EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – Sometimes even a coach's best intentions go unheeded.
On Wednesday afternoon, the New York Giants may have violated the league's rule barring contact between players during offseason workouts when seven-year veteran center Shaun O'Hara took rookie defensive tackle Jay Alford to the ground during a blocking drill which had grown increasingly rugged until that point.
To most players, it was part of the grind of practice even in the offseason throughout the NFL. To Giants coach Tom Coughlin, it was something he definitely didn't want to see.
"That's an example of when it gets a little out of control and we talked to (O'Hara) about it," Coughlin said Thursday. "You don't want players getting hurt. That's the last thing we want."
Earlier this week, Coughlin and the Giants lost fullback Jim Finn to season-ending shoulder surgery. Finn was placed on injured reserve after re-injuring his shoulder during an offseason workout.
Coughlin's public sentiment has been echoed by many coaches and players around the league. Most Giants players said the contact was little more than a natural part of practice that got a little out of hand.
"In our situation, we have a new offensive coordinator and a new defensive coordinator and they're installing new things to our system," Giants right tackle Kareem McKenzie said. "As players, we're trying to be sharp and execute to the best of our ability. When you're trying to do that, your tempo is going to be faster, more intense and that's where you start to get what you're talking about.
"It's not what any of us want at this time of the year. But this is football. It's a physical sport. This is what we're trained to do."
The NFL Players Association believes Coughlin's sentiment isn't always followed very strongly. At times, the rules prohibiting contact have been flaunted. In 1996, then-Dolphins coach Jimmy Johnson made a mockery of the rule by first promoting contact in mini-camps and then mocking players during a radio interview when they anonymously filed a complaint with the NFLPA.
"We'll investigate any report of illegal contact in the offseason," NFLPA lead attorney Richard Berthelsen said Thursday. "If we are informed of illegal contact, we can request the (tapes) of practice made by the teams and review them."
A first violation of the no-contact rule is punished with a loss of workout days for the team. A subsequent violation can result in the loss of draft picks.
The root of the problem, as McKenzie indicated, is the nature of the game. Practicing football without contact makes it difficult to get a true sense of the game.
"You can practice plays against air all you want, but you don't get any real sense of the timing of how the play is going to work," McKenzie said.
Said defensive tackle Barry Cofield: "Everybody wants to be smart and the veteran guys really try to be smart about it. But this is all evaluation, no matter what you say, and the young guys can get eager and think they can make the team in mini-camp. That doesn't happen, but that's what guys think when they're young … For the most part, the veterans know how to handle, but it can get out of hand, no matter what the coaches say."
Making the problem worse is that much of the monitoring of contact is left to players. Union representatives on each team are responsible for reporting problems to the NFLPA for review.
That situation can often put players in the middle of a fight between the union and the league.
"That definitely can put a player in a tough spot because the coach can discourage him from saying something," Giants guard Zach Piller said.
One agent suggested this week that monitors be placed at practices to watch for possible problems. He compared the situation to how the NFL has monitors at games to watch for uniform violations.
"If the league can afford to hire someone to monitor uniforms because they think it's important to protect the companies that advertise with the league, they can afford to put someone at these practices," the agent said.
McKenzie said that was still impractical and suggested a seemingly simpler solution.
"What's too much contact to one person isn't very much to another, so that makes it hard," McKenzie said. "If you really want to solve it, have guys take off their helmets. Guys are really aware of getting hit in the face and head. If you do that, you get rid of all that stuff where guys lead with a helmet a little too much and it keeps guys from moving their hands around the face and head. It'll make everybody more careful."