Dick Vermeil stood on the sidelines watching one of the Eagles’ recent OTA practices, and it was hard not to wonder what he was thinking.
Here’s a coach known for running some of the toughest, longest, most grueling practices in NFL history watching a team that holds some of the shortest, lightest, least physical practices in NFL history.
“First off, the things I don’t agree with, I don’t say I’m right and they’re wrong,” Vermeil said. “It’s the evolution of the game and what they’re doing. I don’t particularly care for it, but that doesn’t make me right.”
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Vermeil coached the Eagles from 1976 through 1982, reaching the playoffs four times and the Super Bowl in 1980. After a 14-year hiatus, he spent three years with the Rams, winning a Super Bowl in 1999 with the Greatest Show on Turf. He finished his coaching career with the Chiefs, retiring for good after the 2005 season, and he’ll go into the Pro Football Hall of Fame later this month.
Especially during his days with the Eagles and Rams, Vermeil was notorious for his ferocious practices. Training camp was particularly brutal, with double sessions lasting three hours each and non-stop full-contact. But even when the season began, things didn't get a whole lot easier.
A lot of what Vermeil did is no longer permitted according to the CBA, but even within the current rules, Eagles coach Nick Sirianni has taken things about as far as possible in the opposite direction.
Practices are short and there’s no hitting, even in training camp. Time in the classroom and meeting room is valued as much as time on the field. Older players get even more time off. Mandatory minicamp wasn’t even held this year.
You can’t have two bigger opposites than Vermeil and Sirianni.
And while Vermeil made it clear how much he respects Sirianni and his coaching ability, he allowed that he wouldn’t be comfortable coaching in today’s game.
“They do have serious injury problems today,” he said, then nodding toward long-time Eagles linebacker Frank LeMaster a few feet away, he added: “This guy never missed a game. So it’s a little different. The big thing is protecting the head and that’s a good move, so anything you can do to help a player lengthen his career and prevent CTE issues and these kinds of things, I think that’s a move in the right direction.
“But I would not be very confident coaching in today’s world the way they have to coach. It would bother me. I think I would be cheating my players. I could do it because everyone else does it. No one has an advantage. But it would bother me.”
Vermeil quickly identified one thing that he believes current NFL practices lack the most.
“I think contact,” he said. “I think part of the reason there’s more injuries – and you’ll never get true documentation of that – is that they’re not prepared for the intensity of Sunday.
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“If (non-contact) was the best way to do it, we’d train the Navy Seals a little differently. Football’s not a contact sport, it’s a combat sport. That offensive center on that nose tackle, they’re in combat. Dancing is a contact sport. And I worry about preparing them for the intense situations in a game on a consistent basis.”
The NFL began regulating training camp practices in 2002, a year after Vikings offensive tackle Korey Stringer died after suffering from heat stroke on the second day of 2001 training camp in Mankato, Minn.
Starting in 2002, training camp two-a-days were limited to one full practice and one walkthrough or special teams practice. Rules governing practices have gradually grown stricter in the years since, but Sirianni might have held the first training camp in history in which the players never tackled to the ground. But despite the unique summer, the Eagles did win nine games and reach the playoffs.
Vermeil said looking back now, he would make some adjustments. But not a lot.
“I’d do some things different,” he said. “I would taper the second half of the season. I would gradually taper practice. Because of my own lack of confidence being over-concerned about having them ready to play, I might have worn them out and drained them.
“You only have so many days before you play again and we’d play and then Wednesday would come back and we’d go to work. We’d go to work. Wednesday and Thursday were tough football practices.
“I started to taper the last year with the Rams and with the Chiefs. With the Rams the first two years was like I did it here. Can’t do that today.”
What’s the biggest difference in the game as practices have grown shorter and less physical?
“I can see fundamentals lacking,” Vermeil said. “But I think it’s a more exciting game because it’s more wide open. I can’t remember seeing as many great football games as I saw last season.”
Vermeil, now 85, still lives in Chester County and continues to operate Vermeil Wines in Napa County in Northern California.
But he’s first and foremost a football coach and he’ll remain an Eagles fan. Even if he thinks their practices should be longer and tougher.
“I respect what they’re doing,” he said. “You have to work within the rules. And you have to make sure you’re working within the rules better than than anybody else.”