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The NFL Wants a Return to Normal. Players See an Opportunity for Change.

A dispute over offseason workouts has revealed old fissures between the league and many of its players

Getty Images/AP Images/Ringer illustration

Last Friday, the NFL Players Association held a conference call to update its members on the offseason calendar. The union reiterated its request that players skip voluntary spring workouts, something its leadership has been advocating for since the end of the 2020 season. Toward the end of the call, Tom Brady got on the line to help make the case.

“We shouldn’t have overly competitive drills in May and June,” Brady said, according to the NFL Network. “There’s no fucking pro baseball player that’s throwing 95 miles per hour in the middle of December.”

Brady has long advocated for changing the league’s offseason training regimen, and his voice carries weight for obvious reasons. He won the Super Bowl in his first season with the Buccaneers despite the cancellation of all offseason training due to COVID-19. Brady also skipped voluntary workouts when he was in New England in 2018 before another Super Bowl–winning season, and again in 2019. His message to the other players on the call was not that offseason training is without its benefits, but that the current structure is less than ideal for players, and that by skipping this year’s sessions, they could get the attention of owners and the league front office, potentially giving themselves leverage to make some positive changes.

“One thing I’ve learned in business is what you do for free, someone will never pay you for,” Brady said. “And just because we’ve had offseasons the way we’ve had for 20-plus years doesn’t mean that’s the best thing for the health and well-being of the players. The point is there’s a better way to do it, and they’re not open to that.”

As currently constructed, offseason workouts consist of three phases. The league is currently in Phase 1, which involves strength and conditioning work. Phase 2 begins May 17 and runs through May 24 and involves on-field drills but no contact. Phase 3 picks up on May 24 and runs through June 18, and includes mandatory minicamp, the only portion of the offseason before training camp that all players are required to attend. Teams like the structure of the schedule and the ability to monitor players’ training regimens, but many players find the pressure to attend voluntary workouts and participate in full-contact practices frustrating.

Brady’s argument for improving the offseason structure for players is compelling, at least in theory. In April, the NFLPA released statements on behalf of the players of at least 21 teams claiming that they would be staying away from voluntary workouts this offseason. It’s unclear whether those statements were intended to be from all the players on those teams, but many players from teams included in the statements have reported to their Phase 1 workouts, even though on-field work has yet to begin. According to ESPN’s Mike Reiss, the Patriots had more than 50 players present at their voluntary workouts last week. When the Broncos opened up their facility, at least a dozen players were in attendance. Vikings receiver Justin Jefferson told reporters Tuesday that “most of the guys on the team” are attending offseason training. Of the three teams that held rookie minicamps over the weekend, all had near-perfect attendance.

At this time last year, the NFL and NFLPA were forced to come together and redesign the offseason. The COVID-19 pandemic created immense challenges, but it did have the side effect of turning adversaries into temporary collaborators. The league and the union faced such a steep challenge simply getting facilities reopened and keeping players and coaches safe that some of their usual animosity faded. There were intense negotiations, but the NFLPA got significant concessions from the NFL: no preseason games, daily testing for the virus, opt-outs with salary advances, and a floor of $175 million for the 2021 salary cap. There was some genuine goodwill forged, too—the week before the Super Bowl, NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith and NFL commissioner Roger Goodell shared the stage for a joint press conference, an unusual display of public cooperation.

“Took a global pandemic to bring them 6 feet apart,” NFLPA executive George Atallah joked on Twitter.

This year, thankfully, the season outlook is less dire. Fifty-nine percent of American adults have been vaccinated against COVID-19, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and cases nationwide are declining. But instead of finding common ground, the NFL and NFLPA are back in their respective corners, with the league mostly pushing for a return to the old calendar and the union arguing for more permanent changes.

So far, business as (the old) usual is winning out. Facilities are open, players are training together in person, and the NFL expects to have stadiums at full capacity this season (though teams will operate differently depending on the guidelines from state and local governments). The preseason will be back, though it’s been reduced to three games as a concession for adding a 17th regular-season game, and teams are allowed to hold training camps away from their facilities if they wish. The only change to the calendar is that the league pushed the official schedule release back and fans will have to wait until Wednesday to find out when the games they already know are happening will take place. There are arguments being made, many of them good ones, that lessons learned over the past 14 months should be used to alter the structure of the NFL calendar. So far, though, they are being trampled by the force of the status quo.

The NFLPA wants the voluntary workouts eliminated and the mandatory minicamp (which was collectively bargained for and would need to be canceled by mutual consent) to be virtual. The NFLPA wants to keep players away from team facilities until training camp begins due to continued concerns about COVID-19, even though many of last season’s testing and social-distancing protocols remain in place.

