Coaches looking for offseason volunteers

Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Graham
The definition of voluntary is rather simple. Crack open the dictionary.

The definition of voluntary workouts also is clear. It's spelled out in the NFL's collective-bargaining agreement.

The concept of whether a player should feel compelled to attend voluntary workouts, however, is vague and the source of controversy every offseason when certain players don't participate.

"It's a never-ending situation I've faced my entire career," said Ernie Accorsi, the former Baltimore Colts, Cleveland Browns and New York Giants general manager.

Coaches and general managers would prefer their players volunteer to show up for the good of the club, to be internally hardwired to want to work out with their teammates at the facility.

But, aside from a three-day minicamp, teams can't punish players for skipping offseason conditioning programs or organized team activities, commonly referred to as OTAs.

"You can't force them to be there," Accorsi said. ""But what you can't replace is the chemistry part of it.

"To me, the most important element of the offseason is the unity and the chemistry. Coaches are going to say something different. They're going to say control over their conditioning programs and learning the systems. That's important. But, to me, building a cohesion by going through the period that's a lot of hard work and no games together."

Some high-profile examples of players not attending have taken place in the AFC East.

Star receiver Terrell Owens has declared he won't be attending the Buffalo Bills' workouts unless they're mandatory. Pro Bowl left tackle Jason Peters has been skipping them for a second straight year because he's unhappy with his contract.

Pro Bowl running back Thomas Jones isn't sweating in the New York Jets' facility until he has a new contract.

In 2008, Jason Taylor chose "Dancing With the Stars" over the Miami Dolphins' offseason program, much to the dismay of austere football operations boss Bill Parcells.

Those, of course, aren't the only players not showing up for voluntary sessions. There are scores throughout the league, but the stars are the ones people notice.

Should players be vilified for enjoying their offseasons?

Fans often decide that answer. Owens is in his honeymoon stage. Bills fans generally seem less bothered by Owens' absence and more incensed with the media's spotlight on his decision. Yet they're mostly fed up with Peters.

Dolfans, stinging from a 1-15 season but enraptured with Parcells' arrival, railed against Taylor last summer. They did this even though he's one of the franchise's biggest stars and was the NFL's reigning Walter Payton Man of the Year for his extraordinary community service.

"In some cases, players should be there and need to be there," Taylor said Sunday night at a charity event for the Jason Taylor Foundation in Hollywood, Fla. "You understand the team side of things. They want everybody there, somewhat to babysit them, to make sure they're doing things. It does create chemistry in a certain way.

"But at the end of the day it is voluntary. That's your offseason, a chance for you to do some of the things you can't do during the season and be with your families."

Article XXXV, Section 1 of the collective-bargaining agreement spells out voluntary workouts:

No player shall be required to attend or participate in any offseason workout program or classroom instruction of a club other than as provided in Article XXXVI (minicamps). Any other club offseason workout programs and classroom instruction sessions shall be strictly voluntary.

Section 5 adds that "No club official shall indicate to a player that a club's offseason workout program or classroom instruction is not voluntary (or that a player's failure to participate in a workout program or classroom instruction will result in the player's failure to make the club)."

With some football managers, Parcells being one of them, offseason voluntary workouts are emphasized. Attendance is expected unless there's a damn good reason. A celebrity dance contest apparently wasn't on the list.

Parcells and his protégés demand commitment and accountability, and one of the best ways a player can show he's embracing those concepts is with a willingness to work without being told.

Quarterbacks have a tendency to show up for voluntary sessions. So do eager youngsters and those on the fringes of the 53-man roster. But coaches value veteran starters who show up when they don't have to. Those are the types of players who can set a tone in the locker room.

ESPN analyst Herm Edwards claimed he didn't get too agitated by his players skipping the offseason conditioning program when he was head coach of the Jets and Kansas City Chiefs.

"You would hope if you're a new player and you just got traded or somebody picked you up that you would be there," Edwards said. "But it ain't something to make a big deal out of, and especially when you get a guy with a big name. There's a fine line."

But in the case of Owens, who announced shortly after signing a one-year, $6.5 million contract with the Bills that he will be skipping all voluntary workouts, Edwards has a problem.

"That's why I wouldn't take the guy," Edwards said. "If he doesn't come for OTAs, that's 14 practices he's going to miss.

"He'll be there at minicamp for three or four days. He'll run around and be in shape a
nd they'll throw him some passes, but that hurts the quarterback. Now you have to wait all the way until they get to training camp to get the timing down with the guy and get a feel for the guy.

"Does that kill you? No, it doesn't kill you. But you wish you can get some of that done in shorts before you get to the pads, the timing, the terminology."

Edwards qualified his comments by asserting repeatedly that Owens will take care of himself and remain in fabulous shape without the Bills' offseason program. But Edwards noted the person who'll be affected most by Owens' reluctance to show up is the Bills' third-year quarterback, Trent Edwards.

"He's making a statement," Herm Edwards said. "He's saying 'I'm T.O. I'm the star. This is how I do it. I know what it takes for me to get ready.'

"It's sad because you wish the guy was there because he's a new player and he happens to be a receiver, but there's not a whole lot you can do about it."

Coaches want their players to attend voluntary workouts and be around the team facility because they're constantly searching for every little edge.

What if a division rival has a better offseason attendance record? What if opponents are finding chemistry while another team's players are scattered across the country? What kind of disadvantage does a franchise such as Buffalo have over Miami, where the players live year-round and don't need to be convinced to stick around in the offseason and stop by the film room?

"Coaches feel like you're behind if your guys aren't around," Herm Edwards said. "But you can't go crazy about that. It's not a battle worth fighting, not in March or April."

Accorsi laughed at the idea of how much offseason conditioning has evolved since he entered the NFL.

The Colts' program was nonexistent when they hired Accorsi in 1970. They stepped it up by purchasing memberships at the Towson, Md., YMCA, where the exercise of choice was handball or basketball. The Colts eventually began paying their players to lift weights and run together.

"For an old-timer like me it didn't seem right," Accorsi said. "But it was the only way in some franchise cities that you were going to get them, especially if they were from the warm weather and you were asking them to come to a cold climate."

Accorsi isn't a big fan of offseason programs to begin with. He said they're overrated from an X's and O's standpoint. He also has a theory that players suffer more injuries because they don't have enough time off.

The value, Accorsi insisted, is in building team unity. But even that is achievable without insisting players huddle in the spring.

"You'd like to have your whole team together, but you have plenty of time to generate chemistry," Accorsi said. "Certainly, an offseason together would enhance it, but that doesn't mean you're not going to have it.

"If there was a rule that there could be no offseason programs, some teams would have chemistry and some teams wouldn't."