Those who worked out at a handful of the nation's top training destinations could have an advantage during an interrupted preseason
By Dan Tierney
It's barely 8 a.m., but drops of sweat have already started steadily falling from strained faces onto the dew-soaked turf field.
The collection of NFL players - ranging from 160-pound speedsters to 330-pound behemoths - rest with their hands on their hips, some looking skyward as if someone or something from above can provide extra energy or motivation or maybe even a reprieve. The sounds of groaning and heavy breathing are short-lived, though, smothered by a booming voice.
âYeah, yeah, yeahhhh,â shouts Jeff Dillman, Head of Physical Conditioning for the Athletic & Personal Development program, his wicked smile failing to conceal his enjoyment for the whole scene. âHard work beats talent, when talent ain't workin'.â
It's mid-June and a date for a resolution to the NFL's Collective Bargaining Agreement is still a mystery. Still, the lockout could end at any point and NFL players need to be prepared for a short-notice call to training camp, and Dillman has no intention of letting them report in a weakened state.
âLet's go, gentlemen,â he hollers. âTime to work.â
The year of the lockout
Rodger Saffold considers himself something of a new-age offensive lineman. The St. Louis Rams left tackle, who started 16 games last season on his way to earning All-Rookie status, is strong enough to thwart the most powerful of bull rushes and quick enough to handle blitzes off the corner.
On this June day, he's the only lineman mixed in with a group of quarterbacks, wide receivers, linebackers and defensive backs. Utilizing a 12-circuit speed and agility training machine, Dillman and Loren Seagrave, IMG's Head of Speed and Movement, put the players through an endless battery of exercises that leave the players doubled over. Saffold forces himself to keep up with the smaller guys.
âHonestly, it's hard getting up every day and giving everything you have on your own when you don't know when you'll play again,â Saffold said. âWith Jeff Dillman, though, you don't need any motivation. He won't tolerate it if you aren't giving your all. He won't let you waste his time.â
Saffold said those words, obviously, before the NFL and NFL Players Association finalized a new collective-bargaining agreement, thus ending the lockout this week. During negotiations, NFL players missed anywhere from 12-15 days of mini-camps and OTAs, as well as the immeasurable amount of time and familiarity lost from not being able to gather at team facilities. For rookies and teams with new coaches or a large number of new personnel, this could prove costly in a league where wins and losses are decided by the most minute of details.
Some attempted to organize voluntary workouts, including the Minnesota Vikings and Tampa Bay Buccaneers, which both held informal practices at IMG. Many decided to work out on their own at local high school fields and gyms. Still others chose to train under specialized supervision and with other elite athletes at facilities that cater to professionals
Randall Cobb, a rookie second-round pick by the Super Bowl champion Green Bay Packers, chose to do the latter.
âI want to be the best I can be whenever I do have to report -- as strong, fast and healthy as I can be,â Cobb said in June. âI've been at IMG for a week, and I already feel like this place has done so much for me. I feel like I'm already in shape.â
As the NFLPA Director of Health and Safety, Ernie Conwell, who played for 11 seasons in the NFL as a tight end for the Rams and Saints, spoke with countless players during the lockout and found an âeclectic mixâ of players training on their own, holding player-run mini-camps, and/or working out at accredited facilities like IMG, Athletes' Performance, Michael Johnson Performance Center and others.
âI'm obviously hoping that the injury rate will be no different than other seasons,â he said. âI'm not so much concerned about the training - things like running and lifting - it's when you have to compete. Coaches have to be smart and let the guys acclimate, but I don't think we'll see a big increase (in training camp injuries).â
Preparation = success
Established more than 30 years ago as a tennis-only facility by coaching legend Nick Bollettieri, IMG Academy has since expanded its 400-acre Bradenton, FL campus to seven sports and the Athletic & Personal Development program (IPI).
Utilizing cutting-edge training methodologies, specialized coaching and professional-quality facilities, IMG's NFL Draft and Offseason programs have helped many of NFL's elite perfect their game.
From established stars like Drew Brees, Tony Romo and LaDainian Tomlinson to the game's future leaders like Josh Freeman, Cam Newton and Christian Ponder, IMG has become an annual destination for those looking to gain an extra edge on their competition.
âTraining in an environment like IMG or other top training centers is critical to developing that confidence in yourself which is so vital to success,â said Trevor Moawad, IMG Academy Athletic & Personal Development programsDirector. âCompeting at the highest level requires an internal belief that you've put in the work to deserve consistently high-quality performances.â
Chris Weinke can relate. After a standout career at Florida State, which included a National Championship and a Heisman Trophy, Weinke declared for the draft at age 29. He chose to train at IMG in preparation for the NFL Draft, with a host of other potential draftees including Brees, Tomlinson, Steve Hutchinson and others.
âIt's a structured environment with a lot of discipline, which prepares you well for the NFL level,â said Weinke, who now plays the instructor role as Director of the IMG Academy football program.
The key, at least to rookie Anthony Castonzo, is looking past total amount of pounds a player can bench or how many seconds it takes to run 40 yards.
The NFL players on campus follow a regimented schedule tailored to what they most need to improve. Daily workouts could include dynamic warm-ups, followed by speed training, then physical conditioning, a break for lunch and ended with hours of on-field work. Players can also mix in recovery massages, nutrition training, mental conditioning, communication training and more.
âI figured all training places were the same, but when I got here, I was kind of floored by how awesome it is,â said Castonzo, the No. 22 pick in the draft by the Indianapolis Colts. âEverything is approached from a scientific manner, so as a science guy, I appreciate that. Whether it's Coach Seagrave talking about training your nervous system or Coach Dillman talking about breathing when on the bench, it's really cool.â
About two weeks after players were officially allowed to report to camp this year, preseason games will begin for several teams. The question is: Is that enough time for players to prepare for a full-speed, full-contact game?
Conwell certainly hopes so.
âIt's different than bringing in 90 guys off the street and trying to teach them the game in two weeks,â he said. âPeople are going to see that these guys are professionals. They've been playing their whole lives. They know what it takes.â
Conwell has already stopped at a half-dozen or so training camps since the lockout was lifted and has seen one noticeable difference. Many teams are implementing a conditioning test, not so much to punish or discipline players (as was the norm in past years), but to actually determine who is ready to immediately compete.
âI think that's an intelligent plan,â Conwell said. âThis lets the coaching and training staff set a plan and train accordingly.â
Weinke, who spent seven years in the NFL, vividly remembers those who reported to training camp noticeably out of shape after taking the off-season lightly and uses that as motivation for current players.
âWhen you get a group of guys together, they push each other and encourage each other,â he said. âYou fight human nature every day. Human nature says âI'll wait until tomorrow' or âI've got another month or two before training camp.' Our goal is to work them as hard as they possibly can to prepare them for what they'll experience in camp."
âThis year, especially, they'll need every edge they can get.â