PHILADELPHIA (AP) — DeSean Jackson caught Michael Vick’s pass over the middle, took a couple steps and braced himself for a hit that Kurt Coleman never delivered.
Hard to break the habit.
Jackson and the rest of the Philadelphia Eagles have nothing to worry about this training camp. Tackling is a no-no for coach Chip Kelly.
“We have four preseason games for that,” Kelly said.
When 30,000 fans came to Lincoln Financial Field to see the Eagles’ first practice in full pads under Kelly, they saw fast-paced, up-tempo action. But they didn’t see any hitting.
That was a shock, particularly to older fans who watched physical summer practices when Andy Reid, Buddy Ryan and Dick Vermeil coached the Eagles.
“It’s like they’re playing two-hand touch now,” said longtime fan Joe Iazulla. “They don’t even hit each other anymore. It’s sissy football.”
Former players were surprised, too. Brian Dawkins, Garry Cobb and others watched from the sideline on Alumni Day in disbelief. They wondered why they had to endure those rough, two-a-day practices not so long ago.
“We used to kill each other in camp,” said Cobb, a linebacker for Detroit, Philadelphia and Dallas from 1979-89. “Buddy worked us so hard that veteran players sometimes wanted to quit right there on the field. It was grueling. We left a lot of years on that practice field in training camp. Many of us could’ve played longer in the NFL if we didn’t hit that much in camp.”
No tackling is new to the Eagles, but it’s become normal around the NFL. Teams have been trending toward less physical camps in recent years, especially after the new collective bargaining agreement limited the number of practices and hitting.
The league is being sued by about 4,200 players who say they suffer from dementia, Alzheimer’s disease and other neurological conditions, which they believe stem from on-field concussions.
Kelly’s explanation is injury prevention, though he’s already lost three players for the season to ACL tears in the first two weeks of camp.
“When you get guys on the ground, it’s not really the two guys that get tackled, it’s what’s chasing it,” Kelly said. “We’re trying to keep everybody in every situation up. If I’m blocking my guy and I’m trying to finish to the whistle, two guys in front of me fell, that’s where the biggest thing occurs. It’s the pileups. Most of the time it’s not the tackle or the tackler, it’s the rest of the guys coming through. You have a lot of big bodies moving. There’s a fine line what we have to get done from a work standpoint. We also know we have to get our guys to the game, too.”
Reid, who was fired after 14 seasons in Philadelphia, took his opposite approach to Kansas City. The Chiefs weren’t used to tackling in camp under recent coaches Romeo Crennel and Todd Haley.
“You have to be a good tackling team,” Reid said. “Normally, good tackling teams end up playing late in the year — or I guess, early in the year.”
That philosophy didn’t work for Reid last year when the Eagles finished 4-12 and had one of the worst tackling defenses in recent history. But Reid’s teams went to the playoffs nine times and he usually had them playing their best football late in the season.
“It’s football, so you’re going to get hit,” Chiefs running back Jamaal Charles said. “I think we need to get hit as early as possible. We don’t need to wait until the last minute to get hit. I think it’s good.”
Far more AFC teams tackle in camp than in the NFC. The New York Jets, Miami, Buffalo, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Denver and San Diego tackle to the ground to some degree whether it’s scrimmages, 9-on-7 drills or goal-line situations.
“You’re not going to keep a guy on defense if he can’t tackle, but you better find out,” Jets coach Rex Ryan said.
In the NFC, Detroit, Atlanta, San Francisco, Green Bay and Dallas have tackled to the ground on rare occasions such as open scrimmages for fans.
“We’ve had a couple of periods where we have gone live tackling, not very many,” Lions coach Jim Schwartz said. “I think everybody is going to try to control that. You’re not going to have full contact and things like that.”
Former players disagree.
“We used to tackle in every drill,” said Brian Baldinger, an offensive lineman for Indianapolis, Philadelphia and Dallas from 1982-93. “There’s a science to tackling and maintaining proper technique. You can only get better at it by practicing and now they don’t even practice it.”
Many coaches yell at players if they hit teammates too hard and nobody wants to see scuffles anymore. It’s a far cry from the days of Buddy Ryan and his rugged defense in Philadelphia.
“Buddy used to encourage guys he knew wouldn’t make the team to start fights,” Cobb said.
Now, it’s all about wrapping up instead of tackling and hugging instead of hitting.
“It is what it is,” Tennessee defensive coordinator Jerry Gray said.