Time For ‘More’ Football

By Lloyd Vance
Updated: May 13, 2008

PHILADELPHIA — The time between the end of the draft in April and the start of training camp at the end of July is supposed to be a quiet time in the National Football League (NFL).

Coaches and players are supposed to recharge their batteries during the months of May and June in anticipation of a hot tough training camp. However the quietness of these months has since past as a new and overused term “OTA” has creeped into NFL teams’ vocabulary.

OTA stands for Organized Team Activities. It is a term that was created in the legal jargon of the NFL’s Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) to keep a close eye on team’s off-season preparations before training camp.

Much like the NCAA’s rules around “practices” in the spring, the NFL has tried to define a strict code of who can practice, what types of drills can be run, voluntary/mandatory attendance and the amount of contact in OTA’s.

Rules around these activities are strict enough that teams can get themselves in hot water easily if violations are found. The Philadelphia Eagles in the spring of 2005 lost a week of activities for the simple violation of reportedly several players showing up to train before the off-season start date the club had sent to the league.

NFL Teams may differ in X’s and O’s, however they all can agree on one thing that OTA’s are essential to building the foundation of a winning cohesive football team.

Many times when I talk to players and coaches during the crucial end of season November and December playoff stretch run, they point to OTA’s and training camp as keys to everyone getting on the same page.

Most of the OTA sessions are in clandestine settings with players, coaches, and a few members of the media allowed to watch, but recently the Falcons announced that their 2008 sessions will be open to the public. Whether the sessions are open or closed two key areas always seem to provoke news around OTA’s

1) Are sessions voluntary?? – In the days of George Allen, Vince Lombardi, and to a certain extent modern coach Bill Parcells and Tom Coughlin there was never the term “voluntary” in their coaching vocabulary. Because players knew they better be at every practice or they were gone. Ah, the good old days before the players starting voicing their rights. Coaches in their coach-speak wisdom like to say that certain sessions are “voluntary”, while saying it with a wink and smile.

Recently everyone knew what Eagles head coach Andy Reid was saying after the Eagles post-draft mini-camp when he said “This is not a mandatory camp coming up, These are OTA’s, and players have the option of being here or not being here”… Sure they do coach. Don’t be fooled most coaches subscribe to the thought what happens in June usually has a distinct affect on training camp and in September. Every coach wants all of his players at OTA’s and to be attentive. And trust me anyone that doesn’t attend unless you are a valued veteran with a good reason (i.e. Brian Dawkins in 2007), then that player will have a bull’s eye on his back come training camp.

2) How much contact is allowed?? – The CBA says, “No contact allowed anytime.”

But we all know coaches and teams will push the envelope. Almost all practices are no pads, but there is always jostling as teams try to figure out who is close to mid-season form. The amount of contact can have repercussion as seen last spring as three clubs with taskmaster coaches were penalized for OTA violations (Arizona Cardinals, New York Giants, and Detroit Lions). The Detroit Lions were especially singled out as their taskmaster head coach Rod Marinelli’s approach was not well received by “coddled” players.

The Lions lost two days of OTA’s after a lineman filed a grievance with the NFLPA alleging that the team held contact drills at a mini-camp. No matter what level of contact, coaches like old-school former Redskins head coach Joe Gibbs think players need to buck up. Gibbs said after a spring 2005 investigation into his OTA’s, “There’s not competitive stuff (at OTA’s)”.

Holdouts will be worth watching at OTA’s

The item that I like to keep track of during OTA’s is which potential holdouts — Veterans that are happy with their contract, highly drafted rookies, franchised players, players entering the last year of their contract, etc — will not be showing up. With only a handful of OTA’s being mandatory most potential training camp holdouts talk tough during OTA’s.

But the real fun starts when the fines and missed dollars for not reporting to training camp pile up (Remember 2003, where RB Duce Staley was trying to get a new contract by holding out for 26 days with fines of $5000.00 dollars per day. When the Birds didn’t blink, he realized real quick that his deal of 2.2 Million for one year wasn’t that bad after all).

Players on the holdout watch list

Look for these players to potentially draw lines in the sand as “voluntary” OTA’s head into training camp in late July.

— Titans DT Albert Haynesworth (Unhappy with “franchise” deal)

— Bengals WR Chad Johnson (Wants out and this situation looks too much like T.O circa 2005)

— Lions WR Roy Williams (Lions say they want him or maybe not)

— Cardinals WR Anquan Boldin (Larry Fitzgerald’s contract)

— Giants TE Jeremy Shockey (Team won it all without him)

— Dolphins DE Jason Taylor (New team braintrust seems to not want him)

— Eagles CB Lito Sheppard (New handpicked starting cornerback Asante Samuel and his huge deal)

— Falcons WR Joe Horn (Buried on the depth chart)

— Rams RB Steven Jackson (Last year of contract w/ teams not paying RB’s),

— Giants DE Osi Umenyiora (Unhappy with Contract and Strahan should be back)

Every year a couple of first round rookies miss significant portions of training camp trying to squeeze dollars out of their rookie deal (i.e. Raiders QB JaMarcus Russell in ’07). My picks this year are Bears Offensive Tackle Chris Williams (14th overall) and Niners DT Kentwan Balmer (29th)

Lloyd’s Leftovers

The “new” 80-man training camp roster will be interesting – With the demise of NFL Europa there will no longer be any training camp roster exemptions for the players who had been assigned to that spring developmental league.

Over the last couple of years, most teams had at least six players in training camp with NFLE exemptions. Without the extra bodies, head coaches and GM’s more than ever will have difficulty in making cuts and keeping everyone healthy throughout training camp.

There is talk that coaches will look to have training camp rosters increased in the next CBA. But you know more players means more contracts that the owners have to pay.