The Reduced Offseason
We now have a new tradition during the long NFL offseason: coaches griping about limits on players’ offseason availability and activity due to the restricting nature of the CBA. Now three years into the new deal, coaches are still fuming about the detrimental impact it is having on young players and football as an overall product.
While I empathize with their frustrations, the complaints remind me of the continued carping by players about commissioner Roger Goodell being “judge, jury and executioner” regarding player conduct. The time for outrage is not now; it was three years ago when it was being negotiated into a binding 10-year agreement. Unlike the players, however, the coaches were not part of those CBA negotiations.
NFLPA doesn't trust coaches
Having covered the 2011 NFL lockout more than any (sane) person should have, I witnessed the bargaining priorities and objectives of each side. The owners’ highest priority never wavered: increasing profit by lowering player costs. The players’ priorities shifted, but player safety—including increased time away from the team in the offseason—was paramount. The resulting limits, as I commented at the time, would make future NFL offseasons look more like the locked-out offseason.
Although NFLPA head DeMaurice Smith has a different leadership style than his predecessor, the late Gene Upshaw, they are in lockstep on the offseason. When I used to visit with Upshaw during his annual trip to the Packers, he would muse on how coaches took advantage of players in the offseason. He would shake his head and say, “These coaches sit around all offseason with nothing to do. When they see players, they can’t help themselves—they want to do drills.”
During Upshaw’s reign, several teams were docked days, even weeks of offseason activities due to overzealous coaching and physical contact. Now Smith and his top advisors carry the same mentality toward coaches in negotiating collectively bargained limits: simply, they don’t trust them.
As one owner said after the CBA was finalized: “The lawyers told me if we agreed to reduced practice time and full pads we could get the numbers we wanted. I said, ‘Where do I sign?’ ”
Smith and his veteran player leadership were steadfast in limiting offseason time. Their rationale was 1) to allow more time to refresh and recharge from the consuming grind of the season, 2) to give players time to return to school to pursue undergraduate or advanced degrees, and 3) to prolong and add longevity to playing careers.
Although it’s still too early to judge whether these objectives are working, my sense is that increased longevity is not happening. More franchises have adopted “draft and develop” team building, opting for younger (and cheaper) players in roles previously occupied by older veterans. Management and coaches are increasingly playing and trusting younger players, reduced offseason or not. The fact that veteran players are experiencing less wear and tear in the offseason is certainly a positive for their long-term health, but probably not for extending their playing careers.
Coaches are odd men out
When it comes to player-management relations, coaches are a conflicted group. In one sense, they need the respect and trust of players. However, in the labor-management equation, they are on the side of owners. As NFLPA leaders have made clear to players: coaches may be your bosses, but they are not your friends. And the coaches’ current complaints are like the ones that players have about the commissioner overseeing conduct issues: they want to change the working conditions that their side agreed to do in 2011.
And what about those working conditions of the CBA? Well, coaches were not consulted.
CBA bargaining took place between the owners and players (and lawyers); there was not a coach to be found amidst the sea of negotiators. While both sides haggled over revenue splits, rookie pay reductions and player safety issues, coaches sat in their offices watching and waiting for a result they now abhor. I doubt there was ever a time in two years of negotiations where anyone stood up and said, Wait a minute. The coaches need more time in the offseason with these players to develop them and prepare for the season.
And with the union making extended time away during the offseason a priority, the owners found it made for good business to oblige. With swirling negative publicity about concussions and lawsuits forming, it was practical for the owners to restrict contact as much as possible. More importantly, it allowed them to achieve the financial deal they desired. As one owner told me soon after the CBA was finalized: “The lawyers told me if we agreed to reduced practice time and full pads we could get the numbers we wanted. I said, ‘Where do I sign?’ ”
Compromise not likely
As we keep moving forward into this 10-year CBA, there is always the possibility of adjustments to the offseason program. A logical compromise would be to 1) continue imposing strict limits on offseason time for veteran players—those with three or more years of experience—yet 2) loosen restrictions for time allowed in the facility and on the field for younger players still developing. This would continue to give older players added rest while allowing younger players more opportunities for coaching and improvement. All players are not equal in terms of their need for offseason reps, and the rules should tolerate for such disparities.
However, as readers of this space know, when it comes to NFL-NFLPA relations, nothing is easy. We have a labor agreement, but we do not have labor peace. This sensible compromise likely would be drawn out, combative, petulant and futile.
The bottom line on this issue is that, as it happens more than people ever know, the business of football has been served at the expense of the game of football. The product on the field was secondary when it came to resolving a negotiation about economic and player safety issues. And the grumbling NFL coaches—the stewards of the product of NFL football—never had a voice in the discussion.