This NFL offseason lasts 214 days. When last an NFL game was played, on February 7, most football fans didn’t even know you could connect a gas mask to a bong. It was so long ago that no one was even thinking about baseball yet. (Wait — that’s still true.)
This week marks the absolute worst time on the NFL calendar, because the unaware fan can easily fall into a trap. Most teams are holding their minicamps, three-day flickers of mandatory practice before the six-week vacation that precedes training camp. For football lovers, the offseason is the NFL’s equivalent of the movie Sleep, Andy Warhol’s five-hour examination of … a dude sleeping. But that film was mercifully shorter than the sprawling desert that is the offseason, amid which forced minicamp participation can seem like an oasis and hungry fans can be duped into thinking there’s valuable information to be gleaned from these glorified workouts. That’s not the case.
Of course, that reality hasn’t stopped the NFL from trying to keep fans engaged year-round, and few corporations know how to manufacture news quite like the league. In many ways, the NFL has become a 12-month sport, with Antonio Brown’s Dancing With the Stars turn generating more buzz in certain circles than hockey, and the draft turning into a prime-time event. The league has made an effort to try to pounce on the engagement that lingers through even the dullest of months, but there are still only 17 regular-season weeks of real action, plus the playoffs. The appetite for access is ever-expanding, but the gridiron action isn’t, spawning a confusing and often misleading offseason news cycle and fostering a sad truth about NFL summers: If you take everything you “learned” about your team in the offseason to heart, you might be less informed than you were at the start of the offseason.
Consider this: In May 2013, center Mike Pouncey said he’d noticed Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill getting more vocal, going so far as to call Tannehill the “commander-in-chief” in the huddle. That assessment proved premature, but in June 2014, a teammate again praised Tannehill’s growth. “He’s more of a leader now,” said then-teammate Marcus Thigpen. “He’s more vocal. He was a little quiet last year. But this year he steps up a lot the way he talks to the players and coaches. He’s taking a lead role now.” Thigpen also wound up being ahead of schedule, but in June 2015, it appeared that Tannehill’s leadership was finally, really, truly ready to break through. “[He’s] kind of taking the team on his shoulders and knowing that, hey, we’ve got to come out here every day and put something great together,” teammate Kenny Stills said. Was he right? Well, this month, Pouncey once again found himself talking about Tannehill’s leadership. “I think he’s been a lot more vocal this year as a leader,” Pouncey said. Sensing a trend here, offseason news consumers?
While we wait for Tannehill to break out as a more vocal leader, there is some good news. Trust someone who’s spent years learning the dos and don’ts of offseason news consumption: You can learn things from the offseason, if you know where to look. Here are four keys to avoiding the misinformation pitfalls and making yourself a smarter football fan this June.
Pretty Much Never Listen to Coaches in June
Coaches often name “offseason starters,” which might as well be the football equivalent of the Game of Thrones character you just know is about to be killed off.
Consider: The Rams named Case Keenum the offseason starter at quarterback despite (a) trading a haul to move up to no. 1 to draft Jared Goff and (b) Keenum being Keenum. This comes a little more than a year after the Rams overpraised Sam Bradford last spring only to dump him in exchange for Nick Foles, who, by the way, isn’t even showing up for offseason activities these days.
Official labels are just part of the bit. Part of a coach’s job is to play head games, to pump up players who aren’t performing, and to motivate players who are great and ready to take the leap. Do we actually believe Bruce Arians doesn’t like his star receiver, John Brown? “He should have 1,400 [yards] easy. He had 200 [yards] worth of drops in Philly,” Arians told reporters recently. Are we buying that Arians has never been in a tight end room as talented as the one he’s in now even though the Cardinals didn’t have a TE rank among their four top receivers last year? Of course not, but Arians has gotten into the spirit of the offseason by focusing on feeding the news cycle while offensive coordinator Harold Goodwin calls the plays. “I can tell you, this offseason, he’s done completely nothing,” Goodwin recently told reporters. Good times in Arizona.
