For Redskins and rest of NFL, practices are all about attention to detail
By Barry Svrluga,
By the time Rex Grossman lined up to take a fake snap from a fake center in a version of a football game that only slightly resembled the real thing, three video cameras manned by three cameramen rose 60 feet in the air on three massive orange lifts at Redskins Park. This was a week ago Wednesday, but it could have been any Wednesday during any week of any NFL season. Grossman and his Washington Redskins teammates were going through what would seem, for an out-of-the-race football team, to be the most mundane tasks in a season defined by mundane tasks: running skeleton pass drills against faux defensive backs, simulating what they might — might — see that Sunday against the New York Giants.
The play Grossman ran — a short-yardage pass designed to go to wide receiver Jabar Gaffney — appeared on a white sheet of paper with burgundy headings that listed every play to be practiced that day. Anders Beutel, the assistant equipment manager and Grossman’s de facto center in such drills, held a copy of the practice script. High above the field, in the lift stationed along the sideline, Mike Bracken, the team’s video director, held another copy of the script, because every play of every practice is recorded from multiple angles.
And at the center of it all, Coach Mike Shanahan — part football philosopher, part schedule-maker, part job foreman — held yet another copy, which left nothing to chance. Each play would be run from a particular down and distance. Each would be run from a particular spot on the field — left hash mark, right hash mark or in the center. And each play would involve several of the 61 players that make up the active roster and the eight-man practice squad; the 20-man coaching staff; and at least a dozen support staff — equipment guys and videographers and athletic trainers and security and grounds crew and Director of Football Operations Paul Kelly, the man with his finger on the air horn that starts and stops each practice period.
“It’s kind of like a slow-moving train that ends up going 120 miles per hour,” said Brad Berlin, the Redskins’ equipment manager. “It evolves and builds into this huge thing.”
An NFL team has 48 true practices in a given season, three a week. Each lasts perhaps two hours — some more, many less — for maybe 100 hours of physical rehearsals for the 16 games of the season. The American workforce is trained to abhor Mondays. The first day of the NFL’s work week is Wednesday. And Wednesday is no different in Week 1 than in this, Week 16, with the Redskins in last place in the NFC East, with fans and players already wondering more about next season than the next game, this Saturday against the Minnesota Vikings.
“Everybody’s playing for their jobs,” Shanahan said.
Even in December, playing for jobs means preparing to execute against the various looks the next opponent will bring. So when Grossman dropped back to throw that little pass to Gaffney, he did so thinking not only about his own mechanics, but also about what the coaches who subbed as defensive backs were doing, where they were stationed, what the real opponent might do.
“Practice,” Grossman said later, “is a lot more important than the casual fan would understand.”
The Bill Walsh effect
When Shanahan first became an assistant coach in the NFL, in 1984 with the Denver Broncos, practices were often violent. The head coach of those teams was Dan Reeves, who played eight seasons in Dallas under Hall of Fame coach Tom Landry. Those Cowboys teams were physical. They hit in practice. So Reeves’s Broncos teams did the same. Training camp might be filled with four practice sessions: two for the veterans, two for the rookies.
This was the way of a hardened league in the 1970s and early ’80s, when teams kept more bodies around to practice against. Jim Haslett, the Redskins’ defensive coordinator, was a hell-bent linebacker for the Buffalo Bills back then. He remembers Saturday mornings during training camp when players would rise, go after each other in live 11-on-11 short-yardage drills, take naps, then play a preseason game in the evening.
“It’s totally different,” Haslett said. “The structure’s different. The money’s different.”
Shanahan’s practice philosophy grew directly from the man who altered how most NFL teams thought about practice: Bill Walsh. Walsh retired as San Francisco’s head coach four years before Shanahan became the 49ers’ offensive coordinator in 1992, but Walsh had left behind a blueprint of how an organization should run. When Shanahan arrived, not only did he watch tape of all of the 49ers’ offensive meetings — learning how Walsh installed his famous West Coast system — but he took note of how practice was handled. The 49ers wore full pads only on Thursdays, and only for part of practice.
“They won five Super Bowls in  years, so it kind of gave me a little idea that you always didn’t have to hit,” Shanahan said. “You could practice at game-day speed and save your body so it would help you in November and December.”
Walsh also broke up his practices by periods, each addressing a specific game situation. Periods were managed down to the minute so that the time spent in each area — red zone, third down, goal line — was roughly proportional to what might arise in a game. Shanahan still uses that overarching philosophy. Players therefore return to the facility after Tuesday, their regular day off, knowing exactly how the week will flow.
“You don’t throw it all on a player all at once, because there’s a lot that goes into each segment,” said Lorenzo Alexander, a backup linebacker and special teams captain who plays on more units — and therefore practices more — than any Redskin. “It builds up over the course of the week. There’s a purpose to it.”
Far more time goes into preparing for practice than is actually spent on one of the Redskins’ four practice fields — three grass, one outdated artificial surface that they rarely, if ever, use. Wednesday and Thursday practices are preceded by walk-throughs — rehearsals for what will happen in practice that are conducted without helmets or even the light pads, called “shells,” the team uses in the real practice sessions. In the regular practices, players fly to the ball and are encouraged to play at full speed, but not a single player completes a single tackle during the week.
