'Who’s winning this battle? The owners.'
The full Q&A with longtime NFL linebacker Chad Brown, a man with a fresh perspective on the future of football.
Chad Brown didn’t hold back. You can catch our conversation on the future of football right here in audio/video, icymi. Words are below. The three-time Pro Bowler who racked up 79 sacks over a 15-year career offers a fascinating perspective on the future of football.
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I got a text from you — I believe it was Sunday — saying you wanted to talk about the state of football today. First of all, how in the hell you been?
Brown: I’ve been really good. This season I’ve been doing pretty much from a game-calling perspective all college football. So, the differences in the games is pretty significant if you are there at the stadium, week-in and week-out between the NFL and college. So this year, all college games. Been a lot of fun, doing some great games: Alabama-Tennessee. I’ve got the Big Ten Championship coming up this weekend. So a deep dive into college football this year. Yet still, I still do all the Bronco stuff here locally in Denver. So I’m 53 years old. And it’s funny because time just brings you perspective and that perspective this year has just kind of been about the massive difference in the fan bases, the way the game is played, the energy and passion behind the games, the differences in skill and coaching and all that. So it’s just been a fun ride. And then to kind of bring it full circle to why you and I are doing this podcast is the comments from Tom Brady talking about some of the mediocre football play that we see. And so I thought this would be a great opportunity for me to share some of my thoughts and feelings based on my experiences, and we could chop it up on this subject in particular.
And I don’t know what your take is. I saw you kind of batting some folks around on Twitter and whatnot, but that's always its own alternate universe. … If there's somebody that loves and appreciates and understands the glorious violence of pro football, it’s Chad Brown who was brought up by Greg Lloyd and the gang there in Blitzburgh. You mentioned Tom Brady's comments on football being mediocre. Brett Favre agreed with Tom, which is wild. These are quarterbacks and Brett is just mocking roughing the passer today. His quote was, “What is roughing the passer? Breathing on him? Looking at him with the intent to kill.” It’s driving him nuts as a quarterback. You were somebody that was trained to kill quarterbacks. When you see these flags flying all over the place, what goes through your mind?
Brown: I understand both parts of it. I understand the Brett Favre take. Me as a player being fined $100,000-plus and making those appeals to the league office. Now, at this point, it’s former players. It’s Jon Runyan, it’s Derrick Brooks over there at the league office who are responsible for these fines. But when I was doing it, it was just some suit over there on Madison Avenue, some dude who never played football. And I would try to explain to him the physical gymnastics that you want me to do: ‘This offensive tackle has pushed me in my back. Yet, this quarterback has chosen to duck. What am I supposed to do with my helmet in that situation? I’m not actually trying to hit this guy in his head with my helmet, but if his helmet happens to be where my helmet is, what am I supposed to do?’ So I understand the difficulty of today’s players and even players back in my time when this first started becoming a thing of trying to re-learn some of these skills that you were taught over your entire life.
I will say this — and not without a ton of regret — and it sounds cringeworthy: I was taught to hit the quarterback as hard as you can and try to hit him in the head because we can knock him out of the game. Obviously, the game has changed. It is not Roger Goodell, it’s not Brett Favre, it’s not me, it’s not you, it's not Tom Brady who ensures the football future in America. It’s Little Timmy’s Mom. So if Little Timmy’s Mom is not comfortable with Little Timmy playing football, then we don’t have enough dudes to play football. So the perception of safety needs to be at a high enough point where Mom feels a little comfortable with Timmy going out there and playing youth football. And then that’s what allows Timmy to fall in love with it. That’s what allows Timmy to go on and play high school football and then college and the NFL. But it’s that love early on — the Mom has to approve to get Little Timmy on the field. And so unless Mom thinks that the rules are going to be set in a place where he can be safe and not have brain damage when he is done and the fields are safer and helmet technology is moving at a faster pace than ever before — and all these publicity statements that the league puts out — then there’s not going to be football 20 or 30 years down the road.
