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Fan-Demonium: Class Is In Session


Organized team activities. Is there a more beautiful phrase in the English language? The obvious answer is yes. Something involving the Super Bowl Champion Eagles or "this is my wife Megan Fox" would be tough to beat. For now, we have to settle for getting excited about OTAs. Coaching and developing players takes time and work. Building up units and whole sides of the ball takes time and work. It is a process. What is happening at the NovaCare Complex right now isn't exciting, but it is important.

The Eagles will spend the next week or so continuing the learning process. This is the foundation for training camp and the season. There won't be any dramatic moments where a player "gets it" and the light bulb goes on immediately. The process is gradual.

This isn't real football. There's no tackling or hitting. This time of the year is about getting into the flow of things and working on technique. That sounds kind of boring, but it is very valuable for young players or guys new to the team. Training camp is no longer a time to learn everything. Players need to get to Lehigh University with a good foundation in place.

Back in the 1970s and 1980s, training camp was six weeks long. Players didn't do much football-related stuff in the off-season. They showed up for camp and started from scratch. Over the years, training camp has been shortened, but off-season workouts have popped up. Now, players are expected to be ready for training camp. The goal is to gel as units and a team while up at Lehigh

You hear the word technique thrown around a lot when talking about football. Sometimes it is hard to grasp the notion that there is anything other than full-speed chaos going on during a football play. Believe it or not, technique is huge. It's how 300-pound men block 340-pound men. It's how little cornerbacks cover big receivers. It's how edge rushers fight off the blocks of big tackles. Technique.

Every position has different subtleties. Most players get exposed to proper technique in high school and/or college. Very few of them really work at it. The problem is that the best players in high school are so good that they can excel based on natural ability, size, or athleticism. Virtually every player in the NFL was a very good, if not great, player at the high school level. Players get better coaching and face better competition at the college level. That forces them to pay more attention to the little things.

Still, the best college players are often able to continue to rely on pure physical ability to make big time plays and excel. They get help from the fact that a lot of times they play with good players and for superior coaches. This gives them a favorable situation to play in.

The other dynamic that is rarely addressed is that players only have three or four years at these levels. That keeps them bunched closely in terms of experience and knowledge of the game. A senior has an advantage over a freshman, but not in the same way an eight-year veteran does over a rookie. Not even close.

The NFL simply changes everything. This is the best of the best. There are no "term limits." Players stay in the league as long as they can play effectively. You can't get by on just size or speed anymore. You need skill and technique. Some players grasp this concept. Others have a pattern of behavior so ingrained in them that they can't adjust to pro football. There are plenty of players who fail not for lack of talent, but because they don't have the right attitude or work ethic. There are also plenty of guys who lack ideal size, speed or talent, but succeed because they do all the little things right.

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Look at Trent Cole. He was a fifth-round pick in 2005 (the 146th selection overall). The Eagles have taken a number of defensive ends in the Andy Reid era. Jerome McDougle went in the first round. Jamaal Green was taken in the fourth round. Victor Abiamiri was a second-round pick. Bryan Smith went in the third. These players all have more natural ability than Cole. They all went ahead of Cole. None of them has played as well as him. Smith and Abiamiri still are very young, but the point is that Cole just had that look even as a rookie that he wouldn't be denied. He was going to make it. Cole was going to do everything in his power to be a good NFL player. The other players have worked hard. This case isn't about lack of effort. This is where one guy is so focused that he's able to combine what he learns, how hard he plays and a great work ethic and then have the results show up on the field. Cole has made himself into a very good player. You can bet that former defensive line coach Pete Jenkins also had a big hand in Cole's success.

NFL assistant coaches know the game of football inside and out. That is their world. There is a great scene in the movie Platoon. The new guys show up and get ready to go out into the bush for the first time. Sergeant Elias (Willem Dafoe) walks and up inspects their gear. He starts grabbing things and throwing the stuff to the ground. He informs the new guys they don't need those items. They tell him that's what they were shown in training. Sergeant Elias has to un-train them and flush out what they learned previously. This is his world and they need to learn from someone who knows. Assistant coaches in the NFL have to re-train players in much the same way. They have to get the players to forget about what they learned in high school and college and focus on the new methods. This isn't meant as a slight at high school or college coaches. I have all the respect in the world for those guys. NFL coaches have a special level of expertise. They are able to focus on a specific position for 365 days a year. I remember once listening to former NFL head coach Sam Wyche talk about the importance of pinky placement when right-handed quarterbacks throw to the right sideline. Who on earth knows this kind of stuff? NFL coaches do.

