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The NFL’s Offseason of Zoom

A work stoppage over a new collective bargaining agreement canceled much of the 2011 offseason. Circumstances are wildly different today, but there are lessons to be learned about how the league will conduct its business.

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This is one of the weirdest years in most of our lifetimes, and far, far down the list of worldwide concerns is whether Ron Rivera has enough time to install third-down subpackages. Here is what we know: These sorts of things will still be installed, likely over Zoom. We know nothing else.

The NFL’s offseason programs were supposed to start this week for teams with new coaches—Dallas, Cleveland, Washington, Carolina, and the New York Giants were supposed to be on the field. These workouts are delayed while the league’s front office and players union decide how teams should go about offseason activities amid [gestures wildly] all of this.

The draft will go on as scheduled on April 23, with teams making their selections remotely. After the draft, all 32 teams were supposed to conduct in-person rookie mini-camps, and offseason training activities for veterans were scheduled sporadically through the late spring. None of these things will happen, and the things that haven’t been canceled—like mini-camps in June—seem unlikely to happen. There is a global pandemic, and sports don’t matter, so sports practices five months before any scheduled games certainly don’t matter. Training camps are scheduled for late July, as always, and the season is scheduled to start in September. As with everything, it is impossible to know whether either will happen on time. All that’s known is what will happen in the next few weeks until the draft.

How teams prepare now will change the 2020 NFL season, if there even is one. This is a league in which it took coaches years to adjust to reduced practice time after the 2011 collective bargaining agreement, and it will be impossible for all 32 to immediately learn how to practice over Zoom in the next few weeks. It is true that teams might struggle to figure out how to draft over the internet in two weeks, but that is a relatively minor inconvenience: Teams are simply reading names in order. The real competitive issue that is keeping teams awake at night is what will happen after. How will teams learn to practice without practicing during the “virtual offseason”?

I’ve talked to a handful of NFL executives this week on draft-related issues, and we’ve touched on the subject of what the offseason will look like. No one actually knows because even the 2011 lockout—the last time an offseason was wiped out—was drastically different from this one (more on that in a second). These days, teams can send iPads to their players with playbooks and other info. NFL teams have used tablets for nearly a decade, but they now must rely on technology in ways they never have before. This is not normal for a certain type of football coach. Nick Saban said he is now using his email account for the first time. It is a new world.

“You’re not going to be standing there in front of 30 or 60 or however many players, speaking your team message for the day,” Bears coach Matt Nagy told the Chicago Tribune this week. “You’re going to have to rely on them looking at it online, with online installations. How do we do that by being as clear as we possibly can, but also not making it be forever to where they get bored staring a screen for a long time?” Bears GM Ryan Pace said the swift changes “pushed us further from a technology standpoint.” This is no small thing—NFL teams are probably some of the least tech-savvy billion-dollar companies on the planet, and this offseason could be a shift in that regard.

Falcons coach Dan Quinn said his coaches are practicing how they’ll teach over video. The only problem, of course, is that there are no clear rules for what that will look like. Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said on SiriusXM that the NFL is “no different than everybody is in the whole world right now. We’re all kind of in flux.”

The lack of in-person workouts is a wrinkle not even seen in the lockout-shortened offseason of 2011. Players were prevented from meeting at team facilities, but they could simply fly their teammates out to a beach location and practice on their own. That’s not possible in the social-distancing age yet. This is a league in which, players once told me, Tom Brady will be upset at himself for missing his target by centimeters on throws in June in California. If he cannot have those same workouts, there will be at least some impact. Brady is smart enough to figure out how to try to replicate his offseason workouts. Not everyone, if you haven’t noticed, is as smart as Brady.

There is no way this does not become a competitive advantage for smart teams. Every development in the history of football has pointed toward one thing: The teams that figured things out first were the ones to win. If you do not have a good plan for your virtual offseason, it will show up during the season. This is not to say a team will improve by 10 wins because they crushed the Zoom calls; it’s to say that being good in this sport is the result of a series of tiny edges and having good Zoom calls, incredibly, is now going to be one of them.

Bengals coach Zac Taylor said there could be value in keeping Andy Dalton on the roster alongside presumptive no. 1 pick Joe Burrow because “there’s a lot of unknowns right now on what the offseason is going to look like.” The implication is that a veteran like Dalton might be good to have around for a rookie quarterback. Panthers coach Matt Rhule pointed out that signing free-agent quarterback Teddy Bridgewater makes even more sense now given that Carolina’s offensive coordinator Joe Brady helped coach Bridgewater in 2018, meaning they’ll need less time to get on the same page. Bridgewater, by the way, is scheduled to make $250,000 if he participates in Panthers offseason workouts. Packers pass rusher Za’Darius Smith is owed $750,000. Yahoo Sports reports the league is close on a deal that will provide the infrastructure to allow players to collect these bonuses, a monitoring system not unlike online workout classes. We live in strange times.

In 2011, the league’s lockout wiped out an entire offseason. There are a few major differences between then and now as far as competition is concerned: Teams this year will be able to communicate freely with players during certain windows (that was severely limited during the lockout), and players in 2011 could travel to train with teammates in an unofficial capacity (this is not advisable at the moment). The only through line from 2011 is that smart teams benefitted: At the time, Bill Belichick explained that because there would be no practices and meetings in the spring and fewer training camp practices, it would be easier to run a 4-3 defense and reduce the number of “fronts” a defense runs. “There are so many intricacies to a 3-4 defense that I just didn’t know if we’d be ready to handle them this year,” Belichick said on SiriusXM Radio. “Probably wouldn’t have been, to be honest with you.” Around that time, Belichick also started to run more no-huddle, up-tempo offense. The Patriots made the Super Bowl that season, losing to another team full of veteran coaches and players, the New York Giants.

There were a lot of wrong narratives about the 2011 offseason, and we can learn from them now: A lot of people inside the league said new coaches and rookies would lose the most. The lack of practices, the prevailing thought dictated, would doom the inexperienced. Rich Gannon said at the time that if the lockout went into June, offensive coordinators had told him it’d be time to write off the rookie class for a year. This was overblown: Rookies like Cam Newton had immediate success in September—he broke Peyton Manning’s record for passing yards in a debut. The Panthers unveiled an offense influenced by his Auburn playbook. There was no rust. Other rookies like Julio Jones, Von Miller, A.J. Green, and Aldon Smith all had success. Perhaps there is an alternate history here—perhaps if OTAs and mini-camps took place, then-rookie Blaine Gabbert would have been a star. Gabbert’s career never took off, but his rookie class was one of the most successful drafts of the era, and the lockout did nothing to prevent many of its players from becoming stars quickly. As for coaching, Niners coach Jim Harbaugh, in his first season, made the NFC title game despite a lack of an offseason. Smart teams beat dumb teams, like they do every season. The only thing we know now is that it won’t be a normal NFL season. For now, we’re all on Zoom.