During the 2011 collective bargaining agreement negotiations, NFL players held firm in their desire for quality-of-life improvements to preserve their bodies and prolong their careers — fewer padded practices, more days off, and a shorter offseason program.
Privately, the owners were happy to give it to them — it helped show a deep concern for player safety at a time when the league was being sued by thousands of former players for shabby medical treatment in decades past.
The one group that wasn’t consulted, though, was the coaches, who sat on the sideline during the negotiations and had no say in shaping the rules of the league.
And there is a growing sense of frustration among coaches that they don’t have enough practices before the start of the regular season to get their players ready, and that the quality of play is suffering early in the regular season.
Jon Gruden had an interesting comment on the topic on Tuesday morning, following the Patriots’ 41-14 loss to the Chiefs.
“This new CBA has eliminated a lot of work,” Gruden said on ESPN Radio. “Talking to coach [Bill] Belichick the night before the game, they’re used to having 50-something practices before their first game. Now when you cut that in half, players are behind. They really don’t know what they have with some of these young players.”
The new CBA cut the offseason program by five weeks, reduced the number of offseason practices from 14 to 10, reduced the number of padded practices during the regular season to 14 (in 17 weeks), increased the number of offdays during training camp, and, most significantly, eliminated two-a-day practices from training camp.
Gruden said the Patriots “are looking at the first month of the season almost like a continuation of the preseason.” The fourth quarter of Monday night’s loss certainly looked that way. Jimmy Garoppolo replaced Tom Brady at quarterback, rookie running back James White got his first work of the season, other veterans such as Chandler Jones were removed from the game, and the offensive line was a constant rotation — Marcus Cannon played left and right tackle, Ryan Wendell played left and right guard, and six of the seven linemen (everyone but center Bryan Stork) shuffled in and out of the game.
Belichick didn’t comment on the practice restrictions this past week, but his feelings on the topic are no secret. He gave an expansive answer last December on the topic, saying the restrictions have led to worse preparation for the season and more injuries.
“I’m in favor of total preparation for the players for the season, and I think that’s been changed significantly and, I would say, not necessarily for the better, when you look at the injury numbers,” he said. “You have a gap between preparation and competition level. And I think that’s where you see a lot of injuries occurring. We get a lot of breakdowns. We get a lot of situations that players just aren’t as prepared as they were in previous years.”
Belichick is hardly the only coach frustrated by the new practice restrictions and using the first four games of the season as an extension of the preseason. Coaching and front office personnel from three different teams expressed similar sentiments.
“The more rookies that play, the harder it is,” said one assistant GM. “We’re still trying to figure out exactly what we have.”
“It’s very, very hard to get the rookies ready to play for Week 1 with the new rules,” said a special teams coordinator from another team. “I also think [the practice restrictions are] one of the reasons for the high number of injuries early in the season.”
Through four weeks of the season, 126 players have been placed on injured reserve, an average of 3.9 per team. It’s hard to compare data across seasons because players get released from IR all the time, but injuries have been trending upward for about a decade in the NFL. According to the Dallas Morning News, the NFL lost 1,600 games by starters to injury last year, an all-time high. The league set a record with 353 players on IR in 2010, the last season before the new practice restrictions, but IR numbers the last few years have been in the same ballpark.
Of course, there’s a simple comeback to the coaches’ complaints — suck it up. Two high-level executives from separate teams told us as much this past week when we addressed the topic with them. Yes, the new practice restrictions make it tougher for coaches to get their players ready to play. But all 32 teams have to operate under the same rules, and good coaches will still figure out how to win.
Realistically, though, the new CBA probably goes a little too far with the practice restrictions, and the players and owners should consider reopening the discussions, like they did with the drug policy.
Finding a common ground between preserving players’ bodies and giving coaches more practice time before the start of the season would benefit the level of play early in the season and potentially help players get in better shape to prevent injuries.
One defensive coach said he’s OK with the offseason practice restrictions — in addition to reducing the number of practices, full contact is not allowed — but wants more time in August to prepare his players.
Instead of eliminating two-a-days, the NFL and players should allow for one or two a week.
“You have to have them, just to prepare for the grind of the season and get your body ready,” the coach said. “Bottom line, we just need more practice time.”
Gruden mentioned for Raiders’ vacancy
Proving that the NFL’s coaching carousel never stops spinning, we couldn’t even make it to October before Jon Gruden’s name came up in regard to a vacancy.
When Raiders owner Mark Davis sat at a news conference Tuesday to announce his team’s eighth head coach since Gruden was “traded” to Tampa Bay before the 2002 season, he wouldn’t rule out having interest in bringing Gruden back into the fold. For now, the coach is Tony Sparano, the former Dolphins coach.
“I don’t know,” Davis said of Gruden. “He may reach out to me, I may reach out to him. I may reach out to anybody. I’m not going to talk about future coaches.”
That said, the way we hear it, the Raiders will have a tough time luring Gruden back to Oakland. Davis appears intent on keeping general manager Reggie McKenzie and letting him pick the next coach, which could affect whether Gruden wants to return (the Los Angeles Times reported that Gruden would be interested in bringing former Raiders quarterback Rich Gannon with him to run the personnel side).
And Gruden, the “Monday Night Football” analyst, has turned down numerous job offers since he last coached in 2008, and people close to him tell us that Gruden wants to wait and see which jobs become available at the end of the year before deciding on whether to return to coaching or stay in the booth. Unless Davis gives Gruden the keys to the entire operation, he’ll likely have better options.
If McKenzie does remain at GM, the Raiders will have a hard time attracting a top-notch candidate and might be better off keeping Sparano, who has four seasons of head coaching experience.
