Just What are OTA’s Anyway?

By Lloyd Vance
Updated: May 10, 2009

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 crept 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 official off-season start date the club had sent to the league.

NFL Teams may differ on X’s and O’s, however they all can agree 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 season ending playoff-stretch months of November and December, they point to OTA’s and training camp as keys where everyone got on the same page.

Most OTA sessions are in clandestine settings with players, coaches, and a few members of the media allowed to watch. But with everyone’s year around fascination with the NFL exploding, OTA’s have become big news even though it is just players running around in helmets, t-shirts, and shorts.

Key areas to keep in mind when talking OTA’s

Are sessions voluntary?? – Some head coaches may have as many as 12 OTA’s during the NFL’s “down period”, but all of them cannot be mandatory. In the “Good Old Days” of legendary coaches George Allen and Vince Lombardi, there was never the term “voluntary” in their vocabulary. Players knew they better be at every practice in or out of season if they wanted a job.

But with today’s modern athletes of the NFL – many of whom make more money than their coaches – some them don’t respect the coach enough to attend all OTA’s whether the coach wants them to or not. So head coaches walk a thin line when it comes to “voluntary” OTA’s. Eagles head coach Andy Reid recently said after the Eagles post-draft mini-camp, “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 to be at OTA’s unless they are a veteran with a legitimate coach approved excuse (i.e. Brian Dawkins in 2007 missed Eagles OTA sessions due to the birth of twins).

Contract incentives and fines are used to improve attendance – Most teams use contract incentives (ex. Attend “X” number of OTA sessions and receive a bonus of “X” dollars) as a way to make players attend OTA’s. But every year there are holdout type players that won’t attend OTA’s for one reason or another, usually $$$. Fines are another tactic used by teams to motivate players to attend mandatory OTA’s.

The catch with fines is they are only affective if a player is currently under contract — In 2008, RB Cedric Benson was threatened with fines up to $100,000 for missing six mandatory OTA’s. But when you are talking about thousands to a guy with a multi million-dollar contract, sometimes fines don’t work either. Sometimes when push comes to shove, some players will show-up to OTA’s just to avoid fines.

But players and their agents have even found injury loopholes, like a mysterious “injury” usually a pulled hammy that causes them to be spectators (see Bengals WR Chad Johnson during ’08 OTA’s). Teams really don’t have much leverage in terms of player holdout fines until training camp when fines can pile-up at a cost of $14,000 or more per missed day.

How much contact is allowed?? – The CBA says, “No contact is allowed anytime (during OTA’s).” But we all know coaches and teams will push the envelope. Almost all practices are no pads, but there is always jostling and pushing as teams try to figure out who is close to mid-season form.

But the amount of contact can have repercussions as seen a couple of years ago when 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 former head coach Rod Marinelli’s tough-love approach in OTA’s was not well received by 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.

Rookie Participation is affected by some colleges – There is a long-standing controversial rule between the NCAA and NFL that stipulates rookies cannot participate in more than one mini-camp before their college class has finished for the Spring Semester.

The rule was put in place years ago in an attempt to keep kids in school and progressing towards graduation even if they intended to go to the NFL. But in today’s NFL, the rule is total non-sense as most drafted players have left their universities months – usually in January after Bowl Games — before the NFL Draft in April to prepare or they have no intention of graduating as they are underclassmen (ex. Niners’ 2009 10th overall pick Texas Tech WR Michael Crabtree was a redshirt sophomore).

The rule usually affects players from larger school that start and end their spring semesters late (Ohio State and UCLA don’t end until June) causing some players from these programs to get a late start as rookies. For example last year Jets’ first round pick linebacker Vernon Gholston from Ohio State, who declared as a junior, had to wait until June to finally get acclimated to his teammates and playbook in team OTA’s.

After the disadvantage of the spring semester rule, Gholston really never settled in until training camp. During Gholston’s uninspiring rookie season you had to have wondered if the missed classroom and field time in OTA’s affected his first year growth.

With 80-man roster limits, competition is everywhere so rookie players drafted or undrafted should be allowed to hit the practice field as soon as they are officially part of an NFL team.