Coughlin always runs tough camp


In his enduring classic A Thinking Man's Guide to Pro Football, longtime NFL scribe Paul Zimmerman relates a narrative from Tim Davey, former director of football operations for the New York Jets, and the man who for years was charged with breaking the bad news to players who had been released during training camp.

Recalling the blistering intensity of the 1976 camp, presided over by Lou Holtz in the veteran college coach's one and only (mis)adventure at the pro level, Davey described the uncharacteristic relief with which some players accepted their pink slips that year.

"I remember when Lou Holtz cut guys," Davey told Zimmerman years ago. "They were singing in the van on the way to the airport. One guy said, 'I can't thank you enough.' "

Nearly three decades later, times have changed, and so, too, have training camps. More enlightened now about perils of dehydration, the importance of maintaining electrolyte levels and the potentially toxic combination of too much heat and too much hitting, NFL coaches certainly don't adhere to the torturous practice philosophies of the past.

Even before the training camp death of Minnesota Vikings offensive tackle Kory Stringer in the summer of 2001, practice methods had been revisited. Since his tragic passing, staffs are considerably less demanding and far more diligent.

That said, with all 32 franchises set to report back to work by next Monday, there remains this inalterable truism for training camps leaguewide: Preparation means perspiration.

If there is one common byproduct of training camps everywhere, no matter the degree of difficulty, it is sweat. Big buckets of sweat that force 300-pounders to squeeze themselves into 55-gallon drums filled with ice water at the conclusion of practices. Sweat that sops uniform jerseys and shoulder pads. If you are in one of the 32 venues which host an NFL training camp, be prepared for a sudden flood warning in your area, as players will soon begin creating the infamous, man-made, threatening-its-banks Lake Sweat.

Want to solve the drought crisis in the Western states? Just divine a way to bottle up all the sweat that will be produced in training camps over the next month or so.

"Man, you start sweating before you even get to camp, just thinking about going," Bills linebacker Takeo Spikes once noted. "Two things you know: It's going to be hot as hell and you're going to sweat your ass off."

Indeed, as night follows day, those two elements are in lock-step. A coach could convene his training camp at the South Pole some summer and, right on cue, global warming will begin to dissolve the ice cap before the second practice of two-a-days. The players at that camp would either drown in the resultant meltdown or in their own sweat as dog days instantly replaced dog-sled races.

Old-timers will scoff at the notion that players of this generation leak as much salty moisture from their pores as guys did when two-a-day sessions marked by plenty of hitting were the norm. But even in an era when the practice schedule is dictated in part by economics -- when coaches fear having a player injured, given the on-field consequences, and the salary cap ramifications -- oozing buckets of sweat is a training camp requisite.

So which coaches squeeze the most sweat from their charges? The retirement of Jimmy Johnson, whose cursed "middle drill" was for years the bane of his players, has left a bit of a void. In some cases, reputation precedes perspiration, so the New York Giants, now helmed by Tom Coughlin, can expect tougher practices. But a coach's perceived martinet M.O. doesn't always lead to B.O. from his players.

Dallas coach Bill Parcells, for instance, was a revelation to some players last year, in that his practices were demanding but disciplined, well organized and efficient. Several Dallas veterans who had not played for Parcells before 2003 remarked last summer that some of the horror stories they had heard in advance of camp were overstated.

Based on buckets of sweat (bucket) then, with five buckets representing a camp practice regimen befitting a trip to Hades and one bucket a romp in the park, here is a thumbnail look at the intensity of NFL camps:


By the latter seasons of Tom Coughlin's eight-year tenure in Jacksonville, most of the veteran Jaguars players had become accustomed to his demanding training camps and the earlier griping largely subsided. But some Giants players complained in the spring about minicamp practices and, as a result of their grievances, New York lost two sessions of its allotted 14 organized practice days.

Coughlin is too mature a coach to bear a grudge, although he has acknowledged he feels he now knows the identities of at least some of the veterans who complained to the NFL Players Association. Vengeance or not, Coughlin is going to do the things that have made him successful, and that means tough but focused practices. This is, after all, a team that was supposed to vie for a Super Bowl berth in 2003 and won just four games. The same players who quit on Jim Fassel last season might wish they had played harder for him once they get a taste of Camp Coughlin I. The good side for Giants fans: Coughlin knows how to win and knows how to get a team prepared to play.

