October 14, 2001 — Work.
That’s a word Atlanta Falcons starting center Todd McClure doesn’t like to use when describing his profession. But, now in his third year in the NFL, Todd lets the word slip out now and again.
“I have to go in to work,” he’ll say.
“When I got home from work …,” he’ll begin a sentence.
“I guess I’ve gotten that from hearing other guys say it,” Todd said after a long day at “the office” on Wednesday. “But, no, I don’t consider it work at all. I get paid to play a child’s game, and it’s fun. I enjoy it.”
Most NFL fans only see their favorite players at work on Sunday afternoons. Some, like many Falcons fans on weeks when Atlanta plays at home, don’t even get that glimpse — thanks to the absurd NFL blackout rule.
But all the pomp and circumstance surrounding Sunday is a culmination of a long week of preparation, one that includes just as much study as sweat.
The Falcons six-day work week breaks down like this:
Monday: Starts with treatment of battered bodies from the previous day. Then players lift weights and do conditioning drills. It ends with a team meeting, a summary of the game, all the highs and lows.
Wednesday: More of a mental day. Players are introduced to Sunday’s game plan in four hours of morning meetings, which include plenty of film study. The afternoon on-field practice is two hours long. Players wear shorts and light pads — called shells. Practice is followed by weightlifting, which is followed by a study of the film from that day’s practice.
Thursday: The toughest day of the week. Schedule is similar to Wednesday’s, with meetings in the morning and practice in the afternoon. It’s the only day that players practice in full pads.
Friday: A half day, meetings and practices are shortened. Linemen do a short arm workout with weights. Players leave at 1 p.m.
Saturday: On a home week, the team will meet in the morning and watch film of Friday’s practice. Every player must stand before the team and field a question on the team’s game plan from his position coach. The team walks through some key plays, and players leave the complex by 10:30 a.m. On away weeks, the team usually travels on Saturday.
Sunday: Game day.
The plan for this week’s column was simple in theory. I would follow Todd around for an entire day at work — in this case, last Wednesday — and document his every move. The plan was not so simple in practice.
Team rules locked me out from all meetings, so I was limited to normal media access times: the locker room from 11:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. and the sidelines during afternoon practice. I also managed to find my way into the weight room for the post-practice workouts.
Falcons director of communications Aaron Salkin explained all the secrecy.
“Our game plan is the most sacred thing we have,” he said. “It’s like national security.”
He said the rules are strict and non-discriminatory. It doesn’t matter if you’re with The Times from Gainesville or The Times from New York.
Todd’s Wednesday at work began earlier than usual this week. He arrived at the Falcons complex in Flowery Branch at 7:45 a.m. to receive treatment on his bruised ribs. Atlanta’s new feature back Maurice Smith ran into Todd during the third quarter of the Falcons’ 31-3 loss to Chicago last Sunday.
“It was a pretty good shot,” Todd said.
Treatment was followed by a meeting about Todd’s body-fat test with strength and conditioning coach Al Miller. If you’re interested, Todd’s 16.3 percent measurement was right where it needs to be. Miller wants linemen to stay between 15 and 17 percent.
Meetings, 9 a.m.: At 9 a.m., the meetings start. At 9 a.m. — exactly.
“They’re pretty strict on it,” said Todd, who has never had to pay a fine for tardiness, but has heard they are several hundred dollars. “If you’re a second late, you’re late. There’s no talking your way out of it.”
After a brief state-of-the-team address from head coach Dan Reeves, the Falcons split up into offense and defense and were presented with the game plan for today’s game with San Francisco.
Reeves talked and the players listened. Most took notes.
The plays are nothing new for the players. It’s mostly stuff they memorized back in summer camp. But there are subtle shifts from week to week.
“Not a whole lot changes,” Todd said. “It’s just little things that you do each play that change based on their defense and their personnel. Small adjustments. Like you’ll block a different way, or the count will be different on a certain play.”
