By Jason La Canfora
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 25, 2006
The warnings came from everywhere.
Defensive back Mike Rumph had just arrived at Redskins Park for the first time, weary from a cross-country flight from San Francisco after his trade to Washington, and all anyone wanted to talk about was up-downs, an old-school conditioning drill that he thought had been long retired from the NFL.
Running back Clinton Portis, a teammate from the University of Miami, was the first to mention it. "You know you got 40 up-downs," Portis said. "When you gonna do 'em?"
By the time the entire defense gathered for an early meeting, at least four other players had mentioned the grueling exercise. And when Gregg Williams, the assistant head coach-defense, began his address to the team by reading out the names of players who had to complete up-downs that day, Rumph, a four-year veteran, knew this was no joke. It was, in fact, his first initiation to the Redskins' hard-nosed defense.
Going through the hellish up-down drill in full pads -- having to sprint in place, drop to the ground on his chest whenever told, begin doing pushups, leap back to his feet, run in place again, and repeat it all at least 40 times, or until Williams has seen enough -- was mandatory.
"Being a new player, I didn't want to clunk out on them," said Rumph, who passed the test on Tuesday. "I didn't want my new teammates to see me as being soft, so I kind of went to coach early and said, 'Can you let me get mine out of the way now?' Because I was tired of the anticipation. Everybody kept telling me, 'Here they come, here come your up-downs.' So I wanted to get mine out of way, and I went out and did them."
Up-downs -- a weekly part of Williams's practices -- have become a badge of honor to the Redskins' defensive players, and a reflection of how tough they are expected to play each game. They are symbolic of a collective defensive psyche, a rite of passage and a method of bonding. Around the league, "grass drills" such as up-downs might be viewed as an antiquated high school tactic; for the defense at Redskins Park, they are a way of life. They are not part of the Washington offense's regular practice regimen.
"That is our conditioning test," Williams said. "And what it lets them know is, when you're on the ground, you'd better not be on the ground very long as a Redskin defender, because you're not going to be around here. The fairness is that no matter what time of the year, when a new guy gets signed with us, he's got to do those before they can take the field with the rest of these guys who've done it all spring and training camp. Really, it's not a punishment, it's just what we're about."
This week, however, the drill seemed to have a disciplinarian bent. Williams admonished his players for their penalty-filled performance in a 27-14 loss to the New York Jets last Saturday night, and on Monday he put them through a demanding set of "swim drills," which amounted to up-downs except with the players running forward and not in place. There were "suicide" sprints as well, and Williams called out the names of players who committed penalties and mistakes in the game, letting their teammates know that the next set of conditioning drills was because of their sloppy play.
To the nucleus of the defense, the harsh treatment came as no surprise.
"It's a proven philosophy -- hard work pays off," said nine-year veteran lineman Renaldo Wynn, the dean of the Washington defense. "Every guy on this defense believes that. Sometimes we need a whupping like Gregg put on us this week, and it'll definitely have a ripple effect on some guys. We want to make sure we get a win this weekend at all costs."
Watching new teammates suffer a little always provides good post-practice fodder for those already indoctrinated. Soon, the newcomers feel like part of the group as well.
"Some of them don't know what to expect, then it's like, 'Bam, give us 40 up-downs,' " said safety Adam Archuleta, whom the Redskins signed as a free agent from St. Louis this year. "It's just kind of fun, because we've all already been through it, so it just gives us kind of a treat, a little something to nibble on and watch. I can't imagine teams doing more conditioning-wise than we do. We're going to be in shape, we're going to run to the football and we're developing that toughness."
That is the kind of reaction Williams seeks with the drills.
Up-downs have been a staple of football dating from the early days of the NFL. Hall of Fame coach Vince Lombardi may be their patron saint, having used them to mold and whip his team into a dynasty in Green Bay. Former Packers guard Jerry Kramer detailed the agony of playing under Lombardi in his book, "Instant Replay." In one passage about training camp, he wrote: "We did seventy up-downs this morning, and the only thing that kept me going was that I looked around and saw some of the other guys my age looking worse than me. Then I figured I wasn't going to die."
The drills have been passed down, one taskmaster to the next, and Williams inherited them from Buddy Ryan, who served as defensive coordinator for the Chicago Bears and Houston Oilers and was head coach of the Philadelphia Eagles and Arizona Cardinals. One of Ryan's players in Chicago, defensive end Dan Hampton, thanked his coaches with the Bears for "the million up-downs" in his Hall of Fame induction speech in 2002.
Williams was a young special teams coach for Houston in 1993 when, in his first minicamp, he noticed Ryan put the Oilers through up-downs. "I said, 'Whooo, this is pretty good,' " Williams recalled. "We can do this in the National Football League like we did in high school?"
Ever since, Williams's players have been paying for it. "Gregg doesn't make them do nearly as many as Buddy used to have us do," said safeties coach Steve Jackson, who played under Williams and Ryan in Houston. "I've heard a lot of guys around the league say, 'I wouldn't do 40 up-downs, that's crazy.' Then they come here and they do 'em. That's part of who we are and what we do. Guys here take pride in it, because we do things other people wouldn't do."
The drills also serve as a tool of reinforcement. The Redskins' coaches are adamant that most injuries in games and practices are caused by a player rolling around on the field. Every 11-on-11 drill is filled with coaches screaming, "Get up! Stay up!" Williams believes most big plays against a defense result from someone being knocked down or being too slow to recover. Up-downs pound that message into muscle memory, the coaches say.
A practice with Williams at his angriest is not easily forgotten.
"I don't expect nothing less from Gregg Williams," said newly acquired end Andre Carter, who has been around football practices all his life with his father, Rubin, an NFL and college coach. "I respect him. I think everyone on the team respects him.
"He has that old-school type of mind, and that's when you see great defenses perform at their best. If it means going out there and doing up-downs to have that mentality to get in better shape, so be it. We're one, and that's all that matters."