“The most important thing is to be able to get the tempo you want while still thinking about the health of your team,” Shanahan said. “That’s important for me. It’s harder to win if you’re not healthy.”
Prelude to the practice
On Tuesday nights, after the coaching staff has formulated much of that week’s game plan and scripted the following day’s practice, a quality control coach, the lowest level assistant, slides a copy of the practice script under the door to Berlin’s office, which has a window onto the Redskins’ locker room. When Berlin walks through the door at 6 a.m. on a Wednesday, he picks up the script, and he and his staff begin their day.
At roughly the same time, Bracken, the video director, arrives in his office around the corner. The lair, at the back of the ground floor of the Redskins’ training facility, boasts a wall of video equipment, a television that flickers with ESPN or the NFL Network, a couch, several swivel chairs and the words “Hail to the Redskins” on the wall.
Before his staff arrives, Bracken makes the rounds to all the meeting rooms — each position group has its own room — to make sure the video players are working. Any coach can call up any play from any NFL game dating from 2008. They can call up any practice from this season and last. Any of it could be relevant for any of the series of meetings that make up an NFL day — beginning with a brief team meeting, led by Shanahan, at 8 a.m., then into the positional meetings that make up most of the next two hours, the preparation for practice.
“In college, you come from class, and you maybe have 45 minutes of meetings, then practice, and that’s it,” said fullback Darrel Young, in his second NFL season. “Here, it’s mostly meetings. You got to understand that this [is] more mental now.”
In the hour before practice is scheduled to start, Blair Williams, the intern on Bracken’s three-man staff, brings everything needed to the practice fields: tripods, cameras, drives onto which the drills are digitally recorded. The lifts are tested, lest one be out of gas or otherwise malfunctioning. In Bracken’s 12 years with the Redskins, a lift has been unavailable for practice exactly once, thus depriving the coaches of one angle from that day’s practice. Bracken had to break the news to then-Coach Joe Gibbs.
“Not a comfortable conversation,” Bracken said.
Berlin and his assistants, Beutel and Chris Collins, get the 60 or 70 balls available for each practice — the team will go through more than 800 footballs this season because so many have grown waterlogged over a wet autumn — down to the fields and adjust the “JUGS” machines that fire footballs into the air, simulating punts and kickoffs. A giant clock, housed on the back of a trailer, shows the time of day in the minutes leading up to practice, lest players be confused as to when they’re due on the field.
“We can’t have anyone waiting on us,” Berlin said.
‘There’s a rhythm to it’
So a week ago Wednesday, when Kelly blew the horn for the second period of practice to begin, everything was in place for Grossman to begin installing the offense for the Giants game, which included that short pass to Gaffney.
The look Redskins offensive coaches expected from the Giants called for a cornerback to play press coverage on Gaffney, guarding him closely at the line of scrimmage. The veteran receiver’s job was to accelerate hard down the field, as if he would go deep, and then release quickly to the sideline, a short out pattern designed to pick up a first down. The Redskins ran the play a few times during the week, Grossman said.
“With that look, that coverage, as the quarterback you kind of have to hold it on your back foot and wait for the receiver,” Grossman said. “To get that rep over and over in practice, and perfect that exact look and the timing of it, you’re prepared for it when the game starts.”
From above the field, Bracken manned his camera, always the sideline view. The play was also recorded from one end zone. Over the course of practice, the video staff runs a seamless operation, lowering drives from the lifts and running them back to the building, where Mike Adams, a video assistant, begins loading them into the Redskins’ video system. “There’s a rhythm to it,” Bracken said. Adams syncs the video from both angles — the sideline and the end zone — so players and coaches can analyze it completely. He adds graphics with the name of the play, personnel group and formation.
On those videos is Beutel, the man who starts every play on the offensive side of practice. He has to know every yard line, every hash mark, from which each play is designed to begin. Each is on the script, as is the defensive look the coaches want on the other side of the ball. There is no more important document to making practice function smoothly.
“Everything,” Beutel said, holding a copy, “goes off this script.”
When practice ends, the players return to the locker room to shower — quickly. Each position group holds a post-practice meeting. The video staff’s goal: Have every play of practice available to each position coach 10 minutes after practice concludes.
“Mostly,” Bracken said, “we’re right on it.”
Those post-practice meetings are mostly to go over what went wrong. “You correct your mental mistakes,” Alexander said.
More than occasionally, there is a direct line connecting practice to the game. Late in the first quarter, the Redskins led the Giants, 3-0, and faced fourth and one from the New York 41-yard line. Shanahan elected to go for it, and offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan dialed up the quick out to Gaffney. When Grossman got to the line of scrimmage, “It was the exact look I had seen in practice,” he said.
“At that point,” Grossman said, “it’s just muscle memory.”
Gaffney jabbed his right foot as if he were headed deep, then cut toward the left sideline. Grossman hung onto the ball long enough for his receiver to break open, then released it on target. Seven yards later, the Redskins had a first down. Six plays after that, Grossman found Santana Moss for a 20-yard touchdown pass, another play that came against the exact look Grossman had seen in practice. The Giants never threatened, the Redskins won, and a seemingly meaningless week of December practice translated almost directly into a victory.
“You have to have that, guys willing to work regardless of what the circumstances are,” Shanahan said. “They’re being judged all the time, and these practices matter. They matter in how you handle yourself as a professional, and they matter in terms of how you play in a game.”