Colts GM Chris Ballard: Players can expect ‘physical camp’

Colts GM Chris Ballard

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – Coming to a training camp near you, a more physical approach.

Keep that modifier – physical – in mind as the NFL’s only true offseason gives way to the Indianapolis Colts reporting to training camp July 29.

The first padded practice is allowed on the fourth day of camp – that would be Aug. 1 at the Indiana Farm Bureau Football Center – and it’s a safe bet crisp contact soon will follow.

General manager Chris Ballard, coach Chuck Pagano and his staff already have had internal discussions regarding the level of physicality required to adequately prepare players for the Sept. 10 season opener against the Rams in Los Angeles and beyond.

“This will be a physical camp for us,’’ Ballard told Colts.com. “We’ve got a young football team and you need to spar. I think we will have a physical camp and I think you need to. It helps get your body ready. I think a lot of the problems we have is that we don’t hit enough. You’re always worried about injuries, but this is football and it’s a physical game.

“It’s much like boxing. You need to spar. Your body’s got to get prepared for the grind and the hits of the season it’s going to endure. If your body doesn’t get used to that in camp, then I think that’s when things fall off during the season.’’

The recent passing of Frank Kush, the Colts’ first head coach in their Indy era, rekindled memories of Camp Kush. Training camp was longer, more taxing. Players were in pads, all the time. Players hit, all the time.

The NFL’s recent trend toward protecting players has resulted in stricter rules governing practice, which covers the offseason, training camp and once the regular season begins.

According to the collective bargaining agreement, players are eased into training camp. The first day is limited to physical exams, meetings and classroom work. The only on-field work deals with running and conditioning.

No pads are allowed and there is no contact on days 2-3. The Colts’ first on-field work is July 30 at Lucas Oil Stadium and open to the public, so fans will watch what amounts to an OTA practice.

The fourth day is when the pads come on and things crank up. But again, there are limitations.

  • Players are allowed on the field no more than 4 hours per day.
  •  Players are limited to one padded practice per day, and that can be no longer than 3 hours.
  • There must be a 3-hour break between a first and second practice, and one of the two must be a “walk-through.’’

The collective aim of the league and union has had the players’ best interest in mind, but coaches have grumbled about the consequences. Many contend less practice time has led to players being less prepared. And greatly dialing back contact during training camp for fear of losing players to injury has led to defenders that can’t tackle.

The Colts have walked that fine line for a long time. How much hitting is necessary? Is it enough for a defender to wrap up a running back but not bring him to the ground?

Pagano amped things up a bit last summer by occasionally having players go through “Oklahoma’’ drills. There were spirited sessions in tight quarters that pitted players against each other, and with full contact.

Heavy contact usually has been reserved for positional drills – pass rushers versus offensive linemen; a blitzing linebacker versus a running back or tight end – and in short-yardage and goal-line work. That’s when running backs can anticipate more than a simple jolt-and-release.

In most cases during 11-on-11 drills, defenders have been limited to applying a hit to a running back but quickly pulling up. Receivers have been jostled while running routes and catching passes, but haven’t been whacked unless it’s done outside the scope of the practice. Not too long ago, LaRon Landry applied a lick to an unsuspecting Reggie Wayne, and was quickly admonished by Pagano.

“You’re always scared to death, but at the same time, if you don’t tackle, it’s hard to get good at tackling,’’ Pagano said. “We do, obviously, a lot of what we call ‘thud.’ It’s first contact. It’s wrap up and you try to stay off the ground as much as you can and take care of each other.

“But we’ll continue to have discussions regarding that and there may be some periods come training camp that we decide we want to go live there. Again, until you do that, you get to the preseason and usually that first or second preseason game is an eye-opener for a lot of the guys, especially the young guys until they adapt to the speed of the game.’’

Linebacker John Simon was one of Ballard’s significant offseason free-agent acquisitions. His task is to help upgrade the Colts’ 30th-ranked defense after being a part of the Houston Texans’ 6th-ranked unit a year ago.

It all begins during the offseason, and in training camp when the level of competition increases exponentially.

“We were in pads mostly every day you were allowed to,’’ Simon said of his camp experiences in Houston. “It was pretty physical down there. Goal-line (drills) was a lack of tackling. After that it was just more ‘stood up.’

“It’s at the coaches’ discretion, whatever they tell you you’re going to do. When the pads come on, guys are normally on the floor anyway. Tackling is definitely a big part of the game and I’m always in favor of putting the pads on.’’