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MHR Primer Looks At The Off-Season (Or How It Was Supposed To Be)

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     My normal approach to the off-season is to read about the rookies we drafted and the veteran free agents we signed. Then impatiently await the start of the Pre-Season Training Camp and read about how the depth chart is shaking out. Still, I would impatiently sit through Camp and the Pre-Season games, anxiously awaiting the start of the "real" season. In other words, I usually didn't play a whole lot of attention to the off-season activities.

That being said, I must admit that I'm paying very close attention this year. I must also admit that in forty-two years of following football closely, the 2011 "off-season" has got to be the strangest one ever. The Collective Bargaining Agreement between the NFLPA and the League was supposed to run through 2012. This means that we were supposed to have a relatively normal 2011 off-season and football year. Alas, this was not meant to be. I have no intention of arguing about whose fault it is -- that topic has been beaten to a pulp by rightly outraged fans. Rather, what I'd like to do is take a look at how the off-season should have occurred. There are some nuances to the off-season that I had never been aware of and, in fact, probably never would have become aware of, had the current labor dispute not happened.

     The information being presented in this article was gleaned directly from the now-expired 2006-2012 Collective Bargaining Agreement. Again, please keep in mind that this is the way the off-season has run in the past rather than the rather strange reality we will be facing this year.

There were six rather distinct parts to the NFL's off-season program: Free Agency, the College Draft, Organized Team Activities, Mini-camps, the Pre-Training Camp Period and the Pre-season Training Camp.

Free Agency
There were lots of nuances to this period in the league year. Without burying ourselves in the legalese of the now-expired CBA -- and the legal wrangling going on over this issue -- the NFL stipulated that there were basically two types of free agents: Unrestricted and Restricted. Unrestricted free agents were players with four or more accrued seasons in a capped (meaning season with a salary cap) year at the expiration of his contract. Restricted free agents were players with three or more accrued seasons, but less than four in a capped year. Slightly different rules applied to these two types of free agents.

Unrestricted Free Agents (UFA): From the date of the expiration of his contract (often aligned with the end of the league year in early March) until July 22nd or the first day of training camp -- which ever was later -- the UFA was free to negotiate a new contract with any team. After the July 22nd date, the UFA was allowed to negotiate only with his prior team.

Restricted Free Agents (RFA): The commencement of the signing period for RFAs was to be jointly agreed upon by the League and the NFLPA. This date was to be announced by September 1 of the previous year. The signing period for RFAs was to be no less than 45 days. During this time, an RFA was free to negotiate a contract with another team -- though there were a number of stipulations attached to this process. For our purposes, the two most important points were as follows:
1)If an RFA had not negotiated a contract with another team by June 1 AND his previous team had made a tender offer of no less than 110% of his previous salary, the RFA was only allowed to negotiate with his previous team.
2)If an RFA had not negotiated a contract with another team by June 1 AND his previous team had NOT made a tender offer, the RFA was free to continue negotiations with another team.

     In the case of both the UFA and RFA, if no new contract had been signed by the player by the 10th week of the regular season, the player was required to sit out the remainder of that season. At the same time that Free Agency was going on, the College Draft was held.

The College Draft
     The CBA allowed for an annual draft of college players into the League to be held between February 14 and May 2 -- on a date set by the Commissioner. Players were not eligible to enter the Draft until three NFL regular seasons had begun and ended following either: (1)the player's graduation from high school, or (2)the graduation of the class with which he had entered high school, whichever date was earlier. If a player was not eligible on the date of the Draft set by the Commissioner, but became eligible after that date, the Commissioner could choose to hold a Supplemental Draft. This Supplemental Draft had to occur on or before the seventh calendar day preceding the opening of the first Pre-Season Training Camp of the current League year. An eligible player was not allowed to elect to by-pass the regular Draft in order to participate in the Supplemental Draft. If a team selected a player in the Supplemental Draft, that team was required forfeit a selection in the same round of the next regular Draft.

     Several restrictions applied to both players and the teams. A player was not allowed to sign with a team if he was not eligible to participate in the Draft. If a team selected a player in the Draft, that team was considered to have automatically offered the player a one-year NFL Player Contract for the Minimum Active/Inactive List Salary. This does  not mean that the player could not negotiate a higher contract, it simply meant that his team was obligated to pay him a guaranteed minimum salary. The team was required to inform the player of that tender before or immediately after the Draft. The player was allowed sign that tender at any time up to and including the Tuesday following the tenth week of the regular season immediately following the Draft. If the player was released through waivers, he was to be treated as an undrafted rookie free agent with the right to sign a contract with any NFL team.

