The year of 2011 will be known forever in football circles as the “Year of the Lockout.” Consequently, 2011 was also the year of “no offseason” workout and training programs for NFL players.
The teams and league think that off-season programs are critical to the success of the on-field product, and the players think the contrary. All anyone heard during the course of this non-football spring was how the league would suffer if players were not allowed to participate in the 14-week “Bataan Death March” of football players practicing in shorts, known as organized team activities (OTAs).
Well the regular season is not complete yet but we are past the quarter pole and after the first five weeks of the season, the early returns show that the on-field play in the league is at an all-time high. Thus the term “OTA” should go the way of the Edsel, the VCR, and the 8-track tape into the obscurity of oblivion.
One thing is certain. Without the 14 weeks of mandatory team monitored and controlled offseason programs, mini camps and other redundant activities, NFL players who are self motivated and high character showed up to this year’s camps in shape and ready to perform. The players who are not so naturally self disciplined, motivated and need the constant scrutiny and hands on pushing by teams in order to maintain a modicum of conditioning showed up overweight and out of shape, and as a result have fallen by the wayside. Perhaps this was the NFL’s unwitting way of applying the philosophy of Darwinism to the league by weeding out the less motivated individuals for the good of the league.
The primary values born out of a successful offseason program are team chemistry, familiarity with schemes and playbooks, watching tape and running plays, and building relationships among and between coaches and teammates, etc. Some players recognized at least some of these values by setting up their own group workouts during the lockout. Most of the veterans have the discipline, knowledge and experience to do what is necessary to prepare their bodies in the offseason for the NFL season.
The pundits predicted increased incidence of catastrophic player injury caused by the lack of preparation and training during the regular season. Thus far (and knock on wood, please) there has been no higher incidence of injuries to players. A few purists knew that the true players in the league would not allow the lack of team activities to adversely affect their conditioning discipline. The common belief was also that teams with new coaching staffs or young squads would suffer significantly by the loss of the offseason program. Pundits predicted these green teams would come out of the gate slower than their more veteran brethren. A cursory look at teams playing well after four games shows that these beliefs were unfounded. The Bills (youngest team in football), the 49ers (new coaching staff), Bucs (youth) and the Titans (new staff) are all excelling beyond expectations at this point, while other teams with veteran squads and/or coaching staffs are underachieving (i.e. Eagles, Dolphins, Colts and Cardinals).
Another yet-to-be realized prediction was that the September brand of football (due to the lack of off-season training) would replicate something between the World League and Division II of the NCAA. After the conclusion of September games, this is the furthest thing from the truth. The games (for the most part) have been well-played, exciting nail-biters, where teams are never out of contention and no leads are safe. There is no decrease in compositions on the field. Everyone predicted that the defense should be ahead of the offense without the rigors and mundane routine of unpadded spring practices. But this has not been the case. Offensive explosions have occurred as often as John Gruden says a player is great, and comebacks just are as commonplace.
Sure, a strong argument can be made that the young players in the league need the extra repetitions of the offseason to hone their crafts at NFL speeds and develop into premier players. This may be especially true at the quarterback position, and by most accounts is an accurate statement.
Working out with teammates, working with coaches on the field, in the classroom and in the film room, learning the playbook, acclimating to a new city without the stress and pressure of the regular season, getting career and personal guidance from mentors, veteran players and coaches — all of these elements are vital. But do we need really need to grind on veteran players from March to August to accomplish the role of developing the younger generations of players? Or perhaps, if the NFL truly desired to improve the youth of the league and the game, it would spend the money to bring back NFL Europe or a minor spring league set up as the true training ground for young players.
This could then be accomplished without grinding their veteran players into the ground. In addition, I can guarantee all fans that the play will only get better as the season progresses as the veterans will be more fresh and rested come the critical months of November and December and then of course the playoff months of January. And there is no denying the lockout’s adverse affect on lingering medical issues that could not be treated with the club’s oversight. However, the early returns show that the NFL’s blinded overemphasis on extended offseason programs has been misappropriated for years.