The time between the end of the draft in April and the start of training camp at the end of July is supposed to be a quiet time in the National Football League. Coaches and players are supposed to recharge their batteries during the months of May and June in anticipation of a humid, physical training camp. But the countdown clock to the Opening Day of the 2010 Football season has already started ticking.
On March 15th, the focus turned to the re-loading (as Doc would say) of each team, and off-season conditioning programs officially began. The 2010 regular season doesn't kick off for another six months, but the process starts now. It's all work and no play until shortly before Training Camp.
In the modern NFL, there's not much of an "off" season anymore. The reality is that football is basically a year-round job. With today’s athletes, their high salaries demand that they stay in shape year round to prolong their careers.
Under NFL rules, teams are allowed to have off-season workouts, but they must be voluntary. NFL Players are generally free of any team obligation and are able to work out on their own for the 5 weeks between the Super bowl and the start of their team's conditioning program. Most teams encourage their players to attend these workouts. During the Mike Shanahan regime, the term "voluntary" was used very loosely around Dove Valley. Bronco players knew they had better be in attendance at the off-season conditioning workouts if they wanted to keep their job. Usually, every member of the roster has some kind of workout bonus in his contract, so it makes financial sense to attend.
Organized Team Activities or OTA’s are an essential element to build the foundation of a cohesive football team. Coaches use OTA’s and Training Camp to ensure every player on their team gets on the same page. That way they have the opportunity to jell and are prepared for the start of the regular season in September.
Through the Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA), the League has defined the conditions of the OTA's before Training Camp. Issues like the amount of physical contact that is allowed, which practices are mandatory and which are not, and who can practice. Any Team's failure to meet these conditions is subject to a fine, or even a loss of valuable practice time, if they are found in violation.
From May through July, NFL teams can conduct full-squad OTA practices 3 days a week for four weeks, and hold one 3 day mini-camp for rookies and veterans. This allows the rookies to be phased into the systems for their teams, get a head-start with the playbook and jell with their new teammates. Most of these practices are closed sessions between the players and coaches. However, some media are permitted to watch what basically amounts to a bunch of players running around in helmets, t-shirts, and shorts playing "Flag" football.
Through the month of June, Mini-camps take place. This is where we start to get reports on how our team looks with the new faces in place. Then in late July, the event I look forward to -- the start of Training Camp. Then we see how the team is shaping up, how new players are fitting in with their teams and most importantly which players are winning a starting spot.
Some teams have as many as 12 OTA’s during the off-season. They are allowed up to 14 of these practices, but not all of them are mandatory. According to ARTICLE XXXV of the CBA:
Section 1. Voluntary Workouts: No player shall be required to attend or participate in any off‑season workout program or classroom instruction of a Club other than as provided in Article XXXVI (Mini camps). Any other Club off‑season workout programs and classroom instruction sessions shall be voluntary and take place in the manner and time period set forth in this Article.
Weekends are off days during the off-season, except during mini camp. And each practice can last no longer than two hours.
Section 2. Time Periods: (a) Subject to the limitations in subsection (b) below, from the end of the previous NFL season until the opening of training camp, Clubs may schedule or conduct off-season workout programs for no more than fourteen total weeks, and no more than four workouts per week, for any individual player. Such workout programs shall not be permitted on weekends. During such workout programs, there may be no more than fourteen (14) days of organized team practice activity, to be defined by the Player/Club Operations Committee. Nothing herein shall prevent a Club from permitting an individual player to work-out on his own on weekends using Club facilities if he wishes to do so.
(b) Each year off-season workout programs may not begin, and players may not be asked to voluntarily attend any such program, earlier than a date to be agreed upon by the Management Council and the NFLPA, and announced before the conclusion of the prior regular season; for 2002 only, that date is agreed to be March 25, 2002. Each year on a date to be agreed upon by the parties, each Club shall provide the Management Council and the NFLPA with the Club's schedule for its off-season workout program that year, and shall advise the Management Council and the NFLPA in writing in advance of any changes to that schedule.
