SEPTEMBER IS THE NEW AUGUST IN THE NFLBrian Baldinger Brian Baldinger discusses Eagles QB Carson Wentz. Photo by Andy Lewis / contrastphotography.com
By Brian Baldinger
In 1982, I went to my rookie training camp with the Dallas Cowboys. We had 15 rookie drafted players (it was a 12-round draft then), and they had signed 103 rookie free agents. It added up to a grand total of 118 rookies, and along with selected veterans, made for a great proving ground. I was undrafted, a free-agent signing and NOBODY knew my name. But we had 10 days of 2-a-day practices in full pads every morning and afternoon every day for 10 days before the veterans showed up.
It was 10 of the hardest, most competitive days of my life. I averaged 3 or 4 fights a day and by time the veterans showed up, some of the coaches knew my name. Once the returning vets from an NFC Championship loss showed up, us surviving rookies became the dummy squad for the starting groups of the Dallas Cowboys. Every morning and afternoon we hit and hit and hit and hit toughening, up the starters in preparation for the season. And after the second practice was over, the rookies scrimmaged each other for 50 plays more.
This system doesn’t exist anymore. But it was the only reason a million-to-one-shot player was able to make the Dallas Cowboys as an undrafted rookie free agent. We built unity, chemistry, toughness, and were fully prepared by time we opened at home on Monday Night Football against the Pittsburgh Steelers. Although we lost, it felt like a playoff game as both teams were very good and played at a very high level.
Those were the archaic days before big TV money, before free agency, and before the “suits” on Park Ave. in New York City changed the game. Concussions, lawsuits, and a variety of other factors have now changed the game into fantasy football. The worst part is that when teams exit training camp nothing has really been done to prepare a team for the regular season.
The Eagles were very much a prime example of this mentality this year. A 17-play exhibition game in Green Bay where quarterback Sam Bradford completed all 10 passing attempts are all the fans really gleamed from a powder-puff camp where the only goal was to preserve player safety. I am not faulting head coach Chip Kelly and his program. He correctly quoted and saw the Redskins lose two valuable tight ends to season-ending injuries before they played a second meaningless preseason game.
Almost all of the Eagles’ woes that any fan can recognize in the first month of the season can be traced to the non-physicality of the team’s training camp. The blocking up front offensively was embarrassingly poor. Basic plays went backwards time and time again because of poor technique and because of hesitation between adjacent linemen. As an analyst, it was very difficult to watch and for a guy like DeMarco Murray, who came off a phenomenal season as the league’s best running back, it was beyond frustrating.
Bradford hasn’t been crisp in any phase of his game. But should we be shocked? I am not. He has played very little football in the past two years. He is learning a new system. He is adjusting to a new city and a new way of doing things all while learning a new set of teammates. By comparison Green Bay’s Aaron Rogers is in his 11th year with the same head coach, the same playbook, and largely the same teammates. No success happens fast for any quarterback, especially one with Bradford’s background.
The Birds exited September 1-2. It was an ugly 1-2 with all kinds of problems. Some can be remedied. Cody Parkey, a Pro Bowl placekicker a year ago is on Injured Reserve. He simply was never healthy and could not reach the end zone on kickoffs. Walter Thurmond looks like a good find at safety. The defensive front led the league in stuffing the run.
I see promise in this team. The Eagles’ difficulties in running the ball will lead to new ways to running the ball. Coaching is about two things. It is heavily weighted in teaching and in adjusting. The good ones stick around for a long time in the league and the ones that can’t do the above two things need to find different addresses to work. I happen to think that Chip Kelly, while sometimes too stubborn for his own good, can teach and he can adjust.
I am banking on these two qualities from Kelly to elevate this team from September’s crypt into October’s chase. Remember, September is the new August.