All around the league, coaches, players, personnel directors and even sportswriters are asking the question, to each other and to themselves: How will the elimination of two-a-day training camp practices and the softening of the in-season practice regimen impact the game?
Coaches and personnel directors are especially curious because knowing the impact would allow them to get out ahead of the trend and be the first to embrace the benefits of change.
Folks, I am especially sensitive to these kinds of watershed changes in our game because I was fortunate enough to have been forewarned of the fallout from the rules changes of 1978, and then I watched a coach who loved to run the football, won two Super Bowls running the ball, do an about-face in his philosophy and ride his quarterback's right arm to two more Super Bowl crowns.
By the way, what did the 2004 major point of emphasis on the 5-yard chuck rule do to the game? Peyton Manning threw an NFL-record 49 touchdown passes, breaking a 20-year-old record. Three years later, Manning's record fell to Tom Brady.
Here's my warning: Don't believe for a moment that the elimination of two-a-days and the softening of the in-season practice regimen isn't going to have a major impact on the game. It will and the team that understands how the game will change will be the team that'll get the drop on everybody else.
One theory is obvious: It's going to put a greater strain on personnel directors and scouts to accurately evaluate talent among the low-round draft picks and undrafted free agents. Those players just aren't going to get the same reps that Donald Driver got in 1999 or Sam Shields and Frank Zombo got last year.
Shields' talent was identified in OTAs and the decision was made to challenge him in training camp. He was challenged and he responded.
So who among this year's rookies was identified in OTAs? No one, of course, because there weren't any OTAs. This was an offseason like none other, of course, but I'm sure you get the point.
"It can be done, it's just going to be different," Packers safety Charlie Peprah said of low-round picks and undrafted free agents coming out of nowhere to win a starting job or a roster spot. Peprah was a fifth-round pick of the Giants in 2006. "It's going to be tougher on the personnel departments. They're going to have to make decisions based on potential. I have total confidence in these guys."
Understand, of course, that not every team's personnel department has a Ted Thompson in it.
Let's put it this way: The potential for mistakes is increased. The potential for a Driver or a Shields or a Zombo to not be identified and to not ever play in the league is heightened.
So write it down, fewer reps means fewer chances to evaluate which means players that should be on a roster won't be and players that shouldn't be will be.
In what other ways might the lessening and the softening of the practice regimen impact the game?
"It puts more emphasis on the meeting room and on putting in more plays."
Those words, ladies and gentlemen, fell from the lips of Packers star linebacker Clay Matthews. Let's go back over what the long-haired one said.
More meetings mean more plays?
Of course. It's not as though coaches are going to send their players off to the golf course to spend their extra time on their short game. What are coaches gonna do with the time not being spent on the field? They're gonna spend that time in the meeting rooms, teaching.
I have long been a "players, not plays" guy, but I can sadly see and must painfully confess to the potential for pro football trending more toward Madden 2012 and farther away from the game James Harrison would have us play.
You like video-game football? This NFL is for you, baby. Yeah, I can see it happening. Six hours in a meeting room and two hours on a practice field will do that to a guy. He'll become a think-first, hit-second kind of player. Blood lust will be replaced by a thirst for knowledge.
Seriously, though, Matthews might be spot on. This might be exactly where we're headed. Coaches will do whatever they have to do to win. If they can't beat you with execution, and I can't imagine how blocking and tackling will be served by a ban against practicing them, then they'll beat you with design.
All of a sudden, coordinators just became more important. You hire the one with the thickest playbook and the greatest acumen for teaching it and applying it. You hire the guy that can pencil whip the other guy.
Don't expect coaches to make that admission, because to do so would be to lower expectations for their players and lessen accountability, but watch what happens to creativity and innovation this season. I have a feeling we're going to see formations that would make a Madden maniac blush.