(c) During the off-season program period, except for the fourteen days of organized team practice activity and mini-camps, players may be (1) at the Club facility no more than four hours per day, no more than four days per week, and not during weekends; and (2) on the field no more than ninety minutes per day. In addition, the Club may not specify to any player more than two specific hours a day during which it suggests that the player be at club facilities. Any player participating in an off-season workout program may select the other two hours in which he wishes to attend to conduct his weight training, etc., as long as he does so during the hours of operations of the Club's weight room.
There are even regulations regarding money and injuries in the CBA for OTA's.
Section 3. Payment: Each player shall receive at least the following amounts per day for any workouts or classroom instruction in which he participates pursuant to a Club's voluntary off-season workout program, provided the player fulfills the Club's reasonable off-season workout requirements: $90 during the 2002 League Year; $100 during the 2003-04 League Years; $110 for the 2005-06 League Years; and $120 for the 2007 League Year.
* Extension Agreement 1/8/02
Section 4. Injuries: Any player injured during off‑season workouts will be protected in the same manner as if injured during the Club’s pre‑season training camp, provided he is working out at the Club’s facility under the direction of a Club official.
Section 5. Miscellaneous: No Club official shall indicate to a player that the Club’s off‑season workout program or classroom instruction is not voluntary (or that a player’s failure to participate in a workout program or classroom instruction will result in the player’s failure to make the Club). Contact work (e.g., "live" blocking, tackling, pass rushing, bump‑and‑run) is expressly prohibited in all off‑season workouts. All Clubs, coaches and other Club officials shall follow all of the rules regarding off-season workouts set forth in Appendix L hereto.
*Note: Unless agreed upon otherwise between the Club and the player, each player will be paid at the rate of 100% of his salary in equal weekly or bi‑weekly installments over the course of the regular season commencing with the first regular season game. In other words, players are paid 1/17 of their salary each week during the season. Section 3 above is standard and does not take into account any details for individual player contracts, such as workout bonuses.
The rules for OTA's have been stretched and broken more than a few times by aggressively eager head coaches.
An instance of this happened in 2005, when the Philadelphia Eagles lost a week of Spring practices for letting several players train before the off-season starting date that the club had sent to the league.
According to the CBA, No Contact is allowed at any time during OTA’s. However, we all know most coaches and teams will push that envelope. In almost all of these practices, pads are not used, but there is always jostling and pushing as teams try to figure out who is close to mid-season form.
A couple of years back, Detroit Lions Head coach Rod Marinelli was singled out because his rough approach in OTA’s was not well received by many of his own players. The Lions lost two days of OTA’s after a lineman filed a grievance with the NFLPA alleging that the team held contact drills at a mini-camp. The CBA covers this here:
Section 7. Enforcement: (a) The head coach, who is responsible for any conduct in violation of Sections 5 or 6 of this Article (including but not limited to the rules in Appendix L), shall be subject to a fine to be determined by the Commissioner, which fine(s) shall not be reimbursable by the Club or any other person. The NFLPA and any player involved in any such violation shall each have the right to enforce Sections 5 or 6 of this Article (including but not limited to the rules in Appendix L), through an expedited non-injury grievance arbitration proceeding conducted pursuant to Article IX (Non-Injury Grievance) without charge to the four (4) grievances referenced in the third and fourth sentences of Section 4 of that Article. As soon as practicable after the commencement of any such proceeding, the NFLPA shall be provided with all tape, film, or other recorded evidence of any workout that is the subject of the proceeding. In the event that the Arbitrator finds any violation of Sections 5 or 6 of this Article (including but not limited to the rules in Appendix L), the Commissioner shall promptly impose the fine upon the head coach, and the League shall promptly provide the NFLPA with written evidence that the fine has been paid and donated to a qualified charitable organization. Any head coach who is the subject of a proceeding under this section shall have the right to participate in the proceeding and defend himself. It shall be an absolute defense if the head coach proves that the team's actions were based on a good faith interpretation of Sections 5 and 6 of this Article, and the rules set forth in Appendix L
Because what happens in the Spring has an effect on Training Camp and pays dividends in December, every coach wants all of his players to be at every workout and OTA’s unless they are a veteran with a legitimate excuse (i.e. family issues, such as births or deaths). Coaches consider these sessions important enough that they will use contract incentives and fines to ensure the attendance of their off-season conditioning program.
