Not until August 17 are full-contact, padded practices on the NFL Training Camp dockets in this new-normal way of doing things in the league. Until then, the players continue to have full days, mostly in meetings – both virtual and in-person – and walkthroughs, which are now extended to 90 minutes.
The goal here is to bring players up to speed on the mental side of the schemes and at this level of football, the mental side of the game is every bit as important as the physical side.
"I know the defense, but to be out there in walkthroughs and to talk through situations with the rest of the guys, that's important," defensive back Jalen Mills said. "I have to communicate calls to everyone. To have this time to practice that, it's great. It's valuable. I know what it takes to get my body ready for a season. The mental reps make a difference. I'm a visual learner. This is good for me."
This is a difficult time for all of us who are hungry for some kind of football!!! But it's not about us. Players are making up for the lack of Organized Team Activities and, while the virtual offseason program was hailed as a success, there's just something about having face-to-face communication and on-field instruction, even in a walkthrough, or jog-through, setting.
"Every rep helps, even if it's a walkthrough," rookie linebacker Shaun Bradley said. "It gives you a visual picture and you get instant feedback on how you're doing. If I'm not in the right place, I learn right away where I'm supposed to be. By the time we're in pads, it's going to let me play faster."
That is the goal for the NFL in this totally different summer. The Eagles are fortunate to have a good mix of experience and new talent on this 2020 roster. They aren't reliant on rookies coming in and claiming starting jobs. There are certain question marks that need to be answered – how, for example, Mills transitions from cornerback to safety is a huge one – but for the most part, the Eagles are a plug-and-play team. OK, look, there is the matter of Darius Slay, the prize cornerback acquired in a trade from Detroit and how he fits in, but Slay has been in Jim Schwartz's defense in Detroit and he will have it all down in a snap.
The offense? Yeah, No. 1 draft pick Jalen Reagor has a chance to contribute and the Eagles are excited to see him in uniform in "live" situations, but they also have DeSean Jackson and Alshon Jeffery on the outside at wide receiver and they've got Greg Ward running out of the slot and they're OK there.
So, where is the concern?
Understand that there is always concern in NFL circles during this time of the year as the teams evaluate their personnel. That's just the nature of the beast. Never is there is a high level of comfort. But the Eagles have a leg up in that they've got a returning coaching staff and a roster that could go out and win the NFC East right now.
What they're doing now is making sure that every player at the NovaCare Complex is ready to go when August 17 arrives. The Eagles will have four days of practice prior to that – no pads and no contact – and then the true countdown to the regular season begins.
Is this the new way of doing things in the NFL? When we're back to normal, how much of what the league is doing now will be incorporated? For the veterans, this is a great way to go. They don't need a lot of on-field work and they certainly don't need days and weeks of pounding. The transition from the way the NFL used to do things – two-a-day practices, grinding sessions on the field – are long gone. The quality of play didn't drop off when the league changed its policy following the completion of the Collective Bargaining Agreement in 2011. It was just … new. Walkthroughs every day? Are you kidding me??
It worked, even as alumni would visit Training Camp and scoff at the "country club" life today's players enjoy.
Now, maybe the league goes even further in the future based on what it is doing in 2020. We will see about that. At this time, the Eagles and every team continue to adjust to the new way of COVID-19 NFL life. Forming an active roster and then a practice squad – up to 16 players – and then having a reliable emergency list beyond that, has never been more important. The evaluation process has to be spot on, without the benefit of preseason game action.
And it all starts with the mental reps. We've got another 10 days of them at the NovaCare Complex, which in past years would be bustling with the smell of football and heat and sweat and the promise of a regular season around the corner. That promise remains. The NFL is going to have a season (fingers crossed). How we get to that point, though, is something entirely new, which doesn't mean it is the wrong way to conduct business.
The downside is that we haven't had a chance to see the new Eagles in uniform and offer hot takes on their progress. Is that really so bad? In the long run, no. What matters is how prepared the team is for Washington on September 13, and how they get to that point is what is so fascinating to observe, even from a distance.