Inside Voices: Training Versus Practice

Photo by: Jeff Fusco.

Photo by: Jeff Fusco.

There is a saying that floats around the NovaCare Complex, one that many of the players can recite on the spot:

You don’t rise to the occasion, you sink to the level of your training. 

“When the game is on the line, it’s the fourth quarter in a rivalry game in prime time, you’re not all of a sudden going to rise to the occasion,” Malcolm Jenkins explained, “you are going to sink to what you’ve trained and prepared for. Obviously we’ve done a good job of training in those situations because we’ve showed up pretty well.”

The term “training” has replaced “practice” in this team’s lexicon. It’s subtle, but significant. Kelly calls practices “training sessions.” Why?

“Because that’s what we’re doing,” Kelly said. “I think we go out there to train. That’s our mentality. That’s what I’ve always called it everywhere I’ve been. I think the military trains, boxers train. I agree with Allen Iverson. I think he’s 100 percent right. We don’t want to go out there and practice because I don’t know what practice is good for. Training is what we’re all about.”

What’s the difference?

“We’re not practicing but we’re deliberately training a skill,” said Connor Barwin. “I think the idea is sometimes people get into a practice mentality and it just becomes a repetition and getting through the hour-and-a-half or two hours and repeating what you always do. You think deliberate training and those words strike a chord where it’s like, alright I need to train something new, I need to work on something specifically, and that’s actually how you improve, when you try to focus on one area and you make a mistake and then you improve it. You try something new and you improve it. I think that’s what it means to train.”

“I think it’s training almost in a military sense. You go execute a mission,” said Mark Sanchez. “Practice seems almost too redundant, too repetitive, where Chip is constantly evolving and constantly trying to create a better version of yourself. That whole movement and thought process, I think training fits his style a little bit better.

“At first when I first came here, and other guys too, you still call it practice. But you naturally change and think of it as training. You train for a fight on Sunday.”

Added James Casey: “I’m sure there’s some kind of psychological thing behind that. I know he’s real intentional, everything he does is for a reason and has a purpose. We call it training, too. Hey, if Chip calls it training, we call it training.”

The Secret To Special Teams

Special teams success seems to be largely about committing the time and resources to the endeavor, and finding players that are motivated/rabid enough to barrel into the thicket in the name of seeing that endeavor through.

Kelly dedicates at least two periods a day at practice to special teams. He sits in on Dave Fipp‘s meetings, taking notes, and at times will take an active role in instructing out on the NovaCare fields.

“We were really good at teams when I was at Oregon and we spent a lot of time on them, and I believe the same thing here,” said Kelly. “I think especially in this league where everything is so close, there’s very, very rarely blowouts anywhere. The game is usually coming down to a possession or two. The hidden yardage that can be found in the special teams game is something that I think you need to address because it’s the one play where you can drastically change field position one way or another, whether it be with a good return or whether it be with a great cover.”

While the commitment has been there from the start, the personnel needed some work. So he signed Chris Maragos and Bryan Braman in free agency and traded for Darren Sproles. As Trey Burton can attest, he places special teams ability above all else when shaping the bottom of his roster. And he is not afraid to use guys from the top end of the roster (Jenkins, Cary Williams, Bradley Fletcher, Brandon Boykin) as well.

“I can’t even tell you how unbelievable it is to play for a coach who believes in special teams, who wants to see it do well, who wants to invest in it, who’s willing to do those types of things because he believes in the type of impact that it can have,” said Maragos. “You see the emphasis that he puts on it, and guys take it serious. And it’s a privilege to be a part of the kickoff team and the punt team. I mean, guys are fighting just to get in the rotation. When you have competition like that and you have such a uniqueness and we’re having fun with it, it just turns out to be a really good unit for our team.”

As Jenkins pointed out, the units are largely comprised of guys that have noticeable chips on their shoulders. Jenkins, Sproles, Williams, James Casey, Boykin and on down the line. Whether it’s because of how things ended at a previous stop, frustrations over their current situation or something else altogether, this is a group of driven players.

“Everybody’s got their own yellow brick road that they follow in order to get to the league. There’s multiple guys that have played for multiple teams that are on that special teams unit, and there are definitely a few guys out there that are trying to prove a point,” said Braman.

The Eagles’ special teams is tops in the league, according to Football Outsiders. They have returned both a kick and a punt for a touchdown, have blocked a pair of punts (returning both for scores) and have a field-goal block as well. Cody Parkey is tied for second in the NFL in scoring and has a pair of 50-plus yard field goals under his belt already. The Eagles rank second in kick return average (30.9) and third in punt return average (15.9).

“Once you get a little success guys buy into it a lot more,” said former Duck Will Murphy. “In special teams meetings today everybody is fired up because we’re scoring points, blocking punts, returning punts. It’s kind of our identity right now.”

The Tight End Trio

Position groups spend close to two hours a day with one another —  just hanging out in a room, talking football. The personality dynamic is pretty important, then.

Each Eagles’ tight end has his own unique role in what Ted Williams believes is “the best room on the team in terms of a harmonious environment, guys wanting to learn, guys not being selfish and guys just working everyday to understand, how can I get better?”

Casey is the analytical one. “Sometimes we have to slow him down because he gets too analytical,” said the tight ends coach with a laugh. “He’ll point out things that sometime we don’t see or don’t anticipate seeing.” Casey is constantly looking at the variables and trying to problem solve: What if the safety is here instead of here? What if this happens?

Brent Celek goes more with the flow. “He just understands what to do and will adjust to what you want done. He just wants to know how you want it done,” said Williams.

As for Ertz: “Zach is somewhere in the middle in-between the two of them. He knows what to do and understands what we want done, but he’s still learning a lot of things about the NFL. There is still some learning going on and some growth for Zach.”

Which the veterans are helping to cultivate.

“It’s nice. It really is,” said Williams. “We don’t agree on everything but we understand that it’s all for the common good. Can’t beat that.”

Trey Burton is part of the tight end circle at times as well. This week, though, he’s been working with the running backs as a result of the Chris Polk injury. Burton played some running back his sophomore year at Florida, and feels like he’s prepared if an emergency situation comes up against New York Sunday night.

“I feel really comfortable. Coach Duce [Staley] has been great to me, he’s helped me out a lot. [Darren] Sproles and [LeSean McCoy] have helped me out and Polk has helped me out, too, so I’m thankful for all those guys.”