NFL teams are in the heart of the offseason program, with two weeks of full-team practices in the books and two more to go before summer vacation.
The question is, are the players and teams actually accomplishing anything?
This is the fifth offseason since the new collective bargaining agreement was signed in 2011, and the very specific rules governing offseason workouts are well-known by now.
The offseason program was reduced from 14 weeks to nine, and the number of organized team activities from 14 to 10. Pads are not allowed to be worn for any of the nine-week program.
The first two weeks are for strength and conditioning only, with coaches barred from the proceedings. Over the next three weeks, coaches can be on the field and players can do individual drills, but no one-on-one, no offense vs. defense, and no helmets allowed.
Over the final four weeks, teams can do one-on-one, seven-on-seven, and 11-on-11 drills, but again, no pads or contact.
The NFL Players Association fought hard for the offseason workout restrictions to keep players healthy and protect them from their overzealous coaches. But the restrictions have gone too far, making it difficult for veterans to adjust to a new team, for youngsters trying to develop, and for rookies transitioning to professional life.
“There’s all sorts of weird rules now,” Bills 11-year guard Richie Incognito told me last week. “The coaches can’t contact you all offseason. You go from a college program where it’s so structured and you have academic advisers, strength coaches, position coaches, so much structure, then you get to the NFL and it’s like, ‘Here’s everything we need you to do, do it on your own.’ ”
Incognito came into the NFL in 2005 under the old offseason guidelines. He believes that the new rules and restrictions are good for veteran players “who know how to conduct their business,” but make it tough for players to truly develop their skills in the offseason, particularly for offensive and defensive linemen.
“You really can’t work on a whole lot without the pads on,” Incognito said. “It’s about going through your checklist and details and learning the playbook all over again. It’s kind of like baby steps.”
About 50 percent of the league is made up of players 25 and younger, and the offseason rules make it difficult for them to get the coaching and development they need. The new rules also state that players can only be at the team facility for four hours per day on non-OTA days.
“I’m not even allowed to go and throw with a receiver because we can’t have a ball out there outside of the four hours,” McLeod Bethel-Thompson, a journeyman quarterback who has been signed and cut nine times in six years, told me a few weeks ago. “In Phase 1 and 2, a punter can’t even receive a snap from a long snapper, so it’s like, why are we in the building? And the people it’s hurting are the developmental players that need the work. We’re here for nine weeks, and for five of those we can’t actually play football.”
The lack of instructional time is becoming a detriment and could help explain why so many recent draft classes have underwhelmed. Quarterbacks and receivers don’t have much time to develop timing, while offensive and defensive linemen can’t practice the physical aspects of blocking and pass rushing. And not only has practice time been cut back significantly, but there hasn’t been a worthwhile developmental football league since NFL Europe was shuttered in 2007.
“Look at some of the quarterbacks that came out of NFL Europe — Kurt Warner, Jake Delhomme, Marc Bulger,” Bethel-Thompson said. “You’re seeing the game hurt from it because you don’t have that time to develop a player. You don’t have time to build a team, for that matter, and I think it’s hurting the quality of the game.”
Incognito said one of the biggest differences now is that to succeed in the offseason, players need to arrive in April already in shape and ready to go. Incognito trained in Arizona for eight weeks before reporting to Buffalo.
“Under the old CBA, you’re in the weight room a good two months before you had to get out on the field,” he said. “Now it’s basically one month in the weight room, one month in the field. Then the windows in the weight room get smaller, and the next thing you know you’re on the field practicing.
“I think it’s great for guys who ‘get it,’ who get being in shape before you show up and have played in the same system for a few years. I think it’s tough on the rookies and the guys in their second and third years, who maybe bounce around a little bit trying to make a team.”
The system will remain the same until the spring of 2021, when it will be time to negotiate a new CBA. Incognito said he likes the rules preventing full contact, but believes that the offseason program should be longer, and that players should be allowed inside their facilities for more than four hours per day.
“I’d like a few more weeks on the front end just to get guys conditioning and in the weight room, and maybe add an hour onto the day,” he said. “Especially being up here in Buffalo, I have nothing else to do except football. Might as well get an extra hour in so we’re not rushing around and you’re not lost in a fog.”
NO NEED TO RUSH
Cashing in on Deflategate
Deflategate has dragged Tom Brady’s name through the mud and further damaged Roger Goodell’s reputation. The only true winners have been the lawyers, who have racked up plenty of billable hours for both sides.
According to The American Lawyer, the NFL Players Association revealed recently in federal tax filings that last year it spent nearly 33 percent more than the previous year on Washington law firm Winston & Strawn, its primary outside counsel led by attorney Jeffrey Kessler. The NFLPA paid the firm $4.5 million between March 1, 2015, and Feb. 29, 2016, up from $3.5 million last year and about $2.7 million in 2013-14. Kessler and his firm were kept plenty busy by Deflategate, as well as litigation over Greg Hardy and Adrian Peterson.
For the second year in a row, the NFLPA spent a total of about $6 million on outside legal fees. Also revealed in last week’s federal tax filings was that the union paid executive director DeMaurice Smith a $2.7 million salary (up from $2.5 million), while managing director Ira Fishman received $780,540, top in-house counsel Tom DePaso collected $711,102, and the seven other in-house attorneys combined to make about $1.5 million.
The report of the $4.5 million fee to Winston & Strawn prompted an interesting response from former Titans and Ravens receiver Derrick Mason on Twitter.
Mason is not the first current or former player to wonder whether the NFLPA is spending too much on its lawyer friends (Smith is a former litigation partner for Washington firm Patton Boggs), or if union leadership is only fighting Deflategate so vigorously because they want to protect a star quarterback.