So I weigh the two out. Do I think the NFL has gone too far with some of these rules? Do I think the NFL celebrating the inclusion of flag football in the Olympics and now fining running backs for ducking their heads, do I think those are two separate things? No, I think those are very tied together from a long-term vision over their NFL offices on Madison Avenue. If you’re a football fan, if you think football is not going to continue to go the direction that it’s going with hits on quarterbacks, with running backs now being fined, with fullbacks now being fined, with the way that the NFL is trying to change the way the game is played, you are going to be a sad, sad football fan. So you’ve got to learn to enjoy a less physical brand of football, a brand of football where the execution is “mediocre” to quote Tom Brady, but the games are still somehow exciting. So that’s what we need to wrap our minds around from the future of football perspective.
And you’re OK with it then? You’re OK with where it is and where it’s headed?
Brown: Given the two very extreme realities here: We can still have football in 30 years or we don’t have football in 30 years. I mean, if you go around social media long enough, at some point you’re going to see a picture of a marine park or Sea World taken from above and a lonely whale in a concrete pool. We all would agree now here in 2023: “Hey man, that shit’s wrong. We shouldn't do that. That’s not OK. We shouldn’t put these beautiful, intelligent, smart creatures in concrete pools for our entertainment.” There’s got to be a better way to educate people and do things. So we recognize that, and I’m afraid that 30 years from now, we’ll look back and say, “Wow, we had a chance to change the game and make it safer and make it better so we could still have a game.” That’s my concern. We’re either going to take it at its softer, less physical point where it doesn’t resemble the product of 30 years ago or 40 years ago — or no football at all. And if that’s the two (choices) I've got to choose from, I’m taking football every single time.
The generation that played NFL football where they played six preseason games, when training camp was a solid 2+ months, they look at my era and they say, “Oh my gosh, it was so easy for you guys.” And I look at this era and say, “Oh my gosh, it’s so easy for you guys. Limitations with CBAs and all that kind of stuff.” Given the alternative to not accepting this — there being no football — then I’m going to choose football every time.
But it’s not like injuries are down. It’s not like concussions are necessarily down by a lot. As long as there’s blocking and tackling, there’s going to be injuries. You’re going to get bruised, you’re going to get concussed. Until it’s flag, it’s inherent to the game, isn’t it? To me, it’s a bait and switch if you’re trying to sell this to Little Timmy's Mom as a “safe” sport. It’s not safe. And I think that’s OK. I just want the NFL to own the fact that there is violence. This isn't for everybody. It’s a little disingenuous for the league to spam us with the infomercials and wrap its warm, loving arms around flag football and just add to the rulebook. Nobody knows what the hell to do game-to-game. … I didn't play in the NFL for 188 games like you, so you’re the more qualified subject on this matter. I think football's football and the NFL needs to own it to move forward. Be honest with what you are as a sport. Because if you’re going to be honest, then just make it flag. If you’re really worried about preservation, just take all the blocking out, take all the tackling out. Stick the flags in the belts and just move on.
Brown: The NFL, expecting them to be honest? C’mon, c’mon. This is the league that hired a podiatrist to be the head of head trauma for the league. So this is not a league of transparency and honesty and actually addressing the issue at hand. There’s a number of owners who have never tied concussions to football because they recognize it’s a slippery legal slope once they do that, and the latest battle this year is playing surfaces and “Our studies show!” There’s always going to be pushback on all these things for the owners to pay more money. Yet still, they're the ones who are putting out the message to Little Timmy’s Mom that the game is safe! They deny any danger. They are unwilling to spend any money to make things safer. But they’re the ones who promote the game as safe. They want all the benefits, none of the risk, none of the blowback, none of the pushback. These guys are billionaires. So when I talk about the league office, I’m essentially talking about the representation of the owners. Because it’s the owners that are the league. Not the league, and then the owners are below that. It’s the owners, and the league is an entity that is put together to enforce the owner’s whims and desires and wishes.
So the public perception vs. reality, I don’t think the league cares. Do they try to make things safer for the players? A little bit. But it’s more so about public perception because, in the end, they recognize it’s about Little Timmy's Mom and it’s about gaining a wider audience. And if women are afraid that these dudes are out there getting concussed and going to have brain damage for the rest of their lives, it's not going to be as palatable to women as it is for us Cro-Magnon dudes. So in efforts to continue to grow the game, they have to continue to put out these messages that don't necessarily line up with reality.
