

There is also another aspect of training camp that has changed drastically from the old days: Players don't sneak out of the dorms after bed check as much as they used to, if at all.

Recalling the atmosphere at remote Mankato State University when he was an assistant for the Minnesota Vikings, Billick said sneaking out seems almost understandable. Billick, who doesn't have a curfew for the Ravens, said that staying in a hotel helps keep the players from roaming.

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