Fines are a tactic used by teams to motivate players to attend mandatory OTA’s. The only catch with this is, it's only effective if a player is currently under contract. Of course if you have a job, you are expected to show up for work. Happiness has never been in the job description of a Pro athlete, but then again, they aren't in it for their health. It's all about the Benjamin's. When you talk about a couple thousand dollars in fines to a guy making millions, it may not get his attention.
Consider the example of DJ Williams. DJ decided to spend his off-season conditioning working out with Elvis Dumervil in Miami, instead of participating with the Broncos' voluntary program at the team's headquarters. Had Williams attended 90 percent of the team's training sessions, he would have earned a $100,000 bonus. Of course, he can afford the comforts of home because he recently received a $3 million roster bonus that will boost his 2010 earnings to $6 million. But showing solidarity towards a teammate isn't half of the reason for DJ's absence. University of Miami players have a long standing tradition of alumni coming back from NFL teams to the facility to train during the off-season.
D.J. Williams. "They come here to see Mr. Wizard. He'll get you right."
"Mr. Wizard" is Andreu Swasey, the University of Miami's strength and conditioning coach. Since 2000 he's overseen off-season workouts for such superstars as Edgerrin James, Clinton Portis, Willis McGahee, Reggie Wayne, Sean Taylor and Ed Reed. Swasey's program serves as a backdrop for players intent on improving every aspect in their game, from their ability to accelerate past defenders at the line of scrimmage, to improved footwork, to adding weight and muscle and preparing for the endurance necessary to compete in a 20-game season.
Former Redskins Coach Joe Gibbs preferred that his players attend workouts sanctioned by the team, and he would express his unhappiness repeatedly in the spring that players such as Santonio Moss and Sean Taylor chose not to show their faces at Redskins Park for off-season conditioning. But, Gibbs raved about the program at Miami during a news conference in 2005.
"They have a real camaraderie at that school," Gibbs said. "There's not a single person I talked to down there that didn't talk about their conditioning program. I don't know if you saw that poster they had out, but they had a poster with about 23 guys. I'll tell you this, it's pretty impressive. They're all ripped."
Sounds to me like the workout that DJ and Doom are getting with Mr. Swasey is pretty effective. Maybe he IS a Wizard.
On occasion, some players will show-up to OTA’s just to avoid fines. But players and their agents have even found injury loopholes, like the misdiagnosed injury and inept medical staff excuse that Brandon Marshall used in the past. Teams really don’t have that much leverage in terms of player holdout fines until Training Camp when fines can pile-up at a cost of $14,000 or more for each missed day.
The Broncos voluntary off-season conditioning program got underway on March 15th. Robert Ayers and Wesley Woodyard confirmed that strength and conditioning coach Rich Tuten is making sure the players are "busting their behinds," pushing each other to get better together.
"One thing I can say is we've started off faster than we did last off-season," Woodyard said. "A lot of guys are working hard out there, I can tell you that. We're just excited to see what we do when we get a chance to get in that first mini camp," he smiled.
And Woodyard said he can see his teammates doing just that. In fact, the intensity with which the team is attacking the conditioning program has him hungry for football already. Players have been showing up every morning this week, running, lifting, pushing sleds and everything else one could imagine to start getting into football shape.
Now entering his first full off-season in the league, Robert Ayers is getting a taste for what Tuten expects out of the players in the conditioning program. College players are on a 20 hour Football work week. In the Pro's, it's 9 to 5 baby, 56 hours a week.
"It's a hard workout," Ayers said. "If it was easy, everybody could do it. Every day, (Tuten) wants you to compete at a high level, he wants you to bring intensity to the weight room, and you just try to push each other and try to get better together. The linebackers usually work together, so myself, Mario (Haggan), Wesley, Braxton (Kelley), Jarvis (Moss), Baraka (Atkins), we're all out there pushing each other, trying to get better together. He just wants us to compete and bring that intensity every day."
Newly acquired Defensive End Jarvis Green said the workouts are going pretty good. In his 2nd week working out, he is adjusting to new teammates, a new regimen and of course, the altitude. "I feel a little light-headed here and there, but that's why I'm here early, to get adjusted to that."