If somebody steps into the octagon for a UFC fight, it's not like they're implementing rules to make it “safer,” but that's niche. That’s the NFL’s problem. They want to appeal to that broader audience. They want to bring in new fans — not just in this country — but all over the world, obviously. So you do kind of have to play this game. I probably am asking for too much for the honesty, but I do worry that if football's turning into something that it never was supposed to be. Are you worried about the product, Chad?
Brown: OK, the league wants to make more money. Their goal is $25 billion a year in revenue. I think they’re at 17 or 18. So they’ve got 8 or 9 million bucks looking to pick up here, and they want to continue to grow the brand and grow the shield, and we’ve seen their forays into international. At some point, there’s probably going to be an international “division” overseas, which is just mind-blowing as well. So the product is probably less important to the owners and to the league than the revenue because the revenue is what speaks to them. That’s how they chart the game. We look at the game from the product and how many great games there were and how many competitive Monday Night and Sunday Night football games there were. That’s how we view the product because we’re not looking at the revenue sheets. They are looking at it from a completely different lens — and from their lens — they’re saying all these tweaks and changes that we’ve made has grown the brand. The NFL makes more money than it ever did, so they feel completely right and justified. Whereas we look back and say, “Oh, the game’s so different and the product is this, and it's that” — they don't care! They are getting eyeballs, which is what they want! That’s what they desire more than anything else — the eyeballs and the attention and growing the brand.
I don’t know what backlash could occur for them to change this trend. People are going to be gambling and setting their fantasy lineups and rooting for their favorite teams and pouring all of their paychecks into the NFL. So, if it’s just a couple of us bitching on a podcast about it, they don't care. If it's people on Twitter collectively losing their minds, it'll last for 24 hours and then they move on to something else. So it’s calculated in that regard, too. They probably know there’s outrage and they know the game is changing, but it is about the revenue — No. 1.
Brown: It is. And, wow. Looking at football to go from a player on the field to do the coaching internships that I’ve done and now to be a broadcaster — and I’ve done two visits over to the league office, specifically to learn about the league office and how it works and all the different departments. No. 1, I still love the game and I’m fascinated by it, and I still think it’s the greatest sport in the world. But for us to sit back and complain that it’s not as violent as it once was, that's not a very sympathetic cause that were taking up here: “This game is different! They don’t hit people like they used to! They use to take people off in stretchers!” It says something more about us than it says about the game, in the end, that our attraction to the game is because we want to see people carted off?
I don't want you to think I want people maimed and decapitated out there. The really good turn the league made probably was around 2000-2005’ish., I'm thinking James Harrison on the cover of SI taking out Mohamed Massaquoi. Right around then, there were changes made that needed to be made. At the same time, I think what draws people to football is the fact that it's not for everyone. It is an attrition. It’s for you. It’s not for you. You make that decision in high school — the first day of hitting. … These are the modern-day gladiators. That’s what we're drawn to. When you played, there was this feeling that football wasn’t for everybody. Do you feel like now anybody could just play football? You don’t have to have that mental switch in your head to decide this is for me or not?
Brown: No, it’s definitely not for anybody. And I’ve done four coaching internships in the NFL. I did one with the New York Jets. I did one with the Seattle Seahawks. I did one with the Tennessee Titans and I did an offseason internship with the San Francisco 49ers. And in each of those internships, in the rooms where I was working, whether it was defensive line room or linebacker room, at some point, either myself or the coach who I was working with had to have a conversation with the player and say, “Hey man, I'm not sure if this is for you.” So you’ve played college football, you’ve gotten yourself onto an NFL team, and there’s still another gut-check to go because you have to realize, “Oh! This is what I have to do every single day. I've got to show up.” So even beyond the physical pad work, just the body soreness and injuries and soft-tissue stuff from just running around as your job every single day, that ain’t for everybody.
And then if you want to continue to excel in this game at certain positions, it requires an incredible amount of physicality. And typically the more physical you are, the more you are willing to risk your life in limb, so to speak, the higher you will go. And the pain factor has always been a way to weed out people at each level of football. You're running around as an elementary school kid and you're barely falling on top of each other. By the time you get to junior high, there's some kids who are more mature and they’re like trained assassins out there. Then you get to high school and it's like, “Oh my gosh, that dude is 300 pounds in high school! And I got to play against this guy.” And that continues as you move up through the game and it continues to weed out people.