     Now it gets interesting. If a player had not signed a player contract with the team that drafted him during a period that stretched from the date of the Draft to thirty days prior to the first Sunday of the regular season, the drafting team was not allowed trade rights to the player, nor his contract, to another team during the player's initial year. Further, the player restricted to signing a contract with the drafting team up until the day of the draft in the following year. If the player had not signed a player contract by that following draft, he became eligible to reenter the draft and be drafted by any team other than the one that originally drafted him. If a player had not signed a contract by the Tuesday following the tenth week of the regular season, the player was not permitted to play football in the NFL for the remainder of the season, unless he was able to convince an independent arbitrator of extreme hardship.

     After the College Draft, the teams began holding Organized Team Activities and Mini-camps prior to the start of the Pre-Season Training Camp.

Organized Team Activities
     Loosely defined, an organized team activity (OTA) could have been any voluntary activity sponsored by the franchise for the players. In theory it could have ranged from organized training and practice sessions to classroom study sessions to a team-oriented recreational activity like taking the whole team to a movie. Realistically, the OTAs were intended to provide training, teaching and physical conditioning for the players on voluntary basis. Article XXXV of the CBA set some very specific limits on what a team could ask their players to do during this time.

1 The OTAs were strictly voluntary
2 Teams were allowed to hold no more than 14 days of organized team practice
3 Scheduled activities could no span more than 14 weeks, with no more than 4 activities per week
4 No team-sponsored workouts were permitted on the weekends
5 The teams and the NFLPA had to mutually agree upon a starting date for the OTAs; they were required to set that date prior to the conclusion of the previous season
6 Each team was required to provide both the League and the NFLPA a schedule of activities by a date agreed upon by the League and the NFLPA

     Something that I had never realized is that the players were paid per for their attendance at these voluntary activities according to the following scale: In 2006 -- $110/day, in 2007-08 -- $120/day, in 2009-10 -- $130/day, in 2011 (if uncapped) -- $130/day or 2011 (if capped) -- $140/day and 2012 -- $140/day. Further, players who were under contract or tender AND who had been allocated to NFL Europe would receive expenses for travel, board and lodging for any OTA they chose to attend.

     If a player were to be injured during an OTA, he would receive the same protections and guarantees as if he had been participating in the team's Pre-Season Training Camp, so long as the injury occurred at the club's facility while working under the direction of a club official.

     Two final restrictions were placed on the OTAs: (1)No club official was allowed indicated to a player that failure to participate in an OTA might result in the player not making the team. (2)Live contact drills (blocking/tackling/bumpng/etc) were strictly forbidden. Elbow pads, knee pads and helmets were allowed. 7-on-7 drills and 11-on-11 drills were permitted so long as there was no live contact. These drills could not exceed six hours in a day and no more than two hours in a day on a practice field.

     Players were allowed to voluntarily work out at club facilities outside of the fourteen days of OTAs and the scheduled Mini-camps, with the following restrictions:

1 Players were not allowed to be at the team's facility for more than 4 hours per day
2 Players were not allowed to be at the team's facility more than 4 days per week
3 Players were not allowed to be at the team's facility on the weekends
4 Players were not allowed to be on the practice field for more than 90 minutes per day
5 Teams were not allowed to require a player to be at the team's facility for more than 2 specific hours in a given day
6 The player was allowed to select the other two hours in which he wished to conduct his weight training and other workouts, so long as he did so during the normal hours of operation of the club's weight room

     Violations of these restrictions would result in the head coach being fined, with the League providing evidence to the NFLPA that the specified fine had been paid by the coach and no-one else and the funds donated to a qualified charitable organization. Investigation of accusations would be performed jointly by the League and the NFLPA. If the League and the NFLPA could not come to an agreement, the matter would be referred to an independent arbitrator. The arbitrator's findings would be final and binding.

     Finally, during this period of time, the The NFLPA would sponsor an NFL Players Rookie Premiere. This event was to take place in May, on a date submitted to the League by Feb 1 of each year. It would last no more than four consecutive days, including a Saturday and a Sunday.

     Mini-camps were activities that focused upon getting the team's rookie players acclimated to the NFL. They were designed to help the rookies be "brought up to NFL speed" while being evaluated by their new coaches. They also gave the rookies a head start on learning the playbook and schemes used by their new team. Veteran players used the Mini-camp experience to refresh their knowledge and skills while becoming acquainted with their new teammates -- be they rookies or veteran free agents. The various head coaches were allowed to set their own attendance requirements for Mini-camps. As with the OTAs, the Collective Bargaining Agreement (Article XXXVI) set some restrictions on the Mini-camps.

