Ten guidelines for getting the most out of camp
By Pat Kirwan
NFL.com Senior Analyst

(July 24, 2005) -- NFL camps are opening, and for the next 45 days the most important decisions have to be made in order for your favorite team to have the best chance to be successful.

For example, it's easy to say Philip Rivers' two-week holdout during Chargers camp last year opened the door for Drew Brees. It's never that black and white when it comes to making the right decision. There would have been a number of teams that would have shoved Brees to the sideline two weeks after a young, high-first-round pick like Rivers came to camp.

The Chargers used camp to follow principle No. 2: Start the right players when the season opens up based on what you found out in camp.

I'll get into the 10 guiding principles for having a productive camp in a moment, but for now, keep in mind that not every team in the NFL gets the most out of camp. Some teams actually go backward in the 6-7 weeks of intense training. I get to a lot of training camps, and they are not all the same.

I left the following 10 principles on a sheet of paper taped to my desk when I worked for the Jets. I read it every day of camp to remind myself of why we were working so hard and to have healthy discussions with our coaches about achieving these principles. Ask yourself once a week for the rest of the summer how your favorite team is handling these guidelines.

1. KEEP THE RIGHT PLAYERS AT THE LAST CUT: There are 80-plus players headed to each NFL training camp. It is not easy to keep the right 53 and cut the other 30 or so players. Coaches see players differently than personnel people. A coach wants guys who are ready right now and a front-office man is inclined to see long-range potential. There has to be constant communication about the potential last 10 players to make a roster and the last 10 to be cut. The last thing any team wants to see is a man it released go on to shine for another team. Don't keep a draft pick because he was a draft pick. Keep him because he will make you better.

2. START THE RIGHT PLAYERS WHEN THE SEASON COMES: The Brees example is the most obvious from last season. This year, a team like Miami will face a similar challenge with its quarterback situation. Practice time and competitive situations with the exact same personnel surrounding A.J. Feeley and Gus Frerotte have to be carefully planned in order to put the right starters on the field for opening day. If any team comes out of camp and one or two of the top 22 players on the roster are on the bench because the club didn't find out enough during camp, it doesn't have the best chance to win. It took courage for the Jets to start Wayne Chrebet as an undrafted rookie when there were some high draft picks at his position, but we did it and he made us better.

3. KNOW WHAT YOUR PLAYERS CAN DO: So many coaches claim their system is the best but the truth is you must put your players in the best situation to do what they do best. A number of teams are making the move from the 4-3 defense to the 3-4 package. It will not work out for every team in the experiment. At what point does a head coach say, "This is a mistake"? When I worked with Ron Erhardt -- one of the best offensive coordinators in the NFL at the time -- I asked him in June if his playbook was completed. He said, "My playbook won't be done until the end of camp, when I can see what our players can really do."

4. DON'T TRY AND WIN PRESEASON GAMES WITH SCHEME: You will hear a lot of coaches say they believe winning is a habit and that it starts with preseason games. I will not argue that winning is important, but at what cost? If your team is creating game plans for preseason games and blitzing opposing quarterbacks with starters while the opposition has third-string players in the game, it can give a false sense of confidence to everyone in the organization. I always felt I would like to see our backups step up late in a game and demonstrate they could win. I'll always remember Hall of Fame coach Marv Levy when he led the Buffalo Bills to four consecutive AFC titles. He wasn't trying to win preseason games to teach winning. Try and execute your base offense and defense and evaluate all 80 players.

5. MINIMIZE INJURIES AND PRACTICE SMART: More teams lose the division title on their camp practice fields than in head-to-head competition. Injuries are a fact of life in the NFL, but with the salary cap it is imperative that injuries are minimized. More coaches are practicing at night when it is cooler, and are limiting back-to-back practices in full gear. Contact is a necessity at times, but as one All-Pro linebacker said to me, "We are so geared up when we get to camp that we hit too much." It's a fine line, and the people running each team need to modify practices as they see fit.

6. DON'T CUT THE TOP FOUR SPECIAL-TEAMS PLAYERS: When the end of camp draws near, position coaches will realize they might get "stuck" with a position player they don't want because he is a very good special-teams player. A fifth wide receiver who is a dynamo on "teams" but is really the sixth best receiver can find himself cut if there isn't a priority on special teams. Keeping at least four special-teams players over better backup position players is very important. I remember Bill Parcells' first speech to the Jets when he said we will be very good on special teams right away while we develop our football team. Not every head coach sees the value of a group of players who go on the field for 25 plays a game.

7. GET YOUR BEST PLAYERS SIGNED LONG TERM: For me, every preseason camp would start with a look at the players in the final season of their contracts and to prioritize the guys we wanted signed to long-term deals. I wouldn't get them all extended, but with the risk of injury and the competition from other players in camp it was an excellent opportunity to negotiate with them. As much as most players want to make as much money as they can, most did not want to be at practice every day in the last year of their contract.

8. STUDY AND COMPARE YOUR TALENT TO THE LEAGUE: Too often, coaches believe they have the only players they want to coach in camp. The truth is: Some team is going to cut a player who is better than someone you intend to keep on your roster. As quickly as I could assess where we were weakest and then really study borderline players on other rosters, the better prepared we were to upgrade the roster. The trick is getting the head coach and his staff to go along with that idea. Most coaches hate the idea of releasing a player they've spent a lot of time teaching, even if his replacement is a better player. It is a reasonable point of view, but not always the right one.

9. DON'T UNDERPREPARE YOUR STARTERS: There are only 16 games in an NFL season. It shocks me how often teams that start out poorly claim they are "still working on their timing." I know of one excellent NFL franchise that tracks and records every practice play and preseason play. As its computer man said to me, "We got caught one year not getting our starters ready and had an awful start. Now we have a formula and we stick to it."

10. KNOW WHERE TO FIND STREET FREE AGENTS: If a team enters camp with no salary-cap space and little knowledge of where to find available talent -- if need be -- then it will wind up wasting valuable camp practice time. I've been to a number of camps in the third week of preseason where there were so many receivers and running backs with sore hamstrings and injuries that the team couldn't even practice. Sometimes you just have to bring in some bodies to keep things going forward. It might be easy to say, "Why bring in a wide receiver who has no chance of making the team?" It's an understandable point, but it's the defense that suffers -- it can't get a decent look from the passing game because there aren't enough players to run the scout team. There are always a few guys who played Arena football all spring who are in game shape and are ready, willing and able to sign on a moment's notice.

As camps open and start to run their course, keep these rules of the road nearby to see how your team is moving along. It's not enough to just keep practicing and going through the motions for the next 45 days. There needs to be a plan and some results for your team to be ready for the season.