Even today in the NFL, it is not for everybody. It is still an incredibly physical, violent game, just not as physical and violent as it was it once was. And they try to put some parameters around the physicality and violence that in some ways that are very difficult to pull off as a player in a sport as fast as NFL football. But I think with continued training and coaching — particularly from the younger levels — in 10 years, yeah, it will seem absurd. Just like it seems absurd to put a whale in a concrete pen, it will seem absurd that we used to allow people to hit quarterbacks in the head.
At what levels were you coached to take out the head?
Brown: High school, college. Maybe not coached by Marvin Lewis in Pittsburgh, who was my linebacker coach there. But Kevin Greene and Greg Lloyd certainly let me know as a rookie, “When you get a chance to get to that dude who's got the ball on the other side, you show up with bad intentions every single time. You show up with bad intentions. If you can change the game with one hit, then it is your obligation. This is your responsibility to this team to change the game when you hit him.”
What was it really like to have those two as teammates? Greg Lloyd and Kevin Greene were wired differently to put it mildly.
Brown: Because I was a rookie — because I was trying to establish myself and gain the respect of those guys — there were lots of games where I didn’t feel as if I was playing hard enough or playing physical enough or using my helmet enough because I didn’t have a ringing headache by the end of the first quarter. That was kind of my standard: “Now, I'm playing hard enough and I'm playing to the level that these guys expect me to play. And if I can play like this, I'll earn their respect.” And lucky enough for me — but also unlucky enough for my brain — I had coaching similar to that all throughout my football playing career. So in my closet at my parent's house up until my Mom started shipping my stuff to me, once I had a house as an NFL player, my closet was littered with bent facemasks and broken helmets that I had as a source of perverse pride. I see that as perverse now. Back then it was just pride: This is how hard I play. This is how hard I go. I break helmets, I bend facemasks, I bend metal by hitting people with my face. And of course now I recognize the absolute stupidity of that. But that's the mindset that Greg and Kevin taught me: “This is how we play this game. We are part of a very privileged few to be Pittsburgh Steelers. And even beyond that, we are Pittsburgh Steelers Linebackers. We are literally the kings of this whole thing as far as elevated positions on this most historic franchise. You know how many Hall of Famers have played this position How lucky you are to be in this room kind of thing.” So yeah, I had to go out and uphold that and try to find ways to impress them with how hard I went and, “Alright, way to go rook.” That was fuel to my fire.
God, those defenses were nasty. I can think of Greg Lloyd taking out Favre in a preseason game.
Brown: And saying publicly in press conferences, “I'm going to knock Dan Marino out of the game.” And then what does he do? He goes out and knocks Dan Marino out of the game. So I know that kind of thing is definitely no longer a part of football. I’m still a relatively young person and this was a part of my playing experience. So the game has come a long way since then. And again, I think in another 20 years we'll look back and look at today's game and go, “Oh my gosh, how far have we come,” from some of the violence of 2023 to 2043.
I’m thinking of the Steelers today. Against Jacksonville, Keanu Neal, I don’t know what else he could have done when he hit Trevor Lawrence. It is shoulder pad to the midsection. Not late. Not driving him into the ground. There's nothing else he could have done. And we've seen it again and again and again and again — this year especially — where you're watching these and thinking: “What else is that player supposed to do?” This looks like the NFL is searching for a middle ground that doesn't exist.
Brown: Players always find solutions. Once I was taught to no longer hit the quarterback in the helmet, then OK, now I’m going lower. Then the rule comes out, you can’t hit ‘em below the knees — The Tom Brady Rule — so now we’ve got to aim for the midsection. Now it’s pretty clear that if you run through that quarterback and you hit ‘em hard enough, that’s going to be a penalty. So now you’ve got to slow down. You’ve got to be an adaptable athlete. And I recognize the difficulty in that. But I also recognize what the league is trying to do and these are the rules. So the Twitter fight that you were referring to, I went back and forth with tons of Bronco fans about the Baron Browning hit on DTR on Sunday. He knocked DTR out of the game with the hit where I saw him launch himself into DTR. The fans were like, “No, he’s just running!” I was like, “Well, I’m looking at this from the league perspective. How’s the league going to look at this?” There’s a reason why the ref threw the flag. Because he kind of launched himself, his helmet kind of made contact with the head and neck area of DTR. DTR’s helmet was hit by Baron Browning’s shoulder. Therefore, you have violated the rules. To your point, what else are you supposed to do? I suppose you're supposed to go low and hit him in the waist, but these guys have got to be adaptable because these are the rules by which the game is governed. And at some point, if you’re going to hurt your team with a penalty, you have a responsibility to your team first rather than just trying to go out there and blast somebody. So I’m not saying the league is correct. I’m not saying I approve of any of this. I’m just saying this is the way the direction of the league is going based on my conversations with appeal officers as a player, and then my conversations with the league office with these folks who are passing down these fines and these suspensions.
