KANSAS CITY, Mo. – The scene plays out on playgrounds across the country each year, as much a part of autumn as crisp mornings and the changing color of leaves: the football floating through the air, the youngster attempting to make a spectacular diving catch.
Even if the pass is well under-thrown or woefully out of reach.
After all, there are style points involved.
That unnecessary drama doesn't fly under Chiefs coach Andy Reid, though. The moment he sees a player on the ground, whether he made an amazing catch or tripped over his own feet, the first thing he barks is: “Get up!” Because one of the unwritten rules of his workouts is that nobody hits the turf unless he is tackled, and only a handful of times throughout training camp are players taken all the way to the ground during a full padded practice.
“We try to keep bodies off the ground, do those things that are important," Reid said. "Play hard, play fast, but we're not taking cheap shots on each other. We're trying to keep from collisions and bodies on the ground.”
The reason, of course, is that staying upright reduces the chances of injuries. And without offseason workouts because of the coronavirus pandemic, the chance of players getting hurt in training camp this year has soared — a big reason why the NFL and its players' union negotiated a ramp-up period rather than playing the traditional four preseason games.
“If you just watch our veterans practice," Reid explained this week, “they know how to do it. So watch. They're moving like crazy, but you don't see guys flopping around on the ground.”
All of this gets to a prescient point: Just as much as picking up the playbook, understanding verbiage and parsing out the various personnel groups, players taking part in one of Reid's camps must learn how to practice.
They must re-learn how to do something most of them have been doing since they were kids.
“Nobody works as hard as the Kansas City Chiefs. I say that in a good way,” Pro Bowl safety Tyrann Mathieu said. “We strain a lot. There's a lot on our plate. A lot of playbook to go in. The calls are already up. You just have to find a way to fall in love with the grind. Fall in love with the process.”
Just about every coach likes to claim their training camps are the hardest. It's almost a point of pride, whether you are a junior high school coach or barking orders on an NFL sideline. But there is a major difference in being hard for the sake of being hard and being hard for the sake of effectiveness.
There is no wasted movement in Chiefs camp. There are no moments of milling around. Even when players are released to get water, they are expected to run. The result is more work accomplished in less time.
It can be a shock to the system. Especially for young players.
“Last year in camp my eyes were wide open, like deer-in-the-headlights,” admitted Darwin Thompson, who is entering his second year in the league. “This year I know what to expect.”
Not that it makes it a whole lot easier. Thompson and the rest of the Chiefs dutifully worked out individually throughout the summer, making the most of the situation caused by COVID-19. But there is no way to replicate the tempo of practice with Big Red running things, and there are inevitably a bunch of gassed world-class athletes by the end.
“Normally if guys practice fast they stay relatively healthy,” Reid said. “It's when someone isn't doing that, they trip over somebody and fall down and you have problems. It's important guys are moving at the same speed. And then it gets you prepared. We don't condition after practice. We're not lining up and running sprints. Condition during practice, we'll keep you watered down — we're not doing the no-water game. But we know that in games you have to be ready.”
Taken as a whole, practice under Reid is a mixture of the old-school stuff of Bill Walsh and Mike Holmgren — two of his mentors — and the new-age approach to analytics, advanced statistics and cutting-edge sports medicine.
The Chiefs use technology to monitor how many steps players take in practice, along with their overall work rates. They scrupulously break down the film of each workout, leaving no movement unnoticed.
“Those boys working in Seattle, no question, it's different, from the tempo to the speed,” said safety Tedric Thompson, who played for the Seahawks last season. “The tempo is so up-tempo. You're running one spot to the other. Guys are going busy going about their business. The camp is like a workaholic camp. Everybody works.”
The proof is in the — well, the wins and losses. Several of the guys on the roster have been part of four consecutive AFC West champions. Even more of them have been to back-to-back AFC title games. Those that were on the team last year will soon be receiving their gaudy Super Bowl rings after delivering the organization its first championship in 50 years.
“Coach Reid is a winning coach,” backup quarterback Chad Henne said, “and guys want to be around winning atmospheres. The Super Bowl helps, but when you're around guys that want to compete each and every day, and fight for each other, it is something you want to be part of. I've been through ups and downs, winning and losing. Winning is the way to go.”
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