The counterargument is that the NFLPA wouldn’t have to spend so much in legal fees if the NFL owners and league office didn’t continually try to bully the union and violate the collective bargaining agreement. It’s not the union’s fault that Goodell tried to make up his own rules to keep Peterson and Ray Rice away from the field. And it was the NFL that first ran to federal court to file a lawsuit over Deflategate, and the NFL that kept the fight going by appealing Judge Richard Berman’s decision.
“You should be proud that your union can go toe to toe with these billionaires over any/every issue,” NFLPA chief spokesman George Atallah responded to Mason.
Different plans by unhappy QBs
At least three quarterbacks other than the Eagles’ Sam Bradford are upset with their current situations, but each is handling his in a distinctly different manner.
The impasse between the Jets and free agent Ryan Fitzpatrick has gotten downright nasty, with both sides resorting to squabbling through the media (without anyone putting their names to it, of course).
First we heard that the Jets offered Fitzpatrick a three-year deal with $12 million in the first year (that one is coming from the Jets). Then we heard that it was only a three-year, $24 million deal (that one’s coming from Fitzpatrick’s side, led by agent Jimmy Sexton). Now we’re hearing conflicting reports about whether Fitzpatrick would accept a one-year, $12 million deal, or whether the Jets would even offer that much.
The sides need each other — Fitzpatrick won’t find another team that will pay him as much as the Jets, and the Jets won’t be able to find a better quarterback option for this fall. So eventually they will come together and strike a deal. But it is shocking that it has taken this long and has taken such a negative turn.
In Los Angeles, veteran quarterback Nick Foles is none too pleased about being third on the depth chart behind No. 1 pick Jared Goff and Case Keenum, and is quietly skipping the Rams’ voluntary offseason practices until his situation is resolved, likely with a trade or release.
Rams coach Jeff Fisher didn’t seem to mind too much when asked about Foles’s absence last week.
“I think Nick has the feeling that if things stay the same he’s probably not going to be on the roster,” Fisher said. “But beyond that it was more of a mutual thing. Not that we said, ‘Don’t come.’ It was just, ‘Hey Coach, I’d just rather, I’d just rather stay away until we get things worked out.’ And I said I’m fine with that.”
And Colin Kaepernick tried to force his way out of San Francisco before the draft, but has been a good soldier this spring. Kaepernick is still recovering from shoulder surgery, but has attended every voluntary practice since the 49ers’ offseason program began April 4, and hasn’t said a peep.
Of course, Kaepernick has a nice incentive for attending workouts — a $400,000 bonus for 90 percent attendance.
Hurdles remain in Las Vegas
The American Gaming Association is undergoing a big public relations campaign to help bring the Raiders to Las Vegas, and highlighted a recent article by The MMQB revealing that owner attitudes about Vegas have “evolved,” as Roger Goodell recently put it. No longer are NFL owners against putting a team in the gambling capital of the country as a matter of principle.
“I think the stigma about Las Vegas is much different today than where it was in the past,” 49ers owner Jed York said.
No question. But as we noted last week, the gambling aspect is only one of a dozen or more issues facing the prospect of the Raiders playing in Las Vegas. The size of the market, the season-ticket base, and the stadium plan are still major hurdles, not to mention the cost of leaving the massively wealthy and attractive Bay Area.
“I’d be open to it. My only question is, is it a really good NFL market?” Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie said. “I’m not totally worried about a lot of other things. I am more worried, is it a great market for the NFL? I don’t know enough about that. I never thought about it much before. It has to support 70,000 every weekend.”
The most recent CBA was supposed to eliminate most of the haggling and negotiations of the rookie contracts, but the Patriots and third-round draft pick Jacoby Brissett are still hammering out the final details of his contract. Third-round picks have wiggle room to negotiate higher base salaries, and both Brissett and the Patriots are holding firm. The contract will eventually get signed, but this negotiation might last into the six-week summer vacation between the end of minicamp and the start of training camp. Brissett doesn’t have an agent and is being advised by former NFL player Abe Elam. In 2013, Ravens first-round pick Matt Elam, Abe’s younger brother, didn’t sign his rookie deal until the week before training camp . . . Jaguars wide receiver Allen Hurns lived the rags-to-riches football drama last week. The former undrafted free agent, who signed for just $5,000 in 2014, signed a four-year extension worth $40 million, with up to $20 million in guarantees. But given that Hurns wasn’t set to hit unrestricted free agency until 2018, here’s betting that the deal lies more on the team-friendly side. Parsing through the language, the “four-year extension” is most likely a five-year deal, and I’m curious to see the real value of the total guarantee and how many of the five years are actually guaranteed . . . The US Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit denied a petition from a group of ex-players for an en banc rehearing in the massive concussion lawsuit against the NFL, clearing one more step for players to receive their payouts. This doesn’t have any direct connection to Tom Brady’s chances of obtaining a hearing in the Second Circuit, but is a good example of how rarely en banc appeals are accepted . . . Patriots safety Nate Ebner, competing for a spot on the US Olympic Rugby Sevens team this summer, will be profiled by “60 Minutes Sports” Tuesday, airing at 9 p.m. on Showtime. And Rob Gronkowski will be shaving his head on Sunday at Gillette Stadium as part of One Mission’s seventh annual Buzz Off for Kids with Cancer. The event will begin around 9 a.m. and take place in the Putnam Club.
With their move to Los Angeles, the Rams will travel 32,072 miles during the 2016 season, the most in the league. In contrast, the Steelers will only travel 5,138 miles. Here’s how the teams with the most and least travel fared over the past two seasons: