– Derek M. Hansen –
In a season when player off-the-field behaviour seems to have hit an all-time low, a lonely voice of despair in Philadelphia seems to have caught the attention of ESPN.Go.com: “Coach is running us too hard in-season!” Initially, many casual observers were shocked with the outburst, with Philadelphia enjoying a 3-0 record to start the season. However, after a rather close game against the Washington Redskins, complaints from Eagles’ cornerback, Cary Williams, were heard:
“A lot of guys coming in here had no legs,” Williams said after the game. “We’ve got to start taking care of our guys throughout the week in order for us to be productive and have more energy on Sundays. You’ve got to be smart, as a coaching staff and as players.
“It’s hard to go out there and fight for 60 minutes when you’re fighting throughout the week to make it through one practice,” Williams said. “I’m not the only one. I’m just the only one that’s man enough to stand up here and talk to y’all. It’s obviously, in my opinion, an issue in our starts.”
Williams has been dealing with a strained hamstring the past few weeks and had been beaten badly in the third quarter by former teammate DeSean Jackson on an 81-yard touchdown reception. Despite the win by the Eagles, Williams was still upset by his performance and felt the need to enlighten the fans at home on why he may be a step slower than normal. The question is… does Cary Williams have a legitimate grievance, or is he simply complaining because he got beat by a former teammate? One of two theories can be examined in this instance:
1. Coach Kelly is Choosing the Appropriate Volume of Work and Cary Williams is Simply Embarrassed by His Performance
My understanding is that the Philadelphia Eagles currently have one of the more comprehensive sport-science operations in the NFL. The combination of GPS movement tracking and player load analyses, OmegaWave physiological assessments, athlete fatigue surveys and urinalysis testing would not be out of the question for this organization. Thus, we can assume that Coach Kelly is speaking the truth when citing the team’s sport science evaluations of individual players on a daily basis. It is difficult for me to believe that the team is over-training their players, particularly during an in-season period, if they are actually using this technology appropriately.
Thus, we must ask ourselves, “Why is Cary Williams complaining?” I have heard through media sources that Williams has been less than enamored and compliant with the off-season training regimen, and had come from a team (Baltimore Ravens) that did not require athletes to put in anywhere as much running volume as the Eagles. Perhaps once training camp had started in late July, Williams was not as prepared for the running volumes required for Chip Kelly’s “system”. If this was the case, it is no surprise to learn that Williams had been dealing with hamstring issues.
As I have written in previous articles, hamstring issues in training camp are often the result of inadequate preparation during the off-season. Players who are required to sprint for numerous repetitions in practice and games must spend the appropriate time in the off-season accumulating quality sprint volume to not only build their speed reserve, but also build the capacity to endure training camp and the rigors of the regular season. A player that hasn’t put in the necessary training will definitely have a tough time under Chip Kelly’s system – a system that was honed at the University of Oregon in an environment where coaching staff had much more control of player workouts throughout the year, and overall fitness could be assured. If Williams was not physically prepared for the workload expected of him, it is not surprising that he strained his hamstring. Once the hamstring was injured, practice requirements could be very difficult for Williams, and very frustrating.
It was also mentioned that Williams was unhappy with the amount of running taking place the day before a game. The Eagles are likely employing an unconventional approach to game day preparations by having the players ramp up the workload in preparation for competition. It is not uncommon for teams to perform a requisite walk-through on the day before a game. The intent is to give them a break before the game after a relatively hard week of practice. The problem with this arrangement – as I have explained to a number of NFL and NCAA Division 1 teams – is that both the peripheral and central systems in players will tend to move toward a dormant state to take advantage of the rest provided. This makes it much harder to re-engage these systems within the next 24 hours to be ready for game day.
In Track and Field sprinting, it is very common for athletes to perform a full warm-up, a number of sub-maximal starts and a few measured runs the day before a big competition to activate their minds and bodies in anticipation of a profound performance the next day. In my own career in Track and Field, I found a warm-up the previous day and even an early-morning abbreviated warm-up would get me ready for a competition later in the day. In the Olympics, 100-meter sprinters must work through several rounds of races over two days to reach the final, where their most important performance is required. The preliminary rounds allow the top performances to “tone-up” for the semi-finals and finals the next day so that all systems are activated appropriately. Some would refer to these efforts as post-activation potentiation (PAP) measures, but I would argue that the intent is more subtle and along the lines of a gradual acclimation to the level of activity required for the next day.
The figure below identifies the conceptual arrangement that I believe Coach Kelly is trying to achieve (the vertical bars representing a combination of overall volume and intensity each day – with a greater emphasis on intensity). In Schedule A, the players are introduced to a smoother, more gradual progression into game day. This type of approach works well with athletes who have exceptional alactic abilities. It is akin to pre-heating a Formula 1 car’s tires before it even hits the track. In Schedule B, there is a downward progression of activity until right before game day. Then, players are expected to ramp up all systems to be ready for the most important and more intense day of the week (like entering a racetrack with cold tires). This can be very difficult to reproduce week-to-week, with the hard transitions taking a toll on the players over a season.
In order for the Schedule A approach to work, players must all be educated and on board with the concept. If they don’t fully understand the approach, there could be backlash. Additionally, this approach requires that all players have a relatively developed cardio-vascular fitness system as the overall volume of work will likely be higher, and the body’s adaptive abilities will be developed to a higher degree. In this case, extensive tempo training would fit nicely. Hence, player compliance to the season-round conditioning program must be mandatory. If all of these elements are in place, I do believe that this weekly approach to practice and game preparation would be superior. So, perhaps Chip Kelly is on to something good.
2. Chip Kelly is Overcompensating and Running his Players Too Much
The second scenario, which appears to be less likely, is that Cary Williams is justified in his claims that the volume and intensity of training is too high in-season, particularly the day before games, and that the players are feeling the effects on game day. Reaction to Cary Williams complaints have been mostly on the side of Chip Kelly, asserting that players shouldn’t be complaining in public about practice workloads. “This is the NFL. Players should be expected to put in a good amount of work to prepare for each game!” While I agree with this assertion – assuming that each team employs experts and professionals to ensure the players have the optimal volume of training under their belts – I also know that coaches can be overzealous and over-prepare each week to their detriment.
Cary Williams blamed the practice demands for the Eagles’ poor start to games. Chip Kelly claims that the team’s fitness is what helps them pull out the games in the second half. Who is right? What exactly is going on? In a game where so many variables are at play and small nuances can make a big difference in the outcome, it is difficult to say who is right. However, I will put one theory forward that may have some validity. Both Cary and Chip may be right!
Let’s assume that Chip Kelly is running the players too much in practice. His up-tempo style and his need to get a high volume of plays through the pipe in both practice and games likely results in high running volumes relative to the rest of the league. What I am concerned about is the fact that a higher the number of reps (with reduced recovery times) and a higher yardage total in practice will undoubtedly result in a slower average velocity of each player over the course of the practice. As I have mentioned in previous articles, running velocity can easily creep into the “medium” zone if volume is too high and recovery too low. Chip Kelly’s guys will be able to run in the medium zone all game with little fatigue. However, the Eagles may be conditioning themselves to run at an overall slower velocity. This is why separating workloads into high and low categories (based on running velocities) is so important.
At the beginning of a game, we could argue that the opposing team is ‘fresher’ and will jump out to an early lead. The legs are turning over faster and the Eagles may look lethargic. However, as we get into the later stages of the game and running velocities slow down, Chip Kelly’s players are now conditioned to run at this ‘slower’ velocity better and will not lose any velocity for the rest of the game. Relative to their opposition, they will appear fresher and faster the longer the game goes on. It is like the boxer that is conditioned to win in the later rounds as their opponent is reaching exhaustion – not score a knockout punch in the first two rounds. So yes, both Cary and Chip are correct in their assessments. The other team is fresher at the beginning, and the Eagles are fresher at the end.
The negative implications to this approach is that when Philadelphia meets a team that is very skilled and has both their speed preparation and overall conditioning programming addressed properly (might I suggest a high-low approach!), they could get behind and never have the legs to catch up in the second half. It will be interesting to see how the team performs over the rest of the season, particularly against tougher opponents.
Let me finish by saying that I have no clue what the Philadelphia Eagles are doing for their in-season practices. My observations are based purely on what has been discussed in the media and a few conversations with people within the NFL. I would be interested to see the overall running volumes and velocities of players for the Eagles’ practices. As I mentioned before, I would be shocked if they were actually going overboard with these numbers. Each player in the NFL is so valuable and each game is so important. To not pay attention to their well being from practice-to-practice would be negligent. I do believe that Philadelphia is probably running a lot more volume in-season than your average team. The problem likely arose because many of the players are aware of this fact, and may actually believe that they do not need to put in this type of work between games. As armchair quarterbacks, we can speculate from afar after only three games. Even if Philadelphia stumbles and does not achieve any post-season success, we also know that it never comes down to one variable. I look forward to observing the rest of Chip Kelly’s experiment in the pros to see how this plays out.