A hundred thousand dollars of fines. What's that process really like? When you get fined, they get that money and then you're fighting to try to get it back.
Brown: They take that money first. So every week as an NFL player, you get paid. You get paid your weekly paycheck. Now, I know some teams have gone to year ‘round payments. But back when I played, you got paid during the season. Once a week during the season is how you got paid. Those checks were typically pretty massive. So now you get fined and that money is taken out immediately. So when you are appealing to the league office, you're appealing back to the people who have taken your money. They’ve already taken your money, so now you're trying to get your money back and you're appealing to the same folks who already found you guilty in the first place. So it’s quite an absurd process. Now with the newest CBA, they removed Roger Goodell as the judge and jury there. So it’s part of the other league office. But if you walk around the league office long enough, you recognize it’s just like any other office. Roger Goodell is not up on the top floor in some penthouse. He’s down here in all this with everybody else. So he's walking around. He walks into the office where the appeals officers are. So if you don't think Roger Goodell still has influence over that process, you’re a bit naive.
So what was the one hit that you were fined for and you're like, “OK, I’m not going to appeal that. That was pretty bad.” And then what was the one hit where you’re like, “This is BS, I need to fight this tooth and nail.”
Brown: As a Seahawk, we’re playing the Raiders and Rich Gannon was the quarterback. I spun inside Lincoln Kennedy — and as I was spinning inside — Lincoln pushed me in my back. So not only was I spinning, and a bit out of control and trying to orient myself, but now I've got Lincoln Kennedy — one of the biggest players in the league, 350+ probably — shoving me in my back. And right as I'm coming, Rich Gannon goes down and I end up running through Rich and my helmet clearly hits his helmet. And I'm like, “OK, I understand the rule. There’s no longer any helmet-to-helmet contact with quarterbacks, but can you see how I was literally not in any control of my body? There was no intent involved. I just was literally shoved into this guy right as he was ducking.” He ducked down to my level! I was already kind of going down from the Lincoln Kennedy push in the back, and they said the same thing that they said to me every single time: “Chad, you are responsible for your body on the football field. No one else is responsible for their body. You are responsible for yours.” And because that’s how you hit this guy, the quarterback’s not responsible for ducking down. The receiver is not responsible for going up and trying to catch a pass and getting blasted by his safety. So this whole Tom Brady protecting players, no, the league does not believe in that. You as the hitter are responsible for your body and what you do on the football field. So whether you were pushed, whether you were working your spin move, whether the quarterback ducked, you are responsible for your body.
So I went through that process a number of times as evidenced by $100,000+ in fines. The last appeal that I had, I was getting towards the end of my career and my agent and I are on the conference call together. Just he and I prepping for the call. And I said, “You know what, Peter? You know what I'm going to do? I’m going to let these dudes have it. I haven't won a single one of these. I haven't got any fines reduced. I'm just going to tell them how little they know about football and how much they're just a suit over there on Madison Avenue and you couldn't do my job.” I was just so frustrated that I was being judged and evaluated by the people who could never play the game and just were stuck on this one line: You're responsible for your body, you’re responsible for your body. So Peter says to me, “You think that's going to work?” I was like, “No, it's not going to work! But it's going to make me feel better.” So I took my 15 minutes of time to break it down to them with how wrong they were, how little they understand. I broke down the plain attitude, intense physics, all the different angles. And afterwards we hung up the call and Peter was like, “OK, man, I think you just blew any possibility of working for the league or of getting any of your funds reduced.” I was like, “Sure, I had to say it. I had to let him know.”
What was their reaction?
