The NFL is back in business, or at least almost there, and maybe that’s simply enough to satisfy most of its fans. A new collective bargaining agreement has conditionally ended the lockout, opening the door to a full season. Just don’t expect the usual level of play once the players finally get back on the field.
With offseason workouts and practices canceled because of the owner-initiated work stoppage, coaches and players must scramble in preparation to start the regular season Sept. 8, which won’t help improve performance. The accelerated schedule poses problems for ballclubs relying on inexperienced quarterbacks and those envisioning significant roster turnover, both of which describe the Washington Redskins’ situation.
Unproven quarterback John Beck is the presumptive starter and many newcomers, including mostly first-year players, will make the Redskins’ opening-day 53-man roster. The league’s oldest team last season, Washington should continue its major makeover, but it’s still bad timing for an ongoing youth movement.
I can still hear former Washington coach Joe Gibbs explaining the importance of the entire offseason schedule. The three-time Super Bowl winning head coach strongly believed the conditioning program and organized team activities were just as valuable, if not more so, than minicamps and training camp.
The league took disciplinary action against the Redskins because Gibbs, after returning to the franchise in 2004, went beyond the limits of permitted OTA work. Gibbs’s message to players was: Every second counts.
Several other teams have been penalized, accepting reduced practice time for pushing the limits during OTAs, emphasizing the importance coaches place on the sessions. OTAs and conditioning programs, which include weight training and endurance work, are essential in readiness for the season.
Repetition is the key to successful plays. Players will have far fewer practice reps than last season before the curtain rises on the next.
Don’t be surprised if some quarterbacks and receivers just can’t seem to get their timing set on timing routes. Blocking and tackling could suffer, particularly early in the season. With the high skill level of NFL players, even a little drop-off could hurt the league-wide product.
There’s also a greater risk of injuries.
This may come as a shock to some, but not all NFL players enjoy training. Management encourages players to attend offseason workouts that are not mandatory, in large part, to monitor their physical condition. For months, team trainers and doctors were prohibited from interacting with players.
Now, some guys will push themselves in rushing to get their bodies ready. No potential for problems there, huh?
NFL teams have top-notch training and medical staffs and the best equipment money can buy. Obviously, team physicians and trainers understand what players are facing and will act accordingly to help them. That doesn’t mean they’ll succeed.
Lost bonding time is another important factor.
Relationships are formed, renewed and strengthened when players train together at team complexes. The on-field trust that’s needed during November and December is forged during March, April and May.
Gibbs often hammered the “brotherhood” component of the offseason, too. Football teams are families, he said, and families benefit from family time. It can’t be replaced or occur in a hurry. That’s not how relationship building works.
Undoubtedly, owners understood the danger of their strategy when they ended the previous agreement that directed the planet’s most successful league. They sought a bigger piece of the $9-billion-plus pie and were, as it turned out, only willing to torch the entire offseason in hopes of breaking players, who held firm and improved their position.
Based on the NFL’s importance to the public, owners figured the lockout was worth the potential short-term damage resulting from substandard play. After all, fans quickly re-embraced the NFL after replacement players were used during the in-season strike of 1987.
Despite inferior play, fans forgave. There were no long-term effects from the temporary decline in fan interest. And as long as owners can count on the revenue from luxury suites and club seating, they’re satisfied.
Although the world’s best football players are returning, they still could benefit from an appropriate amount of preparation. That’s not what they’ll get before reporting to training camp.
Those informal player-organized workouts provided great photo-ops at high schools and colleges, and some bonding surely occurred among those who attended. It’s just not the same thing as structured work under the direction of coaches.
Rookies face the toughest road. Many struggle going from college to the NFL after participating fully in offseason programs.
They’re often overwhelmed while trying to learn large playbooks, adjusting to the faster speed of the game and, in some cases, changing positions. For rookies, their chances of making an impact during the season decrease with each day missed in the offseason. That’s why long contract holdouts are so risky for rookies.
Free agents also are at a disadvantage. They need time to learn roles in schemes and the strengths and weaknesses of their new teammates.
Teams with proven quarterbacks and strong leadership in the locker room are the best equipped to handle the condensed offseason. The best players will do even more to help set the tone while others play catch-up, which there figures to be a lot of this season.
Regardless of its warts, the NFL is back. The games will be entertaining and fans will revel in the excitement. They just shouldn’t expect 2011 to be the year of the rookie.