Easy does it at NFL training camps
By Jim Armstrong
Special to Page 2

If Kobe Bryant is the most embarrassed man in Colorado these days, Daryl Gardener is a close second.

Gardener, signed to a $39-million free-agent contract to anchor the Broncos' defensive line, won't play a down at training camp. He underwent surgery the other day to repair torn ligaments in his right wrist, sidelining him for upwards of two months.

So how did he sustain the injury? No, he wasn't pumping iron. Nor did he fall down during a post-workout jog or take a tumble off his Harley. Ah-hah! A pass-rushing drill. He hurt his wrist during one of those incessant mini-camp pass-rushing drills, right? Sorry, that's three and out. Time to punt.

Brett Favre
Don't expect Brett Favre to break a sweat in camp.

Fact is, Gardener hurt his wrist punching a guy outside an IHOP. As in, International House of Pancakes. No really, I'm not making this up. You could look it up in the police report. Making the story even more unbelievable is that the guy who isn't built like Mount Rushmore threw the first punch.

We're left to wonder two things here. First, who's the rocket scientist who challenged Gardener, all 6-6, 320 of him, to a fight? Must be a Raiders season-ticket holder is all I can figure. Second, what was a guy with $39 million doing eating at IHOP? Let me guess. He asked the cops for a couple of Tums instead of the usual phone call.

As difficult as some of the facts are to fathom, it's easy to understand how Gardener found himself punching and kicking some poor sap in a parking lot in late July. Given how easy NFL training camps are these days, it's the only way he could work out his frustrations.

At least Gardener didn't hurt his wrist throwing out the garbage or burn himself with a hair dryer or cut his hand pumping gas. Those kinds of things are reserved for spring training. NFL training camps may be more hazardous to your health than playing long toss under a palm tree, but, have no doubt, they're not what they used to be.

Gone are the days when 130 players would report to some quaint little college in the middle of nowhere for two months of brainwashing, body bashing and bubba bonding. These days, NFL rosters are limited to 80 players, and almost half of the 32 teams -- 13 and counting -- train at their own headquarters. Oh, and good luck finding a team with two-a-days in full pads. That's about as rare as a defensive tackle chasing down Michael Vick.

Training camp used to be survival of the fittest, complete with projectile-vomiting contests and full-scale fistfights. Now it's another day at the office with a couple hours of OT. Players on many teams don't report to camp anymore. They simply show up at the same place they've been virtually living at for the previous four months.

That's the thing about today's NFL. There's no off in off-season. The players get a few weeks to themselves in February and March, then it's back to work at their teams' training facilities. The workouts are voluntary, of course, provided your name is Brett Favre. If not, life ends on April 1.

The mini-camps don't start until late April or early May. So when do they end? Never, now that you asked. Training camp has become a mini-camp with a thyroid problem. Players, already in peak condition, practice once a day in pads, usually spending their afternoons in shorts, T-shirts and helmets. That's assuming they show up at all. After the first few days of camp, the afternoon sessions are often limited to special teams.

You call it training camp when a team has a bowling tournament for the players? A lot of teams do that kind of thing during today's training camps. Or how about a fishing tournament? Or a team party at the coach's house? What, no loofa scrubs and mud facials? It's enough to make Bear Bryant blow his whistle and order an Oklahoma drill from the great beyond.

Training camp hasn't evolved so much as it changed overnight when the salary cap arrived. It's called covering your assets. Players with guaranteed money -- call them signing bonuses if you want, but it's guaranteed money -- who get hurt in the preseason can't be replaced because of the cap. So coaches, even old-school types like Dan Reeves and Marty Schottenheimer, have been forced to change, to work players less in the preseason for fear of injuries.

Back in the day, NFL teams played six exhibition games -- seven if you caught a break and got to play in the ever-important Hall of Fame game. These days, they play four. Most established veterans play a series or two in the opener, maybe three or four in the second game, and a half or slightly more in the third game. Many don't even suit up for the finale, and the ones who do barely break a sweat.

And you thought Daryl Gardener was missing something.

Jim Armstrong, a sports columnist for the Denver Post, is a regular contributor to Page 2.



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