CINCINNATI — Veteran safety Mike Thomas turned 33 in March, weeks before arriving at his 11th NFL offseason program with four separate franchises. As a vice president on the NFL Players’ Association Executive Committee, he knows firsthand on the field and through boardroom meetings the issues that serve as points of contention with offseason practice regimens.
So, when he leans into the recorder with an ear-to-ear smile across his face, his enthusiastic tone roots in true understanding of the spring schedule Bengals head coach Zac Taylor gifted his team.
“There’s no comparison,” Thomas said. “We respect him for that and we love it. We love the schedule and any chance we get we make sure he knows and understands that.”
Across the locker room, center Ted Karras, the Bengals’ NFLPA representative, took another such chance.
“I think Zac is one of the best schedulers ever,” Karras said. “Just an amazing schedule and great culture here.”
The praise reflects a staff leaning into sports science research with an emphasis on what type of work must be done and what makes the most sense over the long haul of the season.
It also reflects a willingness to risk being an NFL outlier.
The collective bargaining agreement allows 16 true practice opportunities over the course of the spring. A team can max out with 10 organized team activities, three days of mandatory minicamp and a three-day rookie minicamp.
These come on top of the phase one portion of the offseason relegated strictly to meetings, conditioning and rehab. Phase two involves on-field work, but limited to individual and group instruction. No helmets or team-versus-team drills, strictly working on air. Any plays must be at walkthrough pace and with no live contact or working against an opposing side of the ball.
OTAs include helmets, and while there’s no live contact, the intensity ratchets up significantly with 7-on-7, 9-on-7 and 11-on-11 the centerpiece for a longer practice time.
Nobody has utilized these less than the Bengals.
Days of offseason practice used
This chart extracts first-year coaches from the equation, as they max out across the board and can add an extra veteran minicamp for acclimation of the new staff.
The Bengals only took six of the 16 available opportunities with the one-hour rookie “minicamp” nothing more than stretching and a few short, non-strenuous drills.
In a league where games and championships are won in the margins, giving up 10 practices worth of reps can be viewed as disastrous. Certainly, many raised in earlier generations of brutal, relentless offseason programs would find the concept laughable. The 18 teams taking the full allotment subscribe to a different theory.
A rep unrealized means an evaluation unmade by a coach or by a scout. It’s a lesson not learned by a player or about his teammate.
A schedule for May football in shorts might seem a mundane detail, but actually requires walking a chaotic tightrope of needs and desires tugging from all corners of the building.
Taylor enjoys the luxury of having the same coordinators for an improbable five consecutive seasons and a successful veteran nucleus that’s earned trust and can self-police. He says he focuses on three priorities with his setup:
1. Refreshing systems, recall of what they do, adding tweaks.
2. Reestablishing team chemistry.
3. Bringing free agents, rookies up to speed to be ready by training camp.
“You can balance those three things with the schedule,” Taylor said. “What we focus on is the meeting time in the meeting room and on the field make sure the players understand all the techniques we are going to want.”
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Instead of shifting into OTAs, the Bengals will stay in phase two for two more weeks while the vast majority of the league ramps up. Taylor sees increasing intensity now as unnecessary given technique and mental objectives.
“You can do that during these phase two practices focusing on unit work going four-on-zero, seven-on-zero, 11-on-zero,” Taylor said. “I told them this yesterday, I want you guys understanding what we want on air and the techniques we want before I ask you to do the six practices that are 11-on-11.”
Karras came from the old-school approach of Bill Belichick, a coach he’s praised repeatedly since arriving in Cincinnati, but recognizes the benefits in the efficiency of this approach.
“I always thought you never won a job in spring, but guys lost jobs in spring,” the 29-year-old said. “The way we do it here is perfect. You can evaluate how people move, how people communicate, but we’re not killing each other.”
When helmets are replaced by headbands and baseball hats with governors on speed across the field, a natural propensity among a competitive group to try to make a point changes the dynamic of practice.
“You come in with a different mindset,” Thomas said. “It if was competitive, there are different tempos and different mentality. This eliminates all that. We are still out there working and getting our work in.”
The degree of difficulty increases for a coach like special teams coordinator Darrin Simmons, in particular. It’s one thing to lose reps with players who spent their entire lives at receiver or linebacker. Often a rookie arrives in Cincinnati needing to learn the intricacies of special teams for one of the first times in their lives. Simmons, who started 20 years ago as Bengals special teams coordinator, can remember the early days of intense offseasons vividly and the advantages it provided, while still understanding how the new rules and Bengals’ unique situation do change the equation of what’s best this time of year.
“In the end, the most important part is what we do when we get to training camp,” he said. “Young guys have the hardest time getting up to speed. You want to concentrate on individual techniques in a team setting. How does my technique change with who I have next to me? What are his responsibilities? We just have a limited amount of times we can go against each other and even that is watered down from what it used to be. I think it makes it really more difficult for young players. That’s the ones I struggle with and worry about the most is the young players getting up to speed.”
