CARSON, Calif. – In one corner of the outdoor weight room at Athletes Performance Institute, just off the 60-yard turf field at the Home Depot Center, New England Patriots receiver Julian Edelman(notes) is blasting out of his stance in a squat machine with manic force to improve his first-twitch explosiveness. Nearby, Dallas Cowboys cornerback Orlando Scandrick(notes) challenges himself to finish that last weighted pull-up in a super-set of reps under the watchful eye of an API training staff member. Meanwhile, San Francisco 49ers free safety Dashon Goldson(notes) is going through reps of super-fast metabolic biceps curls with resistance bands.
Meanwhile, in API's indoor weight room, Baltimore Ravens tight end Dennis Pitta(notes) is doing barbell cleans with 200-plus pounds out of three different stances to imitate different starting positions off the line. On an opposing wall, Tennessee Titans running back Stafon Johnson(notes) is getting on a treadmill for the first time since suffering a terrible leg injury nine months before, and free agent wide receiver Terrell Owens(notes) will come in later in the day for a private workout as he regenerates his body after another long season.
Annually, these are familiar scenes in any of the elite offseason training facilities for NFL players. But with the current lockout possibly lasting months into the offseason – past some or all of the NFL's usual offseason training activities – it's up to the players to get their own workouts together and stay in football shape for the day when the owners and players finally sign a new collective bargaining agreement or are ordered by a court to operate under the previous deal.
There are other trap doors for the players, of course: With the lockout in effect, there is no contact with coaches or team trainers, no admission into team facilities, and no team-facilitated access to injury treatment or physical therapy. And for players on teams with new coaches, there's very little sense of schematic cohesiveness without that communication.
Goldson, whose free-agency status is in a state of limbo, talked just briefly with new 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh before the walls came down. "When you have a brand-new staff, and you're not able to put together workouts, you've got a lot of guys who are in different places, and you don't even know what the scheme will be. Some say they might bring the same type of thing up there [from Stanford], but with different terminology. It's kind of hard to put workouts together with that. I expect that everybody will do their own thing right now – the guys who are still up in the Bay Area. They're probably working out together, but as far as organized team defense or team offense, I don't think we'll be able to proceed until we figure out what's going to happen."
That's why many players will participate in their current organized training as long as the lockout lasts, even though they're not receiving performance and workout bonuses from teams to help pay for personalized training – which is $2,000 a month at API. However, the advantages are obvious, especially to players like Pitta (a second-year player) and Indianapolis Colts receiver Austin Collie(notes) (who lost much of his 2010 season to multiple concussions), who are either trying to scale the NFL's peak of efficiency, or get back on the horse after a fall due to injury.
"It's tricky when this is your first real NFL offseason as a player – you just have to be able to keep up with your workouts and get with other guys who are working out, and be able to hone your skills," Pitta said. "It's tough during this time, when you can't have contact with the team, and not having gone through an NFL offseason before, you don't really know what to do anyway. You just have to do things on your own."
Collie agreed. "I think that's what's important about now – to stay in the routine mentally. Right now, even though there's a wall [between teams and players], there's no reason for us to check out and take it easy. Individually, I think you just have to stay on that same track."
For Travelle Gaines, API director of Elite Athlete Development, the interaction with the players could very well be expanding in the near future. Because API founder Mark Verstegen has been the NFL Players Association's director of performance for a decade, it was easy for the ex-union and current representative entity to advise the players to use API to best stay in football shape.
But right now, the players are in a weird purgatory from a training perspective. "To be perfectly honest, a lot of guys haven't started training yet, because they don't yet know what they're training for," Gaines said. "Because nobody has any idea when they're going to start practicing and playing. So, it's tough for guys to start preparing when they don't know what they're practicing for."
In the short term, that means the possibility of large groups of players on the same teams training together. As players on teams with established coaches and definite alpha-leaders in the locker room, Collie and Pitta expect to meet up with their teammates in the very near future.
"We have great player reps on our team," Pitta said of Ravens receiver Derrick Mason(notes) and cornerback Domonique Foxworth(notes), "and they're keeping us updated with what's going on in the lockout. We're in constant contact with other guys on the team, and they're letting us know what's coming up for plans. We're trying to get things organized and get some work in. I know that [quarterback] Joe [Flacco] and [tight end] Todd Heap(notes) are working on that. I'm constantly talking with Todd, so as soon as we get that thing rolling, we'll be able to get some workouts, especially with the offensive guys."
Collie may be in the most advantageous position. Colts quarterback Peyton Manning(notes) runs his offense as thoroughly as any quarterback in NFL history, so coach-less workouts wouldn't be too much of a stretch from a schematic perspective.
"Come the beginning of April, we're going to come together," said Collie, heading into his third season. "And if they're not already … I've talked to Peyton a few times, and I know he's already working out with a few guys in Indianapolis. Mid-April is when I think we're going to come together and get a little throwing in."
Where they come together is something that Gaines is planning for many of his charges. Starting at the beginning of April, Gaines and API will expand their training functions to replicate the minicamp experience as much as possible, bringing on former players and coaches to help on a position-by-position basis. Minicamps could take on a Pro Bowl feel, with members of different NFL teams working more closely than they ever have before under these circumstances.
"We'll start organizing one-on-one drills, and 7-on-7 drills, and having football-specific coaches coming in, and that's planned for all our facilities," Gaines said. "So, [former New England Patriots linebacker] Willie McGinest(notes) will work with our outside linebackers, and we'll have other people coming in to be there and work with those guys, just like they were going to any minicamps or OTAs with their teams."
Gaines said that he doesn't yet know how many players will come in for these drills, but what he does know is that as much as API will work to make things normal in an impossible situation, there are certain things an off-site facility can't accomplish.
"Well, there isn't a place in the country that has the players we have walking through our hallways," Gaines said. "But to mimic what any NFL coach is going to do – we have no idea what Coach Harbaugh is going to do, or what Coach [Leslie] Frazier is going to do. But as far as having the players ready to go and in shape, that's what we do. … All we can do is to ensure that when they show up to that camp, they will be in football-specific shape."
According to Gaines, the players aren't worried about the money they're spending on training when they're not getting anything coming in – it's probably too early in the process for the majority of players to feel specific financial pain. The edge is in the uncertainty, and facilities like API can at least turn that edge into something productive.
"Usually, it's a regimen – we're with the team, with the guys, and we're running … I'm looking at it and trying to stay as positive as I can," Scandrick said. "It's not a good thing, but in a sense, you have to look at it as a good thing. Because you can get in that extra work – you can get more specific work done because the groups are much smaller."
That's the hope in a smaller sense – that because players will get more used to a specific regimen with more one-on-one attention, they may be able to focus on, and eliminate, anything that needs work. But in the end, nothing can replace what the players are not getting in the face of this labor battle.
All Gaines and API can do is try.