This is the time of year when all NFL teams move from the classroom to the field in an effort to set the tone for upcoming training camps. Each team starts each offseason with a mandated calendar of non-padded practice days. It’s a step toward real football on a real football field.
As we have seen recently, some teams take these opportunities a bit more seriously than others. Bill Belichick and his New England Patriots were docked two OTA days because they had a voluntary off-field opportunity that was perceived as involuntary by the NFLPA. These kinds of penalties have been doled out several times, including the Chicago Bears, Washington Commanders and Houston Texans in 2022 and the Dallas Cowboys in 2021 and 2022. Teams push the envelope to gain the most from OTAs, and having witnessed these practices for years, it’s easy to get the lines of delineation blurred.
But there is much to be gained from organized team activities regardless of a team’s chosen approach. Here is what makes them valuable:
Practicing to practice
Let’s start with the “practice coaching” and organizing. OTAs allow opportunities for new coaching and scouting staffs, of which there are many in any given NFL offseason, to get out on the field. These staffs have been put together on paper and in classrooms in the offseason, but OTAs are their first chance to relate and communicate directly with players and football operations staff — athletic trainers, equipment people and video departments — on the field.
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Organizing drills and blending coaching styles and working together and communicating is different when done in real time while following a practice schedule. New coaches need chemistry with each other. Like players, they need to be drilled before they appear before the media, and in some cases fans, for the first time. Trust me, it’s different. Ironing out procedural wrinkles is A THING.
Intensity can vary, and that’s OK
Every team lifts weights, trains and prepares, but the standards by which they do it start to get set in OTAs. I have watched some teams that were so leisurely it reminded me of Club Med. I have been part of others that made me cringe as a general manager, just hoping we wouldn’t lose a player to injury, three months before lining up for real, in a drill that really might not matter.
Case in point, we read every year of teams taking a day to go bowling or scheduling a fun activity away from the “office” at the end of their offseason. But for each of those, there is another team like when I was in Miami. We had a knockdown, drag-out fight on the last day of OTAs, in mid-June mind you, that resembled a street brawl after a 3 a.m. nightclub closing. For that particular team, it was reflective of the tough and physical spring we had just been through. Fists and helmets were flying, and Hall of Fame players like defensive end Jason Taylor and linebacker Zach Thomas were right in the middle of it. I would bet, if asked to this day, they would both recall how crazy it was.
Common sense has to prevail, but in 2023 you’d be crazy to not include new findings in sports science research as well. My point is, intensity varies by coaches, culture and leadership within your locker room. Each team is different in how it should or should not use these important days of work.
Teams also use this time to get their newly drafted and signed players into physical shape in order to compete and be evaluated. Most kids coming out of college think they are in shape and ready to go, but the physical and mental standards, competition and speed of the NFL are drastically different from what they are used to. Talk is cheap when teams tell incoming rookies of the expectations, intensity and what to expect at the next level. OTAs can remove any doubt as they get to see for themselves what will be asked of them. Players seeing how they measure up to their peers can surely impact their offseason commitment going forward as well.
As part of this process, both coaching and scouting staffs can use OTAs to evaluate, value and tweak a roster based on what they see during this time. This window of evaluation might reveal a lack of depth at a certain position or a wealth of riches at another. It may also remind an evaluator of some questions they had on individual players or their skill sets when last season ended, especially if the warts have not gone away.
As a team builder, sometimes in the offseason you can fool yourself with hope. I thought our writer Josh Kendall did a great job of pointing out the still-there concerns of inconsistent accuracy of Falcons quarterback Desmond Ridder with his story from Atlanta’s OTAs this week. Not trying to be critical, just using it as a reminder that Ridder is a work in progress. As an evaluator, the info gathered is very important, for better or for worse.
The installation of schemes on both sides of the ball is a given for an offseason of minicamps and OTAs. Many staffs elect to complete a full install of systems so that when players come back for training camp, nothing is new, it’s just about recall. Other staffs choose to make each practice more situational and use multiple detailed walkthroughs as a format for teaching and learning.
At any rate, for some coaches it’s important to figure out how players learn best in order to alter their teaching methods, as opposed to others who do that when training camp opens. There is no right or wrong here, and players’ learning patterns are included in the evaluations that scouts compile from their school visits. The top half of a scouting report doesn’t address a player’s athletic skill or ability, but how they think or learn, their character and other non-football intangibles. And for every player, there are five or six of these reports. In OTAs, a coach can use that information to implement a plan for each player and a teaching method to go with it. Doing this prior to training camp helps the team hit the ground running in July.
’80 percent of success is showing up’
Establishing building blocks for the team and a vision for an upcoming season is the big-picture goal of every offseason. It is not always the most talented teams that win but those that come together and rise above their talent levels. Offseason activities reinforce that notion, in my opinion.
Attendance at these offseason programs has always indicated to me a team’s willingness to bond, grow and establish relationships which might be as important as the football stuff. For older veterans, it is not about what they are learning but what they can pass on to the younger guys. You cannot convince me that in Green Bay, Aaron Rodgers’ refusal to attend these voluntary activities didn’t hurt or slow his chemistry with the young receivers on that team a year ago. Now you see him going through routine drills on the field with the Jets, and I promise you that his being there is going to have a positive effect on the team as a whole.
This is why I pushed back as a GM when a player didn’t think it important to be (at least partially) present at the minicamps and OTAs. We would incentivize players financially to attend. I think it’s good money spent because it ensures time spent together. I know playoff runs make for long seasons, but the offseason program is 16 days total of being on the field with teammates. I think it’s vital.
Some younger coaches seem more willing to be outliers in regard to structure and intensity of how their teams use the 16 organized times they can be on the field, including minicamps, during an offseason. This does not include the earlier phases of a team’s offseason that include conditioning and other non-football activities. Per Paul Dehner Jr.’s column about Bengal OTAs this week, there is a big discrepancy in how many of these days NFL teams use and how they use them. Half the league uses less than its allotted time on the field. These days are valuable for all the above reasons, and as we know, every rep is important. As a GM, if another team isn’t going to use all its days, I’d be happy to take them.
(Photo of Browns WR Cedric Tillman: Nick Cammett / Getty Images)