After a year of surprising harmony and cohesion, the NFL and NFL Players Association are back to their bickering ways.
This time the fight is over offseason workouts. The NFLPA wants the entire nine-week program to be held virtually, like last year. The NFL wants to hold five weeks virtually and the last four weeks in person — three weeks of voluntary workouts and one week of mandatory minicamp. All of those practices are non-contact and pad-less.
As of Friday, about half the teams in the league, including the Patriots, announced through the NFLPA that they are going to exercise their right to skip the voluntary workouts. The NFL answered by setting the offseason schedule anyway, citing the powers of the collective bargaining agreement.
As usual, there’s more going on below the surface. Let’s answer a few questions about what’s really going on:
What’s the big issue? NFLPA president JC Tretter cites three main reasons for wanting an all-virtual offseason: COVID-19 concerns, injury concerns, and the fact that it worked well last year. The product last fall certainly wasn’t affected by the cancellation of spring workouts, and Tretter said the game was also safer.
The NFL, meanwhile, wants players in the building, at least for four weeks. As one league source put it, the players are preparing for the season anyway, so why shouldn’t it be with their teams and coaches? This four-week orientation would make the start of training camp more seamless, too.
The workouts are voluntary, right? Completely voluntary as always, save for the three-day minicamp in mid-June. But for the first eight weeks of the offseason, players are free to attend or skip as many virtual or in-person workouts as they choose. Teams are not allowed to punish players who don’t attend, though of course coaches are always keeping track of attendance.
For the first five virtual weeks, all a player has to do is log on to Zoom for a certain portion of the day, and he will get credit for attendance. Only for the last four weeks does a player have to show up to get credit.
Are the players really going to skip? Some will, especially among proven veterans. But you can bet many rookies and most fringe veterans will attend. For many players, it’s more important to keep their coaches happy than their union. This past week I asked Patriots special teamer Brandon King, ‘Who do you listen to, the team or the NFLPA?’ He said, “If Bill [Belichick] tells me to report, then I’m reporting.”
There are also players who have workout bonuses at stake, needing to attend 27 of 32 sessions in order to collect. Cam Newton and King each have workout bonuses of $100,000. Both are in town and ready to work.
The in-person workouts don’t start until May 24, so the threats right now are mostly performative.
Is there risk for players? Definitely. Any borderline veteran who isn’t participating runs the risk of getting outperformed by someone else.
The players are also assuming a huge financial risk if they decide to work out away from the team. If a player gets hurt at a team facility, the team still has to pay him his full salary (or injury split). But if a player gets hurt away from the facility — working out on his own, playing basketball, slipping on a banana peel, etc. — the team can put the player on the non-football injury list, void his guarantees, and withhold as much as 100 percent of his salary.
Are there other financial considerations? If a player doesn’t have a workout bonus in his contract, he makes $275 each day he attends, for a maximum of $8,800 for the 32 workouts. That’s money that they find in their couch cushions, which is probably why established veterans don’t mind skipping these workouts.
Only eight out of 80 Patriots have workout bonuses, and Newton was the only one of 20 new free agents who got one in his contract.
What about minicamp? Players can skip if they want, but it will cost them. Per the CBA, players who skip get fined $15,515 for the first day, $31,030 for the second, and $46,540 for the third for a total of $93,085.
COVID-19 concerns? It’s hard to see what concerns the NFLPA has about COVID-19. With daily testing, strict access to team facilities, strict group limits in the weight rooms, and required masks and social distancing, the NFL’s positivity rate was well below the national rate in 2020, and team facilities proved to be among the safest places in the community. A player is far more susceptible to catch COVID-19 while working out at a public gym or in a public space than he is at an NFL facility. Plus, the NFL is giving every player access to a vaccine at his team facility.
In fact, per a league source, a dozen teams have had at least 15 players working out or rehabbing at their facility throughout the offseason, led by the Cowboys with 25. The Patriots have had 14 such players. Even Tretter has been at the Browns facility.
Weight rooms are open during the virtual learning period, with players required to wear masks, and no more than 10 in the room at a time.