According to Mario Haggan, Rich Tuten has implemented a whole new regimen for the off-season conditioning program.
"This year, he's got us working on more Explosion type deals. (getting off the ball at the snap) Last year there was a lot of long distance running and power stuff, but now he's taking pressure off the body a little bit. We got a lot of "Cores" (Core Training), a lot of things that are kind of light pressure on the joints, to try to help this team through the season. you know, you put too much pressure on them (joints), they start to decline in the middle of the season. I think the coaches looked at that and they are trying to prevent that."
It appears that the issues of pulled hamstrings and groin injuries that were common in the last years of Mike Shanahan's tenure have been resolved by an accord between Rich Tuten and Josh McDaniels, and the head coach will let his strength coach do his job properly.
Which brings us to the question, do NFL off-season programs have value?
Players will tell you four days a week at the facility are dry, boring and, most of the time, a nuisance to the off-season lifestyle of an NFL athlete. Some of the drills seem pointless. But there is a purpose to everything a team does on the field. There has to be, as practice time is precious.
If you talk to an NFL coach about off-season programs, they will tell you that attendance is crucial not only to the success of his team but the final roster as well. You show a coach that you don’t care about the development of the team in March, April and May, and you make it easier for him to cut you loose in August.
The weight-room work and the on-field conditioning — plus speed work — is pretty standard and not up to par with what these players are used to in their college strength programs or their personal off-season trainers. And players do feel they’re not getting the best workout possible.
But the work in the meeting rooms, with your teammates in the film room and the on-the-field drill work is invaluable. Having the time to self-scout yourself. The time to get together with your position group in the film room and study divisional opponents. The time to really understand tendencies and what to expect from certain coordinators. That doesn’t happen during the season, when there’s no time to relax, and no time to study.
Quarterbacks throwing to receivers, defensive backs working on their footwork and so on. The work that can be done together with your teammates in the spring does carry over to the regular season, to the benefit of the entire team.
Matt Bowen of the National Football Post had this to say:
Pro strength programs are designed not to get players hurt. If a big money guy goes down in the weight room, then someone is going to lose their job. The equipment isn't the issue, but rather how the workouts are run. In college, these players will have the best training, but in the pros, it is scaled back to keep players healthy.
And, we also have to remember, that these players are older, still rehabbing at times from the season. That goes into the training programs as well.
Former New England Patriot Tedy Bruschi:
"I believe in the process -- off-season workouts, mini camps, training camps, preseason," he said. "To truly get ready for the opener you need all this stuff. You need steps like this and it's nice to see that everybody's got a good attitude out here and is excited about getting back to work."
And Ex NFL Quarterback Rich Gannon on why certain quarterbacks, such as Tom Brady, Peyton Manning and Drew Brees - are able to get over the hump, whiles others - such as Donovan McNabb - have been unable to make the next leap and win a Super Bowl.
"I think a lot of success in your program really starts, a lot can get accomplished, in that off-season program. The OTAs, the mini camps, the quarterback school, I think it's important to be in the weight room with this guys. I think it's important to be in the (practice) bubble throwing to the young receivers. You watch what Peyton Manning has done with Austin Collie and Pierre Garcon. Look at Drew Brees. He lives in New Orleans. I think it's important to be a fixture not only in the community but in that building, particularly toward the development of young players."
Gannon learned the importance of that role as a player.
"For me, my career really started to take off when I got to Oakland and realized you have to be like the captain of the ship,'' he said. "You have to make sure the other 10 players in that huddle, there's absolutely no uncertainty about what to do, and how to do it. It has a huge impact on your success and your performance. If the guy is not in the right spot, or at the right depth, all those things, or if the guy isn't sure who to block . . . that's why it's so important to be there in the off-season and helping in terms of that development process. I've seen Peyton Manning literally talking to these guys for hours just to get something down.''
"There's no question, you talk about Brady, you talk about Manning, you talk about (Brett) Favre, and you could put Drew Brees in that category, these guys never miss practice, they don't miss games, they don't miss plays, they play at a high level, and there's a reason for that. They're masters of their domain.''
It all seems to add up...Off-season workouts lead to wins.