FOXBOROUGH -- The New England Patriots opened training camp yesterday in the modern way. No pads popped.
There was a time when summer training camp would have been more than three weeks old by now. Players would be exhausted, two-a-days would have been ongoing, and a drill that has been all but forgotten would have become the bane of offensive linemen, defensive players of all stripes, and weary running backs.
The Oklahoma drill, which pits two players in hand-to-hand combat within a confined space, usually demarcated by blocking bags 3 yards apart as a running back tries to sprint through the open space, is a head-bashing, eye-popping, plastic-breaking contact drill that was used to get an early glimpse of what players were made of.
With the Raiders back in the late 1970s and early '80s, it was always the first drill run the first afternoon the veterans were in camp, a moment anticipated by coaches, observers, and helmet repairmen alike.
In those days, rookies reported a week to 10 days before the veterans. When the Raiders' veterans arrived the night before their first practice, they would meet around an enclosed swimming pool at the El Rancho
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Tropicana, a resort hotel converted into a makeshift training camp in Santa Rosa, Calif., to discuss which rookies looked good. One year the subject was a kid from Villanova named Howie Long.
At the time, no one knew Long would have a Hall of Fame career. Back then, he was just a big rookie from a small school who had been playing like gangbusters against his college contemporaries for more than a week, but now future Hall of Famers Art Shell and Gene Upshaw had arrived, so it was time for the rubber, and a young man's ego, to meet the road.
Long's potential, and fiery personality, were discussed at length that night. The next afternoon, defensive line coach Earl Leggett sauntered up and told Shell he wanted to see what No. 75 had, ``so play it for real." To Shell, that meant play like the final play in the Super Bowl.
When Shell came off the ball that afternoon, he slammed his fists under Long's chin, snapping his head back as if he'd been hit by a Mike Tyson uppercut. Shell's gray helmet went full bore into Long's facemask, driving his hat half off his head. It sounded like a three-car pileup at one end of the practice field. It probably felt the same way to Long, who went backward as if he were on roller skates, pile-driven into the ground. Yet he kept crawling and clawing the air, trying to get to running back Kenny King as he ran by untouched. When Long got up, blood dripped from his cheek as Shell looked at him, while the players whooped and hollered. Long's response?
``Let's do it again!" he said. Such was the level of intensity and training camp contact 25 years ago. Today it's a different story.
``These guys have no concept of what training camp was 30 years ago," Patriots coach Bill Belichick recalled with apparent fondness yesterday after the first morning of practice ended. ``You can't tell them that. I tell them that, but they don't want to hear that.
``My first year in the league, we went to training camp July 5. We had six preseason games and we opened September 21. We had three scrimmages with the Redskins. Three scrimmages, six preseason games, we hadn't played an NFL game yet, and that is longer than any college season that I'd been involved in.
``When we went to training camp at Baltimore, it went from July 5 until the middle of August. It was like six weeks of two-a-days. I look at the two-a-days in the league now and it's like six, seven or eight days. It varies a little bit from team to team, but that's about the average number. July 5, two-a-days, the numbers [of players] were low, too.
``You had all those rookies in camp but once you had the cuts and all, the numbers came down pretty quickly, so it was a whole different ballgame with the contact and everything. It was a lot more than we do now. It is a lot more than any teams do.
``I was talking about it with a couple of coaches a couple of weeks ago, guys that have been in the league a long time, that have coached a long time. We were all saying the same thing. We don't have anywhere near the contact or the number of practices or the number of consecutive practices that we had years ago. It seems like we have more [injury] problems. I don't know what that means. It's kind of an evolution. It's a train that I haven't been able to stop or even redirect."
Nowadays, contact during training camp is occasional at best, and two-a-days last little more than a week. Belichick recently reflected on those hard, old days with fellow NFL coaches Marty Schottenheimer and Bill Parcells at a gathering in New York to honor newest Hall of Fame member Harry Carson. Schottenheimer was a leading advocate of the Oklahoma drill, one he still uses about once a camp, and he and Belichick talked fondly of the drill and what it often made evident about the players involved.
``I remember Marty saying, `That's my favorite drill. We did that drill. That was the drill that identified or was associated with my training camps and we don't even do it anymore' and I asked him, `Why don't you do it?' " Belichick said.
``He said, `I don't know. We got a guy hurt one time and this and that.' But that was it. It was one-on-one, tackle the back. That Oklahoma drill, we all did that."
Schottenheimer, the San Diego Chargers coach, is an advocate of the drill because, ``It has a couple of redeeming qualities or benefits, if you will. I think, first and foremost, you create a little energy and dynamic among the players. There's a lot of excitement. Guys cheer and kind of help their teammates get into a winning situation.
``There are also fundamentals and techniques when you study the tape that you can find out about a guy's ability to create leverage and sustain a block and shed a block . . . but all and all, I don't know that there are many people doing it anymore."
What the drill also showed was something simpler than technique or leverage, something not revealed by 40 times, shuttle runs, or vertical leaps. It showed who had a hard nose for contact and, more importantly, who didn't.
``We all did that drill," Belichick recalled. ``You start doing that in high school and college and that was kind of the, `Who is a man? Step up here. Who is tough? Who is going to hit somebody?' Put everybody close in a box and you're going to have some contact.
``We do some tackling drills, but really, Marty and I had that conversation with Bill [Parcells]. We all kind of said the same thing, `Those drills are great. We used to do them.' None of us do them anymore."
Asked what might happen if he asked his players to run the drill today, Belichick said, ``They'd do it," but then smiled and seemed to reflect on changes in latitude and attitude that have come over the years. He didn't mention players calling their agents or their sports psychologists. He didn't have to. They are as much the realities of a game that has been forever changed, including the passing of the Oklahoma drill.
``Do they even know what it is?" Belichick said when asked what might happen if he called for the drill. ``That's a good question. I'm not sure."
Yesterday there was no Oklahoma drill run in Foxborough. There was probably no Oklahoma drill run in Oklahoma, either. It was the first day of camp and pads were occasionally meeting pads, but there was no need for a helmet repairman. It's summer time and the living is easy, at least compared with the way it used to be.