Is there something more going on? Two accusations are that this is about the veterans who lead the NFLPA wanting to work out at home on their own time; and not wanting younger players to get reps in the offseason so they can develop and take veteran jobs. The union denies both.
What’s the likely result? The players may have a point about offseason workouts not being necessary, particularly for veterans, but this doesn’t look like a winning fight. The CBA allows the NFL to set the offseason schedule, and too many players are going to show up to workouts to make the absences effective.
DRIVE IS ALIVE
League pushing getting vaccinated
The NFL will continue its vaccination drive this spring. The league’s stadiums will continue to serve as vaccination sites, the teams have been releasing public service announcements and other educational tools to encourage vaccination, and getting the vaccine will be required for football employees, and highly incentivized for players.
“It’s not about me, it’s about everybody around you,” said Patriots cornerback Stephon Gilmore, who said he got his first vaccination shot. “It protects all of us from everyone getting it. That’s what it’s about.”
The NFL will not require players to get a vaccine. But those who do get one will likely not require daily COVID-19 testing, nor adhere to strict social distancing rules, and won’t have to be quarantined if they come in close contact with the virus.
Considering that being a close contact takes someone off the field for at least five days, and COVID-19 can sideline someone for two weeks or more, players who aren’t vaccinated will be at a significant disadvantage. To make it easier to get a vaccine, the NFL is requiring that teams make their stadium vaccination sites available to all players and their families.
Football employees, though, will be required to get their shots, as outlined in a league memo this past week. Anyone who wants Tier 1 or 2 access to the team — coaches, trainers, staffers, etc. — has to get vaccinated. The NFL will allow narrow exceptions for medical and religious reasons.
And it is unclear whether teams will require fans to be vaccinated in order to attend games. In Buffalo, local leaders are attempting to require vaccination to attend Bills and Sabres games, with no religious exceptions.
“There is no God-given right to attend a football game,” Erie County (N.Y.) executive Mark Poloncarz said.
But New York’s governor, Andrew Cuomo, questioned whether Poloncarz “has the authority” to make that decision.
Interest may be tough to recognize
The Patriots have sent their top scouts all over the country in recent weeks to take closer looks at the quarterback prospects in this year’s draft — Trevor Lawrence, Zach Wilson, Justin Fields, Trey Lance, Mac Jones, and several others.
With the NFL Combine canceled and teams not allowed to bring prospects in for visits, these Pro Day workouts are the only chances teams get to see the quarterbacks throw in person. Unfortunately for the teams, they are not allowed to speak with the players before, during, or after these workouts — only watch.
But I wouldn’t put too much stock into which quarterbacks the Patriots are scouting heavily and which they aren’t. This past week, I spoke with Syracuse coach Dino Babers, who previously was Jimmy Garoppolo’s coach at Eastern Illinois, and Babers had no idea that the Patriots were hot on Garoppolo’s trail in 2014.
“They came to one practice — one guy came — he stayed for half the practice, he waved at me when he was leaving, and I never heard from him again,” Babers said. “I guess he saw what he needed to see in the first half of practice. I’m sure they did a lot more, because obviously they got it right.”
Garoppolo was subsequently one of the Patriots’ 30 in-house visitors before the draft, where Josh McDaniels spent hours with him on film work.
Babers knew a special player
Dino Babers has another strong connection to the Patriots. He was UCLA’s special teams coach in the mid-2000s when a young receiver named Matthew Slater played for him. Babers said he and Slater recently caught up for the first time since 2008, when Slater got drafted.
Slater is entering his 14th NFL season, all with the Patriots, and his blue UCLA jersey still hangs in Babers’s office.
“The criteria for this wall is guys that I’ve coached that are still in the NFL,” Babers said. “So there’s some really good names that are up and down and gone, but Slater’s ’18′ is framed in my office. It’ll never get moved.”
But Babers wasn’t always a favorite in the Slater household. Slater played mostly special teams at UCLA, and Babers remembers Slater’s father, Hall of Fame offensive tackle Jackie Slater, being none too pleased that his son wasn’t getting reps on offense.
