More Sports:

August 07, 2016

Let's get physical: Why tackling in practice is worth the risk for Eagles

Eagles NFL
101315BennieLogan Matt Rourke/AP

Philadelphia Eagles defensive lineman Bennie Logan.

Every day following practice, one of the Eagles three top coaches — Doug Pederson, defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz and offensive coordinator Frank Reich — steps to the podium to answer questions from media.

Typically, they go something like this: “What have you seen out of player X?” or “Does Y running with the first team today mean anything moving forward?” or, perhaps, “What does Z need to do in order to make this team?”

But, especially given the types of practices run by the previous regime, Chip Kelly’s regime, one of the biggest themes of training camp thus far — at least the one that has come up in nearly every press conference since the team started tackling a week ago — is the physical nature of Pederson’s first camp.

As the intensity of practice continues to rise leading up to their first preseason game on Thursday night, don’t expect that topic to slip out of focus, especially if one of the Eagles' better players goes down with a serious injury, like the ones nearly sustained by Zach Ertz and Jordan Matthews on Friday. After taking low hits from a pair of rookie defensive backs, the two were forced to leave practice early. Ertz, who was particularly irked by the low hits he's seen so far, ultimately did not have a concussion and was back at practice on Saturday while Matthews (knee) has yet to return.

On Sunday, it was Schwartz's turn to answer questions about the philosophical change that's accompanied the head coaching change down at NovaCare.

"From a defensive mentality, it's nice to have a head coach that wants to have a physical practice; that wants to defend guys up," he said. "A lot of offensive coaches shy away from that. I think it's going to pay off for us not just defensively, but it will pay off for us offensively.

"Coach [Pederson] wants to build a tough, physical team, and that doesn't happen by accident. That doesn't happen with just hoping that it happens. Hope isn't a very good strategy. You've got to go out and do it, and we embrace it."

That sentence -- the one about hope that sounds like something Red from The Shawshank Redemption would say before Andy taught him otherwise -- cuts both ways, however. Because of the chaotic nature of injuries, coaches that prefer live tackling in practice are, in a sense, just hoping that no one gets hurt. Then again, we've seen plenty of players go down during Kelly's less physically demanding practices.

No matter how you run practice, as Pederson said Friday, injuries are going to happen.

"I just know this: Football is a contact sport. This is going to happen. It’s going to happen," he said. "Whether it happens today or it happens Thursday night, it's part of the game. I'm a big believer [that] you never shy away from contact. You've got to have contact. It's a contact sport."

It’s a case of trying to have your cake and eat it too (which is a phrase that I understand, but still don’t really understand). 

For the most part, the players and coaches -- especially on the defensive side -- are happy to see live hitting back at practice. As are the fans, who don’t want a repeat of the poor tackling that plagued this team under Kelly. But as soon as a player goes down holding his knee or ankle, they blame it on a rookie who is fighting for a job or the level of physicality Pederson has returned to practice.

You can't have it both ways. And the Eagles coaches, to a man, know that. They've been asked about the hitting as much as they've been asked about the progress of rookie quarterback Carson Wentz. And when you hear their answers, it's hard to disagree with their methods.

They aren't just hitting for the sake of hitting.

There's a secondary factor here, one that's only been alluded to at this point but is at the crux of this to-hit-or-not-to-hit argument: how should we define practice? Is it merely conditioning and a way for the players to prove they know the playbook? Or is it about improving the team, on both a micro and a macro level, by identifying the weaknesses and fixing them?

For all the praise Kelly received early in his coaching career, this is one the areas in which he struggled the most. The smartest people don't always make the best teachers, and in the case of Kelly, it seemed as though he was more interested in how efficiently his practices were run, rather than how well his players executed throughout. 

Plus, this game is built with tough, physical players. That sort of shows through when you get tough, physical practices. It's a revealer when it comes to the guys who can execute.

This year, it's been different. There seems to be more teaching going on, and not just about the Xs and Os. According to Pederson, the more immediate the correction, the better.

"It's the only way we're going to get better. It's the only way," he said last week when asked about his philosophy of teaching during practice. "You know, I'm also a believer that you spend time in the meeting room at night watching the tape and making corrections there, as well, but if you can get that immediate feedback right now on the field, it's good. ... I don't want to take too much time away because we're still working off of a play clock, but at the same time, that instant feedback is valuable."

For the last three years, the only time you could evaluate the Eagles defenders as tacklers was during games; practice told us little to nothing about that. But now, Schwartz can better evaluate and his players; he knows how well they can tackle because he's seeing it on a day-to-day basis.

"It's one thing – say you’re in a live period – it's one thing for a guy to say, ‘Yeah, I would have made that [tackle],’" Schwartz explained. "You’re thudding the running back, you're thudding a ball carrier [and you say], ‘I would have made it.’ And you're sitting there looking at film [where we can say], ‘I don't like your angle right here.’ When you're in some of those periods, it shows. There's no gray area whether you could make it or not.

"Plus, this game is built with tough, physical players. That sort of shows through when you get tough, physical practices. It's a revealer when it comes to the guys who can execute."

Clearly, it makes Schwartz better prepared to answer one of those what-have-you-seen-from-X-player questions we love so much.

And that’s the rub — in order for the coaches to form the best possible opinion of these players, most of them new to a coaching staff that’s been in town for all of six months, they need to let them hit, ultimately risking injury to some of the more established players.

Furthermore, if there's a "tough, physical" player who is struggling, a coach is more likely to see the problem during the live tackling periods, whether in practice or on film, and be able to help correct it. It may be something as simple as his form or the angle of pursuit. Those are mistakes an NFL player should be able to fix given proper instruction and time to practice. 

But if guys don't tackle in practice, it's going to be difficult to address those shortcomings and improve on them before the next game. In essence, coaches are left to just hope he gets better.

Spoiler alert: He won't.

And that alone is reason enough to embrace a much more physical camp, even if it slightly raises the chance of injury. 

Follow Matt on Twitter: @matt_mullin