In Cleveland, coach Butch Davis always has run tough camps and, coming off a five-win season, and even with his viability being openly questioned by fans (including some folks in management), he isn't likely to pull back. Davis is a Jimmy Johnson devotee and feels you can't simulate game-level intensity with a bunch of seven-on-seven drills. The bet is that, despite an 11-season absence from the league, Joe Gibbs won't get soft. His camps were always orderly, disciplined and physical, and that probably won't change.


Lengthy practices, sometimes 2 or three hours, are often the norm in Kansas City, and Dick Vermeil and his staff came close to fitting into the "five bucket" category. Vermeil is decidedly old school, as are two other four-bucket coaches, Marty Schottenheimer of San Diego and Dallas' Parcells.

It's hard to argue with the success Vermeil has enjoyed in the NFL but there are players who grumble, and who have sniped to the NFLPA, about his practices. That said, Vermeil has some of the most creative methods and, as his record attests, he gets results.

In the case of Parcells, practices aren't so much long as they are minutely precise. He is a stickler for detail and wants things run the right way. Ditto Schottenheimer, who expects proficiency, crispness, and sharpness. "With (Parcells), everything is so well-scheduled, with no wasted motion or time, that it doesn't seem like you're on the field as long as you are," said safety Darren Woodson. "I mean, don't get me wrong, it's demanding. But you are always moving from one thing to the next. His planning is incredible. Of course, if you keep screwing something up, you're going to do it until it's right."

The Carolina Panthers, New Orleans Saints and Tampa Bay Buccaneers also belong in the four-bucket class. Conventional wisdom is that the Saints' annual December meltdown is a delayed reaction to their summer practice schedule. Coach Jim Haslett has spoken to his peers around the league about getting his players off their feet more in camp, but Saints veterans contend not much has changed.


There are nine teams in this subset and, not surprisingly, four are coached by former NFL players. The reason that isn't surprising? Because those coaches, arguably, understand far better the rigors of camp and design schedules that find a middle ground. The group is defined by Jeff Fisher of Tennessee and Pittsburgh's Bill Cowher, two so-called "players' coaches," guys who have an innate sense for when to turn up the heat and when to let up a bit on the throttle.

Other teams here include: Cincinnati, Houston, Jacksonville, New England, Green Bay, Minnesota and Philadelphia.

Notable here is the unfair rap that Jacksonville coach Jack Del Rio received nationally during his 2003 rookie camp. Three Jaguars players succumbed to heat last summer but the heat index in all three cases never rose above 85. In two of the situations, players had been on the field for fewer than 20 snaps. Those who didn't visit Jaguars camp seemed to suggest Del Rio was presiding over Stalag 17. Fact is, it was poor conditioning, not the intensity of the camp, that overcame the three players.


Looking for a poster boy for this group? Think Tony Dungy of Indianapolis, a man with a businesslike plan, who treats players like men and expects them to respond accordingly. There is more than enough contact to prepare for the season, and to get players back in hitting shape, but also a tutorial slant to things. Dungy is a quiet force but at no time does one lose sight of his presence.

No one should mistake the teams in this group -- Baltimore, Denver, Miami, the New York Jets, Oakland and Seattle -- as soft. Just because the coaches don't place quite as high a premium on daily contact doesn't mean they don't hit.


One of the ironies of the past month is that the Arizona Cardinals were forced to forfeit their final week of organized workouts because players complained that coach Dennis Green had gone beyond the limits of intensity permitted by the collective bargaining agreement during offseason practices. Ironic because, during his tenure in Minnesota, Green was regarded as having practices that bordered more on the cerebral.

Green is traditionally heavy into coaching up the skill position players and, while there are the requisite number of contact drills, players are hardy overworked. It isn't quite just pitch-and-catch in his camps, but there is emphasis on the finer skills.

Also included in this group: Detroit, St. Louis and San Francisco. These teams likely have fewer "unpadded" practices than most.

Empty buckets

The early read on Atlanta's Jim Mora, who operated high-octane workouts during the offseason and who, unlike predecessor Dan Reeves, will practice on Sundays in camp, is that he could be a four- to five-bucket guy. But it is probably unfair, in his rookie year, to gauge the intensity of Falcons camp for at least a week or two. The same is true for Mike Mularkey of Buffalo and Chicago's Lovie Smith.

Senior writer Len Pasquarelli covers the NFL for ESPN.com.