Brown: He didn’t take it very well. He did not like me talking to him in that tone, he let me know. It’s a guy who's no longer with the league office, and I think he's actually passed by now. I probably came out at him way too hard, but I was just so frustrated by the process. Because I was, at that point, trying everything I could to avoid these things early in my career. That was my intent. And then I changed my intent to try to follow the rules and just the bang-bang nature of football puts you in positions where you aren’t always in complete control of your body despite league expectations. Yeah, it did not go well. It was not received well. When my agent had some dealings with the league — as the league year went around — they had some things to say to him about my comments, how it was kind of unprofessional for him to allow me to do that. But, again, he allowed me to get my frustrations out.
That had to feel good, man.
Brown: Go out in the blaze of glory, man, you already took the $25,000. I know you're not going to give it back, so let me make my $25,000 worth it to me.
So who was the main guy then? A suit?
Brown: He was just a suit at Madison Ave. And he had worked his way up to this responsibility, so he wasn't like some upper-league executive who was dealing with this. He was the guy who started off maybe as an intern doing copies in mail duty and now he was evaluating me as a football player. How dare you. Who are you?
Are you watching the Steelers closely as well? I mean, this has been a strange year for your first team in the NFL.
Brown: Definitely a strange year being outgained almost every single week until last week and still finding ways to win. You're lucky you’ve got T.J. Watt who finds a way to make a game-changing play in some way. But the things that I talked about, I did a number of interviews in Pittsburgh after Matt Canada was fired. Oh, let me see. You finally throw to Freiermuth down the middle of the field. Which they did. One of his best games of his career. You're going to run the ball and try to limit the exposure for Kenny Pickett. Which they did. So they used a very simple formula to have their biggest yardage total of the season and get a huge win. And it’s interesting how sometimes just a philosophical change can be enough to spark a big win. Now, we’ll see if that’s sustainable. But certainly they are in the playoff picture and based on what I saw last week, if they can keep Freiermuth healthy and always have that threat in the middle of the field and occupy safeties and linebackers, well, then now you've got the yin and the yang. Are these linebackers worried about the run game? Are they worried about the tight end? And if you can create that indecision and put those guys in conflict all game long, then both those parts of your offense can be successful.
There’s plenty of blame to go around offensively this year, but I was always in on Kenny Pickett. There's something to performing late in games, clutch situations. He's done it his whole life. Maybe there is hope for him. He looked pretty dang good against Cincinnati with this new offensive philosophy, do you think Kenny Pickett can turn that corner and be the quarterback the Steelers need here post-Roethlisberger?
Brown: I think they'll still need to play Steeler football. Is Kenny Pickett going to go out and become Big Ben Part II or resemble any of these quarterbacks who we think of as all-time greats: Drew Brees, Tom Brady, Peyton Manning? No, I don't see that necessarily in his future, but if the Steelers play good defense. They run the ball well. They run the ball well enough to set up some play-action passes. Yeah, then I think Kenny Pickett can continue to grow into the role, but I think to expect him to be able to drop back 40 times a game and deliver it all over the field, I don’t think that's quite within his skill-set currently. And I’m not sure if long-term he can actually become that kind of quarterback.
Which, hey, bring it back to those grimy Steeler wins that you were accustomed to. Nothing wrong with that. Maybe not with Neil O'Donnell at quarterback. Maybe you don’t throw the ball to Larry Brown a couple times in the Super Bowl.
Brown: Yeah, but I think that brings me back to the original purpose for this: Tom Brady’s comments about the NFL being mediocre. And I believe that to be true. I believe we see player mistakes. I think we see lack of player understanding for situational football. I think we see coaches make mistakes in ways that we haven’t in a long, long time or maybe ever. And it's all due to some of the reduction in practice time and padded practice time and training camp time. You’ve got 17 games, 18 weeks of the regular season, and I believe they can have 12 or 13 padded practices all year long. How do you develop an offensive lineman if he only gets the game play in 12 padded practices? How does Kenny Pickett get to understand the real detailed nuanced understanding of when a receiver is going to be in a certain place if we don't put the pads on, jam that receiver at the line of scrimmage, force him to run this route when he's been rerouted and fight to get into the spot where he’s supposed to get on the field? How’s all that supposed to happen? So that lends itself to this mediocre play that we are seeing. So Tom Brady's absolutely correct. And based on what I’ve seen in my coaching internships and based on the conversations that I've had with coaches — almost to a man, when I start this kind of conversation with a coach during my internships, they would all say. “Oh man, it's not like back in your day.” So they quickly would just without any fight, recognize things are different. And I was doing one of my coaching internships and we had played a preseason game and one of the players in our room had difficulty scooping a fumble. So I’m on the sideline and I'm taking notes. I'm like, “Well, we’ve got to do a fumble drill during this week of practice.” So No. 1, we had to wait until we had the pads on to do this drill, because even in training camp, it's not pads every day. So we go, “OK let’s find a padded day. Okay, let's script that into practice.” So we had to go through this drill where you fall on the ball, but you don’t fall on your chest or your stomach, the pile is going to get on top of you. You cradle it sideways and you slide into this. And the coach who I’m working with says, “Man, I don’t want to get anybody hurt.” I’m like, “Dude! We just failed at recovering a fumble during the game. That’s a missed opportunity for a big play. You’re playing a playoff game and if somebody doesn't know how to recover a fumble, you’re going to lose that game! So we’ve got to do this.” We did the drill and someone got hurt.
