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Day One of pads: By necessity, a different feel

JACKSONVILLE – The day came, at long last.

And if Wednesday wasn't quite as full-on, all-violence, knock-down-drag-out as in Years Gone By, it was still the first full-padded practice of Jaguars 2014 Training Camp.

And that means something, even these days.

"We talked (during) OTAs (in the offseason), 'Hey, it's great to evaluate now, but when we get into training camp and the full pads come on, it will give us a better idea,'" Jaguars Head Coach Gus Bradley said Wednesday. "And that's what today's the start of with the pads."

So, your question: Is that it? That's the significance of the first day in pads? Just another evaluation day?  Another step in the process?

Your answer: Yeah, probably.

No doubt pads are important. Any player in the Jaguars' locker room will tell you that, and no question the intensity heightens when they're on. But the nose-in-the-dirt stuff? The tackling-to-the-ground stuff? The bone-jarring stuff?

That's long gone, never to return – not in NFL training camps, at least.

"Even though we have full pads on, we're not going to kill each other," cornerback Will Blackmon said.

And no doubt: It has to be that way. A team's crucial players are too crucial, too hard to replace, to risk unnecessary injuries with full, no-limited training camp contact. NFL Augusts aren't about manhood anymore; they're about being mentally ready for September through February.

For the sentimental among us, that's tough. And by sentimental we mean those of us young enough to still be around the NFL and old enough to remember Years Gone By. senior correspondent Brian Sexton, a 20-year veteran of Jaguars training camp practices, good-naturedly on Wednesday bemoaned the difference between now and then, making the case that there was perhaps less buzz than there once was around padded practices.

Jaguars Radio Network analyst Jeff Lageman, who played in the days of two-a-day, full-contact-a-whole-lot-of-the time camps added that while Wednesday was indeed the first "full day" of contact, it perhaps wasn't significantly different than Sunday and Monday when the team worked with shoulder pads and shorts.

The main difference on Wednesday was the presence of thigh pads, which old-schooler Lageman noted somewhat tongue-in-cheek was a minimal difference at best. And even the current players will tell you there's not a huge difference in a full-pads day and a shoulder pads day.

Blackmon, asked about it being the full day in full pads, smiled.

"I guess so," he said, laughing.

At the same time, here's Blackmon and other Jaguars veterans will tell you:

That the absence of full-on, no-limits contact – while without question a difference when comparing this era to past eras – isn't a negative or a positive, but simply the way it is. It's also not as if players aren't working, and aren't preparing.

"Pads, no pads – we're full speed regardless," Blackmon said. "It's the same rule: play fast, but protect the team. Whether it's walkthrough, shells and no helmets, full pads … we do a great job working efficient and getting the job done."

Play fast and protect the team are huge themes around any Jaguars practice, and the league has been gearing that way for some time. The loss of core players can ruin a season, so by necessity, teams have long taken measures to minimize hits to the legs and the violent, players-on-the-ground, twisted-body scenarios that can occur in unlimited goal-line and running drills.

The main difference in recent seasons hasn't been as much the intensity of the hitting, as the opportunities to hit. Teams had been reducing the number of two-a-day, full-padded practices in fits and starts for years in an effort to reduce not only injuries, but wear and tear and season-long fatigue.

The 2011 Collective Bargaining Agreement eliminated two-a-days completely, meaning teams can work in pads just once a day during camp.

What had been happening gradually was suddenly a hard, fast rule.

"We don't have the amount of padded practices you're used to," Jaguars middle linebacker Paul Poslusnzy said. "All the skills of hitting have to be learned in a short period of time. It is a challenge, and you do see why people say the ability of tackling has gone down."

That's the drawback, and Posluszny said it's a legitimate concern. He also said the Jaguars emphasize tackling on days they can because they very much want to be a good tackling team. Cornerback Alan Ball joked that when he entered the league players at some point during training camp were going to be in pads enough to learn how to hit.

"It definitely forces you to take advantage of those times you're in pads," Ball said. "You have to get in and get focused."

The positives, Ball and veterans such as tight end Marcedes Lewis will tell you, far outweigh the negatives. There is less wear and tear, less toll on the body, less chance for injuries, perhaps more career longevity.

But have the old days gone away? Is the era new? Lewis said without question that's the case.

"It's little different now," Lewis said, laughing. "There's less time to do it. It's just about working smart. We have to get the most out of the time we have. It's not like before, where maybe you were saying before a practice, 'Oh, we've got to get in for a second time today …'

"It's more, 'We know what we need to do to get better. Let's take the bull by the horns and do what we have to do.'"

Working efficiently, working smart… perhaps not words heard often on Day One pads in Years Gone By, but words that are here to stay. No matter how the sentimental among us may feel.

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