The Baltimore Ravens' offseason program kicks off on April 21, and it can't come soon enough for coach John Harbaugh.
For months since the season ended, he has run into players lifting weights and eating breakfast at the team facility, but he can't talk football with them. They can't even discuss the playbook, even though the players have them in their hands.
"The management council and the players association have got to get together and help us as organizations and coaches help our young players develop as people and players," Harbaugh said last week at the NFL owners meetings. "I mean, come on. You hold us responsible and want us to be a factor in their lives like the mentoring program and things like that. Give us a chance."
The structure of the offseason programs radically changed when the collective bargaining agreement was completed July 2011.
The players union wanted these limitations on offseason workouts because it protects players from coaches who annually pushed them in classrooms, conditioning and on-field sessions for nearly four months before training camps opened in late July. From the union's standpoint, lower demands on the offseason allow players to rest their bodies and use the free time to go back to school or spend time with families.
Harbaugh argues that the new rules are hurting the players, especially the young ones. In Harbaugh's mind, players don't develop as quickly when there is reduced time with coaches.
"This is not the NCAA. This is not recruiting. These are our guys," Harbaugh said. "We want what’s best for our players. That’s what’s good for the league. That’s what good for these young men. And that’s what they want."
Harbaugh has complained before about the offseason rules, and he once described the restrictions that don't allow players to reach their maximum potential as "un-American."
"Young guys want a chance to compete in the National Football League for a job," Harbaugh said. "They want to go see their position coach. They want to learn football. It’s their craft. And we’re saying, ‘No, you can’t do it?’ Why? Because of the collective bargaining agreement that makes no sense? Because somebody wanted to get their little win here vs. their little win over there? Get together and do what’s best for these players, and it’s about time that somebody stepped to the plate and realized that and [took] the politics out of it.”
For the first two weeks of the offseason program (weeks beginning April 21 and 28 for the Ravens), only strength and conditioning coaches are allowed to work with players on the field. Quarterbacks can throw to their wide receivers, but defensive backs aren’t allowed to cover them.
These restrictions continue for the next three weeks (weeks beginning May 5, 12 and 19 for the Ravens) when coaches are allowed to conduct limited football workouts. Any type of offense against defense drills are banned.
The final four weeks (weeks beginning May 26 and June 2, 9 and 16 for the Ravens) are when teams can hold one minicamp and 10 organized team practice activity sessions. One-on-one drills between offensive and defensive players are not permitted, although special teams can be practiced provided there is no contact. Helmets are allowed but shoulder pads remain outlawed.
Here is the Ravens' offseason schedule:
First day of offseason conditioning program: April 21
OTA (Offseason Training Activity) workouts: May 28-30, June 3-5, June 9-10 and June 12-13
Mandatory minicamp: June 17-19