So what are some techniques that players are working on right now? Let's start with simple stuff. Rookie LeSean McCoy can be a dynamic runner, but he has one really bad habit. McCoy tends to swing the ball as he runs. That is a big-time no-no in the NFL. Defenders will knock the ball loose on a regular basis. McCoy has to learn to carry the ball high and tight and not to swing his arm. Sounds easy enough, but that habit has been there a long time. McCoy will have to really focus to eliminate that issue.

Cornelius Ingram spent most of his time at Florida flexed out. He's got to learn some really basic stuff from tight ends coach Tom Melvin. Ingram may need work on his stance. He'll need to learn how to release when he's covered up by a linebacker. You don't just start running. There is a certain way the coaches want you to move your hands and feet to release quickly and cleanly so you don't throw off the timing of the route.

Young cornerback Jack Ikegwuonu was a very physical cover guy at Wisconsin. He loved to get his hands on receivers and jam the heck out of them. That won't fly in the NFL. Receivers are overly protected by the rules. Defensive backs have a small window to get on them, but then must stay close while avoiding contact. Ikegwuonu has to learn how use his hands legally. The coaches and veteran players will teach him little tricks for how to tug on receivers downfield without drawing a penalty.

Some young guys are working on improving technique. Stewart Bradley has to work on his ability to handle off-tackle runs better. That could be something as simple as improving his lateral movement and using his hands to fend off blockers. Chris Gocong is light years better in coverage, but still needs to look more natural. He's got to quit thinking and just play. Action needs to be instinctual and not mechanical. Abiamiri has a similar situation with rushing the passer. He has the physical ability. He's been taught proper technique. Now Abiamiri has to incorporate those two areas and make it look natural. He looks very good against the run, but was too stiff last year when going after the passer. Think about watching a musician. You can know the notes and how to play them, but getting them to flow and sound melodic is a different story.

Even veteran players can use a tune-up. Donovan McNabb will probably focus on his footwork. Kevin Curtis may work on beating press coverage. Omar Gaither should spend a lot of time on how to deal with fullbacks on lead runs. I may have told this story in here before, but I think it is a great example of older players getting good coaching. Back in 1996, Boomer Esiason looked done. He was coming off a season where he went 2-10 as a starter. He wasn't an efficient passer. His arm looked dead. He only averaged 5.8 yards per attempt (7.0 or above is considered good). Esiason went from the Jets to the Cardinals. Assistant coach Jim Fassel watched him throw and noticed that Esiason was all arm. Fassel got him to start using his legs more in his throwing motion. Most people don't realize how much power is generated by the lower body. Esiason didn't have a great year by any stretch, but he went 3-5 as a starter, had an amazing month of games in the middle of the year and looked like a good quarterback once again. His yards per attempt jumped to 6.8. He played one more year and was better in that season. All of that came because Fassel got a 13-year veteran to listen to his coaching.

Anyone who has watched the Hard Knocks television show has seen that not all NFL players take coaching well. Some guys are arrogant. Some guys just don't listen well. The Eagles do a pretty good job of drafting coachable players. The best coaches in the world can't help guys that won't listen to them. I understand that it is hard for some rookies to appreciate the situation they are about to get into. These players have enjoyed tremendous success on their way to the NFL. Now some assistant that they've never heard of is telling them what to do. The first time the hot shot rookie is welcomed to the league in an embarrassing play, he should start to pay more attention to his coach. Coaches try to warn their guys, but some lessons have to be learned the hard way. You think DeSean Jackson will ever drop a ball at the 1-yard line again?

I've mentioned this before, but football is very process driven. Baseball, hockey, and even basketball are quite different. Those teams can come together quickly. Practice is always important, but not nearly as much. In football, individual players have to learn how to play their position. They go from there and learn to function within their specific unit (linebackers for instance). After those two are down, they have to fit into the overall unit (offense or defense). It can take years for players and units to develop properly. Remember the Gang Green defense of the early 1990s? That group was a lot of fun to watch. They developed in the late 1980s. That group could be maddening at times as you watched them go through their growing pains. The finished product was great, but there were more than a few bumps in the road. People remember the great run defense, but sometimes forget that Gerald Riggs ran for 221 yards on that group in one game.

This is the time for learning, but the tests won't come until the preseason and more importantly the regular season. Guys like McCoy, Ingram and Abiamiri will have a lot of pressure on them because of the playing time they are likely to get. If those guys get passing grades, the Eagles should once again be a playoff team. As for the winning the Super Bowl and my marriage to Megan Fox, we'll just have to wait and see.

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