Learn to Read the Tea Leaves
When attempting to understand the NFL offseason, it’s essential to remember that actions speak louder than words. It matters which players practice with which unit, just as it matters who the team signed to compete for a given position. Browns head coach Hue Jackson may be refusing to name a starting quarterback, but I’m naming Robert Griffin III the main man in Cleveland, both because the “competition” is Josh McCown and rookie Cody Kessler, and because of an Akron Beacon Journal item that noted RG3 has taken the “vast majority” of first-team snaps during offseason training.
Position competitions don’t net many Cinderella stories. What’s more, when one player does manage to overtake another, it doesn’t happen quickly. NFL coaches are some of the most methodical people on the planet, and a lot of thought goes into each and every lineup tweak. Whether it’s the Griffin-McCown “battle” or the Rams “competition,” in which coach Jeff Fisher is reportedly planning to give Goff first-team reps this week despite the label he slapped on Keenum, actions lay the groundwork for change; words at press conferences don’t.
The same logic applies to contract standoffs. Posturing means nothing until crunch time, which for contracts is in mid-July. (July 15 is the deadline for any franchised player to sign an extension. If that deadline passes, players must play on their glorified one-year contract. So don’t be fooled by those saying Von Miller’s extension talks have “broken off;” there’s a full month to go before they really could.) Is Eric Berry, who’s currently skipping offseason activities, happy with his contract? Maybe not, but he’ll sign his tender and be ready for training camp anyway, just like almost every other player in his position. Is Reshad Jones going to sit out the season? No, no he is not. Remember: June is prime posturing season. Nothing really matters until July.
Remember That No One Changes That Much
Here’s an oft-used football axiom, usually attributed to Bill Parcells: “If they don’t bite when they are puppies, they usually don’t bite.” Players rarely change dramatically once their careers starts. That doesn’t stop them from trying, of course. Colin Kaepernick is one of the latest examples: Last seen getting walloped in a 49ers quarterback competition by Blaine Gabbert, Kaep is sporting a new tinted visor. Perhaps it’s an effort to have a slightly poorer view of Gabbert playing once the season starts, and if so, who could blame him?
The beleaguered QB isn’t the only player trying to improve his fortunes by altering something about his offseason routine. Colts tight end Dwayne Allen is going to yoga to help with injury problems, while Saints wide receiver Michael Thomas decided that’s too broad, and is focusing primarily on hand yoga instead.
RG3 is working with private QB guru Tom House, who has a proven track record of working with famous quarterbacks, including Tom Brady. House is talented and a fine addition to any player’s arsenal, but he also worked with Tim Tebow last year shortly before Tebow’s last NFL chance with Philadelphia flamed out. His services aren’t a magic elixir.
New workouts, new coaches, and new yoga routines usually prove to be minimal boosts once the season arrives. The same goes for weight gains and losses. Marcus Mariota has gained five pounds, while Ben Roethlisberger is down 15; does that mean they’ll be better players this year? New Patriot Shea McClellin is trying to gain 10 pounds before camp to get himself into the mid-250s, which ESPN reporter Mike Reiss points out is to deal with the “inevitable weight loss” that occurs during a season. But McClellin did almost the exact same thing two years ago, losing weight and gaining 11 pounds of muscle while moving from defensive end to linebacker, and he still quickly flamed out with the Bears.
It’s admirable when players try to improve in the offseason, and it’s logical for media members to do their job by chronicling those efforts, but thanks to the relentless NFL Offseason News Industrial Complex, some of these stories can inflate like a gut that failed to heed its offseason exercise regimen.
Trust Your Beat Writers
What little actual information can be extracted from minicamps comes not from coaches or general managers but from beat writers, who watch the team often and provide incredible and educated insight. Mine this information, because in June, you’ll get a lot more from your local paper than from a Doug Pederson transcript.
Read good, neutral analysis from both beat writers and statistical services like Pro Football Focus and Football Outsiders. Study the trends of last season instead of reading Wednesday’s player comments. There are ways to figure out in June what will matter in September. You just have to know when to listen.