Brian Kersey/Getty Images
Brian Kersey/Getty Images

The Reduced Offseason

With strict limits on player activity between February and July, coaches have complained about the negative impact on the sport’s quality. It only makes sense, since the restrictions were put in place without input from those griping

By
Andrew Brandt
· More from Andrew·

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.

Let’s examine:

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.

On-field time with developing rookies like Logan Thomas is precious for Bruce Arians and other coaches. (Norm Hall/Getty Images)
On-field time with developing rookies like Logan Thomas is a scarce resource for Bruce Arians and other NFL coaches. (Norm Hall/Getty Images)

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.

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10 comments
LarryALocklear
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Bearsclone
Bearsclone

"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."


If coaches are putting younger players into those positions even though they claim that younger players will be less prepared for those positions due to the CBA, then either those coaches are not very smart (they're trying to fit a square peg in a round hole), or they're simply dealing with the same necessity that every other coach has to deal with (because of the salary structure).


Let's be honest.  The real issue is that coaches are by their nature control freaks.  They want to control every aspect of their team to the greatest extent possible because they're terrified that something will go wrong that they could have prevented, or that they'll miss an opportunity they could have prepared for.   This attitude, which is NORMAL for football coaches, is the very reason that players wanted stricter limits on practices and activities.


And if you think that veteran players are EVER going to agree on expanded practice time and acclimation for rookies and young players, think again.  The trend is already toward going younger, and you think veterans are going to support rules adjustments that make that easier for coaches and GMs?  Not unless they're stupid...

Dean9
Dean9

This makes no sense.  All the coaches have the same amount of time.  Therefore there is an even playing field for all.  The coaches need to adjust their game plans, coaching methods and player evaluations.  The fans don't see the quality suffer.   That's a ridiculous argument.  Some of the best games ever played were played by guys who needed off season jobs to make ends meet in the earlier days of the game.  These are guys that have been playing football for 10 years or more by the time they get to the NFL.  The coaches want more time to babysit their players who are risks and that's it.  The less time Dez Bryant has to get in trouble the better.   Instead coaches and GM's need to factor in risks more.  We just saw one of the best defenses in years play one of the best offenses ever.  Did anyone question the product then?  Maybe after the Broncos got demolished but before that people were watching Manning carve up defenses like a  surgeon and the Seahawks making defensive football exciting to watch.  The coaches need to relax and learn to use the time that they do have better.  Everyone has the same amount of time.  This may not prolong careers but it certainly lessons the chance of off season injury.

BillGregg
BillGregg

The suggestion that younger players be able to practice more during the off season than their veteran counterparts would only exacerbate the problem of shortening careers.  Now teams prefer younger players because they are cheaper.  Make them cheaper AND more available during the off season for coaching?  Very few NFL players would be in the league long enough to get a second contract.

JimBobv2
JimBobv2

The one part about the offseason limits that never really made sense was the lockdown where coaches can't even talk football to guys until a certain date.


I remember laughing at reports that shortly after Jay Gruden was hired in Washington that RGIII wanted to talk Xs and Os with him and couldn't. All they could do is get a cup of coffee together and talk about family and stuff, but not football.


I understand keeping players off the field, but is it really that bad to let coaches and players talk shop?


That's the part that I don't really get. Especially if the player wants to talk to a coach. And it really makes sense when it comes to a coaching change.


Maybe new coaches should get a window of like one week to present new information and hand out playbooks for self study and make it such that the players don't have to attend such meetings in person.


It's the 21st century with the internet and web based meetings and all.....

Ocean_State_Patriots_Fan
Ocean_State_Patriots_Fan


I fear that the quality of the NFL’s product—the game—may be suffering as a result of these new off-season workout limits.Perhaps it’s even the case, as I understand Patriots coach Bill Belichick to argue, that those limits may be contributing to the number of player injuries.(While I haven’t seen hard data to substantiate that claim, it nonetheless comports with common sense.)In this management-labor tug of war, some owners are pulling for unwise proposals like increasing the number of regular season games to 18, or expanding the field of playoff teams, to increase profit.Some see the players on the other end pulling to get paid more while doing less.Maybe the better approach to improving everyone’s bottom line is for both sides to instead pull in the same direction by improving the quality and safety of the game.One way to cross that goal line is to stay loyal to the age-old saying, “Practice makes perfect.”


stevesturm1
stevesturm1

Given that the NFLPA is comprised of existing players, why would they agree to allow younger players (i.e., those trying to take their jobs away) more time with coaches?  If there's ever a constant, it's that existing players look to protect themselves first, and only grudgingly give up anything to former players and those coming into the league.

Bearsclone
Bearsclone

@JimBobv2 "The one part about the offseason limits that never really made sense was the lockdown where coaches can't even talk football to guys until a certain date."


The problem is that coaches would turn that "ability" to talk to players into a requirement.  Don't return coach's phone calls in the off season?  Get moved down the depth chart or possibly cut (depends on how good you are, obviously).


Now if players are returning the coach's calls, what do you think he wants to talk to them about?  What they had for lunch?  No, he wants to talk football.  Have they been working out, have they been studying the playbook.  Before long you have a daily video conference going with every member of your offense running a de facto classroom.  And they'll do it at 6 AM just so they can try to keep the players from going out at night.


Why?  Because coaches can't help themselves.  They want to control everything they can to protect against the huge number of things they can't control.  If they think it will give them a slight edge during the season, they'll do it, and if they'll do everything they can to bully players into going along with any scheme no matter how hare brained it may be, because what's the cost to them?  It's the players' time they're taking.



Marima
Marima

@JimBobv2 You are correct in that it makes no sense at all that coaches can not even talk football with rookies or new free agent members of the team.  This would not add any wear and tear on the body and would reduce stress in that players could feel as if they were catching up sooner in the playbook and how to focus their offseason workouts.


Remember that this provision was put in by the veterans who were doing the negotiating.  It is in their best interests to NOT have rookies and incoming free agents getting up to speed quicker.  This provision helps the veterans hold onto their own roster spots because they already know what they're doing and have the advantage.

Young, ambitious, energetic, fresh-legged and eager rookies are kept in the dark on purpose - there is no other physical, mental or emotional reason for the coach-player block of even talking football in the offseason or watching film together if both parties are willing.  Vets wanted their time off.

Marima
Marima

@stevesturm1 Right.  Plus, first they screwed over the rookies by limiting how much money they could earn with their contracts and then made it more difficult for the later-drafted rookies to earn a roster spot at all.  With veteran leadership like that the rookies will be looking for their own representation at some point.

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