In almost any other offseason, the Washington Redskins would have just concluded an April minicamp and a dozen organized team activity sessions — practices led by a full coaching staff, with meetings, classroom instruction and film sessions.
But as the NFL lockout headed toward its 100th day last week, Redskins players were instead on a borrowed field in Northern Virginia, running through the sixth, seventh and eighth days of workouts they organized themselves.
Instead of Coach Mike Shanahan and offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan running the show, quarterbacks John Beck and Rex Grossman directed the offense, using last year’s plays and portions of a playbook Beck received from coaches on April 29 — the one day players and coaches were allowed to meet. Without defensive coordinator Jim Haslett, inside linebacker London Fletcher has served as player-coach of his unit.
Players are quick to admit that their efforts are no match for what the team provides, but say the workouts are better than doing nothing at all. The Redskins’ player-led practices, attended by an average of 33 players, introduced rookies to the NFL and helped build team morale, they said.
“You’re getting stuff done, but not as much,” said Beck, who hired a member of his church to videotape last week’s practices so players could review them. “So the thing is, we can not do anything, or we could do something. You can throw routes to anybody, but the guys you’re going to be playing with in the fall is what you want to have.”
Players, coaches and analysts also said that two categories of teams will be scrambling even more than others: those with new coaches, and those with rookie quarterbacks. Eight teams have hired new head coaches since midway through last season. While some were promoted from within, none has had the luxury of a normal offseason to put new offensive or defensive systems in place.
“In the offseason, you can install a system, and there are two parts to it,” said Charley Casserly, former general manager of the Redskins and Houston Texans. “First, the players learn it. And second, you get a chance to learn what might work or not work with those players. There’s a tremendous disadvantage for any team with a new coach or a rookie quarterback.”
Around the league, views about the productivity of workouts led by players have been mixed. New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning told reporters Monday, according to the New York Daily News: “It’s kind of the best we can do under the circumstances. It’s not great work, but it’s better than doing nothing.”
Said Casserly: “Common sense says there’s some value to [the workouts] . . . It’s a check that the players can have for each other to make sure they’re working out.”
Casserly noted that the Joe Gibbs-coached Redskins won Super Bowls in the strike-marred seasons of 1982 and 1987.
“The single most important thing was the players’ unity,” Casserly said. “They stayed together. In ’87, a lot of players from other teams crossed the picket line [to participate in games with replacement players during the strike]. We didn’t have that. Joe Gibbs preached to the team, ‘Stay together. . . . When this is over, the team that comes back in the best shape mentally and physically will have a tremendous advantage.’ ”
Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said last month that players have become “very sophisticated” in learning how to prepare themselves for a season. He said he hopes his team will be able to get ready for the upcoming season after the labor dispute ends.
“I’m real encouraged that our players are working as hard as they are,” Jones said.
Recent progress in negotiations has people throughout the sport saying that a deal is within reach. An accord by the July 4 holiday would allow a significant free agent signing period before a full training camp, preseason and regular season. But the issues are complex and talks could bog down at any time.
The later the deal, the more frantic preparations for the season will be. Free agency and trades of players have been on hold during the lockout, which began March 12. Players selected in the NFL draft in April haven’t been signed, and teams haven’t signed any undrafted rookies.
Four quarterbacks were taken in the first 12 picks of the NFL draft in April: Cam Newton first overall by the Carolina Panthers; Jake Locker eighth by the Tennessee Titans; Blaine Gabbert 10th by the Jacksonville Jaguars; and Christian Ponder 12th by the Minnesota Vikings.
It is difficult under normal circumstances for a team to get a rookie quarterback ready to play. Under these circumstances, it might be next to impossible. Former NFL quarterback Tim Hasselbeck said it will “depend on the guy,” and cited Locker as a relatively polished prospect who might be able to contribute as a rookie this year. But for the most part, Hasselbeck said, teams will have to adjust their immediate expectations.
“I think teams are going to have to say, ‘This is going to be really hard to get this guy ready to play,’ ” said Hasselbeck, now an NFL analyst for ESPN. “You don’t want to put a guy in a position to play poorly and embarrass himself — or worse, in a position to get hurt.”
Rookies at other positions might not have as difficult a time as quarterbacks, and Redskins tight end Chris Cooley said he believes most of those who attended Washington’s workouts should benefit.
“For them to show up, get some of the terminology as much as they can, get some of the technique, it will help them with the chance to play this year,” he said.
Eleven of the 12 players drafted in April (Clemson defensive lineman Jarvis Jenkins is the lone exception) attended the workouts and were introduced to the offensive and defensive systems. Veterans estimated that in eight group sessions they covered about 60 to 70 percent of the material coaches would have addressed. So the rookies will have a bit of a head start once the lockout is lifted.
Rookie running back Evan Royster (Westfield High) attended all six workouts the Redskins held after he was drafted and described his exposure to the playbook as “priceless.”
Leonard Hankerson, Washington’s rookie wide receiver out of Miami, spent time in San Diego with Beck so he could start learning the offense, and attended both the May and June player minicamps.
“I learned a few new plays, but there’s not really a whole, whole lot you can learn not having a coach involved,” Hankerson said. “I need a coach. I need to get in a coach’s pocket and be all over him so I can get details from him and hear how the plays work from him. This helped, and it’s better than nothing.”