There comes a time when the idea that “practice makes perfect” loses its romance.
For Tennessee Titans offensive linemen, that moment comes somewhere after a decade of play. That’s when it is enough simply to be better than most.
Steve Hutchinson has reached that point. A seven-time Pro Bowler and five-time All-Pro who once started every game for seven consecutive seasons, he has seen and done enough — or so the thinking goes — that he does not need a full week of practice to be at his best on Sunday.
Thus, almost every week he sits out Thursday’s workout and lets younger, less experienced players get a little extra work.
“Typically, Thursday is your longest practice, your most physical practice,” Hutchinson said. “For me to not go out on that day and not take the physical reps but to take the mental reps, it’s good. I feel like on Sunday morning I’m going into that game benefiting from not having gone through that practice.”
It is a tradition, of sorts, for the Titans, a link between their current state and their days as the Houston Oilers.
Mike Munchak routinely rested during the week late in his 12-year playing career for the Oilers, as did Bruce Matthews, whose 19-year career included the transition from Houston to Tennessee.
Both ultimately ended up in the Hall of Fame and exhibited little decline in their performance along the way. Matthews made the Pro Bowl in each of his final 14 seasons and was a first-team All-Pro in three of his final four. Munchak made the Pro Bowl in each of his final seven campaigns and was an All-Pro in his 10th season.
“I don’t remember Munch practicing much his last couple years,” said Matthews, now the Titans offensive line coach. “Nor did I, for that matter. I think there’s definitely a level of comfort, especially at offensive line, when you’ve done it as much as Steve has that going out there and getting the physical abuse almost becomes counterproductive.
“He just needs to freshen up on Friday, and he gets plenty of work on Wednesday and Friday.”
Be careful, though, not to confuse rest with a lack of work. It is not as if Hutchinson, in his 12th NFL season, spends Thursday afternoons in the players lounge, his feet kicked up, a cold drink in his hand. He is out on the practice field, focused on the calls and involved in ways that do not involve collisions.
“When I did it, yeah, you didn’t get the physical work but the mental work — you were almost more acute with it because you saw stuff that you didn’t normally see,” Matthews said. “When I’m in there doing it, you don’t see the big picture, whereas when you’re standing behind the drill you’re going, ‘Ah, all right I can see why the defensive lineman’s doing that.’
“There’s just a lot more information to process. It just educates you better, I suppose.”
Hutchinson first learned that Matthews and Munchak, now the Titans head coach, planned to take this approach with him before he even signed with the team. Shortly after Minnesota waived him and made him a free agent early this year, he visited the Titans and the idea was raised at that point. Hutchinson did not say whether or not it was a factor in his decision to sign with Tennessee.
Confident in Hutchinson’s abilities, the coaches followed through with their pledge.
“Obviously, Hutch has seen about every look,” Matthews said. “His biggest part of preparation is preparing himself mentally for what he’s going to see during the game. His physical technique ain’t going to change. We’ve modified some things throughout the spring, but he’s basically doing what he’s been doing for 12 or 13 years.”
In the games, he is. His practice week is different than it has been, but it won’t change for the remainder of his career, however long it lasts.
“Once I started doing it, there was no going back,” Matthews said. “The game is really a grind mentally, especially this time of year when you’re getting into Week 10 and you’ve had two weeks of training camp, four preseason and nine ballgames. It isn’t so much the physical part anymore. It’s, ‘All right, I have to get right for Sunday.’ ”
Sometimes the perfect way to do that is to skip a day of practice.