Sure, young players need extra work and there was a point in time when many would have preferred the extra chances to prove themselves. Sam Hubbard, a third-round pick of Marvin Lewis in 2018, felt firsthand how that mentality can go astray. He cited a hip flexor and thumb and hamstring injuries suffered during early career OTA practices that set him back.
“Stupid stuff,” he said. “And I can’t get any better at that time.”
Taylor saw his first draft pick as a head coach, Jonah Williams, lost for his rookie season with a torn labrum suffered during OTAs, but acknowledged that wasn’t when his philosophy came into focus. It was altered after the team’s 2021 Super Bowl season.
Playing the longest season in NFL history into mid-February, plus a coaching staff staying involved in the draft process, pushed him to delay the start of the offseason program and limit the overall work. Yet, after a strong training camp, he felt the team did all the work they hoped for leading up to the season. A year in which they finished winning 10 games in a row with limited injuries before narrowly losing in the AFC Championship Game at Kansas City.
The attitude might be different if the results weren’t the same. It’s easy to repeat an offseason strategy that resulted in one of the best seasons in franchise history. Playing back-to-back long seasons does motivate a move to shortening the offseason strain.
Still, the Bengals started 2-3 before streaking into the playoffs and those early losses cost a shot at home-field advantage versus the Chiefs. Taylor wasn’t buying an argument of correlation to the easy offseason.
“Week 1 last year we lost the turnover battle 5-0 and missed a walk-off PAT,” Taylor said. An emergency appendectomy taking away much of camp for Joe Burrow didn’t help matters, either. “To me, I just look at it logically. I don’t look at 0-2 or 2-3 and they started slow, I didn’t think that was the case. I felt there were clear reasons. There was no correlation to me with how we operated in the offseason.”
Hubbard agreed wholeheartedly. As a captain at the core of decision-making he doesn’t see this schedule as taking away anything. He views Taylor’s system as shifting to trusting players and away from chaperoning them.
“I personally don’t understand why some professional staffs babysit players like that,” Hubbard said, then acknowledging every staff and organization can have unknown dynamics at play. “That you need to be here every second. Full helmets. Full 11-on-11. I feel like that is college.”
What Taylor and the Bengals lose in reps, they believe they gain in player equity. The offseason ends up an establishment of not just the coaching staff doing the players a solid, but proving they are listening to the needs and desires of the team. That they are in it together. This isn’t us versus them, it’s Bengals working with Bengals.
“If I felt like guys were just going through the motions right now, then we would ramp it up,” Taylor said. “Guys are locked in. The Sam Hubbards and Trey Hendricksons, guys who have been in this league a long time, they are taking every on-air rep like it is the Super Bowl. We are still getting really good work out of this. It’s not like we are just checking a box saying we did it. We are in here getting good work in our individual work. I feel like our players are getting better.”
Hubbard leaned over his stool, huffing and puffing Tuesday, after putting himself through a rigorous post-practice workout. The Cincinnati Kid who survived a 98-yard chase in January puts it on himself to be prepared for those moments and that concept being shared matters in the way the Bengals want to operate.
“It is the relationship and trust we have developed between the coaching staff and leaders of the team,” Hubbard said. “They listen to what we have to say. We tell them what we need to stay healthy and peak at the right time. Rather than risk injuries and get unnecessary wear and tear on our bodies this time of year when it doesn’t really translate at all to the season, they listen to us and we, in turn, when it is time for us to go come training camp we give everything we’ve got because they have taken care of us and listen to us. It’s just a great working relationship.”
Different teams require different functionality. And, while it’s hard to specifically monitor across the league, Taylor wonders how different what the Bengals are doing really is compared to those officially utilizing maximum OTAs.
“Are they glorified phase two practices like we are doing right now?” Taylor said. “You don’t have the luxury as a new coach to do it the way we do it, I wouldn’t do it that way either. I would maximize my opportunities.”
He does have that luxury. So, his pivot to take advantage produces a locker room of thrilled veterans and nearly 100 percent participation, both top priorities.
“That’s something that is probably going to be a trend moving forward throughout this league,” Thomas said. “If a vet had to choose, they would choose this over anywhere.”
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For now, it’s clearly not a trend. The Bengals are living in the NFL minority. Perhaps a few more scaled-back offseasons that end with practice weeks in January and February might change the attitude in this copycat league. Taylor doesn’t concern himself with any of that.
“I don’t know what the other 29 teams do,” he said, citing his experience with the Dolphins and Rams. “You are just on your own doing it the way that makes sense to you and hoping you get good work in. And we know we are getting good work in so it makes you sleep better at night.”
(Photo of Sam Hubbard during offseason drills: Aaron Doster / Associated Press)