In recent years, Peyton and Eli Manning have created a new tradition. In April, they take a handful of their receivers to Duke University to train in advance of the beginning of offseason workouts. This year, Eli Manning picked up the tab to have Odell Beckham Jr., Victor Cruz, Rueben Randle and Preston Parker join him in Durham, North Carolina, for two days of two-a-day practices.
This wasn't always necessary. Offseason programs used to begin in mid-March, well in advance of the draft. Quarterbacks used to be able to meet with their position coach, coordinator and head coach to watch film, talk football, game plan and brainstorm whenever they wanted. They used to be able to throw with their receivers in an informal, casual setting at the team's practice facility.
Which is why the Mannings migrate to Duke with their top receivers for a couple of days each April. They chose Duke because Blue Devils head coach David Cutcliffe was Peyton's offensive coordinator and quarterback coach at the University of Tennessee and was Eli's head coach at Ole Miss, and mostly because Cutcliffe opens up his Duke facilities to the players. Duke trainers tape the players before practice. They have access to the weight room and training room. And the practice field is reliable.
"You can't do it at your own facility anymore, so yeah, it's been tougher for everybody to get on the same page," Eli Manning said.
"Guys aren't used to two-a-days anymore, so we do four practices in two days," Manning said. "More guys would come if I asked. I just don't have the arm to throw to seven guys in two practices every day and all the routes. It probably wouldn't be worth it."
What would be worth it, Manning said, would be to have more time with coaches in the offseason. But that can't happen.
A win that backfired
One of the NFL Players Association's big "wins" during its negotiation with the league on the 2011 collective bargaining agreement was a reduction in offseason practice time. Five weeks were shaved off the schedule. Limits were placed on how much time players could spend watching film or working with coaches.
For players looking to limit physical exposure, the rules made sense. For quarterbacks? It's the opposite. Manning isn't a fan. As of a few weeks ago, he had not had an opportunity to do something as simple as watch all of the film from last season with his offensive coordinator or quarterbacks coach. That's how tight the time restrictions are.
"You kind of think of the NFL, where it's harder to work in the NFL to do everything you want to do," Manning said. "You kind of don't feel you should be limited once you get to the top level of anything. I understand the arguments of why it's being done. They want to keep everything fair and everything even between the teams. They don't want rules where coaches can make players be here all year even when they weren't supposed to.
"I somewhat understand it, but I don't like it at all times, being limited to how much you can work. Even when we are here, you want to go throw with the guys and then, 'Nah, you can't throw on the field after 12 o'clock.' It's just hard."
The rules are the same for every team. The offseason is now a three-phase, nine-week process that concludes with a three-day mandatory minicamp. No pads are ever worn. No real hitting ever occurs.
It is affecting the quality of the game, many in and around the NFL said. Tackling has become a lost art. Despite the continual rise of offensive passing numbers -- largely attributable to rules changes that favor the offense -- quarterback play is declining.
By the end of the 10-year CBA, an entire generation of quarterbacks will have lost invaluable time with coaches learning the nuances of the position. And there is no way around it. A first offense for violating the practice rules comes with a $100,000 fine for the head coach, a $250,000 fine for the team, along with a cancellation of the team's next week of organized team activities. For a second offense in the same offseason, the league will fine the head coach $250,000 and the team $500,000 and dock the team a fourth-round draft pick.
"There's no way around it unless you want to pay fines and give up draft choices," Arizona coach Bruce Arians said. "I personally think it's hurting the quality of the game. The thing that's saving the game is the greatness of the athletes playing the game now. The players are so good, but the quality of the actual game is deteriorating from these rules restricting practice time."
Added ESPN Monday Night Football analyst and former NFL head coach Jon Gruden: "The less time we spend meeting, the less time we spend practicing, the less time we spend together practicing like we're going to play on game day, the less we're going to execute, the less we're going to be disciplined and the less we're going to perform."
Last year was particularly difficult for Manning. He was coming off ankle surgery, which limited him during OTAs, and he had to learn new offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo's offense on the fly. Manning didn't have enough reps in practice or training camp, and although he threw for the second-most yards in Giants history last season, it was a struggle to get on the same page with McAdoo. The little things -- "important things," Manning called them -- like footwork and mechanics and timing on routes suffered.
How it works now
This offseason, what Manning really wanted to do was watch the cut-ups of last season with the coaches. They watched some, but they didn't get through them all because of the rules limitations. No contact on the field, no contact off.
