The most important thing to happen at the Patriots’ offseason practices last week was something that didn’t happen at all.
It wasn’t that Tom Brady began developing a rapport with a new stable of receivers. Or that rookie receiver Aaron Dobson made a couple of fantastic catches. Or that defensive backs Ras-I Dowling and Steve Gregory made impressive plays on the football.
No, it was this: In 90 minutes of football practice, no one suffered a serious injury. Fans and media like to obsess over which players perform well, and which don’t, in offseason workouts. And players and coaches like to say championships are won in the weight room and during organized team activities, the offseason practices that are done without pads and are strictly regulated through the collective bargaining agreement.
“It all starts now,” Patriots linebacker Rob Ninkovich said last week. “We have to come together.”
It’s a cute motivational ploy to keep players going during the dog days of spring. Realistically, though, the positives of OTAs have little impact during the regular season, but the negatives can have a lasting and crippling effect.
When the regular season rolls around in September, see if anyone remembers which defensive backs made the most interceptions in OTAs, or which receivers caught the most touchdown passes. The practices don’t replicate real football, with no pads or physical contact allowed. Offensive and defensive linemen barely break a sweat until they run sprints at the end of practice. Brady might develop a great relationship with Danny Amendola, but it sure is easy to throw with no pass rushers screaming in his face.
But we definitely remember the players who got hurt in May and can’t help their team in the fall. The 49ers lost star receiver Michael Crabtree to a torn Achilles’ tendon last week, which could knock him out for the entire season. Ravens star linebacker Terrell Suggs suffered the same injury last year, though a miraculous recovery had him back on the field in late October.
New Titans tight end Delanie Walker suffered a knee injury on Friday that required an MRI. And the Texans suffered a scare when star running back Arian Foster was carted off the field on Tuesday, though it was only a calf injury that will keep him out for the rest of the OTA season.
Jets fans, meanwhile, are already panicking about the season after quarterback MarkSanchez threw three interceptions during a practice last week. But if a player is talented and, more importantly, smart, then performance during OTAs means very little. Just ask Dolphins receiver Brian Hartline, who had all of one week to develop a rapport with rookie quarterback Ryan Tannehill before Week 1.
He missed the entire OTA schedule last year with a strained calf and emergency appendectomy, then missed four of five weeks of training camp because of the calf. How much did it affect him? Hartline set career highs in catches (74) and receiving yards (1,083) in 2012, including a 253-yard performance in Week 4.
“He’s kind of a coach killer in some ways because of what he was able to do,” Dolphins offensive coordinator Mike Sherman said last year. “I told him, ‘You’re going to screw everything up for us because everybody is going to miss minicamp, OTAs and preseason, and think they can play.’ ”
This isn’t to say OTAs are meaningless. The teams, obviously, would rather have their players work out under the eye of coaches and trainers rather than on their own. It helps ensure that the players stay in shape and out of trouble.
The OTAs are supposed to be voluntary, but that usually comes wrapped in quotation marks. Young players or those on the roster bubble who don’t attend the workouts have little chance of making the team.
And coaches want the veterans in attendance to set an example. Giants coach Tom Coughlin was asked Thursday if he was disappointed that star receiver Hakeem Nicks hasn’t attended the offseason workouts.
“Certainly I am,” he told reporters. “At one point Hakeem told me he was going to be here, and then he was not here.”
Young players and free agents also need OTAs to learn the playbook and get acclimated to the team’s way of doing business. The OTAs serve as a dry run for what to expect in training camp.
“You can really hammer home the offense so that when it comes to training camp, you’re not worried about details,” said Patriots tight end Jake Ballard, back at practice after missing all of last year with a torn ACL. “It’s more about performing, doing your job and not letting your team down, and impressing your coaches, because everyone out here is competing for jobs.”
And as Patriots linebacker Jerod Mayo explained, OTAs are a good time to work out the kinks.
“Just trying to get on the same page, applying what you’re learning in the classroom on the field,” he said. “We always look at problem plays that gave us problems throughout the season. We try to get them corrected now so it won’t be another problem this year.”
