Is the NFL Taking Away the Eagles’ Secret Weapon?

We'll know more when training camp starts at Lehigh.

Perhaps Ed Rendell is so upset about the wussification of America because he knows it’s having a direct, adverse effect on his beloved Eagles. You need to flip the calendar back just a year for proof.

While many things have been blamed for the demise of the 2011 season — mismanagement, bad chemistry, an O-Line coach calling the defense — a big part of the problem was sewn right in the fields of Lehigh.

The dynamics surrounding a lockout-shortened offseason and the new rules written into the Collective Bargaining Agreement essentially neutered Andy Reid’s training camp, which is known around the league to be maybe the most grueling in all of football. Last year felt more like summer camp, with a bunch of guys in shorts taking the term “walk-through” all too literally.

The sloppy play that followed in the first five weeks of the season was no coincidence. Dick Vermeil essentially forecast the struggles in a conversation I had with him just before the lockout lifted.

In explaining why a talented Eagles team went 3-6 during the strike-shortened 1982 campaign — a season that many believe crushed his football spirit — Vermeil revealed that it was impossible for coaches like him to thrive in such an environment. His edge came from using every last minute allotted to hammer, shape and smooth his elaborate master plan. Take away time, and you take away his greatest weapon: the ability to thoroughly outwork the competition. Reid, Vermeil went on to say, is cut from the very same cloth.

If he and his players are not given the opportunity to muscle out the imperfections, the key to the whole operation is lost.

It is no surprise, then, that Reid recently made the declaration that the stone-busting ways of old were returning this summer.

“It’s going to be a tough training camp,” said Reid on the final day of OTAs. “This isn’t going to be an easy thing for them. I talked to the team about that. It’s going to be a demanding training camp.”

Asked whether last year’s hindrances could be linked to the team’s poor play, Reid’s face soured as he was forced to address the past.

“I don’t know,” he said, his expression quickly turning more pleasant. “I’ll tell you this: the one thing I’ve learned through this period here, is when something is taken away and you get it back, you’re loving it.”

It’s not as easy as just reverting back to old form, though. While the lockout year is behind them, the restrictions in the CBA are still very much in place. Under the new guidelines, old-fashioned two-a-days have been wiped out, with teams allowed only one contact practice per day. And the players also get three days off now.

Reid is sending the boys to Bethlehem earlier than normal to counter. He has flipped the practice schedule as well so the walk-throughs are in the morning while the contact practices will take place in the afternoon, when the sun is baking. The stated purpose of the switch is to better simulate the practice schedule during the season, but the tackling sessions will be all the more intense as a byproduct.

Little else can be done. The NFL Players Association takes these player-safety rules very seriously, and is allowed five unannounced and four formal visits a year to each club to monitor. The league is also allowed to spot-check video footage from team practices to make sure guidelines are being followed.

To date, the NFL and NFLPA do not have statistics available that suggest that the new restrictions have led to fewer injuries. But the logic is plain: Fewer collisions, less damage.

“There is a line,” said NFLPA Medical Director Dr. Thom Mayer, “between strenuous training camps and putting a player’s health at risk.”

Reid, much to the delight of our former governor, will do his best to put the “strenuous” element back in the mix.

“I hear [the tales],” said newcomer DeMeco Ryans. “But guys have made it over the past years and the team has been good over the past years, so obviously that formula worked. So what Coach Reid thinks is going to work for us, that’s what we have to go with.”