“We believe that the science and everything we’ve talked about before would strongly demonstrate that we’d be better off not having even the mandatory minicamp,” Smith said on a conference call in April.

However, NFLPA leadership is also making an argument about the offseason structure that’s not specific to the pandemic. At the end of last season, NFLPA president and Browns center J.C. Tretter presented evidence that the lack of offseason workouts had a positive impact on player health and the overall product on the field.

“I believe the changes implemented this season have demonstrated that we can put an entertaining product out on the field while further reducing wear and tear on our players’ bodies,” Tretter wrote in a December newsletter. “There is no reason for us to ever return to the previous offseason program.”

It’s a viewpoint the vast majority of NFL players have an easy time getting behind. The challenge is that so much of player compensation is tied into performance-related incentives, many of which come into effect during the offseason. Brady is the most authoritative voice in the league and the most capable spokesperson to make the union’s case that players should skip voluntary workouts, but he’s in a class of his own compared to the vast majority of players. Brady’s core issues with voluntary workouts in the past have been twofold: They take him away from his family, and he considers some of the demands put on players, like heavy lifting in the weight room and hitting in practice, to be counterproductive, even harmful.

Those are eminently reasonable opinions, but they are relatively specific to Brady. The average NFL player is 26 years old; Brady is 43 with a family who’s dealt with the demands of his career for over a decade. He plays a position that doesn’t require heavy forms of resistance in order to train and has plenty of his own gym equipment at home, or at the nearest TB12 location. He has a personal trainer and the cachet with teammates to get them to join him for throwing sessions in Los Angeles, Montana, or a school field in Tampa. He is also in no danger of getting cut.

Most players have a different set of incentives when it comes to voluntary workouts. According to NFL Network’s Tom Pelissero, around 300 of the league’s roughly 2,500 contracted players have workout bonuses in their contracts that are earned by attending spring workouts. (These bonuses are more common for players on certain teams, including the Packers, Bills, Jaguars, and Chiefs.) Even players who don’t have those incentives still sometimes save money by working out at team facilities instead of paying for trainers, gym space, and equipment themselves. They’re also paid a league-mandated $275 per diem.

Mostly, though, it’s difficult for less-established players to consider skipping spring workouts because they fear missing them will reduce their standing on the team in the eyes of coaches and general managers. Multiple agents told me they’d counseled clients to attend voluntary workouts, both for the reps and to be counted on coaches’ attendance sheets. Even if they’d like to stay home for their own health and well-being, many players feel like it’s too big a risk to take, especially when coaches make their feelings known.

“If you think you can just go to training camp [and not offseason] and develop as a quarterback, that’s fantasyland,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said in March. “That can be really ugly football, I promise you.”

The cost-benefit analysis of players training on their own time got an accidental test case last week when Broncos right tackle Ja’Wuan James suffered a potentially season-ending Achilles tendon tear during an off-site workout on May 4. Under the collective bargaining agreement, Denver has the right to not pay James his $9.85 million salary for 2021 since he got hurt working out away from their facilities. They could even seek to recover James’s $3 million signing bonus proration for 2021 and the salary advance James got when he opted out of the 2020 season, though they don’t have to go that route.

The NFL and NFLPA are each using James’s injury to justify their divergent positions. The league office immediately used James’s injury as an opportunity to send a memo to teams mentioning James by name and clarifying that they have “no contractual obligation to provide salary” when a player is injured working out in a location other than an NFL facility. The memo also told teams they were “encouraged to remind players of the significant injury-related protection provided if they choose to work out at the club facility and the risks they undertake in choosing to train in non-NFL locations.”

The NFLPA emailed its membership the following day saying “it was gutless to use a player’s serious injury as a scare tactic to get you to come running back to these workouts. This memo is another sign of what they think of you and also affirms that they simply want to control you year-round in any and every way that they can.” The email also called the designation of the injury as a “non-football injury” an “open threat” and invalid since James was working out under a program recommended to him by his coach.

James never asked to be an avatar for either side’s cause, and he’s an imperfect one for both parties. The day after the NFLPA’s email, however, the Broncos placed James on the non-football injury list by the Broncos, meaning that they believe they are not required to pay James and that the threat the NFLPA identified was indeed real. There is real evidence, from lessons learned last season and elsewhere, that the offseason schedule could be reworked in a way that players prefer without harming the on-field product. There is little evidence, though, that that reconfiguration will happen any time soon.