Falcons coach Dan Quinn set the tone this offseason with some frenzied practices.
About 30 minutes into each session, the offensive and defensive players separate to run through a gauntlet of three rows of four dummy bags on the ground.
Showing off their speed and agility, players would zoom through, over and around the dummies.
The drill set the tempo of the pace the Falcons aspire to play at under the first-year head coach. Quinn also believes his team knows that while they have some off time, they must continue to train to be ready for the grueling training camp that opens July 31.
“When we come back, it’s not like ‘let’s get in shape,’” Quinn said. “You’ve seen how we practice. We’re going dude.”
Quinn said that most players took him up on the challenge to have their best offseason ever.
“There were so many guys who went for it,” Quinn said. “That was cool to see guys go, ‘I’m going to go for it.’ There were all of these indicators that said they were doing it. They were going for it. We threw a great offseason together.”
So, while the players and their union worked diligently to get their offseason training time reduced during the last collective bargaining agreement, they still must work nearly year-round to play at a high level.
Staying fit away from the team’s facilities can sometimes become problematic.
“I think it is horrible because guys can only play so long,” said Tom Shaw, the longtime NFL trainer and head of Tom Shaw Performance program at ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex at Walt Disney World.
Falcons wide receiver/returner Devin Hester, running back Devonta Freeman and rookie cornerback Jalen Collins have worked with Shaw. He recently had about 30 pros on steaming hot July 2 after hosting the Drew Brees Passing Academy.
Several pros flock to the Disney facilities to stay in shape when they are away from their teams.
“You get some of these guys that are doing the crazy fitness programs or whatever the new fad is, that’s what they are doing,” Shaw said. “Then they go to camp and suffer a soft tissue injury because they haven’t been running.”
The Falcons have had their share of soft tissue injuries over the past two seasons, which have included former linebacker Sean Weatherspoon (Achilles), defensive end Kroy Biermann (Achilles) and former running back Steven Jackson (hamstring).
Shaw suspects some of those injuries occur because players did not continue to train properly when they are away from their teams.
“They’ve been doing muscle pull-ups, and they’ve been doing stuff that is not actually going to help them on the football field,” Shaw said. “Like Drew Brees. He got hurt during training camp (last season). He was doing all of that fit and high-intensity training. But sometimes you have to start doing things that are appropriate to your position.”
Players must do position-specific drills.
“You have to do cutting,” Shaw said. “You have to do running. You have to do jumping. You have to make sure that you are working on explosive power.”
Bill Polian, a former general manager in the NFL who will inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in August, is not a proponent of the new offseason rules.
He doesn’t believe the coaches have enough time to properly develop the players and get them ready and acclimated to the NFL game.
“I think that a development league is really something that we should give serious consideration to,” Polian said. “I’m not alone with that. There are many, many football people that I’ve spoken to over the years who agree with that completely.”
Shaw traces the advent of increased intensity surrounding year-long training to his days with the Patriots.
After winning the Super Bowl in 2002, the players griped about needing time off to see their families and to be away from their workouts.
“The next year, we didn’t win the Super Bowl,” Shaw said. “We went .500. They were hungry to win again. That’s why we won the next one and we repeated after that. …
“When guys are hungry, they want to start training a week later. You start slow, and you work your way up.”
The Falcons started slowly during their offseason program, but by the time they hit the third phase, Quinn had things cranked up pretty high, with music blaring in the background.
Shaw, who’s trained 11 Super Bowl MVPs, has three tenets to his training program.
He wants to make sure his players are doing position-specific training and working on explosive power, and he tries to make the workouts fun by ending with games and competitions.
Running through the 60-yard sand pit in a secluded running area is one of his tools.
“There’s some shade, but it’s hot as heck back there,” said Ike Taylor, who played cornerback for 12 seasons with the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Taylor swears by Shaw’s workouts. He frowns at those new-age trainers who come with nutritionists, a masseuse and 10 people to help with stretching.
“There comes a point in time where you’ve got to get your stretch in, and I understand that. You’ve got to watch what you eat,” Taylor said. “I understand that because you always want to perform up to your ability and peak when it’s time to peak.
“But heck man, the bottom line is working hard. We have guys at a professional level that know what it takes to be a professional.”
It’s key for the Falcons to monitor and test their players to make sure they are retaining the athletic ability.
“We don’t want your vertical jump after Year 8 in the NFL to drop five or six inches because you’re losing your explosiveness,” Shaw said. “That gives them a chance. We pre-test and post-test. I want to make sure that we maintain our explosive power.”
Falcons safety William Moore, who’s coming back from shoulder surgery, expects an up-tempo training camp.
“The coach has the team fired up, and I love it,” Moore said. “The whole environment is just great. I just want to hit the ground running.”
The veterans had a piece of advice for first-round pick Vic Beasley, who is expected to contribute as a pass rusher.
“They told me to stay in shape over the break and continue to work hard,” Beasley said. “We know what we have in store for us in training camp.”
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