Are you serious?
Brown: Yeah. So that was the last drill suggestion that was implemented that training camp. This guy didn’t even know how to fall and recover a fumble and he hurt himself. It wasn’t like we were piling on top. You roll the ball on the ground and he's got to chase the ball, slide down and cradle the football. And he managed to hurt himself. So that's when I was like, “OK, it's more than just these coaches saying things are different and these players aren't the same.” Because of the lack of padded practices, because of all the lack of physical work, these guys don't understand the basics of falling. That’s why Tua was getting blasted. Because even in college football, the trickle-down effect of less padded practices has gotten down to college football. So you don't have those situations where you learn how to take a hit and learn how to get blasted, but keep your head up so your head doesn't bang in the ground. These little things that Tua has learned this offseason due to some like Tae Kwon Do training and MMA training, but he didn't learn that as a football player because football? They don’t play enough football and learn how to play football, which sounds crazy, but it's true.
You’ve got to condition the body for contact. And the Steelers have understood that probably more than any team, right? Even now with these limited padded practices that you get, he takes full advantage of it. And you look at his players, they're playing in these preseason games. The starters are in there a lot. And I think there is a connection. The Steelers win these crazy games that can drive people nuts because it’s not aesthetically fun to watch, but they’re conditioned physically to win a different game. And it’s probably so tough for Mike Tomlin to even do what he can do in 2023. But is there something to conditioning the body for contact? I don’t think the players would ever sit down at the table in the next CBA and say, “Yeah, give us more padded practices.” But it probably would help the players themselves if they had more padded practices.
Brown: Yeah, Tomlin said, “Every time we wear pads in training camp, we’re going to tackle to the ground.” Which they did. I think that makes you a more conditioned athlete, it makes you a better tackling team. But it teaches you how to tackle and still keep yourself safe because you're doing this at practice. Last year, the Denver Broncos, Nathaniel Hackett was the coach. They didn't do one single tackling drill in all of training camp. And then you're going to ask these guys to go out there and play football full speed in the opening week of the season. They haven’t tackled to the ground yet! You’re doing your team a disservice when you do that. So yeah, these philosophies don’t necessarily line up with getting the best out of players, not preparing them to play high-level football, but also preparing them to take care of themselves. The tough skin that I developed in training camp carried throughout the season for me, and if you don't ever develop that with the only 12 padded practices during the season, you’re never going to get that. So each game, you’re going to be in the training room the next week, beat up and bruised and with all kinds of things going wrong because you never toughened yourself for the rigors of football.
Shocked that Hackett was soft on the guys in camp. They were a pretty hard-nosed football… nevermind. I know I’m probably we're breaking “codes” again. But what a different world with Sean Payton out there. I want to talk to you forever, Chad.
Brown: This was good, man. You helped me get this off my chest. Yes, the level of football is declining in the NFL and in college football. I see it every single week. And it is due to the changes to the practice schedules — to the padded practice schedules — in attempts to make the game safer. So the owners gave the players “more safety.” Players still get banged up. So it’s a public perception thing. And what do the owners get? They get more share of the pool of revenue and they make more money. So the owners were happy to give the players perceived safety for more money. In the end, it makes for a lesser product. It actually makes the players less safe, in my opinion, and the owners get richer. Who’s winning this battle? The owners.