The 2011 CBA, for better or worse, changed the NFL game. The biggest change, by far, was how the offseason was structured. Players wanted more freedom in the spring and we got it.
Prior to 2011, the offseason program started in mid-March and lasted 14 weeks. Now, it’s a tidy nine-week program, starting in mid-April. The spring time is used to build your body, learn or refresh on scheme, and start building brotherhood with your teammates. In this article, I’ll guide you through the schedule, plus share how the emphasis of the offseason has changed over the years.
You need reps, even if they’re not at full contact, to get ready for the season. Reps have been severely cut back in the new CBA. The “old” offseason schedule was designed to get the players in shape, get back on the field to work on your skills, and learn the playbook. We had workouts, meetings, OTAs, and veteran minicamp. There were no time limits and you were able to work on your craft. Get the reps needed to get the body back into the flow and work on improving before camp.
Because we showed up in mid-March, it was understandable if you weren’t in the best shape. You were given the time and workouts to get into shape as the offseason wound towards training camp. The whole structure and purpose of the offseason changed in 2011.
Now, the offseason program is broken down into four phases with a time limit for each. The first two weeks are simple. Four hours in the facility each day — two in the weight room and two in the meeting rooms.
It’s expected that players are physically ready to roll when they show up. Two hours is rarely enough time to get a proper lift and conditioning/position drills in. The strength coaches must make it work because coaches aren’t giving up their meeting time for weight training.
The meetings are designed to install the schemes. Starting with the most basic, the huddle design, and working to the cadence and eventually the plays. For players who are new to the offense, this time is vital. It’s the most time they’re going to get with the playbook and coaches. If they know the offense, it’s a time to refresh with the verbiage and pick up on new wrinkles.
The next three weeks of the offseason program closely resemble the first two, except now players are allowed on the field with the coaches during that two-hour window. There are restrictions for what can be done on the field. No players are allowed to be across from each other. If a wide receiver is lined up, no one is allowed to be guarding him. A lineman can’t hit anyone holding a bag (unless it’s a coach, which isn’t happening). This field time is an opportunity to run plays on air, get the timing down for routes, and just general knowledge of the schemes.
After those three weeks, teams get into OTAs, where practices are allowed and the day goes to six hours. They meet, lift, and have a practice. The practices are non-contact, which is impossible in the trenches. We wear helmets and jerseys, but no pads.
This is the first time you’re able to work on your craft full speed. Coaches try to cram in as many plays as possible because the live reps are so important. This is also the first time the rookies and veterans get to work together. The rookies get a rude awakening to the tempo of practices and the speed.
When you have a new staff, OTAs are more important. It’s time to learn how practices are designed, what position drills your coach prefers, and what’s expected at practice so when camp gets going, we can hit the ground running.
The final phase of the offseason is the mandatory veteran minicamp. It’s a two-and-a-half day camp. The days are longer, closer to the regular season schedule. There’s a practice and a walkthrough.
The final day is a half day. Some coaches cancel this practice because it can feel like a waste. Players and coaches are already checked out for the summer. I once had an offensive line coach with his car keys in his pocket all practice. When the horn blew to end practice, he walked to this car and left for the summer. Coaches enjoy breaks Just as much as we do.
A shorter offseason program means every rep matters
The importance of the offseason has changed since 2011 because of the time commitment of the spring and summer camps. Before 2011, the offseason program was designed for you to get in shape and you’d work in the scheme slowly. You had time to install at a snails pace and make sure everyone knew what was going on. There was also the knowledge you’d have double days in the summer to make up for any lost reps. The offseason program wasn’t taken as seriously.
Today, the importance of the offseason is getting reps any way possible. The time is limited and, more importantly, there are no double days to make up for reps.
Because of the later start and the advancement of specialized training centers, most players already show up in shape. The goal in the weight room is to continue to build, but also make sure the players stay healthy. Often the workouts you’d get at the specialized facilities are better than the ones in the building. That’s no fault to NFL strength coaches, they just don’t have the time to allow players to get the full workouts they want.
Whenever you hit the field, the coaches try their best to cram in reps anywhere possible. Walkthroughs used to be just that, walking. Now they are fast and you’re expected to move at a decent tempo. These are now being treated like a practice. Players even watch the film from walkthroughs. It’s all taken seriously.
Is it okay when a player misses the offseason program?
The only headlines made during the spring, unless there is an injury, are the veterans missing the voluntary portion of the offseason. The offseason is voluntary but only for a certain handful of players. It’s understood that you should be there because reps are so limited.
When you hear of players missing the voluntary portion of the offseason, like Odell Beckham Jr., I never worry about these players not being in shape. I worry about them missing the reps with their teammates. However, most of the guys not showing up, Aaron Donald and Olivier Vernon for example, are exceptional talents and not being in the facility shouldn’t matter much for their performance.
Players also skip this time period to dispute their contract status. I’m totally for using any leverage you have to get a better contract. In the case of Beckham, his main provider of salary is actually Nike at the moment. If he’s being asked by Nike to be available for whatever is needed, that’s allowed at this time and it makes total sense he’s not in the facility.
I often hear the argument about building chemistry with their teammates. Chemistry is built with winning. When Odell shows up for Week 1 against Dallas and catches a touchdown, all will be forgiven for missing this time period.
While it’s important to be in the facility for the offseason program to get your reps, build some brotherhood, and stay in shape, it’s fine when players miss these nine weeks. You shouldn’t care, either.