This time of year is when all NFL teams move from the classroom to the field in an effort to set the tone for the upcoming training camps. Each team begins each season with a mandatory calendar of uncovered practice days. It’s a step towards real football on a real football field.
As we have seen recently, some groups take these opportunities less seriously than others. Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots had two days of OTAs loaded because they had a chance to be voluntarily off the field, which is considered involuntary by the NFLPA. Such penalties have been imposed several times, including the Chicago Bears, Washington Chiefs and Houston Texans in 2022 and the Dallas Cowboys in 2021 and 2022. Teams push the envelope to get the most out of OTAs and have seen these practices for years. , blurring the dilation lines is easy.
But regardless of the approach a group chooses, there is much to be gained from organized group activities. This is what makes them valuable.
Practice to practice
Let’s start with “training practice” and organizing. OTAs allow opportunities for new coaches and scouting staffs, many of whom are available in any given NFL offseason, to get on the field. These employees sit together on paper and in classrooms during off-season, but OTAs are the first opportunity to meet and interact directly with the players and football operations staff — athletic trainers, equipment and video departments — on the field.
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Organizing drills and mixing coaching styles and working together and communicating is different when it’s done in real time following a practice schedule. New coaches need chemistry with each other. Just like players, before appearing in front of the media, and in some cases fans, they have to dig in for the first time. Trust me, it’s different. Combing out process wrinkles is one thing.
Strength may vary, and that’s okay.
Each team lifts weights, trains and prepares, but the standards for which they work begin to be set in OTAs. I watched some groups that reminded me of Club Med in a very entertaining way. I’ve been a part of others to worry about me as a general manager just hoping we don’t lose a player to injury, three months before we line up for real, in a practice that can’t really be anything.
Incidentally, every year we read about teams taking a day out bowling or planning a fun activity away from the “office” on their vacation. But for each of them, there’s another group that was there when I was in Miami. Falling on the last day of OTAs, we had to fight a drag, in mid-June, note what looked like a street brawl after the nightclub closed at 3am. For that particular team, it reflected the tough and physical spring we had. Punches and helmets were flying, and Hall of Fame players like defensive end Jason Taylor and linebacker Zach Thomas were in the middle. I bet, if asked today, both of them would remember how crazy it was.
Common sense must be developed, but by 2023 you’d be crazy not to include new discoveries in sports science research. My point is, your strength varies with the coaches, the culture and the locker room in your leadership. Each group will vary in how they should or shouldn’t use these important workdays.
Teams use this time to compete and evaluate and get their newly drafted and signed players into shape. Most kids coming out of college think they’re in shape and ready to go, but the physical and mental standards, competition and pace of the NFL are vastly different than what they’re used to. Talk is cheap when teams tell incoming rookies expectations, strengths and what to expect at the next level. OTAs can clear up any doubts when they see for themselves what is being asked. When players see how they measure up against their peers, it definitely influences their commitment to pushing the season forward.
As part of this process, both the coaching staff and scouting staff are able to evaluate, value, and adjust OTAs based on what they see during this period. This assessment window shows the lack of depth in a particular area or the richness of other resources. He may also remind the evaluator of some of the questions he had about players or their skill sets when the last season ended, especially if the warts haven’t gone away.
As a team builder, sometimes you can fool yourself with hope during a break. I thought our writer Josh Kendall did a great job pointing out the inconsistent accuracy concerns of Falcons quarterback Desmond Reeder this week with the history of Atlanta OTAs. Not trying to be critical, just use it as a reminder that Ridder is a work in progress. As an evaluator, the information gathered is very important, for better or for worse.
Two way education
Planting schemes on both sides of the ball is a given offseason for minicamp and OTAs. When players come back for training camp, there’s nothing new, just to remember, many staffs choose to complete a full system. Other workers prefer to make each exercise more situational and use more detailed procedures as a format for teaching and learning.
Either way, it’s important for some coaches to know how players best learn to change their teaching methods, as opposed to those who do so when training camp opens. There is no right or wrong here, and players’ learning styles are factored into the evaluations they compile from their school visits. The top half of a scout’s report is not about a player’s athletic skill or ability, but about how they think or learn, their character, and other intangibles of football. And for every player there are five or six of these reports. During OTAs, a coach can use that information to implement a plan for each player and a teaching method that goes along with it. Doing this before training camp will help the team get on the field in July.
“80 percent of success is showing up.”
Establishing building blocks for the team and a vision for the upcoming season is the big picture goal of each season. It’s not always the most talented teams that win, but the ones that come together and rise above the skill level. Off-season activities reinforce that idea in my opinion.
Attending these offseason programs has always highlighted to me the need for a team to bond, grow and form relationships that can be as important as football. For older veterans, it’s not about what they’ve learned, but what they pass on to the youth. In Green Bay, you can’t convince me that Aaron Rodgers’ refusal to participate in these voluntary activities didn’t hurt or delay his chemistry with the young receivers on that team a year ago. Now you’ve seen him on the field doing regular drills with the Jets, and I promise you his presence will have a positive effect on the team as a whole.
This is why I’ve pushed back as a GM when a player doesn’t think it’s important to attend minicamp and OTAs (at least in part). We financially encourage players to participate. I think it’s a good investment because it guarantees time spent together. I know playoff runs last a long season, but a season schedule is about 16 days on the field with teammates. I think it’s important.
Some young coaches seem more willing to be unconventional about the structure and intensity of how their teams use the 16 organized periods on the field, including minicamps, during the offseason. This does not include the early stages of a team’s season, which includes conditioning and other non-football activities. Per Paul Dehner Jr.’s column this week about Bengals OTAs, there’s a big difference in how many NFL teams use them these days and how they use them. Half the league spends less time on the field than it should. These days are valuable for all the reasons mentioned above, and as we know, every representative is important. As a GM, I’d be happy to take them if another team isn’t using them all day.
(Photo of Browns WR Cedric Tillman: Nick Kammet/Getty Images)