“I can still remember when his dad came into my office and was just giving me the business,” Babers said with a laugh. “When he walks in the door it’s ‘Mr. Slater.’ That’s a big dude. I was like, ‘Don’t be mad at me, Mr. Slater. Believe me when I say this, your son is going to play in the NFL. He’s going to play longer than Maurice Jones-Drew and all these guys that are going to go to the NFL.’
“And he says, ‘Coach, you have no proof of that.’ I said, ‘I have faith. I’m telling you, he’s going to play forever as a special teams guy.’ I’d love to see his face based off everything that has happened and what was going on in my little office.”
Checking in with the Patriots
▪ Via ESPN, third-year pro Chase Winovich, listed at 6-foot-3 and 250 pounds, recently told Patriots season ticket-holders that Rob Ninkovich convinced him to put on 10-15 pounds this offseason. Ninkovich, appearing this past week at the opening of Karma, an Asian fusion restaurant at the Burlington Mall, expounded on what he told Winovich.
“I played at 265. When you start to get down in the 240-250 range, those [offensive tackles] have the advantage,” Ninkovich said. “If you’re not stout or heavy enough, it doesn’t matter if you’re the fastest guy, you’re going to get moved out of the way. The game is both speed and power. When you’re in first down and second down, that’s when they can check into a run. You’ve got to be able to set the edge.”
▪ The Patriots did Julian Edelman a solid by releasing him with a “failed physical” designation this past week instead of simply putting him on the retirement list. Edelman is now eligible to collect $2 million in injury protection for 2021, as a nice parting gift. The Patriots will have to account for $1.2 million of it on the salary cap, in addition to $2.67 million in dead cap money.
Important to note: Nothing precludes Edelman from signing with the Buccaneers or another team this fall. He would lose the $2 million benefit from the Patriots but would get paid by his new team.
▪ Just an awesome story shared by former Patriots executive Scott Pioli this past week on NFL Network’s “Good Morning Football.” In the 2001 draft, the Patriots badly wanted offensive tackle Matt Light with the 50th pick, and Pioli called Light when it was a few picks away. Light said he was on the other line with the Jets, who were going to pick him at 49. So the Patriots called Lions GM Matt Millen, who picked at 48, and gave the Lions pick 173 in the sixth round for the ability to swap picks 48 and 50. The Patriots drafted Light, the Jets ended up with running back LaMont Jordan, and the Lions got 14-year NFL center Dominic Raiola.
“Had the Jets maybe told Matt Light not to say anything about who he was on the phone with, we wouldn’t have made that trade to get up, because we didn’t know that was their guy,” Pioli said. “So you’ve got to keep things on the down-low.”
If anything, the discussion around Edelman’s Hall of Fame candidacy this past week underscored that former Steelers receiver Hines Ward is even more deserving of enshrinement. A two-time champion, Super Bowl MVP, four-time Pro Bowler, three-time All-Pro with 1,000 career catches is the epitome of a Hall of Famer … The NFL has come a long way since 2015, when it banned Tony Romo from holding a fantasy football convention at a casino hotel in Las Vegas. Thursday, the NFL announced its first-ever US sportsbook partnerships with Caesars Entertainment, DraftKings, and FanDuel … I’m sure the Jaguars loved reading in Sports Illustrated this past week that Trevor Lawrence is “not award-driven. He’s not, ‘I want to win a Super Bowl at all costs,’ ” according to Lawrence’s father. And per Lawrence’s high school coach, “With who he is as a person, he could walk away from it tomorrow and be fine.” … Congrats to former Bills and Chiefs coach Marv Levy, who this past week joined Bud Grant and Warren Moon as the only people enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame and the Canadian Football Hall of Fame. Levy won Grey Cups with the Montreal Alouettes in 1974 and ’77 … It is a travesty that Andy Reid’s son, Britt Reid, only faces one to seven years in prison for felony DWI, while the 5-year-old girl he hit with his car has brain damage, can’t walk or talk, and is eating out of a tube.
Ben Volin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.