In other coaching news, don’t expect the Patriots to have a reunion with former offensive coordinator Charlie Weis any time soon. The Patriots’ offense certainly is struggling, and Weis is available after being fired as head coach at Kansas two weeks ago. But people close to Weis tell us he hasn’t had any contact with the Patriots about returning as an offensive consultant, like Josh McDaniels did for the 2012 playoff run.
It sounds as if Weis is content to sit out the rest of this season and then hope to get a job as an offensive coordinator next season.
Shift in draft site among developments
One common theme of recent columns has been the amount of change coming to or being implemented by the NFL both on and off the field, and we learned of more last week.
On Thursday, the NFL announced that the 2015 draft will be held in Chicago on April 30-May 2, beating out Los Angeles to host the first draft outside of New York since 1964.
The NFL Draft was held in Chicago in 1938, 1942-44, 1951, and 1962-64, and in New York every year from 1965-2013, but the NFL now wants to make it a sort of traveling road show, allowing other communities to host the league’s signature offseason event.
The way we consume the draft will also be changing, too. Patriots president Jonathan Kraft, speaking Thursday at a Bloomberg Business of Sports luncheon in Boston, said the NFL will “experiment with different ways of making the second, and especially the third day, much more interesting and engaging,” but he declined to provide details because the plans haven’t been finalized.
Kraft also made it sound as if the scouting combine, held in late February each year, will be presented more as a reality TV show in the future, with the league focusing as much on off-field personalities as workout results. The league will also ramp up its free agency coverage.
“You’ll see the combine start to be a place where more data comes out and you learn more about the players,” Kraft said. “A hundred fifty of them are going to become big personalities in the league the following year. Is there a way that we can introduce these young men to the American public in more than just a guy with his shirt off being measured and taped and running a 40-yard dash?”
Kraft also talked about the NFL’s new eight-year deal with DirecTV worth $1.5 billion annually — a 50 percent increase from the last deal — to continue the Sunday Ticket package, saying it made sense for the NFL to “leave it on traditional satellite rather than start to experiment with new technologies.”
And Kraft gave updates on the NFL’s desire to get teams in the Los Angeles and London markets.
Kraft said he thinks a team in LA “will happen before London,” and that “the options on the stadium side have never been more real and never been more close.”
Referees officially defend themselves
Interesting to see the NFL Referees Association stand up and defend itself last week against the NFL for two instances in which the league stated that game officials had made a wrong call.
Two weeks ago, NFL vice president of football operations Troy Vincent said that Chris Baker’s blindside hit on Nick Foles was clean and should not have drawn a 15-yard penalty. And last week, the NFL said officials incorrectly flagged Chiefs defensive back Husain Abdullah for going to the ground in celebration because the league has exemptions for religious displays.
“In the last two weeks, two penalties that were called in games that drew national attention were publicly announced to be in error by the league office, however the officiating department later graded the calls as correct. This has caused confusion for NFL officials as to what the league does and doesn’t want called,” the Referees Association said in a statement.
As for Abdullah, “The player was flagged, correctly, for the slide on his knees in the end zone, not for going to the ground in a prayerful gesture,” Referees Association president Scott Green said.
Honesty is his policy
Credit Packers president Mark Murphy for being nothing if not honest last week when asked about the Redskins name controversy at a Marquette University law school event. Murphy, the top-ranking Packers executive who also happened to play safety for the Redskins for eight years, acknowledged that the issue has been discussed at the league level.
“We’ve had some discussions at owners’ meetings. Dan [Snyder, the Redskins’ owner] has made presentations,” Murphy said. “Quite honestly, I think with all the issues we’re facing, with domestic violence and concussions, it’s probably not at the top of the list.”
And what would put it at the top of the list?
“I think when it gets to the point where it’s costing the team — the Redskins and the league — money, then I think you’ll start to see some real serious discussion about it.”
Like we said, at least he was honest.
In the desert, Kelly is still hot
The Patriots have been getting criticized from all angles, and some more heat came from the desert, where Cardinals defensive tackle Tommy Kelly is still upset at the Patriots for not giving him a fair chance, in his opinion, to make the roster.
Kelly, who took a pay cut a few months before he was cut, had an explosive quote against Patriots management appear on the Cardinals’ website, of all places.
“I couldn’t take busting my tail every day getting to a game, and them taking me out of the game for someone who I know isn’t better than me, because he’s a cheaper option,” Kelly said. “Are we worried about money here? Or are we worried about winning?”
Kelly has been a good find for the Cardinals, filling in for injured Darnell Dockett.
Giants tight end Larry Donnell was kicking himself for having a career game last week against the Redskins. Donnell, a former practice squad player, plays fantasy football like the rest of us. And while he caught seven passes for 54 yards and three touchdowns, he lost his fantasy matchup because he started Vernon Davis at tight end instead of himself. “Would’ve won if I played me,” Donnell told the Bergen County Record . . . Not a coincidence to see Darrelle Revis elected one of the Patriots’ alternate union representatives. Revis’s uncle, Sean Gilbert, is challenging DeMaurice Smith for the NFLPA executive director job. Matthew Slater was again elected player rep and technically has the team’s only vote in March, and you can bet Revis will be in his ear . . . The Joe Andruzzi Foundation announced that it will hold a Gratitude Gala at Gillette Stadium on Nov. 24, with a silent auction and meet-and-greet with several Patriots and other celebrities to raise money for the foundation, which provides financial assistance to families with cancer patients. For information on tickets and sponsorships visit JoeAndruzziFoundation.org.
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.