We're doing a season-long NFL roundtable with our friends at Slate. Check back here each week as a rotating cast of football watchers discusses the weekend's key plays, coaching decisions, and traumatic brain injuries.
From: Stefan Fatsis
To: Tommy Craggs, Josh Levin, Tom Scocca
I'm speed-watching the game the morning after—if the president could schedule around the NFL's opening night, couldn't the Kennedy Center?—and what leaps out, Josh, isn't just the bounty of open-field thrills but the general excellence of both teams. I'm sure that the Green Bay and New Orleans coaching staffs are eagerly deconstructing the video, can't-waiting for position meetings where they'll laser point out every off-center block, improper shoulder turn, and 1-yard-short route. But to our fan eyes, there seemed to be few ill effects of the compressed training camp and preseason. On the contrary, the opener might be a sign that the lockout-induced football-free March through July might have a salutary effect on the 2011 season.
Sure, this particular game featured the last two Super Bowl champions, teams stocked with veterans who had preexisting command of their three-inch playbook binders. In a post-lockout world—in a league filled with players with zero to three years' experience—veteran-ness was seen by the sports chatterers as a big advantage for the new season. It didn't hurt a team like the Saints to have a quarterback who organized team workouts and film study. Or the Packers to have a guy whose brilliance leads network producers to cut to Bart Starr watching from a Lambeau luxury suite. But last night's active rosters included enough zero-to-threes—22 on the Saints, 28 on the Packers—that any lockout falloff would have been obvious.
So what's the one-game takeaway? That the owners and players union probably didn't go far enough when, as part of their new collective-bargaining agreement, they reduced offseason training by five weeks. Since we keep quoting our friend (and my former Denver Broncos teammate) Nate Jackson in this space, let me do it again. Nate watched the game, too, and we spoke this morning. Here's what he noticed: The players looked like they were having a good time. No one was carted off the field with a horrific injury.
Nate thinks there's a direct connection between those facts and the shorter offseason, and I do, too. As I've written elsewhere, and Nate reaffirmed in a piece on Deadspin this week, an NFL player's job is tedious, redundant, and physically and emotionally unpleasant. Probably three-quarters of the players in an NFL training camp are so unsure of their job status that they feel the need to go full-throttle on every snap of every play in practice. The inevitable result is outright injury or accumulated fatigue—before the actual season even begins. This year is different. "Everybody says their bodies feel fresh, night and day from the way they used to be," Nate told me, referring to his buddies who are still in the league.
In his post-game news conference, Aaron Rodgers couldn't wait to remark that the Packers didn't even have player-organized lockout workouts. "I've just got to ask myself, what would have happened if we had offseason workouts? Could we have started any faster and scored more points tonight?" He was being a smart-ass, of course, but he's right: More isn't necessarily better. Coaches make NFL football too taxing on players than it needs to be, and too complicated than it needs to be. It's born of paranoia, mostly: If Belichick and Shanahan are scheduling their players to within an inch of their sanity, and rewriting their playbooks every week, then I should, too. The reduction in offseason workouts, and in the number of padded practices during the season, will no doubt be mental agony for some of the NFL's coach-tyrants. (I love the image, from a New York Times story by Judy Battista, of new Carolina head coach Ron Rivera tinkering for months during the lockout with his plans for the team. "Eight times Rivera made up a calendar only to trash it," Battista wrote.) But it could be great for the players and the quality of the game.
Summers in the NFL are about monotonic repetition with the goal of "flawless" execution. Less practice might force coaches to introduce slightly less complex playbooks. It also might introduce a smidge of instinct over rote regurgitation. Yes, passing routes need to be run accurately, and blocks made correctly, and even snaps, holds, and kicks must be timed just right. But if players feel less mentally put-upon, less physically overworked, and less sick of being around the team "facility," they'll be happier. And, believe it or not, happier players make better plays.
Packers rookie Randall Cobb sure looked happy after making an instinctual, athletic decision—maybe he saw something evolving upfield, maybe he just went for it—to return that kickoff from 8 yards deep in the end zone, despite instructions never, ever to run back anything more than 5 yards deep. I'm sure his special teams coaches will browbeat some sense into him during practice this week.
Stefan Fatsis is a panelist on Slate's sports podcast "Hang Up and Listen." His latest book is A Few Seconds of Panic: A Sportswriter Plays in the NFL.