Conditioning drills unfairly single out the "big men"

Jared Wickerham

NFL coaches and scouts require certain positions to be manned by players of exceptional size, especially along the offensive and defensive line. But when one of the "big men" struggles a bit with training camp conditioning drills, his dedication and work-ethic often get called into question.

It was a fairly mild late July afternoon for the first day of Steelers training camp on Friday, with temperatures in the lower 80's and humidity resting in the relatively mild range. That's probably a good thing, because if it was the typical sweltering and humid summer afternoon that normally ushers in the start of camp, Marcus Gilbert may have actually failed the conditioning test instead of passing it before being carted away--if that's passing, I'd hate to see what failure looks like.

Gilbert, the third year offensive tackle out of Florida, was among the participants in the traditional Day 1 conditioning test, which normally consists of players running a series of 40 yard dashes, but reportedly cramped up afterwards and had to be assisted off the field.

This made news, almost immediately, and the reactions ranged from panic over losing a potential starting left tackle when injury was first feared, to the usual jokes about Gilbert and his habit of injuring other Steelers players, to outrage over him being "fat" when the real reason for the assistance was discovered.

This isn't a new phenomenon for Steelers training camp (or any NFL camp, really). Day 1 of camp is often filled with stories of guys who reported out of shape and failed the conditioning test. However, with the rare exception of a player such as running back Jonathan Dwyer two seasons ago, most of the guys who fail these drills are the ones whose jobs are to get down and dirty in the trenches on Sunday afternoons, and to me, this is where I find the criticism a bit hypocritical by both the coaches and the fans.

Gilbert is listed at 6-foot-6 and 330 pounds; that's considered optimal for an offensive tackle, and his size was one of the attributes that made Gilbert a second round draft choice in 2011.

How often do we read about a college offensive lineman who hovers near the 300 pound range but is considered "undersized" and gets selected in the lower rounds (or not at all) in the NFL Draft?

Here's how a typical scouting report may describe such a player: "While athletic, he may not have the ideal size to take on the top pass rushers in the league and may prove to be a liability in pass protection. Possible developmental player."

When it comes to the NFL trenches, size really does matter, so a lineman is often asked to add weight in order to better perform his position. However, it may be a lot to ask a player to, not only play at 330 pounds, but to also be athletic and "in shape" while doing so.

At 325 pounds (listed), Casey Hampton was one of the premiere nose tackles in the NFL during his 12 seasons in Pittsburgh. "Big Snack," as he was affectionately known by his teammates, made five Pro Bowls with the Steelers and was so dominant in his prime, using a center to block him one-on-one was usually unwise, so Hampton was often double and even triple teamed while clogging the hole and helping to establish Pittsburgh's defense as one of the best at stopping the run. Do you think Hampton would have been as dominant and able to take on two or three other large men had he been 20 or 30 pounds lighter?

As you can probably guess, if Hampton's scouting report was similar to that fictional undersized offensive lineman I described, he probably would have been a "camp project" in his rookie year and maybe even converted to defensive end.

Hampton famously failed the team's conditioning test in 2008, and Mike Tomlin, in his second season as head coach, placed the Pro Bowler on the PUP (Physically Unable to Perform) list to start training camp.

Here's a Post Gazette link regarding the story, complete with a few interesting quotes from Hampton, including this one:

"I could be in better shape," said Hampton, who the Steelers officially list on their roster at 325 pounds. "But my thing is the only way you can get into football shape is to play football. You can do all the running you want, know what I mean? You can have a guy do the run test and be the best run-test guy and he can't play football, so it doesn't matter."

My boss attends a lot of Steelers games, and he often brings up little anecdotes, such as Hampton's struggles with pre-game stretching--including a series of walking lunges where he simply walked along while the others performed the stretch properly. Here's an old picture of "Snack" running at camp--that, right there, is a body that wasn't made for the "walking lunge."

The human body is simply not designed to carry that much weight. Have you seen the pictures of Alan Faneca since he retired? Chris Hoke is also looking pretty svelte these days.

While it is remarkable that most of the big men do seem to pass the conditioning drills, it shouldn't be a surprise when a player the size of Gilbert struggles a bit after running so much.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not saying the big men don't have to be held accountable, and I do think there must be a way to gauge a player's conditioning because it's paramount that every NFL player be in the best possible shape. But players like Gilbert and Hampton are never going to be in the same kind of shape as a skill-position player. And I think it's a little hypocritical that we ask these big guys to be freaks of nature and carry around so much weight in-order to excel at their positions, but at the same time, we criticize them for struggling a bit with their conditioning.

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