But for veterans who are secure in their roster spots — usually the star players — OTAs present little but an opportunity to get hurt and cut short their careers. As Patriots guard Logan Mankins said, with tongue firmly in cheek, “We all live to play football in May.”
THE JOURNEY CONTINUES
Herzlich sets his sights on Giants’ starting job
One player who certainly isn’t taking anything for granted during OTAs is Giants linebacker Mark Herzlich. It was almost exactly four years ago that doctors told the former Boston College star he’d never run again, let alone play football, after he was diagnosed with Ewing’s sarcoma in his leg, a rare form of bone cancer. And three years ago he went unpicked in the NFL draft because of the resulting damage to his leg.
Yet not only is Herzlich entering his third NFL season, he appears to be the front-runner to win the Giants’ starting middle linebacker job. Herzlich, who started four games in his first two seasons, has lined up as the starter ahead of former Panthers linebacker Dan Connor throughout the Giants’ first two weeks of OTAs.
“There’s been a lot of reflecting this offseason, from my time at BC and then doing chemo to where I am now,” Herzlich said Thursday by telephone. “In no way does running with the ones during four OTA practices make you the starter, but it’s definitely a good opportunity, and I’m just excited to be able to show the coaches and everybody what I can do.”
Herzlich, 25, is doing so much reflecting, in fact, that he’s writing a memoir, “about my story and my journey, my relationships through that time and returning to football,” he said. He just signed a deal with Penguin Publishing two weeks ago, and the book will likely be released in spring 2014.
Herzlich still spends a good amount of his free time calling cancer patients and trying to offer support and encouragement. He also will be hosting his annual charity golf tournament on July 2 at Pinehills Golf Club in Plymouth, with Bobby Orr, Tedy Bruschi, Matt Ryan, and other Boston stars likely in attendance (www.upliftingathletes.org for more information).
But Herzlich is still all about football right now, and badly wants a return trip to the Super Bowl after winning one his rookie year.
Report: Tebow’s time appears to be at an end
For those of us burned out on nonstop Tim Tebow coverage, some good news —
Tebow was released by the Jets over a month ago, and is not getting so much as a whiff of interest from NFL teams looking for a backup quarterback. ESPN The Magazine has an interesting profile of Tebow this week, and theorizes that Tebow may be done with the NFL for good because 1. he’s not a very good quarterback, and 2. last year’s media circus with the Jets turned off NFL coaches, who don’t like distractions.
Among the revelations in the piece:
■ Tebow, who is dyslexic and was home-schooled in high school, had trouble with the cognitive side of the game. When the Broncos’ defense was on the field, Tebow had to be told and retold the next series of plays several times on the sideline, and he was flagged for delay of game a league-high seven times in 2011. Tebow also rarely audibled because he struggled badly to read defenses.
■ Tebow was “fined repeatedly by the Broncos’ kangaroo court for refusing to publicly censure supporters who erected a pro-Tebow billboard early in the 2011 season.”
■ Jets teammates generally liked him, and still speak reverentially about the time Tebow beat an offensive lineman in a power-lifting contest.
■ Members of his camp say privately that Tebow’s NFL run is likely over.
The view from one reporter who covered Tebow at Florida, thinks he’s underrated as a quarterback, and respects the work he does off the field: Tebow’s brought this all on himself. He could have easily shut down the circus last year with the Jets, but he and his family have never been shy with the cameras.
And his reluctance to switch positions is now just plain stubbornness. Plenty of star quarterbacks switch positions once they get to the NFL — Anquan Boldin, Matt Jones, DenardRobinson, and Michael Robinson are just a few examples.
Difference of opinions on 2013 rookie class
Reason 1,493 that the NFL draft is so fascinating — the highly unscientific and subjective nature of NFL scouting.
The Cowboys released a series of photos from their war room with their draft board in the background, and with a little detective work, the website bloggingtheboys.com was able to reconstruct the Cowboys’ entire board.
