NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) Mike Mularkey practiced in pads from his very first day of training camp until the end of each of season as a tight end for the Pittsburgh Steelers under Chuck Noll between 1989 and 1991.
The lone exception? They could wear T-shirts each Saturday.
Fast forward to Wednesday, when Mularkey's Tennessee Titans have been counting down to a very big moment in today's NFL: their final practice in pads.
Mularkey says his Titans can't believe him when he tells that story.
''It was like a 9 on 7,'' Mularkey said. ''Friday's ... it was `beat the tar out of each other.' I just came from Minnesota, where it wasn't like that, and I figured, `Well, they lost four Super Bowls. This team won four, so this must be how you do things.' Teams were always good with Chuck, and I figure that's the mentality and kind of grew on me.''
Through 2010, NFL coaches could put their teams in pads and practice as much as they wanted during the season. The current labor deal reached before the 2011 season put a limit on those sessions.
Now teams are allowed 14 practices in pads each season, once a week through the first 11 weeks. The other three are parceled out over the final six weeks, preventing a coach from hording sessions for December. A coach can put his team in pads twice in one week only once during the first 11 weeks, and players help monitor whether teams follow the rules.
The change eases the pounding on linemen, running backs and linebackers the most. Titans linebacker Wesley Woodyard likes the limit - and counting down to that final padded practice.
''Toward the end of the year, you get worried about health,'' the eight-year veteran said. ''You're banging every week in practice, and the chance and risk of injury goes up at the end of the year.''
Planning those final three practices can be challenging. Coaches have to gauge the wear and tear on their players' versus the upcoming schedule.
Minnesota coach Mike Zimmer is saving two padded practices because his Vikings ran the ball 39 times in a win at Atlanta on Nov. 29, followed by a game against Seattle last week. Now his Vikings visit Arizona on Thursday night, a short turnaround, making a padded practice impossible.
''Most weeks when we're allowed to use them, I use them,'' Zimmer said. ''Some weeks, depending on the week, I might take them off. But at the end of the year, it's really just my feeling on who we're playing, how we play, are we beat up?''
Dallas coach Jason Garrett faces a similar dilemma. His Cowboys beat Washington on Monday night and visit Green Bay on Sunday, erasing a chance to pad up Wednesday. Then they host the New York Jets on Dec. 19 on another short week.
Sometimes, a coach feels he needs a padded practice to sharpen his team's blocking or tackling.
''You want to knock the rust off, you can put the pads back on,'' Jets coach Todd Bowles said. ''So we've been going back and forth ...''
Titans linebacker David Bass, in his third season in the NFL out of Missouri Western, would practice in pads whenever asked as he tries to earn playing time. But teams reaching the Super Bowl can play as many as 25 games, and coaches can put the pads on once a week in the postseason.
''These guys being as big and strong and fast as we are these days running into each other, it just helps to lay back and refresh your body going into the game on Sunday so you can perform at your highest level,'' Bass said.
The Denver Broncos haven't practiced in pads since Thanksgiving, and defensive end Antonio Smith sees a difference, with teammates easing back in practices, even if subconsciously. Smith also thinks the CBA limits have helped ease, if not erase, the old ''wall'' for rookies.
''You talk to rookies now, it's nowhere near where it was when you first came in,'' Smith said. ''You felt like you were going to die. Every week was feeling like training camp after Week 9. Your body was feeling broke down. It's more education now, I didn't know much about massages, chiropractic work. You came to work and did what you do. It's a lot better.''
The Titans (3-9) happily wrapped up their final practice in pads Wednesday.
''I didn't see any tears shed when they pulled them off,'' Mularkey said.
AP Pro Football Writers Arnie Stapleton and Dave Campbell, and Sports Writers Schuyler Dixon and Pat Graham contributed to this report.
AP NFL websites: http://www.pro32.ap.org and http://www.twitter.com/AP-NFL
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