     First, a team was allowed a maximum of one Mini-camp for veteran players (unless the team had a new head coach, in which case the team was allowed to hold up to two additional, voluntary Mini-camps for veterans). Teams were allowed as many Mini-camps for rookies as they chose to hold.  

     Second, these Mini-camps could be no more than three days in length, plus one day for physical examinations. The Mini-camps were supposed to be scheduled on weekends, and were to not be in conflict with previously scheduled NFLPA meetings, nor the annual NFLPA convention.

     Third, players who attended Mini-camps were to receive meal allowances, travel expenses and per diem payments at the Pre-Season Training camp rates (see below for these rates). If a player was coming from out of town to attend the Mini-camp, the team was required to provide housing for him. Rookie players who had signed a contract with any team during the prior league year would receive a pro-rated portion of the weekly per diem.

     Fourth, as with the OTAs, no live contact was allowed. Helmets could be worn. Most Mini-camps were implemented with the players simply wearing shorts and jerseys.

Pre-Training Camp Period
     This was a rather interesting and often overlooked period of time in the life of the players and teams. This was a period defined as the ten days immediately prior to the mandatory veteran reporting date for the team's Pre-season Training Camp. This time had a some very specific restrictions placed on it, such as players were not permitted to participate in any organized football activity of any kind, nor any football activity with any coach -- voluntary or involuntary -- with some notable exceptions:

1 Quarterbacks
2 Players who had ended the previous season on the team's Injured Reserve, Physically Unable to Perform, or Non-football Injury/Illness list
3 Players who had failed a physical exam given by a team physician at any time after the last game of the previous season
4 Players who had sustained a football-related or non-football related injury or illness during the off-season
5 Players who had undergone surgery during the off-season

     During this time players were allowed to use the team facilities, subject to the league rules and the team's permission. Players were allowed to use the facilities to workout on their own on a voluntary basis but without the participation of any coach, trainer or other team personnel. Players were also allowed to voluntarily participate in organized player activities such as personal appearances and promotional activities.

Pre-season Training Camp
     This was the time with which most fans are familiar.  This was when the rookies and the veterans came together to become fully immersed in the process of becoming "a team" for the coming season. This was when the players learn the playbook and begin walking through drills designed to improve their individual and collective skills. Limited live contact drills were allowed during this time. Teams were not allowed to require veteran players to report for Training Camp any earlier than 15 days prior to the team's first scheduled Pre-season game, or July 15 -- whichever was later. Teams were allowed to ask quarterbacks, rookies and players who had been injured to report earlier.

     During Training Camp (TC), a rookie was defined as any player who had not completed one season in which a credited year of service had been earned. A veteran was any player who had completed one or more seasons in which a year of credited service had been earned. All players who had not established residence in the city of their team received room and board during the TC period --  a time span running from the reporting date to the Tuesday immediately prior to the team's first regular season game.

     Rookies received a weekly per diem according to the following scale: In 2006 -- $775/week, in 2007-08 -- $800/week, in 2009-10 -- $825/week, in 2011 (if uncapped) -- $825/week, in 2011 (if capped) -- $850/week, in 2012 -- $850/week.  Per diems were paid from the first day of TC to one week prior to the team's first regular season game.

     Veterans received a weekly per diem according to the following scale: In 2006-07 -- $1100/week, in 2008-10 -- $1225/week, in 2011 (if uncapped) -- $1225/week, in 2011 (if capped) -- $1375/week, in 2012 -- $1375/week. As with rookies, the per diem was paid from the first day of TC to one week prior to the team's first regular season game.

     During the period of Pre-season games, an additional $200/week was paid up to one week prior to the team's first regular season game. By agreement, the NFL would not schedule more than four Pre-season games (with the exception of the Hall of Fame game). Players were also to be reimbursed for any reasonable traveling expenses to reach training camp.

     Now, obviously, the 2011 off-season has looked and will continue to look very different. Free Agency -- if it happens at all -- will occur well after the Draft. OTAs and Mini-camps may very well not happen, or happen in a very condensed timeline. We could conceivable see a shortening of the Training Camp schedule and/or reduction in the number of Pre-season games held. We could even see regular season games lost. At this point, no-one knows. Hopefully the legal wrangling will be solved in a fairly quick manner so that we can see the teams begin signing free agents.

     After reading through the now-expired CBA, I can understand why some players were not happy with the restrictions placed on Free Agency and the Draft. By the same token, I can also understand how the teams were chaffing at some of the restrictions placed upon them. That all being said, I must admit that I'm not certain that I'm in favor of the unlimited freedoms the players seem to want but neither am I in favor of allowing the teams to set whatever rules they so desire. This is why I believe it is imperative that the players reform their union, owners rethink what they are willing to give up and both sides allow collective bargaining to go forward.