Who needs the offseason?
That’s been the vibe coming from the NFL Players Association after what happened during the 2020 campaign, when the league pulled off a complete season during a pandemic without as much as a single OTA session.
You remember OTAs? The “organized team workouts” that extend for two months or longer during the spring? Perhaps last season proved, as union president JC Tretter has expressed, that players don’t really need to engage with so much football during a conventional “offseason” in order to produce a quality product.
After all, for such a grueling physical occupation as football, bodies could sure use ample recovery time rather than the additional injury risks that show up as the intensity of workouts progress during OTAs.
But now consider a reality: Despite the adjustments made for 2020 – with Zoom meetings during the spring and no on-field workouts until training camp – there’s no way the NFL is signing up for another all-virtual offseason.
The counter-argument to not conducting football work in the spring, which includes mandatory minicamps and the “voluntary” OTAs that begin with a gradual strength-and-conditioning phase, is based to a large degree on the need to develop young players.
Yet it is rather interesting that as the calendar approaches April, the NFL still hasn’t informed its teams of exactly what parameters will be in place for the current offseason calendar as the league and NFLPA continued discussions this week. This bit of mystery has to be driving some, if not many, coaches crazy.
Typically, team calendars are set by now with dates for OTAs and minicamps – with teams led by new coaches getting a week’s head start. But now?
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So many people running teams – like GMs and coaches – are left to guess about the specific timelines and scope of the upcoming weeks and months.
It’s likely that there will be resolution in the coming days, with the topic on the agenda for owners conducting virtual league meetings Tuesday and Wednesday. Earlier this week, the NFL announced plans to stage an in-person draft again, in Cleveland on April 29-May 1, with hopes to attracting tens of thousands of fans as another step toward potentially playing games in full stadiums again in 2021. And it would be shocking if the league does not reveal next week that it has decided to exercise its option to implement a 17-game season in 2021.
But nailing down the offseason expectations remains another detail in the bigger picture.
During the week of Super Bowl 55, Commissioner Roger Goodell dismissed the notion of an all-virtual offseason but contended that he wanted input from the union on the matter – as he also said of the decision on a 17-game season.
That’s certainly politically correct, so to speak. Yet it’s also true that the league and union already negotiated the expanded season that owners long coveted in the 11-year extension of the collective bargaining agreement that was struck last March. Scrapping the conventional offseason, as union leaders have suggested, would mean re-writing components of the labor deal.
Then again, some conditions have changed since that CBA was negotiated – namely the emergence of COVID-19. Last year, when Goodell shuttered the offseason as the pandemic raged, the league and union exercised a tremendous spirit of cooperation in establishing virus testing procedures and protocols, instituting gradual back-to-work practices for training camp and canceling the entire preseason.
That’s why it’s not a stretch to think that the league will relax on some of the typical (voluntary) offseason load. It’s not uncommon to tweak elements of labor pacts over time, for one reason or another.
Yet we’ll soon find out what offseason compromise looks like against the backdrop of trying to get past a pandemic that’s not over yet.
Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Jarrett Bell on Twitter @JarrettBell.