Training camp time is a part of the league season that I know well. Tom Landry once pointed out to me that we spent about two and a half years of our lives in training camp over our time with the Dallas Cowboys. Things have changed a lot since the 1960s, but some things always stay the same.
One key difference is that many teams today hold camp at or near their regular-season practice facilities. It might seem strange to think of a time when most teams held camp in small towns -- especially when organizations today have gleaming, expensive practice facilities in their home area -- but that was the case in the past. We didn't have dazzling facilities back in the '60s. In fact, teams rarely had their offices and their practice fields in the same location. Of course, most teams didn't require much office space, as most coaching staffs were limited to four part-time employees.
Teams also used to travel regularly for preseason games. In an effort to build the league's popularity, these contests were held in cities as small and widespread as North Platte, Neb., and Bangor, Maine. We really covered every corner of the country.
Now that the league has grown in popularity, facilities have gotten nicer and teams travel far less. But there are still certain things that all teams focus on during this important time, things that are just as crucial now as they were 50 years ago. Here are five key goals teams have during preseason:
1) Develop talent
Training camp presents a great opportunity to help shepherd young, promising players along in their careers. Position coaches will often be asked to, say, help develop a player from a small school who might not have a ton of experience. Coaches are looking for someone like Jermon Bushrod, Victor Cruz, Ramses Barden or Breno Giacomini -- a player with the potential to turn into a major contributor if properly coached. Personally, I saw Rayfield Wright, whom the Dallas Cowboys drafted out of Fort Valley State, turn into a Hall of Fame-caliber offensive tackle. You need a player who is willing to do a lot of extra work, both on the field and in the classroom, and a coach or two who can recognize what that player can become two or three years down the road.
2) Evaluate talent
A task that goes hand-in-hand with developing talent, evaluating talent is crucial for a team to be successful.
Entering camp, a coaching staff will know how fast and strong everyone is, thanks to offseason workouts. Now it's time to figure out who excels at things like route running (for receivers), recognition (linebackers and defensive ends) and performing under pressure (kickers). Who can contribute? Moreover, who can help on special teams? This can be a key factor when assembling the final roster. For example, a team might try to trade away its fourth-best receiver while looking for a way to keep the fifth/sixth-best, simply because the latter stands out in special teams play.
Oh, and one more thing: Try not to cut anyone who can come back to beat you with a different team.
3) Develop new schemes
This game is so sophisticated. Many people have no idea, but it can be as complicated and complex as Wall Street -- except instead of money, you play with a football.
During the offseason, offensive and defensive coaches will evaluate everything the team did in the previous year. Then they'll try to generate new ideas to help the team improve, some of which are implemented or practiced during the preseason. You might, for example, try a two-man rush, or have your linemen stand up. Some ideas that look great on the blackboard don't work out in practice.
This is also a time to prepare for specific opponents you know you're going to have to beat in order to have a successful year. For example, before the 1975 season, Coach Landry had the Cowboys work on certain defensive changes meant just for the Los Angeles Rams, a team he knew he'd have to get through. Sure enough, the plan was put into action during the playoffs -- and Dallas wound up with a 37-7 win.
4) Work on conditioning and team building
In the 1960s, most players had offseason jobs; there were no organized team activities or minicamps. Training camp was a great place to get players into playing condition. They'd work on, for example, technique drills, backpedaling, getting off the blocker -- many of the things that are covered in the spring today. Many teams had at least 15 days of two-a-days, with a practice in the morning from 10 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. and again in the afternoon from 3 p.m. to 5:45 p.m. Teams also would have player meetings five nights a week. This continued even when preseason games began. Veteran players, by the way, would get around $50 per preseason game. The rest was gratis.
Today's players are well-conditioned, but that's entirely different from being in football shape. Football conditioning is a very important part of training camp, where players are allowed to work in pads, unlike at organized team activities. Teams often try to incorporate a lot of running into their drills.
Team building is another important aspect of training camp. Before the era of big salaries, players would go out in groups together to do some bowling or, say, drink some beer on a Friday night. Rookies would have to stand on their chairs and sing during lunch or dinner; then, the week before the third preseason game, rookies would hold a show, at which they'd playfully mock coaches, players and club officials. This sort of camaraderie doesn't come as easily today; coaches have to try a bit harder to engender a feeling of closeness.
For example, in 2010, I saw Todd Haley, who was coaching the Kansas City Chiefs at the time, surprise his players by having them board a fleet of buses one morning without telling them where they were going. The destination turned out to be a movie, but that's not the important part. On the way there, players were forced to sit near each other through seating assignments and fraternize. This happened a handful of times that year -- and the Chiefs improved from 4-12 to 10-6.
5) Maintain health
Injuries are probably one of the biggest influences on a team's win-loss record. Coaches, of course, want injured players to get back on the practice field yesterday, but it's important to lean on the expertise of the medical staff. This is also true when it comes to deciding the length and intensity of practices.
Former San Francisco 49ers coach Bill Walsh was great at preserving his players' health. Many of his practices were pad-less and short, and his teams always boasted excellent records, routinely playing well late into the year.