It’s a time-honored tradition that in retrospect has bordered on the ridiculous.
As NFL teams reached that late spring/early summer portion of the calendar, the whistles would start blowing and the pencils would start scratching out those attendance tally marks.
For years, NFL teams have held offseason workouts, practices and film study sessions classified as voluntary. But absences, highlighted in media reports, have generally been frowned upon by coaches and team officials. Meanwhile, some coaches have been known to push the limits by demanding a level of physicality and rigor that’s only a notch or two below regular-season action.
In the spring and summer of 2020, COVID-19 lockdowns forced the closure of team facilities, the cancelation of all on-field offseason work and the virtualization of all classroom sessions. Now a year later, NFL teams are trying to navigate an offseason at a time where many communities across the country are returning to something resembling pre-COVID-19 life.
The league’s teams initially intended to return to offseason business as usual. But then came pushback from the NFL Players Association, whose leaders first lobbied for another entirely virtual offseason program and since have urged players to remain away from facilities while continuing to take measures to protect themselves from the risk of COVID-19. Citing a decrease in concussions and lower extremity injuries, the union encouraged players to exercise their rights to take part in any offseason programs on a voluntary basis rather than yield to the unspoken pressure to attend all team sessions.
The NFL certainly could get away with an overhaul of the offseason setup.
COVID-19 taught us that many habits in our professional lives teeter on the side of excessive. Offseason practices fall in this category in the eyes of the NFLPA and many in its membership body. And they have a point: The product didn’t suffer last season even though teams didn’t hit the fields in May and June to lay the groundwork for late-summer training camps. Instead, the NFL saw an increase in hotly contested games. Squads led by first-year coaches managed to compete, and a number of rookies produced impressive individual seasons.
So last month, locker rooms across the league issued statements through the NFLPA expressing their intention to either boycott the offseason program or scale back participation in these voluntary sessions.
The players still intended to spend the offseason training in preparation for the season. But the avoidance of unnecessary wear and tear on their bodies and the flexibility necessary for spending time with their families ranked high on the players’ lists of priorities.
Phase 3 of the offseason program kicked off on Monday with teams reporting relatively healthy attendance figures for organized team activities. But change has indeed begun to take effect.
Many head coaches around the league apparently have been listening with a willing ear.
In the last several weeks since, the locker room leaders of more than half of the NFL teams have negotiated with their coaches to come up with modifications to their offseason programs, according to the NFLPA.
Neither the union nor the league has tracked the concessions made, officials from each side told USA TODAY Sports. As long as the arrangements follow league-mandated COVID-19 protocols, the NFL and NFLPA have allowed the players and coaches of each franchise to come up with their own arrangements.
The Indianapolis Colts have agreed to scale back their nine-week offseason program to a two-week work window that will have concluded before Memorial Day.
The Los Angeles Rams will not have any full-on offseason practices but instead have been holding virtual meetings and on-field sessions that consist only of individual and light seven-on-seven drills and 11-on-11 walk-throughs.
The Los Angeles Chargers and Miami Dolphins only plan on holding walk-throughs and virtual meetings.
The Arizona Cardinals and Green Bay Packers have trimmed portions of their original on-field portion sessions as well.
Cleveland Browns players, including NFLPA president JC Tretter, continue to negotiate with their coaching staff about the format of their offseason program but thus far have primarily engaged in virtual classroom sessions and only limited on-field drills.
Other teams plan on holding full-team virtual meetings while also devoting their on-field sessions almost exclusively to the development of young players.
Then, you have the New Orleans Saints. Coach Sean Payton decided to scrap all practices entirely and have his players spend the offseason program focusing on strength and conditioning training.
“I really want them focused more on the weights, and not just the rookies, all the guys,” Payton explained to a group of reporters on Monday while revealing the team has had roughly 87% participation this offseason. “Getting their body weights where they're supposed to be and condition level where it's supposed to be, all the things that will help them when training camps start.”
By all indications, coaches have started to get it. Those who have agreed to modify their approaches this spring understand that both today’s NFL players and technology have evolved to the point where coaching staffs can adequately prepare their squads without the demands of OTAs in years past.
Even before the pandemic, most NFL players hired personal trainers to direct them through the offseason. Others have utilized programs provided by team strength and conditioning staffs while working out at private gyms or team headquarters to ensure they report for training camp in top shape.
And virtual meetings have made it possible for position groups and coordinators to install their systems with their players even if those men aren’t in the building.
Players understand their livelihoods are at stake. As was the case last year, they’ll report for training camp both physically primed for the physical toll of training camp and a fluency in the playbook necessary for them to compete for jobs and prepare for the season.
“Players want to get better. Players want to win,” George Atallah, NFLPA assistant executive director of external affairs, told USA TODAY Sports. “Even for those who decide not to show up for the next several days or weeks, they’re still doing what they can to get better. Some teams still have situations where they want guys in the building, and that’s fine. But make it worth it for those guys.”
There still are a number of teams that elected not to alter their offseason programs this year. But the league would do well to continue to look for ways to tweak this period of the calendar.
It would make sense to tailor offseason workouts more to young players while allowing veterans to truly take a voluntary approach to OTAs without fear of repercussions. The absence of veterans would translate into rookies and other young players getting more reps in on-field sessions and thus reporting for training camp better positioned to compete for jobs.
Mandatory full-squad minicamps are unnecessary.
Although the modifications to the offseason programs signal improved and forward thinking on the parts of many NFL head coaches, the league still has a ways to go.
The Denver Broncos’ handling of offensive lineman Ja’Wuan James’ injury and contract represented one of the more ridiculous loophole risks that players subject themselves to by electing not to attend offseason workouts.
James, who opted out of the 2020 season because of COVID-19 concerns, tore his Achilles tendon while training away from the Broncos facility. Even though he was doing a workout provided to him by his team’s coaches, James’ injury was classified as a non-football injury because it didn’t take place at the organization's facility.
Denver released James to avoid paying him the $15 million in guaranteed money on his contract.
It’s expected that James will attempt to fight this matter, but it shouldn’t come to that. Because he was injured training for his profession, it shouldn’t be classified as a non-football injury.
In the days and weeks up until the general break in action until training camp, scrutiny will remain on players who opt against attending OTAs. The movements, or non-movements, of Aaron Rodgers and Russell Wilson garner attention because of their tenuous relationships with their organizations. But in general, spotty attendance by established veterans shouldn’t spark concern.
COVID-19 forced the NFL and its teams, coaches and players to alter their approaches to help minimize the health risks of themselves and their family members. But it also revealed areas where the league can operate with greater efficiency.
This offseason seemingly represents a step towards a smarter approach for all parties involved. Let voluntary truly mean voluntary and use this point of the calendar year to ensure optimal physical health by July and maximum education for young players.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: NFL OTAs: Change is afoot as some teams work smarter, not harder