The defining feature of this NFL offseason has been its return to a normal schedule. A year after OTAs, minicamps, and preseason games were wiped off the calendar by the COVID-19 pandemic and training camp was highly modified, a typical order of operations has resumed. Testing trailers, outdoor meeting spaces, and different rules for the vaccinated and unvaccinated draw lines between offseasons before the pandemic and this one, but in other ways the cadence of the NFL calendar from March to September mirrors 2019 more than 2020.
It’s not the offseason that JC Tretter, president of the NFLPA and a center for the Browns, imagined in December when he wrote in a newsletter, “There is no reason for us to ever return to the previous offseason program.”
When Tretter wrote that letter, he was arguing that lessons from the 2020 season be applied to 2021 and beyond. Specifically, he wanted the league to reconsider the requirements it places on players from March through August, specifically when it comes to the voluntary OTAs and mandatory spring minicamps. The evidence from last season showed that eliminating certain offseason mandates did not hurt the on-field product; Trotter argued it actually improved it by decreasing injuries. The NFL apparently disagreed and returned to the existing schedule.
That argument, for now, is tabled. Players have returned to training camps after completing a normal offseason program. Coaches still made comments about attendance at (voluntary) OTAs, agents advised clients to skip those sessions at their own peril, and media members clutching rosters and pens on the side of practice fields still marked players absent or present. Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers did not show up for mandatory minicamp. The preseason is back after a one-year hiatus. Tretter’s concerns represent the tension between player desires and how the business of the NFL has always determined its offseason calendar. The players haven’t earned any significant concessions yet, but they’ve at least begun raising questions about what’s expected of them each year. The question came into stark contrast amid the pandemic: What should the NFL offseason look like? And who is it for?
History tells us that the structure of the NFL’s offseason changes in response to financial incentives. Joe Horrigan, the former executive director and historian for the Pro Football Hall of Fame, told me that the NFL offseason program as we currently know it began to take shape after the NFL-AFL merger in 1970.
“The philosophy changed,” Horrigan said. “Coaches [and] teams used to believe in an offseason where you recuperated, but the philosophy changed from a recuperation to a year-round preparation.”
That shift, though, was not the result of injury rates, player feedback, or an adaptation to how the game was being played on the field. Instead, it was largely a product of one of the NFLPA’s great priorities: free agency.
In the early years of the NFL, Horrigan said, teams would submit a roster to the league office at the end of each season. Once submitted, the team held the rights to every player on its list for the following season. Players, therefore, tended to remain with the same teams for many years, often their entire careers. They were parts of their communities, where they usually held second jobs outside of football, working on off days or during the offseason.
“The concept of football being a year-round profession that now exists? Back then, it didn’t,” Horrigan said.
Due to the growing power of the NFLPA and a series of antitrust lawsuits, the league gradually loosened its rules governing player movement. In 1961, 49ers wide receiver R.C. Owens became the first player to complete a contractual obligation with one team and then sign with another, the Baltimore Colts. In 1976, the NFLPA won a free agency victory in Mackey v. NFL, when the courts ruled that the “Rozelle Rule,” which allowed the NFL commissioner to determine compensation between teams over a player transaction, was an unreasonable restraint on trade and violated Section 1 of the Sherman Act. Teams, though, could still protect up to 37 players each year. It was not until the 1993 CBA when the current free agency structure was put into place (along with the institution of a salary cap).
There were two significant by-products of free agency that changed the offseason: First, player salaries went up, which decreased the need for football to be a part-time job. Second, players changed teams more often, which both decreased their ability to have a part-time job and also introduced a new incentive for coaches to bring players into facilities in the offseason, since increased roster turnover necessitated more in-person meetings to acclimate new teammates. The game also got more complicated, so coaches wanted more practice time with players, even those who had not switched teams, to learn playbooks. The money was better, so jobs in the NFL were more competitive, and players trained year round whether their teams required it or not.
“Before, training camp was really to call the boys in to get them in shape,” Horrigan said. “Right now, it’s calling the boys in to prepare for the season.”
It wasn’t until the early 2000s that players and management revisited the offseason calendar. There was little protection in the CBA guarding players against coaches adding to the offseason practice schedule. In 2003, the NFLPA and the NFL Management Council—responding in part to some overzealous coaching staffs—agreed to new rules specifying a uniform start date for the league calendar (in that case, March 25) and shortening the maximum length of the offseason program from 16 to 14 weeks. Teams were told they could not mandate that players work more than four hours a day.
The 2011 CBA pulled back further. Two-a-days during training camp became a thing of the past and the number of full-contact practices during the season was lowered. Coaches and others bemoaned the lack of time to teach fundamental development, but the league saw offense and, more importantly, revenue increase significantly with those rules in place. As a new generation of coaches began taking over teams in the late 2010s, those initial complaints softened—Rams coach Sean McVay set a trend in 2018 when he rested his entire starting offense for all four preseason games, then went 13-3 and made the Super Bowl. “I’d rather have zero than four,” 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan said of preseason games in 2019.
Then, the pandemic arrived. Players were completely absent from facilities from March through mid-July. Like in 2011, there were concerns over what the limited practice time would do to quality of play. Also like in 2011, those concerns did not pan out exactly as expected: Points went up in 2020 and penalties and missed tackles went down. Anecdotally, players were still able to adjust to new environments: Rookies like Vikings wide receiver Justin Jefferson made significant contributions. First-year Browns head coach Kevin Stefanski was named Coach of the Year. A team with a new quarterback, Tom Brady, won the Super Bowl. It was hard to see where the lost offseason had made a dent in the regular season, which led Tretter, the NFLPA, and much of its membership to lobby for more permanent changes last winter and this spring.
A significant piece of the NFLPA’s argument for less time on the playing field in the spring and summer came from data citing reduced injuries in 2020. The NFLPA calculated a 23 percent decrease in “missed time injuries”—injuries that kept players out of practices or games—mostly attributable to the reduced number of injuries in OTAs (which didn’t exist) and training camp (which was shortened with a lengthy “acclimation period”). They also noted a 30 percent decrease in concussions. Lower-extremity strains fell within the league’s five-year average, meaning that reduced training time in facilities did not lead to spikes in soft-tissue injuries.
“Our players are professionals. They understand what they need to do in order to be prepared,” Tretter said. “A lot of our guys train year round to be at their physical peak. They also study their playbooks in order to mentally prepare. We do not need to be brought in during April through June to practice against each other—it’s simply unnecessary.”
The NFLPA lobbied for another entirely virtual offseason, but the league opted to return to the traditional format. Star players like Brady were called upon to urge peers to support the cause by skipping voluntary offseason workouts. “We shouldn’t have overly competitive drills in May and June,” Brady said on a players’ conference call in May. “There’s no fucking pro baseball player that’s throwing 95 mph in the middle of December.” But most players felt they couldn’t risk irking their coaches or losing reps. Through the union, players from multiple teams issued statements expressing their intent to boycott OTAs, but ultimately most were well attended, particularly after coaches were willing to negotiate some modifications.
The Colts scaled back their nine-week offseason program to two weeks and finished before Memorial Day. The Rams limited their offseason program to virtual meetings, light seven-on-seven drills, and 11-on-11 walkthroughs. No pads. The Chargers and Dolphins practiced exclusively with walk-throughs and virtual meetings. The Saints—the first team to scrap their offseason program even before COVID-19 restrictions mandated it officially in 2020—canceled all offseason practices this year as well.
“I really want them focused more on the weights. And not just the rookies, all the guys,” Saints coach Sean Payton said in May. “Getting their body weights where they’re supposed to be and condition level where it’s supposed to be, all the things that will help them when training camps start.”
When it comes to negotiating about what the NFL offseason should look like, coaches and players seem to be on the same page when it comes to the physicality of practices. The Shanahan-McVay philosophy of the preseason is commonplace at this point; teams like the Bengals have already made it clear that they’ll be limiting contact for some players in training camp and the preseason, such as quarterback Joe Burrow, who is returning from an ACL injury.
Limiting competitive drills only gets players halfway there, though. Tretter’s argument that players are professionals who don’t need hand-holding and shouldn’t have to travel away from their families for an extended period in the offseason is a tougher sell—coaches like to be in control, and the league likes to create a year-round calendar. Offseason workouts, no matter the fine print designating them as voluntary, don’t feel optional when coaches still make comments about attendance and media members still check off players as present or absent. And while reducing contact during these sessions is no longer a novel idea, it’s also not universally adopted. Just this past spring, three teams—the Jaguars, the Cowboys, and even Shanahan’s 49ers—were fined for violating the CBA rules during their OTA sessions.
That an “offseason program” might be an oxymoron is still a foreign concept to the NFL. For now, the league holds the same view as your annoying friend on Twitter during free agency—what offseason?!?! Those preseason games coaches increasingly see as more risk than they’re worth? Tickets to those games are sold as part of season-ticket packages, meaning that they often count as near-sellouts even if the stands are mostly empty. Over the past week, fans have been back watching training camp practices, buying hot dogs and generating enthusiasm around the start of the new season. The business motives of the NFL do not align with some players’ desire to diminish the offseason program, and history tells us as long as that is the case, the status quo will prevail. Whether the offseason is necessary for the NFL or whether it’s necessary for its players are two different questions. For now, only one is dictating league policy.