The players then branched off into separate rooms with their respective position coaches. For Todd, that means offensive line coach Pete Mangurian and assistant offensive line coach Rennie Simmons. The line analyzed the first quarter of the 49ers’ Sept. 23 game with the Rams.
“We do joke around and have fun in the meetings,” Todd said, “but there are times when it’s serious and there’s no joking going on and we’ve got some critical learning to do.”
Walk-through, 11 a.m.: The morning meetings are followed by a walk-through at 11 a.m., which takes place on the practice field.
“We run all of our plays into every front they have, just to get a mental picture of it,” Todd explained.
Lunch/media access, 11:30 a.m.: Wednesday’s highlight was red velvet cake. Players like it so much, they call it “steak.”
“We get excited when we see that red velvet cake,” Todd admitted.
Players probably don’t get excited at the thought of what awaits them in the locker room after lunch — the media — which can be particularly harsh following a loss.
Lucky for Todd, he’s an offensive lineman, and he generally only has to deal with one media request a week. Mine.
That leaves plenty of time for UNO, which Todd played Wednesday with “On the Line” regular Ephraim Salaam.
“It kind of gets your mind off of what is going on, and lets you relax a little bit,” Todd said.
Salaam, by the way, had a slice of red velvet cake wrapped in cellophane in his locker.
“He always grabs an extra slice and saves it for later,” Todd said.
More meetings, 12:30 p.m.: The offensive and defensive scout teams studied San Francisco’s schemes so they could better mimic them during the afternoon practice. The offensive line then looked at film from the 49ers game against Carolina last week.
Coach Reeves stood in the hallway at 12:29 p.m.
“You’ve got one minute,” he yelled, staring at his watch, as a procession of players headed toward the meeting room.
Practice, 2 p.m.: Early on, the offensive line doesn’t even come close to a football. They line up far from the rest of the team, and Mangurian shouts out phrases like “34 O X on go!”
The linemen would take a step or two in a particular direction. Then they’d line up again, and Mangurian would yell a different play. It was as if they were choreographing some sort of rigid line dance for an oversized chorus line. In a way, they were.
“More than you would think is mental,” Todd said. “I’ve had people tell me that they thought all we did was go out there an hit each other. But the toughest jump from college to the NFL is the mental part of the game, learning the offense, learning the other teams’ defense.
“We walk through and visualize all of our plays against every possible front. Because if one guy out of the whole 11 makes a mistake, then his guy is going to make the play.”
Parts of practice look like the lay person would expect them to look: An offense and a defense going head-to-head. But much of it deals with technique. These players are pros, but they’re not perfect.
For the offensive line, teaching is often as technical as which foot to pivot on, which leg to put your weight on. A split-second action could make or break a play.
“They break it down,” Todd said. “It’s a fine science. That’s one thing I like about Pete, he strives for perfection. He wants everything done perfectly, and he’s not satisfied until it is.”
Weight training, 4:15 p.m.: Each player is issued a weight-lifting regimen by Coach Miller, and he looks on to make sure that they stick to it.
I wandered during the workout, and Ephraim issued me a warning.
“You better watch yourself,” he said. “He’s really particular about his weight room.”
Miller never said anything to me. Perhaps he couldn’t see me among all the muscle.
Falcons president Taylor Smith was working up a sweat doing squats in the weight room on Wednesday. A sign over his shoulder read “If you cut corners, don’t expect a square deal.”
Even more meetings, 5 p.m.: The Falcons watched film from that day’s practice for 30 minutes, a meeting that typically ends the work day.
But the team’s annual NFL Players Association meeting followed, and went on for nearly 90 minutes.
Todd’s day was still not done. He and wife Heidi held the Falcons’ weekly Bible study class for couples at their Sugar Hill home on Wednesday. And that didn’t end until after 9:30 p.m.
Then Todd had to talk on the phone at length with an annoying newspaper reporter.
“So, how are you feeling now that it’s all over?” I asked.
“I’m tired,” Todd said. “I’m worn out. And I’m ready to hit the sack.”