And let’s just say that the Cowboys had very different feelings about the players the Patriots drafted. The Cowboys had second-round receiver Aaron Dobson rated as a fifth-round pick. They also had third-round cornerback Logan Ryan rated as a fifth-rounder. And they had third-round safety Duron Harmon off their board, for reasons unknown.
Update to last week’s column: Apparently the NFLPA is suspicious of Jay-Z’s entertainment company, Roc Nation, after all. The New York Post’s Page Six reported that the NFLPA sent a letter last week to the firm regarding the relationship between Jay-Z and Jets quarterback Geno Smith, who recently signed with Roc Nation’s Kim Miale as his new agent, and gave the firm until Friday to respond.
Jay-Z wasn’t supposed to have a hand in recruiting Smith to Roc Nation, per the NFLPA’s “runner rule,” and now the organization is likely to scrutinize the Smith/Jay-Z relationship closely.
If the NFLPA doesn’t like what it finds, Miale could be disciplined with a fine and/or suspension (though not Jay-Z), and Smith might have to find another agent.
The Patriots hired Brian Daboll to an undefined role last January, and still don’t list him as a member of the coaching staff on the team’s official website. But Daboll, who coached a variety of positions for the Patriots from 2000-06 before leaving for a promotion with the Jets, spent all of Wednesday’s OTAs working with the offensive linemen, taking a particular interest in the tackles when the group was split up into interior and outside linemen during individual drills.
Nice to see two NFL legends reconcile with their teams in the last week — Jim Brown with Cleveland, and Mike Ditka with Chicago.
New Browns owner Jimmy Haslam named Brown a “special adviser” who will advise young players and represent the organization at charity and corporate events. Brown, 77, was fired from a similar role in 2010 because of a rift with former boss Mike Holmgren, and skipped his own Ring of Honor ceremony that year.
Ditka, 73, has had a tepid relationship with the Bears since they fired him as coach after the 1992 season, but they will finally retire his No. 89 jersey at a halftime ceremony in December. Ditka was a five-time Pro Bowl tight end with the Bears in the 1960s and led them to the 1985 Super Bowl title as head coach.
Off-shore gambling website Bovada has the Patriots with the highest over/under win total for the 2013 season — 11.5, tied with the Broncos. The 49ers are next at 11, followed by Green Bay, Houston, and Seattle at 10.5 . . . In another way to entice people to come to the stadiums this fall, the NFL is planning to make its popular Red Zone Channel available on mobile devices to season ticket-holders in 2013, according to the Sports Business Journal. But this will only work if stadiums vastly improve their wireless infrastructure, as the Patriots did at Gillette Stadium last year . . . Add the Bills to the list of teams talking big about running a no-huddle, attacking style of offense under new coach Doug Marrone. “You’re putting a lot more yards under your feet and just getting ready for an offense that’s not going to stop,” offensive tackle Chris Hairston told the Buffalo News. “We’re going to try to put pressure on all the teams and dictate the tempo and pace. We’ve done that since we’ve gotten back here.” Of course, this is just typical offseason talk. The Dolphins also eschewed the traditional huddle and talked big about pushing the tempo last offseason, but finished 28th in the NFL in offensive snaps (61.3 per game). The Patriots were first in the NFL at 74.4 . . . Expect another lengthy and perhaps contentious contract negotiation between the Dolphins and their first-round pick, defensive end Dion Jordan, taken No. 3 overall. The new CBA is supposed to eliminate rookie holdouts, but Ryan Tannehill held out of the first few days of 2012 training camp as the sides battled over “offset language” — a clause that prevents a player from double-dipping on salary in case he is cut. Tannehill eventually caved, and was the only player taken in the top nine picks to have offset language in his contract, although the Dolphins rewarded him with a unique contract structure that pays him large option bonuses each March instead of tying up most of the money in base salary. NFL general managers want offset language to become commonplace in contracts, and the Dolphins are leading the charge on that front . . . Tweet of the week, from outspoken Cardinals defensive tackle Darnell Dockett: “By the way guns are legal in the state of Arizona. I have not broke the law! I have paper wirk [sic] for every gun including my hand grenade!” Phew. Good to know.Ben Volin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @BenVolin. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.