Can you ever recall a time when NFL joint practices were a topic of national sports conversation for a good reason? I can’t, at least off the top of my head. The latest reason certainly isn’t good. The debate over the merits of joint practices—training camp practices in which two different franchises practice against one another—has been fueled by yet another skirmish, this time involving the Los Angeles Rams’ Aaron Donald swinging a helmet at members of the Cincinnati Bengals.
Lots of players are no fans of it. The Pittsburgh Steelers’ Cameron Heyward has already spoken against it. Former Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger sort of did the same in sharing his own experiences working in joint practices, saying that he hated going them and wanting to know “the percentage of dual practices where there’s not a fight”.
“I hated doing it because I never trusted [that the other team wouldn’t hit the quarterback]. You never hit the quarterback. The quarterback is off limits”, he said on the first episode of his new podcast, Footbahlin’. “I never trusted that they wouldn’t, like, ‘Oh, I fell, I tripped, I accidentally gave you a little chicken wing’ or something. So I didn’t like it”.
The Steelers most recently held join practices in 2016 with the Detroit Lions, as well as in 2014 with the Buffalo Bills. They were also going to work against the Bills again in 2015, but that plan was scrapped after Buffalo experienced a head coaching change. And he wasn’t a fan, especially on behalf of his receivers.
“We’d throw one-on-ones, which is wide receiver against the DB. There’s no real referees out there, and even if there is, they’re like, ‘Oh, flag’, but it doesn’t really hurt you”, he said. “So we would go one-on-ones and you’ve got guys like Antonio Brown and Mike Wallace, Emmanuel Sanders, guys that were really, really good. Santonio Holmes. Guys who you could just throw balls to. And they would hold you, grab you, do all this stuff to you, and then our guys are getting frustrated because they’re getting held, but there’s not really any penalty to holding. It definitely is frustrating, and it leads to a lot of [fighting]. Teams fight amongst themselves enough. You don’t need another team out there”.
Pittsburgh very nearly held joint practices in Roethlisberger’s final year. They were in talks with the Dallas Cowboys to hold practices together in 2021 before plans fell through. It’s worth noting that the Steelers and Bills petitioned the league in March of last year to reinstate joint practices, which were suspended in 2020 due to COVID-19.
Over the years I have shifted toward the opinion that more harm than good can often enough come out of joint practices to the point that it might be preferable to avoid them, unless you have a particularly good relationship with the other team. I’m not so sure Dallas would have gone very well.