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Expect some ugly football in the NFL this weekend

We’ll be seeing preseason type performances but this time the games count.

Atlanta Falcons v Philadelphia Eagles Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

So, the NFL season officially started last night. The reviews are in and, well, let’s say folks weren’t particularly impressed.

In short, neither the Eagles, or the Falcons, or the referees impressed many Thursday night. It was an embarrassing opening game for the NFL.

But none of us should be surprised by this. Expect more bad football this Sunday. The reason is what we now witness in the early weeks of the NFL is little more than what once passed for preseason football.

Most of the players on the field last night have played almost no real football in nine months. Teams have become so frightened of injuries to their best players that they sit them the entire preseason.

Add that tackling is virtually unheard of in practice and we witness what we saw last night. The NFL’s best players now get into “game shape” during the regular season because they simply don’t have the opportunity to do so at any other time.

Thus we see dropped passes, missed tackles, confusion, blown assignments and players gasping for air because they’re simply not in condition. We also see penalties, lots and lots of penalties.

There was a time this wasn’t so (grumpy old man alert). I attended the Cowboys’ 1992 training camp. Teams practiced twice a day back then; once in the morning and once in the afternoon. And they tackled each other. Every day. Jimmy Johnson’s training camps were famous for what was known as the “middle drill”.

It’s a drill straight out of football’s golden era, from the days when Sam Huff, Bronko Nagurski and Dick Butkus roamed in search of contact.

The “middle” drill. It is the highlight of a practice that is as grueling as any in the league.

”Practice is like a track meet now,” said fullback Robert Wilson, who has trimmed 20 pounds in preparation. At 237 pounds, Wilson, 27, is at his lightest since his freshman year at Texas A&M.

”You’re going to see everybody going full speed all the time.”

The middle drill is not Johnson’s invention, but he runs it unlike most in the NFL. The drill pits the interior line, tight end and two running backs against the defensive linemen and linebackers. It’s running plays only. Everybody knows what’s coming.

Full-force hitting is Johnson’s particular twist. On most teams, players stop short of taking down a teammate.

It’s no time for the squeamish. A 3-yard gain is like a 20-yard gallop. If you’re not in shape, you’ll get there quickly or get your pink slip.

”We do it the whole way, put the guy on the ground,” Johnson said.

”It’s something,” said fullback Dewayne Dotson, who went through the drill when he was a rookie in Dallas in 1994. “The electricity carries through the whole team. I think that sets the tempo for practice. You know the fans are watching, and they love it.”

Players feed off it. As the linebackers, linemen and running backs go through it, the rest of the team surrounds the scrum and yells encouragement (among other things).

”It’s really all-out,” said cornerback Robert Bailey, who played for Johnson for two years at the University of Miami. “Most teams do it, but they just butt up against each other, the linebacker doesn’t take the running back down. ... With Jimmy, it’s very intense, and you get hyped up just watching it.”

So after weeks of that in the hot Austin sun when that Cowboys’ team took the field on opening night against the defending champions this happened. That Cowboys team was playing at peak form from the very first play of the first game of the season.

Now, I imagine the players that had to go through those middle drills probably wish they hadn’t today. Professional football players put their bodies through tremendous abuse. Doing that sixteen times a year is enough; no need to do it in dozens of practices as well. So the rationale is sound.

But it doesn’t change the fact that that what we see in the opening weeks of the season is little more than glorified preseason football. That’s why what’s important this time of the season is results and not form. Both Philadelphia and Atlanta looked like poor teams last night; but each of them will look better a month from now.

So, I’m not expecting high quality play from the Cowboys or pretty much any team this weekend. But the games do count so and the results matter. An ugly Cowboys’ win would be perfectly acceptable.

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