The NFL wants to cut the 2020 preseason in half, from four games to two. This comes after a near two-month closure of team facilities and the cancellation of spring organized team activities due to the coronavirus pandemic. Additionally, no one knows for sure what training camp, set to begin later this month, will entail.
The regular season is scheduled to begin in 10 weeks — beginning on Sept. 10 — with the players less prepared than perhaps ever (old-school preseasons used to feature weeks of full-contact two-a-days and six exhibition games).
Yet at the same time, the players are being admonished by the league and their own union for holding informal workouts on high school fields or in parks.
“The leaders of the sport have put NFL players in a tough spot,” agent Donald Yee, who represents Tom Brady, Jimmy Garoppolo and Julian Edelman, among others in the league, told Yahoo Sports. “Neither the union nor the league have agreed on any mandatory COVID and preseason preparation protocols.”
It’s a distinction worth noting. The union doesn’t officially prohibit guys from working out together. Legally, the NFL itself probably couldn’t even if it wanted. In the absence of actual rules, there are just suggestions, which many are ignoring. Small groups of players are getting together to run routes, throw passes and work on conditioning. For that, there is blowback.
“Those practices are not in the best interest of player safety,” NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith told USA Today. “They’re not in the best interest of protecting our players heading into training camp. And I don’t think they are in the best interest of us getting through an entire season.”
In an ideal world, Smith isn’t wrong. This isn’t an ideal world right now. The NFL and NFLPA mean well but quarterbacks tossing footballs to receivers outdoors doesn’t seem like a high-risk activity. Meanwhile, the pressure of the season is coming.
“The players — who have to perform in front of millions — have to get ready somehow, especially since the game itself is fast, dangerous and violent,” Yee said. “If they hibernated 100 percent, they’ll be less safe.”
They’ll also face significant criticism if they aren’t sharp. Pro football is a cutthroat, zero-sum business. Someone wins and someone loses. There is always someone after your job. That includes even a star such as Brady, who has been videotaped working out with his new skill players in Tampa Bay. (It’s believed nearly every, if not every, quarterback in the league is doing the same thing.) Brady’s only response came via an Instagram post where he cited Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
“Only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” Brady’s post said.
About the only thing Brady ever fears is losing. Among NFL players, he isn’t alone. Fans fear it too. When football returns, they are going to expect it to be played at the level they are accustomed to seeing.
When Americans first dined out after months of quarantine, they might have been sympathetic if they were offered a limited menu or the place ran out of a certain item. No reasonable person could expect perfection considering the circumstances. Most were just happy the place survived.
No one grades the NFL on a curve. If Brady doesn’t have his timing down with say Mike Evans and a stalled Tampa Bay passing attack results in early season losses, union-approved midsummer social distancing practices won't calm the masses.
“Any rusty performance will be criticized,” Yee said. “[Yet] if they try to prepare even a little, they’re criticized.”
No one is going to shed a tear for NFL players. There are far greater hardships out there than getting called out for trying to do your high-paying job as well as possible. Yet in a turbulent year when the NFL could provide the ultimate distraction, these aren’t the villains. The NFL has hung them out to dry a bit here.
Last month the NHL opened team practice facilities for “small group, voluntary, and on- and off-ice training.” Full training camps are scheduled to begin this month. Hockey players are essentially allowed to get their timing and passing down in the same manner that the NFL and NFLPA oppose — except they are doing it at indoor rinks, not outdoor fields.
The players aren't being given much of a choice. With each offseason limitation and preseason cutback, the greater the motivation for the players to prepare on their own. The voluntary workouts are going to continue, if not grow.
That’s just human nature, no matter what the league or the union wants.
More from Yahoo Sports: