What I Learned About Football This Week That I Didn't Know Last Week
The NFL puts teams at a huge disadvantage --particularly road teams -- by having them play on the Thursday night NFL Network package.
The aftermath is great. "Like having a mini-bye-week,'' said Arizona coach Ken Whisenhunt, because a team that plays on one of the eight Thursday nights doesn't play again for either 10 or 11 days. But that doesn't make up for the trials a road team faces in the quick turnaround. I am not blaming the travel and Thanksgiving night game for the Cardinals' pathetic performance at Philadelphia, but you're deluding yourself if you think the short week didn't play a part in it.
I examined the short week of the Cardinals in advance of their game at Philadelphia and found three distinct disadvantages they faced:
1. They were coming off a very physical game with the New York Giants, likely the best team in football.
2. They were unfamiliar with the Eagles. Only two of Arizona's 16 coaches and 19 of the 53 players were with the Cardinals the last time they played Philly, in 2005. Four of the eight Thursday night games this year match division foes, meaning the teams wouldn't have to prepare for the unknown.
3. None of the other 2008 Thursday night visitors will have to travel nearly as far as Arizona's four-and-a-half-hour, 2,369-mile trip.
Whisenhunt shared his game-week schedule with me. "The hardest thing in the NFL is letting go of an emotional game,'' he said in the wake of losing to the Giants in such a hard-fought game. "Something like that is very hard. But in this week, we quite literally had no choice.''
I knew teams obviously had to combine and shorten six days of preparation into three. But I was clueless about much of the way they did so. Here's how the Cards did it:
Two normal days get mashed into one. By 7 a.m., assistant coaches had to have their grades done for each player, which meant most of them were in the office no later than 5. Grading a position group takes from two to three hours. Each play is run back and forth, back and forth, and the assignment and technique and result of each player on the field gets a grade.
From 7 a.m. to 2 p.m., the offensive and defensive coaches broke into groups to break down Philadelphia game tape (very little of the Philly tape prep was done in the Cards' bye week six weeks earlier) and make the game plan. While the coaches were meeting, players straggled in for treatment. One, defensive tackle Darnell Dockett, came in at 9:30 to have his shoulder, knee, ankle and hamstring treated for two hours, went home for an hour, then came back for more treatment before afternoon meetings began at 2.
"All on the same leg,'' Dockett said. "That's what makes it so hard. I'll be happy if I'm 80 percent Thursday. I sure ain't going to be 100.''
From 2 to 4:30, players meet to digest a condensed version of all runs in the game plan, most dropback passes, and all play-action passes. From 5-7 p.m., Whisenhunt held practice, installing what normally would be installed at a Wednesday practice. Players went home. From 8 p.m. to midnight, the coaches met to finish the game plan, working on red-zone, goal-line and nickel plays. Most coaches were at the facility for 17 hours, minimum, on Monday.
A 7 a.m. coaching-staff meeting kicked off the day to polish off the final game plan. Players arrived around the same time to lift and get treatment before the morning 8:30-11 a.m. meetings to digest the rest of the game plan. They practiced for two hours, starting at 11:30, then met with their coaches, went over practice tape and did the individual studying most do during the course of a week.
A combination Friday and Saturday, complete with seven hours of travel time. Players will play in the league 10 years and not ever have as strenuous a midweek day as this one. It's impossible. "I've never done anything like this day in all my years in football,'' said Dockett. Players reported for meetings at 6 a.m., with the coaches teaching the usual Friday stuff -- short-yardage, goal line ad two-point plays. Whisenhunt ran a two-hour practice beginning at 7:45 a.m. (as was the case all week, no pads were worn, and no players were ever hit in a practice) with the final play installation.
After showering and loading their bags for the trip east (and putting them through airport screening at the practice facility so they can just walk onto the charter at Sky Harbor airport), players boarded buses at 10:45 for the short trip to the airport. They were airborne at noon Mountain Time, on the ground just before 6:15 Eastern Time in Philadelphia, and at the hotel by 6:45.
Whisenhunt was mindful of the season. Upon arrival at the hotel, the team's Thanksgiving Dinner was served. On the menu: Roast turkey, pork loin, roast sirloin, salmon, sweet potatoes, butternut squash, acorn squash, stuffing, mashed potatoes, glazed carrots, cranberry sauce, macaroni and cheese, sautéed green beans. If anyone had room left in the old boiler, a nearby table had apple pie, pumpkin pie, bread pudding, and assorted cakes, cookies and ice cream.
The coaches liked seeing the players eat turkey, mostly. "Hopefully,'' Whisenhunt said before the trip, "They'll eat plenty. It'll help them sleep. They'll need it.''
Players THEN MET SOME MORE, from 8-10 p.m., to go over that morning's practice tape and also get their final marching orders for the game, as they'd do in a normal Saturday evening meeting at the hotel.
That was it. Whisenhunt wanted the players off their feet Thursday at the hotel. He hoped the coaches and players could use the quiet day to catch up on much-needed sleep. First bus to Lincoln Financial Field for the 8:15 p.m. kickoff: 5 p.m.
One final note: The charter would land back in Phoenix at about 5 a.m. Friday and players would have Friday, Saturday and Sunday off. Whisenhunt allowed players with family on the East Coast to not fly back with the team if they so chose. The coaches would sleep for a while, then wrap up the game at the practice facility from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. For the coaches, Thanksgiving dinner would be Friday night ... but the reward would be ample: They'd have the incredible NFL rarity of two full in-season days off, Saturday and Sunday. After the rout by Philadelphia, I doubt they enjoyed it very much.