Watching with coaches is crucial, Manning said. "I might have questions. How would you read this differently? What's a good play to check to? Just kind of fine-tune it, throw ideas out and make sure you're doing things correctly, especially with the new offense. Last year being the first year running it, now you kind of want to make sure the things you're doing are correct and you didn't develop bad habits. We got most of them, but there are things I wish we would've watched that we haven't watched."
Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan is in a spot similar to Manning's last year. This offseason has been about learning new offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan's offense. Ryan said February and March were about "trying to get the playbook in my hands as fast as possible."
Ryan wanted to learn Shanahan's offensive language, formations, routes and protections. To do that, he watched eight years of cut-ups of Shanahan's offenses in Cleveland, Washington and Houston, plus the Falcons cut-ups from last season. "You try to do as much as you can in the time you're allowed to do it, but the thing is it's universal across the board, right?" Ryan said. "Everybody's got the same rules to play under, and you've got to make it work. I don't worry about it too much."
When Andrew Luck was a rookie, he had the added disadvantage of missing all of Indianapolis' OTAs because Stanford was on the quarter system and he had not yet graduated. Then the Colts' offensive coordinator, Arians sent Luck plays every day to his iPad, and the two corresponded via email. When Luck finally did report to Indianapolis, the Colts had assembled enough offensive and defensive rookies, who are allowed more practice time under the CBA, to be able to get Luck extra work.
"You can't do that with veterans," Arians said. "So when you're putting in a new system for a veteran, they really struggle.
"My biggest gripe with the last few years about teaching quarterbacks, you can do drills where there's absolutely no contact but they still see what they need to see. And then the protections, that's the biggest thing for young quarterbacks anyway -- learning their protections and how to handle their hots and then their overall reads. There's absolutely hardly any time you can spend with them."
Arians also coached Peyton Manning in Indianapolis and said, "I don't know how Peyton would've done under these rules. He drove me crazy trying to figure out what he had to do."
Carson Palmer, Arians' quarterback now, is the same way.
"He can't get enough information," Arians said. "He's texting me all the time: 'What about this? What about that?' He would love to be there. We send him the video at home. He watches tape all the time, and it's a shame he can't sit there and watch it with a coach.
"The number of work hours in this CBA are ridiculous work hours for players who actually want to get good."
Arians also lamented the schedule for training camp, where teams now can have one three-hour practice per day, plus a short walk-through, as opposed to two shorter practices and a walk-through.
"The three-hour practice is ridiculous," Arians said, "because the fatigue factor sets in after around 2 hours, 10 minutes, and that's when you're going to get most of your injuries in the last 50 minutes of practice. We monitor our guys with GPSes, and once it hits a certain point, there's no sense being out there, but as a coach you've got three hours. I'm going to use them all."
So ... do you have to cheat?
Another coach offered a peek into the future as to how teams might skirt the rules. It was born from a story about the Dallas Cowboys using a remote-controlled drone to film a recent practice.
"My mind went, OK, your kid comes in from his rookie minicamp," the head coach said. "Give him a drone to take home. Have his buddy sit there, drone him, video him while he's working out and Skype it at the same time, and you can coach him up while he's working out at a high school field. You'll set the world on fire with that one."
Right now there's a big focus on how balls are deflated, but perhaps there should be more concern about prep time. Do teams flex the rules? Do coaches discuss football with quarterbacks in March, which the rules prohibit? Do they get work in on the sly? Nobody is particularly forthcoming.
"I don't even care," one head coach said. "I don't even get into all that. I don't know what they're doing. Don't really care. There's not enough time to worry about all that. Just take care of what I've got, and go. I try to stick by the rules. We have to send everything in. It's all time coded. They check on you all the time. The league will say, 'Send in all your practice film.' You send them that. They do it to everybody."
Said another longtime assistant: "I know of nobody that has [cheated], because first of all you've got to believe in the rules and believe in the system and how you go about things. But I don't think so. I'd be surprised. You can't do that anymore. They've got cameras all over the place at the facility, indoors and outdoors."
So what will be the long-term effect? Coaches and players alike lament that QB play will be the victim. It's no wonder that experience is winning out -- last year, every one of the top 10 quarterbacks in QBR rank was in his 30s.
During CBA negotiations, the players wanted a reduction in work time to be able to take care of their bodies. The owners leveraged that desire to get a bigger piece of the league's revenues. Don't be surprised if during the next CBA negotiations, quarterbacks are pushing for an exception to the rules.