The Los Angeles Rams unveiled their 2016 offseason schedule late last week, including dates for the start of the offseason conditioning program, organized team activities and even a mandatory minicamp.
For most teams, all of the above is just part and parcel of the NFL's standard operating procedure. But for those who closely follow the Rams, the presence of the word "minicamp" on the schedule qualified as, at least, a mild surprise.
That's because Rams coach Jeff Fisher doesn't really believe in them.
"I can’t remember having a minicamp, OK, ever," Fisher said at the NFL owners meetings. "Not a mandatory."
At least for as long as Fisher has been coach of the Rams, the team hasn't had mandatory minicamps. This year, there's one on the schedule for June 14-16, a timeframe in which other teams will also be conducting their final minicamps before calling it an offseason.
So, has Fisher had a change of heart? Well, not necessarily. Fisher has long preferred to use the lack of minicamps as a carrot for players to attend the offseason conditioning program. The better the overall attendance from when the offseason program starts on April 18, the better the chances there won't be a minicamp.
Which means it's still possible the Rams will again eschew a minicamp as Fisher waits to see what attendance is like with his team transitioning to its new home in Los Angeles.
"Particularly because our player attendance has been, and participation in the offseason program, has been so good," Fisher said. "And that’s the trade-off. You know I say, 'Hey, if you guys come, we don’t need to have a minicamp.'"
It's not so much that Fisher is against getting work done in the offseason so much as how long the days are for those minicamps.
"Minicamps have changed, but back before this last collective bargaining agreement the minicamp, you were permitted to practice twice a day," Fisher said. "At least two consecutive days in a row. And I never agreed with, always questioned why you would take a professional athlete in the middle of the offseason and make him practice twice a day. It didn’t make sense to me. So, therefore, we didn’t do it."
The rules have changed under the new collective bargaining agreement, but Fisher still believes it's a good way to encourage participation in the offseason program.
"Now under the current guidelines of the minicamp, we’re not permitted to have two practices," Fisher said. "We can have one and walkthrough similar to training camp, but we can mandate that they’re there. If they’re not, they can be fined for not participating. So I left that up in the air. But you can’t have your minicamp until you’ve completed a minimum of six OTAs. So once you get six OTAs in, and well before that I’ll know, and we’ll inform the league. I don’t necessarily want it. I think the minicamp, the length of days, is a little long for the offseason."
To Fisher, the offseason program takes precedence over a minicamp because it is a structured environment that helps team building over a longer period of time. Unlike a minicamp, though, teams can't make participation in an offseason program mandatory. So if that means he has to dangle some kind of reward to get his players to show up consistently, it's a trade-off he's willing to make.
It's also worth noting that the Rams only have six dates scheduled for OTAs plus the three day minicamp. Teams are allowed up to 10 OTAs. So if Fisher opts to pass on the full-fledged minicamp, he could (and likely would) convert some of those days into more OTAs.
In the meantime, Fisher doesn't mind allowing players to take some time off or miss parts of the offseason program because of prior engagements. He just wants to know about it beforehand.
"I’m expecting outstanding participation, but things come up, too," Fisher said. "That’s the thing about the offseason program. But our guys have been good about this. It’s well reported that our offseason program is voluntary. But coaches expect players to be there. It’s their job. And you can’t fine them for not being there. Our participation over the years has been outstanding.
"One of the things that makes it work is, and I let them know early, is, ‘Hey, I know things are going to come up. You may have committed to a wedding. Or you might have decided, picked out a cruise to take your wife. ... Just tell us what you’re doing. Things come up. It’s fine. You need to go, you got something to do? We’ll make sure you’re working out someplace else. We’ll set it up for you. But I think you get better results out of your offseason program when you take that approach."