Looking perplexed, Tom Coughlin stood on the field watching a minicamp practice. No pads, no real blocking, no power football for the New York Giants, as mandated by the labor agreement between the league and the players.
It's difficult enough when the players can hit each other to evaluate whether NFL wannabes have what it takes, or if veterans still can carry the load pro football demands. Now, with lots of offseason availabilities but virtually no contact allowed, followed by training camps in which two-a-days are outlawed unless one practice is a walk-through, the appraisal process won't get much easier.
"Well, it is pro football. It is the way it is today," Coughlin says.
Success has to be built, he says, by "doing a good job with our evaluations — bringing the right people in here and getting them integrated into our offense, defense and special teams, the way we do things, what our expectation levels are, what our values are. And the more we can be with them and around them, then the better you are going to feel about it."
Coaches and players will be around each other plenty over the next month, whether it's in training camps or at exhibition games, or back at the home facilities when teams that go away early in camp return as the regular season approaches. Tons of classroom study is ahead, even for teams whose offensive and defensive schemes have been established for years. Lots of breakout sessions with position coaches, too. Enough video watching to, well, make your eyes spin.
And not all that much time on the practice fields.
No contact or pads are allowed during the first three days of camp, with the reporting date limited to physical exams, meetings and classroom work. Running and conditioning is allowed.
Throughout training camp, players can't be on the field for more than four hours per day; only one practice a day can be in pads and is restricted to three hours or less, followed by a three-hour break; and players get one day off per week.
That all makes for a safer game, but how can newcomers make a sharp impact?
Denver running back Montee Ball felt he already did so even without a ball in his hands.
"I made sure to leave a little impression on the conditioning test ..." the record-setting second-round draft pick from Wisconsin said. "I just want them to remember that I came in working since Day 1, and I really attacked the playbook since Day 1. I made a lot of progress with it."
Ball will get a shot at being a starter for the Broncos after veteran Willis McGahee was cut. It's much more difficult for lower draft picks or rookie free agents to get long looks these days, though it does happen.
Alfred Morris came out of Florida Atlantic of the not-so-mighty Sun Belt Conference as a sixth-round pick last year. He ran around, over and through just about everyone but Mike Shanahan last spring and summer in Washington, and the Redskins not only kept him, they started him. Morris rushed for 1,613 yards and 13 touchdowns and helped the Skins make the playoffs.
"Alfred's a beast," Redskins offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan says. "I think one guy or about three guys all year tackled him on the first tackle. That guy runs as hard as anyone I've ever seen. Most of his yards came on outside zone, not the zone read, so Alfred is as good of a back as I've ever had. He's the real deal."
But discovering the real deal is even more of a chore with practice time in pads and scrimmaging so limited compared to before 2011. The players association insisted on the cutbacks during CBA negotiations, and with player safety a major issue, the NFL agreed.
Doug Casa, professor of kinesiology at the University of Connecticut and the lead researcher for the Korey Stringer Institute, already has seen many health benefits resulting from the 2011 CBA.
A leader in heat illness detection and prevention, Casa advised the league and the players' union on establishing practice guidelines during the hottest time of the year.
"For certain, 2011 was the first real opportunity to make changes since Korey," he said, referring to Vikings offensive tackle Korey Stringer dying from complications due to heat stroke on Aug. 1, 2001 during training camp. At 27, he was the first professional football player to die from the illness. "After the CBA, when they overhauled the heat guidelines, did away with two-a-day practices, modified some heat treatment recommendations, it created a safer environment."
Even as coaches praise such developments, they also bemoan all those snaps and blocks and tackles that have disappeared.
"It's cut down on the opportunities to see them in those situations," says Browns first-year head coach Rob Chudzinski, a long-time offensive assistant in the league. "By the same token I think the preseason games are so important as well in that process, but you do ... only get them so many times in pads and hitting anyway. It puts a premium on the reps that they do get."
But the coaches also recognize everyone plays by the same set of rules.
"It's a level playing field, so there's no difference between our team and every other team," Jets coach Rex Ryan says. "But there are other things that you do. I think having opportunity days where maybe at the end of practice you put the ball down and you let the young guys go at it. You're going to see them in preseason games as well. That's why those games are critical, (as well as) the green-and-white scrimmage. Even if we have to create our own live scrimmage situations, they'll have the opportunity to show what they can do."
They'd better do so quickly.